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Thursday, December 14, 2006

At war with women

At war with women

14 December 2006

A FORTNIGHT after being signed into law, the Women's Protection Act is still
raising hackles among Pakistan's many fundamentalists. As cynical observers
had predicted, the holy fathers decided not to deprive our assemblies of their
austere presence by resigning their seats as they had threatened to after the
passage of the bill.

But this bitter controversy underlines yet again the problems most Muslims
have about the position of women in their society. Why should placing rape in
the category of crimes requiring internationally accepted laws of evidence
cause such a frenzy? For 25 years, Pakistani women have had to suffer from the
absurd requirement of providing four male witnesses of 'impeccable character'
to prove they had been raped. Failure to do so exposed them to jail sentences
if found 'guilty' of fornication. Apart from the agony and suffering this law, imposed by the military dictator Zia in 1979, caused thousands of women, it also encouraged rape as rapists were hardly ever sentenced....

Those supporting these repressive laws will be delighted to learn that they
have like-minded counterparts in Niger. According to a recent news item, this
West African country, with a 95 per cent Muslim majority, has already rejected
the Maputo Protocol. And yet fundamentalists there are protesting against any
attempt to implement this plan of action. Adopted by African leaders in
Mozambique in 2003, this Protocol addresses human rights abuses on the
continent, and has a separate section on gender issues. A far-ranging set of
proposals, it seeks to eliminate the worst kind of abuses against women.
Approved by 13 of the signatories, it has met resistance in Muslim-majority
countries, especially for its pro-women charter.

Ibrahim Oumarou, a Niger mullah, and one of the organisers of the protest,
probably reflected the opinion of most Muslim men when he said: "Ulema cannot
accept a man saying that his wife and he are equal in the sharing of their
heritage. It's unimaginable."

Not long ago, I received an email from a woman in the US with a Muslim name.
She wrote that she was 24, and asked why she should remain a Muslim, given the
low status she saw in the scriptures accorded to her gender. Normally, I never
enter into a discussion about somebody's faith, or the lack of it as I don't
think it's any of my business. But as she had asked me a specific question, I
replied that for its time, the Holy Quran signified a huge step forward for
women as it codified their rights in a manner no other religion or society had
at that point in history. She replied that this was all very well, but I was
talking about a stage 1,400 years ago, and the world had moved on since then.
Women in non-Muslim societies now enjoyed far more rights than their Muslim
sisters, so why should she follow a faith that made her inferior to men?

I had no easy answer, and our correspondence ended on this note. The truth is
that for many Muslim women today, several Islamic provisions regarding the
laws of evidence and inheritance do appear to disadvantage them. And as Islam
gives men authority over women, the former are naturally reluctant to
contemplate a change in this set-up. Indeed, the entire social order is tilted
in favour of men, and when one community or sex wishes to redress the power
balance, an intense struggle takes place. This happened in the West over the
last century, as women fought for, and won, equal rights. But although Western
women are equal under the law, pockets of discrimination and gender bias

Historically, Muslim societies were not the only ones to treat women unjustly.
Across the world, these attitudes have held women back for millennia. But as
mankind moved from hunting-gathering to farming to industry to a
knowledge-based economy, physical strength gave way to education and
intelligence in determining an individual's place in society. Especially in
the last fifty years or so, it became clear that to unleash a society's
potential, half the population could not be locked up at home. A major reason
why Muslim countries continue to lag behind the rest of the world is because
their women are not being allowed to make a full contribution to progress.

We need to remember that many archaic attitudes towards women are in fact
based on tradition, not religion. Thus, the practice of wearing a veil varies
from one Muslim country to another. Female circumcision or clitoral mutilation
has no sanction in Islam. In fact, it is a pre-Islamic tribal practice
confined to parts of Africa. It was inflicted to ensure that women derived no
pleasure from sex, and would therefore be more likely to remain chaste. And
yet, fundamentalist African Muslims insist on having this barbaric operation
performed on young girls on religious grounds.

This confusion between social practices and religious edicts has harmed women
greatly. In order to retain their control over women, Muslim clerics have
consistently favoured the most harsh and retrogressive interpretation of the
scriptures. And since this suits most Muslim men, they do not join their women
in their struggle to bring these laws into conformity with the requirements of
natural justice. Those women daring to question the status quo are branded
'Westernised' and 'secular', as though these labels somehow lessen the force
of their argument. And all the while, men continue maintaining with a straight
face that somehow, these repressive laws and practices protect women.

International opinion and foreign pressure to bring about change are countered
by the assertion that these anti-women laws and practices are sanctioned by
religion. In fact, few of them are. And in any case, Islam allows for 'ijtihad',
or consensus to change earlier rulings. While the Taleban were probably the
harshest in suppressing women, Saudi Arabia does not lag far behind. A couple
of years ago, several Saudi school girls were burned to death when their
hostel caught fire at night, and they were not allowed to escape by the
morality police as they were not properly dressed. Women are not permitted to
drive or work alongside men.

So apart from the larger questions of equality and justice, the plain fact is
that if the Muslim world wishes to catch up with the rest of the world, it
will have to emancipate its women.

Irfan Husain is an eminent Pakistani writer based in London. He can be reached

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