By Sara Erkal
March 5, 2014
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was adopted by the United Nations in 1979. It has since been signed by all but seven nations: Iran, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, the United States, Palau, and Tonga. Many of the nations that have ratified CEDAW have done so with disclaimers in the form of declarations and reservations. These nations have been accused of only symbolically ratifying CEDAW, as they have permitted injustices like honor killings, forced marriage, and the imprisonment of rape victims.
This poses several problems in the realm of international law. First, domestic law in many Middle Eastern nations is based on interpretations of the Quran, which may or may not be legitimate. Second, the often-times incorrect association of female subordination with Islam furthers an ideological gap between Islam and the rest of the world, particularly the West. And finally, if reservations to CEDAW are so extensive as to change the fundamental nature of the document, the legitimacy of CEDAW and other internationally recognized agreements is largely reduced.
After September 11, 2001, Islamophobia has been rampant in the West and particularly in the United States. The War on Terror has aided the cultivation of anti-Muslim sentiments. It is neither Islam nor the Quran that advocates violence against women, but rather individual interpretations of the Quran, which are, at the very least, contestable. The attribution of misogynistic laws to the Quran serves to deepen the fear and hatred so many Westerners seem to feel towards Islam.
International treaties are often aimed at creating some kind of unity between humans, regardless of culture, ethnicity or religion. They should foster a sense of community and a sense that, on some level, we are all members of a social contract. Further strengthening the divide between Islam and the West is not beneficial in any way, for such a divide hinders international politics and strains the already tenuous relationship between the East and the West.
More importantly, however, this possibly false attribution divides feminists. Western feminists often criticize Islam for subordinating women, which in turn angers Islamic feminists who do not wish to abandon their religion and culture and instead point fingers at Western women for not recognizing their own plight.
We must aim to develop a transnational form of feminism, one which can be applied to and adopted by women around the world. Instead of branding Islam as misogynistic or patriarchal, perhaps we should turn to Islamic legal scholars for alternative interpretations that allow equality of women while still maintaining religious authenticity. If the international community moves to secularize the feminist movement entirely, many Muslim women will turn away. This is not in the best interest of any feminist. In providing a solution to the problem of women’s rights in the Middle East, I would like to turn to Fatima Mernissi, considered an authority on Muslim feminism. Mernissi suggests a re-reading of the Quran and other relevant texts with an emphasis on the gender-egalitarian nature of Islam, which is something often overlooked, hidden or misunderstood. Mernissi and other Muslim scholars advocate a reformist approach to feminism; one that regards Quranic verses as the authority, but uses secular or Western feminism as a starting point in an attempt to bridge the gap between Islam and the West.
Mernissi suggests that we ignore the Quranic verses which ambiguously, or perhaps unambiguously, enforce male dominance as these verses are not in line with the overall nature of Islam. Mernissi attributes these verses to the social, political and military structures in place at the time that they were written and suggests that we interpret them with a more modern framework in mind. It is important to recognize that Islam once freed many women from oppression in a society where “‘…women were treated as chattel, as property with no rights in a totally male-dominated society.’” There is little logic in assuming that a religion that once liberated women might suddenly seek to oppress them.
Traditional interpretations of sacred texts can sometimes lead to theories of male dominance, while modern interpretations tend to lean towards gender equality. Naturally, I would posit that interpretations compatible with gender equality would benefit women’s rights in creating a bridge between Western and Islamic feminists, all in an effort to create a more unified feminist movement. Let us move towards achieving this goal.