ISTANBUL (TrustLaw)—When it comes to Islamic law, one short verse in the Koran poses one very big obstacle to advocates for Muslim women’s rights--but they may have found a way around it.
The key is fighting medieval interpretations of the Koran with modern scholarship, according to Dr Ziba Mir-Hosseini, a professor and legal anthropologist on Islamic law at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).
She spoke at a session called “Men as Providers: The unmaking of a legal fiction in Muslim family laws” at the 12th International Forum on women’s rights by the Association for Women’s Rights in Development.
The “fiction,” she said, resides in the Koran’s Sura 4, verse 34, or 4:34 for short. She described it as “the DNA of patriarchy” in Islamic law as it apparently enshrines the supremacy of men over women, since it is the responsibility of men to provide for and maintain the woman and the family.
It is an outdated fiction, Mir-Hosseini said, because it is predicated on a false assumption in modern life where not all men provide for their families and in many families women also work and contribute.
Only one sentence in length, the verse exerts enormous limits on women’s economic and social rights throughout the Islamic world, influences civil laws and inhibits some countries from either signing or fully implementing the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
The verse at issue:
"Men are the maintainers of women because Allah has made some of them to excel others and because they spend out of their property;the good women are therefore obedient, guarding the unseen as Allah has guarded; and (as to) those on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them, and leave them alone in the sleeping-places andbeat them then if they obey you, do not seek a way against them; surely Allah is High, Great."
Mir-Hosseini is a co-founder of Musawah, or Equality, a project spanning the Islamic world, which seeks to restore equality and justice for men and women in Muslim family law. Such equality, Musawah asserts, was the original intent of Islam before it became subverted by later interpretations of the Koran. New scholarship is being used to support that view.
Because Muslim family laws are regarded by many adherents to be divinely ordained, not only is reform difficult but women’s demands for reform are viewed by some as heresy, according to a Musawah research report.
Reform may be tough but the stakes are high, said Marwa Sharafeldin, a researcher at SOAS. Because the current interpretation of verse 4:34 confers dominance on men, it extends certain rights to men, which vary in practice from country to country, but can include the right to:
--a greater share of inheritance
--grant or withhold permission to female family members to travel, open bank accounts, register land in their names, marry, divorce or travel
--decide if women can use contraception and when they have marital sex
--control the citizenship, education, healthcare and marriage of children
The impact of verse 4:34 is particularly great on women heading households, said Nani Zulminarni, national coordinator in Indonesia for Pekka, a group supporting such women. Many of these women have been abandoned by their husbands, but such men still exert rights to control the lives of their wives and children, she said.
The AWID conference, which has drawn over 2,000 women to Istanbul, ends a four-day run on April 22.
This article first appeared in TrustLaw on 21 April 2012 and is authored by Lisa Anderson.
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