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Sharia Law Can Be a Tool to Empower Afghan Women
Sharia law is often pointed to as the cause of extremism and intolerance. However, many of the Taliban’s oppressive practices are in direct violation of sharia. These discrepancies can be used to advocate for women’s empowerment within the context of Islamic law.
In the West, sharia law is often equated with violence and oppression. It’s understandable why it gets a bad reputation: news sources bombard us with horrific stories of Afghan women being whipped for having their faces uncovered in public, adulterers being stoned to death by ISIS, and thieves in Iran having their hands amputated.
However, many Muslim scholars would virulently disapprove of these manifestations of sharia. Ultimately, sharia can be understood simply as “Islamic law”, a broad set of laws derived from the Quran and the Hadith. It is not a list of inflexible edicts that prescribe oppressing women and stoning sinners. After all, while sharia is believed to be the divine law of God, Muslims have to interpret the texts in order to implement them, a process known as fiqh or Islamic jurisprudence. This process of interpretation leaves sharia open to wide variations in interpretations by governments and religious leaders, resulting in Muslim countries as disparate as Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
Women’s rights are among the issues most affected by variation in sharia law, despite many aspects of women’s rights and roles being made clear in the Quran. The incredible lives that the Prophet Mohammad’s wives led are key to understanding the Prophet’s vision for women's rights. In the seventh century, Mohammad’s first wife Khadija was a successful and autonomous businesswoman. His most well-known wife, Aisha, was widely respected for her intellect, and her scholarship shaped the development of Islam. She advocated for education, led a battle, engaged in politics, and shared Mohammad’s teachings publicly. In addition to these powerful examples of strong Muslim women that Mohammad supported, the Prophet explicitly established that women have legal rights, financial rights, the right to work, the responsibility to become educated, and more.
Despite this, many Islamic countries are frequently ranked as the worst places in the world to be a woman. Musawah, an organization fighting for equality and justice in the Muslim family, has identified at least 45 countries that have Muslim family laws that are discriminatory toward women or girls. This is particularly striking given that there are only about 50 Muslim-majority countries in the world.
However, women are tolerating discrimination less and less, especially given the deviation from sharia. They are now asserting that it is men in power, not Islam itself, that has oppressed women for centuries.
As a result, sharia’s room for interpretation is being capitalized on by Muslim women activists around the world to navigate legal systems in their countries and promote more progressive laws on women’s rights. This movement is especially powerful because it is continuing to operate within an Islamic framework that is accepted in highly religious societies. The fact of the matter is men and women will never be equal under sharia given that the Quran states that women are subordinate to men (Quran 4.34). However, enormous progress is possible.
Islamic Jurisprudence and Women’s Rights in Afghanistan
In Afghanistan, navigating interpretations of sharia may be one of the most powerful ways to promote rights for Afghan women. Over the past century, those who seek reform in Afghanistan have always been challenged by those who claim to be the true keepers of Islam. From King Amanullah who modernized the country and gave women the right to vote in 1919 only to be toppled by people who said he was not Islamic, to the present day where the Taliban overthrew the democratic regime in order to install a “true Islamic government”, this has been a cycle in Afghanistan.
Despite the incredibly progressive 1964 Afghan Constitution granting women equal rights including universal suffrage and the right to hold elected positions, subsequent legal progress was slow, even under the U.S.-supported democratic regime. Women’s progress was primarily in high-profile areas like political representation or education while many oppressive laws remained in place. Almost any reform that was brought to the legislature was blocked on Islamic grounds. In 2013, a ban on child marriage and prosecuting female rape victims for adultery was flatly rejected because it violated Islamic principles and encouraged disobedience. Despite all the progress made during Afghanistan’s democratic period, it was still consistently ranked as one of the worst places in the world to be a woman—and for good reason.
Observers feared the situation would get worse once the Taliban took power, and in most ways it has. Women are being urged to don burqas once more, many have lost their jobs in part because their ability to travel is so infringed, and elementary-age girls are still barred from classrooms. However, the Taliban have also been surprisingly progressive in some small, but impactful ways—all in the context of sharia.
In December 2021, the Taliban issued a proclamation on women's rights, establishing women’s property rights (including inheritance rights), banning the practice of baad, and declaring that women must consent to marriages. Even though this document did not mention work or education rights and the Taliban have done little to enforce their decree, the legal principles being explored are pivotal. This signals that the Taliban are open to continuing to examine and evolve rights for women through the lens of sharia and fiqh. True sharia is much more empowering of women than the Taliban’s current regime, and there may be more room to explore utilizing Islamic jurisprudence as a mechanism for increasing women’s rights in Afghanistan.
As a theocracy, they have the religious authority to take this step forward without being accused of violating Islamic principles, unlike past regimes. The perceived religious legitimacy of the Taliban’s regime has presented women with a unique opportunity to advance fiqh that empowers women without having the legitimacy of their claims challenged on religious grounds.
Ways Sharia Can Be Used as a Tool to Advance Women’s Rights
Some debates will continue to be difficult to navigate and remain open to interpretation, such as what modesty means to a Muslim woman—but other issues are crystal clear and activists in Afghanistan can begin to utilize fiqh to advocate for progress now.
Sharia law can be used to advocate for:
Family law that empowers women: In sharp contrast with the thousands of forced marriages in Afghanistan every year, sharia requires a woman’s consent for marriage. In fact, Mohammad once annulled a woman’s marriage when she complained she did not consent to it. Cultural norms around forced marriage will still be difficult to navigate, but the codification of the Islamic principle would still be progress. The Taliban have issued an edict on this in December 2021, but more steps are required to actualize it. (Fathul Bari Sharah Al Bukhari 9/194, Ibn Majah Kitabun Nikah 1/602)
Protections for women:
Honor killings are prohibited by the Prophet in the Hadith. He specifically calls for a legal resolution to accusations of adultery and says the wronged party may not kill the offenders. The Afghan legal system’s tacit endorsement of honor killings violates sharia. (Sahih Muslim 1498a 19/19)
Afghanistan’s practice of prosecuting raped women for adultery is similarly in violation of sharia. In the Quran, Mohammad orders the death of a confessed rapist, but the woman is considered the victim and not punished. Afghanistan’s resistance to reform on rape prosecution laws are strictly cultural and go against God’s word. (Quran 24:4)
Property rights: A key example is a woman’s right to inheritance after being widowed, an issue that the Taliban also clarified during their December proclamation. Afghan women are often completely prevented from receiving their inheritance or given less than they are permitted. The Quran sets out very specific laws to govern inheritance for women that are all too often neglected both in Afghanistan and around the world. (Quran 4:11)
Right to work: As mentioned previously, several of Mohammad’s wives were active in public life, including as a business owner, a teacher, and more. The Prophet reaffirmed a woman’s right to work at other points within the Quran as well, even once hiring a woman to manage a market for him (Quran 4:32). No limitations were placed on occupation type; all restrictions placed by the Taliban are not derived from sharia.
Right to education: The Prophet Muhammad himself taught women and men and encouraged his followers to do the same (Sunan Ibn Majah 224). While the Taliban have acknowledged the right to education, many of their attempts at segregation and development of special rules for female students are not outlined in the Quran. When Mohammad’s wife Aisha taught classes on law and Mohammad’s teachings, she taught men and women side by side with only a curtain as separation.
Activists and interested parties need to proactively advocate for the Taliban to abide by sharia and honor the way the Prophet lived by respecting women’s legal rights, encouraging girls to get educated, and allowing women to work. Until women are respected and uplifted, Afghanistan’s practice of Islam will remain flawed, hurting women and men alike.