Diversity Series Panel Examines Gender and Islam

November 14, 2002
Visiting researcher Jefferson Gray, above, said women may be making gains in Islamic countries, and Yale research affiliate Felizitas Opwis, below, said Islamic laws have evolved in the 20th century.


Contrary to images in the media, women in Islamic states defy easy definition: In the last two decades in Iran, women have gone from bearing an average of seven children to less than three — equivalent to present U.S. birthrates — due to a state-sponsored campaign for family planning and education. In Turkey, women with veils are shunned despite protests from Islamic women that "they should be allowed to cover themselves as they see fit." Extremist Islamic social movements, including some women, are providing the strongest voice against female genital mutilation (FGM) in Yemen and Egypt, saying the practice has no basis in the Quran. Noting these facts, U.Va. Middle East Studies Program visiting researcher Jefferson Gray said when it comes to the Islamic world and gender, Americans should push preconceptions aside and expect the unexpected.

Gray and other participants in the Nov. 12 panel, "Gender and Islamic Jurisprudence, Culture, & Politics," explored the issues surrounding gender and Islam and emphasized that the more extremist laws of some Islamic nations are often the results of sociopolitical forces and variable interpretations of the Quran rather than the religion itself. Part of the Diversity Series, the panel was moderated by law professor Anne Coughlin and sponsored by the SBA Diversity Committee, Women of Color, and the J.B. Moore Society of International Law.

Panelist Felizitas Opwis, a research affiliate of the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department of Yale University, began the program with an outline of traditional Islamic laws drawn from the Quran that govern the status of women, and the laws' subsequent evolution in the 20th century. She said about 300 to 600 verses in the Quran deal with the law, and the majority of those concern personal status and inheritance law.

"Much of what is known as Islamic law is the result of legal interpretation," she said. "As a religious law, legal issues may become a matter of faith."

Although women and men are frequently mentioned as being on equal footing in the Quran, several verses also emphasize their differences: for example, women are admonished to be obedient, and the testimony of two women equals one man's. At the time, Opwis said, it was a descriptive interpretation; because women at the time lacked economic independence and an education, men were considered superior. Today, many Muslims "feel as though those verses do not apply anymore."

The verses concerning dress say that women should be modest and cover their private parts. In Muhammad's time, most women did not wear veils. Instead they were a sign of high-ranking, free women who needed to conceal themselves from the "glances of ordinary mortals." She said some patriarchal societies in Islamic nations have made more conservative interpretations of the verse since then, hence the custom of the veil worn in varying styles in many Islamic societies today.

Verses concerning traditional marriage laws in the Quran also seem to offer some wiggle room for women, although some have chosen to ignore parts of verses. For example, the Quran says the husband can have up to four wives, but he has to treat them equitably, and that "he will never be able to do so." Opwis said the caveat is virtually ignored in societies that still allow polygamy.

The Quran also sets requirements for marriage such as dowers to the bride and deferred dowers (upon divorce), what is expected of the husband (provide for the wife and give sexual fulfillment) and the wife (be sexually available, obedient, and respectful). Men can initiate the divorce simply by stating they want a divorce, or talaq; the couple waits three menstrual cycles to see if she's pregnant, and within the first month of the waiting period the husband can revoke the divorce. He can divorce her immediately if he says the divorce formula three times. Once divorced, they cannot remarry unless she marries someone else in between the marriages. At the end of the three months, the wife receives the deferred dower.

Opwis said Islamic law evolved in the 20th century, the most notable change being the codification of laws. While codification makes laws more rigid, the law is no longer "dependent on the good will of a judge." Several countries improved on traditional Islamic law by establishing the bride's minimum marriageable age — which before was limited only to older than 9 — at 15 (Jordan) or 16 (Pakistan and Egypt). Also, the registration of marriages and divorces is now required, and divorces are not fully enforceable unless they are registered. In most Islamic countries today, consent of both spouses is required for marriage, whereas the previously accepted laws let parents force minors or virgins to marry.

"Much of traditional Islamic family law has been intact, but there have been important changes," Opwis said.

Other changes to family laws have been enacted by individual countries. In Libya a wife is expected to support the family if she is wealthy and the husband cannot do so. In Tunisia both spouses are obligated to support the family. Tunisia also outlaws polygamy, and Iraq restricts it—the husband has to demonstrate he can afford another wife and "prove that the additional marriage is of some lawful benefit." In Tunisia a couple must mutually consent to a divorce, and women can now request divorce in some countries for non-maintenance, impotence, or infertility. In Morocco, if a husband harms his wife, she can ask for a divorce.

"Usually women do not take advantage of the right to divorce laws" because they are unaware of the laws or because "economic insecurity may prevent women from seeking divorce," she said. Some laws may seem geared towards richer Islamic women, but "many laws start that way," Opwis said.

Shirin Ali, a U.Va. medical student, grew up Muslim in America.

While most Muslim women live in Islamic nations, many also live in countries where the majority is non-Muslim. U.Va. medical student Shirin Ali was born and raised in the United States, affected by American culture, and said she follows a more humanistic version of Islam that, she joked, online religion quizzes say falls somewhere between Quakerism and Universal Unitarianism.

"It's really hard to pull apart cultural and religious influences," Ali said.

Unlike the standard media images of Muslim relationships, her mom and dad are on equal footing, she pointed out. After they moved to the D.C. area in 1968 from India, her mother went back to school while her father took care of the children on the weekends. Her mother is more devout and involved in the local mosque, while her father "takes a more metaphorical approach to religion."

"I find a great deal of strength from my religion," she said. "I think it keeps me alive, it keeps me engaged."

