I recently read this article by Fatemeh Fakhraei about how Muslim women appear to be treated by some (radical?) feminists. It seems that some people in the U.S. assume Muslim women can’t or don’t speak for themselves. While I was taking an International Human Rights Law course at the American University in Cairo (because I’m sooo worldly and such), I read this great article by Madhavi Sunder titled Piercing the Veil. The whole document is great, but since it’s 75 pages, I will extract my few points. (The greater scope of her article addresses and critiques CEDAW and human rights law in regards to religious practices and vice versa.)
She states towards the beginning “Individuals in the modern world increasingly demand change within their religious communities in order to bring their faith in line with democratic norms and practices.” This statement appears to support the DOs instead of DON’Ts in Fakhraei’s article. Any feminist who wants to help Muslim women needs to recognize that they aren’t going to abandon their religion that seems to be “so oppressive.” Sunder continues “women human rights activists in Muslim communities are pursuing equality and freedom within the context of religion, not just without it.” Wouldn’t any religious practitioner rather find different interpretations within their scriptures instead of quit or leave their faith? Take Henry VIII for example: instead of abandoning Catholicism, he established his own church so he could get a divorce. (Maybe an extreme example, but one nonetheless.)
Later, in her discussion of “New Enlightenment,” Sunder writes:
Women’s human rights campaigns in Muslim communities fundamentally challenge traditional human rights law, which views identity as imposed and provides no individual rights to contest cultural or religious norms from within. Under current law, an individual may choose either to remain in a discriminatory culture – on the leaders’ terms – or to exit.
Basically, women can’t have their cake and eat it too. Human rights law will either observe freedom of religion or women’s rights. Doesn’t that seem strange? This seems to be the major flaw that Fakhraei points out in some feminist theories. A Muslim woman may feel oppressed, but it doesn’t mean she wants to leave her faith or has to leave her faith. Sunder’s observation is not just poking and CEDAW, but at all human rights law.
She continues discussing the history of religion as law into the present day practice of religion and law, and how the Women Living Under Muslim Laws network works to further women’s rights within religious establishments and governments. Sunder quotes from them (her emphasis) “The essential issue is who has the power to define what women’s identities should be…It is time to challenge – both politically as well as personally – those who define what the identity of women should be as Muslims.” In a way it’s unfortunate that this statement has to be made. It’s unfortunate because current human rights law does not appear to recognize that Muslim women should be the ones to determine their rights in their own communities.
Sunder describes a manual the WLUML distributes titled Claiming Our Rights: A Manual for Women’s Human Rights Education in Muslim Societies. She quotes from its own description and writes:
“[t]he appropriate function of a human rights education model, therefore, is to promote ‘rights’ by facilitating individuals’ participation in the definition of law or truth.” It is only when women “reclaim their own cultures, interpreting texts and traditions in self-empowering ways…, [that] women may truly claim their rights.”
Whether this agrees or disagrees with or even addresses Fakhraei’s points, I’m not sure; however, I believe this is important to include. Is this a right that international human rights law needs to include in its conventions and delcarations? Should human rights be determined by an international body, or by the communities the laws will govern? Ideally, everyone would agree upon human rights law. And if human rights law were left to communities to determine, then IHRL wouldn’t be necessary. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Hopefully one day the bodies that develop and defend international laws will be able to enforce them effectively and peacefully.
So that’s just my two cents. I’m interested in what other people think.