Many people have used the issue of gender inequality in the Middle East as an example of why democracy is an impossibility in Arab nations, often pointing to a few verses of the Quran as proof that women’s rights will continue to be a non-starter for Islamic states. Some studies, however, are showing significant gains in the women’s rights movement in the region, leading some to move from the adamant belief that Islam and gender equality are mutually exclusive, to the study of how the changing nature of Islamic politics can be used for the advancement of women.
In an article for Human Rights Quarterly, political activist Amira Mashhour focuses on divorce and polygamy laws in both religious sharia law and the legal precedence set in several countries to study the possibility of a common ground between women’s rights and Islamic law. She argues that the gender inequality found in most Islamic states is not a function of Islam itself, but rather a reinforcement tool for the patriarchal status quo, and that the “dynamic nature of Islamic teachings, the evolving character of Sharia, the spirit of Islam towards women’s rights, the principles of justice and public welfare, and the essentially feminist Ijtihad leaves no room for doubt that a common ground could be found between Islamic law and gender equality,” among women–specific issues such as sexuality, rights over women’s bodies, and veiling.
Mashhour argues that, despite the popular Western misconception, Sharia law is not static, but is evolving based on continued interpretation of Islamic texts and the needs of the Muslim people. She goes on to cite several legal examples involving polygamy, men’s right to divorce, and women’s right to divorce, and the legal contradictions and discrepancies between the two. For example, the ways that men and women may initiate divorce are quite different, particularly when it comes to the role the dowry plays, with women who desire a contested divorce being required to relinquish their dowry to their husband entirely. Mashhour additionally notes that as the marriage contract is considered a legal document under Islamic law, divorce may be granted if either member breaks any condition that was included in the contract before the marriage. While it is true that to women in many Middle Eastern countries, the marriage contract has different implications to husbands and wives, and the legal spousal obligations disfavor the female spouse, women still carry control of themselves, their bodies, and their lives that are legally protected rights.
Of particular interest to me were the various interpretations of certain aspects of sharia law, with Mashhour offering the following crucial and often unasked questions: “Who interprets Quranic texts? Who drafts and adopts contemporary personal status laws? Who implements such laws?” Answering these questions, Mashhour implies that it is not the texts themselves that prevent the freedom and equal status of women, but the men who control the texts and wish to preserve the status quo that has allowed them to disempower and dominate women in the first place. With the patriarchal culture of these states being weakened in favor of a more egalitarian, pluralistic system, we can assume that the rights for women found in the law books and religious tomes can come to fruition.