The mistreatment of Islamic women should be blamed on Sharia Law, not the Quran.
The campaign theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is a pledge for accelerating gender parity. This requires action on all fronts, including efforts that create greater awareness of existing untenable faith-or-culture-based gender inequities and appropriate reforms to address them. This article is an attempt to highlight the ways Sharia-based Islam oppresses women.
Like many Muslims, Patheos-MuslimahinProgress blogger Nancy Qualis-Shehata would contend that Islam does not oppress women. However, the key question is: What Islam does she refer to? Certainly this is not the Islam that Muslims generally practice. She errs on three counts. First, she unquestioningly places the husband as the head of a family and as the maintainer and protector of his wife, ignoring the contextual nature of the Quran and its essentially egalitarian worldview. Second, she defends unequal inheritance distribution between descendants of different gender, again ignoring the context-specific nature of the relevant Quranic passages and giving precedence to the male patriarchal position. Third, she blames the oppression of women in Muslim countries on cultural practices and not on Sharia-based practiced Islam.
The Sharia Law that governs traditional Islam is rooted in the legal opinions established by a group of Muslim jurists during about 150 to 250 years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad and is a varied sort according to different schools of thought. The majority – some 65 percent – of Muslims are Sunnis and they generally follow Hanafi and Shafii laws. There are more than six thousand Sharia laws in each of the Hanafi and Shafii Law books. Another point we need to note is that this Law draws on the Quran in a miniscule way that is rigid and non-contextual. Its main source is the Hadith literature, which is overtly and overwhelmingly biased against women. This trickles down to a widespread perception, especially in the non-Muslim world, that Islam is misogynistic and it oppresses women. This is terribly at odds with the compassionate and egalitarian teachings of the Quran.
Saudi Arabia typically and rigidly applies the Sunni Sharia Law, and has vigorously promoted its brand of Wahhabi Islam throughout the Muslim world. This ideology treats women in a particularly demeaning manner. In recent days, the problems the Saudi women face in traveling and driving independently without male escorts have received media attention. But there are other serious Sharia-related human rights violations against women that are endemic throughout much of the Muslim World. Below we provide a checklist of such violations, drawing, in part, on an earlier published article of ours.
The Sharia oppression of women occurs in areas of family matters and in other broader areas
- Disqualifying women to serve as guardians in conducting marriages and considering a woman’s witness for a marriage as half of that of a man
- Sanctifying child marriage
- Unconditionally allowing polygyny up to four wives at a time
- Giving unilateral and instantaneous divorce rights to husbands and imposing difficulties on wives to exercise their divorce rights
- Distorting remarriage provisions victimizing divorced wives
- Providing for little or no financial support to divorced wives
- Allowing believers to have sexual relation with war captives or slave girls
- Using child custody rights favoring husbands
- Using inheritance laws favoring male descendants
The Sharia oppression of women in the other areas includes
- Applying the brutal punishment of stoning to death for adultery, which often goes against women as the offense gets much more easily detected in the case of women
- Barring Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men, while allowing Muslim men to marry non-Muslim women
- Exempting parents from murder charges for killing their children and condoning honor killings
- Giving unequal authority to women to testify and denying women’s testimony in hudud cases such as adultery, apostasy, murder, theft, injury, defamation, and drinking cases
- Disqualifying women to lead the Muslim ummah and to head the government
- Allowing a rapist to get indemnified by offering the raped woman an amount equivalent to just the marriage dowry, in case his rape is condoned for some reason
Sharia Oppression of Women Through Family Laws
For conducting marriage services, Sharia not only disqualifies women to serve as guardians, but in requiring two witnesses for marriage, it also considers a woman’s witness as half of that of a man. The latter provision is made apparently keeping in view the Quranic provision for witnesses in the context-specific case of financial transactions. However, this discrimination against women is no longer justified in the modern age when women are almost as educated and qualified as men.
