Musawah (which means ‘equality' in Arabic) insists that change is possible by combining arguments from Islamic teachings, universal human rights principles, fundamental rights and constitutional guarantees, and grounding these arguments in the realities of women and men's lives in Muslim contexts today.
Some 250 scholars and activists from 48 Muslim countries and minority communities will launch Musawah, a global initiative, starting today in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The launch will include the public presentation of the Musawah Framework for Action, two years in the drafting, with input from activists and scholars from over 20 countries around the Muslim world, (http://www.musawah.org, going live on 14 February). Aware that the arguments it contains will be controversial, the Framework has been kept under wraps until today.[i]
The Framework lays out three principles as the basis for equality and justice in the Muslim family. The first is that "The universal and Islamic values of equality, non-discrimination, justice and dignity are the basis of all human relations." This bold statement is heresy for a formidable range of potential critics: for universalists who tend to see expressions of religion and culture as incompatible with human rights, and for Islamists who believe Islam's norms have a different conception of rights. Both cannot envisage religious men and women as feminists, and feminists as finding anything useful in religion.
However, the Musawah Framework cites several Qur'anic verses that can be regarded as mandating equality between men and women. While acknowledging that there exist at least four verses that speak of men's authority over women in the family and gender inequality in society, the drafters of the Framework argue that interpretation is a human act, and that the holy texts must be understood in their contemporary social contexts. "Understandings of justice and injustice change over time," they explain, noting as an example that slavery used to be a part of Muslim societies, and that laws and practices relating to slavery had to be reconsidered as these societies changed. "Similarly, our family laws and practices must evolve to reflect the Islamic values of equality and justice, reinforce universal human rights norms, and address the realities of families in the twenty-first century."
To assert that Muslim family laws are not divinely ordained but are human interpretations, open to reason and change, is to jump into one of the most contentious debates in Muslim scholarship. Sunni traditionalists assert that after the 10th century, the previously vibrant process of diversity in interpretation was correctly shut down, an event known among Muslims as the closing of the Gates of Ijtihad - ijtihad being the process of juristic endeavour. The fear was that diversity would lead to chaos in the Muslim world. Musawah, on the other hand, seems to be arguing that social chaos has anyway arrived in Muslim societies - caused by the injustice in patriarchal interpretations of Muslim family laws.
"The provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) are more in line with the Shari‘ah than family laws and practices in many Muslim societies," says the Framework.
Musawah's second principle declares that "Full and equal citizenship, including full participation in all aspects of society, is the right of every individual." This apparently simple statement confronts two major sources of tension in many Muslim societies.
It places the demand for gender equality within a broad framework of equality, that must then also include all types of minorities within Muslim societies. By reclaiming the concept of citizenship, it also throws down the gauntlet to those who argue that Muslims are either uber or sub-citizens, needing special treatment or to be discriminated against. The vision is of a society where as citizens of the same country, Muslims and non-Muslims alike can comment on human rights in each others' communities. This is no abstract debate. It is alive and kicking, for instance, in Malaysia, the home base for Sisters in Islam, the women's NGO that initiated the Musawah process. A multiethnic, multi-religious country, it is increasingly fractured along these lines: and it shares this predicament with countries such as Britain where many feel that it is almost impossible for non-Muslims to comment on the mores of British Muslims without ‘causing offence'.
The final principle, that "equality between women and men requires equality in the family" highlights the centrality of Muslim family law to gender justice in Muslim societies. It calls for the family to be "a place of security, harmony, support and personal growth for all its members" and "Marriage as a partnership of equals, with mutual respect, affection, communication and decision-making authority between the partners."
In concrete terms, this entails equal rights to choose a spouse or choose not to marry; enter into or dissolve a marriage; equal property rights for men and women; and equal rights and responsibilities of parents regarding their children. Apparently deliberately not specified because it is a given, Musawah's vision of the happy Muslim family does not include the possibility of polygamy.
Women from other religions have trodden similar paths. The charismatic Frances Kissling, founder of Catholics for a Free Choice, as well as Bhikkhuni Dhammananda who had to travel from her native Thailand to Sri Lanka in order to be able to be ordained as a Buddhist monk, are both speaking at the Musawah launch on their experiences of bringing their feminism together with their religion.
Musawah is by no means the only international initiative working for women's human rights in Muslim contexts. The scope and depth of these are often overlooked by analysts and development policy makers, particularly in the global North. The international solidarity network Women Living Under Muslim Laws has been linking women across borders and boundaries since the mid-1980s, while more recent research and advocacy initiatives include Women's Empowerment in Muslim Contexts and Women's Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE). All three will be represented at the Musawah launch, as will international women's rights allies such as Women's Learning Partnership and Association for Women's Rights in Development (AWID).
In so many contexts, the battle lines between progressives, fundamentalists and traditionalists are drawn around issues relating to women's bodies and autonomy. In this, Muslim societies are no different from contexts where for example Catholic or Hindu fundamentalisms have arisen.
[i] The Framework is accompanied by a resource book WANTED: Equality and Justice in the Muslim Family.
Cassandra Balchin is a freelance researcher, writer and human rights advocacy trainer. Formerly a journalist based in Pakistan, she has published on Muslim family law and international development policy regarding religion. She is on the planning committee of Musawah(Equality).