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PRESS: Musawah Calls on States to Commit to More Egalitarian Laws, Gender-Just Societies

(Kuala Lumpur) 15 May 2019—On International Day of Families 2019, Musawah calls on State governments to end discrimination against women in marriage and family, to enact reforms that better comply with their treaty obligations to uphold human rights for everyone, and to promote gender equality in families in nuanced and substantive ways that reflect the needs and realities of today’s families and build toward more gender-just societies.

Since 2010, Musawah’s research on the concepts of qiwamah and wilayah, which are commonly understood to legitimise men’s authority over women within classical Islamic jurisprudence, have shown that these concepts permeate many modern Muslim family laws and States’ legal understandings of marriage. The outdated notion that husbands maintain their wives in exchange for their obedience continues to be the prevailing logic behind laws and practices in Muslim contexts that discriminate against women on issues such as parental rights, divorce and polygamy.  

“Outdated, rigid ideas of gender roles and responsibilities for providing and caregiving have no place in today’s diverse families, and they certainly have no place being propped up in laws that discriminate against women. Yet marriage and family as an area of law remains the most intractable to reform because of the ways religion, tradition and culture are misused to justify resistance to reform,” said Zainah Anwar, executive director of Musawah. “From our work with activists on the ground, we know that more egalitarian family laws are necessary, and reforms in countries such as Tunisia and Morocco have shown that they are possible. It’s time for other States to step up to their obligations to ensure the full human rights of all of their citizens.”

Musawah’s thematic paper, “Who Provides? Who Cares? Changing Dynamics in Muslim Families” (2018) shows how this reliance on a classical hierarchical framework rather than modern lived realities leads to a large disconnect between the legal structures that govern family and marriage and people’s actual lives today, where women and men both act as providers, protectors and carers of their families, however those are constituted.

Diverse family structures, shifting demographics, and the reshaping of roles and responsibilities within the home and in societies have heightened the need to address laws and policies that no longer respond to changing needs in favour of more egalitarian and just conceptions of familial relationships. The thematic report references stories from various contexts to illustrate the changing trends in spousal roles and responsibilities:

“All of the husbands expected their wives to take part in providing for the family, to be obedient and submissive wives at the same time and to take care of all domestic chores.” (Indonesia Country Report, 2014, p. 68)

“I carry 65 percent of the household, and he 35 percent. He feels bad about this–I know–I think if his financial woes are lifted, he will be in a better place, he will behave better. His ego just can’t accept that I bear most of the household expenses.” (Rafia, a 35-year-old teacher from Bangladesh, Bangladesh Country Report, 2014, p.23)

“In our family, I am the one who goes out to work while my husband stays home to take care of our children. My husband does not feel bad that he is not able to support the family but we believe that our nafaqah (maintenance) is God’s blessings. God gave more blessings to me so whatever I have, we share. … I know how hard it is for him to take care of the kids for eight hours straight.” (Nadia, 32-year-old married mother of three children from Malaysia, Malaysia Country Report, 2014, p. 10)

Yet, one of the most intractable barriers to women and girls experiencing equality is in the area of Muslim family laws. Over 60 percent of the 440 reservations entered against the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) are based on religion, and the most reserved article of all UN human rights treaties is Article 16, which recognises equality between women and men in marriage and family relations. States governments resist civil society demands for reform and misuse Islam to justify violations of constitutional rights to equality and non-discrimination, and their non-compliance with international treaty obligations.

Replacing discriminatory laws with legal frameworks that advance gender equality is integral to ending discrimination against women and achieving gender equality, in turn enhancing the well-being of women and the stability of family life and communities. This will, in no uncertain terms, accelerate the global agenda for achieving sustainable development through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The time for equality is now.

To learn more about Musawah’s specific recommendations for States, the private sector, civil society, Muslim communities, and individual couples and families, read “Who Provides? Who Cares? Changing Dynamics in Muslim Families”, which is available in English and in Arabic.

Contact: Alex McCarthy, Communications Programme Officer, at info@musawah.org.