Dossier 26: Constructing Identities - Culture, women’s agency, and the Muslim world*

Publication Author: 
Farida Shaheed
October 2004
number of pages: 
* This paper inevitably draws on my previous writing on the international network Women Living Under Muslim Laws, especially ‘Controlled or autonomous: identity and the experience of the network, Women Living Under Muslim Laws’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Volume 19, Number 4, 1994, pp 997-1019. Moreover, the analysis presented owes much to the women linked through the network. Any idiosyncrasies, however, are obviously my own.

The Muslim world in context

Internationally, it has become quite fashionable to speak of living in a global village. The expression is usually intended to positively express the linkages now established throughout the world, the similarities of issues confronting the different people who inhabit it, and our ability, therefore, to connect with one another. If the expression implies a sense of collective responsibility, more pragmatically, it describes the integration of the world’s economies into a global system that, on inspection, does indeed resemble a village, particularly those in the South that I know best. Like most villages, it is characterised by deep structural imbalances between men and women, between different castes and ethnic groups (in the global village, states and sub-state groups), between the elite decision-makers and those bereft of power and influence, a place where democratic norms are all too often circumscribed by the underlying inequalities in access to resources, information, and power. Yet, the manner in which the term ‘global village’ is used carries with it a clear - though unarticulated - invitation to people to shed their ‘parochial’ identities and become citizens of the world.

In reality our global village is increasingly plagued by violent conflicts directly linked to issues and assertions of identity at the state and sub-state levels, as has been most gruesomely epitomised in ex-Yugoslavia and Rwanda. While much of the politics of identity is related to ethnicity, under certain circumstances, the fault lines of ethnicity are, or become, defined along the lines of religion so that ethnicity and religion merge. For example, in Sri Lanka today, the ethnically differentiated Muslim population is seen, and views itself, as a separate ‘ethnic’ group.1 Clearly, therefore, the world’s citizens are not quite ready to abandon smaller entities when defining their collective identities. Amongst other reasons, the world is probably too large and impersonal an entity to enable an individual to relate to it in the same manner that s/he relates to a smaller community, a relationship that allows for direct personal interaction and identification with its members. Nor, on the whole, do people perceive the world as an undifferentiated mass of individuals.

In the last ten to fifteen years, the frequency with which I have been asked to speak on the topic of ‘the women’s movement in the Muslim world’, or to elaborate on ‘the position and status of Muslim women’ has increased. Given my association with a network called ‘Women Living Under Muslim Laws’, these requests are understandable. Nevertheless, they still leave me feeling somewhat uncomfortable. I feel this way partly because to do justice to such a vast topic would require a depth and breadth of scholarship which I do not presume to have, and partly because the formulation of such requests implicitly over-determines the role of Islam in the lives of women while glossing over the complexities involved. The assumption of a uni-polar relationship between religion and women in the Muslim world is even more apparent in titles such as ‘Refugees in Islamic societies’, ‘Birth control in the Islamic world’, and ‘Islam, women and development’. Such titles suggest that in matters relating to women (whether this is a question of health, employment, crisis shelters, or some other issue) a qualitative difference predicated on the presence or absence of Islam automatically separates women in Muslim communities from others (the problematic use of the term ‘Islamic’ is discussed later). They imply a universality and uniformity that simply does not exist. Further, such wording implies that Muslims somehow manage to live in a world that is defined solely by a religious identity, is exclusive of all non-Muslims, and is insulated from any other socially, politically, or culturally relevant influences such as structures of power, the technological revolution, the culture of consumerism, etc. While references to the women’s movement in a particular country or region run a similar risk of over-simplification, they have the advantage of referring to geographical locations rather than to a presumed adherence to a faith, and therefore, do not so clearly imply a uni-polar or pre-determined set of assumptions. Moreover, I do not recall ever hearing references to the women’s movement in the Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, or atheist worlds even though religion is an issue addressed by women activists and academicians who might describe themselves as Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, or atheist. Instead, these women and their interests in the dynamics of gender and culture are allowed to remain unqualified by any religious parameters.2 Consequently, when reference is made to ‘the women of the Muslim world,’ I cannot help but ask myself which women in which world are being referred to? Chechnya or Fiji, South Africa or Turkey, Indonesia or Lebanon, India or the United States; the list is a fairly long and complicated one.

