Harbingers of change

Nimah Ismail Nawwab | Arab News
Publication Date: 
Sat, 2009-03-07 03:00

Ending violence in these days of rampant conflict is becoming an overused phrase, and yet it holds the key to survival for multitudes of races and brightens the flame of hope for millions as we globally celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8.

Observing the occasion, UNFPA Executive Director, Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, remarks: “Today, let us stand in solidarity with women and girls who deserve to live in dignity, free of fear and shame.

“Let us champion zero tolerance of violence against women and girls in our homes, schools, places of work and worship, our communities and nations. It is time for men and women, and boys and girls to work together to end these shameful violations of human rights.”

Legally, humanely and on all levels, concern for the plight of the downtrodden women and young children has become an urgent issue that cannot be swept away as a residue of war and a residue of the accepted status quo.

Meeting with a cross-section of women scholars and activists including Afghan, Moroccan, Sudanese, and Indonesian at a conference in Malaysia, held on Feb. 13-17, that witnessed the start of a global movement for equality and justice in family laws, aptly called Musawah (equality in Arabic), shed light on the every day struggles of women simply surviving another day with the threat of lives rent asunder in war-ravaged countries, of child marriages, honor killings, domestic abuse, forced marriages and abusive family situations, and of female mutilations in the name of culture and abiding by the existing norms.

At a time when the world is entering new phases in techno and bio revolutions, when higher speeds of communications and major advances are setting the pulse of new eras, the advancement of humane issues is still remarkably slow, stagnant or takes place in fits and starts, with reversals to tribal, communal, cultural norms and rules.

Yet Faith is accused as are legal judicial trends of hampering the mandated rights of women in need. These two vital factors are the ones that can offer much needed solutions to women’s violence, justice and equality. Other key strategies include lobbying with lawmakers and having strong communications and public advocacy, all of which are needed to combat current legal systems that do not meet the needs of women. It is a fact that the need to mandate and above all abide by internationally studied and agreed upon laws is a leap that still hasn’t been taken in its full scope in many countries in the West and the East.

For Muslim women this is further aggravated by the various local interpretations of religious texts without a need for a consensus reform where judges discuss precedents and share case studies, where legal counsel is hard to come by and where even asking for help is a major hurdle that if it crosses the victims’ mind — just that first painful step — is hampered by resources, and methods of implementation and recourse.

The Musawah Global Meeting is such a step. As the movement initiated by Sisters in Islam, a Malaysian nongovernmental organization promoting women’s empowerment within an Islamic framework, was attended by 250 scholars and activists, female and male, from some 47 countries.

Individuals and NGOs are involved or supporting Musawah by conducting consultations and research on the situation in their countries. As the movement’s international planning committee — comprised of 12 scholar-activists from 11 countries — met, it announced objectives which include:

• Strengthening women’s voices demanding equality and justice in the family at the national, regional and international levels

• Building analysis and strategies that bring together scholarship and experience regarding Muslim jurisprudence, human rights principles, fundamental rights guarantees, and the lived realities of families today

• Providing those advocating for rights in the family with tools and resources, including a Framework for Action

• Raising the visibility of initiatives advocating for equality and justice in the Muslim family

Over the five days of the conference, scholars highlighted the theoretical and theological basis supporting the objectives of Musawah, and activists shared their success and struggles from their home countries.

One very powerful example showcased at the conference was the Moroccan Mudawwana (Family Law) reforms act which illustrates how laws have adapted to the needs of the day and age. Most of the work of the Moroccan women’s groups was undertaken at the Maghreb regional level through efforts to share and build resources, especially by a coalition of women’s groups from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.

At the conference, activists from Morocco shared some of their strategies from their 10-year, ultimately successful, campaign to codify the equality of men and women in the Moroccan constitution.

In 2004, their efforts came to fruition. And since then, women’s groups in Morocco have been engaged in outreach and education to the public to help ensure that the laws and reforms are understood and carried out.

Another example came from Amira El-Azhary Sonbol of Egypt who de-mystified the notion that Islamic law is immutable by citing how laws based on Islam have shifted over the course of history and in different contexts.

“Today’s Shariah in law and practice has little to do with what was practiced in the Shariah courts of the pre-modern era.

“This is because Shariah is often confused with Fiqh, the latter being the products of deliberation of men to derive concrete legal rules from the Qur’an and the Sunnah. Fiqh is therefore not the law,” she stated .

Sonbol noted that any challenge to current family laws must reveal the true origins of these laws and the processes through which they were established. The practice of law must be compared with the development of Fiqh across time and place, and new laws developed through methods that were used before the modernized times.

Involving communities in asking for laws and punishments of transgressions of violence to be implemented is another vital component that was also touched upon as we were introduced to a multi-media campaign called “Bell Bajao” (Ring the Bell), which calls on young men to break the silence on domestic violence through television, Internet blogs and Facebook and through linking to the campaign on www.bellbajao.org.

Such examples do bring about hope that young men and women will carry the banner of justice forth.

Sara Farooqi of the Muslims for Progressive Values organization noted in the organization’s newsletter: “As my plane landed back in Pittsburgh and I trudged back home through the snow, I contemplated the word Musawah, equality. Reflecting on the five days of the conference, I could not help but feel peaceful, yet it was a peace tinged with a deep ache, a reality check. Yes, I thought, Musawah, an ideal we still strive toward, an ideal we must strive toward. The time is now. Let’s make it happen.”

Dr Margot Badran, Senior Fellow at the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim Christian Understanding, Georgetown University in Washington D.C. stated: “Here we are in the early 21st Century, tackling the last major issue: Equality in the family. I do believe that equality and justice for women in Muslim communities is the final frontier in the territory of unresolved issues. Integral to achieving equality in the Muslim family is also legal equality. The power and energy of global collective action — such as what we have seen here at Musawah — will help achieve this.”

The writer, a Young Global Leader, and an international poet can be reached at: [email protected]

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