At a press conference on Tuesday in Kabul, a Taliban spokesman promised that women in the new “Islamic Emirate” would not be discriminated against, and would be given rights within the framework of sharia. That last word is triggering for Muslim women worldwide, but particularly in Afghanistan, where the liberties they’ve enjoyed over the past two decades will likely be revoked by the extremist group’s rigid and restrictive readings of sharia. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
“Sharia” is one of those elusive terms that many think connotes some sort of Islamic law set in stone. However, most Muslims cannot confidently define or describe it. I remember first hearing the word as an American teen during the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, when images of burka-clad women and armed terrorists dominated the mainstream media, inciting support for the eventual invasion of Afghanistan. I couldn’t reconcile these images with the Islam I was raised with, and was also oblivious to what sharia actually entailed. Questions about my faith and its compatibility with feminism led me to pursue my master’s degree in Islamic Law at the University of SOAS in London, and almost a decade later, I’m still unlearning patriarchal views on women’s roles and rights in Islam.
Upon studying fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence, I learned that sharia, which means “path”, in fact refers to human interpretation of divine sources. It is not in itself divine or immutable, but rather is continuously open to revision, according to numerous religious scholars. It is also not mutually exclusive with women’s rights – how could it be, when Islam is a faith that granted women unprecedented rights historically, such as consent before marriage, the ability to divorce, financial independence and property inheritance?
Historically, however, many ruling regimes and religious groups in the Muslim world have manipulated sharia to serve extremist, patriarchal agendas. In Iran, versions of sharia implemented after the 1979 Islamic Revolution lowered the marriageable age of girls from 18 to 13, barred them from many universities and enforced hijabs. Shortly afterwards in Pakistan, the nation’s new sharia-inspired penal code required victims of rape to present four male witnesses or risk being convicted of adultery themselves.
Such rulings are in complete contradiction with the egalitarian vision that the Prophet Muhammad first set in motion. Many believe that when he introduced regulations to the first Muslim community in 7th Century Arabia, they were for that particular socio-historical context – neither normative nor forever binding – and that the reforms enhancing the positions of women during the time of revelation were intended to continue on a course of progressive improvement. But by the 10th Century, orthodox Islamic jurisprudence became fossilized, with future fundamentalist Muslims perceiving centuries-old sharia to be forever authoritative.
Sharia is clearly a very complex and misconstrued term, with various meanings for various Muslims. It all comes down to how you view the sources of Islamic law – as eternally-binding commandments, or as rulings for a specific point in time, from which we can extract guidelines and principles. Much of Muslim resistance to reform stems from the misconception that sharia is inherently sacred. But “sharia can evolve with Islamic societies to address their needs today,” claims LA-headquartered Muslims for Progressive Values, which denounces sharia as a legal system or creation of God.
Turkish author Mustafa Akyol, in Islam Without Extremes, explains that replicating the political experience of earlier Muslims by selecting one, authoritative version of sharia is a futile mistake. He echoes the views of Sudanese scholar Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, who argues that the best state for Muslims is a secular one – only then can one be “Muslim by conviction and free choice.”
Arbitrary and absolutist interpretations of sharia not only strip Muslims of the freedom to interpret their faith pluralistically, but also severely impact the lives of women. So, we should by no means feel placated by the Taliban’s promise that women will have rights within the sharia, since their regressive version has proven in the past to constitute underage marriages, confinement to homes and exclusion from education.
“Women are the centerpiece of the agenda of political Islamists,” writes Egyptian-American scholar Leila Ahmed in her book Women and Gender in Islam. She argues that the faith’s message is “stubbornly egalitarian,” and that a “profound gulf” separates it from “establishment” Islam. Educators like Ahmed strive to reverse sexist policies by prioritizing the ethical principles of Islam over the time-worn technicalities of stagnant sharia.
Musawah, a movement for justice and equality in the Muslim family, has worked to redefine outdated sexist legal norms to respond to the changing reality of Muslim women’s lives. One of its founding members, legal anthropologist Ziba Mir-Hosseini, has written that the term sharia is not ever mentioned in the Quran in the sense of a system of law. Yet, Ahmed cites a survey in her book wherein the majority of female university students in Egypt agreed that “sharia law should become the law of the land”. She doubts that these women had any idea about the injustices and brutalities towards woman that are espoused by political sharia, but notes that they still felt compelled to follow a legal system stamped with the label of sharia anyway.
If sharia is too sentimental to dismantle or part with altogether, what could a best-case scenario of sharia look like for women? To start with, enough religious scholars with enough influence would need to revisit the foundations of Islamic gender ethics. Sharia as we know it was formed from certain social understandings of gender that have since evolved, along with women’s roles in society. Reformists argue that these primordial precepts of sharia, which reflected a hierarchical system with male guardianship over women, cannot be transposed to modern-day circumstances.
Many activists and scholars have already embarked on this journey, such as Moroccan feminist Asma Lamrabet, who advocates for interpreting the Quran in light of equal universal rights that have become the standards of our time, just as earlier centuries’ scholars interpreted the text from their own socio-historical perspectives. Cape Town’s Sa’diyya Sheikh believes that the remedy could lie in Sufism, Islam’s mystical branch, where men’s claims to authority over women could be seen as a challenge to God’s sole superiority. It’s an approach echoed by African American feminist and theologist Amina Wadud, who has written that perpetrators of oppression and misogyny are an affront to the “One-ness” of God that is central to Islamic belief.
The Islam that these scholars preach protects and empowers women, and is a far cry from the teachings perpetrated by the Taliban’s sharia – sexist dogma that refutes the very essence of the religion. Looking forward, if we want to bridge the gap between the spirit and practice of Islam, we need to seek out and center these voices that advocate reform from a framework of faith – one that doesn’t discriminate on the basis of gender. To quote an essay by Wadud, “No matter how long patriarchy has been the bulwark of human communities, it is unsustainable, untenable and un-Islamic.”
Hafsa Lodi is a journalist and author of ‘Modesty: A Fashion Paradox’
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