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Securing rights for Muslim women

By Robin Brant
BBC News, Kuala Lumpur

Campaigners from Afghanistan set out the country's new marriage contract. Activists from Morocco explained how they secured wholesale reform of family law.

Zainah Anwar
Zainah Anwar says changes must be made to applications of family law

These were just two of the issues discussed by hundreds of Muslim women who gathered in Malaysia to launch a new global campaign for equality.

Reform of family law is at the heart of the campaign, to tackle what organisers called the "untenable" treatment of some Islamic women.

Polygamy, consent to marry, inheritance rights, custody of children after divorce - all are areas where they want change.

Zainah Anwar is at the helm of the campaign.

She helped organise the conference in Kuala Lumpur, which culminated in the unveiling of a new organisation called Musawah, which means equality in Arabic.

"The disconnect between Muslim family laws that discriminate against women and the realities of women's lives today is untenable and unacceptable," she said. "Women can't take that any longer."

Changing times

Change on such a grand scale may seem unachievable to some, but Musawah is aimed at connecting Muslim women all over the world and uniting their efforts.

Underpinning their campaign is a new interpretation of parts of the Koran, Islam's holy text.

I believe that Islam has given women equal rights and equal faith
Hatoon Alfassi,
Campaigner, Saudi Arabia

They believe this is crucial to winning arguments with scholars and politicians.

Musawah has put forward a case for change.

"Most family laws and practices in today's Muslim countries and communities are based on theories and concepts that were developed by classical jurists (fuqaha) in vastly different historical, social and economic contexts," it says.

Reforming laws and practices for the benefit of society and the public interest has always been part of the Muslim legal tradition, it adds.

But Roya Rahmani, who helped campaign for and secure a new marriage contract in Afghanistan, said: "These ideas are not going to happen in any country overnight."

"You do need the groundwork," she added, "so when the right moment comes you can seize the opportunity."

Success in a country like Afghanistan, in spite of the chaos from decades of conflict, gave many of the women here inspiration.

"I believe it is hugely significant. It is a concrete foundation," Roya Rahmani said. "Regardless of what regime comes... we have set the foundation and we would need and like to build on it."

'Controlled'

But this global call for the reform of family law has been dampened by warnings from some campaigners that it can only happen in countries with a democratic culture.

Imrana Jalal led a 20-year battle for new laws to give women equality in Fiji. It was a campaign which culminated in wholesale reform.

She expressed pessimism about Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, two of the countries most closely associated with Islam.

"It is very difficult to try to get good laws passed for women in a non-democratic state," she said.

But democracy is far from all that is required.

Alia Hogben lives and works in Canada. She had no shortage of anecdotal evidence of Muslim women there who faced inequity.

"What, sadly, some male members of our communities are doing is saying that you must have a religious divorce and that this is nothing to do with Canadian law. That is totally false," she said.

Referring to confusion and ignorance of the law, she added: "What it does is allow women to be controlled by saying you have to get a religious marriage and divorce."

Back row

Some of the women who came to Kuala Lumpur live in exile. Others live in fear.

Hatoon Alfassi
Hatoon Alfassi says room is growing for discussion in Saudi Arabia

Hatoon Alfassi is well-connected in Saudi Arabia. Either because of that, or in spite of it, she has emerged as a vocal campaigner for women's rights.

"I believe that Islam has given women equal rights and equal faith," she said. But she also believes in "criticising and challenging" the authorities in her homeland.

Three years ago she led public protests against a decision to remove women from certain principal prayer areas at the holy mosque in Mecca, placing them at the back.

"I found that was very telling, that we are at the back of this religion," she said. Her campaign helped lead to a reversal of the decision.

On family law reform in Saudi Arabia she offers some hope.

"We are having... a little bit [of a] higher ceiling or room for freer discussion, especially on legal issues," she said.

"We have this possibility of introducing many ideas. I am not saying we have the capacity to change the legal structure. But only by challenging their position and decisions; these are ways of making a difference."

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SEE ALSO
Fighting for Muslim women's rights
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Country profile: Malaysia
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