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.


sharia’s challenge to Australian equality


A recent case before the ACT Supreme Court has again drawn attention to the treatment of women in Sharia law, renewing calls among rights activists against its acceptance within Australia’s legal system.

In March, the daughter of Ms Mariem Omari, a devout Muslim, contested an inheritance worth only half of the financial share given to each of her brothers.

Australian Federation of Islamic Councils president Hafez Kaseem, through his spokesman Mr Keysar Trad, said the division of assets in favour of males, like the Omari case, reflected Muslim men’s responsibility under Sharia to support their wives.

AFIC called for provisions of the Islamic code to be formally included into family law, part of its submission last year to a Federal Government inquiry into multiculturalism.

Mr Trad said secular law failed to reflect their faith and urged inclusion of Sharia law for Muslims where it applies to marriage, divorce, contracts and custody in Australia.

“We should be allowed to resolve our issues in-house,” Mr Trad said.

“We’re a well-established religion and all we’re asking for is to be a self-regulatory mechanism.”

Ayaan Hirsi Ali addresses the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne, April 2012. Photo courtesy of Bruce Woolley

Ex-Muslim, author and women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, visiting Australia in April, has warned against any government recognition of Sharia, and said women’s unequal legal protection also placed them in extreme danger.

A statement by the Ayaan Hirsi Ali Foundation said Sharia encouraged forced marriage because contracts were signed between a groom and a bride’s father and granted child custody to the father in all divorce cases.

Last year, The Australian reported four separate cases of forced marriage that reached the Family Court involving immigrant families. One case involved a girl bride just 13 years of age.

Federal Attorney-General Nicola Roxon responded in recent months by introducing criminal punishments for those forcing women into arranged marriages.

Sharia laws have widespread informal use within Muslim communities, but Mr Trad acknowledged tight-knit faith communities exerted pressure on disputing parties – especially married parties – to consent to Sharia mediation, rather than to settle disputes in Australian courts.

“You’d expect both to consent,” he said.

“If a contract is by both, an obligation is to both, and a marriage is a solemn contract to satisfy the will of God.

“Secular law encroaches on all of that.”

Mr Trad denied suggestions Sharia law, that stated evidence given to a court by a woman was worth half of a man’s, meant unequal legal protection.

“In any money dispute, it’s expected as written in the Koran, for evidence to be given by two women for every one man,” he said.

“This is physiological.

“Women have pains and mood swings as a result of their menstrual cycle and can’t be expected the burden of clear heads on financial matters.”

He said fathers should also receive custody of children in most divorce cases.

“Mothers should not be placed in the position of supporting children and having a career.”

Director for the Centre for Muslim States and Societies Samina Yasmeen said both Muslims and non-Muslims were confused by cultural practices claimed to be part of its laws.

Open-minded Muslims feared to speak against Sharia’s more ‘orthodox’ interpretations, Professor Yasmeen said.

“There’s too much focus on imams as a main source of identity for Muslims in Australia.”

Sharia could be interpreted with equal respect for human rights, she said, but framing its codes into Australian law would only enforce its literal, more rigid meanings.

Professor Yasmeen said AFIC’s proposals to the Federal government inquiry represented a narrow interpretation of Sharia, but that most Muslim Australians also held a literal view of its codes.

“Muslim organisations in Australia are not unanimous, but if brought into the Australian legal system it will go to the extreme, enforcing patriarchal practices with a religious colour.

“If people knowingly move to a secular country, they should live within it. If we make too many concessions, we are in danger of losing the secular freedom of the law.” ♦

a ‘Nomad’ standing firm: ayaan hirsi ali

Best-selling author Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s electrifying latest work Nomad confronts one of the defining challenges for modernity in the West: how to assimilate; if possible, the traditions and religious beliefs of peoples from Muslim cultures to Western countries like Britain, Australia and the United States while upholding in the culture the right of individuals to free speech, belief and gender equality.

As it stands, Hirsi Ali argues convincingly that Islam’s fundamental tenets – without major reform –  will continue only to ‘clash’ with what she sees as the West’s defining attributes.

Hirsi Ali’s Nomad details as in her previous memoir Infidel her lifetime shift through four Islamic societies: Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia, and its contrasts with The Netherlands, to which she escaped, and the US.  Hirsi Ali has experienced society operating under Islamic precepts in its many cultural guises. In particular, her early life of domestic servitude, of genital mutilation, enduring abuse and forced marriage illuminates much of Islamic society’s troubling regard to the status of women.

A political activist in the US, Hirsi Ali’s Nomad goes further, addressing key challenges for the future of Islam in Western countries; how and why its influence; through the spreading of Sharia law systems and other cultural traditions should be cause for alarm.

In any proceeding governed by Sharia law, a woman’s testimony is worth only half that of a man’s.

