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Dr. Asifa Quraishi, a specialist in Islamic law at the University of Wisconsin, was recently profiled as part of a series called Inside Islam: Dialogues and Debates, created by the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Wisconsin Public Radio and described as “a new media initiative that seeks to challenge misconceptions and stereotypical perceptions about Islam and Muslims worldwide.” Last month, the initiative hosted a radio show on Women and Sharia, to look at some of the news stories about women and Islamic law. The show’s website asks:
Every year in Muslim countries throughout the world women are reported gang raped, imprisoned, mutilated, stoned to death and otherwise killed in the name of Sharia, Islamic law. Is this really Sharia? How can custom be separated from law? Who speaks for Muslim women?
Thankfully, Dr. Quraishi, who is very good at putting these questions into context, was the main guest on the show. I’ve heard her speak a few times before, and she’s really good at discussing concepts like “shariah” in ways that are easy to understand. Some highlights:
Quraishi’s overall description of shari’a is helpful. It’s not necessarily anything new to most Muslims, but it’s the clearest explanation I’ve heard, and comes in handy when trying to explain it to other people. Basically, she talks about shari’a as “Islamic law” in the abstract, theoretical sense: we know that there are guidelines that God has created for us, and we strive to reach this ideal. However, the specifics of exactly what these guidelines are and how they should be applied are often not made clear in revealed texts, and therefore, people take it upon themselves to try to understand exactly how we should be living in order to fulfill the expectations that God has set for us. To talk about these actual laws, we use the word “fiqh,” which, linguistically, relates to “understanding,” while the word “shari’a” refers more to the broader idea of Islamic law as a concept, and to the rule of law and justice. From this beginning, we can understand that what gets talked about as “shari’a” in the news is often mislabelled, and would be better described as doctrines created by humans in an attempt to understand and specify the principles of shari’a. (That’s a really basic description – listen to the interview, she says it better!)
The interviewer, Jean Feraca, asks Quraishi about several situations where women have been victimised by what people pass off as Islamic law: a case of women in Pakistan being buried alive apparently because they wanted to choose their own husbands; a 13-year-old Somali girl who was stoned to death as a punishment for fornication after having been raped; young girls given to the family of a man who was murdered as compensation; acid being thrown in the face of a woman by her angered husband (may Allah grant peace to all of these women and girls.) Quraishi doesn’t try to excuse away any of these cases, but is clear that they are not sanctioned under Islamic law. She explains that Islam gets used as a justification to maintain entrenched social hierarchies (including patriarchal systems), because people are more likely to respect such hierarchies if they understand them as religiously mandated, and she talks about the struggle – in her own life as well as in broader legal issues – to understand what it is that is divinely ordained and which practices need to be challenged.
While Dr. Quraishi is the main guest on the show, there are also some taped interviews with other women. One of those is Norhayati Kaprawi, a Malaysian woman who works with Sisters in Islam, an 20-year-old organisation that focuses on promoting Muslim women’s rights through legal advocacy and reform of family law. Kaprawi explains that religious family laws are often discussed in terms of the wife’s responsibilities and the husband’s rights, and rarely the other way around. Her organisation has been involved with advocating changes to Malaysia’s legal system and with legal support for Muslim women; for example, they have worked with women who are divorced in order to force the husbands to pay to support their children. She also talked about some of the backlash that her organisation has received from some people within Malaysia, who accuse them of being Western pawns or of being anti-Islamic. Like Quraishi, Kaprawi attributes the silencing of information of women’s rights within Islamic legal rulings to systems of social inequality and oppression, but argues that this is not how Islamic law should be understood.
It’s hard to summarise the entire hour-long interview into one post, but I would definitely recommend listening to it, especially if you’re interested in Islamic law. I have mixed feelings on the (non-Muslim) interviewer of the show, however. I really appreciate how she talks to women who speak from within Islamic tradition, and that the show isn’t just about saying that Islam is bad or wrong. In speaking to Kaprawi, she even highlights that there are women (and men) who are using Islamic law for social justice purposes, and that Islamic legal rulings can be used for liberation and not just for oppression. On the other hand, she still seems to have a hard time hiding her skepticism that Islam is really so friendly towards women. She asks listeners whether they are “convinced” that the cases that she mentioned of violence towards women in the name of “shari’a” can really be separated from “shari’a” itself, which implies that she herself isn’t really convinced.
The interviewer later makes some really condescending remarks at the end, after playing the taped interview with Kaprawi, about her reaction to those stories of the efforts of Muslim women to engage critically with Islamic legal traditions:
“My first response was to think, ah! They’re just like us, they’re moving right along, they’re going to catch up with us any day.”
Yup, she actually said that. After confirming that the interviewer’s “us” refers to western feminists, Quraishi tells her that she appreciates the attempt at solidarity that such sentiments convey, but also points out that the statement is pretty patronising, assuming that “western” women are ahead of Muslim women, and implying that, since they are ahead, they can take the lead and tell Muslim women what to do, which is obviously problematic. She also emphasises that the histories are very different, and that there are some rights (for example, owning property) that were recognised in Islamic laws for centuries before western legal systems recognised them, which challenges any narrative of “catching up.”
Overall, this interview was refreshing in the way that it engaged with conceptions of Islamic laws: it didn’t gloss over the very real violence and oppression that many women are experiencing, but it also allowed for possibilities of change from within Islamic systems, rather than necessarily requiring outside intervention.