Whenever the issue of women’s rights in Muslim countries is raised in the Western media it is always discussed, naturally, within the framework of Islam because by definition Muslim countries adhere to Islamic principles if not Islamic law (or Shariah). However, the discourse is often accusatory, blaming Islam and Shariah for the abuse, injustice and oppression of Muslim women when in fact violations such as honor killings and female genital mutilation have nothing to do with Islam. They, in fact, predate Islam.
Muslim countries also bear some responsibility for the common misunderstanding in the West and in the Muslim world concerning women’s place in Islam because of the misinterpretation or misapplication of religious texts that becomes more in line with tradition than religion.
The decision of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah to appoint 30 women to the previously all-male 150-member Shoura Council (Parliament) for the first time, sparked a debate on the right of women to hold leadership and decision-making positions claiming that it is against Islamic Shariah. Women were appointed to the Shoura Council after consultation with the highest religious authority in the country, which means it has the endorsement of the religious establishment. More importantly, the debate is unnecessary as Islamic history is full of examples, since the time of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), about women holding influential positions. As for preventing women from driving, it is a Saudi society issue rather than a religious one.
Saudi women have reached high leadership positions, both locally and internationally, and have been playing an active and influential role in society. Having said that, there is no denying the fact that we still lack in ensuring human rights and equality in some cases in accordance with the Shariah, and we hope that as the 30 women have assumed their seats in the Shoura these issues will be addressed more forcefully.
Women in Muslim countries have been holding top positions as heads of government, Cabinet ministers, parliamentarians, ambassadors and civil and military officers, including in countries that are generally portrayed by the Western media as oppressive to women, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.
However, it is the extremists in these countries who intertwine their twisted concept of Islam and their evil acts with religious rhetoric to legitimize them, but there is nothing in Islam that could possibly justify, for example, a bid to assassinate a teenage girl simply because she was advocating girls’ right to education. Currently, Pakistan as well as Bangladesh and Somalia, a country just coming out of the shadows of extremists’ rule and civil war, have women foreign ministers. Afghan women, now that they are also coming out of the dark years of extremists’ rule, are asserting themselves in public life and serving in Parliament and civil society. It is necessary to stop associating Islam with the oppression of women and the denying of their human rights while stressing that Muslim women’s struggle and aspiration for their legitimate rights is a struggle against ignorance and against those who are misusing religion for their vested interest.
The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which represents 57 member states and 1.5 billion Muslims, strongly advocates women’s rights within international laws and Shariah. In 2008, it adopted a plan of action for the advancement of women in the member states, which articulates the OIC member states’ commitment in addressing a range of difficulties faced by women. The plan has four main objectives: Eradication of poverty, achievement of sustainable development and adequate resources for women; raising women’s participation in decision-making mechanisms from local to national levels; providing equal opportunities to women through access to quality education, health-care and enhanced participation; and elimination of all forms of discrimination including combating violence against women.
These are not mere words on paper. Many decisions, projects and programs were undertaken to implement these objectives. Furthermore, the member states agreed to set up an OIC Women Development Organization to be headquartered in Cairo, but the required number of states has not yet ratified the organization’s statute for it to enter into force.
In 2011, the OIC established the Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission (IPHRC), the first human rights commission in the Muslim world, not to replace but complement the work of established human rights organizations. OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, in suggesting the guiding principles to the commission’s task, summarized it as removing the misperceptions regarding the interface between Islam and human rights, and consisting of five elements: Complementarity, introspection, prioritization, incremental and progressive approach, and the importance of credibility. During the first session of the 18-member commission last year, it identified women’s rights, right to education and right to development as priority work areas. The commission elected Dr. Siti Ruhaini Dzuhayatin of Indonesia, one of its four female members, as its interim chairperson.
At a recent press conference in Washington DC, Dzuhayatin said, “In particular, this commission is expected to work on removing misperceptions over the issue of perceived incompatibility between Islam and universal principles of human rights.”
These are positive steps by the Muslim countries to critically look inward at the deficiencies in applying true Islamic and human rights principles and communicating outward of their commitment to international values.
— Maha Akeel is a Saudi journalist and member of the interim secretariat of the Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission.