Vivienne Stacey discusses women’s rights in Islam. This topic is continually debated as Muslims wrestle with reforming Islam to be more compatible with the twenty-first century. She discusses how Islamic law is developed as well as reformed. This process has significant implications for Muslim women’s rights and the ongoing process of reforming Islam.

These lectures were given at Columbia International University in partnership with the Zwemer Center for Muslim Studies. The Zwemer Center was founded in 1979 and exists to offer comprehensive courses on Islam, facilitate research, foster dialogues, offer seminars, conduct training, and provide resources for effective witness and ministry among Muslims. We also have a course study guide for these lectures that you might find helpful.
Here starts the auto-generated transcription of Vivienne Stacey’s Lecture on Women’s Rights in Islam:

In this, session, we’re looking further at human rights in Islam, and we will look at it in general again, and then more specifically in relation to women. Traditionalists and modernists in Islam are whenever so divided as on the question of the position and rights of women. New laws relating to the position of women have been introduced in many Muslim lands. Reform laws have often been linked to a new way of us interpreting the Quran. When you think of it, the Quran is divine law.

It’s an internal book. So how can you change divine law? That’s the basic question. How can a divine law be amended? In adapting and interpreting Quranic teaching for the modern world, four principles can be observed.

1st, a procedural device by which the reformers did not change the divine law, but gave orders that it was not to be applied. That’s one way. The courts, in certain circumstances, were not to hear a case. 2nd, laws are formulated partly from one school of law and partly from another or from several. There are four main schools of Islamic law, and, generally, one is prevalent in a certain part of the world.

The Hanabi law in Pakistan and India, I think. But one way that the jurists have tried to accommodate what’s happening in the modern world and to up, as it were, bring a ruling to bear on the modern world is to take something from one school of law and then something else relating to that from a second school of law and even a 3rd or a 4th. So bringing together, points that might, support each other from the different schools of law, you can come up with a different interpretation. So that’s basically the idea. And the third way, a new use of consensus.

The word is Ijma for consensus, the Arabic word, ijma, if you want to transliterate it. It involves going back to the original sources and making fresh deductions. Consensus in in Islam means the agreement of the community of Muslims. Muz Mohammed is reported to have said that his community would never agree on error. My community will never agree in error on error.

Finally, administrative orders based on one of the three principles described above, and sometimes with something added, which is not contrary or repugnant to Islam, have made possible the adoption of reforms even in Islamic states. So these, law in Islam is a very important subject. It’s it’s this law and theology is the sort of very essence of Islam in many ways, you could say. And so, Islamic law is very important. So how does it you adjust a book written in the 7th century AD, and addressing a certain kind of situation, and a a small book too.

How do you, interpret and live by it in the 20th century or the 21st century? How do you apply it? So you have the traditions to help. You have, the schools of law, which have become more formalized, and so there is quite clear what this school of law is saying and what that is. So maybe there’s nothing said about a certain point in the Hanover School of Law.

So you take something from another school of law, and you make a a new interpretation, which will be relevant to the situation of this century. That’s the general idea. Now it’s quite true that Islam gets a bad press in the West on the subject of basic human rights, and I think we’ve already gone into the sort of different world view. We’re really talking about different world views, because Islam in Islam, God, the one God, Unitarian model of God, the Unitarian, not Trinitarian model of God is the center of that worldview. So everything has to come to 1.

You have one community. Heaven and the, this world and the next is to be eventually 1. The world is in 2 parts, the world under which is the part of the world where Islam rules, and the part of the world where Islam is yet to rule, but it comes to be 1 as Islam becomes the religion as the whole of mankind, as it was in the beginning when Adam and, the time of Adam, that’s ideal Islam going back to Adam as the first one who submitted to God, therefore, the first Muslim. Historically, the faith starts in the 17th 7th century, but, in thinking, it’s it’s or in concept, it’s it’s starts at the beginning, because it’s the ideal religion of man, and different prophets come to call man back to God. So, this is a worldview matter, and you cannot match the world, this Unitarian worldview, with other worldviews.

