Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Sharia Endangers Women Rights, from Iraq to Canada

By: Ayaan Hirsi Ali *

In every society where family affairs are regulated according to instructions derived from the Sharia or Islamic law, women are disadvantaged. The injustices these women are exposed to, in the name of Islam, vary from extreme cruelty (forced marriages; imprisonment or death after rape) to grossly unfair treatment in matters of marriage, divorce and inheritance.

Muslim women across the world are caught in a terrible predicament. They aspire to live by their faith as best they can, but their faith robs them of their rights. Some women have found a way out of this dilemma in the principle of separation of organized religion and state affairs. They fight an uphill battle to achieve and hold on to their basic rights.

Two cases demonstrate just how difficult that struggle can be, in the context of new as well as established democracies.

The first is the draft constitution of Iraq. Iraqi women like Naghem Khadim, demonstrating on the streets of Najaf, were fighting to prevent an article from being put in the constitution that would establish that the legislature may make no laws that contradict Sharia edicts. The second case is the province of Ontario, in Canada. There, Muslim women led by Homa Arjomand, an activist of Iranian origin, are fighting--using the Canadian Charter of Rights--to keep Sharia from being applied as family law through a so-called Arbitration Act passed as law in Ontario in 1992.

It seems strange to associate the context of Canada with that of Iraq, but a closer look at the arguments used to reassure the demonstrating women in both countries reveals the similar ordeals that Muslim women in both countries must go through to secure their rights. It shows how their legitimate and serious worries are trivialized, and how vulnerable and alone they are.

It shows how the Free World led by the U.S. went to war in Iraq, allegedly to bring liberty to Iraqis, and is compromising the basic rights of women in order to meet a random date. It shows how the theory of multiculturalism in Western liberal democracies is working against women in ethnic and religious minorities with misogynist practices. It shows the tenacity of many imams, mullahs and self-made Muslim radicals to subjugate women in the name of God. Most of all, it shows how many of those who consider themselves liberal or left-wing see their energy levels rise when it comes to Bush-bashing, but lose their voice when women's rights are threatened by religious obscurantism.

Hamam Hamoudi, the head of Iraq's constitution committee, refused to discuss the article that worries the Muslim women. He also refused to put in the draft constitution that men and women have equal rights, creating a bizarre situation whereby the women had more rights under Saddam Hussein's regime than in post-Saddam Iraq. Mr. Hamoudi insisted that women will have full economic and political rights, but the overwhelming evidence shows that when Sharia--which gives a husband complete control over his wife--is in place, women have little chance to exercise any political rights.

Does Mr. Hamoudi realize that it took the removal of Saddam and the establishment of a multiparty democracy for men to vote, while if his draft constitution is ratified, women will need the permission of their husbands to step out of the house in order to mark their ballot? I thought that President Bush and all the allies who supported the Iraq war aspired to bring democracy and liberty to all Iraqis. Aren't Iraqi girls and women human enough to share in that dream?

Under Sharia, a girl becomes eligible for marriage from the moment she starts to menstruate. In countries where Islamic law is practiced, child-brides are common. Do the drafters of the constitution grasp what this will mean for the school curriculum of girls or the risks of miscarriages, maternal fatalities and infant deaths? These and other hazards that affect subjugated women are common phenomena in the 22 Arab-Islamic countries investigated in the Arab Human Development Report. An early marriage also means many children in an area of the world that is already overpopulated and poor.

The draft Iraqi bill of rights favors men in other respects, such as the right to marry up to four wives, and the right to an easy divorce, without the interference of a court, simply by repeating "I divorce you" in the presence of two male witnesses. A wife divorced in such a fashion will receive an allowance for a period of three months to one year, and after that period nothing.

On the other hand, if a wife wants a divorce, she must go to court and prove that her husband does not meet her material needs, that he is infertile and that he is impotent. Once a divorce is finalized, if there are children, the custody of the children will automatically go to the father (for boys at age 7 and for girls from the start of menstruation). Inheritance based on the Sharia means that wives will get only a small portion of the property of their husbands and a sister will get half what her brother gets.

Canadian women are told that the Arbitration Act of 1992 was passed in order to provide citizens with the opportunity to resolve minor conflicts through mediation and thereby save valuable court time.

They are reassured that Muslim women in Canada have nothing to fear because parties must enter into arbitration out of their free choice, and that there are enough limits to safeguard the rights of women. The Muslim women's arguments that "free choice" is relative when you are psychologically, financially and socially dependent on your family, clan or religious group seem to fall on deaf ears.

The populations of battered Muslim women in "tolerant" Canada's women's shelters seem to be ignored. In Canada, battered Muslim women say that their husbands told them that it is a God-given right to hit them. If the current Iraqi constitution goes through, Iraqi wife-abusers will be able to add "It is my constitutional right to beat you."

An Iraqi constitution is necessary, and the need for urgency is apparent, but urgency is a bad argument for passing a bill that strips half the nation of its rights. In Ontario, minorities come first and individual women within minorities last, living as second-class citizens and suffering in silence.
______________________________

Ms. Hirsi Ali, a member of the Dutch parliament for the Liberal Party, was born in Somalia. She took refuge in the Netherlands in 1992 to escape an arranged marriage, and has had armed bodyguards after receiving death threats from Muslim extremists.

*The Wall Street Journal (abridged)

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