Mariam Ibrahim, the Sudanese mother who was sentenced to death for refusing to renounce her Christian faith, has finally escaped the country and is currently staying in Italy, but what’s next for the woman who has become a symbol of the oppression women face in many Sharia states?
Ibrahim arrived in Rome on Thursday, July 24, alongside her husband Daniel Wani, her young son and the baby girl she gave birth to while shackled in prison. The 27-year-old and her family met with Pope Francis in Vatican City after a surprise arrival in Rome that Italian ministers say was the result of difficult but sustained talks with the Sudan, with whom Italy has relatively good relations.
Ibrahim was arrested earlier this year because in 2011 she married Daniel Wani who, like her, is a Christian. Ibrahim was raised as a Christian but due to her father being a Muslim, and despite his being absent for most of her life, the Sudan’s sharia courts class Ibrahim as a Muslim. Due to this, they contend that she broke the law when she married outside of the Muslim faith. The courts annulled that marriage and Ibrahim was given a sentence of 100 lashes.
Then, when the court also demanded that Ibrahim renounce her Christianity, she refused. Sharia officials branded her an “apostate,” the term for the crime of casting off the Muslim faith. This is illegal in the Sudan, as it is in many places in the world that have embraced Sharia law, and it is often a crime punishable with death. As a result, Ibrahim was sentenced to death by hanging.
The wrinkle for the court, however, was that Ibrahim was pregnant at the time of her sentencing. This created the perfect storm of circumstances that drew international condemnation. The courts decided that, per the laws that govern issues like this, Ibrahim would be able to raise her child for at least two years before the sentence would be enacted and Ibrahim put to death. With the birth of Ibrahim’s daughter, in a cell with Ibrahim reportedly shackled to the floor, pressure intensified on the Sudanese courts and eventually, on appeal, Ibrahim’s convictions were overturned.
Sadly, that was not the end of Ibrahim’s fight. When she and her family attempted to fly out of Khartoum to find solace in America where her husband Daniel Wani has citizenship, Sudan’s authorities prevented her from boarding the plane. They alleged that Ibrahim’s travel documents including her passport were falsified and she was detained in the airport for several hours and denied the right to leave the country.
It has now emerged that Ibrahim was forced to take refuge in Sudan’s American embassy while politicians attempted to secure her freedom. She was allowed to fly out of the country earlier last week, and is stopping in Italy for only a few days before making her way to Manchester in New Hampshire, where her husband has a home and where there is a strong Sudanese-born community.
Sadly, Ibrahim’s bid for freedom was reportedly chased by an Islamic jihadist group that released a statement threatening to make good on Ibrahim’s death sentence. For this reason, Ibrahim is still considered under threat and it is unlikely she will be able to return to her country of birth, at least for the next few years.
Those thoughts were perhaps a distant worry though when Ibrahim met with Pope Francis last week. The family reportedly thanked the Pope for his continued and vocal support, while he in turn thanked her for her commitment to her Christian faith. The Pope is quoted as saying that he wanted his meeting with Meriam Ibrahim to be symbolic, and that it should show all women who are under threat of violence and death because of Sharia law that there is help at hand.
While we might quibble that Ibrahim’s case gained rare viral status, and that many other women and men who have been subject to apostasy laws in particular have not been so lucky, Ibrahim’s story remains a powerful example of what international focus and multi-government coordination can achieve.
We hope, then, that for Meriam, Dani and their children, this is the beginning of a new and happy chapter in their lives, all the while mindful that there is still much work to be done to free those who still suffer under death penalty laws.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.