Shari`ah & Women’s Rights in Islam: Who’s entitled to interpret it?

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Oz Sultan pic

In the past decade, we’ve seen a huge debate around the concept of “Sharia: in America “, what it means, as well as what it’s implications are on Americans as well as to women, on a more global scale.

I’ve known Carlin for a while and we’ve started to have some discussions on the matter. Discussions that I hope might lead to more posts like this over time – for as we can open dialogues, we begin to break down the walls that separate us.

So on to why I’m writing today:

Yesterday, Deutsche Welle (The German News Service) published an article that covered the issue of Women’s rights, specifically the holdup around  legalizing a Women’s Rights law in Afghanistan.

(http://www.dw.de/afghan-widows-would-rather-die/a-16562576)

So what’s the holdup you ask? In a country now redefined after almost 40 years of continuous war – first at the hands of the Russians, Civil war, Warlord fighting and US reparations post- 9/11 – you’re dealing with more uncertainty than certainty. Governments often last less than the years it takes for a child to grow into adolescence.  The family unit is the only sacrosanct thing and anything that could lead to divisiveness in the family is viewed as a threat by a lot of the old guard – especially Mullahs and  Leaders that are averse to change.

Then…there’s the whole Sharia issue: So what is it?

Simply put “Sharia” is a code of conduct that includes the practice of law (“Fiqh”) and is complimented more often than not by tribal law (“Wali”). Now, here’s where it becomes fuzzy for a lot of folks who’ve never dealt with this before. In most countries where you see the subversion of human rights or women by Mullahs – you’re dealing with Wali – a code of conduct and tribal law that often precedes Islam and Sharia by centuries.

So what does this do? It creates an environment where fear of change and fear of the loss of control by a few is used to limit the advancement of women. The use of Wali in this respect is rampant in countries that have been war-ravaged or where technology and change are viewed as potential harbingers of oppression by foreign forces.

What has this led to? Let me use an analogy – Countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of North African nations are dealing with a rise of fundamentalism tied to Wali that uses Sharia as a guise to keep Status Quo. Status Quo here means that if a Mullah or group of Mullahs or Elders or Local Civic leaders has grabbed control – they’re reluctant to share or give it away. Especially when sharing has unknown consequences and everyone is looking for their nickel out of any arrangement.

There’s also the big misunderstanding outside the “Muslim World” of what the Muslim World is. There is no Muslim World. The concept is a figment of policymakers imaginations – and a term that allows diverse groups of varying people to at least be comprehended.  Muslims in Afghanistan alone are divided by multiple ethnic groups and a myriad of languages and dialects. Often the Wali of one village can be at odds at the Wali of a neighboring Village – differing from National policy, National Law and how Sharia is interpreted on a local, state and National level.

So ultimately when Afghani (MP) (Member of Parliament) Masooda Karochi says “If a lunatic protests that this law is against Sharia you can imagine the consequences it can have.  .. these proponents make it impossible to have a constructive discussion.”

What she’s speaking to is the core issue that Muslim Nations will have to address, as they begin the long process of getting past Colonialism and being buffer states for foreign interests. It’s Fear. Fear of change. Fear of disrupting the Family unit (Under current mandates – victims of domestic violence can escape to shelters – often preventing further assault of death)..fear of political-uncertainty and fear of what an empowered Female populace might lead to (It wasn’t so long ago that in the US – we thought unrestrained female autonomy would lead to anarchy…or dancing).

So what to do?  Starting to understand that Sharia is a blanket moniker for a complicated system of National, Regional and Local laws that are coupled with the interpretation of law (Fiqh) and tribal law (Wali) is the beginning.

I worked with a few NATO campaigns in the past that used video to try and show Afghanis that US troops and Coalition forces were there to help and how. Engagement is key, if we’re to break the cycle of Fear that has pervaded these nations. Social Media and outreach allows us to interact to get involved with Women’s rights; Child Health and Domestic Abuse.

Lastly, we need to educate ourselves on the issues and find ways to engage. With over $1 Billion in aid going to many of these nations, it makes good sense for us to engage our lawmakers and give them our own mandate – A mandate to put Cultural Education of our policymakers on the agenda and earmarks, where our Foreign Aid spend is tied back to initiatives that will help raise the voices of our sisters – beyond the issues of domestic violence, towards more equality and participation in the decision-making of their own lives.

 Oz Sultan/2013
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