The Tunisian President Beji Caed Essibsi has called for more gender equality in his speech for the National Women’s day last Sunday. He wants Muslim women to have a free choice to marry a Non-Muslim and to give women equal inheritance rights. The Tunisian Islamic scholarly body, Diwan al-Ifta has agreed to these changes. However, his statements has caused a wide range of reactions and controversial discussions in Tunisia and other the Arab countries. And for many of us Muslims living in the West, this is not something new and we already apply them in our lives.
In many Arab countries, a Muslim woman is not permitted to marry a non-Muslim man, while a Muslim man can marry a non-Muslim woman. Muslim ClergyMEN have ruled for centuries that this is the Islam Law even though there is nothing in the Quran that state this nor a logical justification for it. It is similar to the laws that a Syrian woman can’t give Syrian nationality to her children if she marries non-Syrian, while of course a man can! There is not a rational justification or heavenly ruling for such discrimination. It is not about religion; it is simply due to the patriarchal society!!
It’s mainly a bunch of clergyMEN imposing their own interpretations on what the Quran actually says and many women follow because they trust those clergyMEN and believe this is actually what God wants for them.
From a Western perspective, it is very similar to the outrageous decision of President Trump to sign off women reproductive rights in developing countries. The image of a powerful man surrounded by a bunch of men while signing a decision that deeply affect women’s lives resembles the way this ruling was established. However, Muslim women in the west have had the liberty to choose who to marry without these unacceptable restrictions. It is not always easy to find a Muslim Sheikh, again a ClergyMAN, who will happily perform the marriage ceremony. But luckily, there are still some Muslim Clergymen who agree to it. Also, very few Muslim women in Lebanon and other Arab countries have married non-Muslim, but they were forced to go to another country, mainly to Cyprus to legally register their marriage.
The other issue that president Essibsi called for is equal inheritance rights for men and women. In many countries, the general ruling is that a brother gets double the inheritance of his sister. This ruling has been justified on the basis of financial needs and responsibilities. It is clearly stated in the Quran and therefore it is harder to convince people against it.
Many clergy-MEN argue that it is a fair distribution as a man is responsible to be the bread winner for the family and he is Islamicly obliged to support his female relatives such as his mother, sisters, and wife. For them, it is reasonable to give him a bigger share to help ease that burden on his shoulders. While this might have been reasonable in the tribal societies in the desert when the Quran was revealed, it is harder to apply in our modern life. Many Muslim parents in the West choose in their death will to give equal rights for their children regardless of gender. Many years ago, I also made the decision to do the same thing once I have children.
In addition, while some clergyMEN insists on giving women half share only, there are no laws or regulations that hold a man responsible to support his mother or his sister. Therefore it is a flawed unfair argument. It reminds me of an incident that happened to me a few month ago in Saudi. I went with my husband to Mecca to perform Ummra, a ritual visit to the Islamic holy sites. After performing the prayers in the Kaaba we returned to our hotel. Then we went out to buy some stuff from the supermarket on the opposite side of the street. We had to cross the road and there was a pedestrian traffic light that alternated red and green. Ironically, there was no correspondent traffic lights that regulated the cars driving on that road. So even when the pedestrians light changed from red to green, cars kept passing in front of us because there was no lights to stop cars. Eventually, we had to rely on the courtesy of the men driving on that street to allow us to cross (yeah in Saudi, only men are allowed to drive). The first thing that came to my mind with this ridiculously terrifying and annoying experience is that it resembles the current status of women’s rights in Islam.
I do believe that Islam has granted women many rights. And if we go back to history and compare the status of women in Arabia before and after Islam, it is evident that Islam has liberated women – in that time standards – and granted them many rights and higher status. However, nowadays we are missing the correspondent traffic lights – and laws that guarantees these rights and we have to rely on men courtesy to be able to live our lives. And I have met many wonderful and devoted Muslim men who voluntarily give women’s their rights and even more than their rights. However, there are not many laws to stop men who abuse women or deprive them their rights.
Thanks President Essibsi for your calls for these changes. The adversary they have caused are not very surprising as usually people’s initial reactions to changes are to reject them. But I do believe many things urgently need to be change and it wont happen until women and men activists demand these changes and keep raising awareness. For me, being a Muslim means believing in a merciful knowledgeable and just God, and I do not accept any injustices committed under the claim of religion.