There are bound to be things that don’t quite match. Islam is god centered and not man centered. Social Islamic social concepts do not separate the individual from the state, but are both part of one system, accountable to the one god. And sec secularists see the need to protect the individual by law so that the state does not exceed its bounds, and such an idea is foreign to Islam. I’m recapitulating from what we said in the last session.

But I want to go on, to some more, exact matters concerning, women in Islam. Country after country has introduced, reforms in laws for women. In one of the earliest was Tunisia in 1956, the code of personal status, fixed minimum ages for marriage. It totally abolished polygamy, provided that no divorce may be pronounced outside, and it provided that no divorce may be pronounced outside a court of law court of law, gave women the same right of divorce as men. This was followed by a law disallowing unilateral repudiation of of the wife by the husband and the introduction of judiciary divorce with a quality of appeal for each spouse.

In 1959, the Tunisian constitution legally ended all sex, discrimination. Tunisian men and women can ideally take an equal share in political life, not only in voting, but in the election to any public office, including that of president of the republic. In practice, and this is where the rub is, the in practice, few women are elected to public office. The number of women, magistrates, lawyers, and plea police increases annually, and women also hold jobs in the media. So things are moving, but the basic problem here is that having obtained rights, I just mentioned, Eunice and I will mention 1 or 2 other countries, but we can’t go through them all.

But the point is, having obtained them, how do they exercise them? I mean, how are they exercised on their behalf, and how does, how does an illiterate woman make some kind of stand or progress or protest when the law of the country says 16 or 17, whatever it is, is the minimum age for marriage when her birth is not, documented. And, so she doesn’t really know how old she is, and and probably doesn’t know much about the laws because she hasn’t been told or educated. So obtaining rights is one thing, and exercising them is another. Tunisia is very advanced in its laws in a sense.

Quite interesting to look at what Gaddafi did in Libya. He concerned himself with young people, and there was a great increase of primary school teachers. Who put a great emphasis on this. And it’s, the government has tried to change attitudes through reforms, such as the suppression of dowry payments and a policy favoring the emancipation of women. But there’s an ideological hardening within the regime, and, it doesn’t get worked out as much in a society as it might.

And it’s also difficult to mensch to measure what’s happening in a society where many freedoms are suppressed. It’s, so Egypt. Well, the great reformer of of of modern Egypt, the thinker and modernist and reformer, Muhammad Abdu, had a profound intro, in what should we say, influence about in the 19 twenties, I think, in in that age. A series of laws relating to status and rights of women were passed in 1920, 1928, 1929. And then in 1943, a law of inheritance was passed, and this made provision for inheritance by orphaned grandchildren.

Now, here’s an issue. The Quran says that, a woman will get half, a daughter will get half what a brother gets. And that’s clearly, we’ve read this and studied it in male is responsible for the provision of the family and, has extra economic responsibilities, so a daughter gets half. So what about inheritance then? And what about that might be just in a certain society where there’s the extended family and all that, but what about under urbanization?

What about these mega cities? Cairo will soon be a mega city if it isn’t already. A third of Egyptians live in Cairo. So it’s, if it’s not a make mega city, it’s gonna be one soon. It isn’t.

I think they say 20,000 or 20,000,000 or 25,000,000. I was reading about Mexico this morning, has the capital of Mexico has 25,000,000 people. It is a mega city. But in the Islamic world, they’re going to be megacities. Karachi is will be 1.

These are at the moment, they’re perhaps in over 10,000,000, but they’re not yet 20 or 25,000,000. In those kind of cities, people come to get work, and, they have to leave behind their villages, and their, what happens in in in the in Balochistan, in the further distant places of the country, and they come rather uprooted and and rather alone. We’re gonna look at this when we look at globalization. We’ll look at globalization and postmodernity and all this. It it arises, I think, out of the the this this tremendous going to the city, where you may have 2 doors down the road, somebody from a totally different background than yours.

