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

Lifting the veil

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For Manji, one of the best solutions lies in women's growing participation in trade, commerce, and capitalism, all of which have been valued since Islam's founding. (Muhammad's first wife, Khadija, was an astute businesswoman.) And the economic empowerment of women in the Islamic world is not merely theoretical. It is already underway even in the most Arab of states, Saudi Arabia. In Jidda and Riyadh, respectively, women own a quarter and a third of all businesses. And it is no secret among foreigners working in Saudi Arabia that women are the most educated, able, and productive employees in the kingdom.

By consolidating and advancing their economic position, Manji says, and by becoming tax-paying citizens, women can assert their standing as individuals. This emerging reality is hard to ignore, whether in Saudi Arabia or Iran—though it was a significant blow to Saudi women that they were not allowed to participate in the recent municipal elections. Already in Malaysia, Amina Wadud notes, women have helped reform domestic violence law by promoting what she calls a "nice blend of sharia and civil law."

Still, it is one of the sad ironies of Islam, Manji says, that a religion originally intended to transcend tribalism has, at least in many parts of the world, allowed the tribalist codes to reassert themselves. But Manji refuses to accept that irony as the last word on women's fate within Islam. And she is far from alone.