The approximately 1.2 billion persons who make up the ‘Muslim world’ are divided by class and social structures; political systems; cultures; ethnic and racial identities; natural, technological, and economic resources; and differing histories (to mention only the more obvious dividing lines). Women in this ‘world’ that spans many continents are themselves neither uni-dimensional entities defined exclusively by their sex or by their religious identity, nor are they silent and passive victims. Instead, like women everywhere, women in Muslim communities are “fully fledged actors, bearing the full set of contradictions implied by their class, racial, and ethnic locations, as well as their gender.”3 In combination with personal influences, such contradictions determine many of the personal and political choices made by Muslim women, including the level of importance that each woman accords religion in her personal, social, and political life.

Similarly, the essential components of patriarchy in a Muslim society are no different from those found elsewhere, and women’s subordination occurs at multiple levels: in the immediate structures of family and kinship, in state-building projects, and also at the level of international policy-making. The subordination is visible regardless of whether or not religion is a significant factor because policies such as the structural adjustment programs, which are undoubtedly religion-neutral, nevertheless produce a gendered impact both in the ‘Muslim world’ and elsewhere. These structures and the issues they raise link the women (and the men) in the Muslim world struggling for women’s human rights to the global women’s movement and the human rights agenda.

If the term ‘women’s movement’ is meant to refer to a cohesive entity, then it is not possible to speak of a women’s movement in the Muslim world. Modulated by a complex web of influences, women’s responses to their local situations in the Muslim world, and their survival strategies, are as diverse as their realities. Their strategies range from theological interpretations to a radical rejection of religion, from individual strategies of personal assertion and career development to armed struggle. Some put primacy on class struggle, others on ethnic identities, yet others on preserving the status quo. Many identify with the larger global women’s movement that itself consists of multiple strands and tendencies; others reject such integration. Indeed, the diversities are so pronounced that they beg the question of whether or not ‘the Muslim world’, a term that refers collectively to an amorphous, divergent, shifting composition of individuals and societies (not infrequently in conflict with one another), is meaningful at all?

Yet, where it is true that patriarchal structures and the attendant discriminatory practices that flow from them are similar in and outside the ‘Muslim world’; it is equally true that, to the extent that religion is a salient feature in people’s self-definitions and culture, religion does influence the contours of women’s lives and the scope for their self-assertions. In much of the ‘Muslim world’, Islam is an everyday reality for people; it is integral to how they define themselves as a society. Consequently, the cultural articulation of patriarchy is mostly expressed (and justified) by reference to Islam, even though Islam itself may be defined differently in different societies. The attitudes and practices of the adherents of Islam vary with ethnic and class identity and with sect. Additionally, in each society Islam bears the unmistakable imprint of the regional culture and of traditions that either pre-date Islam or have been absorbed through subsequent developments and influences. It is important to underline, therefore, that while Islam undoubtedly does make a difference to the modes of oppression and resistance in Muslim societies, it does so in different ways in different societies and always in conjunction with the other facets of these societies.

There are two other important factors which need to be borne in mind when considering women, identity, and the ‘Muslim world’. First, almost without exception, the societies comprising the ‘Muslim world’ share a history of colonization or hegemonic rule and control. Most became nation-states without the benefit of an historical evolution of a nation, and all of them have had to grapple with both the challenges posed by state-building and the burdens of dislocated indigenous socio-economic structures and cultural systems. In seeking to integrate the citizens of the state, political elites (themselves often ethnically and religiously distinct) have carefully selected “out of an infinite range of possible cultural identities that one… as the political identity which offers the greatest scope of political success.”4 It is when such states have pursued policies that, instead of promoting democratic rule and an equality of benefits and opportunities to the state’s disparate regions and peoples, have deepened inequality between regions (or urban and rural localities) and discriminated against specific groups within the state, that those in power have sought to assert their own control and quell opposition - and those in opposition to mobilize people to gain state control or privileges - through an appeal to religious, regional, or ethnic identity.

Second, in the ‘New World Order’, the grounds of politics generally appear to have shifted away from defining the nature of the state and the appropriate socio-economic and political system to trying to work out the best deal within the existing system. This shift reinforces the tendency to make demands on the basis of identity rather than a well-articulated political agenda that spells out economic and social programs. Articulating demands on the basis of identity leads to more and more rigidly defined markers of exclusivity that demarcate the boundaries between oneself and those who then become defined as the ‘other’, an other that is defined in more and more hostile terms.

