Home truths in the Muslim family

Cassandra Balchin
12 February 2009

Muslim women's demands for equality and justice in the family seem to be reaching a critical mass, coinciding with what some are heralding as a ‘paradigm shift' in Muslim theological and jurisprudential scholarship. There is clearly a disconnect between the realities of Muslim society on the one hand and the family laws that govern Muslims on the other. This gap lies at the centre of some of the most heated theological and juristic debates in the Muslim world today. It has the potential to bring about some of the most important changes in the Muslim world for centuries - and the response stands in sharp contrast to trends of rising religious fundamentalism.

"When I went to the kadi [Muslim judge] to request a divorce from my husband, the kadi said to me, ‘Go back home and stay in your marriage just like your mother did'," says a woman from the Gambia, angry that religious authorities offer no real solutions to social problems such as domestic violence, abandonment and discrimination between wives in a polygamous marriage.

Home Truths: A Global Report on Equality in the Muslim Family is a compilation of short reports from women's organisations and researchers in 30 countries of Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East and North America. The catalogue of discriminations are remarkably similar despite the variety of contexts and legal systems. They include women's limited autonomy in marriage and divorce, inequitable property rights and denial of full rights over the custody and guardianship of their children. In Afghanistan since March 2008 there have been 100 cases of self-immolation - a traditional method of protest by women against extreme domestic unhappiness.

It is not just women who are questioning the traditions that religious authorities justify as ordained by Allah. "For nearly 20 years, it was my sister who gave my parents a monthly allowance. She even quit her job to look after our father until his death. She paid all the medical bills. When it came to sorting out his estate, my brother insisted that we follow faraid [Islamic inheritance rules]. But I disagreed. I feel that my sister was there for our father when we were not. My brother does not talk to me now. But our children talk..."

The story comes from Malaysia, where roughly half of working age women are in the labour force. But it could just as well come from the many other Muslim countries where women's employment rate has sky rocketed. For instance, according to the ILO between 1990 and 2003 the Arab region women's share of economic activity increased at more than six times the global rate.

Male drug addiction, shifting patterns of employment due to the demands of globalised production, labour migration and displacement due to conflict have all meant that increasing numbers of households in Muslim contexts are headed by women or have a sole female breadwinner. In Morocco, 15 percent of families are women-headed, rising to 29 percent in Mauritania. From Britain to Iran, girls are increasingly outnumbering boys from Muslim communities in higher education.

Hard statistics on historical divorce and separation rates are difficult to come by, but the anecdotal evidence is everywhere: the classical construction of the Muslim family headed by a male breadwinner with a dependent, obedient wife simply no longer works.

If it ever did. The Prophet's first wife was a successful business woman who herself proposed marriage to Muhammad before he became Islam's Prophet; the marriage remained monogamous throughout her lifetime. Great Ancestors, published by Women Living Under Muslim Laws [www.wluml.org], reveals a 1,400 year history of Muslim women who wrote their own marriage contracts, litigated in court, engaged in politics, were recognized scholars, and who punished husbands that even thought of taking additional wives.

A dual process of rediscovering classical Muslim thinkers who emphasised rationality and the flexibility of human interpretation, and of reinterpreting Islam's texts in the light of contemporary social needs has been gathering pace roughly since the 1950s. The growth in past two decades has been exponential. Male and female scholars [I1] from diverse contexts such as Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Morocco, Pakistan, South Africa, Sudan, and the United States have developed a vision of Islam that insists that the Qur'an mandates equality between all human beings, including between men and women. This is not the ‘equity' of the apologists, but a claim for an end to all forms of discrimination, especially within the family.

Distinguishing between the Shariah (the path towards God) and the human process of deciding precisely what laws follow this path - known as fiqh or jurisprudence - these scholars say that because the laws are not divine, they can be - and in the past were - changed to match society's needs.

Middle Eastern historians note that in fact the codified family laws that dominate the region are the product of colonial times, and reflected dominant European Victorian notions of gender relations. The process was similar throughout West Africa and South Asia.

While many Muslim countries are stuck with these laws, in most there is a visible movement for progressive reform of family laws. Ironically, the exceptions are mostly minority migrant Muslim communities in the West, where religious fundamentalists appear to have successfully drawn a veil over the extraordinary activism that is taking place in the supposedly ‘backward' rest of the Muslim world.

Although demands for Muslim family law reform date back more than a century, increasingly reform movements (as well as efforts to protect existing rights in places such as former Soviet Central Asia) are specifically demanding equality between men and women, and critiquing the classical notion of the Muslim family. This is a major shift.

There has already been considerable success in Turkey, which completely overhauled its Civil Code in 2001, and Morocco which introduced a drastically reformed Moudawana, or personal status code, in 2004. Both laws were the result of sustained campaigns by coalitions of women's organizations, and both have provisions that state the equal rights and responsibilities of husbands and wives.

In the case of Morocco, whose law is derived from Islam, women's rights activists used a combination of arguing for reform from within the framework of religion; constitutional equality provisions and other national legislation; international human rights standards; and on the basis of women and men's lived realities.

This comprehensive framework is now inspiring a global movement designed to support national family law reform projects and efforts to protect existing rights in Muslim contexts across the world.

On 13 February, participants from some 50 countries, activists and academics, are gathering in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to launch Musawah-a global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family. Musawah, which means ‘equality' in Arabic, has been some two years in the planning, and promises to offer those who oppose positive change quite a few home truths.


[I1]These include Nasr Abu Zayd, Kyai Hussein, Nasaruddin Umar, Abdolkarim Soroush, Sana Benachour, Fazlur Rehman, Khalid Masud, Abdullahi an-Na'im, Keica Ali, Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Amina Wadud, Khaled Abou el-Fadl.

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).

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