Arab World: When talking about Islam, it is important always to ask: Which one?

Hudson New York

The importance of integrating women into society without respect for how it affects religion or tradition, comes from inside the Arab world, in particular from Egypt. Tarek Heggy, one of the most important contemporary Arab intellectuals, living in Cairo, writes in his article, “Women and Progress,” after the appointment of the first female judge to Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court: “Any society that views women as unequal to men contrives to find references and ‘evidence’ to support its perception, although the attitude has no religious or legal basis, but is a purely cultural phenomenon.”

When referring to women the Islamic world we should ask: “ Islam, tradition, or human rights?”

In the Arab-Islamic world it is sometimes hard to separate religion and tradition when talking about women: What parts are clearly derived from Koranic teaching, and what parts from simple traditional customs?

When it comes to female genital mutilation, honor killings, wife beating and other matters regarding female discrimination, is it a matter of religion, of tradition, of tradition justified through a wrong interpretation of religion, or of what?

At the beginning of the 20th century, a modernizing Tunisian Islamic reformer, Tahar Haddad, called for freeing women from all of their traditional bonds. In his book, Our Women in the Shari ‘a and Society, published in 1930, he advocated formal education for women, and maintained that, over many years, Islam had been distorted and misinterpreted to such an extent that women no longer were “aware of their duties in life and the legitimate advantages they could expect.”

Haddad denounced, in the name of Islam, such abuses against women as “repudiation,” whereby a husband can divorce his wife without grounds or explanation, and send her back to her family or leave her for another wife. Refuting assertions that such conduct is permissible for Muslims, he decoared: “Islam is innocent of the oft-made accusations that it is an obstacle in the way of progress. Rather it is the religion of progress par excellence, an endless source of progress. Our decadence is the consequence of the chimera with which we have filled our minds and the scandalous, paralyzing customs within which we have locked ourselves.”

Following Haddad’s ideas, Tunisia issued the Code of the Personal Status in 1956. It clearly and strictly bans polygamy and establishes that a woman also can ask for a divorce.

The question today is: if Tunisia, although declaring its secularity, is an Islamic country, why do not most of the Islamic countries have a Code of the Personal Status like the Tunisian one which safeguards women’s rights?

The answer is: Because Islam is not a monolithic and has no central authority.

When talking about Islam, it is important always to ask: Which one?

In theory, we could have as many Islams as Muslims. This is so true that we can have at one end a country like Tunisia, and, at the other end, countries like Saudi Arabia, whose constitution is the Koran, which has turned into law the strictest interpretation of Koran and where women are not even considered “persons” yet. In Bahrain, women are still fighting to get a Code of the Personal Status.

In between, we have an example of a modern interpretation of Koranic family rules in the 2004 reforms of the Moroccan Mudawana, which show the limits imposed by religious bonds:

King Mohammed VI, whose family descends from the family of Muhammad, presented the new Family Code in 2003 as being in complete harmony with both the Islamic principles and the modern age. He stated that “it is necessary to be mindful of the tolerant aims of Islam, which advocate human dignity, equality and harmonious relations, and also to rely on the cohesiveness of the Malekite school of law -- and on ijtihad [critical questioning] and human reasoning, thanks to which Islam is a suitable religion for all times and places. The aim is to draw up a modern Family Law which is consistent with the spirit of our glorious religion.”

Mohammed VI asserted further that “in my capacity as Commander of the Faithful, I cannot make licit what God has forbidden, nor forbid what he has made lawful.”

Polygamy and inheritance laws in the new Law therefore followed the more literal line of the Koran – causing them to be potential stumbling blocks in the approval of an otherwise applauding, outside world. However, as the King asserted, polygamy was almost impossible from an Islamic legal point of view, as a man has to prove to a judge that he will be able to treat all wives equally.

In cases where polygamous marriage is allowed by the Family Law, the first wife now has the right to divorce her husband. The new Family Law makes significant amendments to almost all stipulations of the old Personal Status Code. But it excludes those matters pertaining to inheritance and polygamy, which are issues subject to strict Koranic rules.

The most important changes, however, were that:

  • The minimal marital age for women was raised from fifteen to eighteen years of age, equal to the legal requirement for men.
  • Women are entitled to decide on their guardian and cannot be married without his consent.
  • Unilateral repudiation is forbidden; both wife and husband have to appear in front of a judge to divorce.
  • Where divorces are concerned, the new law stipulates that women receive custody of the children, and the father is obliged to pay child-support.
  • Most importantly: “a modern wording instead of that which undermines the dignity of women as human beings” has been adopted.

