Can Women's Rights Coexist With the Tenets of Islamic Law?

Lifting the veil

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Judged by much of the media coverage, the status of Muslim women seems to come down to a matter of clothing: what they are required to wear in countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia or what they were once discouraged from wearing in Turkey. But to veil or not to veil is hardly the question. The fate of women's rights throughout the Islamic world today hinges on matters of far greater substance, from reforms of family and penal codes to new understandings of Islamic law and teaching. In these best and worst of times for Muslim women, it is perhaps not surprising that every promising bit of news seems to come with a disturbing counterpoint.

Take Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian lawyer and former judge who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her unceasing efforts to promote democracy and women's rights. In response to the jubilant reaction of Iranians throughout the Islamic republic, President Mohammad Khatami—a reformist, no less—dismissed the honor as "not worth all that fuss!"

Not long after that, Morocco's King Mohammed VI proposed a number of significant reforms in family law that stand to improve the lot of women throughout the North African kingdom. But even before he presented the reforms, Islamists took to the streets to denounce them, dwarfing a pro-reform demonstration by roughly 3 to 1. Around the same time, in a Nigerian state that has adopted Islamic law, a religious appeals court overturned the death sentence of a Muslim woman accused of adultery. But other women in Nigeria continue to face adultery charges that, if upheld, will result in death by stoning.

Women's rights face an uncertain future throughout much of the Islamic world—though nowhere more pointedly than in the constitution-making efforts now underway in both Afghanistan and Iraq. In two nations widely viewed as test cases of the compatibility of Islamic and universal values, it remains to be seen whether and how the principles of sharia (Islamic law) will inform their future laws.

Behind those uncertainties loom even broader questions facing Muslim women everywhere. In particular, rights activists wonder, are the foundations of Islamic law and theology compatible with international standards of human rights in general and women's rights in particular? And if so, what must be done to surmount the practical hurdles—including the crucial matter of who interprets the law—that stand in the way of reconciling Islam with universal principles of women's rights?

Muslim women themselves are already actively engaged with these issues. "When I talk with educated women from Morocco to Pakistan," says Ann Mayer, a professor of legal studies at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, "I find that they are much more inclined to evaluate their condition in relation to international standards of human rights. And they say that international standards only reinforce Islamic standards."

That underscores one notable development of the past decade: a new confidence among Muslim feminists that Islamic teachings can support their efforts. This represents a sea change, says Amina Wadud, professor of Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. As late as 1995, many feminists from Islamic countries insisted women's equality could be attained only by jettisoning religion, including the outward trappings of the faith, such as the veil.

Since then, though, an expanding reform movement within Islam has led more Muslims to explore the sacred writings on their own. This has often reinforced the patriarchal viewpoint of militant Islamists, but it has also supported progressive and feminist interpretations. Wadud insists that it is unnecessary to argue only on the basis of historical precedent, but she finds more in the sacred texts and traditions to support gender equality than to deny it. She notes, for example, that in the period after Muhammad's death, women, including the Prophet's favorite wife, Aisha, played "key roles in preserving traditions, disseminating knowledge, and challenging authority when it went against their understanding of the Koran or the prophetic legacy."