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Saturday, August 9, 2008

North Africa: A Decade of Progress for Women's Rights

Working for a better life Young women attending an adult literacy class in Makthar, Tunisia. (Sanjeev Kumar, UN)

From the Mail and Guardian - August 9, 2008

By Mary Kimani

Hayet Laouni is a member of Tunisia's Senate and an owner of her own maritime business. She credits her success to the liberal approach to women's rights that the government has shown since independence.

"I am very grateful to my country," she says. "I was born and grew up in a part of the world where life is supposed to be hard for most people, but harder for women."

She is not alone. While many people outside the region view predominately Muslim North Africa as rigidly hostile to women's rights, they have in fact witnessed a decade of substantial reform and the achievement of some improvement in the status of women.

Reforming family codes

Much of the reform has been in countries' "family codes", sets of laws guiding the role and status of women in marriage, as well as their rights in divorce and custody matters.

The family code has been an important focus for women's rights activists because its laws are "absolutely critical and fundamental in Muslim society", says Mounira Charrad, a Tunisian-born university professor who has researched women's issues in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.

Those laws, Charrad says, "address issues that are at the core of social life". Successfully reforming them, she says, can improve women's rights in marriage, access to divorce and ability to get custody of their children.

"When the present Tunisian government allowed a woman to pass on citizenship to her children, this created a seismic cultural change in the society," Charrad noted at a conference last year. "This law challenged the entire patrilineal concept of the family."

Much of the credit for progress lies with the dynamic women's movements that came into being in North Africa during the 1980s and 1990s, explains Valentine M Moghadam, who promotes equality between men and women for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).

Between law and practice

But progress has been halting and uneven. In 2005, Egypt granted women expanded divorce rights, for example, but efforts to change the law to allow women to travel without the permission of a husband or father were dropped by the government for fear that they were too radical to pass.

Moghadam notes that North African countries continue to support social practices that discriminate against women and are inconsistent with international treaties. Importantly, they are also against the laws of those countries.

"Egypt's Constitution grants equality to all citizens," she points out, but Egypt's family law contradicts that "by placing women under the guardianship", or legal control, of their fathers. Moghadam also notes that many discriminatory laws and practices in North Africa and the Middle East are seen as directly resulting from Islamic injunctions, while they in fact derive from tribal or pre-Islamic cultural practices.

Leila Rhiwi, a former director of a women's rights group in Morocco, who is currently the women's rights coordinator for Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia for the UN Development Fund for Women, observes that in many North African countries, "what we have seen is a change in the law, not a change in society". However, she says, "changes in the law make changes in the society possible".

Charrad agrees. "Legal changes made a difference in countries like Tunisia. The reforms happened in the 1950s. Women can now file for divorce more easily and custody is easier", but, she says, "socially, divorce remains very difficult because divorced women find themselves treated as outcasts".

"Despite the challenges," she continues, "we can no longer say that in the Muslim world it is hard to change women's rights. Women have really gained very significant rights in Tunisia and Morocco. We need to move away from the generalised statements about that part of the world and come up with a more nuanced way of looking at it. Once we see that some women have gained substantial rights, we can learn from those cases."

Entrenching new rights

Nowhere have women in North Africa made greater progress than in reproductive rights -- in fact, notably better than in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.

Tunisian law protects the right of a woman to decide whether to practise birth control or have an abortion. The World Health Organisation estimates that contraceptive use in Tunisia grew from 24% in 1980 (the current rate in most of sub-Saharan Africa) to 63% in 2007. Nearly all Tunisian women live within 5km of a source of family planning and they typically wait until about age 27 to get married, compared to about age 16 in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.

In Egypt, 96% of women live near a family planning centre and about 60% use the centres' services. In Algeria, the government reimburses people for purchasing contraceptives. And, in Algeria and Tunisia more than 90% of births take place in public health facilities so that many more mothers and babies survive childbirth.

To help women use their rights, advocacy organisations have pressed governments to give better access to the courts. Egypt introduced a new system of child support and alimony and has brought divorce and inheritance issues under one judicial authority.

Rebecca Chiao of the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights says that since the changes were made in Egypt, her group has helped about 6 000 women annually to understand and use the new regulations.

Entrenching these rights requires greater women's participation in political life, Rhiwi concludes, and here progress has been slow. It was only in 2002 that Morocco's political parties agreed to reserve 30 seats out of 325 for women in Parliament, while in Egypt women make up a meagre 8% of parliamentarians and occupy few Cabinet posts.

Those numbers remain a major hurdle, she acknowledges, and one that must be overcome if women are to continue to make progress. "We have to ensure that the changes will be real, effective and institutionalised."

Mary Kimani is a writer for United Nations Africa Renewal magazine

Reprinted from UN Africa Renewal

Uproar Over Loud Calls in Muslim Morocco

In this March 23, 2008 file photo, a Moroccan woman, left, draws ...

