Every day, year after year, women grotesquely disfigured by fire are taken to Victoria Hospital’s burn ward here in India’s fastest growing city. They are in rows, wrapped like mummies in white bandages, their moans quieted by the pain-obliterating drip of morphine. Typically, these women, and thousands like them, have been depicted as victims of disputes over the ancient social custom of dowry and as symbols of the otherness of India, a place where lovely young brides are doused with kerosene and set ablaze for failing to satisfy the demands of their husband’s families for gold, cash, and consumer goods that come as part of the marriage arrangement.
As European countries batten down the hatches against immigration, seen as a burden on welfare and a threat to national identities already blurred by globalization, illegal immigration is soaring.
“Welcome to Europe” says a sign on the western side of the bridge over the Bosporus in Istanbul, Turkey, but the Europe of high incomes and generous welfare benefits that immigrants dream about is hundreds of miles west of here. For many, the road to it runs through the seething Istanbul quarter of Laleli.
Here, the seedy hotels are full of Russian prostitutes known locally as “Natashas,” and the traffic in false passports that might afford entry to the European Union is brisk. Almost every day, newspapers are filled with accounts of discrimination, massacres, torture, or forced disappearances of political opponents. Horrors and tyranny are certainly not new in human history. The difference is that today there is a new parameter for assessing them: breach of this or that human right. This is an indubitable advance. Since 1948—that is, after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—all countries in the world, including those that had not gone through the long historical process of formation of the modern liberal-democratic state, have at their disposal an international code to decide how to conduct themselves and how to judge others. This is a code that not only has the virtue of universal application but also includes valuable principles in areas previously neglected by the constitutions of Western states. Previously, a state was accused of massacring an entire population; today, international norms talk of genocide, using this term with full awareness of its scope. Previously, it could be said that a state was torturing citizens; today, in addition to torture, international norms forbid any “inhuman or degrading treatment, or punishment.” Previously, all one could do was denounce certain governments for neglecting the interests of their population; today, they can be accused of breaking the international rules providing for the right to food, the right to decent housing, the right to a healthy environment, and so on. Looked at properly, this does not mean merely that new definitions and a new “labeling” system are available to states and individuals; the international rules on human rights impose modes of behavior by requiring governments to act in a certain way and at the same time legitimize the complaints of individuals if those rights and freedoms are not respected.
The areas of human rights protected at world level has become quite broad. First, it includes civil liberties. These consist primarily of the “free space” that every government must guarantee the individual by not interfering in a certain private sphere: the right to life and security, to privacy, to “family life,” to private property; the possibility of expressing one’s opinion freely, of practicing a religion or not, and of peaceful assembly. Civil liberties also cover the state’s obligation to articulate its structures in such a way as to guarantee a minimum of respect for the human person, as well as full justice in cases of abuse: the right not to be subjected to arbitrary rights to a fair trial. The international community further enforces political rights (the possibility for the individual to contribute, alone or in association with others, to the life and action of government: the right to associate, to form political parties, to take part in elections, to be elected to the various state offices, and so on). Also recognized at international level are economic and social rights. These are entitlements that the individual has vis-à-vis the state, in order to obviate social inequalities and economic imbalances, and to limit disadvantages caused by nature, age, and so on. By contrast to the other rights, the state is not bound to meet these entitlements all at once, but may see to them gradually, taking account of the economic and structural problems it has to face. In addition to the rights belonging to individuals, international norms also cover those of minorities and of peoples. Peoples in particular have, on certain conditions, the fundamental right to self-determination, that is, the right both freely to choose their own international statutes and to adopt the type of government most suited to popular aspirations.
If, then, every day some state is denouncing violations committed by other countries, if the media lend their support to this denunciation (or more often draw attention to facts and events that have frequently taken place in silence), all this is due also to the existence of this broad set of international principles, which function like a kind of decalogue—to be observed and reinforced. All the inhabitants of the world benefit from the same principles and can voice their protest when they seem them violated. Human rights are an ideological and normative “galaxy” in rapid expansion, with a specific goal to increase safeguards for the dignity of the person.
