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The True Status of Women in Islamic Law

Islamic Law as described in most North American newspapers and often in European ones, is done in a very simplistic fashion. It is partly due to ignorance on the part of the journalist and misinformation from the person the Muslim interview. Like several North American journalists, many Muslims are uneducated vis-à-vis Islamic Law. They think that there is only one school of law, the one that is based on the Koran and Hadith. However, this is not the case, there are four schools of law and today we can add a fifth one that is Wahhabism which is popular among some Muslims living in the United States and Canada.

The story goes thus, Prophet Mohammed was the first feminist. He gave equal rights to women, stopped female infanticide, allowed women to own property, permitted divorce and even for women to be leaders. His wives referred as the "Mothers of the Believers", were and are greatly respected. Aisha, his favorite, was an advisor and a lawyer to the newly formed Muslim community of Medina, after the Prophet died. It was a woman who kept and guarded the Holy Koran until it was collated and finalized. Umm Salama advised him during various battles and he took her advice. They usually fail to add that Aisha, led an army and lost, hence, since then, women can no longer be military leaders nor have positions of power over men. She rose against Ali, and hence is seen as the cause of the first schism in the Muslim world, between Sunni those who believe in the 4 Righteous Caliphs (Sunni), and those who regard Ali as the only Caliph (Shiite). Women were not allowed to be leaders, however one or two women did find a leadership roles. For example, Shiite women look upon Zaynab, the granddaughter of the Prophet, as a leader and her speech is re-enacted every year at the battle of Karbalah, where Hassan and Hussein were killed. Yet very few women are leaders in the Islamic world to this day.

Self-appointed Muslim leaders play on the ignorance of Islamic Law to establish a restrictive version of the law by using feminist terminology and ideals. They often use feminist language and imagery, to prove that women in Islam have equal rights as men, according to the Koran. They add that this equality is foreign to Jewish and Christian women. By engaging in a misinformed and often demagogical theological debate and not an objective secular one, they give a false face and pretensions to Islam. They fail to mention that according to Islamic Law, a woman must get her husband's permission to travel, borrow money, and even to work outside of her home. The Koran is used to justify: painful genital circumcision, covering of women from head to toe and even covering the face (as with the "Burka" over women's heads in Afghanistan). They also take care not to mention that a man has the legal right, according to the "Shariah" to marry 4 wives and to be able to divorce at this will. However, women are not allowed to file for a divorce.

This constrained and false vision of the Islamic law has been successfully challenged in the Muslim world, be it by Islamic jurists or women leaders such as Nobel Prize for Peace Laureate (2003), Shirin Abadi from Iran, women organizations, and secular governments. Dr. Nawal Saadawi, of Egypt with the help of El-Azhar university scholars, had women genital circumcision challenged in Egypt. In Morocco, King Abdullah, forbade men to marry more than one woman. These steps were continued by renowned Dr. Fatima Mernissi, who strongly criticized the second lowly and deplorable and often inhumane status of women in Islamic Law. Mrs. Bouaziz who is in charge of the Women's Center in Tunis also accomplished some successes in Ben Ali's Tunisia. There are numerous other Arab women leaders, some who were educated in Eastern and Western universities, that have done a great deal to improve the conditions of women living under Islamic law. However, what is needed today in the 21st century, as many of them propound, is a "total revolution" that would indeed make women equal to men under Islamic law, as equal human beings having the same human rights.

Many Muslim leaders (who are often self-appointed), in the Muslim community in the United States and Canada, have an axe to grind against feminists. According to them, feminists have weakened family values in the West, and are spoiling the values of the Muslim world. Hence they are at war, in words and actions, against feminists and feminist views. Sadawi, Mernissi, Bouaziz are all to be rejected as being "not Muslims". Leila Ahmed, another Egyptian woman, who wrote the first history of Women in Islam in the early 1990s, quotes the Koran and exposes one controversial verse about the wives of the Prophet. The "Mother's of the Believers" were given an ultimatum, either they did it his way or they would be replaced. This harsh verse came after a fight between the women and the prophet. It is also the verse that is used by fundamentalist Muslims in North America to justify the superiority of Muslim men. These men see themselves as the Prophet, they imitate his actions and justify it by verses from the Koran and stories from the Hadith.

The goal of the "Pretenders of Islamic feminism" is simple. It is to get Islam accepted as a religion of equals, and then push to have the Sharia court as the supreme law. They have indeed succeeded in a few States in North America to have a Sharia Court for marriage, divorce and marital disputes. I have spoken to many Muslim women prior to my writing this piece, and they are for the separation of Church and Religion, but are fearful. They told me that if those Fundamentalist Islamic leaders manage to have legal power, their extremist version of Islamic law would become the norm of all Muslim society in the Western world. A non-practicing Muslim woman could be forced to wear the headscarf, as many are already forced to do. Women will not be allowed to work out of their homes, and they will have their hands tied and will be unable to file for a divorce.

There is a paradox here, the Prophet promised women the right to divorce, and the catch is that if they do they would lose almost everything they have. Unless, a woman has an ironclad marriage contract, she will end up on the streets penniless. If her husband divorces her, he is only responsible for her for a few months. She will be forced to stay with him or re-marry as soon as possible. Some women also fear that the future of non-Muslim women will be in jeopardy. They are in horror that the restrictive type of Islamic Law such as that of Saudi-Arabia or Iran will in the future be imposed over all women, be it Muslim, Christian, or Jewish women, as the aim of Al-Quaida is to make the whole world Islamic. If they win, all women in the universe will have to cover their heads and bodies, their minds and eyes, because the Fundamentalists would take over and unite Church and State under one rule - the Islamic Law. The fight for girls to wear Islamic headscarves at school, in France, goes against the State Law of division between State and Religion, yet many Islamic demonstrations in the streets of Paris and elsewhere claim the right to go against the law. This is very much part of the danger pointed to above.

Women of the world should quickly unite and overcome this horrifying nightmare with all our power. We are more than 52% of Humanity and if we unite we will win.


Copyright (c) Ada Aharoni