The extended family may not be there at all, and it may be 500 or a 1000 miles away. So in that kind of situation, women need to inherit, as much as men inherit. I might need as much as my brother if I’m in, if I were a Muslim woman in that situation. And so there are attempts in not only to improve the position of women, but to improve the provisions for children. Pakistan called its major reform in among women as it were.

The major reform was in 1961, and it was the family laws ordinance. It was family laws ordinance, So better provision provisions for children and for orphans under that. But still, this basic question, there may be rights given, but how are they to be exercised if people aren’t always aware of them? The more that education spreads, and you have tremendous changes in education, Gaddafi gives equal chances to men and to girls and boys in education. Go to any Libyan town.

I’ve been to quite a few. There’s a major school arrangement, schooling arrangement, and a a major educational, I mean, medical arrangement, hospitals, schools, they’re everywhere. But, Saudi in one generation, really, is becoming totally literate. Tremendous change. And what about, fax and email and all this?

It’s all spreading, And there will be people who know the rights. Some of the keen Islamic lawyers who Muslims like, Hera Jalani, sister of Elva Jahanghir, these 2 campaigners for human rights in Pakistan, They have objected on the question of of rapes, anti rape societies, and abuse of women. They have campaigned on this field, and I I met an an African some while ago, and he told me that in Kenya, there’s an anti rape society formed, women getting together, to deal with rape and to deal with, the abuse of women and rape. You see, the Quran says, 4 male witnesses for rape, that would condemn both parties. But, for male witnesses, and who’s likely to to see 90% of the rapes that take place anyway?

But the punishment, certainly for the woman, may be death. It may not be death by the law of the country, but it may be by custom. And I have I lived in this hospital in in Pakistan. I didn’t work in it, but I I lived on its campus. We would have very sad cases.

Perhaps a a cousin had raped a young woman, a young somebody, 17 or something, and she’s brought to the hospital for an abortion, and that as a Christian hospital, the hospital would not perform an abortion, and we knew that she would probably be killed by the family. It was a disgrace to the honor of the family. Or somebody whose husband has gone off to the Gulf countries, and she gets pregnant, her husband’s been away a year, well, this the it’s very likely, unless she can get an abortion somewhere that she will be killed, because in that part, even if the law says something about it, it doesn’t, the local custom and pressure, whole business of shame and dishonor, brings that pressure, but it’s unlikely that she would, survive. But, the Quran seems not to to give full human rights to the women to the woman on this question of, adultery. So but in some states, like Tunisia, there would be legally fair, hearing for those who knew how to apply for it.

Now, I’ve traveled quite a bit in Tunisia, and I hope to go there in February again. You have a situation of the major cities where people aren’t women are quite a lot of them well educated, and they would know their rights. But if you go to some of the interior of the country and some of the south of it, there are very backward areas. If you go to Sidi Baiz, which is about the middle of the country, quite a backward area, and I can I would guess that most of the women would not know their rights? So it’s one thing to obtain rights, it’s another thing to be able to exercise them.

But in Pakistan, we had the problem, and it’s still, as far as I know, exists. The Quran says about the testimony of 2 women equaling that of 1 man. If there’s a coffee over there, if anyone needs to buy one, of a new debate on women and Islam in Pakistan, headed to the doctor and the ladies. The doctor actually was a a Muslim theologian who used to appear on, television representing a very conservative view, and it sort of was a radio television debate on on, some of these issues. But particularly, the issue came up of, it says here, the writer puts it, cutting women down to half.

Because under the law in Pakistan until 19 I’m not sure when this came in. It’s sometime in the 19 seventies. See, the you had the family laws ordinance of 1961, and for a long time, women had had the vote anyway. But there was a a growing fundamentalism in Pakistan, so sometime in the seventies, and I I I’m sorry, I don’t know the date, but, there was the move to introduce into the courts the ruling that, 2 women were required, to equal the testimony of 1 man. So if if a woman had something to say, and on the other hand, a man had something to say, which was different, The testimony of the one woman was not enough.

