Ahmed Nassef

New York (WOMENSENEWS)–It’s now the middle of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, contemplation and community.

The traditional Ramadan nights of celebration that are common in many parts of the Muslim world have been dampened once again this year by the deaths of innocents in Saudi Arabiabombings, military occupation in Iraq, andcontinued repression from Palestine to Kashmirto Chechnya.

Among the darker and destructive events in the Muslim world, however, there are also bright glimmers of hope for all of us—Muslims and non-Muslims alike—to consider.

Last week, a group of Uzbek women courageously defied the brutal police tactics of their government and marched out in the streets of the Northeastern town of Namangan. They were demanding a stop to mass arrests of opposition activists and an end to corruption by the government, the recipient of millions of dollars in U.S. aid and an important base of operations for the U.S. military.

And in Morocco, a woman, for the first time, was among those who gave a traditional lecture organized every Ramadan by the king of Morocco.

Rajaa Naji Mekkaoui, a university professor, presented her lecture on the Qur’anic view of the family before King Mohammed VI and other (mostly male) dignitaries at the royal palace in Rabat.

These separate developments, while they did not get much play in the Western press, do invite an honest look at the position of Muslim women in Muslim countries.

Stories of Abuse a Media Fixture

Stories about abusive acts against women by Muslims are a regular fixture in the Western media. Subjects range from an honor killing in the London suburbs to a mob stoning of a suspected adulteress in a Pakistan village to a zealous youth throwing acid at a woman who dared not cover her hair in the streets of Cairo, Egypt.

Whenever stories like these appear, many Muslims–especially Muslim men–living in the West respond, “Yes, this is terrible, but . . .”

The first common response is that this is another media attempt to smear Islam and Muslims, and as such part of the general anti-Muslim hysteria sweeping much of the United States and Europe. The other, perhaps even more popular, retort is that “sure things aren’t perfect for women in Muslim countries, but Western women have it just as bad.” What follows is usually a self-righteous diatribe against the sexual exploitation of women in Western societies.

True, anti-Muslim bigotry has become acceptable in the mass media. And yes, women are still exploited and discriminated against in the West.

But these phenomena do not erase the very real problems that exist in contemporary Muslim societies.

Stoning Death Averted by a Technicality

Earlier this year, when a Nigerian State Shariah Court of Appeals overturned Amina Lawal’s March 2002 conviction for adultery, thus revoking her death-by-stoning sentence, Judge Ibrahim Mai-Unguwa said the ruling rested on technicalities in Islamic law.

One of these technicalities, for which Lawal’s defense argued successfully in their appeal, is that according to some Islamic legal schools of thought, a fetus may lie dormant within a mother’s womb for up to five years. Since that possibility existed, her lawyers argued, Lawal’s baby daughter could have been fathered by her former husband.

The importance of the verdict–leaving aside for a moment how it was reached
–is that Lawal is now free, and that her lovely daughter Wasila will grow up knowing the precious love of a mother in her life.

Lawal’s attorneys had to pursue every legal angle to free their client, and they succeeded bravely.

Some Muslim groups have hailed this decision as a triumph for the Islamic legal system. In a statement, the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council declared that the verdict proves that “an Islamic legal system is capable of ensuring justice for the accused.”

This averts attention from the reality of the Lawal case. In a larger context, it also seems to accept the use of an Islamic cover for rulings by men in positions of power as a way to continue oppressive social structures that serve to subjugate women.

Abominable Initial Ruling

There would have been no need for this verdict in the Lawal case if it hadn’t been for the abominable initial ruling by an Islamic Shariah court that sentenced her to stoning.

But we have to ask, what kind of legal system can claim credibility with any thinking person if, in the 21st century, it affirms a fetal gestational period of up to five years? (In this particular instance, this medieval principle thankfully played in Lawal’s favor, and to be fair, even some classical jurists thought the multiyear gestational period a bit outlandish.)

The Lawal case is but the latest–and sadly unlikely to be the last–example of the sad state of what passes for “Islamic” these days.

In Africa, upwards of 15 million people have been lost to AIDS. There, the overwhelming majority of heterosexual women who contract the disease do so as a result of sex with infected husbands who have been involved in extramarital relationships. Nevertheless, many Muslim clerics continue to urge women to submit to the sexual whims of their husbands, citing the woman’s duty, according to their interpretation of Shariah law, to comply with her husband’s sexual desires.

In Saudi Arabia, members of the Permanent Council for Scientific Research and Legal Opinions, the country’s highest religious body, regularly make misogynistic rulings about how women need to submit and be patient in the face of a husband’s emotional and physical abuse.

In their statement on the Lawal verdict, the Muslim Public Affairs Council criticized international human rights activists who “oppose the idea of Islamic law altogether.” They called on such activists to “work with Muslims utilizing Islamic jurisprudential tools.” Only then will they see the aspects of Shariah that empower women, they asserted.

Islamic Jurisprudence Is Open to Inspection

Expecting concerned non-Muslims to learn the intricacies of Islamic jurisprudence before voicing their concerns over injustices is unrealistic and disingenuous. Should concerned U.S. citizens similarly be required to study Israeli legal history before declaring that the State of Israel has mistreated the Palestinian people?

If the application of Islamic law–or more correctly, the application of an intolerant, authoritarian version of Islamic law–in recent history has resulted in the loss of individual freedoms and human dignity, then the problem is not with those who criticize it (no matter what their true intentions), but with Muslims who have allowed their faith to be co-opted and have stood by silently.

For Muslims, positive change that is faithful to the spirit of the Koran and the Prophet Muhammad’s mission will only come when we are willing to take responsibility and speak out against injustices in our own midst, to challenge authoritarian systems and to work for a just society that respects the rights of the weakest among us.

Ahmed Nassef is editor in chief of Muslim WakeUp!, a progressive Muslim online magazine.

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