Wednesday, June 20, 2007

"There is no such thing as Shari'a."

I had always been an admirer of Marieme Hélie-Lucas, since coming across her brilliantly and sharply written article: What is your tribe? Women's struggles and the construction of Muslimness. Now I return to her writing, via work, and am again persuaded that she is one of the boldest feminist thinkers of her age. Here is an excerpt from one of her articles in response to Marian Boyd's misguided call in 2006 for Muslim communities in Canada to be allowed to arbitrate cases in a Shari'a court; you can read it in full on the WLUML web site.

Women from migrant descent vs Muslim fundamentalists in Europe and North America: struggles and unexpected new obstacles
Canada has just been the battle field for Muslim fundamentalists trying to impose religious arbitration in family matters. This did not happen in a vacuum: European countries too have witnessed similar initiatives recently, with a similar focus on women. This is also the way they proceeded in our countries. For they do know that patriarchy is universal and that western governments , like our own governments, will be happy and relieved to trade women's' rights for keeping social unrest at bay. Indeed the Canadian government decided to outlaw religious arbitration, indeed women won a battle, an important one. But they have not won the war. There are two lessons that we can learn from this encounter:

On the one hand, despite the large mobilization of Canadian women, the voices of those who supported Muslim religious arbitration - in the name of equity between all religions, regardless of the probable content of such an arbitration, regardless of which forces were pushing for it - were well heard and well received by the political authorities.
[...] why is it that women from the Muslim community sometimes find it so difficult to take a clear cut position regarding fundamentalists demands vs women human rights? We cannot ignore here the double bind in which they are caught. Religiously minded or not, they see, just as we all do, the growing racism, discrimination, exclusion, marginalisation that so-called Muslims face, and more so after 9-11. As members of this community, they too face these difficulties, as well as being sensitive to what their male folks face. They face all this both for themselves and for their community. When they stand up in defence of their women human rights, they are immediately labelled traitors. Traitors to their community, to their family, to their culture, to their religion, - but also, and not less excruciating, traitors to the oppressed of the world, to the revolution, etc... For those of us who are atheists and come from social movements, condemnation comes additionally from a larger and larger section of the Left and of human rights organizations in which we still recognize ourselves that gives precedence to the defense of communities over the defence of women.

For those of us who are religious, condemnation comes additionally from authorities of a faith that is dear to their heart. This is why we should collectively praise women from 'Muslim' descent who have allied in Canada, from the faith based Canadian Council of Muslim Women to the secular 'No sharia campaign', in a fruitful coalition. This is a very difficult situation indeed, but no different from that of battered women or incest survivors who stand up against their aggressors and denounce a husband, a father or a brother... they too are often seen as betraying their folks, and it is definitely equally hard on them. But those who take this courageous position should indeed be supported by other women in a careful and respectful way: I do not include as respectful support the totalizing and homogeneizing condemnation of "Islam" and of "Muslims" (rather than of fundamentalists) by ethnocentric westerners who are convinced that they are ahead of civilization and a model for all. Support as well as criticism should clearly be politicized, on the basis of shared values rather than communities.

The growing ambiguity of main stream international human rights organizations, of a large section of the Left and even of a vocal current within feminists viz fundamentalists should be a matter of concern to many of us.

Some months ago when a group of us, from Muslim countries and communities, visited Montreal and Ottawa in support of the coalition against religious arbitration in Canada, i was struck with the way women from CCMW spoke up against the proposed legalization of arbitration, while some of the women who were obviously not from 'Muslim' descent worded their concerns carefully and somehow sheepishly. As if "Muslims" were under attack, rather than fundamentalists. Marion Boyd herself was considered a feminist till such time her report proved that she too was prepared to trade women's rights for the rights of minorities to oppress their women. This sends me back into memories of the time, in the seventies, when some feminists in Europe defended publicly female genital mutilation in the name of cultural rights of minorities... It took, in France for instance, the courage of women 'traitors' from communities where FGM is practiced to send perpetrators to jail ( unfortunately they were women, of course, - which added to the above listed reasons to condemn these fighters of girls and women's rights not to be sexually mutilated) to stop FGM to take place on French soil.

Similarly, human rights organizations have repeatedly taken wrong positions on question of rights of women. We raised issues around their exclusive focus on state responsibility for the past twenty years at least, pointing at the fact that non state actors ( among which fundamentalists) are increasingly important in inciting or fomenting wars and armed conflicts, imposing non chosen identities, curtailing of basic freedoms and women's rights; we claim that it is time to demand direct accountability from non state actors. Human rights stance is that the State should use due diligence to enforce human rights and control non state actors. But as soon as states attempt to do so, human rights organizations call upon them for infringing upon minority rights, cultural rights, religious rights, etc... There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this will happen again in Canada when Muslim fundamentalists will challenge in court (national and/or international ones) the government decision to refuse religious arbitration in family matters. Human rights organizations now have to be taken to task by feminists and to be confronted with their own contradictions.

Finally, we need to point at the alliances that are built between Muslim fundamentalists and various political forces of the Right and the extreme Right. One of course expects religious fundamentalists to support each other beyond religious difference. And of course that is the case: after the attack on French secularism on the question of veiling girls in state schools, known Jewish and Christian fundamentalist organizations took position in support of demands from 'Muslims', ignoring the outcry from the progressive scholars of Islam and many women from Muslim descent who went public in the media to defend French secularism. Feminists had their first taste of these unholy alliance during the Cairo World Conference on Population, where the Vatican and El Azhar University ( considered the highest religious authority) colluded in actions against freedom of contraception and abortion.

You can read another of her articles, Veil-s, here.

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