The Emergence of Human Rights on the World Stage
The traditional pattern of the nation-state begins with the Peace of Westphalia (1648), and its evolution continues to this very day. It was after World War II that the notion of peoples and individuals do not count came to an end. Prior to World War II, individuals did not exist, being absorbed and overshadowed by the sovereigns and the sovereign states. Frequently, they pass from one sovereign to various rulers. Individuals are less overshadowed, but only insofar as they constitute emanations of their sovereigns. The citizens of a state who travel abroad to settle, trade, set up industries, or simply visit the country remain under the protection and aegis of the nation-state; to it the state of residence has to account if its authorities infringe the foreigners’ rights, take away their goods, or treat them in an arbitrary fashion. Individuals thus become beneficiaries of a series of international legal standards— those on protection of foreigners—which of course regulate only relationships among sovereign entities but end up safeguarding interests and the property of citizens of each one of them. These individuals, however, remain mere beneficiaries of those standards, as is shown by the fact that if their rights and interests are injured by a foreign state and their own state decides not to intervene through diplomatic channels or not to start legal proceedings before international arbitrators (set up before the controversy), they can do nothing against their authorities’ failure to act. In this case too they remain pawns in the game among the powers, advanced or sacrificed according to momentary whims or, at any rate, the political inclinations of the various sovereigns. After World War II, another great phenomenon took place in the international community: the launching of a natural-law doctrine of human rights, directly impinging upon the relationships between each state and its citizens.
Distinctions among various categories of human rights, civil, political, economic, social, cultural, individual, collective, positive, negative, first, second, or third generation, and so on are often misleading and rarely result in greater protection for individuals or groups. Indeed, the most common purpose for identifying such categories is to deny the status of right to one or more of them, rather than to expand international or domestic protections.
Conflict and tension are inherent in society; so are differences in individuals and cultures. One goal of the state, under the most fundamental of international human rights’ norms, is to eliminate discrimination, not to destroy all differences. Recognition of the right to personal autonomy and group identity is essential to ensure that the principles of self-determination, participation, and tolerance are allowed to flourish. How is the United Nations situated in order to better help women whose rights were and are being violated?
In relation to the world’s women and equal opportunities and pay for public sector employment, unequal opportunities in public education and discrimination by private bodies abound. Should not all countries, regardless of resources or religious/cultural and other beliefs, be required to address assaults on women’s rights, such as harassment of women in detention, failure to enforce laws prohibiting bride burning, and other forms of domestic violence, toleration of female circumcision and other mutilations, and maintenance of inequitable laws regarding marriage and succession rights? Meaningful progress in promoting women’s rights required emphatic and authoritative responses to those and other questions. In developing responses, the committee on the elimination of discrimination against women helped make a convention on the same a fact, and entered the convention into force in September 1981. As of March 1988, 94 states had ratified it. Discrimination is defined as “any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex, which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field” (Article 1).
The Commission on the Status of Women has begun to grapple with allegations of consistent patterns of discriminatory practices. It has yet to undertake a study on the relation between convention rights and Islamic Law, despite the obvious importance of the issues to its monitoring work.
The East Asian discourse on human rights has been growing since the 1993 Bangkok Declaration on Human Rights, when parallel regional networks of governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) first appeared. It has been spurred by a combination of factors. First, political opening allows for the growth of civil society as educated citizens confront economic development in an era of intense global competition. Next, East Asians are seeking out local attachments to recover a sense of belonging and trying to come to grips with the postcolonial identity, while at the same time identifying with larger, international human rights movements. Third, new social, political, and economic tensions come with greater income stratification and the breakdown of the community and the safety net it provided. Finally, networks of people throughout the region with shared human rights concerns are continually expanding. The new human rights discourse is also a reaction to the increasing pressure on East Asian governments that comply with international human rights norms. The pressure comes from an international community that has heightened expectations for a part of the world that has become irrevocably integrated into global markets. When Asian officials and their supporters want to challenge Western-style civil and political freedoms, they use the term Asian values.