For women, who are frequently made the repositories of culture, the issue of identity is crucial. Women’s empowerment both challenges and is challenged by cultural and political issues of identity/identities: how identity is formed; who defines it; how definitions of gender fit into definitions of community (and those of a collective and personal self); and how these definitions interplay at the local, regional, and international levels. All of these factors have direct consequences to women wanting to redefine the parameters of their lives. The dynamics underlying definitions of self, gender, and collectivity are relevant everywhere since each society has to deal with three incontrovertible and inescapable truths: birth, life, and the reality of two sexes.5 Consequently, gender definitions are necessarily a part of all cultures, and as such, are essential ingredients in the collective identity of any group. Hence, when women seek to expand their space as women by rejecting and re-defining the roles previously designated for them, they are in fact challenging more than ‘just’ the contours of their own lives. If culture is an expression of a collective identity, and if all societies have to address the issue of gender, then re-definitions of gender automatically necessitate a readjustment of the broader culture and collectivity concerned, irrespective of whether the society in question is dynamic or stagnant, ancient or contemporary, atheist or religious, and of course, Muslim or non-Muslim.

The creation of a network

It is in the context of identity frequently being defined through control rather than through autonomously defined self-expression that WLUML (Women Living Under Muslim Laws) was created as an international network that locates itself in the global struggle for women’s empowerment while addressing the issue of ‘the Muslim world’ with the aim of exposing the differences and underlying contradictions the term tends to plasters over and the dynamics of control that operate within it. The network is intended to provide a vehicle for mutual support between women struggling to expand their space and redefine their lives while simultaneously recognizing the diverse circumstances and factors that women confront and that influence their personal and political strategies for change. Underlying the creation of the WLUML network is an understanding of the ways in which the tasks of empowering women and challenging patriarchal control are intersected by the issue of collective identities. The controls that collectivities exercise over their members create (or, at times, inhibit) tensions that may exist between individual women (and men) and their communities. The network shares this focus on identity issues, and works closely with other networks and groups of women throughout the world, including those addressing similar issues arising from the growth of new fundamentalisms based on rightist religious, ethnic, and/or totalitarian ideologies. These other networks and groups include Women Against Fundamentalisms, Catholics for a Free Choice, Communalism Combat, and numerous programs and forums that address issues of law, custom, and development, such as the Women and Law in Southern Africa program.

That the network, despite a somewhat cumbersome title that was formulated to convey a specific meaning, is all too frequently understood, in a collapsed and inaccurate manner, to be a network of ‘Muslim women’ or one concerned with ‘Islamic Law’, is symptomatic of the overly determining role that Islam is assumed to play in our lives. Such false understandings underscore the difficult nature of our central theme, which is to challenge the myth of one monolithic Muslim world in which a single ‘Islamic’ law prevails. In its name and work, the emphasis is on women themselves and their situations and not on the specific politico-religious options they may exercise. Not all women affected by Muslim laws are Muslim. Many non-Muslim women are affected by the laws prevalent in a Muslim majority country, irrespective of their religious affiliation. Others have Muslim laws applied to them through marriage or through their children, and some may not chose to identify themselves as Muslims at all, preferring other markers of political or personal identity. The women linked through WLUML live in countries where Islam is the state religion and in Muslim communities ruled by religious minority laws; in secular states where a rapidly expanding political presence of Islam increasingly provokes a demand for religious law; and in migrant Muslim communities in Europe, the Americas, and Australasia.

The network has been shaped by the specific human rights advocacy campaigns that led to its creation and by the analysis and experience of the women (and also the men) involved in its work. The immediate catalyst was provided in 1984 by a number of un-related events in different parts of the world that each concerned women’s rights, laws, and Muslim communities. In Algeria, three women had been jailed without trial for having discussed with others the contents of a new set of personal laws that would severely undermine women’s rights. In India, a Muslim woman challenged the existing Muslim personal laws in the Supreme Court on the basis that these laws violated the constitutional rights of Muslim women as citizens. In Abu Dhabi, a pregnant Sri Lankan woman was tried and found guilty of adultery and was condemned to be stoned to death two months after giving birth. In Europe, the Mothers of Algiers (a group formed by women divorced from Algerian men) were seeking access to, or custody of, their children.6

