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With this framework for action, Musawah empowers women to shape the interpretations, norms and laws that affect their lives, then push for legal reform in their respective countries. Their work relies on two main tools: progressive interpretations of the Koran and international human rights standards. For years, she has gone into rural towns to show women that Islam supports gender equality.

Ziba Mir-Hosseini

Over the past twenty-five years, Sisters in Islam has seen a change in the culture, as more women speak up against their oppression by appealing to Islamic law. When their husbands beat them, have affairs or neglect to provide for them, they assert their agency by arguing that this behavior goes against Islam.

They say their husbands are much more likely to respond to religious appeals than if they simply point out that their actions are hurtful. Musawah is undertaking an extensive knowledge-building project on the issue of male authority over women in an effort to fight for family-law reforms. In many Muslim countries, Koranic interpretation affects how laws are written and implemented.

Sharia, a legal system based on Islamic scholarship and jurisprudence, is a source of legislation in many Islamic states.


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In Malaysia, for instance, the Sharia court has jurisdiction over Muslim citizens in family-law matters. In June of this year, it found thirty-nine Malaysians guilty of sexual crimes, punishable by public caning.

In , the Moroccan Parliament passed a bill that defines marriage as an equal partnership between spouses, with equal responsibility for the family. It gave women the right to divorce and also protected them from talaq , an Islamic practice that gives husbands the right to dissolve a marriage at will. This reform sent ripples throughout the Muslim world, and Musawah holds it up as an example of the kind of change that is possible through an engagement with Islamic jurisprudence.

Musawah works with women from around the Islamic world for similar reform in their respective countries. Why has it taken so long for a movement like Musawah to come into being?

The Rise of the Islamic Feminists

The answer to these questions has to do with the intertwined histories of feminism and the Islamic state. When feminism first emerged in Europe and America, much of the Islamic world was still under colonial occupation, and Muslim women associated this new ideology with regimes that had oppressed their people.

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Zainah Anwar – Seeking Equality for Women in Islam

Over the twentieth century, as Muslim countries gained independence, the rise of political Islam only exacerbated the tension between Islam and feminism. Meanwhile, with CEDAW, feminists found the tools they needed to improve the lives of women through political legislation in secular states. Without the option of being both Muslim and feminist, some chose to abandon their faith altogether. They took an anti-religious attitude, and they saw religion as the main source of oppression—and especially Islam. Zainah Anwar founded Sisters in Islam because she saw that a human rights framework would not have meaning to the average Muslim woman.

Islam, on the other hand, is a source of values and principles. We needed to engage with religion and provide answers to these questions in ways that were relevant to their lives. Although Islam is the state religion, Malaysia remains a pluralistic democracy, which has made it easier for women to challenge Koranic teachings and Islamic jurisprudence.

Malaysia also has a robust middle class, with women who are active in the workforce. In many other Muslim countries, few women work outside the home, thereby limiting their independence and awareness of political issues. In developing countries like Yemen, there are few opportunities for women within the economy, while in oil-rich countries like Qatar and Kuwait, women do not need to work.

In both extremes, women do not have as much motivation to organize. Sisters in Islam showed activists in other Muslim countries the value of integrating Islamic and human rights frameworks.

About Gender and Equality in Muslim Family Law

However, there has also been resistance from secular feminists who say that pursuing justice within Islam is a losing battle because the process of interpreting Islamic sources is inherently subjective. They warn that building a movement on such shaky ground is unwise. These arguments signal the kinds of battles that lie ahead for Musawah. More than 20 countries, including neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh, have banned the practice. Indian Muslim groups have said instant divorce is wrong, but believe the practice should be reviewed by community leaders rather than the government.

The opposition had blocked the bill for more than a year, as the ruling party lacked majority support in the upper house.

Muslim Family Laws: What Makes Reform Possible? (English)

A split in the opposition ranks helped the government cross the line. Ghulam Nabi Azad, a Congress party leader, said the opposition parties were opposed to a clause providing a three-year jail term for a husband who divorced his wife in such a way, arguing that no other religion has such a punishment.

The opposition also said the bill had no clarity on spousal support if men were jailed for instant divorce. Both houses of parliament rejected the opposition stand and also refused to refer the bill to a parliamentary committee to consider those provisions. Critics say divorce and polygamy are not the main issues facing India's Muslims, the majority of whom are close to the bottom of economic and educational indicators in the country.

Toggle navigation. India criminalises Muslim practice of instant divorce Upper house of parliament approves legislation that makes the utterance of instant 'triple talaq' a punishable offence. Asia India Women Islam Religion. Have your say.