The citizenship rights of women in a modern Islamic state in East Asia have to be explored in the context of Islam, particularly present-day Malaysia and Indonesia. Internationally, as far as human rights issues are concerned, Islam frequently gets very bad press, sometimes unfairly, but all too often deservedly. Yet actions taken in the name of Islam are often not based on true Islamic principles. Islam has the capacity to yield a notion of universal human rights, the idea that, by virtue of their intrinsic humanity, transcending all cultural and historically conditioned differences, people share certain essential entitlements. In the West, the development of the modern nationstate is generally equated with secularization. But in East Asia, the development of the modern nationstate over the past 30 years has demonstrated that often the influence of religion has grown as the consolidation of the nation-state takes place. A striking example of this is Islamic resurgence. The postcolonial development of most Muslim countries saw increasing tension between the adopted social and political order and the renewed efforts of many of their citizens to define and strengthen their Islamic identity.
The confrontation has accelerated various forms of “Islamic” discourse about human rights. Contemporary Muslims, like followers of the other two great Abrahamic religious traditions, Christians and Jews, have shown a notable concern for human rights that is not grounded in any borrowed “Western model.” Instead, they have attempted to demonstrate that a human rights culture comes from the Qur’an and the teaching of the prophet Muhammad. This drive to reclaim for Islam a vision of human beings and a practice of law and politics that sustains an Islamic version of human rights has resulted in extensive writings by contemporary Muslims on the relationship of Islam and human rights. Yet the vast social changes that span the time between the establishment of the first Islamic community and the emergence of the contemporary world order require a creative and historically sensitive interpretation of that model that is not often reflected in the literature. Most Islamic writings are dominated by two problematic positions, which are in fact not so far apart in terms of their implications for contemporary human rights principles.
On one side are Muslims who maintain that Islam embraces human rights standards similar to Western-derived international human rights standards. They advocate integrating Islamic rules and concepts with internationally recognized rights to bring them into conformity with Islamic standards—the rules of Shari’a’s. However, close scrutiny of this approach reveals various levels of ambivalence about the concept of rights. It is fraught with reservations and restrictions on a range of rights and freedoms, especially as they pertain to women and non-Muslims. At the other extreme are those Muslims who claim outright that current human rights concepts and standards (especially those incorporated within prevailing international human rights documents) are completely alien to Islam and incompatible with Islamic law as they interpret it. Between these poles lies a precarious middle ground—a space within which some of the most creative and inclusive Islamic sociolegal thought is now being created. However, like courageous and innovative thinking elsewhere, such sociolegal modernism is far from dominant within the Islamic world, especially in its Middle Eastern heartlands. It is a discourse propagated in the main by Muslim intellectuals, many of whom are now forced to live in exile in the West for advocating their ideas. Although their positions may vary to some extent, the common thread among these intellectuals is that they advocate a critical reexamination of exegetical and jurisprudential texts as well as, whenever possible or pertinent, a reinterpretation of Islam’s foundational religious texts.
Muslims advocating equal rights for women have emphasized in their discussion the problematics of interpretation of texts and, from those interpretations, of the contemporary codification of Muslim laws on the rights of women. The call for a review of the long-accepted juridical opinions and interpretations established during the classical age of Islam also characterizes many contemporary movements promoting the rights of women and of non-Muslims coexisting in a predominantly Muslim country.
Human Rights as a Universal Concept in Islam
Two main issues confront modern Muslims considering how to apply their own distinctive perspective to existing international human rights. The first is the prevailing Shari’a’s definitions of human and citizenship rights. They must consider the position of any special category or subset of acceptance of the rights of humans simply by being humans. This awareness is by no means alien to Islam. It is grounded in the Qur’anic notion of a common human ontology (fitna) and couched in an Islamic idiom of moral universalism that predates much of the Western discourses about human rights. It is thus doctrinally a part of the Qur’anic worldview itself.
The challenge to contemporary Islam and to Muslims, especially the new traditionalist ideologues, is to revive and embrace that which is their own. It is nothing more than a challenge to begin to see humans, all humans, in the way that their faith insists that God/Allah sees them.
