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Understanding Islamism

Women's Rights Under Sharia

Wed, February 19, 2014

A Muslim woman protesting rampant sexual harassment.

A Muslim woman protesting rampant sexual harassment.

by: 
Elliot Friedland

Overview

Sharia law is an Islamic legal system which provides an Islamic alternative to secular models of governance. Women in societies governed by sharia typically have few fewer rights than women in the West.

Muslim-majority societies have varying degrees of sharia integrated into their law codes, but almost all use sharia to govern family affairs. Sharia courts also exist in a number of Western countries, particularly to adjudicate family law for Muslim citizens.

There is no one overarching authority which determines sharia, nor is there one conception of how women's rights fit into sharia law.

Different interpretations and laws depending on which of the four schools of Islamic Jurisprudence is being used, and the customs of the sects and country in question.

Many Muslim feminists argue that current interpretations of sharia that persist in oppressing women have no basis in Islam and are man-made misinterpretations of the sacred texts.

"I argue that Muslim family laws are the products of sociocultural assumptions and juristic reasoning about the nature of relations between men and women. In other words, they are ‘man-made’ juristic constructs, shaped by the social, cultural and political conditions within which Islam’s sacred texts are understood and turned into law." -  Mir Hosseini, Ziba, Towards Gender Equality: Muslim Family Laws and the Sha'riah.

 

Marital Rights

Although various opinions exist regarding Islamic marriage laws, the following constants remain:

  • A man is entitled to up to four wives, but a woman may only have one husband. In western societies a man typically only takes one wife.
  • The husband (or his family) pays a “bride price” or "dower" (mahr, which is money or property paid to the bride) which she is entitled to keep. This “mahr” is in exchange for sexual submission (tamkin). Sexual submission is traditionally regarded as unconditional consent for the remainder of the marriage.
  • A man can divorce his wife by making a declaration (talaq) in front of an Islamic judge irrespective of the woman's consent. Even her presence is not required. For a woman to divorce a man (khula), his consent is required.
  • The husband is responsible for the financial upkeep of home (nafaqa).
  • “Temporary marriage” (even for less than a half an hour) is allowed by some scholars, others regard it as a form of prostitution. A report by the Gatestone Institute charts its development in Britain.
  • Wife beating permitted according to some scholars.
  • There is no joint property; the man owns all property, (except for what the woman owned before the marriage).
  • There is no specific minimum age for marriage, but most agree a woman must have reached puberty. Marriage as young as 12 or 13 is not uncommon in Muslim-majority countries. In Yemen in 2013, there was a highly publicized case of an eight-year-old girl who died of internal injuries suffered on her wedding night. According to Al Jazeera, "Nearly 14 percent of Yemeni girls [are] married before the age of 15 and 52 percent before the age of 18." The case prompted calls for Yemen to pass a law setting a minimum age for marriage, although it has not yet done so.

Muslim Feminists such as Dr. Elham Manea argue that the interpretation of sharia in the area of marriage amounts to discrimination, the type of which is prohibited under Western legal systems.

 

Public Rights

Most Muslim-majority countries are not democracies, so issues of who can vote do not apply. Nevertheless, women still have a significantly reduced role in the public sphere in these countries compared to men.

Conservative ideas of gender roles are taken very seriously in Islamic societies. Even in the West, where Muslim women have the same legal rights as men, they have been prevented from exercising those rights by their male relatives.

Under sharia, women have:

  • Lesser inheritance rights compared to men
  • Lesser status as witnesses

In Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive.

 

Modesty Laws

Many Muslim women respect the requirement to dress modestly and choose to do so. However, in Muslim-majority countries, women do not necessarily have the choice not to do so. Failure to comply with modesty laws has been known to elicit extreme violence from police in places like Iran, Afghanistan and Sudan.

Garments women are required to wear range from a hijab (a scarf covering the hair and neck), an abaya (a cloak-like, loose-fitting overgarment), a niqab (a face veil worn in addition to the hijab and abaya) to a burqa (a full-body and head cloak which includes a netted rectangle over the eyes). Exactly what constitutes immodest dress is the subject of much debate.

Violations of modesty laws are frequently met with violence in Muslim countries. Western women visiting Muslim-majority countries – for example, Saudi Arabia -- are advised to dress modestly and not to travel unaccompanied by a man.

Dubai has notoriously strict public indecency laws. Many Western tourists have fallen foul of them in the past.

Iranian President Rouhani has recently halted the activities of the country’s modesty police, but has handed over their remit to the Ministry of the Interior.

 

Male Guardianship

Male Guardianship applies to all women whether married or not according to strict interpretations of sharia. In the event of the deaths of male relatives, it can result in mothers being legally subservient to their sons. Under sharia:

Human Rights Watch has issued a 50-page report condemning the situation of women in Saudi Arabia alone.

 

Rights under International Law

International law currently exists in a grey area, as it is unclear to what extent states are bound by international treaties regarding various rights, and which of those rights, if any, international authorities have the power to enforce. The UN Declaration of Human Rights includes equal rights for women and calls have been made for Muslim countries to abide by these statutes.

UN supports equal rights for women and recently adopted a new campaign aimed at ending violence against women. The Muslim Brotherhood issued a statement condemning this UN declaration (for violating sharia principles).

 

Who Is Affected by Sharia?

Any Muslim woman who undertakes to be married under Islam is bound to a greater or lesser extent by sharia, depending on where they live. Muslim women living in Western countries are bound by the laws of the countries in which they live as well, whereas women living in countries such as Saudi Arabia are bound by sharia alone. In cases where sharia and the law of the land conflict, a woman is bound by sharia.

 

Islamic Feminism

There are many different Islamic thinkers and activists campaigning on issues pertaining to women's rights, most of whom are both female and Muslim. They come from a variety of different Islamic groups and live in different countries. Some are line with Western feminist, while others seek to address grievances from a more traditional angle.

Journalist Samira Shackle draws a distinction between "Islamic Feminists who explicitly draw their feminism from their faith, and Muslim women who also happen to be feminists." An international network of Muslim feminists has started an organization called Musawah.

A directory of different Islamic Feminist groups is provided here.

 

Glossary of Terms Used in Sharia Law

 

Ghairah – Male sexual honor and jealousy.

Hayah – Female sexual modesty and shyness.

Khula – Female Initiated divorce. This is very difficult to obtain, and requires the consent of the husband. Technically a woman can appeal to an Islamic court to force the husband into a divorce, but in practice this rarely ever happens.

Mahr – Bride-price paid by the groom's family to the bride. This money becomes legally her property.

Nafaqa – Maintenance, the woman's right to be financially supported by her husband.

Nushuz – A legal state of disobedience if a wife does not obey her husband.

Talaq – 'Repudiation of the wife.' Male initiated divorce. This is extremely easy to obtain. The husband's declaration of talaq causes the divorce to come into effect.

Tamkin Sexual submission of the wife to her husband.