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Women, Shari'a, and Oppression - Where are

the Voices of Conservative Muslims?

"When we stay silent in the face of injustices, non Muslims begin
to wonder if we really care about our women as much as we
claim to", says American convert to Islam, Saraji Umm Zaid.

A lot of attention has been focused on the issue of Muslim women and
human rights since September 11, almost all of it by non Muslims.
Once again, images of women swathed in black veils or blue burqas are
de rigeur, as the media soberly reminds us that Muslim women are not
considered equals to men in Islam, and that they are oppressed even by
the moderate regimes in the Muslim world.

From the Muslims, we have one of two reactions. The first is the
reaction of the "liberal, reformist, secular" Muslims. They believe that
Shari'a oppresses women, and that we need to completely overhaul it,
or toss out sections of the Qur'an that are "uncomfortable," or institute
secular forms of government that separate the sacred from the legal all
together. These are the same Muslims who equate hijab with
oppression, and who support the denial of free speech rights to
"Islamists" (all the while, crying for their rights to free speech in
countries where it is denied). They take their political thought not from
Islamic sources, but from feminism, socialism, and capitalism.
Naturally, it is to these Muslims that the Western media turns when it
wants a "Muslim" perspective on "Muslim issues."

On the other side, we have the organizers of the mainstream

conservative Muslims, the leaders of our civic societies, advocacy
groups, and associations. When presented with instances of women's
oppression in the Islamic world, these Muslims, almost always men,
respond defensively. They cart out examples of women's oppression in
the Western world, or worse, they address the issue by lecturing the
questioner about the virtues of the Ideal Place of Women in Ideal
Islam. In other words, they treat the ideal that we are all aspire to as
the reality on the ground. Pressed into taking a stand on real life
issues, they retreat in anger. "That's culture, not Islam, it has nothing
to do with me as a Muslim," they sniff.

Meanwhile, real Muslim women suffer at the hands of societies and

governments who would harm them in the name of Islam.

Who speaks for them? Most often, it is the United Nations, human
rights groups, and feminist organizations, led by people who have no
foundations of knowledge in Islam, and who often have a real antipathy
for Islam. While the Feminist Majority Fund was selling swatches of
"burqa" and petitioning the government for action on behalf of Afghan
women, the leaders of our Islamic societies stayed silent. Publicly,
many Islamic leaders and organizations disassociated themselves from
the Taliban, but other than denying them entry into the Organization of
Islamic Conferences (OIC), they took no action to petition the Taliban
for change from an Islamic view, or form any sort of Islamic opposition.

Perhaps this is because when any Islamic organization or individual

Muslim attempts to change or speak out about injustices towards
Muslim women, the rest of the community circles the wagons. These
lone souls are labeled "radical feminists," and accused of attempting to
undermine Islam.

Strangely, when a Muslim woman's Islamic rights are violated, many

organizations are eager to speak out and petition. For example, when
Merve Kavacki was denied her seat in the Turkish Parliament because of
her headscarf (and later stripped of her citizenship), Muslim groups
were quick to condemn the Turkish government, as they should have.
In many Western Muslim circles, Merve has been elevated to a symbol
of the struggle muhajabat women face in secular societies.

Yet there is a resounding silence when the issue being raised is Female
Genital Mutilation (FGM), honor killings, forced marriages, the unequal
application of hadd punishments on women, or the denial of education
to girls and women. All of these wrongs are perpetrated on women in
the name of Islam. While it is true that many of these violations occur
across cultural and religious boundaries, the only action often taken by
conservative Muslims is a condemnation of the action because it is
"cultural" and not Islamic. Meanwhile, women continue to be murdered
and little girls continue to be mutilated.

This is not to say that conservative Muslims are always silent or keep
their opposition at the vocal level. In Jordan, conservative Muslims
joined with liberals to rally for stricter punishments for men who kill in
the name of honor. In Africa, conservative sheikhs teamed up with
women's rights advocates to educate people about the harms of Female
Genital Mutilation. These people get very little mention in the Western
media, which, of course, paints the "Islamists" as the opponents of an
enlightened, secular minority of liberal Muslims.