Except for the woman condemned to death in Abu Dhabi, the others all sought and received international support for their local struggles and issues from within and outside the Muslim world. Amongst the campaigners, a feminist from the Muslim world saw in these international campaigns how potentially effective mutual support between women in the Muslim world could be in strengthening the local struggles of individuals and groups. She single-handedly set about creating links across countries and cultures to bring about such a system of support. At a feminist gathering in Amsterdam, she encountered a handful of other women from the Muslim world. It is unlikely that, at that time, these women saw themselves as such, eg as ‘women from the Muslim world’ since their commonality lay in a shared perspective of international feminism that had brought them to the meeting rather than their communities of origin. Be that as it may, in their collective discussions, the women rapidly arrived at the following set of conclusions that, even today, underpin the network’s activities:
  1. Even though women’s lives vary enormously from one Muslim context to another, each woman’s life is undoubtedly influenced to a greater or lesser extent by laws and customs said or perceived to be Islamic or Muslim in her own context; that customs are as essential and potent as ingredients of control over women as the law itself, and that for a variety of reasons, many non-Muslim women are also affected by these;
  2. Generally speaking, the interconnection between laws, culture, and religion has been used by men and the state under various political regimes to maintain a patriarchal control over women; that recent years had marked an increased tendency of political forces in and out of office to formulate or make demands for legislation, policies, and demands justified by reference to Islam which - amongst other things - undercut women’s autonomy and rights; that whereas the underlying contest is not one of religion but a tussle for political power and pre-eminence, the political use of Islam often has a negative impact on women’s ability to intervene for their rights, and that;
  3. Women have actively struggled (as individuals and as groups) against both the traditional restrictions and the newly imposed ones but that they have usually been obliged by circumstances to carry out their struggles in isolation. This isolation amplifies their vulnerability and is an important factor that can constrain effective intervention and narrow the impact of their struggles.
As defined by the group, the challenge was not how to mobilize women affected by Muslim laws, but how to strengthen women as they continued their ongoing struggles. The consensus was for the formation of a network that would help break women’s isolation by providing information, solidarity, and support and yet would have the fluidity and flexibility needed to ensure the autonomy of each person or group in formulating priorities and strategies based on their own understanding of their particular circumstances. The fluidity of a network makes it possible to bring together diverse and divergent opinions and experiences to work toward common goals, provide insights, and generate new ideas and strategies. Importantly, networks can do this without any compulsion to impose homogeneity amongst those involved or to exercise any control over the personal and/or political choices made by them. The commonality within the WLUML network is defined internally by analysis and goals and externally by having to grapple with a patriarchal system traditionally justified by reference to Islam. This commonality is tempered however by an understanding that individual women will have different strategies and priorities when challenging their oppression; that the choice made by one may not be the best choice for another. Indeed, such a choice may not even exist for another. Consequently, the network is able to bring together women who define their struggle in exclusively secular terms with those who prefer to work from within the framework of religion to share and learn from each other despite their differences.

Of collective and personal identities - the mechanisms of control over a woman’s identity

The network purposively uses the word ‘Muslim’ rather than ‘Islamic’ to underscore that laws, in fact, are made by men and are not pre-ordained, and the plural ‘laws’, rather than a singular ‘law’, to convey both the complex nature of the issues involved as well as the diverse realities confronting women. Firstly, the laws classified as Muslim vary, sometimes radically, from one country to another. Secondly, a number of countries have two or more officially recognized formal sets of laws: civil, religious (eg India, The Philippines), and customary (eg Senegal). Each of these may provide or deny women different rights. Most relate to personal status law. In some places couples have a choice to register their marriage under one or the other (Sri Lanka, Senegal). In others the parallel laws preclude personal choices (Pakistan). Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, in addition to however many parallel formal laws may exist, informal customs and traditions operate in every society, and these can be as, if not more, important than formal laws in controlling women’s lives. For the purpose of the network, these customs are considered to be uncodified laws. As such, they are included in the rubric ‘laws’. In each society, the corpus of formal and informal laws - particularly in the area of personal and family matters critical to gender definitions - in large measure defines what is possible and what is improbable (not to say impossible) at the personal, community, and national levels. Whether formal or informal, by prescription or by omission, laws project an ideal for society, and it is in projecting this ideal that the cultural rooting and definitions of a collective self become visible in statutory law as well as in customary practice. In this sense ‘Muslim laws’ extend well beyond the strict parameters of the ‘laws’ that address personal and family matters; they extend to govern the relationships between individuals and the socio-economic and political environments in which they are concentrically located.

The formal laws themselves are rarely gender-neutral in either the text of the law or in its application. Moreover, laws display a disproportionate focus on gender as part of cultural identity. Even a cursory review of legislation in most parts of the Muslim world shows that the scope of Muslim jurisprudence (or Shari’a) is severely restricted. The bulk of legislation pertaining to matters such as commerce, revenues/taxes, administrative matters, public service, or other public sectors such as banking, standing armies, or political structures, consists of laws and regulations either inherited from the ex-colonial power or adopted from elsewhere. In sharp contrast, laws governing personal and family matters are regulated almost universally through Muslim jurisprudence and justified by reference to Islamic injunctions. This emphasis on personal status law as a key component of community identity (an emphasis that has immediate consequences for gender-relations) is not limited to Muslim majority states. Many states in the South have maintained personal laws for different communities. Maintaining such separation is usually presented as a measure that allows space for ethnic/religious minorities to retain their cultural identities. That such an arrangement may be at the expense of the women of that community has rarely been of concern. Moreover, discourses relating to gender have almost inevitably accompanied power conflicts.

