Ongoing claims that Islam is the most feminist religion and that Islamic law bestowed women’s rights opens a Pandora’s box of thorny questions. If Islam is feminist, why is discrimination institutionalized in Saudi Arabia and Iran, the pillars of Sunni and Shiite Islam? If Islam improved the lot of women, what was their status in pre-Islamic Arabia? What is the position of Muslim women reformers on feminism in Islam?
Guardianship laws in Saudi Arabia restrict and infantilize women, as male kin have control over their medical treatment, education, choice of spouse, divorce, acquisition of property and so forth. In Iran, the hijab is considered the ‘beating heart of the religion’. ‘Bad hijab,’ or showing hair in public, is a criminal offence. According to Sharia law, polygyny, as well as inequality in marriage, custody, inheritance, court testimony and compensation are lawful.
Such gender discrimination is unacceptable according to the UN Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Muslim majority countries were signatories to the UDHR but in 1990, as member states of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, they adopted the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam. Based on Sharia law, the declaration was a reaction to the universal character of the UDHR and Western failure to include consideration of Islamic faith and culture.
Muslim states also ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women but presented reservations concerning Sharia law provisions that invalidated the guarantees of equal rights in articles of the covenant.
Great progress for women is often claimed for the period of early Islam but how did women fare in pre-Islamic Arabia? According to Islamic tradition, the latter was a period of chaos, ignorance, denigration of women and female infanticide. However, the historical account of women in that era is limited.
The late Moroccan sociologist, Fatima Mernissi, asserted there was evidence for a matriarchal society in which women were free to select and discard sexual partners. The biological father and paternal legitimacy carried little importance.
Apparently, women had the authority to divorce men by stating ‘I divorce you,’ a practice of repudiation continued by men to this day. Pagan idols were worshipped and some demanded child sacrifice. Of the many deities, the most powerful and violent were goddesses. Mernissi maintained that women became subjugated in the post-Islamic period to expunge association with the fierce goddesses and purify the new order. According to the Orientalist William Robertson Smith, the new authority adopted a parallel patriarchal system that existed in pre-Islamic Arabia.
Upholding the faith was regulated through the family, which functioned as a mini-patriarchy. Male domination and sexuality was fundamental to its structure. Men’s commitment to Allah and the patriarchal order was central to their lives. Women were viewed as potentially dangerous troublemakers, who could cause fitna or chaos in society, and it was incumbent on men to control women’s sexuality and prevent them from causing disorder.
Indeed, the honor of a man and his family was dependent on the sexual purity of the females, or he would be shamed. Control of women became enshrined in laws that gave a man the right to subordinate his women in the name of social order. With these laws, women’s oppression was institutionalized.
Although Sharia law is considered divine, over the centuries there were changes to a variety of rulings, such as those related to war, taxation and contracts. Nevertheless, family and inheritance laws remained uncontested. A married woman was permitted to retain her property. However, in a society based on tribalism, patriarchy and polygynous marriage, this measure probably aimed at avoiding inheritance of tribal assets by other wives and their offspring.
Women reformers from Muslim majority countries have called for an end to archaic discriminatory laws and cultural practice. Many argue such laws are unfair on moral grounds and are not consistent with a number of egalitarian statements in the holy texts. In practice, however, laws and customs favored men.
In Iran, the One Million Signatures Campaign was mobilized to reform sexist laws through a petition addressed to the parliament. Volunteers who collected signatures faced arrest and prison, often on charges of ‘acting against national security’. During protests against discriminatory laws, many activist women were arrested, at times by female police squads. Iranian women have endured brutal oppression, prompting Iran’s Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi to pronounce the 1979 Islamic revolution ‘a revolution of men against women’.
In Saudi Arabia, intrepid activist Wajeha Al-Huwaider held a placard that read ‘Give Women Their Rights’ before she was arrested for conducting a demonstration. Together with Fawzia Al-Ayouni, she founded an unlicensed association for the protection and defense of women’s rights, which grew out of a movement to allow women the right to drive. The organisation launched an Internet campaign for a ban on child marriage and another titled ‘No to Women’s Oppression’ that gave victims a voice on YouTube. After Huwaider and Ayouni brought food to a woman whose husband had locked her in the house, they were charged with takhbib (inciting a wife to disobey her husband.)
The Arab Spring hindered women’s rights in parts of the Muslim world, yet an increasing number of Muslim majority countries, including Saudi Arabia, recognize the need for change. Feminist-minded men have come on board too, notably in Iran, by wearing the hijab in solidarity with women humiliated or arrested by morality police who enforce Islamic dress code.
The concept of Islam holding supremacy in feminism often evokes derision but perhaps academia could provide clarity through historical research that sidesteps Edward Said’s fashionable “orientalism,” and disparagement of Western scholarship.
A version of this article was originally featured in The Spectator Australia.