Academic journal article Columbia Journal of Gender and Law

What If Sharia Weren't the Enemy? Rethinking International Women's Rights Advocacy on Islamic Law

Academic journal article Columbia Journal of Gender and Law

What If Sharia Weren't the Enemy? Rethinking International Women's Rights Advocacy on Islamic Law

Article excerpt


For many women's rights activists working internationally, especially those coming from a western context, sharia is believed to be a major obstacle to women's rights. In order to protect women from Muslim religious law, these advocates often position themselves aggressively against so-called sharia legislation and sharia in general. I believe that this approach is counterproductive and ultimately exacerbates, rather than improves, the situation for women living in Muslim-majority countries, in this article, I explain how current global feminist strategies have helped create an unwinnable and unnecessary war: that of sharia vs. women's rights. Drawing on observations incident to my work on the zina (extra-marital sex) laws in Nigeria and Pakistan, I argue for an alternative: women's rights advocates concerned about the situation of Muslim women around the world would do better not to mention Islamic law at all. This would be a major strategy shift, requiring significant restraint on the part of western secular feminist activists, but I believe it is worth it. I explain how, with this shift in approach, internationally-active women's rights advocates might more effectively contribute to securing rights for women in Muslim-majority countries. This shift could also open up a new appreciation for a wider spectrum of feminism, including that coming from a sharia-mindful perspective. In short, I argue for a world of advocacy for women that is nuanced and sophisticated and works with--not against--the reality of sharia in Muslim lives.


In early 2001, I wrote a clemency brief arguing, on Islamic law grounds, that a young Nigerian woman, Bariya Ibrahim Magazu, should not be lashed for the Quranically-defined crime of zina (extramarital sex). (1) A week before the scheduled punishment, while appeals were still pending and before the clemency brief was submitted, the state of Zamfara unexpectedly carried out the lashing of Bariya Magazu, apparently as a direct response to the international pressure that had mobilized to prevent it. (2) A variety of international rights groups had opposed the punishment by, among other things, depicting the zina laws of Nigeria--and Islamic law generally--as anathema to human rights and women's rights in particular, often doing so in a rigid and condemning tone. (3) The approach did not work: in his acceleration of Magazu's punishment, the governor of Zamfam specifically stated that he did so in order to flout these forces opposing Islamic law. (4)

I am concerned about this dynamic. In my years working both as a scholar and activist in the field of Islamic law and women, I have observed that when sharia-based legislation is opposed as contrary to international rights norms, such opposition often triggers an almost knee-jerk reaction among many Muslims to fiercely defend these laws as if they were defending their religion itself against a crusade-like attack. This can occur even when the laws themselves contradict established Islamic legal doctrine. (5) Thus, it is common to see governments of Muslim-majority countries making sharia-based reservations to international rights documents such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). (6) Influential Muslim leaders and scholars have been publicly disdainful of international conferences devoted to women's rights, such as the United Nations World Conference on Women, (7) and at home, islamically-oriented nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and political parties in Muslim-majority countries often lobby against women's rights activism in their own countries as if such activism were an attack on Islam. In response, those involved in global women's rights work often advocate that international rights norms should always trump sharia-based rules whenever a conflict appears.

I have observed that feminist advocacy strategies that situate themselves in opposition to sharia ultimately contribute to the presumed existence of this false dichotomy: one can be either "pro-Islam" or "pro-women," but not both. …

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