Second, Muslims contribute their own modern and Islamically appropriate conceptions of equal social relations between men and women to the human rights discourse. Here again, Qur’anic conceptions of the rights and duties of men and women in the family—to own and manage property, and to participate in public life and hold public office, for example—provide the basis for a far more enlightened and egalitarian view of gender relations than the regressive ideas that are currently offered, misleadingly, in the name of Islam by fundamentalist Islamists the world over.
Until these two main issues are clearly defined, human rights instruments and their moral foundations, derivatively Western in their origins and history, can be neither embraced wholesale nor summarily rejected by modern Muslims. Only after a critical reevaluation of their Islamic heritage and the acceptance of an underlying common humanity can progressive Muslims decide in what ways and to what extent they should accept, reject, modify, or renegotiate the stock of concepts and ideas that are now offered as the basis for a universal concept of human rights.
Citizenship Rights and the Position of Muslim Women
With respect to the states of Muslim women, although it is true that they have full legal capacity under Shari’a in relation to civil law and commercial law matters, in the sense that they have the requisite legal personality to hold and dispose of property and otherwise acquire or lose civil liabilities in their own independent right, Muslim women do not enjoy human rights on an equal footing with Muslim men under Shari’a.
According to An-Na’im, most of the published expositions of human rights in Islam by contemporary Muslim scholars are not helpful because they overlook the problems of slavery and discrimination against women and non-Muslims. Muslim women scholars, on the other hand, have mainly highlighted those verses of the Qur’an that are consistent with human rights standards. But a major problem still remains: Some crucial verses exist that are inconsistent with or even contradictory to universal human rights conceptions. An-Na’im has suggested that the only effective way to achieve sufficient reform of Shari’a in relation to universal human rights is “to cite sources in the Quran and Sunna which are inconsistent with universal human rights and explain them in historical context, while citing those sources which are supportive of human rights as the basis of the legally applicable principles and rules of Islamic law today.” A major, often ignored, problem with respect to rights is that the “Shari’a-minded” “traditionalist,” or “fundamentalist” recodification of modern state laws redefining people’s rights, especially women’s rights, affects democratic participation and citizenship rights as well as personal rights. Yet this proposed Shari’a-based recodification is promoted by and also borrowed and imitated from countries, especially in the Middle East, that typically lack any articulated notion of citizenship rights. They are states with regimes but without citizens or “civil society.” They invoke and uphold the adequacy of conventional Islamic views of the purely personal status rights of women and non-Muslims. By this maneuver, intentionally or by oversight, they set aside or rule out any consideration of the broader social, civic, and political rights and full legal rights of women and non Muslims as equal citizens of the state.
No wonder that the Islamist ideologues promoting this Shari’a-based recodification can blithely dismiss the disquiet voiced by modernist Muslim critics with empty assurances that “all will be well” under the new Islamist ideologues because they have no modern experience of citizenship. Such moral and intellectual foundations are well beyond the reach of the ideologues’ sociolegal consciousness. This draws into question how appropriate their ideas and agenda are, arising from their own limiting circumstances, as a basis for modern social policy and legal reform under different, less restricted conditions. Why should countries like Malaysia, which are already launched on a trajectory toward modernity, with modern notions of the nation as a community of people sharing citizenship rights, accept the elaboration of modern notions of citizens’ rights from religious ideologues and developmentally deadlocked nations that lack any modern understanding of citizenship?
That such “Islamic” ideas, with their yearning for an unrealized utopian ideal, should be able to exert a powerful appeal among social groups that see themselves as excluded from or victims of development is not surprising. But it remains troubling to modern Muslims sensitive to the centrality and resonance of the issue of rights in both Western and Islamic historical consciousness and civilization. What especially concerns modernist Malaysians is the apparent readiness of some of their national leaders, who at the overtly political level directly oppose the “Islamist” agenda and the parties advocating it, to accommodate these tendencies and capitulate piecemeal to demands in such areas as the recodification of modern state law, especially in areas most affecting women.