When questioned by co-workers and neighbors, the average run of the

mill practicing Muslim is quick to condemn such practices, and lament
that they occur at all. Yet these same average Muslims are loathe to
petition governments, or join groups calling for active change. There is
a sense that we don't want to speak too loudly about the horrific wrongs
committed by our brothers and sisters in the name of Islam in front of
non Muslims. While keeping to the principal of covering your brother's
shame is admirable, the fact of the matter is that their wrongs have
been exposed, in the international media's spotlight. And when we stay
silent in the face of injustices, non Muslims begin to wonder if we really
care about our women as much as we claim to.

About a year ago, a small band of conservative Muslim women, almost

all of us from the West, came up with the idea of starting a Muslim
women's human rights group, to petition and advocate for the rights of
Muslim women as they are given in the Shari'a of Islam. Although slow
to start, we have managed to form a basis from which to work, and
have taken up our first case.

Right now, a Muslim woman in Nigeria is under a death sentence from

the Shari'a court for the crime of adultery. The situation came to the
attention of the authorities when the man who impregnated her decided
to confess his crime to the police, rather than pay the child support that
her father asked of him. There are many glaring errors in the case,
from a classical, "Orthodox" fiqh point of view. These errors (which
would aid the woman) are not coming from a "reformist
reinterpretation" of Shari'a, these errors are so great that any of the
qadis of the past would have thrown the case against her out. During a
similar case in Nigeria last year, a Muslim lawyer, Asifa Quereshi,
documented the legal errors committed by the Shari'a court in the name
of Islam. She didn't use modern, secular legal sources, but instead
based her arguments on the rulings of the scholars of the four Sunni
madhabs. Sadly, her analysis got little, if any attention, from the
Shari'a courts of Nigeria, and from the Muslim community as a whole.

The response we have received so far, is somewhat encouraging, but it

is also discouraging. For example, we have received little support thus
far for a petition to the Nigerian government on behalf of this woman.
One hesitates to send copies of the petition to masajid, since petitions
or issues of women's rights are often shuffled under a paper pile or
worse, dismissed with the lame excuse that raising such issues will
cause anger and discomfort in the community. Meanwhile, the Muslim
American establishment continues to enthusiastically promote voter
registrations and petitions to the President against Israel's latest
atrocities (and there's nothing wrong with that).

Sisters and brothers, it is time to wake up to reality. While we often like

to boast about the large size of our Ummah, the fact is that we are
losing more hearts and minds everyday, due in large part to our silence
about human rights abuses, especially those directed towards women.
These people will continue to turn to the secular philosophies promoted
by those who do take the time to speak out on their behalf: the
feminists, socialists, and secularists.

Prophet Mohammed, sallalahu aleyhi wa salaam, was mocked and

assaulted because of his strong and courageous stance on the status of
women. He came with a message that lifted women up and gave them
dignity. Fourteen hundred years later, we have descended back into the
dark pit of Jahiliya, and Muslim women around the world find
themselves cast into the same slavery that the Prophet, sallalahu aleyhi
wa salaam, was sent to liberate them from.

It does not make you a "radical feminist" to decry honor killings and
volunteer for peaceful campaigns to educate and change laws. Raising
your voice against Female Genital Mutilation does not mean you want to
"undermine Islam." To the contrary, working against these injustices in
the way of Allah is a manifestation of the desire to uplift Islam and the
Muslim people.

When the Taliban decided to deny education to any girl over a certain
age, it is the conservative Muslims, the ones who profess adherence to
"Qur'an and Sunnah" that should have spoken the loudest against this.
The longer we stay silent, the more people, both Muslim and non
Muslim, will begin to equate "Shar'ia" with the oppression of women.

We need to stop people who abuse the religion of God and His
messenger, Mohammed, sallalahu aleyhi wa salaam. We need to oppose
those who would brutalize women in the name of Qur'an and Sunnah.
We need have jealousy for our religion, so that those who would abuse
and misuse it realize that they will have no success and no headway
under our vigilance.

The above article is © 2003 Saraji Umm Zaid. Reprint permission

should be sought from the author at websister @

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Read other articles by Saraji Umm Zaid at here.