Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves…But Nobody Seems to Notice

Recently, Ahmedinejad’s closest aide, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, made comments that Iran must work to fight against the oppression of women where the religious framework of Islam would allow it. The Guardian article calls women’s rights a divisive topic in Iran, which is true. However, the sexist laws mentioned are those that involve the requirement to cover following the 1979 Islamic revolution, failing to mention inequalities in other areas, such as personal status laws.  This reduces the revolutionary work of Iranian feminists to simply laws about covering, which is infuriating.

This type of coverage does not end with Iran. While many women’s organizations have made significant strides, most media coverage of Muslim women is dominated by a body-obsessed conversation. When I searched for news stories about Muslim women, the majority of stories involved a debate about hijab or niqab. This reduces us to what we wear (or don’t) on our heads—an all-too-common experience for many Muslim women.

Across the globe, millions of Muslim women take risks to organize and fight for their rights, within or outside of the framework of Islam.  These efforts deserve to be heard whether they are secular or not. In an article in the Daily News and Analysis of Mumbai, Ashutosh Shukla writes about the work of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andola organization, which works to empower women by garnering more legal rights. In this article, Shukla writes about Fareen Syed, a Muslim woman whose marriage contract is being revised to remove “the risk of talaq (oral divorce),” and prevent her husband from engaging in polygamy. Syed’s new contract is a part of BMMA’s efforts to improve the legal rights of Muslim women.

In Morocco, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been working hard to advocate for the legal rights of single mothers, which we covered last year. For unwed mothers in Morocco, it can be difficult for women to reach out to NGOs for help, and this plays a vital role in helping one understand the full extent of their legal rights. In 2003, Morocco adopted moudawana, a new set of family status laws meant to promote more gender equality. However, the moudawana does not recognize the rights of unwed mothers, which is a part of the problem of trying to work within the framework of Islam.

While laws have changed, their implementation is an entirely different issue. The laws establish women as their own guardians, and eliminate the possibility of talaq. According to Fatima Maghnaoui, the director of the Annajda centre in Rabat, patriarchal attitudes still influence the way in which laws are enforced. She argues that the changes in laws must also be accompanied by campaigns to raise awareness.

Seven years later, and there are still a number of loopholes and hardships. While the Moroccan government is probably still patting itself on the back for the first change in laws, international attention could play an important role in helping bring attention to some of the problems that remain unaddressed by legislation.

In Malaysia, there is the Sisters in Islam organization, which advocates for a framework of women’s rights into Islam, and reforming laws. In Iran, there’s the One Million Signatures campaign, which works to fight against the discriminatory laws against women, and give women rights in line with international human rights standards. They also organize training sessions that aim to increase the awareness and education of volunteers.

The work of these NGOs shows the intricacies of the problems that women face in their respective nations. Thus, while they work on capacity building and educational projects, the issues they face are complex, and reach far beyond the burqa.

Oppression is at the crossroads of many factors. It is a part of our reality as humans, rather than the singular problem of religion. Thus, instead of discussing whether or not Islam is a foreign and harmful entity, it is time to garner more attention for the efforts of campaigns to challenge cultural norms and biases that are justified by religion. If Islamic law is treated as something foreign and distant, then we run the risk of continuously reinforcing the same good-evil binaries, and ultimately hurting vital efforts to fight gender inequality.


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