In this March 23, 2008 file photo, a Moroccan woman, left, draws a henna tattoo on the hand of a tourist, on the Jamaa El Fanaa square in Marrakech, Morocco. Morocco, a country of 33 million people, gets more than 7 million tourists a year, and there are worries that some may be put off by the five heavily amplified calls a day to prayer, each lasting five minutes, to summon the Muslim faithful to daily prayers. And the argument is deepening fault lines between a government drive to modernize and a wave of rigorous political Islam.  (AP Photo/Abdeljalil Bounhar, File)

Full article - August 9, 2008 - from the Associated Press

Guide to Arab Participation at the Olympics

Monday, August 4, 2008

Muslims in India Design New Marriage Contract

From Women's E-News - August 4, 2008

By Aditi Bhaduri
WeNews correspondent

After criticizing Muslim clerics in India for treating wives unfairly in disputes with their husbands, one activist is distributing a new marriage contract. Couples are slowly signing on.

LUCKNOW, India (WOMENSENEWS)-- Shaista Ambar professes to "know the miseries of women in her community first hand."

In her house Ambar sits surrounded by files of cases and paper clippings of women who have come to her for help. She lives outside Lucknow, the capital of India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh, and home to a sizeable Muslim population.

"Muslim women are some of the worst victims of domestic violence and marital abuse," she says, attributing that in part to clerics' male-biased interpretation of Islamic law. "Often women are never allowed to tell their side of the story."

In India, communities are guided by religion--rather than secular law--in personal matters such as marriage, divorce and inheritance.

For Muslims, who are 13 percent of the population, influential guidance comes from the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. With 200-odd Sunni and Shia members and an executive committee of 41 scholars, it was set up in 1973 to arbitrate Muslim affairs and protect Islamic law. (The board does have some female members, but they have little say in decisions.)

In 2005 Ambar was so dissatisfied with the Muslim board for ignoring the problems of women that she founded an alternative, the All India Muslim Women's Personal Law Board.

The women's board now has over 1,000 members, with an all-female executive committee, and is growing. Although the women are not Muslim clerics, the board's goal is to render a more women-friendly interpretation of religious laws and customs.

Call for Reforms

Since then, she and others have been calling for reforms. The "triple talaq" tradition of divorce--where a man says three times to his wife, "I divorce thee"--is a particular concern.

"Because of widespread illiteracy, women are simply not aware of the rights that Islam has provided them with," says Ambar. "Divorce, for instance, is a long, drawn-out process. Yet the practice of triple 'talaq,' where men can divorce their wives by pronouncing talaq at one go, has ruined the lives of many women who have been left by their husbands, sometimes for the flimsiest of reasons like putting extra salt in the food."

Ambar has worked with over 20 Muslim clerics and scholars around India--all male and from both Sunni and Shiite sects--to draft a new marriage contract, which she released in March.

She's distributing the contract by word of mouth, through the All India Muslim Women's Personal Law Board's Web site and by leaving contracts at places where ordinary people can access them, such as grocery stores or tailoring shops.

The Muslim marriage contract is meant to stipulate conjugal rights and obligations as well as the approach to divorce and maintenance.

But often it contains no more than a nuptial sermon and the names and signatures of the couple. The absence of photographs and detailed contact information sometimes make it difficult for women to identify their husbands in court disputes.

Ambar's "Sharai Nikahnamah" or "Shariat contract," by contrast, is detailed and available in both Urdu, the language of many North Indian Muslims, and in Hindi, India's national and most widely spoken language. It is currently being translated into English and other languages spoken in India.

Taking Control of Tradition

"There is nothing new in this contract," Ambar told Women's eNews. "All we have done is to explain everything in the light of the Quran rather than leave things to be arbitrarily decided by men."

The contract mandates pictures of the couple, their addresses and telephone numbers as well as how to contact the presiding cleric and witnesses and a compulsory marriage registration with the state.

It bans dowry customs and marriages between minors--women under 18 and men under 21--and calls for compulsory payment of "meher," or dower to the wife by the husband.

Triple talaq is banned, as is divorce communicated by text messaging, e-mail or phone, or when uttered in an inebriated state or under provocation. Divorces are made more difficult by spreading them over a three-month period. The contract also provides for maintenance payments to the wife.

"Khula," the wife's right to seek divorce from her husband, is allowed under specific grounds. These include the husband being involved with other women, missing for more than four years, being mentally unsound or having HIV/AIDS.

The contract includes advice to both men and women on how to make the marriage successful. For instance, wives are advised to be well turned-out, to keep the house up and to be affectionate to their husbands; husbands receive similar instruction.

Every clause is accompanied by a quote from the Quran.

