Family Law Reform and the Feminist Debate: Actually-Existing Islamic Feminism in the Maghreb and Malaysia

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Abstract

For an increasing number of Muslim women and women's rights activists, the stark disparity between the principles of justice and equality guaranteed by international and domestic legal norms on the one hand, and the oppressive environment of their homes that is legitimated by repressive family laws on the other, has acted as the catalyst for a unified call for reform. In the Maghreb, an influential Islamic feminist movement has successfully lobbied for family law reform, and this movement's positivist framework has recently been adopted as the model for Malaysia's increasingly vociferous demands for gender equality. Although secular feminists in the West frequently criticize the aims of this Islamic feminism as an oxymoronic anti-feminism, the Maghreby movement serves as proof that only an Islamic feminist reform model can serve as a pragmatic challenge to discriminatory laws.

Keywords: Muslim women, Islamic feminism, family law reform, Maghreby movement

Introduction

For an increasing number of Muslim women and women's rights activists, the stark disparity between the principles of justice and equality guaranteed by international and domestic legal norms on the one hand, and the oppressive environment of their homes that is legitimated by repressive family laws on the other, has acted as the catalyst for a unified call for reform. In the Maghreb nations of North Africa, an influential Islamic feminist movement has successfully lobbied for family law reform, and this movement's positivist legal framework has recently been adopted as the model for Malaysia's increasingly vociferous demands for gender equality. Although secular feminists in the West frequently criticize the aims of this Islamic feminism as an oxymoronic anti-feminism, the Maghreby movement serves as proof that an Islamic feminist reform model can serve as a viable and pragmatic challenge to discriminatory laws.

In spite of the coercive efforts of the forces of colonization and globalization, which have sought to modernize and secularize developing nations, states throughout the Muslim world have maintained their allegiance to traditional Shari'a law. Many polities heavily influenced by Islamic traditions have developed a dual system of governance that supports the liberal ideals of democracy and egalitarianism within the public sphere of civil society while simultaneously institutionalizing the subordination of women in the private sphere of their homes via discriminatory, Shari'a-infused family laws (Collectif 95 Maghreb-Egalite [Collectif 95], 2005, p. 17). These laws continue to stifle the agency of millions of women by restricting their participation within what is considered by observant Muslims to be the foundation of Islamic society: the family unit. This repression has given rise to a growing movement of Maghreby Islamic feminists that has, over the past decade, successfully couched their demands for family law reform within the context of their religion.

Both fundamentalist Muslims and secular feminists have attacked this reformminded brand of Islamic feminism, (2) which seeks to utilize the egalitarian tenets of Islam as a basis upon which to expose and undermine the unjust nature of misogynistic family laws. While the former view Islamic feminism as a threat to traditional values and beliefs (Fong, 2006), the latter see it as an apologist philosophy that serves to undermine the liberal goals of secular feminism while legitimating an inherently unjust religion (Mojab, 2001, pp. 130-131). Although the critical feminist critique does present a compelling interrogation of the merits of Islamic feminism qua social theory, it fails to appreciate the very real gains currently being made by Muslim women using Islamic feminism as a framework for grassroots activism. Thus, the aim of this paper is to demonstrate that while some of the current critiques espoused by secular feminists do serve as reasonable challenges to Islamic feminism, the facts on the ground demonstrate that Islamic feminism, as it has emerged in the Maghreb, is nonetheless promulgating genuine family law reform. …