Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January/February 2006, pages 66-67

Human Rights

Reforming Islamic Family Law

(L-r) Translator Chari Voss, Rabéa Naciri and Zainah Anwar discuss ways Muslim-majority countries can revise their interpretations of Islamic law to address women’s rights (Staff photo E. Weedon).

THE WOMEN’S Learning Partnership (WLP), in conjunction with the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Dialogue Project, invited Mahnaz Afkhami, Rabéa Naciri and Zainah Anwar to discuss the role of women in Muslim-majority countries. The panelists were optimistic about recent advances made in conjunction with Collectif 95 Maghreb-Egalité, a campaign which proposed ways that Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria could revise their interpretations of Islamic law to address women’s rights more fairly. Each speaker emphasized the difference between the role of women in Islam versus that of women under Islamic law, a human interpretation of the scriptures.

Azar Nafisi, author of the best-selling Reading Lolita in Tehran, introduced and mediated the panel. She began by recounting The Tale of King Shahriyar and his Brother Shahzaman, a fable in which the king’s new bride, Shahrazad, avoided certain death by intriguing the king with nightly stories and changing his attitude toward women.

This, Nafisi argued, is what must happen in Muslim culture today. In her opinion, it will not be sufficient to amend the current political structures of these countries. Instead, the mindset of their populations must be augmented so that women are respected as equal members of society. Nafisi refuted those who dismiss the struggles of Muslim women by saying, “it’s their culture.” This is not an excuse for inaction, she asserted, but a signal of the need for change.

Mahnaz Afkhami, WLP founder and president, discussed the West’s difficulty in both understanding and approaching the issue of family law within Islamic culture. Family law, she explained, is “an envelope in which all aspects of a woman’s life” takes place, a concept difficult to understand when one’s own life has not been dictated in such a manner. Echoing Nafisi’s sentiments, Afkhami agreed that outsiders found this issue difficult to approach. Specifically, she posited that NGOs and other foreign actors are “frightened into inaction” because of their belief that family law is culturally based. While stressing that global solidarity and understanding were important, Afkhami argued that change must be ignited from within Muslim-majority countries.

The success of the Collectif 95 Maghreb-Egalité’s campaign for gender equality was discussed at length by Rabéa Naciri, former president of the organization, a coalition of women’s and labor organizations which engaged North African governments in a debate over the interpretation of Islamic law and ratification of universal human rights charters. The current debate among theologians over interpretations of the Qur’an allowed the Collectif 95 Maghreb-Egalité to promote different interpretations of the relationship between men and women as set forth by Islam. The dichotomy between Muslim-majority countries’ current treatment of women and the standard set under various international human rights treaties was also stressed as cause for change.

Zainah Anwar, who has been fighting for legislative change in Malaysia as executive director of the Sisters of Islam, noted another obstacle faced by women fighting for equal rights in Muslim-majority countries. Often, she noted, the struggle for women’s rights is seen as an un-Islamic act, a push of Western culture on Islamic countries. The success of the Collectif 95 Maghreb-Egalité, Anwar said, presents a great opportunity for solidarity, as she can now demonstrate to her government that Islamic countries have modernized their interpretations of Islamic and family law. Anwar said she now focuses on a “framework approach,” in which she wants to stop amending Islamic law piecemeal and instead illustrate that the classical interpretation of family law is no longer applicable in Islamic culture. Anwar hopes to do so, in part, by emphasizing the verses of the Qur’an which speak of equality and mutual protection between husband and wife.

The panel’s message was clear. The women agreed that Islam does not promote gender inequality, but rather that the latter is the result of current interpretation of Islamic law. Family law, Anwar stressed, is based on a classical interpretation of the Qur’an that no longer is applicable in modern society and must be changed through a reinterpretation of the scriptures.

For more information on the Women’s Learning Partnership, visit its Web site at <www.learningpartnership.org>. The English-language translation of the Collectif 95 Maghreb-Egalité’s book, Guide to Equality in the Family in the Mahgreb, can be purchased through the WLP, at <www.store.yahoo.com/learningpartnership/gutoeqinfain.html>.

Emily Weedon

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