Nowhere in the Muslim world are women treated as equals

Nowhere in the Muslim world are women treated as equals – Information of Interest International

TIME MAGAZINE: December 3, 2001

“The Prophet Muhammad improved the status of women in 7th century Arabia. In local pagan society, it was the custom to bury alive unwanted female newborns; Islam prohibited the practice. Women had been treated as possessions of their husbands; Islamic law made the education of girls sacred duty and gave women the right to inherit property.

It is clear that the religion has been used in most Muslim countries not to liberate but to entrench inequality. The Taliban, with its fanatical subjugation of the female sex, occupies an extreme, but it nevertheless belongs on a continuum that includes, not so far down the line, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Pakistan and the relatively moderate states of Egypt and Jordan.

Where Muslims have afforded women the greatest degree of equality-in Turkey-they have done so by overthrowing Islamic precepts in favor of secular rule. ‘The way Islam has been practiced in most Muslim societies for centuries has left millions of Muslim women with battered bodies, minds and souls.’

Part of the problem dates to Muhammad. Even as he proclaimed new rights for women, he enshrined their inequality in immutable law, passed down as God’s commandments and eventually recorded in scripture. The Koran allots daughters half the inheritance of sons. It decrees that a woman’s testimony in court, at least in financial matters, is worth half that of a man’s. Under Shari’s or Muslim law, compensation for the murder of a woman is half the going rate for men.

In many Muslim countries, these directives are incorporated into contemporary law. For a woman to prove rape in Pakistan, for example, four adult males of ‘impeccable’ character must witness the penetration, in accordance with Shari’a. Even in country like Egypt much of the legal code has been secularized. In Islam, women can have only one spouse, while men are permitted four. The legal age for girls to marry tends to be very young. Muhammad’s favorite wife, A’isha, according to her biographer, was six when they wed, nine when the marriage was consummated.

In Iran the legal age for marriage is nine for girls, 14 for boys. The law has occasionally been exploited by pedophiles, who marry poor young girls from provinces, use and then abandon them. In 2000 the Iranian Parliament voted to raise the minimum age for girls to 14, but this year, a legislative oversight body dominated by traditional clerics vetoed the move.

An attempt by conservatives to abolish Yemen’s legal minimum age of 15 for girls failed, but local experts say it is rarely enforced anyway. (The onset of puberty is considered an appropriate time for a marriage to be consummated.)

Wives in Islamic societies face great difficulty in suing for divorce, but husbands can be released from their vows virtually on demand, in some places merely by saying ‘I divorce you’ three times. Though in most Muslim states, divorces are entitled to alimony, in Pakistan it lasts only three months, long enough to ensure that the woman isn’t pregnant. The same three-month rule applies even to the Muslim minority in India. There, a national law provides for long-term alimony, but to appease Islamic conservatives, authorities exempted Muslims.

Fear of poverty keeps many Muslim women locked in bad marriages, as does the prospect of losing their children. Typically, fathers win custody of boys over the age of six and girls after the onset of puberty. Maryam, an Iranian woman, says she has stayed married for 20 years to a philandering opium addict she does not love because she fears losing guardianship of her teenage daughter. ‘Islam supposedly gives me the right to divorce,’ she says. ‘But what about my rights afterwards?’

Women’s rights are compromised further by a section in the Koran, sura 4:34, that has been interpreted to say that men have ‘pre-eminence’ over women or that they are ‘overseers’ of women. The verse goes on to say that the husband of a subordinate wife should first admonish her to sleep alone and finally beat her. Wife beating is so prevalent in the Muslim world that social workers who assist battered women in Egypt, for example, spend much of their time trying to convince victims that their husbands’ violent acts are unacceptable.

Each year hundreds of Muslim women die in ‘honor killings’-murders by husbands or male relatives of women suspected of disobedience, usually a sexual indiscretion or marriage against the family’s wishes. Typically, the killers are punished lightly, if at all. In Jordan, a man who slays his wife or a close relative after catching her in the act of adultery is exempt from punishment. If the situation only suggests illicit sex, he gets a reduced sentence.