In many Islamic societies today, there is a tendency to define the rights and obligations of citizens on the basis of gender and faith. This mind-set reflects the popular view that the typical citizen is a Muslim male.
What is missing from this view is a recognition of the rights of human beings simply as human beings, which, as stated earlier, is a Qur’anic notion. This gap between the ethical principles of the Qur’an concerning gender equality and the kinds of retrogressive and male-centered interpretations that have been codified into Shari’a law provides a challenge for modern Muslim women’s pursuit of equality and respect for their rights.
The Concept of Change in Islamic Society
As today’s Muslim nations modernize, the socioeconomic circumstances of the majority of Muslim women will inevitably change. Many Muslim scholars assert that the way to move forward is for Muslims to develop (or recover) the imaginative ability to grasp such fundamental change. I say “recover” because from the inception of the history of Islam, Muslims have always held, at least theoretically, that change (change in people and in society) is possible, part of the human condition itself. But while the Muslim worldview has encompassed this possibility as a matter of principle, most Muslims themselves have lost the practical ability to face, understand, and master change.
There are many examples of a Qur’anic foundation of the concept of change; the Qur’an, in taking humankind beyond the age of ignorance (jahiliyya), oriented human thinking toward the possibility of change. Early Islam also incorporates the idea of change through migration or hijra, a movement not simply from one place to another (Mecca to Medina, in the paradigmatic instance) but from one social and moral plane to a higher one. Muslims have evolved from being one community, a part of the city-state Media, to become part of an empire, a political identity that extended well beyond a state by the time of the Abassid Empire. From a state with a central authority in Damascus or Baghdad emerged a polity with many autonomous governments and distinct political entities. In other words, change has been a constant of Muslim existence.
Islamic law itself has evolved along with changing circumstances, in part through the operation of ijtihad, or informed critical reason, which applies Islam’s broad legal principles to emerging social and historical realities. Yet despite these possibilities for flexibility and dynamism, Islam has become stagnant. Many Muslims in Malaysia and elsewhere are always ready to blame colonialism for this cultural stagnation. Whether it is colonialism itself that is at fault or, as Malek Bennabi suggests, the readiness to accept colonialism (or its twin phenomenon colonisibilite, the domination of the mind by alien ideas and a habituation to passivity toward alien cultural domination) is another debate. In any case, Muslims are not heirs to a history of stagnation that must be overcome, and Muslims need to regain a belief in change and in the ability to manage it intelligently, to pursue independent agendas rather than to capitulate to those of others. In this context, modern Muslims, especially in countries such as Malaysia that lie outside the culturally Arabic heartlands of Islam, need to be wary of acquiescence to a new colonization, one carried out by traditionalistic Islam misunderstood as the trans-historically essential Islam. What is required is a calm and reasonable debate on the issue of historicity and change in the Islamic heritage of contemporary Muslims. This in turn requires modern Muslims to act upon a basis that is historically informed and feasible, not historically and religiously confused.
A necessary part of this discussion turns upon understanding what is divine in the Shari’a and what, in the scholarly tradition interpreting it, is of human origin. What is divine is the nass of the Qur’an or the “word of Allah,” the text and all its intentions and purposes. The act of interpreting the text and deriving its meaning and intended purposes is human, especially the methodology of interpretation devised by the experts of interpretive legal reasoning, the fuqahas. This means that various methods of interpreting the text through the use of critical reason (itjahad), analogy (qiyas), and consensus (ijma) can be reassessed and reevaluated. Modern Muslims are entitled to further develop those corpora of interpreted material. The choice is between futility and creativity, between attempting to impose archaic and limited legal understanding upon the present and seeking to understand the history of Islamic civilization in its entirety so that modern believers, members of an interdependent humankind, may act authentically as well as realistically and effectively as Muslims upon the stage of global history.