For example, gender has been a key component of colonial and post-colonial discourses.7 For their part, the power of customary practices or informal laws can be gauged by the absence in most countries of legal restrictions on women’s apparel, women’s mobility, or women’s entry in specific fields of education or employment. The lack of legislation has not, however, prevented women’s lives from being circumscribed in all these fields in Muslim and non-Muslim societies alike. These constraints are imposed through a culturally specific process of socialization that takes place in every community, a process in which girls/women (and boys/men) are taught to internalize a fairly complex set of rules of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. This social code ends up being obeyed by individuals who either automatically censor themselves or force themselves to obey out of fear of physical punishment (or other forms of reprimand) that a digression from the norm would result in. Much like the law, ignorance is rarely an excuse, and the punishment for transgressions of these unwritten but binding codes can be severe. The impact of such unwritten laws is disproportionately felt in the areas where gender is defined and experienced. Tove Bolstad, a Norwegian feminist, views such ‘informal laws’ as “rules which are adhered to because they are perceived as a moral duty and because they may be sanctioned by, for instance, some people becoming angry if such duties are not fulfilled. Such informal regulations arise steadily in semi-autonomous spheres. Family life precisely such an area.”8 Speaking of the enormous force of these customs in the context of Norway which, arguably, has some of the most gender-neutral formal laws, she says:

“[a]ll cultures contain spheres in which it is impossible for the members ‘to think that they are thinking wrongly’ - things are obvious, self-evident, and natural. These are implicitly areas of silence, of inarticulation, arenas into which language does not intrude or in which it is forbidden to speak.”9

In those societies where religion continues to operate as an important force in people’s lives, it usually provides an over-arching umbrella for definitions of the collective self, and the likelihood is that the prevalent customary practices will be presented and accepted as being inherently religious even if, in fact, they are diametrically opposed to the religious doctrine in question. As such, it becomes even more impossible for women to question existing practices, to ‘think that they are thinking wrongly’. That in Muslim contexts, frequently all customs are assumed to have religious sanction and approval has now been amply documented in a number of the 18 country projects that make up the WLUML “Women and Law in the Muslim World” action-research program. The program has set out to map the customary practices and laws that exist, as well as women’s initiatives that have taken place concerning them, in a variety of contexts.

The specific laws governing personal and family matters delineate the boundaries within which a Muslim woman can hope to define her own identity. Precisely because personal/family laws are so consistently labelled ‘Muslim’ and justified with reference to Islamic doctrine or culture, in each particular, and often quite varied, cultural context, the identity/space defined for women is put forward as that of a ‘Muslim woman’. A person who challenges any aspect of law relating to family or personal matters is therefore deemed to be refuting, or at the very least challenging, the very definition of Muslim womanhood in her own setting. The threads of religion and custom are so tightly interwoven that, for example, where it is practiced amongst Muslims, female circumcision or female genital mutilation (FGM) is considered to be a religious act. The facts are that FGM is practiced by non-Muslims and Muslims alike, and FGM is unknown to the majority of Muslim communities (who not only have never heard of it, but are frequently shocked when they do learn about it to discover that it is deemed to be even remotely Islamic). Nevertheless, for women living in communities that practice FGM, challenging FGM is equivalent to challenging religious doctrine. On the other hand, the Gambia Women and Law team has indicated how exposure to, and knowledge of, the existence of other Muslim women who do not practice FGM has provoked women to question the existence of FGM in their own communities, breaking the taboo of thinking the unthinkable.10 There are of course many more, if less striking, examples of such differences within the Muslim world that underline the extent to which insularity keeps people ignorant of how alien the local ‘Islamic’ practices taken for granted in one’s own cultural context can appear to others from within the Muslim world. For example, women from the Middle East never cease to be amazed that Muslims in South Asia should have such a widespread practice of dowry.

In certain aspects of women’s lives, the formal law may be the dominant factor of control, in others, the uncodified ‘laws’ internalized by women, and maintained through social pressure, may have a greater impact. Nevertheless, it is painfully clear that whenever an option is provided by a conflict between religious doctrine, customary practices, or state law, the one least favourable to women, the one offering them the least rights, is the one that will most likely be implemented. This tendency signals that the desire to control women is the primary motivation that informs patriarchal authorities in these decisions, not religious or other considerations.11 This same pattern of opportunistic appeals to religious concerns has informed patriarchal authorities in Pakistan and can be illustrated by taking examples from Pakistan (a context with which I am more familiar) where various customs have been preferred over religious doctrine, or religious doctrine over formal law.

