Muslim Women Demand End to Oppressive Laws

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Muslim women pray during special Terawikh night prayers, performed during the month of Ramaran, at a mosque in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

While Western governments have been worrying about bearded men with bombs in caves, a new jihad has quietly gained strength in the Muslim world: Islamic feminism. Earlier this week, 350 women and men gathered in Malaysia to launch Musawah — "Equality" in Arabic — a movement for justice in the Muslim family. Organized by the Malaysian Muslim feminist group Sisters in Islam, the conference, two years in the planning, is a kick-off to a campaign to enshrine Muslim women's rights within an Islamic framework. "We are here because we believe that Islam upholds the principles of equality and justice," said Musawah's project director Zainah Anwar, in her opening speech at the gala "Feast of Equals," held in a ballroom in a five-star hotel in Kuala Lumpur. "We are here because we believe that there is hope and possibility to reconcile the teachings of Islam with human rights, with women's rights, with democracy."

With women and men from 47 countries in attendance, the networking permutations were dazzling. Sessions with titles like "Sisters Doing It For Ourselves: Approaching the Holy Texts as Non-Experts," and "Resisting and Challenging Religious Fundamentalisms," drew activists and lawyers, Islamic scholars and anthropologists. Malaysian investment bankers sat in seminars with social workers from New Zealand, Thai anthropologists and American law professors. Feminist activists traded business cards with Islamic scholars. U.N. officials attended lectures parsing Koranic verses. Catholic and Jewish progressives shared their strategies for taking on hide-bound religious authorities. "Being here, you feel we are not alone," says Shilpa Kashelkar Nipunge, an Indian NGO worker says. "We're all together in this, and it gives us the power in this struggle." (See pictures of Malaysia.)

Musawah's key struggle is achieving reform of the heart of Muslim society: the family. Among the gravest oppressors of Muslim women today are Family Laws, the legal frameworks governing marriage and divorce, inheritance, and custody.

The laws are the front-line in the war between traditionalists and modernizers. Laws about women remain in the grip of medieval legal reasoning about the family. They vary by nation, but their message is consistent: the husband is the provider, and the wife submissive. It is Family Laws that mean a Malaysian woman who goes against the 'lawful' wishes of her husband can be judged 'disobedient', and lose her right to maintenance. It is Family Law that an unmarried woman in Jordan is legally under the control of a male guardian until the age of 40. It is under Family Law, as practiced in India, that a Muslim woman can find herself divorced, unilaterally, by text message.

The Islamic feminist movement has gathered strength and urgency over the past few years due to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Political Islam "has given women both the cause and the language to demand their rights and equality within an Islamic framework," notes Ziba Mir-Hosseini, an Iranian legal anthropologist at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. "The Koran gives women equality, but women's voices were silenced after the death of the Prophet. Law is always man-made, and women's voices were not there when the law was formed. They were reduced to sexual beings. Now, we are creating the space within our Islamic legal traditions, where women are rights-holders and social beings."

Security was relatively tight at the conference in case any hard-line opponents infiltrated the meeting. But the women at the conference feel they're on solid ground theologically. "Anyone who claims to believe in justice and in equality needs to support Musawah," says Mir-Hosseini. "If they don't, we must ask what Islam they are talking about. Is it the Islam of the Wahhabis? The Islam of Al-Qaeda?" To those who would oppose them, the women at Musawah give the same counsel that conservatives have been telling Muslims for centuries: Read the Koran.

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