I've been reading the BBC news story about Afghanistan, where a law to prevent violence against women has been halted amid angry scenes. So called "traditionalists" have called for the law to be scrapped. The country has had trouble enacting such laws. In 2009, a presidential decree banned violence against women, child marriages and forced marriages, but the MPs did not give it approval.
During this recent debate, mullahs and other traditionalist MPs accused President Karzai of acting against Islamic Sharia law by signing the decree in the first place. In particular, they demanded a change to the law so that men cannot be prosecuted for rape within marriage. And President Karzai has come under fire from women's groups for frequently changing his position on women's rights. In 2012, he endorsed a "code of conduct" issued by an influential council of clerics which allows husbands to beat wives under certain circumstances.
This kind of society makes our culture, where there may be the occasional wolf-whistle, seem very positive about women's rights. But we should not rest on our laurels too easily. The culture which begins with mild degradation can be the start of an attitude which leads to a much more violent outcome. There is still an awful lot of sexism in our culture, but it is held back, and constrained; it cannot let rip in the way that it is doing in Afghanistan. But there's still a frame of mind there, which can surface in conversations when men are speaking together. The seeds are there; they just never come to fruition. But they can erupt, and those are the circumstances which lead to women fleeing from a violent relationship, and going to the safety of the women's refuge. The very existence of a woman's refuge is a sign that our society is not perfect. We have no right to be smug and complacent.
But at least we don't have religious endorsement for violence against women. The days when they were legally treated as chattel - property - are behind us. The State does not endorse that, neither does the church. Afghanistan shows how States and religion can come together in Sharia law to provide what is, in effect, a very unholy combination.
And that is also the case in the Sudan, where Sharia law allows the State to enforce public morality; it has reduced women's mobility and their participation in the public sphere. Gender segregation is implemented in all public spaces. For example, on public buses, women must stand separately in the back.
It is clear, from reading Aina Khan, a lawyer specializing in Islamic law who works in the UK, that Sharia law does not necessitate this. In the UK, she has used this to help women who have been in forced marriages to obtain annulments from the Sharia Council in the UK, and a nullity decree from English courts, because duress was used. There can be positive effects, although I notice she does not address the matter of a woman's testimony being considered half that of a man's.
But it is also clear that Sharia law can have a wide and differing interpretation depending upon the culture and political regime in which it is practiced. If we come back to the status of women's testimony, this is a disputed area, in Islam, with differences between scholars. That it should be so indicates a major problem with the kind of thinking involved. Both sides in this debate are looking at verses in the Quran, where in one case, with witnesses for financial documents, the Qur'an asks for two men or one man and two women.
What is not considered is legal fairness, where people are treated equally under the law, as a primary value in deciding these matters. This is the major problem. What happens, of course, as happens with any holy book, is that it is very difficult to differentiate between principles derived from the texts, and principles first held, and for which an interpretation of the text is used as a rationale, to back that up as a "proof". That is why apartheid was so strong in South Africa, because it derived from a particular religious interpretation.
As a warning to Richard Dawkins, it should be noted that ideology can just as easily fill the void if no religion is present. However, the presence of a holy book can provide an easy path to legitimize discrimination. That's what just fulminating against all religion overlooks.
In Afghanistan, the Sudan, and elsewhere, women are not being treated equally. Sharia law is undoubtedly being used to provide legitimacy for the unfair treatment of woman, as equal with men under the law. And there does not seem any way of challenging these applications of Sharia law that does not lead to violence against those providing a critique, as we can see in Pakistan.
Christianity has its own critique built into it from its founder. But whether Islam has such a strong tradition of internal critique is another matter.
In Mark's gospel, Jesus tells the Pharisees: "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.". In other words, get your priorities right; look at the underlying intent, look at the scaffolding you have erected to preserve the law, and notice that you've completely missed the point.
One writer who I've found who puts this extremely Father Joseph Girzon
"Where there is a human need the law must bend. It is God's children who are sacred to God, not laws. Laws are to protect or assist God's children. If a law does not do that, it should be re-evaluated, and, perhaps, abrogated."
"One cannot help but think of religious laws and customs today that may have had meaning at one time but are a hindrance to the healthy practice of spirituality in our times. This is not to say that morality should change, but there are many religious laws that have nothing to do with the moral law. They are merely arbitrary ordinances that could be changed. Often people's attachment to traditions and customs resist changing them even though they may cause of occasion untold damage to many good people. When religious leaders see the damage done, one would think as good shepherds concerned for the sheep they would be the first to recognize the need for change. It is difficult to understand their obsessive attachment to customs and practices when they more often give rise to scandal than inspire goodness."
Why is there such an obsessive attachment to customs and practices that denigrate and downgrade women in countries like Afghanistan and Sudan?
There is firstly a commitment to monoculture. In Europe, the breakup of the Catholic Church at the Reformation, the wars of religion that followed, gradually led to a principle of toleration in which the dominant group did not feel the obsessive need to show that they were right by persecuting others who believed differently.
The kind of culture assigned particular roles and limitation to how women should behave. When you are born into a monoculture, raised in that culture, you tend to see everything through the eyes of that culture. Outside voices that speak of difference are a threat to the stability and order of your world. It took world wars to shake up Western culture to such an extent that women gained significant recognition. Before the First World War, suffragettes were simply locked up in prison.
And people in positions of power, even in the West, get attached to that power and reluctant to give it up. In the power relationships between men and women in a monoculture, men are often very reluctant to cede any of that power. In a monoculture, this emerges in violence and threats, which is not surprising, because that is the pattern of reaction that has been inculcated and fermented by the leaders.
There is no easy way to conclude this reflection, because this is a situation without conclusion. One ray of hope must be that the existing Sharia law allows differences of interpretation, and that may be a much needed wedge to break a monoculture. In a society where the brave and outspoken are assassinated, can seeds of doubt be sown? The prognosis is not good, but stranger things have happened. We must not give up hope.
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