In the matter of immovable property, British colonial laws had deprived Muslim women of their religiously sanctioned right to own and inherit property (this was justified by reference to existing Hindu customs, but significantly, on being challenged with respect to Muslims, it was justified by the British colonial rulers by reference to the fact that British women did not enjoy this right).12 Today, after fifty years of independence women continue to be deprived of inheritance by reference to local customs despite the earlier law having been a non-Muslim colonial law that negated rights granted by religion, and despite its subsequent amendment to grant women this right by reference to Islamic doctrine. On the other hand, in matters of divorce, the formal law is flouted by reference to religious interpretations. Where the formal state law rejects oral repudiation as a legitimate procedure for a Muslim man divorcing his wife, this is socially practised and accepted by reference to Islam even though the formal law itself is also derived from Muslim jurisprudence. Finally, Punjabi communities traditionally dealt with adultery through a combination of forced marriage, social ostracization, and public humiliation. These practices have now been displaced by the introduction in 1979 of a supposedly Islamic law regulating extra-marital intercourse that provides for imprisonment, flogging, fines and - under certain circumstances - stoning to death.13 In this instance, customs have been abandoned in favour of the formal law that both violates human rights and discriminates against women. Another vivid illustration from Pakistan of the exercise of the worst option for women is the occurrence of polygyny (albeit rarely) amongst poor Christians who have assimilated this from their predominantly Muslim environment. In contrast, the Christian community has, so far, failed to be influenced by the more liberal grounds for divorce that women from the Muslim majority community have. Thus, divorce is virtually impossible for Christians (the sole acceptable ground being adultery, which however, exposes those seeking divorce to the current laws regarding adultery mentioned above).

Identity and the wider political arena

Further complicating the issue of religion, women, and rights is the use of religion in the political arena. As stated at the beginning of this paper, the concept of one homogeneous Muslim world is a myth. Further, while it is not uncommon to hear of a state, society, or community referred to as being ‘Islamic’ (regardless of whether this is an external or internal label), the fact remains that it is not Islamic (implying something ordained by religious scriptures) only Muslim (eg comprised of people who adhere to Islam).14 Today, when a religious idiom is increasingly visible in the political discourse of so many Muslim communities, it is particularly important to insist on this distinction and also to place the ever more strident claims and counter-claims of being the only true mantle-bearers of Islam in their proper context, which is the contest for political power. In reality, these claims, and the often-violent dynamics they entail, have little to do with religion. It is just that political parties and groups have found it expedient to use a religious idiom to express and mobilise support for their political agendas. Such politico-religious groups also find it convenient to cite so-called ‘Islamic laws’ already being applied in different Muslim countries to support their own demands for more stringent, essentially undemocratic or discriminatory ‘Islamic’ laws that among other things, usually militate against the rights of women and minorities.

Against this background, viewing the problems facing women in Muslim societies as being derived uniquely from Islam and their identity as Muslims is more than merely unfortunate. It impedes an understanding of the structural inequalities; it belittles the efforts of those who are striving for change within their societies (sometimes at the cost of their lives, more often, of their freedom); it clouds the different political and social forces that are often in conflict in the relevant countries or regions; and, finally, it puts Muslims as a whole on the defensive, thereby blocking the potential for self-critical analysis that would lead to growth and change. In global terms it counter-poses a religion to systems and structures and plays into the hands of those who pose as self-proclaimed mantle-bearers of Islam. In an article examining the counter-posing of Islam and democracy, Fatima Mernissi says:

“Few words in contemporary political and ideological lexicons have been as misused, and abused, as ‘Islam’ by both Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The term, meaning peace and submission, now invokes images of violence, totalitarianism, and irrationality. Speculation on the chances for peace in the Middle East usually centers on an embarrassingly racist question: are Islam and democracy compatible? The question reduces a set of complex, multifaceted, and global contradictions between Muslim and Western states to an opposition between medieval religion and a modern political system… [and] assigns rationality to democracy and irrationality to Islam.”15

