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."
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.
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.