To sum up, the new law is, as the King declared, not to be considered “as a legislation devised for women only, but rather as a code for the family, father, mother and children. The proposed legislation is meant to free women from the injustices they endure, to protect children’s rights and safeguard men’s dignity.”

Some problems still remain due to the widespread male- chauvinistic culture, and due to the fact that most judges are men -- but especially due to the fact that even today many Moroccan women, living in villages, do not even know that a new Code exists.

Until recently, religious texts have been interpreted only by men, through men’s lenses. Inside the Islamic world, a new trend is to be observed: the interpretation of Koran from a gender perspective.

One of the most important representatives of this trend is Amina Wadud, professor of Islamic studies at the Virginia Commonwealth University. She became known when on March 18th 2005 -- as imam -- she guided a Friday prayer for male and female believers. When she began to work on matters that were considered to be gender mainstream, or gender-inclusive, the notion of Islamic feminism had not yet been discussed. She wrote Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective (Oxford University Press, Oxford 1999) at the end of the 1990s. Many scholars have considered this book the beginning of female-centred exegesis of the Koran, and an important part of what we now recognize analytically as Islamic feminism.

Wadud’s works, like many other texts by contemporary reformers of Islam, try to show that the interpretation of religious traditions is never complete.

Wadud in an interview announced: “Muslim women are not all interested in Islamic feminism. Some of them are not even interested in being Muslim. For me, I have not had a problem with Islam so much as I had a problem with the way in which Islam is practiced. And that this kind of Islam can sometimes be aggressive against women’s full rights.”

In her books, Qur’an and Woman and Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam (Oneworld Publications, 2006), she defended pluralism, the freedom of opinion, and the right to be different -- all from an Islamic perspective. According to her writings, the Koran should be re-read from a gender perspective, and in the light of its historical context. She advances the idea that unless you have had a real connection with the Koran, you will not understand how it is a force in history as well as in spirit. You will not be able to understand that there is cooperation between the reader and the text. You will say that there is some flaw with methodology. But you will have to understand that readers can use the text for whatever they want because there is a dynamic relationship between the text and the interpretation. The text is both created in time but also evolves beyond time.

Wadud, almost like Haddad, points out that the global reform movement for a Muslim personal status law should be based on the egalitarian trajectory of the Koran.

In her opinion, people who have grown up in a culture where the Koran is used for a narrow and restrictive interpretation might tend to consider that their interpretation is the only interpretation. This is problematic in all Islamic countries in which the sharia is a main source of law: Women’s rights are hardly defended.

Another example of what Muslim women are trying to do to make the Koranic text a basis to defend their rights is the recent translation of the Koran into English by Laleh Bakhtiar, an American of Iranian origin. Bakhtiar, who has a doctorate in educational psychology, set out to translate the Koran simply because she found the existing versions inaccessible by Westerners. But when she reached the problematic verse 34 of sura IV, “But chide those for whose refractoriness you have cause to fear; remove them into beds apart, and beat them,” Bakhtiar spent months on the verb daraba which literally means “beat.” She does not speak Arabic, but she learned to read the holy texts in Arabic while studying and working as a translator in the Islamic Republic of Iran in the 1970s and ‘80s. When she looked up in Edward William Lane’s Arabic-English Lexicon, a 3,064-page volume from the 19th century, and among the six pages of definitions for daraba, she found that one of the meanings was: “To go away,” so she decided that had to be the translation since she believes the “beat” translation contradicts another verse, which states that if a woman wants a divorce, she should not be mistreated.

Debates over translations of the Koran -- considered Allah’s eternal words -- revolve around religious tradition and Arabic grammar.

In English, for instance, you have six different translations of the above mentioned verse:

  • “Men are superior to women on account of the qualities with which God has gifted the one above the other, and on account of the outlay they make from their substance for them. Virtuous women are obedient, careful, during the husband’s absence, because God has of them been careful. But chide those for whose refractoriness you have cause to fear; remove them into beds apart, and scourge them: but if they are obedient to you, then seek not occasion against them: verily, God is High, Great!” (Rodwell’s version of the Koran)
  • “Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because God has guarded them. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them and send them to beds apart and beat them. Then if they obey you, take no further action against them. Surely God is high, supreme.” (Dawood’s version of the Koran)
  • “Men are in charge of women, because Allah has made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women). So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah has guarded. As for those from whom you fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them. Then if they obey you, seek not a way against them. Lo! Allah is ever High Exalted, Great.” (Pickthall’s version of the Koran)
  • “Men are the managers of the affairs of women for that God has preferred in bounty one of them over another, and for that they have expended of their property. Righteous women are therefore obedient, guarding the secret for God’s guarding. And those you fear may be rebellious admonish; banish them to their couches, and beat them. If they then obey you, look not for any way against them; God is All high, All great.” (Arberry’s version of the Koran)
  • “Men are the maintainers of women because Allah has made some of them to excel others and because they spend out of their property; the good women are therefore obedient, guarding the unseen as Allah has guarded; and (as to) those on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them, and leave them alone in their sleeping places and beat them; then if they obey you, do not seek a way against them; surely Allah is High, Great. (Shakir’s version of the Koran)
  • “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in (the husband’s) absence what Allah would have them guard. As to those women on whom part you fear disloyalty and ill conduct, admonish them (first), (next), refuse to share their beds, (and last) beat them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them means (of annoyance) for Allah is Most High, Great (above you all). (Ali’s version of the Koran).