Sharia sanctifies child marriage. This it does by taking recourse to an alleged Hadith that the Prophet Muhammad married Aisha when she was six years old and consummated this marriage when she was nine. However, citing historical evidence, Ridhwan ibn Muhammad Saleem of West London School of Islamic Studies provides a well-documented refutation of the above assertion about Aisha’s age at her marriage and suggests that Ayesha was over fifteen when her marriage with the Prophet was consummated. Other scholars such as T. O. Shanavas also explode the 6-9 year myth. The Quran advises marriage when the couple attains maturity to be able to provide sound judgment and consent for marriage (4:5-6). Under the Convention on the Rights of the Child adopted in 1989 by the United Nations, a child is defined as a person below the age of 18, unless adulthood is set at a younger age by a particular country’s laws. The Convention calls for review by countries of ages set lower than 18.
Sharia allows polygyny up to four wives at a time without any restrictions. However, the Quran, on the other hand, has talked about and permitted polygyny only in the context of orphan girls (4:3-6, 127), while talking about providing justice to them, and permits polygyny subject to certain clear restrictions. The two basic restrictions are financial capability of the husband to support more than one wife and his ability to do justice to more than one wife. The Quran requires one to postpone marriage until one is financially solvent (24:33). The Quran cautions against multiple marriages, saying that however much one wishes, one is hardly able to do justice to multiple wives (4:129).
Sharia grants virtually unilateral power of divorce to the husband. It requires the wife seeking divorce to go to a court and take her husband’s consent. These restrictions often prove tyrannical to an aggrieved wife, who has to tolerate unbearable torture of her husband in the face of his refusal to divorce. These Sharia provisions flagrantly violate the Quran’s directions that a wife has rights over her husband similar to those of her husband over her (2:228), that a wife should not be compelled to stay with her husband against her will (33:28, 4:19), and to her hurt (2:231), and that a husband needs to treat his wife in a compassionate manner (2:228, 229, 231, 65:2).
Worse still, Sharia entitles a husband to divorce his wife instantaneously by uttering the word “talaq – I divorce you” three times and, importantly that also, without requiring any witness. The divorce is considered valid even if the husband may utter this in a fit of rage or when drunk and does not really mean it. However, these Sharia provisions are in complete defiance of the Quran’s clear directions on divorce. The Quran requires two witnesses (65:2) and a well-defined waiting period for divorce to be effective (2:228, 229, 231, 65:1, 4). In fact, the Quran even wants husbands who want to dissociate from their wives to wait four months to give them a chance to see if they would like to change their mind during this period (2:226).
Sharia stipulates that once the divorce becomes irrevocable (after the waiting period), the divorced wife cannot go back to, or remarry, her husband unless and until she marries another person and until that husband divorces her. This despicable halala or hilla system is prevalent in Bangladesh, Iran and other parts of the Muslim world, where the Sharia Law is rigidly enforced. However, as shown vividly by us in a short film and an article, this despicable halala system is counter to the very spirit of the Quran’s clear directions and egalitarian message on the subject. The Quran urges believers to create no obstacles in the way of the divorced wife remarrying her husband (2:232), if the couple so wants. The halala system exacts a terrible human cost in terms of enormous suffering inflicted on the couple willing to reunite and has resulted in destroying many Muslim families.
Under Sharia Law, wives divorced instantaneously get nothing for livelihood from their husbands, while those divorced normally get only three months’ provision from their husbands after divorce. Then husbands are absolved of their duty to see where they go and how they live. The Quran, on the other hand, urges husbands not to take back anything that has been given to them (2:229) and to retain or release them in kindness, and not to hurt them (2:231).
A perplexing aspect of the Sharia Law is that it allows believers to have sexual relation with war captives or slave girls, which Sharia labels as “those that believers’ right hands possess.” Wahhabi ideologue Zakir Naik gives a similar interpretation of this Quranic passage as does Abul Ala Mawdudi. This view, however, blatantly ignores the Quranic directions that the believers should either demand ransom for freeing war captives or they should be released with generosity (47:4). It does not befit a human being to enslave another human being. The raping of slave women is incompatible with the very spirit of the Quran’s message, which vividly and strongly encourages manumission (90:12-13) and the marrying of freed slaves (4:25), and which forbids them to compel slave girls to prostitution without marriage (24:33). In 5:5, the Quran also vividly encourages us to seek chastity, not lewdness.
Sharia displays a patriarchal bias in dealing with child custody rights. It allows mothers custody of her children generally up to the age of nine for sons and seven for daughters. A mother is deprived of her child custody rights, if she does not pray or when she takes a mahram husband (i.e., a husband who is not lawful according to Sharia). The Quran allows separated or divorced couples to decide about child custody by mutual consultation, and it makes the husband squarely responsible for bearing the financial costs of children under mother’s custodial care, if he has financial capability (65:6-7).
