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News ::
The War on Women (english)
26 Mar 2003
After the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. government threw its full energies into combating terrorism emerging from militants in the Islamic world. But it has done little to expose and condemn the ways some states are using radical interpretations of Islamic law, or Shariah, to subordinate and exclude women. The U.S. should be equally concerned about the consequences of these interpretations on Muslims as well as non-Muslims.
Just this week, an appellate Shariah court in northern Nigeria upheld a "death by stoning" sentence against a woman for having sex outside marriage. The case of Amina Lawal, the 30-year-old Nigerian woman sentenced to death, should raise grave concerns about how Islamic law is used in Nigeria and in other countries to brutalize and subordinate women. No country that values human dignity and the equality of all its citizens can afford to have a legal system in place that endorses discrimination, torture, and cruel and inhuman punishment. Immediate reform of the aspects of Shariah that deny women equality under law and in practice is needed.

Combined with local traditions, the effect of such verdicts is to make women afraid. A public sentencing sends a message to all women: that if they step outside the strictures of Shariah, they, too, can expect a painful and ignominious death. If she loses her final appeal, Ms. Lawal can expect to be buried up to her chest and stoned to death, leaving behind three motherless children. But countless other women in Nigeria will fear for their own lives as a result.

Shariah need not be bad for women. Throughout the world, Muslim women want to live observant lives with human dignity and respect for their rights. Many Muslim women I know and work with are faithful Muslims and categorically reject the abuse of Shariah to sow their oppression.

In Saudi Arabia in March, at least 14 girls may have died unnecessarily in a school fire because of extreme interpretations of the Islamic dress code. Members of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice interfered with rescue efforts because the fleeing students were not wearing the obligatory public attire (long black cloaks and head coverings) for Saudi girls and women. Also in Saudi Arabia, women's testimonies in court are equal to half those of a man.

A woman in Pakistan who has been raped and wants the state to prosecute her case must have four Muslim men testify that they witnessed the assault. Absent these male witnesses, effectively the rape victim has no case. Equally alarming, if she cannot prove the rape allegation, she runs a very high risk of being charged with fornication or adultery, the criminal penalty for which is either a long prison sentence, including public whipping, or, though rarely, death by stoning.

The application of Shariah is not limited to criminal matters, but in some countries some aspects of Shariah also govern civil matters. Morocco's "personal status code" (the Mudawwana) is one example. Under it, women are treated as legal minors and denied legal autonomy to conclude their own marriage contracts. This code establishes male authority over female family members, requires women to obey their husbands in all matters, and sharply limits women's -- though not men's -- access to divorce. Moroccan law further discriminates against women in the marriage process by allowing men to have up to four wives simultaneously.

There will no doubt be significant and vigorous disagreement about whether the above examples are faithful interpretations and applications of Shariah. While this is being debated, millions of women living under Shariah contend with laws and practice that make a mockery of international human rights protections and endanger their lives.

There are varying interpretations among Islamic jurists about whether these applications are correct, but they are grossly unfair to women, antithetical to human-rights principles, and should be reformed.

How do we protect vulnerable women in countries like Nigeria where a radical interpretation of Shariah is being enforced? The international community must pressure governments to reform criminal laws and strengthen secular justice systems so that the rule of law applies across society. Civil societies must be strengthened, and local women's groups that are pushing for reform should be supported. The U.N., European Union, and other multilateral bodies should redouble their efforts to support long-term projects that improve women's legal and other status.

The U.S. identified the restoration of Afghan women's basic rights as one of the principal goals of ousting the Taliban. This must be a goal not only for Afghanistan, but also for the other parts of the world where the growing power of discriminatory law, including certain interpretations of Shariah, is a pernicious and chronic threat to women's very existence.

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