SOAS University of London

Centre of Islamic and Middle Eastern Law

Feminism and Islam: FT Review

Bound by faith and statute
Originally published: Saturday July 20 1996

Feminism and Islam: Legal and literary perspectives, edited by Mai Yamani, Ithaca Press, £30, 352 pages

By Nicholas Kochin

Islamic women are angry with their lot and they have good reason. The film Death of a Princess showed the west the mere tip of a deep and twisted iceberg; the treatment of Filipino maids adds insult to injury.

Cruelty towards women with state and religious sanction is a frightening and persistent phenomenon in Islamic countries. That is the majority view expressed in this collection of essays by mostly Moslem female writers. They make powerful reading.

A single question imbues the argument: why does a religion with much humanitarian and spiritual scripture treat its female believers so badly? The answer, put at its simplest, is that women, in Koranic eyes, are viewed as emotional, un-stable, and unfit for the most demanding jobs and roles.

Stuck with this stigma, women suffer a multitude of indignities. A woman's evidence to a court is second-class and invalid, unless another woman (or man) corroborates it. A man's evidence needs no such corroboration.

Women are also largely barred from becoming judges, as an Iranian Majlis representative Razavi Ardakani explains. "Women are tender- hearted, their emotions rule over their intellect. In critical cases they are likely to be swayed by the accused or the defence lawyer and, God forbid, their tender nature would lead them to the wrong judgment. Law is a critical issue. Therefore the penetration of women in this domain, albeit step by step, is dangerous." However, Ardakani is content to allow women to be doctors and gynaecologists.

In religious societies where women are treated as chattels and empty vessels, they are, not surprisingly, hugely under-represented in offices of state and the professions.

In a powerful piece on the place of women in Lebanon, Jean Said Makdisi summons a wealth of statistics to show that Lebanon's claim to be free and open, is over-stated. Although women constitute 37 per cent of the workforce, only 14 per cent are doctors, 17 per cent dentists and 19 per cent lawyers.

Women play a very small part in Lebanese politics or public administration. In some of the more fundamentalist Arab countries, the numbers of professional women would be much less.

The book's editor, Mai Yamani, reports that in Saudi Arabia, women are barred from studying geology, petroleum engineering and law, so bolstering male hegemony in the kingdom's most powerful and lucrative business areas.

Ironically, the horror of the Lebanese war gave some women a break and a chance to take more social responsibility. But the freedom was shortlived.

The collapse of state and religious structures made it harder for the clerics and government officials to impose their misogynistic will, and the despatch of men to the battlefield and away from the home left a gap which women filled. But when the war ended, the state and the clerics reclaimed their authority.

The requirement for sexual purity is the Moslem woman's biggest burden.

Women must be virgins at the time of marriage, of course, and the marriage can be annulled if they are found to be otherwise. But if they are discovered being unfaithful all hell breaks lose. Law in some Islamic countries allows a man to injure a close female relative with impunity if he catches her in the act of adultery. If he kills her, he is entitled to a remission of penalty.

This provision is enshrined in the Jordanian Penal Code, Article 340: "He who catches his wife, or one of his female unlawfuls, committing adultery with another, and he kills, wounds, or injures one or both of them, is exempt from any penalty. He who catches his wife, or one of his female ascendants or descendants or sisters with another in an unlawful bed and he kills or wounds or injures one or both of them, benefits from a reduction of penalty."

The authors take various stabs at suggesting ways to improve the Islamic women's plight. Some suggest a fullblown assault on the rules and practices of Islam; others call on women to form a politicised feminist movement.

Munira Fakhro in her piece "Gulf Women and Islamic Law" argues for a blending of the political and personal. She calls on all Moslem countries to seek to combine modernity with the essence of Islamic teachings.

The brave women who write here are battling with engrained, though brittle religious and political systems. Some of the women are also battling with the English language, and heavier editing would have been in order. But conviction and research usually compensate for lack of linguistic clarity.

This book indicates that Islamic women have gone a long way towards winning the intellectual high ground; they now have a harder task of winning converts to their case in the Mosque and the Majlis.