Under the sections of Sharia law civil code governing marriage and child custody, a marriage contract is between the woman’s father (or other male guardian) and her husband…

If a woman does obtain a divorce and later remarries, she loses custody of her children, even if the father is abusive.

Yet, despite obvious pressures to submit within any close-knit religious community, most especially on often less-educated women, Britain already incorporates Sharia law if both parties ‘consent’. In the last two years, survey results reveal at least 3000 women have been forced into marriage within the United States alone, while ‘honor killings’ remain hidden within general crime statistics. In 2008, crisis centers in Germany reported 3443 forced marriages, over 80% of these occurring within Muslim households, with a third of the victims pressured by death threats.

Many Australian commentators, through intentions of ‘tolerance’, dismiss these dangers as exaggerated cultural fears within a multicultural society, attempting to straddle a clash of two clearly unequal systems. However Hirsi Ali maintains such group culturism actually translates to inequality and violence to individuals, in these particular cases, to individual women. While 16 African countries have progressed to banning female genital mutilation as abuse, Australian medical organizations are even going to the extreme length of finding a middle ground between abusers and victims, conceding to perform ‘surgeries’ that attempt to appease parents seeking genital mutilation on their children.

In such a cloud of cultural relativism, it is refreshing that Hirsi Ali’s Nomad, through her close experience, maintains a clear-eyed clash, calling on western feminists to help champion Enlightenment values. Incorporating Sharia in the West is not the granting of cultural freedoms to immigrants, but the taking away of existing rights for these same new Australians, new Britons, new Americans, citizens accorded the legal equality most truly free citizens take for granted. For Hirsi Ali, it remains a prejudiced outlook not to expect from people of all cultures the modern and equal standing of all individuals under the law and their protection from culturally sanctioned abuse ♦

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations is available in bookstores and online from Free Press.

celebrating reason: ayaan hirsi ali

They were all figments of human imagination, mechanisms to impose the will of the powerful on the weak. From now on I could step firmly on the ground that was under my feet and navigate based on my own reason and self-respect. My moral compass was within myself, not in the pages of a sacred book. 

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Infidel: My Life

 Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an ardent feminist, atheist and best-selling author. Her autobiography Infidel details her escape from a life of oppression under her Muslim clan in Somalia to live in the comparatively secular West, first in The Netherlands, where she became a member of Parliament, and later as a political activist and founder of the AHA Foundation in the United States.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, AHA Foundation, Author and Rights CampaignerHirsi Ali will be attending as one of the keynote speakers at next year’s Global Atheist Convention A Celebration of Reason to be held in Melbourne Australia. (April 12-15) The event is expected to attract 4000 convention goers, and include other freethinking speakers, including authors of The God Delusion, biologist Richard Dawkins, and God is Not Great, journalist Christopher Hitchens.

Hirsi Ali has endured death threats, not for escaping an arranged marriage in her ‘home country’, but from Islamic extremists in Europe for her screenplay of Dutch filmmaker Theo VanGogh’s documentary Submission, which details the subjugation of women in Islamic societies. Theo Van Gogh was murdered in an Amsterdam street.

On fleeing Somalia she writes,

I [had] escaped. I ended up in Holland. With the help of many Dutch people, I managed to gain confidence that I had a future outside my clan. I decided to study political science, to discover why Muslim societies- Allah’s societies- were poor and violent, while the countries of the despised infidels were wealthy and peaceful. I was still a Muslim in those days. I had no intention of criticizing Allah’s will, only to discover what had gone so very wrong.

Ali’s roles as parliamentarian and activist for the plight of women and political refugees, and brave storyteller, will offer listeners to the Global Atheist Convention much to ponder. They will owe the greater measure of gender equality in the West that allows Hirsi Ali’s intellect to be read, heard and appreciated, the benefit gained from her insights and experience of life under tyranny. The audience will no doubt acknowledge the generally secular nature of Western democratic society for Hirsi Ali’s ability to critique the dogmas and rules that oppress populations of, curtail opportunity for, millions throughout the un/developing world.

One question remains; what role can Australia play in gaining the wisdom, intelligence and fierce bravery of those seeking political asylum to our shores, as Hirsi Ali had in Europe? Wouldn’t it be a tragedy both for they and us, if like the regimes they attempt to escape, we not accept and reward the contributions they have to offer? To turn away and turn them away?

Next year, Australians will owe Ayaan Hirsi Ali for coming so far to celebrate reason. That would indeed be lucky for us, and a responsibility to share with others ♦

[Quotes also taken from Ali, A.H. (2007) ‘How [and Why] I Became an Infidel’ in Christopher Hitchens Ed. The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Non-believer. Hirsi Ali is also author of The Caged Virgin: A Muslim Woman’s Cry for Reason and Nomad: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations]