Muslim women are not silent

Afghanistan’s new law – one that essentially legalizes marital rape – is just one of a series of recent developments that undermines the rights of millions of women. In early April, a video turned up on the Internet of a 17-year old girl being mercilessly beaten in public by the Taliban in the Swat valley of the Northwest Frontier Province in Pakistan. But in response, politics comes first, and women second.
As an American Muslim woman, I was appalled to learn that Afghan President Hamid Karzai recently signed a “family law” bill that essentially legalizes rape within marriage and bans wives from stepping outside their homes without their husbands’ permission. It also forces women to get their husband’s permission before looking for a job, going to the doctor, or receiving education, and grants custody of children to fathers and grandfathers only.

It is likely that President Karzai quickly signed the bill into law in order to garner support in the upcoming presidential elections. However, he is fundamentally denying equal protection under the law to women, a direct contradiction of the teachings of the Quran. Specifically, the Quran says, “O you who have attained to faith! It is not lawful for you to [try to] become heirs to your wives [by holding onto them] against their will” (4:19).

Unfortunately, this law demonstrates how easily women are controlled, and their rights curtailed for political purposes. While politicians play politics with Islamic law, women continue to pay the price.

In fact, Afghanistan’s new law is just one of a series of recent developments that undermines the rights of millions of women. In early April, a video turned up on the Internet of a 17-year old girl being mercilessly beaten in public by the Taliban in the Swat valley of the Northwest Frontier Province in Pakistan.

In response to the Taliban beating, President Asif Ali Zardari strongly condemned the beating, and ordered an investigation on the matter. His protests ring hollow, however, because it was President Zardari who overlooked the predictably dire consequences that women would face when he recently signed a peace deal that allowed the Taliban in Swat to enforce penalties and sentences under the auspices of “sharia law.” Yet again, politics comes first, and women second.

That said, having been raised in a household of strong Muslim women, I can attest to the fact that the practice of forcing obedience onto women is a cultural, patriarchal and un-Islamic practice. It wont take me long to search within the American Muslim community to find strong women who are activists and professionals that are contributing in every way to the American fabric. It should also come as no surprise that the Afghan parliamentarians speaking out against this law, at risk to their own lives, are women. From women’s rights advocate Sima Samar in Afghanistan, to Asma Jahangir in Pakistan, the leading NGO’s in South and Central Asia are run by strong Muslim women.

Moreover, such biased “interpretations” run counter to the basic premises of Islamic jurisprudence. Indeed, as noted by American Muslim scholar Dr. Maher Hathout in his book In Pursuit of Justice: The Jurisprudence of Human Rights in Islam: “The fact that this misogynistic juristic tradition… has arisen is noteworthy, since it runs counter to the Qur’anic message of equality of the sexes with regard to marriage.”

The United States must not allow President Karzai to forget that the constitution and various international treaties signed by Afghanistan guarantee equal rights for women. Allowing militants to hijack the judicial system to serve their own ends will inevitably trigger horrendous consequences for the women and children of the Muslim world.

We Americans have a long tradition of supporting human rights. But more importantly, as American Muslims, we have a greater burden to speak out against any laws that mask the justice within Islamic jurisprudence with cultural and gender biases. As the women in Afghanistan may be silenced, American Muslims must do all we can to speak on their behalf.

(Photo: francisshanahan via flickr under a Creative Commons license)
Safiya Ghori-Ahmad is the Director of Government Relations with the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Washington, DC. She can be reached at safiya@mpac.org.

Leave a Reply