Four or five years ago, the term Sharia, which for Muslims denotes Islamic law, meant scant little to Americans. As I write this in the fall of 2010, America’s perceptions of Islam and Muslims have changed markedly. A few months from now, when Oklahoma voters march to the polls, they will face “question 755” on their ballots. Born out of the “Save Our State” constitutional amendment passed by the Oklahoma legislature earlier this year, question 755 will implore voters to forbid courts from using international law or Sharia law in their decisions.
In state legislatures in Tennessee and Louisiana, similar bills await consideration. And in New York, Tennessee, Florida, and California, Americans are fiercely protesting the construction of mosques. These local cataclysms have been fueled by a steady stream of Taliban executions and floggings, all carried out under the supposed imprimatur of Sharia. It is in this landscape, constructed of faraway images of women whose burqas flap about in the dust, as well as of avenging state senators in the American heartland, that I am often asked about the possibility of Islamic feminism.
I grew up in the eighties in a Pakistan that had just escaped the shackles of military rule. My own dawning political awareness came at the euphoric time when Pakistan was about to elect its first female prime minister. It had been a grisly decade, one in which Pakistan’s own militarized version of Sharia law had played a defining role. In the late-seventies, in an effort to legitimize his dictatorship, General Muhammad Zia ul-Haque, who had grabbed power in a military coup, initiated an “Islamization” program. With the goal of producing a pure society by criminalizing all temptation, Islamization produced laws whose draconian and misogynistic character was conveniently packaged in Islamic-sounding terms and references. In real life, this meant that men and women could be asked to produce their marriage documents by any police officer. Women on television covered their hair and were never shown having any physical contact with men, leaving children like me to digest British sitcoms so censored that they often lasted only ten minutes.
It is not that preoccupations with Islamic law took up much of my attention in those early years of my life, or that I worried about the fact that legally I counted as only half a witness while my twin brother, with whom I competed and fought daily, counted as a whole. Yet these precepts, because of their existence and their ubiquity, were an invisible yet determinative theme in my life. They dictated, for example, the manner in which our home was arranged, such that an entering unrelated male could be led directly to a reception room in the front of the house, never encountering any women. In later years, it would decide who I was allowed to visit and when, which schools I would be sent to, and myriad other details of my own life and the lives of the women in our family.
My aunt Amina was married before I was born so she didn’t live with us, though she was a frequent visitor. Her visits were a cause of much excitement for us kids, whose ordered lives of school and homework did not allow for many novel experiences. The highlight was the fact that in the early years of their marriage, her husband, Uncle Sohail, rode a motorcycle. This vehicle provided hours of entertainment and speculation. If adults were around, we were sometimes allowed to sit and pose on it, a delight for my brother especially. Once, and only once, I remember my brother and I being given a ride around the block on it. Oh, the exhilaration of the achingly familiar landscape of our block transformed into a whizzing blur of shapes. Other times, Aunt Amina would come alone to spend an afternoon with us, often bearing special treats that she had made for us during the week.
The adult worlds of my aunts and grandparents were separated from us not simply by the boundaries of age, but also of language. My paternal grandparents, migrants from India, spoke a North Indian dialect that I was never formally taught. A quick turn into this language could insulate adult discussions from being overheard by children or servants in a world with little privacy from either. Of course, not being taught does not mean not learning, and at the age of six I could decipher just enough, quickly translating the words falling from my grandmother’s mouth as I played with a doll or stared at a jigsaw puzzle. When conversation slipped into this dialect I became immediately alert that some juicy bit of news was about to be divulged. It is through these shreds that I pieced together my Aunt Amina’s struggles with her in-laws and her husband. After seven years of marriage, she had failed to bear children, and her infertility was the source of unending troubles for her. Subject to constant taunts, she was often treated like a maid, given the crudest of tasks as a reminder of her status as a barren woman. Weddings were particular trials, as she was often excluded from celebrations. In one horrific instance, her oldest sister-in-law would not let her greet and kiss a new sister-in-law, saying loudly to all present that the touch of a barren woman was inauspicious.
Uncle Sohail hadn’t died, but perhaps it would have been better if he had. Instead, he had chosen to take a second wife.
Through the fog of memory it is difficult to know when and where cultural perceptions transmit themselves to children, but I remember often feeling terribly sorry for my aunt. My brother and I, always looking for new playmates who in our imaginations would have piles of new toys to share with us, imagined a childless house to be a singularly boring place. No playmates meant no toys. Aunt Amina proved us wrong every time with a collection of toys she kept just for us. Her little house, fascinating to us because it represented a miniature version of the large dwelling we inhabited ourselves, was decorated everywhere with pictures of children. Babies from all over the world, cut out from calendars and magazines, adorned the walls of the kitchen, living room, stuck between cabinets and even under the glass of the dining table. Shining happy talismans of hope, they formed the silent chorus of encouragement that my Aunt clung to.
It was just another pleasant winter morning when I woke to find Aunt Amina sitting at our breakfast table. Her presence was ominous since she had never, in my ten years, spent a night in her father’s house, always returning to sleep in her husband’s home as tradition and culture demanded. Her hair, always neat in a thick dark braid, was unkempt, her wheat-colored skin, usually flawless, was covered with blotchy tear stains. She managed a wan smile as I, already in my school uniform, looked at her with the mixed curiosity and apprehension of a child who does not yet know how to react to distraught adults. I was given little information that morning, even though I did manage to inquire on my way to school whether Uncle Sohail had died.
I can imagine what my mother must have thought of that question. Uncle Sohail hadn’t died, but perhaps it would have been better if he had. Instead, he had chosen to take a second wife, a woman who worked with him at the bank. Aunt Amina had come to our house after refusing his request to take a second wife. The annex that he had been building all year, supposedly to accommodate visiting relatives, was in fact quarters for a new wife. For three days and nights she had pleaded with him to reconsider, and every time he had refused, reminding her that this was his right as a Muslim man. (Though polygamy is not very common in urban Pakistan—indeed, at the time, I had never heard of it and no one in our family had multiple wives—lately it is being popularized as a religiously prescribed social panacea to the problem of too many destitute women.) My aunt recounted to my grandfather and father, her male guardians, how she had told him that it was better to kill her than to force her to watch him marry and share everything that was theirs with another wife.
(This is the first article of a four-part series. Parts II, III, and IV will be run next week. Photo credit: Salvador Castio)
Rafia Zakaria is the first Muslm woman to serve as a Director for Amnesty International USA. She is a lawyer and Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at Indiana University. This article was previously published at Guernica Magazine.