It is clear that the lack of an Islamic authority to decide which interpretation should be followed keeps on being the main problem. So any Muslim can decide to follow one interpretation or the other. This is the reason why a radical imam in Spain in 1997, and a radical imam in France in 1994, officially declared that a husband has the right to beat his wife: It is stated in the Koran.

Following a slight different path is Zainab al-Suwaij, of Iraqi origin, and one of the founders of the American Islamic Congress. She stresses that “Western scholars definitely have a different focus than do scholars in the East, though: Islamic scholars look to women’s issues in the Sharia and in tradition and how we deal with women…[whereas]….in the West, women’s rights and concepts of universal rights, fall into one pile when we are discussing women’s issues.”

Al-Suweij is firmly convinced that women in the Muslim world are becoming more and more integrated into the political realm, and that this era seems to be one where women are seeking rights without respect for how it affects Islam and culture. Her key of her reason is that “Islam is adopted generally at a personal level, but no one applies every facet of it to his life.”

With al-Suwaij’s words we have another witness that there is no Islam with capital I, no official Islam but many islams and that women’s rights and human rights cannot appease whatever religion: These rights are universal.

Tarek Heggy from Egypt, comtinues: “A society that restricts important positions to men uses up only half its potential in the way of intelligence, performance, productivity and education; it is a society running on half steam. […]Women’s organizations have worked and continue to work tirelessly […] Yet they are required to do even more, to set in place a comprehensive plan designed to put an end to the reactionary male chauvinist culture dominating our society - in the family, in education, in religious institutions and in the media. […]It follows that the more developed a society’s educational/cultural environment, the less inclined its members are to subscribe to the primitive belief that a person’s worth is determined by gender. In a developed society, people no longer need to ask a question that is reactionary by its very nature, namely, are women equal to men? There are clear examples that prove that the issue in its entirety is a cultural one. Despite the existence of Koranic texts enjoining men to release a wife who no longer wishes to continue the marital relationship, and prohibiting them from keeping her against her will just to hurt her, the legal system has for many years provided men with a legal device that allows them to do the exact opposite”.

Of the same opinion is Elham Manea, of Yemeni origin, and Professor of political sciences at the University of Zurich. In her book, I Shall Not Cut My Tongue. Islam, the West and Human Rights (Ich will nicht mehr schweigen. Der Islam, der Westen und die Menschenrechte, Herder, Freiburg 2009), she points out that Islam has to look for a humanistic reformation that will lead to promote human rights as universal, not as Christian, Islamic or Jewish human rights. And no exception should be allowed.

Seyran Ates, a German lawyer born in Turkey, in her book, The Multicultural Mistak:. How We in Germany Could Live Better Together (Der Multikulti-Irrtum. Wie wir in Deutschland besser zusammenleben koennen, Ullstein, Berlin 2007), is even stronger. She writes that “we want also Muslim women to live, with or without Islam, with self-determination and dignity and in freedom.”

To conclude, if a human right can be defined as “The right to live in dignity, with freedom of conscience and equality before the law for all people regardless of their gender, race, color and creed,” countries should be asked to respect conventions like Cedaw with no exceptions and no reservations about preserving religious beliefs or texts. Also, governments should require total respect for universal human rights before starting economic and political relations with any country.

Only in doing this will the West help civil society in the Islamic world in general, and women in particular, to achieve their basic rights so that there shall be no girls married to older men, as happens in Yemen and Saudi Arabia; no women killed for having offended their family’s honor; no mothers without their children who have been kidnapped by their father, and other forms of discrimination regarding citizenship, inheritance, divorce and violence. Safeguarding women’s rights simply means safeguarding human rights, and our future.

(Delivered in a slightly different form in Geneva, United Nations, March 12th 2006)

April 2, 2010 5:00 AM
by Valentina Colombo