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Islam and Women: A Gendered Imbalance?

Many think that Islam discriminates against women. Yet, as the author finds out, it essentially liberates women from the clutches of patriarchy.

One religion that has been misconceived as an advocate of women’s subordination is Islam. However, as cited in Athar Husain’s Muslim Personal Law – An Exposition (n.d.), the Qur’an defines a woman “as vital to life as man himself and granted the status equal to that of a man”; it also devotes a whole chapter on her. Islam further provides women freedom of expression. Its history depicts women as defenders of the faith and were instrumental in its propagation.

Furthermore, as Valentine Moghadam (2003) writes, Islam witnessed patriarchy. Pre-capitalist peasant, agrarian societies, including those that practised endogamy, served as haven of patriarchal hegemony which subordinated women and their contributions. It was only after the birth of Islam when women’s welfare in society was addressed, providing them with “certain legal rights...banned female infanticide, entitled women to contract their marriage, receive dower, retain control of wealth, and receive maintenance and shares in inheritance.”

Causes of discrimination against Muslim women

Compared to early Muslim views on women and the family, modern and codified family laws gave men control over women. Consequently, contemporary application of Islamic precepts undermines women’s status. This is aggravated by gender-insensitive government officials, policymakers, and religious leaders in many Islamic countries. Discriminatory and unfair treatment of non-Muslims as an aftermath of several violent attacks likewise contribute to such subordination. Ergo, ignorance about Islam has worsened the existing bad situation of Muslim women because of socially constructed gender bias.

Though both gender groups are theoretically equal before Shari’a or Islamic law, “an imbalance is introduced through sexual and economic inequality, polygamy, unequal inheritance rights and male monopoly of the production of commodities” (Baffoun in Moghadam, 2003). This indicates that Islam’s early fundamental progressive teachings about women have been assimilated with patriarchal ideas and practices. In other words, as what Amy Alexander and Christian Welzel concur in their "Islam's Patriarchal Effect: Spurious or Genuine?" (2009), culture plays a significant role in the patriarchal interpretation of Islam.

The nature of Muslim personal laws exacerbates the ill treatment of women. Dinusha Panditaratne, in her Towards Gender Equity in a Developing Asia: Reforming Personal Laws Within a Pluralist Framework (2007), opines: “In essence, both national governments and minority groups in the post independence era have treated personal laws as a lever in negotiating the boundaries of minority rights. Women have rarely been party to this negotiating process, and neither the national government nor minority groups have consistently prioritized (or in earlier times, even recognized) the rights of women. Women occupy low rank within their respective ethnic communities and across ethnic groups…”

Resolving non-compliance to international treaties

Indeed, many provisions of codified Muslim laws defy the principles of international agreements, largely sponsored by the United Nations (UN). These include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990), the Beijing Platform of Action (BPA), and the Millennium Declaration.

Hopefully, as more women and women’s organizations reclaim their place in equal status with men, existing discriminatory Muslim personal laws will be amended, if not deleted. After all, one of Islam’s core tenets is gender equality.

Sources

Alexander, Amy C. and Welzel, Christian. 2009. "Islam's Patriarchal Effect: Spurious or Genuine?". (accessed November 10, 2010).

Husain, Athar. n.d. Muslim Personal Law – An Exposition. All India Personal Law Board. (accessed September 18, 2010). Moghadam, Valentine M. 2003. Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East. Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc. (accessed September 21, 2010).

Panditaratne, Dinusha. 2007. "Towards Gender Equity in a Developing Asia: Reforming Personal Laws within a Pluralist Framework". N.Y.U. Review of Law and Social Change. (accessed September 21, 2010).

This article contains excerpts from the author's Shari’a and the Rights of Muslim Women in the Philippines: Examining the Code of Muslim Personal Laws (CMPL), a paper drafted for work purposes. Some sections have been modified.


Written by Leann Zarah (leannzarah@gmail.com)

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