In many countries of the Middle East, women are wondering what the Arab Spring means for them. Some observers are concerned that the power vacuum will leave the door open for Islamist groups to take power and force changes opposing women’s rights.
Zainah Anwar, a leading Malaysian social activist and intellectual, is not one of them. She is even excited about the prospects that the Arab Spring could have for women.
“A window of opportunity has opened up,” said Anwar, who is one of the founding members of Sisters in Islam (SIS), an activist group struggling for the rights of Muslim women. “Islamist parties will of course use religion to justify things against women, but women’s groups need to raise their voices and challenge extremist voices.”
Anwar refers to her Malay experience while explaining what women’s rights activists have done in her country to achieve that goal. “In Malaysia, we decided that it is not enough to use universal human rights principles in that regard because we are operating in a society where religion is a source of law, and religion is important to the women that we are trying to help,” she told Sunday’s Zaman in İstanbul, where she participated in the 12th forum of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID), held on April 19-22.
“There is that window of opportunity in the Arab world to build that culture of public space in Islamic matters,” she said.
Anwar indicates that there are so many juristic tools in Islam. For example, the concept of “maslaha” favors the public interest or social benefit and the concept of “istihsan” uses juristic preference to seek ease and convenience, and to adopt tolerance and moderation.
“With those tools, we can build wider public support,” she added. Anwar is one of the pioneers of “Musawah,” an initiative launched in 2009 to build a global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family. In her own family, Anwar was brought up with religion. “I believe in a just Islam, a just God. I don’t believe God is unjust to women,” she said and she has been critical of some women’s rights activists who want to stay away from debates related to religion.
“My option was that I could reject my religion, like many feminists do, or I could find out what the religion really says. I decided to find out for myself. Did God say those unjust things about women? I read the Quran to find out.”
She started reading the Quran in the 1980s with Amina Wadud, an American scholar of Islam with a progressive focus on the interpretation of the Quran and a woman who led Friday prayers in the US.
At the time, women’s rights activists were campaigning against domestic violence in Malaysia. But it was not without difficulties, Anwar explained: “The law faced opposition from religious figures who said it cannot apply to Muslims. Malaysia is 60 percent Muslim, 40 percent non-Muslim. So we were having a Domestic Violence Act for non-Muslims because some people said that in Islam men have a right to beat their wives!”
The objections were centered on two issues; first, it was argued that domestic violence was a family matter and should therefore come under the jurisdiction of Islamic family law. Second, there was a belief that Muslim men are allowed to chastise their wives and therefore domestic violence should not be criminalized for Muslims.
“Eventually, we campaigned and argued that the Domestic Violence Act should encompass all,” she said. The law was passed in 1994, and even then, there was a delay in the implementation of the act because some religious authorities still did not want it.
However, Malaysia became the first Muslim country and the only Asian country with a Domestic Violence Act recognizing domestic violence as a crime and providing the victim of abuse with protection. Since the implementation of the act in June 1996, police statistics show that there is greater public awareness that domestic violence is a crime.
In the meantime, Anwar’s questions continued: “What does the Quran say about polygamy? Words on polygamy were very explicit: Marry many women but marry only one if you don’t have the ability to treat them all justly and this will be best for you. In what context was the verse written? At the time it was in the context of war and it was for the protection of orphans. So this part of the verse should be used for public policy because there is so much injustice otherwise. The Quran does not advocate for men to beat their wives.”
Malay women’s rights groups also compared family law texts to show that there is no “divine law.” “It is man-made law, human constructed. How come in one Muslim country the minimum age of marriage is 16, and in another 18? Why is divorce law of one country different from that in another? If there is one Islamic law, why is there a difference? The source may be divine but human interpretation is not divine, it is man-made. And it can be changed according to changing circumstances. We debated all of those issues to educate Muslims.”
As Anwar continues her work to make sure women and men believe in equality and justice, she sees Turkey as far more progressive than Malaysia: “Laws are far more progressive with regard to women in Turkey than in Malaysia. Before we could not use Turkey as a model but now the Justice and Development Party [AK Party] is in power. That is very important because they are Islamic and they did not reverse the laws. We can use Turkey as a model now.”