A Marriage made in Parliament: South Africa’s Muslim Personal Law Bill, Part 2

A Marriage made in Parliament: South Africa’s Muslim Personal Law Bill, Part 2 May 6, 2009

This is part two of our series on Muslim Personal Law in South Africa. Today, we will analyze media coverage of the bill. Check out part one here.

Several mainstream newspapers across South Africa have been reporting on the MPL matter. How have Muslim women been portrayed in these articles?

The Cape Argus article, for one, opens with a shocking statement:

Justice bosses are rushing through laws that will stop Muslim women from being treated as second-class citizens.

This startled me. I wondered, since when have Muslim women been “second class citizens”? And by whom are they considered so? Is it by men, by Muslims, or by the state? South Africa affords it citizens one of the most egalitarian constitutions, which stipulates all members of society are unequivocally equal. Of course, in practice, this is yet to be achieved, but to assume that all South African Muslim women are treated as second class citizens, either by their husbands, families or the state itself, is a tad generalized, especially given that Muslim women themselves, have been involved in the drafting of this Bill since the early days. Even in this latest round of debate, the group which made an application to fast track the bill into parliament, the Women’s Legal Centre, is chaired by Shaamela Cassiem, a Muslim woman. The article makes it sound as if it is non-Muslims who have spearheaded the MPL bill, with the usual “let’s save oppressed Muslim women” rhetoric.

Another article, in the Cape Times article wrote:

Addressing the Constitutional Court on behalf of the Lajnatun Nisaa-Il Muslimaat Association of Muslim Women in South Africa, male schoolteacher Farhan Patel said the initiation of the legislation “falls foul of the Qur’an”. “The Lajnatun Association will contend that the relief sought by the Women’s Legal Centre constitutes a matter of a religious nature, and this honourable court must refrain from making decisions that will unnecessarily infringe on religious doctrine.”

Here, emphasis is on the fact that the spokesperson for the Muslim Women’s Association is a male! This stereotypically portrays the image that Muslim women can’t and shouldn’t speak for themselves. It is difficult to say whether the media or the group itself is playing up the stereotype, however. This statement also enforces an idea that all Muslim women are against this Bill, and therefore, do not want legal rights in marriage. This is in concord with generalizations of Muslims as abnormal members of society.

The article also quotes Patel,

The majority of Muslim women abide by the Qur’an and do not perceive any violation of their rights when they submit to the rulings of Islamic religious forums which handle marital disputes.

This is another sweeping statement, pigeonholing Muslim women as passive members of society, having no capability to deal with their own marital disputes, or interpret their religious texts.

It seems that “The Muslim Women’s Association of South Africa” is the only “women’s” organization to reject the bill, and that too, with a male spearheading their cause. An  article in Al Qalam, South Africa’s popular Muslim newspaper, elaborates critically on the matter,

Their (opposing parties) arguments are being assisted by a group called Lajnatun Nisaa-il Muslimaat (Association of Muslim Women of South Africa) who recently launched an application which effectively opposes the recognition of Muslim marriages in South Africa. The group, represented by attorney Zehir Omar, although a small collective of women’s groupings, gives the impression that it represents the views of all Muslim women in South Africa.

On a more positive note, Witness 24’s article stated that

Members of the Muslim community should not fear that the Muslim Marriage Bill will interfere with their customary laws. This was said yesterday at a Gift of the Givers workshop on the Muslim Marriage Bill held in Pietermaritzburg. Murinah Osman-Hyder, a lecturer in the law faculty at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, told the workshop the bill is a big step, not just for women’s rights, but for the rights of Muslims in general. “This bill will ensure that both spouses are recognised as equal in human dignity and financial independence,” she said.

Finally, a female voice appears amidst the cacophony of male ones. Within the Muslim community, there has been both fierce opposition against and strong campaigning for the bill. The supporters are mainly women and men involved in women’s issues.

Al Qalam, elaborates on support generating from the Muslim community, for the Bill

Women’s groups across the country have responded to this turn of events with a vigorous round of meetings and consultations. In Cape Town, Shura Yabafazi has begun efforts to shore up support for the Bill and so have the MYM (Muslim Youth Movement) in Johannesburg. And in KZN (KwaZulu-Natal) a new group Coalition of Muslim Women is preparing to enter as amicus to help the Court in its deliberations. The new group emerged following a meeting between Attorney Shuaib Omar, Professor Nadvi, UUCSA (United Ulama Council of South Africa) Representatives and the Minister of Justice Enver Surty. The women’s groups are unanimous that this legislation is necessary. To alleviate the hardships on Muslim women Muslim marriages must be legally recognized. While it seems like the Bill is safe for now the public will need to be vigilant.

The Voice of the Cape, a Muslim radio and print media organization, also published an article which explained backing for the bill by Muslim women.

Two Gauteng-based organisations that represent Muslim women have distanced themselves from an objection lodged in the Constitutional Court last week against the enactment of the draft bill on Muslim Marriages. According to the Muslim Women’s Network of South Africa and Women United in Islam South Africa – both of whom consist of affiliate organisations based in Gauteng and KZN (Kwa-Zulu Natal) – they “strongly object to the fact that no one organisation as listed in the Notice of Motion by Lajnatun Nisaa-Il Muslimaat (Association of Muslim Women of South Africa) has ever consulted or approached us on the action that they have taken.”

“Our mandate is to further pronounce our full support for the Muslim Personal Law Process to go ahead and be tabled in parliament. Our view is that it can only further benefit the Muslim community at large.” they said.

During meetings held by the honourable Justice Minister Enver Surty with different religious groups, to reassure them that the bill is in the best interests of the Muslim community, as well to maintain his support for the bill,  “a change of heart” was reported amongst some people opposing the passing of MPL legislation, according to Al Qalam ,

This meeting also saw a change of heart amongst groupings opposed to the Bill. The change came once the Minister explained that the Bill included provisions for those who chose to opt out of it. This would allow individuals to choose not to be governed by the Bill and thus opt out of it and manage their affairs as they choose.

So, these groups will only give their support to the enactment of the bill because it is optional? This half-hearted support is rather dubious, and signifies a smug sense of confidence amongst religious groups that assumes even if the bill is legislated, they can influence Muslims to “opt out of it”.

On the opposition side, an organization called the “Majlisul Ulama” made a press release, calling on “all Muslims to oppose the bill on religious grounds.”

It examines various clauses of the bill, and how they are “opposed to the Shariah”. There is a glaring absence of any reference to women, their rights within marriage or the abuse of Muslim women. The entire pamphlet deals with how Muslim men are being cut a poor deal in the bill.

On-line petitions have also been brandied about, calling on Muslims to reject the bill, on the grounds that (amongst many)

the WLC (Women’s Legal Centre) has not been mandated by the greater Muslim community to speak on behalf of its women.

So, Muslim women cannot speak on behalf of themselves, nor can a women’s organization, chaired by a Muslim women, speak on behalf of them?

As Muslim women wait with bated breath for a bill that may remove them from fear of expensive litigation, the debate between “conservative” and “progressive” groups deepens the ever-widening abyss of differences amongst South African Muslims.

I can only hope that what Naeem Jeenah said to The Star, a while back, will come to pass,

Through this conference we aimed at empowering women, in particular, to grapple with the Bill. The Muslim community in South Africa is patriarchal, and when we talk of justice we need to think of empowering women.

“Men already have rights when they are born. Women have rights prescribed to them in the Qur’an, and we want to make sure they don’t get just the scraps of that. We need a woman-friendly MPL.”

The coming weeks and months will tell of the fate the MPL bill. Muslimah Media Watch will certainly be vigilant.

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