Islamic women’s groups are voicing their outrage at a growing system of gender apartheid in the Muslim world. During the weeks preceding International Women’s Day, Muslim women throughout North Africa spoke out on television and in their communities.
Wassyla Tamzali, an Algerian lawyer and expert in Muslim women’s rights at UNESCO, commented, “Islamic countries have modernized many laws -- in the economy, education, commerce, politics, you name it .... But there is practically no movement in the status of women. When it comes to women’s rights, religion and theology are invoked.”
As families flock from rural areas in the Mediterranean countries to the cities, more and more women are attending universities to earn jobs as doctors, lawyers and businesswomen. But laws denying equal rights to women make surviving in the workplace, or as a single mother, increasingly difficult.
Fundamental Islamic policies in Iran and Turkey dictate what women can wear. In Afghanistan, women face punishment by death if they do not follow a dress code. Laws have been issued that prohibit the women from working outside the home or going out in public without a father, brother or son.
In Morocco, a woman cannot marry, name her children or go to work without the permission of a male relative. Moroccan women inherit half of the property and money that male siblings inherit, can be forced to marry or participate in polygamy and are routinely beaten.
Nouzha Skali, a pharmacist from Casablanca, said, “Legally we are still as helpless as the illiterate girls on the farms.... We are legal minors, and we depend on permission of our fathers, brothers or husbands.”
Many Muslim women’s groups are working to institute fair divorce and child-custody laws into civil law, rather than in the Mudawana, Muslim family law. Although a million signatures were collected in 1993 supporting reform, the changes actually enacted by male policymakers have made little difference.
Tamzali commented, “Muslim feminists have long argued that it is not the religion but the male interpretation of the Koran that keeps women oppressed, along with the texts that were added on in the Middle Ages .... So the way to reform had seemed to be to re-examine and reinterpret the religious texts. But efforts to reform Islam from within keep failing.”