reforming islam? ida lichter

While ground battles rage in Syria, and with unrest in Libya and Egypt continuing to occupy Western focus, another war beneath the surface of media attention continues to rage within muslim countries closer to home. Outside Middle Eastern centres of conflict, too little attention has been paid to reforms daily fought by Muslim women across the globe for equality and freedom from violence. Into this setting, Ida Lichter’s Muslim Women Reformers redraws our attention to the separate bravery of women- both secular and religious- to gain basic individual freedoms. “Many have not been given a significant voice,” writes Lichter,

 There is considerable ignorance of those determined individuals and organisations, particularly in muslim countries, who are dedicated to the reform of gender discrimination by challenging discriminatory laws and ideology, often at great personal risk.

It is their plight western feminists are in danger of betraying through a respect of ‘culture’ above individual rights, says Lichter.

Her prodigious research highlights individual women reformers through concise biographies in the specific settings where the rights to vote, drive, dress, and resist the abuse of religiously sanctioned violence form an often life and death struggle. This approach adds to the scope of literature examining Islam in general and corrects the singular image of a unified Islamic ‘world’. Within this frame, whole regions are shown in the flux of competing forces, women’s lives hinged precariously to the outcomes of political and religious conflict.

Women’s rights, says Lichter, should be made central to our future foreign policy. Current instability threatens even supposedly ‘moderate’ religious countries. Neighbouring Australia, where Lichter lives, Indonesia’s 86% Muslim population comprises the largest Islamic country in the world, with 12.7% of the world’s total identified Muslims.

Prior to 1945, the Dutch colonial government was largely in support of the Indonesian women’s movement, which had emerged in the twentieth century.

Despite being a signatory to UN conventions against gender discrimination at a national level, the process of achieving gender equality in Indonesia has become more difficult since its independence.  With Islamic separatists threatening to break from its power, the national government ceded much of its authority since 2001 through regional autonomy laws, divesting power to local and more traditionally inclined groups. These have tended to frame patriarchal practices through literal interpretations of Islamic scripture. Local sharia by-laws, enforced in 16 of 32 provinces, have restricted women’s economic opportunities, freedom of movement, dress, and roles in public. Qur’anic punishments have surfaced among these regions, most notably in Aceh, which in 2009 legalised stoning ‘adulterers’.

Through its Marriage Law (1975) the government allowed for fatwas (religious legal edicts) to be governed from a local level. The Legal Aid Foundation of the Indonesian Womens Association for Justice records rising levels of polygamy and child marriage in some areas despite official restrictions. The World Health Organisation (WHO) cites religious encouragement of child marriage and female genital mutilation as main causes of Indonesia’s maternal death rate, among the highest in Southeast Asia.

Alongside reformers such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Somalia) and Wafa Sultan (Syria),  Lichter’s Muslim Women Reformers also chronicles feminists that have fought for equality on a religious footing, such as in Indonesia. Indonesian feminist groups like Rahmina and Musawah have tried to situate their political objectives on religious grounds, in part responding to Islamists’ use of religion to enforce oppression. Rahmina’s director Erdani ascribes the rising influence of Islamists in Indonesia to Saudi funded Wahhabists, who have used regional instability to further political ends.

Part of groups like Rahmina’s attempt to bring about equality through re-readings of Islamic scripture may also be tactical. Indonesia has not been accommodating of secular feminism where it contradicts state-based authority. As Lichter notes, Gerwani, one of Indonesia’s largest women’s groups, was banned for its association with the communist party (PKI). Thousands of its members were raped or killed as part of an anti-communist purge by Suharto’s forces. Rahmina’s own re-focus attempts to debate its contextual interpretations of Islam against equally ‘authentic’ gender-biased religious law.

Re-readings have forcefully critiqued popular Islamic texts, in arguing for women’s representation during the 2001 election of Sukarnoputri, a female head of state, and in advocating for religiously sanctioned domestic violence to be criminalised. Despite its more delicately waged successes in fighting for equality in Indonesia, Rahmina’s approach has also risked further reinforcing the role of religion and its interpretation as a basis for Indonesia’s civil legal structure.

Lichter’s Muslim Women Reformers corrects the impression of silence on the part of reformers throughout the Islamic world, and demonstrates more than ever the need for modern reformers in the West, including governments, to chorus these voices against oppression, and make use through aid and diplomatic efforts the opportunities these reformers represent.

Freedom for women in Muslim countries would unlock the potential of half their populations and provide a resource for social and economic development.

Lichter’s inspiring catalogue of voices should encourage modern reformers aswell as alarm readers to the fragile opportunities for progress now at risk ♦

Muslim Women Reformers: Inspiring Voices Against Oppression is available from Prometheus Books. Ida Lichter MD is psychiatrist and frequent columnist for online news-site HuffingtonPost.

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