In practical terms, Ali said it can be difficult finding a place to pray five times a day at the medical school. Her roommate is currently supporting her fast for Ramadan by fasting herself. Another medical student friend of hers who wears a veil covering her head and long sleeves had trouble one day figuring out how to wear scrubs to substitute for her more traditional garb. She ended up wearing a long-sleeved shirt under the scrubs and another covering for her head. Ali speculated that it may be hard for some Muslim female doctors to work with men or deal with male patients because of their upbringing.

She alleged that the Taliban's take on Islam was a poor interpretation of the Quran, and one influenced more by political issues than religious, but added that she struggles with some aspects of her religion, too.

"I believe Islam gave women many more rights than they have," Ali said. "It's very difficult to figure out on a personal and political level what is really right."

Ali said it is not necessarily appropriate to apply American ideals of feminism to Islamic women. She said some women, for example, wear veils to avoid being seen as sexual objects. Women in Islamic culture are expected to be obedient and be good daughters, encouraging women to worry about the expectations of others. Some of her female friends' parents are scared to let them go to college because they may be exposed to other ideas. But many women in her religious community have also encouraged her pursuit of being a doctor.

"One of the most difficult things for me is getting boxed in in any way" by conceptions of Islamic women, she said. "I think it's generally a pretty unfair assessment unless you really know what's going on."

Gray echoed Ali's sentiments and said the phrase "Islamic feminist" is not a contradiction in terms, as recent actions by women in Islamic nations has shown. He noted that Islamic men also live under certain expectations. In Afghanistan men in the time of Habibullah Khan were expected to rent a suit when going to the Ministry to do business. In one Islamic community in the Sahara, the Tuareg, the men, not women, wear veils, and the men are illiterate. He added that half of the hostage-takers in Moscow were women.

"Our primary concern for women anywhere is that women can do what they want to do," he said, and the picture in Islamic cultures is more complicated than Americans might initially anticipate.

In his research, Gray looked at Yemen, Turkey, and Iran—nations in which the state has an overwhelming influence and power over citizens' lives.

In the late 1960s, north and south Yemen were on different paths, Gray said. The north was tribal and followed Islamic law, and the south, known then as the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, favored state sanctions. In the north, polygamy was the norm, but in the south it was criminalized. Women had more rights in the south, including the right to work and have professional careers. In the north, if a woman shamed her family it was acceptable to murder her in an "honor crime," but in the south, they would shoot all the adult males in a family that murdered a woman for such a reason.

After 1990 the two cultures were unified in a "funny mish-mash" democracy of southern legal code and northern tribal law, Gray said. The unity government ended in 1994 when religious elements employed by the north suppressed the south, and as a result the more liberal rules were slowly scaled back. At one point during the unity government, 15 was the minimum age for women to marry—a rule abolished by the new government. Laws prohibiting FGM were also eliminated. Polygamy became the law of the land, and in some cases the laws grew more extreme—the husband no longer had to tell his first wife he was taking another wife and no longer had to provide separate residences for each wife.

"The irony of the situation is that now the two bright spots are from very unanticipated places," Gray said, citing women in the Islamic Party's attempts to end FGM because it has no basis in Quran law.

In contrast to Yemen, the modern republic of Turkey's founder, M. Kemal Ataturk, greatly modernized the entire country and even gave women the right to vote before France did. But women in Turkey who benefited from the new system are very highly educated, Gray said, and come from families rich enough not to need the law on their side. Turkey's fixation on modernization also has had negative side effects: Muslim women often have their veils ripped from their faces.

"The Turkish state is absolutely obsessed that anything that looks traditional not be applied to women in the public sphere," he said.

While far more adherent to Islamic traditions than Turkey, Iran has recently pushed family planning and education, which has helped slow the population growth rate to 1.2 percent from a high of 3.2 percent in 1986. In doing so, Iran has given women more rights, Gray said. The family planning movement began under Iran's former leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, who had encouraged population growth during the Iran-Iraq war, but saw that the growth was becoming an obstacle to development by the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In Iran, contraceptives (including oral and prophylactic) are free, and women don't need men's permission to use them. Sterilization is promoted to both men and women, although women make up four-fifths of those sterilized. Iran also allows abortion in certain circumstances, usually involving the woman's health. Although the decision is subject to a doctor or closed court approval, husbands are not required to be informed.

The state discourages women from having children before 18 or after 35 and encourages having no more than three children by restricting benefits—including maternity leave for six months to a year, better than the U.S. standard—after the third child. These benefits are available to a broad swath of society, including four-fifths of women in rural areas. Gray said over 80 percent of family planning costs are borne by the state.

"Iran has the only state-sponsored condom factory in the Middle East," he added.

Dating and even hand-holding in public are outlawed in Iran and enforced by police, but the state also allows for "temporary marriages," or sigheh, practiced by Shiite Muslims in Iran. The temporary marriages are a contract that lasts from one day to one year, at the end of which the couple can renew the contract, get married permanently, or walk away from the relationship. Non-virgin women can marry in such a fashion without their parents' permission.

There has been some debate in Iran about whether the sigheh practice promotes prostitution or prevents it, Gray added. Iran has a serious heroin problem, and some women may go into a temporary marriage that has monetary benefits to support their habit. He said the problem can't be quantified because the country doesn't release such data.

At one point the Interior Ministry was thinking of developing love hotels to ensure that those in temporary marriages were educated about contraception. The hotels were opposed by women because they required them to wait two months between temporary marriages — a constraint not placed on men — and the idea was dropped. Gray said the Islamic women's ability to defeat the proposal show they are now effectively wielding political power.

Gray said Americans too often regard Islamic countries as backward, but his research on Iran and other countries has convinced him that view is wrong.

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