Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Let's See If It Works

By "it" I mean the classification of feminist definitions I suggested in the two-part series of "Take A Deep Breath" (Inhale and Exhale). What I'm going to apply it to is the topic of a post on feministe: a New York Times Magazine article which discusses the reasons why many Muslims want to adopt the Shariah law, either in the West for their own group only or as the major law system of an Islamic country (assuming that it's not yet the law of the land).

Now, Shariah is a legal system developed in the Middle Ages and not much changed since then. It does not treat men and women identically, and advocating such a system would not be something a feminist using the dictionary definition of feminism would use. But what about a feminist who is concerned about the happiness of women in general or the happiness of a particular group of women in particular?

Here are two quotes which would provide the foothold for arguing that Shariah might be a very good thing for some women. First, from the NYT article:

Shariah is best understood as a kind of higher law, albeit one that includes some specific, worldly commands. All Muslims would agree, for example, that it prohibits lending money at interest — though not investments in which risks and returns are shared; and the ban on Muslims drinking alcohol is an example of an unequivocal ritual prohibition, even for liberal interpreters of the faith. Some rules associated with Shariah are undoubtedly old-fashioned and harsh. Men and women are treated unequally, for example, by making it hard for women to initiate divorce without forfeiting alimony. The prohibition on sodomy, though historically often unenforced, makes recognition of same-sex relationships difficult to contemplate. But Shariah also prohibits bribery or special favors in court. It demands equal treatment for rich and poor. It condemns the vigilante-style honor killings that still occur in some Middle Eastern countries. And it protects everyone's property — including women's — from being taken from them.

Note something interesting: The good things for women are good in comparison to something undefined, not in comparison to how the law treats men. Shariah may well demand equal treatment for rich and poor men, or for rich and poor women, but not for men and women, and it may protect women's property from outright theft but it does not let daughters inherit as much as sons inherit.

The second quote is from Ann's guest post on feministe:

I first became interested in learning about Shariah courts while attending a law reform conference that included lawyers from Zanzibar (an island off the coast of Tanganyika – when the two former colonies were united they were re-named the Republic of Tanzania). While the mainland is heavily Christian, Zanzibar is over 90% Muslim. While discussing gender law with two lawyers from Zanzibar I learned that the island has Shariah courts that rule over family law issues, including divorce. According to these lawyers, Shariah courts gave women more power because a woman could initiate divorce without her husband's consent.

Being able to initiate divorce without the husband's consent is a good thing, true. But my understanding is that Shariah allows men to initiate divorce without their wife's consent, and they don't have to go to court at all to do it. When Shariah courts "gave women more power", what was the starting point like? And how much less power do women still have than men?

I am certain that women have derived not only discriminatory treatment but also legal rights and protections from the application of the Shariah law, and that such legal protection and rights could be improved upon. Is this all enough for a feminist to support the introduction of the Shariah law if Muslim women themselves wish it?

It's a very difficult question. A feminist using the first definition of feminism (as wanting equal rights and opportunities for men and women) would certainly say that it is not enough. A feminist of the second type, one who wants to "put women first" and to improve the position of women in some country where the alternatives are even more unfair to women might argue that the small improvements suffice. But would a feminist of the latter type advocate the adoption of the Shariah rules among Muslim minorities in the West?

I would not, but then I use the dictionary definition. I wouldn't advocate religious laws of any kind, actually, because they are based on patriarchal traditions, rarely give women equal rights and are usually written in such a manner that the most misogynistic interpretation is the most obvious one.