In the area of inheritance, as discussed more elaborately in another article of ours, Sharia rigidly applies, in most cases, the provision that the male heir should receive twice as much as the female counterpart, ignoring the spirit of the exceptions that the Quran itself makes about this rule and ignoring the socioeconomic background in which this rule was made in the first place in the seventh-century Arabia, when women were totally dependent on their husbands for financial and other support. As argued by many modern Islamic and feminist scholars, the socioeconomic conditions for women have vastly changed in the modern context, when women are almost equally participating in contributing to the family income and welfare. Furthermore, the human rights instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, 1948) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW, 1979), to which most Muslim countries are also signatories, also oblige them to move toward removing all forms of discrimination against women, including in the inheritance case.
Sharia Rules in Other Areas Oppressing Women
Although the Quran does not prescribe it, Sharia applies the brutal punishment of stoning to death for adultery. Although this punishment is equally applicable to both men and women, it often goes against women since the offence gets much more easily detected in the case of women.
Sharia permits Muslim men to have marital relationship with women of the Ahle al-Kitab (the people of the Book traditionally interpreted as Christians and Jews), but does not extend the same option to Muslim women to wed non-Muslim men. This it does by narrowly interpreting the Quran’s verse 5:5, which is addressed to men. However, as Professor Khaleel Mohammed of San Diego State University rightly contends, this Quranic verse, like other verses, is addressed to men simply because of the custom of the time. The Quran’s direction applies equally to both men and women.
This Sharia restriction on women often leads to honor killings of Muslim women by their parents, when their daughters seek to marry non-Muslim men. Sharia condones honor killings, as there is a Sharia provision that parents are not liable for punishment for murders of their children. Also, Sharia allows the family of the victim to pardon the killer in exchange for blood money, or even nothing – Sharia allows only boys to receive the blood money, not girls. Note also that the family often pardons the killer, who is the member of the same family, as it does not want to lose another additional member of the same family.
Note also that Sharia applies its narrow interpretation even to the marriage of a Muslim woman with a Muslim man and considers their marriage dissolved when he is declared an apostate. This was applied to the Cairo University professor Nasr Abu Zayd, when the Egyptian clergy declared him an apostate, which led the couple to seek exile abroad and leave the country.
Sharia does not recognize testimonies from women in hudud cases such as adultery, apostasy, murder, theft, injury, defamation, and drinking cases, not even along with a male witness. Nor are women judges considered eligible for conducting hudud cases under Sharia. This is a gross discrimination against women in ensuring justice in society.
Under Sharia, it is forbidden for women to lead the ummah or to head a government. This despite the Quran’s mention of rule by the Queen of Sheba (23:27) and rule by many Muslim women in different Muslim countries.
If for some reason the crime of rape by a male person is condoned, the rapist is required under Sharia to give as compensation to the raped woman an amount that is equivalent to just the marriage dowry. This is a punishment that flagrantly dehumanizes women.
Sharia-based traditional Islam routinely and ruthlessly oppresses women in numerous ways. Sharia not simply violates the Quran’s compassionate and egalitarian message, but is also incompatible with the very norms of human decency and human rights.
"And for women are rights over men similar to those of men over women." [Noble Quran 2:228]
— Manal Ibham (منال) (@FManal09) December 29, 2014
Abdur Rab, Ph.D., is a retired public policy analyst and author, Rediscovering Genuine Islam: The Case for a Quran-Only Understanding, the third succeeding two earlier acclaimed editions. His articles on select Islamic topics have appeared on World Religion News, Aslan Media, and Oped News, and include one presented to a conference at Princeton University. Follow Abdur Rab at Twitter. His website is: http://quranonly.com/.
Hasan Mahmud is a Member, Advisory Body, World Muslim Congress, General Secretary, Muslims Facing Tomorrow, Canada, and author, Sharia Ki Bole, Amra Ki Kori (in Bangla) being translated into English as How Sharia-Ism Hijacked Islam forthcoming and three movie-dramas (the making of a fourth one is in progress) that highlight the problems with the Sharia Law. His website is: http://hasanmahmud.com/.