It’s been an eventful summer for Muslim women around the world. On August 14, 2009, Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed into law the Shia Personal Status Law making it legal for Afghan men to starve their wives if they refused to have sexual relations with them. On July 29th, 2009, Lubna Ahmed Hussein, a widowed Sudanese journalist was threatened with forty lashes by Sudanese authorities for having worn dress pants in a public place. Finally, there is the planned caning of Malaysian model Kartika Shukarno for drinking beer in a nightclub in the eastern Malaysian state of Pahang.
Consider first the Shia Personal Status Law enacted into law by President Hamid Karzai, assumedly to appease a hard line Shia cleric. The law not only grants exclusive rights to child custody to the father or grandfather but also requires women to ask for their husband or father’s permission before leaving the home. The only time a woman would be allowed to leave home without such permission is if she has “reasonable legal reasons” which are conveniently left unspecified.
Other provisions of the law are even more alarming. In the words of women’s rights activist Wazhma Frough, “the law allows men to even deny food or any support to their wives if they refuse to have sex with them.” Other provisions of the law allow also make it possible for men to legally marry children enabling the custom of child marriage pervasive in rural Afghanistan. According to Afghan female parliamentarian Shinkai Karokhail, the current law is still an improvement from the previous version which had made it impossible for women to leave the home without male permission under any circumstances and required them to have sexual relations with their husbands once every four days.
Moving on to Sudan, Lubna Hussein, a journalist, was arrested on July 3, 2009 along with eighteen other women because she was wearing dress trousers. There was nothing provocative about the tailored pants that fully covered her legs and yet Lubna Hussein stands threatened to be sentenced to forty lashes under the charge of “being dressed indecently”. Her name has been put on a travel blacklist by the ruling regime and she is now prohibited from leaving the country.
Ten of the women who were with Ms. Hussein at the time of the arrest chose to plead guilty to “indecency” and paid a fine and were lashed ten times. Ms. Hussein and another woman have chosen to fight the charges to bring attention to the plight of tens of thousands of women who have been lashed in the past decade under the country’s indecency laws. The Islamist Government in Sudan has routinely imposed draconian laws on Sudanese women to testify to their “Islamic” credential regardless of the law’s actual relationship with Islamic doctrine. In the words of Ms. Hussein, “These laws were made by this current regime which uses it to humiliate the people and especially women. These tyrants are here to distort the real image of Islam.”
Finally, take the case of Malaysia, relatively speaking a functioning democracy where Islamic courts function alongside civil courts. The consumption of alcohol is forbidden to Muslims but permitted to the country’s Christian and Hindu minority. Ms. Shukarno has been fined the equivalent of $1,400 and six strokes with a rattan cane. Kartika, who is married and a mother of two was found guilty of drinking a beer in a hotel bar. In the northern Malaysian state of Kelyantan Muslim women have also been forbidden from wearing bright lipstick and high heeled shoes that may make noise in order to promote public morality. According to Mohamed Isa Ralip President of the Shariah Lawyers Association of Malaysia said “its not about causing pain, it is about educating others and about teaching the person a lesson.”
The three contexts under discussion are undoubtedly different in demography, culture, geography and historical context. But they are all post-colonial Muslim states fraught with a crisis of authenticity that consistently leads them to believe that public displays of religious piety are at the core of religious practice. What easier targets to center these expressions of piety and pristine public morality then the private and public behavior of women.
The Afghan law essentially gives the state the right to enter the private sphere of the family and control even what happens between a husbands and wives. It legislates essentially the nature of the relationship and creates a particular power dynamic that makes the woman an appendage to a man with her duties circumscribed entirely and completely by her gender. Political machinations aside, the law is an expression of an unapologetic patriarchal system where such subjugation enshrined in law is considered an expression of Afghan Islamic identity, legislated and signed into law through democratic process.
Similar tactics underlie the Sudanese and Malaysian cases. Ultimately, both represent the relegation of public morality as a task to be accomplished through legislation and enforced through instruments of the state such law courts. The underlying logic of all three cases is that if all temptations are forbidden by law then all need for individual conscience will conveniently be eviscerated. The assumption is that in a perfect Islamic society, there would be no need for an individual conscience at all. If women are covered from head to toe it is assumed, few would be tempted to engage in sexual promiscuity. If there is no bright lipstick, noisy high heeled shoes, women dressed it pants it seems all Muslim men will suddenly become better believers and more eligible for heaven. If wives submit easily, can never refuse sex and are forced by the state to obey their husbands then it is assumed they will be even less likely to covet other women.
The injustices in the scenario are numerous, from the public subjugation of Muslim women as an expression of a society’s piety to the fact that the system is designed entirely to facilitate the journey of men (not women) to heaven. But what is most notable in the framework is the desire on the part of Muslim publics in all three countries to have the State as a stand in for the conscience of the individual believer.
The lack of questioning not only of the blatant disregard for gender disparity so visible in all of these incidents is not the only cause for deep dejection. Equally disturbing is the desire to make being a good Muslim not an issue of individual effort but of robotic obedience. Few bother to ask whether giving zakah (charity), abstaining from alcohol, or sexual promiscuity is really an exercise of obeying Divine Guidance when it is enforced by the State and not a question of free will. Are robotic Muslims lulled into obedience by the threat of starvation, the fear of being caned or flogged at the same level of religious devotion as those who freely choose to abstain from forbidden acts?
Women and their subjugation have become the visible symbols of Islamic statehood and the piety of the Muslims that live in them. Instead of outrage such incidents are met with approbation and lauded as efforts to Islamize the society. If the worth of women and the tragedy of their subjugation is not enough for Muslims to be shocked out of their apathy, then perhaps the notion of a lulled ummah cornered into obedience out of fear rather than religious devotion should be.
Rafia Zakaria is Associate Editor of altmuslim.com.