Women in Muslim Countries

And there rose a man who prohibited the infanticide of unwanted baby girls who used to be buried alive for the simple “crime” of being female. He declared a sacred duty to educate girls, contrary to the practices of the time, and he even dared to say (gasp!) that women were entitled to sexual pleasure. All of this in 7th century Arabia where women were at best a prized possession and more normally a nuisance.

You would think that a period of enlightenment would ensue after this remarkable innovator left the scene, but the fact is, after Muhammad’s death, a period of darkness fell over women in the community of believers he started, and the remnant of those dark shadows are still with us today. Part of the problem was Muhammad himself, as he enshrined in the Koran laws that are clearly unfavorable to women. Here are some examples:

1. The Koran gives daughters only half the inheritance of sons;

2. The Koran decrees that a woman’s testimony in court, at least when it comes to financial matters, is worth only half that of a man;

3. Under Shari’a or Muslim law, compensation for the murder of women is only half the going rate for men;

4. Women can only have one spouse while men are permitted four;

5. The tragedy is that many of these religious codes are incorporated into civil law. In Pakistan, for example, the law says that in order for a woman to prove rape, four adult males of “impeccable” reputation have to witness the penetration.

There are other examples of repression against women that claims, legitimately or illegitimately, Islamic laws as justification, the chief one being the case of the Taliban in Afghanistan. But countries like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Kuwait, and even the relative moderate Jordan and Egypt also have varying degrees of repression.

The situation has been so grave through the centuries that Riffat Hassan, professor of religious studies at the University of Louisville, in an article on TIME, states, “The way Islam has been practiced in most Muslim societies for centuries has left millions of Muslim women with battered bodies, minds and souls.”

Indeed it is patently clear that in countries where progress has been made, this was only possible due to the rejection of religious precepts. And conservative clerics have fought every step of the way against such changes. Such was the case with Turkey, the most secularized of all Muslim countries, and to a certain extent also in Egypt, Indonesia and Malaysia, where religious laws had to be set aside in order for women to achieve even a degree of freedom they already experience in some other countries.

On Friday I will write about some of the progress that has been made regarding women in Muslim countries.

Ivanildo C. Trindade