Drubbed as 'Useless Stunt'

The All India Muslim Personal Law Board and its Shia counterpart have dismissed the contract as "useless and a publicity stunt."

Both committees had previously drawn up marriage contracts, which were dismissed by women's groups as regressive: The All India Muslim Personal Law Board allowed triple talaq and divorce by e-mail, for example, and did not prohibit polygamy. The Shia law board's version prohibits triple talaq but also allows "muttah," or temporary, marriages for men and has no provisions for marital payments to women.

Jameela Nishat, director of Shaheen Women Resource and Welfare Association, an advocacy group for Muslim women in Hyderabad, criticizes the contract from another perspective. The group says the clergy's interpretation of Islamic rules and customs for marriage and divorce has been so harmful to women that they want women to take over their interpretation, and may also push for some secular laws, such as a ban on polygamy, which is already prohibited to non-Muslim Indians.

"The contract was drawn up in consultation with the clergy and we are against that," she said. "We want to keep the clergy out because of their rigidity."

The contract has found some takers, however.

Two days after Ambar released it, Rukaiya Khatun, 20, and Haseeb Aimal, 25, a weaver in Lucknow, used it to certify their wedding. The bride's sister knew Ambar and heard about the new contract through her.

Ambar also says she has heard of a married couple who re-registered under her contract, thinking it would make their marriage stronger and allow them to lead a more pious life under Islam.

Aditi Bhaduri is a gender consultant and a journalist based in India.

Calls to Enroll Women in Council of Scholars

Calls to enroll women in council of scholars

Arab News  - August 2, 2008

JEDDAH: Inspired by the recent announcement made by the Grand Mufti of Syria Sheikh Ahmad Badr Al-Din Hassoun, Saudi scholars are now opening a heated debate about whether or not women can become muftis. Some have recommended such a move, others agreed but with restrictions to issuing fatwas only for women. While some don't approve at all.

Hassoun has said he is personally supervising a project that would make women ready to become muftis soon in Syria. Adding that tens of women of varying ages, who graduated from Islamic law school, are now enrolling in different rehabilitation courses that would help them receive women and issue fatwas for them. Women who become "muftiya" can also be members of the Iftaa Board.

This announcement was very much welcomed by Syrian women scholars and according to Huda Habsh, a Syrian scholar who spoke to an Arabic online news agency, said that this is a "positive" move. According to her, this would help women be more open to speak about their inquiries clearly and without embarrassment, and "the woman can issue fatwas in everything regarding women, marriage relationships and home related (issues)."

According to a report published by Al-Watan daily, Sheikh Abdullah Al-Munai, a member of the Council of Senior Islamic Scholars, the council should consider the possibility of having women members in the Council of Senior Islamic Scholars. According to him the council is not devoted for men only but women can be part of it. Al-Munai said that when it comes to Shariah regulations "the woman is like the man," and thus women can share with the men the iftaa job. Another problem accompanying the iftaa issue is the voice of women, as some Islamic scholars consider women's voice "awrah" or "immodest" to rise in the presence of unrelated men. Being a "muftiya" requires women to speak up to the public. Al-Munai does not consider the voice of women "awrah."

"Based on this we can say that knowledge is not something restricted to man. The woman has the exact brain and thinking that the man has, therefore there was a huge group of Muslim women who were considered among the Islamic scholars in the time of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his followers."

Saud Al-Nufaisan, a former dean of Islamic college at the Imam Muhammad ibn Saud University, said that women scholars can teach women the Shariah regulations but cannot become general muftis and cannot issue general fatwas for men, women or the country because that is considered "wilaya" or "guardianship" that women cannot hold. However, he added that women can still be preachers, muftis or teachers in women only communities and that can be under a governmental department.

Suhaylah Zain Al-Abidin, a Saudi writer and a member of the National Society for Human Rights, supports the call to have Saudi women members at the Council of Senior Islamic Scholars.

According to her, women were issuing fatwas even in the time of the Prophet Muhammad. Al-Abidin said: "The society is not consisted of men only and problems do not rise for men only but also for women."

Speaking to Al-Madinah daily she said: "With all respect to all who refused the idea of woman 'muftiya', this is considered a reduction of women's status and their intellectual level. The religious sciences are not for men only and the Holy Qur'an is clear on that. The women now are well qualified and thus can take the job of iftaa just like men as long as they have the knowledge."

Sheikh Abdul Mohsin Al-Obaikan a member of Shoura Council and a consultant at the Ministry of Justice, said that women would speak openly and freely if the mufti is a woman.

"She knows the conditions of women and what they want exactly therefore a woman mufti is more suitable for women," said Al-Obaikan, adding that he has previously called for recruiting women muftis who would take care of the women issues.

Valentine's Day Across the Muslim World (2012)