Females fall foul of Islam

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 April, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 April, 1997, 12:00am

Female genital mutilation, stoning to death of women adulterers and lashing rape victims may sound barbaric, but they remain horrifying facts of life for women from some parts of the world.

Discriminatory practices against women are commonplace particularly in the Islamic world, says a former researcher at Punjab University, Farida Shaheed, who runs the Shirkat Gah Women's Resource Centre in Pakistan and is also a core member of the international network, Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML).

At a talk recently at Hong Kong University on customs and laws in Muslim countries, Ms Shaheed said the biased practices have their root in strong patriarchal systems that are reinforced by references to Islamic doctrines.

In many cases, said Ms Shaheed, a custom was unrelated to any religious tenet but sustained by Muslim communities in a bid to maintain patriarchal control. One example she gave was female genital mutilation to limit sexual pleasure that has nothing to do with Islam.

'The basic issue is what a society wants to do, whether it wants to give equal rights to men and women,' stressed Ms Shaheed.

In Sudan, for example, women workers' promotional prospect are largely determined by male and state approval at various levels. There, according to the WLUML, popular committees and public outlook supervisors are empowered by the state to take women to court for immediate punishment for not dressing or behaving in an 'appropriate' manner, such as chewing gum in public.

In Pakistan, women enjoy no legal protection for their inheritance rights.

A trend had also emerged, warned Ms Shaheed, of countries adopting Muslim family laws to strengthen men's position, which means men are usually given the right to polygamy, divorce their wives through oral repudiation, and not be liable to pay any maintenance to their wives after divorce.

A WLUML publication points out that in most of the Muslim world, patriarchal customs rather than state law severely limit women's mobility, access to public space, occupations, economic resources, health facilities, judicial processes and education.

In Algeria, women living alone or pursuing an independent lifestyle are targeted for attack and even killed by militant groups. Militants commit acts of violence against women as part of their battle for political power, to demonstrate their strength and their rivals' impotence.

Many Muslim women today are under great social pressure to conform to a dress code or wear a veil in public places, though according to the WLUML, veiling was previously absent from many Muslim societies.

To lobby for legal reforms and improved consciousness of their rights among Muslim women, Ms Shaheed and her fellow crusaders often resort to publications, songs, street plays and videos.

Rural women in her country, she has discovered, have difficulty asserting their rights because of fears that challenging the long-held practices may deal a blow to their religious identity.

Many wrongfully think, said Ms Shaheed, there is a homogenous world of Islam with one definition for womanhood. 'We are trying to de-mystify the sources of laws and customs that put women in subservient positions.' Yet she is optimistic about changes. Organised by the WLUML, more than 100 women activists from different Muslim communities and countries from Indonesia to Senegal met in Lahore in 1994 to exchange experiences in research projects and strategies.

'It is necessary to be optimistic if you want to keep on working,' said Ms Shaheed, who threw herself into the women's work in 1981 after resigning from her university in protest against its decision to dismiss a reformist colleague.

Policy changes are possible sometimes with the help of men, but perseverance is always required. Women in Malaysia are actively lobbying for effective implementation of the newly-enacted Domestic Violence Act which makes domestic violence a cognisable offence and one that covers all long-term residents in a household.

With its co-ordinating office based in a small village in the south of France, the WLUML plays a key role in allowing the exchange of information on laws and issues in different countries, as well as strategies abroad.

And no doubt, Ms Shaheed is keen to continue to be a part of it. 'I enjoy the activism,' she said.