Gender Equality and Qur’anic Islam
The Muslim traditionalist position on women’s rights rests heavily on the argument that Islam recognized no notion of gender equality. This assertion is based on two theological claims: first, that because at the time of creation the female was created from a man’s rib, she is therefore in her origins derivative, and thus men are inherently superior to women, who exist for men’s use. The second claim is that men are qawwammun (“have responsibility”) over women, a claim based on the traditionalists’ preferred interpretation of a key Qur’anic verse. Thus it is the woman’s role to provide for the man’s needs and continued reproduction through loyal service in the domestic realm. This claim finds its expression in the interpretation and emphasis given by traditionalists to the Qur’anic injunctions that “your woman are a tilth for you to cultivate, so go to your tilth as you will.”
The theological foundations for this imposition of female subordination have been critically and effectively challenged in recent years. For example, Fatima Mernissi of Morocco and other Muslim scholars from Egypt, India, Pakistan, and the Sudan have provided cogent arguments that in principle and intention, Islam actually promotes gender equality. The common assertion of Muslim modernist scholars is that Islam is a liberating religion that uplifted the status of women and gave them rights considered revolutionary 1,400 years ago. Their arguments rest on the shared assertion that none of the Qur’anic verses that speak of human creation make any mention of women as an inferior or derivative being. “There is absolutely no difference in the value given to the creation of woman and the creation of man. Biological differences do not mean that women and men are not of equal value.” Riffat Hassan, for example, has shown that “the story of the rib” was derived from the Old Testament, which was later absorbed in hadithi literature.
The economic responsibility for women that is mandated here must be related to “the occasion of revelation” of that verse, the need to secure the economic welfare of women. This included especially widows and divorced women of the clan-based patriarchal society of the prophet Muhammad’s time, when women lacked full autonomous economic participation and enjoyed only half of the inheritance rights of men. But this verse, the modernists argue, cannot be understood as instituting a general subordination of women, because the Qur’an and Sunna at the same time recognized women’s equal capacity to fulfill other roles—social, intellectual, and spiritual.
A common feature of the counterarguments provided by these critical scholars is their persistent questioning of the historical bases of the standard male-supremacist and orthodox interpretations. They demonstrate that what was generally enshrined within and elaborated through the evolving Islamic legal culture failed to distinguish clearly between conservative Islamic social tradition and the normative Islamic legal principles expressed in the foundational texts.
Reconciling Local Culture and the International Human Rights Regime
Acceptance of the International Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women—the United Nations organization’s women’s convention (CEDAW)—has been problematic in countries in which Muslim law is applied. Certain influential Muslims resist CEDAW purportedly on Shari’a grounds, and their critique must be addressed at a fundamental level.
There are simply no shortcuts around these obstacles. In the long run, before instruments such as CEDAW (or even recent domestic laws that provide for rights of women) can have a positive impact in these societies, women and women’s movements will have to ensure, first of all, that the sources of all the various forms of subordination that arise from cultural and religious traditions are identified. Only then can they be differentiated from what Islam enjoins and be exposed to thoroughgoing criticism, leading to their rejection and abolition, precisely on the grounds of what Islam enjoins.
The Qur’an and the Universal Rights of Humankind
This underlying notion of rights and freedom open to all faithful believers, and to all who may yet come to recognize the supremacy of Allah (that is, all of humankind), is not dissimilar to modern notions. According to the Qur’an, a Muslim person who suffers oppression and does not do anything about it is a sinner. Such a person is encouraged to migrate elsewhere if he or she is unable to fight against an oppressive system. The Qur’anic term ibn alsahil refers to someone who is forced to move from place to place in order to seek a more peaceful life free from oppression. That is, to endure oppression involves a double violation of divinely ordained human nature and autonomy: by the oppressor and by the victim. Implied in this is a profound affirmation of human freedom, dignity, and autonomy—and of the human as a rights-bearing being.