This is not very different from having meetings to discuss “Islam, women, and development” that suggest that development is dependent on religious faith rather than on the capacity of states to govern, deliver on social contracts, and negotiate in the international market; on the presence and strength of institutions of civil society; and on the political configuration of contests of power. In part, the network Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) came about in response to what women activists were experiencing as a pincer movement: pressure from retrogressive elements and groups seeking to monopolize the political discourse and impose their version of ‘Muslim womanhood’ and Muslim society within our own communities and countries on the one hand and, on the other, being put on the defensive either by the too facile association of Islam with irrationality, fanaticism, and misogyny by the non-Muslim world in general, or by the attack on one’s community by another within the same country. Perceptions as well as the real experiences of belonging to a community under attack make it that much more difficult to raise one’s voice against discrimination and oppression within the community. Therefore, taken together these internal and external pressures induce and encourage silence and undermine initiatives for change. The primacy accorded religion in the case of the Muslim world, both by outsiders and those vying for power (often by violent means) erodes women’s ability to assert themselves because this false focus diverts attention from issues of structures and systems that help keep women subordinate and gives currency to the idea that there is a single way of being a woman in a Muslim environment, bolstering the notion of the Muslim woman. In the words of the WLUML network:

“Interaction and discussions between women from different Muslim societies have shown us that while some similarities exist, the notion of a uniform Muslim world is a misconception imposed on us... Our different realities range from being strictly closeted, isolated and voiceless within four walls, subjected to public floggings and condemned to death for presumed adultery (which is considered a crime against the state) and forcibly given in marriage as a child to situations where women have far greater degree of freedom of movement and interaction, the right to work, to participate in public affairs and also exercise a far greater control over their own... We have erroneously been led to believe that the only possible way of ‘being’ is the one we currently live in each of our contexts. Depriving us of even dreaming of a different reality is one of the most debilitating forms of oppression we suffer…” 16

Breaking the isolation of women

Dreaming of an alternative reality is not merely a matter of inspiration. To even conceive of different realities, women must first question the given parameters of their current lives, by among other things, unravelling the composite strands of the current identity being imposed on them as an integral whole. Only then can they hope to find or create the space in which to imagine new self-definitions. Having access to information on the law (as well as on the sources of law), on the customary practices, and on the political and social forces that determine women’s current reality can facilitate this process. A primary task of the WLUML network is thus to try and ensure that women affected by Muslim laws and customs have access to this type of information by systematically collecting and disseminating information on the laws of different countries, highlighting the differences between laws and customs, and demystifying the sources of each. Equally important is to share information about the strategies women have individually and/or collectively devised to expand their space and rights, to share experiences of struggles and the discussions and debates that flow from these which inspire by example or insight, or alternatively indicate what may not work.

To act upon these dreams of course requires a different set of support systems to be in place. WLUML addresses this through its solidarity and support actions. These fall into two distinct categories: the first being international human rights campaigns in instances where women’s rights are threatened or violated, either on an individual basis or because of a general law or policy that exists or is being proposed (similar to those that catalysed the network’s formation). Though these types of lobbying (alerts for action) and human rights campaigns are now fairly regular features of numerous human rights groups, when WLUML started there were few institutions that ran such campaigns other than Amnesty International. In any case, Amnesty’s specific framework for intervention largely excluded the types of issues on which WLUML ran its campaigns. The other type of solidarity intervention carried out by WLUML goes beyond international campaigns to provide immediate assistance to individual women whose child may have been abducted, whose family may be attempting to impose a forced marriage, or whose very life may be threatened because of either her actions or opinions. Such interventions include identifying and mobilising lawyers and support groups across countries and continents and facilitating access to shelters, doctors, and social workers, not to mention offering moral and emotional support to the person and her family. In this sense the network functions as a safety net at least for some women attempting to redefine their lives either politically or personally. Beyond the immediate relief such actions provide to the individuals and groups concerned, the very knowledge that such support is available opens a window of potential change for others. In this second type of action, as in much of its work, WLUML works closely with women’s rights groups throughout the world, and consciously works to build and strengthen links between women across national and religious boundaries. Demonstrating that a global women’s movement does indeed exist, the support received and provided by WLUML in solidarity actions and other aspects of its activities slices across boundaries and other barriers that may distinguish, but do not necessarily divide, women activists.

