PUCL Bulletin, Dec 2000

Women's Movement in Islamic Countries
By -- R.M. Pal

Several Islamic countries in recent years have witnessed two simultaneous developments: one, the State making anti-women laws in the name of Sharia (Muslim Law); two, articulate and powerful women's movements in the respective countries fighting against such laws. A few examples follow:

Zamfara, one of Nigeria's 30 States, has introduced Sharia (Muslim) laws. One of its provisions prohibits women and men from traveling together on public transport. Which means wives and husbands, mothers and grown-up sons cannot travel together! Shiite groups in Zamfara have criticized the Zamfara State--according to them the state does not have the moral or constitutional authority to institute Sharia (muslim) law in a secular and multi religious State like Nigeria. A large number of women from Muslim countries including Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Iran, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestine, Senegal and Sudan gathered in Nigeria, last year and took note of the dangerous consequences of such laws introduced in the name of Sharia. Other countries with sizable Muslim populations like India, Kenya and South Africa also participated in the protest. The Muslim women gathered in Nigeria declared that the laws are violative of human rights of women even according to the provisions of the Constitution of Nigeria.

"We have already seen this happen in Afghanistan, when in the name of Islam and segregation of the sexes, women and girls no longer have access to education, health care services, job and other means of gaining an economic livelihood or the right to freedom of movement. Similarly, those who claim to be the flag-bearers have attacked girls right to education and women's right to mobility in Algeria, Bangladesh and elsewhere. We are alarmed that these abuses are being implemented under the guise of Islam", declared the women's meet; it called upon the government of Zamfara to protect and ensure the rights of women.

Women in Kuwait are not allowed to vote and hold political office. A bill to give Kuwaiti women this right by 2003 was narrowly defeated in Kuwaiti parliament. However the fight for this right is continuing. Mr. Ali-al-Baghi, a former minister of Kuwait, a supporter of the bill condemned "the fanatic mentality of Islamist and tribalist members of parliament whose views have held sway". To the charge that allowing women to enter politics would "invite their moral downfall", Mr. Ali Baghi said, "All western women do not work in strip clubs and bars". However, as a result of the introduction of the bill, a woman under secretary has been allowed to perform ministerial duties.

'Women's rights is a subject of serious discussion in the Arab countries. In Saudi Arabia, human rights activists have demanded the withdrawal of a law that prohibits women from driving. Women activists' demands in the United Arab Emirates include women's right to become Cabinet Ministers.

There is a fairly strong movement in Bangla Desh against the practice of fatwa issued by "the half-educated rustic mullahs with virtually no knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence". These mullahs interpret the Quramic injunctions and Sunna "in their own freewheeling way to repress and subjugate the women, taking advantage of their illiteracy…[and] of the religious sentiment of the simple rural folk". Fatwas are pronounced on adultery, rape, divorce, etc., and "the verdict invariably goes against women".

Bangla Desh is not governed by Sharia law, and Fatwa is strictly prohibited. The National Women's Policy of the present government clearly stipulates, "that any attempt for step which is contrary to the fundamental rights of women and the law prevalent in the country through the interpretation of injunctions of any religion at local or national level will be strictly dealt with". However, this societal practice enjoyed by the fatwa continues; at the same time there is a pressing demand from women's groups in Bangladesh to strictly prohibit fatwa. Women's groups are creating awareness among women, especially in rural areas, about this societal violation of women's rights.

One of the central Asian countries, Turkaemenistan (a former Soviet Republic) has abolished death sentence. "Now in our country neither the government or anyone else has the right to take away human life," Turkmen President Niyazov told the Khalq Maslakhaty (People's Council). Two other Central Asian countries, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have suspended executions. It is hoped they too will follow suit and abolish this "unlawful" law of death penalty.

Even in a conservative country like Iran, the women's movement is striving hard to made its presence felt. Ms. Faezale Hashemi, daughter of former President Rafsani "has called for more freedom of dress and behaviour for women in the Islamic society". There is no shame, she told in a meeting "about a girl proposing marriage to a boy. Why should a girl sit at home and wait for a male suitor to knock on her door one day?" Ms. Hashemi, a reformist and a leading women's rights activist working for equality of women with men in Iran would not stop her 16 years old daughter "from proposing marriage to a boy". She insists that women must have the freedom to wear cloths of their choice; they must not be compelled to wear black chadoor or long lobe and scarf, which has been the prescribed clothing for women in Iran since the 1979 revolution. Ms. Hashemi who herself rides a bicycle in public has demanded that women in Iran be allowed to ride bicycles.

Pakistan has introduced a progressive law, Muslim Family Laws Ordinance 1961 (MFLO) with a view to protecting and promoting human rights of women. This progressive law was challenged in January 2000 in the federal Shariat Court, which directed the President of Pakistan to amend the 1961 MFLO, "So as to bring the provisions into conformity with the injunctions of Islam". One of the best-known women's groups in this part of the world, the Shirkat Gah based in Lahore has recently brought out a Special Bulletin in which it has given an account of women's struggle in Pakistan to promote women's rights relating to marriage, child marriage, polygamy, divorce, inheritance, and so on.

The 1961 MFLO prescribed, for example: every marriage performed under Muslim law is registered; no man, during the subsistence of an existing marriage shall, except with the prior permission in writing of the Arbitration Council, contract another marriage. The federal Shariat Court (FSC) upheld some sections of the MFLO, but came down heavily on certain important beneficial provisions for women like divorce, inheritance, etc. Women's and human rights groups like the Shirkat Gah and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan have issued a number of Statements criticizing the FSC. These groups maintain that "it is not just the MFLO that has suffered over the years, the real victims have been the millions of women whose rights have been undermined by the sustained attack on the MFLO. It is now time to look back at all the recommendations made over the years for strengthening Muslim family law in Pakistan and to move forward to a situation where women's rights within the family are fully legislated and implemented".

(Source materials for the above article have been drawn from the well-known Lahore based women's organisation, Shirkat Gah's News Sheet, Volume XI, No 4; and its Special Bulletin, February 2000 entitled Women's Rights in Muslim Family law in Pakistan: 45 years of Recommendations vs the FSC Judgement -The author acknowledges his gratitude to Shirkat Gah

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