It had to be 2 women saying that. And it really split the is it gonna be 1 and 1? And, the, the judiciary, the Supreme Court, I suppose, made the decision that the judge in each case could decide, whether it’s 1 to 1 and 2, or 1 to 2. Now that made it very unpopular for both. It it made the whole nation, mad, really, because the traditionalists wanted 2 to 1, and the more modern and the secularists, they wanted 1 they wanted 1 to 1.

So to leave it in the hands of a judge, each on each individual case didn’t satisfy anybody. I don’t know if it was, I don’t know what would have happened if there had been a ruling or if they stayed as they were, but, this is was a debate, the doctor and the ladies, a new debate on women in Islam in Pakistan, and it arose over this matter. And there there there are other areas, in which these matter these things come up about, the question of the custody of children and how how fair, that is for the wife, I suppose, and there’s a divorce, who has custody and for how long? Some of these matters seem to be very much in favor of the father and and not of the of the mother. So family laws is a is a an issue.

You might want to ask some questions, perhaps. While you’re thinking of your questions, let me mention some articles or some references in books. There’s an interesting book, Women in the Muslim World, edited by Lois Beck and Nikki Kedi, Harvard University Press 1978. 1 the second chapter, is on legal reform as an indicator of women’s status in Muslim nations. Well, that’s or rather, that’s 20 years old, but still, one, one of the comments she makes here, the Elizabeth White, the the writer, says that, the Muslim majority nations of the world have low rates of reported economic activity by women, low female literacy, and low female school enrollment at all levels.

We’ve talked about the improvements in certain countries already, in Saudi and other wealthy countries. But in Pakistan, and I would say this is still true today, in Pakistan, 5th 80 5 percent of the 10 to 14 year old girls are illiterate. And in Pakistan, Libya, and Iran, 95% of women over 60 are illiterate. Throughout the world, the poor, the rural, and the female, half of the population are least likely to be educated. Okay.

How do these people if there are rights given, how do they get them implemented implemented? So there’s a long way to go, even in the country which does allow, women to have the vote. Pakistan, allows women to have the vote, and, generally, they are instructed how to vote. So that’s, one article which I found very interesting. What is required in some countries is a civil registration of births and deaths, but if you don’t have it, then what?

And if you have rules, laws about the minimum age for marriage and all this, and it’s not enforced, then what? Somebody may be married below the minimum age, but there won’t be an enforcement of it. Of of, there won’t be a, even if it’s challenged, nothing will be done, no punishment will be given for those who arrange this marriage. Is here’s an exa an article on human rights in Islam, and, this is a statement about through about mus through Muslim statement on human rights in Islam. In 1980, a seminar on human rights in Islam was organized by the International Commission of Jurists together with the University of Kuwait and the Union of Arab Lawyers.

So if you want to, study this, you can photocopy it. One purpose of the seminar was set forth in a single sentence. The time has come to refute the idea that the initiation and continued development of the concept of human rights must be attributed exclusively to Western culture. And then Islam was first to recognize basic human rights almost 14 centuries ago, and so on. Okay.

You can read that if you want to. Then, Nazame Islam, process and conflicts in Pakistan, in Pakistan’s program of Islamization with special reference to the position of women. Quite a a lengthy paper, but when president Zia when well, he was general Zia, when he took over by martial law in the late seventies, he introduced Nizami Mustafa, the ordering of society according to the way of Islam. So this is a study on how this affected his introducing of a different, legal code. We had 3 legal codes.

We had martial law law martial law, so those codes. We had civil law, and then we had this religious law, and they operated in together for a while. Women in and law reform in contemporary Islam. Again, another article from, Kedi’s, book, Beck and Kedi. And one here, I think I’ve already mentioned the political status of women in the Arab Gulf States.

That’s from the no. I haven’t mentioned this. This is Middle East Journal. Middle East Journal, volume 43, number 1, winter 1989. And, I’ll only I’ll conclude by telling you one thing about the political status of women in the Arab world gulf states.

When the queen went to Saudi Arabia some years ago, she was well received and given the status of an honorary woman an an honorary man. I’m sorry.