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Centre of Islamic and Middle Eastern Law

Feminism and Islam: DT Review

Daily Telegraph, Saturday 18 January 1997

Review of Feminism and Islam: Legal and Literary Perspectives, Mai Yamani (ed.), Ithaca, £30hb, £14pb


Mary Bryant draws timely lessons from Muslim women's views.

The Saudi Arabian authorities have claimed that the two British nurses held for murder will be given "a fair trial". But definitions of fairness vary. Feminism and Islam reveals the chilling truth which may lie behind their words. It shows how, just as our British forebears believed that black men were innately inferior to white men, so in much of Islam it takes the testimony of two women to equal the testimony of one man.

A woman given a "fair" trial for infidelity may be stoned to death - easier than divorce and the court may take men's word for it. In 1995 an 18-year-old Iranian girl was blinded, on a court's orders, for marrying without her father's consent. And a tragic passage in this book tells how a father murmured "Quiet, little one. Die, my daughter, die" as - to save his honour - he knifed his child to death for merely walking home from school with a male classmate. Such barbarities are sanctioned by the state in the name of God.

Yet Mai Yamani's academics and lawyers demonstrate in their essays how laws supposedly taken from the Koran do not stem from the Prophet's actual words, still less from the wise interpretation of those words - which Mohammed himself enjoined as a sacred duty. And they show how "religious" codes can have secular origins. Some, such as those concerning wife murder, derive from French colonial rule in Egypt; others, from the needs of authoritarian regimes.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this book is that it not only describes Islam but also embodies it. The authors run the gamut from almost fundamentalist to the most emancipated. Yet even free-thinking, well-argued chapters often, unwittingly, show how a mind-set developed beneath the veil can linger. Some arguments display the tunnel vision of the Moroccan women who cover all but one eye, giving obsessive attention to one sentence in the Koran, while ignoring more apposite quotes.

Just as Arab houses turn their backs to the world, with windows facing inwards, so too these writers look only towards Islam. What they do not say is as revealing as what they do say. They rarely cite common sense or compare Islam with the West. They fail to say that, in the Prophet's time, rival factions carried off the prettiest girls the world over, so it made sense for women to cover up - then. But not for the rest of time. They say that Middle Eastern Islamic councils claim women lack men's "gift for decision-making". They do not say that this implies that all Arab women are inferior to high-powered Western women - a point which might pique the pride of Arab men.

With men's and women's testimony unequal in court, getting a rapist tried or protecting children against sexual abuse by male relatives can be impossible. Yet these injustices are so taken for granted they go unmentioned.

Dr Yamani, the first Saudi woman to hold an Oxford doctorate, has compiled a book which, although it has patches of academic dryness, puts its finger on a self-inflicted wound at the heart of the Arab world. She reveals women working for justice within nations locked into attitudes to manhood, womanhood, justice and statehood more suited to the seventh century than the 20th; societies which, through supposed obedience to the Koran, are trapped in a medieval time warp in which male honour, and a family's or a nation's devoutness, may rest inappropriately on women's behaviour. This book does not ask how Islam can become Westernised. It urges Islam to find a 20th-century identity true to the intentions of a Prophet who enjoined the full use of individual intelligence and of God's gifts.