The Jordanian royal family has made the rare move of condemning honor killings, but the government, fearful of offending conservatives, has not put its weight behind a proposal to repeal laws that grant leniency for killers.

Muslim perpetrators often claim their crimes are justified by harsh Islamic penalties, including death for adultery. And so religious and cultural customs become confused.

Female genital mutilation is another case in point. It involves removing part or all of a girls’ clitoris and labia in an effort to reduce sexual desire and thereby preserve chastity. FGM is widespread in sub-Saharan Africa and in Egypt, with scattered cases in Asia and other parts of the Middle East. Muslim believe it is mandated by Islam, but the practice predated Muhammad and is also common among some Christian communities.

Sexual anxiety lies at the heart of many Islamic strictures on women. They are required to cover their bodies in varying degrees in different places for fear they might arouse the lust of men other than their husbands. The Koran instructs women to ‘guard their modesty.’ Saudi women don a billowy black cloak called an abaya, along with a black scarf and veil over the face; morality police enforce the dress code by striking errant women with sticks. The women of Iran and Sudan can expose the face but must cover the hair and the neck.

Recently a Muslim fundamentalist group in the Indian province of Kashmir demanded that women start wearing the veil: when the call was ignored, men threw acid in the faces of uncovered women. Limits placed on the movement of Muslim women, the jobs they can hold and their interactions with men are all rooted in fears of unchaste behavior. The Taliban took these controls to an extreme, but the Saudis are also harsh, imposing on women some of the tightest restrictions on personal and civil freedoms anywhere.

Saudi women are not allowed to drive. They are effectively forbidden education in fields such as engineering and law. They can teach and provide medical care to other women but are denied almost all other governmental jobs. Thousands have entered private business, but they must work segregated from men.

Iranian women drive cars, buy and sell property, run their own businesses, vote and hold public office. In most Muslim countries tradition keeps ordinary women at home and off the street, but Iran’s avenues are crowded with women. They are 25% of the work force, a third of all government employees and 54% of college students. Still, Iranian women are- like women in much of the Arab world-forbidden to travel overseas without the permission of their husband or father though the rule is rarely enforced in Iran.

Gender reforms are slow and hard fought. In 1999 the Emir of Kuwait, Sheik Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah, issued a decree giving women the right to vote in and stand for election to the Kuwait parliament, the only lively Arab legislature in the :Persian Gulf. Conservatives in parliament, however, blocked its implementation. In addition, the legislature has voted to segregate the sexes at Kuwait University.

Morocco’s government has proposed giving women more marriage and property rights and a primary rule in developmental efforts, but fundamentalists are resisting the measures. Muslim women are starting to score political victories, including election to office. In Syria 26 of the 250 members of parliament are female. In Iraq the numbers are 19 out of 250. Four Muslim countries have been or are currently led by women. In Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia, they rose to prominence on the coattails of deceased fathers or husbands.

In Turkey’s Tansu Ciller, Prime Minister from 1993 to 1995, won entirely on her own. Turkey is an exception to many rules. Women in Turkey are the most liberated in the Muslim world, though Malaysia and Indonesia come close, having relatively progressive cultures before Islam came to Southeast Asia in the 19th century. In Turkish professional life women enjoy a level of importance that is impressive. Turkey’s liberalism is a legacy of the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, an aggressive secularist who gave women rights unprecedented in the Muslim world. Recently the Turkish parliament went further by reforming family law. Previously, a man was head of the household able to make unilateral decisions concerning children. The new law establishes community property in marriages and raises marriage age of girls from 15 to 18.

Iran’s parliament recently compromised with conservative clerics to allow a single young woman to study abroad, with her father’s permission. Bangladesh passed legislation increasing the punishments for crimes against women, including rape, kidnapping and acid attacks. Egypt has banned female circumcision and made it easier for women to sue for divorce. In Qatar women have the right to participate in municipal elections and are promised rights in first-ever parliamentary balloting scheduled to take place by 2003. Saudi Arabia is the chief holdout to women; today the only legal evidence of a Saudi woman’s existence is the appearance of her name on her husband’s card. If she gets divorced, her name goes on the card of her closest male relative, even if she scarcely knows him.”

COPYRIGHT 2002 Women’s International Network

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group