Islamic Law Endangers Women’s Rights
Ayaan Hirsi Ali has a powerful piece in today’s OpinionJournal on the relationship between Sharia law and women’s rights.
In every society where family affairs are regulated according to instructions derived from the Shariah or Islamic law, women are disadvantaged. The injustices these women are exposed to in the name of Islam vary from extreme cruelty (forced marriages; imprisonment or death after rape) to grossly unfair treatment in matters of marriage, divorce and inheritance.
Muslim women across the world are caught in a terrible predicament. They aspire to live by their faith as best they can, but their faith robs them of their rights. Some women have found a way out of this dilemma in the principle of separation of organized religion and state affairs. They fight an uphill battle to achieve and hold on to their basic rights. Two cases demonstrate just how difficult that struggle can be, in the context of new as well as established democracies.
The first is the draft constitution of Iraq, now due next week. Iraqi women like Naghem Khadim, demonstrating on the streets of Najaf, are fighting to prevent an article from being put in the constitution that would establish that the legislature may make no laws that contradict Shariah edicts. The second case is the province of Ontario, in Canada. There, Muslim women led by Homa Arjomand, an activist of Iranian origin, are fighting–using the Canadian Charter of Rights–to keep Shariah from being applied as family law through a so-called Arbitration Act passed as law in Ontario in 1992.
Canadian women are told that the Arbitration Act of 1992 was passed in order to provide citizens with the opportunity to resolve minor conflicts through mediation and thereby save valuable court time. They are reassured that Muslim women in Canada have nothing to fear because parties must enter into arbitration out of their free choice, and that there are enough limits to safeguard the rights of women. The Muslim women’s arguments that “free choice” is relative when you are psychologically, financially and socially dependent on your family, clan or religious group seem to fall on deaf ears. The populations of battered Muslim women in “tolerant” Canada’s women’s shelters seem to be ignored. In Canada, battered Muslim women say that their husbands told them that it is a God-given right to hit them. If the current Iraqi constitution goes through, Iraqi wife-abusers will be able to add “It is my constitutional right to beat you.”
An Iraqi constitution is necessary, and the need for urgency is apparent, but urgency is a bad argument for passing a bill that strips half the nation of its rights. In Ontario, minorities come first and individual women within minorities last, living as second-class citizens and suffering in silence.
Ceding of judicial authority to religious bodies under the guise of “arbitration” seems an exceedingly odd thing for the Canadians to do. I would agree that “voluntary” is not always cut and dried in these situations.
As to the Iraqi constitution, I would certainly prefer to keep Islamic law out of the mix. Anything but a token nod to Sharia and anything like “democracy” are all but mutually exclusive. My cursory understanding of what has been written is that the acknowledgement of Islam is indeed largely perfunctory and cultural. Obviously, if it is much more than that, it will be a bad thing from a Western perspective.
That said, the ideal of national self-determination is at the heart of democracy. The Iraqis have a right to their own mistakes. Even in the West, anything approaching “equality” for women is a recent development, indeed.
Update: Russell Newquist contrasts this with Japan’s MacArthur Constitution, an analogue that occured to me as well. Russ’ analysis of the differences is quite right.