But perhaps what remains unique to the WLUML network is the less tangible support it provides with respect to people’s psychological need to belong to a collectivity. When challenging ‘Muslim’ laws is condemned within one’s own community as a rejection of Islamic injunctions and the very concept of Muslim womanhood, and/or when challenging existing customs is condemned as a rejection of, or challenge to the very basis of a community’s self-definition, those who dare to question existing laws and practices run the risk of at least ostracism, if not more severe punishments. (Similar mechanisms are used to maintain ethnic or other identity-based control over members of the community.) This is a formidable obstacle, for the fear of being pushed beyond the collectivity of one’s nation, religion, and ethnic group - of losing one’s identity - militates against women’s self-assertion and initiatives for change. Under these circumstances, questioning, rejecting, or reformulating ‘Muslim’ laws is an intimidating task especially for women who on the whole have the least political and economic resources, and also have the least voice in formulating cultural definitions of a collective self (including matters relating to law, customs, and religion). Consequently, if women can rely on the support of some collectivity that functions as an alternative reference group, it becomes far easier to initiate steps that challenge what traditionally have been understood to be ‘Muslim laws’ in one’s own context. Where information on the diversity of existing laws and practices within the Muslim world lends material shape to alternatives, contacts and links with women from other parts of the Muslim world within and outside national boundaries - whose very existence speaks of the multiplicity of women’s realities within the Muslim context - are a significant catalyst in releasing the creative energy of envisaging alternatives for oneself. The connections made and sustained through the network can therefore function as an alternative reference group(s) for the women it links. It is in opening the doors to a multiplicity of possible alternatives that the WLUML network hopes to make its most important contribution by furnishing women with the information and the tangible and less tangible support they need to think the unthinkable, question what is taken for granted, and start assuming the right to define for themselves the parameters of their own identities, and thereby that of their community - however that may be defined by them.


1 See Q. Ismail, ‘Unmooring identity: the antinomies of elite Muslim self-representation in modern Sri Lanka’ in Q. Ismail, et al., (eds), Unmaking the Nation: the politics of identity and history in modern Sri Lanka (Colombo: Social Scientists’ Association, 1995), pp 55-105.
2 See, for example, P. Jeffrey and A. Basu (eds), Appropriating Gender: women’s activism and politicized religion in South Asia (London: Routledge, 1998).
3 Kandiyoti 1994, p 8.
4 D. Taylor and M. Yapps (eds), Political Identity in South Asia (London: Curzon Press, 1979).
5 This valuable insight was provided by Dr. Elizabeth Jelin; it is one for which I am most thankful.
6 In Algeria, the three feminists were released; however, the new Family Code was enacted in 1984, and this negatively affected women. In India, the Muslim Women (Protection of the Rights on Divorce) Act 1986 allowed Muslim minority law to supersede Constitutional provisions, depriving Muslim women of rights that are enjoyed by others. In Abu Dhabi, after a strong international campaign involving numerous groups, the woman was repatriated to her own country, Sri Lanka. After several years the government of Algeria and France signed a treaty that provides visiting rights to divorced mothers of Algerian children.
7 See, on the Middle East, L. Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992); and, on South Asia, L. Mani, ‘Contentious traditions: the debate on sati in colonial India’ in K. Sangari and S. Vaid (eds), Recasting Women: essays in colonial history (New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1989), pp 88-126, and Z. Hassan, Forging Identities: community, state, and Muslim women (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1996).
8 T. M. Bolstad, Kar-Contracts in Norway: agreements made by men concerning women’s work, ownership, and lives, Working Papers in Women’s Law, No. 46, August 1995 (Institute of Women’s Law, Department of Public Law, University of Oslo: Oslo) pp 26-27.
9 T. M. Bolstad, p 7.
10 Shared by the Women and Law Coordinator at the WLUML Plan of Action Meeting, Dhaka, October 1997.
11 See, on the Maghreb, A. E. Mayer, Reform of Personal Status Laws in North Africa: a problem of Islamic or Mediterranean laws, WLUML Occasional Paper No. 8 - July 1996 (Grabels: WLUML).
12 K. Mumtaz and F. Shaheed, Two Steps Forward, One Step Back? Women in Pakistan (London: Zed Books; Lahore: Vanguard Books, 1987).
13 The Hudood (Enforcement of Zina) Ordinance 1979, introduced by General Zia ul Haq’s military regime.
14 Unless one takes the position that a state is ‘Islamic’ when its citizens think they are living in one. But, this again is an entirely subjective definition and entirely contestable by others.
15 F. Mernissi, ‘Arab women’s rights and the Muslim state in the twenty-first century: reflections on Islam as religion and state’ in M. Afkhami (ed), Faith & Freedom: women’s human rights in the Muslim world (New York and London: I.B.Tauris Publishers, 1995) p 33.
16 WLUML, Aramon Plan of Action (1986).


This paper was first published in International Social Science Journal, Social and Cultural Aspects of Regional Integration (Blackwell Publishers/UNESCO 159/1999), pp 61-73.