Different Islamic organizations stage a procession outside the National Mosque protesting against equal inheritance rights of women. Dhaka, Bangladesh. March 14 2008. © Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews
‘NO, I don’t care about the women’s development policy. I mean, I don’t think it should be looked at in isolation,’ said Shameem Akhtar, feminist writer, filmmaker, a friend of many years.
She continued, ‘There are other questions that need to be raised simultaneously, the caretaker government’s patronisation of Jamaat, of religious forces that are inimical to women, its stand on the issue of 1971 war criminals. I want to know where it stands, not just throwaway statements made by this or that adviser. The policy is part of larger issues, whether the government wants to encourage social forces that enable women. Whether it really wants to build a democratic state and society, and this, of course, is linked to the issue of militarisation. Whether the military and its intelligence agencies will be made accountable to civilian authority. We need to learn from history. If the government suddenly approves the policy, the one announced on March 8, am I expected to dance in delight? Of course not, I won’t. I want to know what the government has up its sleeve.’
Shameem and I were talking about the incidents of March and April this year. The chief adviser had announced the National Women Development Policy 2008 on the eve of International Women’s Day. A section of Muslim clerics and some Islamic parties protested. Equal rights for women in terms of earned property violates Shariah law on inheritance. A woman should get only half of what her brother gets. Weekly demonstrations were held after Jumma prayers at Baitul Mukarram. Street marches, and calls of tougher action programmes followed; skirmishes with police turned the area in front of the national mosque into a ‘battlefield’. Rallies were held in Chittagong. The protests of Hathajari madrassah students turned violent.
The government formed a 20-member committee on March 27, consisting of Islamic scholars. Its task was to ‘identify inconsistencies in the policy as per Islamic rules and [to] suggest steps’. The review committee handed in their deliberations on April 17. They recommended that six sections of the policy be deleted, including the one that suggested the implementation of CEDAW, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. A further fifteen should be amended. Any decision regarding women’s rights, said the committee, should be taken ‘in the light of the Qur’an and Sunnah’.
AF Hassan Ariff, law, justice and parliamentary affairs adviser, hoped that the recommendations would remove the ‘language or interpretation gap’ created around the women development policy.
Colonial history and the imperial present
I had been under the illusion that Muslim laws were applicable to Muslims of the Indian subcontinent, since the beginning of Muslim rule. On reading Talal Asad’s thesis – changes in the Muslim family structure caused by British rule – I realised that things were not so simple. I remember ruefully thinking how little I know. Before British rule, wrote Asad, most Muslims and non-Muslims led largely similar lives. Muslim law was applied only in the urban centres, not in rural communities. This was not due to a lack of knowledge, but because social organisation, the nature of property rights and forms of livelihood, was the same for Hindus and Muslims. Being a Muslim meant following Muslim rites of marriage and burial, maybe having a Muslim name. Nothing more. State intervention in village life was largely centred around the assessment and collection of land revenue, or military recruitment.
Later, I came across Michael Anderson, and later still, Lata Mani’s writings. Reading Anderson made things clearer. One of the major problems of colonial control was to obtain simple, reliable and reasonably accurate understanding of native social life. The colonisers were perplexed at the multiplicity of local customs and practices, at the many forms of legal authority that existed. They found a solution in law, and legal texts. Anglo-Mohammedan jurisprudence was born in the first century of colonial rule. This meant legal assumptions, law officers, translations, textbooks, codifications, and new legal technologies. It also meant mistakes. The most celebrated one was the treatment of classical Islamic texts as binding legal codes. In other words, the Qur’an was mistakenly assumed to be a code of law. The colonisers thought that the social lives of Muslims followed what was written in the Qur’an. This was in contrast to the pre-British period, where legal texts were never directly applied. Instead, a qazi, someone who had proper authority, was morally sound and knowledgeable of local arrangements, would translate legal precepts into practice. Anderson assures us that colonial judicial administration gradually became more sophisticated, but still, a basic prejudice, he insists, remained. Texts were considered more important than interpretive practices.
Lata Mani’s conclusions are similar. Colonial discourse, she says, gave greater importance to brahmanic scriptures (Srutis, Smritis or Dharmashastras), not to custom or usage. It made a sharp distinction between the ‘Hindu’ and the ‘Islamic’, which were considered mutually exclusive and autonomous heritages. The creation of essentially Hindu, and essentially Muslim, religious identities was accompanied by justifications: colonial interventions are civilising, they rescue native women from barbaric traditions.
These myths are kept alive.
In late 2001, Laura Bush denounced the ‘severe repression’ of the women of Afghanistan. Life under the Taliban, said the first First Lady to deliver an entire presidential radio address, was ‘hard and repressive’. Small displays of joy – children flying kites, mothers laughing aloud – were outlawed. Her speech, writes Laura Flanders, helped to put a feminist glow on some of the most brutal bombing of the 2001 campaign.
One million signature campaign in Iran
On June 12, 2005, women organised a sit-in in front of the University of Tehran, five days before the first round of the presidential elections, later won by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Two thousand Iranian women took part in the sit-in, which was unauthorised. The declaration that was prepared in advance was signed by ninety women’s groups. It was the largest independent women’s coalition since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Mahsa Shekarloo, one of the organisers, says the coalition includes both the secular, and the pious. It includes religious women who distance themselves from the term feminist, ‘Islamic feminists’ who argue that women’s rights can be provided from within the framework of Muslim law, ‘Muslim feminists’ who come from religious backgrounds but do not use Islamic law as their point of reference, and feminists who would rather not see the republic in Iran be an ‘Islamic’ one.
The women had gathered to protest the constitution’s denial of women’s rights. They sang protest songs, and repeatedly chanted, “Equal rights is our minimum demand.”
More than two years later, on August 27, 2006, the Iranian women’s movement launched a two-year face-to-face campaign for the collection of one million signatures in support of a petition. It is addressed to the Iranian parliament and asks for the revision and reform of laws that discriminate against women, including equal inheritance rights. At present, if a husband dies without other heirs, the state takes half the couple’s estate. But if the wife dies, husbands are entitled to the entire estate. If the couple has children, the wife receives one eighth of the husband’s estate, whereas a widowed husband with children takes one quarter. Other legal reforms that women are petitioning for includes equal rights for women in marriage, equal rights to divorce for women, end to polygamy and temporary marriage, and the right for women to pass on nationality to their children.
A number of campaigners have been threatened, summoned to court, charged with security crimes, and sentenced to prison. Nahid Jafari received 6 months, and 10 lashes suspended sentence. Zeinab Payghambarzadeh, arrested in March 2007 along with 32 other women’s rights activists who had peacefully gathered outside the Revolutionary Courts, received a suspended sentence of two years. Like many others, Payghambarzadeh was charged with and tried on security charges. These included: propaganda against the state, gathering and colluding with the intent to disrupt national security.
As I searched the internet for more information on the campaign, I came across this comment left by a blogger, probably after Hilary Clinton’s recent threat to ‘obliterate Iran’:
‘Iranian women’s rights activists are not a threat to Iranian national security. On the other hand, many American women’s rights activists are. Among them, Ms Hillary Clinton who… refuses to negotiate with Iran without preconditions. Ms Hillary Clinton and all the ‘women’s rights activists’ who support her are a threat to Iranian national security… actually, they are a general threat to people all over the Middle East.’
To return to struggles at home, like Shameem, I too think that the National Women’ Development Policy cannot be looked at in isolation.
Like her, I too, am not sure what the military-backed caretaker government has up its sleeve.
And, like my struggling sisters in Iran, I too think that equal rights is our minimum demand.
First published in New Age April 28 2008Show