Apart from the concept of fitna, which refers to humankind as an undifferentiated whole, the Qur’an also speaks of human dignity. The Qur’anic term “descendants of Adam” does not just refer to Muslims, or to a particular group of people, but to all humankind. “We have conferred dignity on the descendants of Adam” (Al-Isna 17:70). There is also the notion of diversity in the one humankind. On the basis of their differences, humans are to come together not just in a superficial way but in profound human and cultural contact. This notion of umma refers to humankind in its entirety and diversity, and human beings are given the right of religious conscience, an entitlement to their respective religious views and commitments. This is the capacity for spirituality that all humans share. It is not a Muslim monopoly but is immanent in every human heart and mind according to the Qur’an. As humans we not only enjoy a generic equality but also an ontological common ground.
The struggle for human rights, especially women’s rights, in Muslim countries is complex. It involves the validity and hegemony of certain religious interpretations over others, gender bias, patriarchy, and the politics of identity. The often heard criticism that Western conceptions of women’s rights and gender equality contradict Islamic principles of gender relations can no longer be accepted at face value.
Yet because of the pervasive influence of the literalist Islamic resurgent movements in many Muslim countries, women and women’s groups struggling for recognition of their rights, both personal and public, have to make common cause with whatever modernist religious impulses are to be found in their own societies. By doing so they not only enhance the Islamic legitimacy of their cause, but they also thereby ensure that their endeavors are recognized as an integral part of the overriding question facing contemporary Islam: the attainment, based on the cultural and ethical foundations of Islam, of modernity. Negotiating space for public debate of the many issues relating to women’s rights and freedom is a task that Muslim women can most readily achieve not through a solitary, separatist struggle but in concert with other Islamic modernists and human rights activists who recognize their cause as an inescapably public concern for 21st-century Islam.
The view of some human rights activists that women’s rights movements are better served by utilizing the “secular” approach—one that bases its arguments in the supposedly universal rule of law and democratization—is not at all pragmatic nor as easily implemented as its proponents claim. The experience of many women’s groups operating in Muslim countries these past two decades demonstrates that in their daily battles a great deal more progress is achieved by working within their religious and cultural paradigm. This gives Muslim women’s movements a distinctive character when compared to Western women’s movements. Muslim women’s rights activists have to employ a wide variety of approaches in their project to advance the status and rights of Muslim women. Their ideas, conceptions, and recommendations for rights and social emancipation must be religiously and culturally informed as they confront the challenge from their own religious, political, and community leaders, male or female. A common thread between Western and non-Western women’s movements is found only within a social fabric or against the background of persistent gender bias in the assertion of modern-day patriarchal ideologies.
The path for human rights does not run smoothly or straight; every day we stumble against the irrational, and reason is pushed to one side and rights are trodden underfoot. Many of the forces that oppose human rights irrespective of gender are authoritarian regimes, theologically based regimes, heavy-handed and all-inclusive government structures as well as private groups (think of the Taliban) that treat defenseless and innocent people with ruthless violence. All those who belong to such authoritarian structures or violent private groups of whatever ideology refuse to allow anyone to question or threaten their aggressive impulses and lust for power. The faint voice of human rights can hardly be heard over their clamor.
What, then, can be done? As we all know, Rome was not built in one day, and it will take more than a day or a year to ensure respect for human rights; the time required is long. The United Nations’s protection of human rights resembles such natural phenomena as earthquakes, glaciations, climatic changes, all of which happen beyond a single life span and can be measured only in terms of generations. As the third millennium has begun, the United Nations’s human rights agenda has picked up speed through the making, among other international venues, of the International Court for Crimes Against Humanity.
It is hardly surprising that human rights should take so long to become established. Though not a religion, human rights do possess many of the characteristics of the main religious faiths. Centuries elapsed before the great religions began to expand; they were beset by obstacles, persecution, and a categorical refusal to accept their tenets. Yet, in time, they came to dominate the minds of men and women and to condition the behavior of people and states, generation after generation. The essential precepts of these religions were trampled underfoot by opponents and followers alike. Day by day the most sacred principles were violated; nevertheless, they continued to expand. All this is true of human rights, which many states habitually regard; yet they stand out as one of the great forces of natural law. To open people’s minds, to illuminate the straight and narrow paths that lead in the right direction, it is important to ensure that the wells of public opinion are not poisoned by people becoming inured to authoritarianism and bullying.
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