From Theocrats to Secularists: Moving toward Women's Autonomy

By Thanenthiran, Sivananthi | Conscience, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

From Theocrats to Secularists: Moving toward Women's Autonomy


Thanenthiran, Sivananthi, Conscience


Control and Sexuality: The Revival of Zina Laws in Muslim Contexts

Ziba Mir-Hosseini and Vamja Hamzic

(Women Living Under Muslim Laws Network, 2010, 235 pp)

978-0-9544943-9-1, 12 [pounds sterling] through WLUML.org online store

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THE PUSH FOR GENDER equality across the world has resulted in higher levels and standards of women's educational attainment, economic participation and political participation. Some of these accomplishments have come through national governments' recognition of the socioeconomic value in investing in women. We have also seen progress stemming from development agendas and international frameworks such as the Millennium Development Goals (2000); the Beijing Platform for Action (1995); the International Conference on Population and Development (1994); the Vienna Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (1993); and the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (1979).

Undeniably, women's burgeoning freedom poses a threat to those who wish to maintain the status quo. In most developing countries, cultural and religious rights are used to justify imposing curbs on women's liberties and social roles. Sometimes, these arguments are brought out almost exclusively in the context of women's rights. In many developing societies--not just ones shaped by Islam--religion continues to be the organizing force in society. Religious leaders show their socially conservative side by trying to limit women's roles and freedoms and punishing them for transgressions. And nothing seems to threaten the status quo more than women (and men) having autonomy over their sexual and reproductive lives.

Control and Sexuality brings together perspectives from Indonesia, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan and Turkey to demonstrate how the state has reintroduced ancient zina laws in these Muslim societies in order to control women's sexuality. The analysis highlights key aspects of these zina laws--historical, cultural and political--across countries, and details the local resistance to these laws.

One of the critical contributions made by this book occurs in territory that is always difficult to navigate: the overlap between religion, culture and politics. Within a religious, cultural, traditional rights framework, governments have often assumed sovereignty to determine issues pertaining to women's sexuality and reproduction. However, this movement can often be challenged if there is a critical mass within those societies that can both represent the voices of women on the ground and subvert this determination of cultural/religious/traditional rights of women. In the countries examined by the authors, women's rights activists who focused on harsh punishments meted out for transgressions--the stoning and whipping of women--proved to be pivotal in attacking the encroachment into women's lives and bodies. The fact that these punishments were meted out through extrajudicial means--in parallel legal systems or in the private sphere--also helped to move the frame of the debate from a cultural, traditional or religious lens to a human rights lens. …

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