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

Lifting the veil

By + More

Referring to the decision of Iran's mullahs to remove Nobel winner Ebadi from her judgeship on religious grounds, Wadud notes, "Nowhere is it said that women cannot interpret the law." Ebadi herself, in an interview with Iranian émigré author Amir Taheri, makes the same point in her advice to Muslim women: "Don't believe that you are decreed to have an inferior position. Study the Koran carefully, so that the oppressors cannot impress you with citations and interpretations. Don't let individuals masquerading as theologians claim they have a monopoly on understanding Islam."

Fine words, but have they yet had any practical consequences? The answer, many activists say, is a qualified yes. In that widely followed adultery case in Nigeria, for example, Amina Lawal was exonerated but on several technicalities that may not work for other women. The real problem, says Mayer, is that Nigeria's interpretation of sharia involves a "folkloric version" of Islamic adultery law. First of all, the rules of evidence spelled out in the Koran require either a freely gained confession from the accused or four eyewitnesses to the act of sexual penetration, neither of which was obtained in Lawal's case. Just as important, the maximum punishment for the crime is supposed to be 100 lashes, not stoning.

Of course, even if the Lawal case and others did not involve a corrupted use of sharia, the punishments that Lawal faced would be in violation of both the spirit and letter of the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which Nigeria has signed and ratified.

But appeals to international agreements have only limited effectiveness in advancing women's rights in the Islamic world. Saudi Arabia signed and ratified CEDAW, but it explicitly stipulates that it will not observe any terms that contradict "norms of Islamic law."

In a more general way, says New York University law Prof. Noah Feldman, a former U.S. adviser to the Iraqi Governing Council, the United States faces a similar challenge in its efforts to guide Afghanistan and Iraq toward becoming democratic and rights-respecting regimes. Feldman points out that as long as America is an occupying power, it can accomplish much "just by suggesting." But, he cautions, "at a certain point you cross the line to coercing people on how to run their lives."

In Iraq, there are good reasons for thinking that Islam and women's rights can coexist. Before the U.S. invasion, says Khaled Abou El Fadl, a professor of law at the University of California-Los Angeles, Iraq was one of the most progressive of Muslim nations in relation to women. Not only were there female jurists and lawyers, but there was also a civil code that blended the best of French and Islamic laws. Among the latter, he points out, was a law allowing a woman the right to divorce her husband and sue for alimony and child support if he decided to take another wife. (A similar expansion of women's prerogatives is one of the reforms that Morocco's king proposed.) Like Feldman, Abou El Fadl worries that attempts to expunge Islam from Iraq's laws will only trigger a stronger urge on the part of many Iraqis to put more of Islam in—and that might mean the most sexist and patriarchal versions of Islam.

Which raises the most important issue: How can Muslim feminists and rights activists win the interpretive struggle against those mullahs and muftis who confuse patriarchal codes and customs with the core principles of the faith? That is a major concern for Irshad Manji, a Canadian author and journalist. Like many other Muslim feminists, she sees the real problem of interpretation as one of overturning Arab traditions of honor that accompanied the spread of Islam and are now being recirculated throughout the world via the Saudi-funded Wahhabi religious establishment.

As Manji explains, within the Arab honor code, individual rights are secondary to one's status within the family or tribe. Women are reduced to "communal or tribal property." In Pakistan or Nigeria, she says, a man from one tribe or family may rape a woman from another as an act of communal retribution.