Women and Islam: Religion, Tradition, or Simply Human Rights?

Dr. Prof. Valentina Colombo, Academic Researcher on Arab Women's Role in Democratization Processes in the Middle East - European University of Rome


“Women – religion or belief – human rights”. When referring to the Islamic world we should change it into “Women – Islam or tradition – human rights”. As a matter of fact in the Arab-Islamic world it is sometimes hard to separate religion and tradition when talking about women. What is a clear derivation from Koranic teachings and what is a simple traditional custom? When it comes to FGM, 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 what else?

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 a book entitled 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."

In the name of Islam, Tahar Haddad denounced such abuses against women as "repudiation," whereby a husband could divorce his wife without grounds or explanation, sending her back to her family or leaving her for another wife. Refuting assertions that such conduct is permissible for Muslims, he declared: "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 in 1956 Tunisia issued the Code of the Personal Status which clearly and strictly banned polygamy and established that a woman could ask for a divorce. The question today is: if Tunisia, though declaring its secularity, is an Islamic country, why most of the Islamic countries do not have a Code of the Personal Status like the Tunisian one which is safeguarding women’s rights? The answer is only one: because Islam is not a monolythe and has no central authority.

As a matter of fact when talking about Islam we should always ask: which one? In theory we could have as many islams as many Muslims in the world? This is so true that we can have on one end a country like the just mentioned Tunisia and on the other end countries like Saudi Arabia, whose constitution is the Koran, and has turned into law the strictest interpretation of Koran and do not consider women as “persons” yet, and another country like Bahrein where women are still fighting to get a Code of the personal status.

In between we have a good example of a modern interpretation of Koranic family rules in the reform of the Moroccan Mudawana in 2004, that at the same time shows 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, stating 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, 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.” Furthermore, Mohammed VI asserted that “in my capacity as Commander of the Faithful, I cannot make licit what God has forbidden, nor forbid what he has made lawful.” Therefore, polygamy and inheritance laws in the new Law followed the more literal line of the Koran, thus becoming potential stumbling blocks for 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. Moreover, 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, however it excludes those matters pertaining to inheritance and polygamy, which are issues subject to the strict following of Koranic rules. Those most important changes, however, were: the minimal marital age for women was raised from fifteen to eighteen years and was hence made equal with the legal requirement for men. Women are entitled to decide on their own regarding the guardian and cannot be married without their consent. Furthermore, unilateral repudiation is forbidden and both wife and husband have to appear in front of a judge in order to get divorced. Where cases of divorces are concerned, the new law stipulates that women receive custody over the children and the father is obliged to pay child support. The main importance and challenge of the new Mudawana is that “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 protecting children’s rights and safeguarding men’s dignity.” Some problems still remain due to the widespread male chauvinistic culture, due to the fact that most judges are men, but especially due to the fact that still today many Moroccan women, living in villages, do not even know the existence of a new Code.

Until recently religious texts have been interpreted only by men, through men’s lenses. Inside the Islamic world a new interesting 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 has become known to the world when on March 18th 2005 she guided as imam a Friday prayer for male and female believers. When she began to work on things that were considered to be gender mainstream, or gender-inclusive, the notion of Islamic feminism had not been discussed yet. She wrote Qur'an and Woman. Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective (Oxford University Press, Oxford 1999) in the end of the 1990s. Many have considered the book as the beginning of female-centred exegesis of the Koran, which is an important part of what we now recognize analytically as Islamic feminism. Wadud in an interview denounced: “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 has defended pluralism, the freedom of opinion and the right to be different 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 thinks 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 have to understand that the 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 is to be based on the egalitarian trajectory of the Koran. On her opinion, some people who have grown up in a culture where the Koran is used for a narrow and restrictive interpretation consider that their interpretation is the only interpretation. And that is problematic since in all Islamic countries in which the sharia is a main source of law, women’s rights are hardly defended. Wadud’s works, as many other texts by contemporary reformers of Islam, try to show that the interpretation of religious traditions is never complete.

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, American of Iranian origin. Bakhtiar, who is 68 and 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 reciting “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 that 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 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 God's eternal words - revolve around religious tradition and Arabic grammar. In English for instance you have six different translations of the above mentioned verse. They are the following:

"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 patently clear that the lack of an Islamic authority deciding which interpretation should be followed keeps on being the main problem. So any Muslim can decide to follow either one interpretation or the other. This is the reason why in 1997 a radical imam in Spain and in 2004 a radical imam in France officially declared that a husband has the right to beat his wife since this is stated in the Koran.

Following a slight different path is Zaynab al-Suwaij, one of the founders of the American Islamic Congress of Iraqi origin, and 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.” In contrast, “in the West women’s rights and concepts of universal rights, fall into one pile when we are discussing women’s issues.” She is firmly convinced that women in the Muslim world are becoming more and more integrated into the political realm and that the era now seems to be one where women are seeking rights without respect for how it affects Islam and culture. The key of her reasoning, and I think she has really got the point, is that “Islam is adopted generally at a personal level, but no one applies every facet of it to his life.” With al-Suwaiji’s words we go back to the beginning and 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 since they are universal.

A confirmation of what al-Suwaij is saying, that is the importance to integrate women in 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, wrote in an article of his, “Women and Progress”, after the appointment of the first female judge to Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court: “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. […] 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. 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, Professor of political sciences at the University of Zurich of Yemeni origin. 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, German lawyer born in Turkey, in her book The Multicultural Mistake. How we in Germany could live better together (Der Multikulti-Irrtum. Wie wir in Deutschland besser zusammenleben koennen, Ullstein, Berlin 2007) is even stronger when she writes that “ we want that also Muslim women live, with or without Islam, with self-determination and dignity and in freedom”.

To conclude if a human right can be defined 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, thus while discussing human and women’s rights countries should be asked to respect conventions like Cedaw with no exception and no reservation to preserve religious beliefs or texts, governments should ask the total respect of universal human rights before starting economical and political relations with any country. Only doing this the West will help civil society in the Islamic world in general, women in particular, to reach their basic rights so that there shall be no girls married to older men, like it happens in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, no women killed to have offended their family’s honor, no mothers without their children because they have been kidnapped by their father and many other forms of discriminations regarding citizenship, inheritance, divorce and violence. We should understand that “women are the solution” and that safeguarding their rights simply means safeguarding human rights and our future.

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Dr. Prof. Valentina Colombo is an Academic Researcher on Arab Women's Role in Democratization Processes in the Middle East - European University of Rome