International: Progressive male Muslim preachers: oxymoron or reality?


Feminist concern about the violation of women’s rights by male clerics in Muslim countries is slowly producing a response from some states. At the same time, rights activists are increasingly reporting examples of clerics who are standing up for women’s rights. This isn’t about the progressive male and female scholars that are increasingly visible in the Muslim world, nor about the occasional female imam; it’s about male preachers on the streets and in the villages.

Examples abound of how male Muslim clerics, whether as individuals or through religious bodies, use their power to obstruct progress in the rights of women and girls, especially in the field of family law. In Yemen last year, a bill passed in parliament for the first time setting a minimum age for marriage (at 17 years) but was rejected by the Islamic Shari‘ah Codification Committee as ‘ un-Islamic’, according to local women’s rights organizations.  Individual imams solemnizing a marriage are also powerfully placed – to either look the other way and allow a child marriage or forced marriage to go ahead, or to prevent such violations of rights. InAzerbaijan, women’s rights activists say corrupt religious officials are prepared to conduct unregistered religious marriages when the girl is too young (under 16) for a state ceremony.  In Kyrgyzstan, there is a post-Soviet rising trend of illegal polygamous marriages, blessed by mullahs. Sohail Akbar Warraich, a rights activist who trains paralegals in Pakistan, notes even licensed marriage solemnisers “Neither know the legal requirements nor believe in them.” He says it is not uncommon for the ‘special conditions’ clause of the official marriage contract to have a wholly illegal but duly registered entry pledging any female child born out of the marriage to be married in the future to a man from the bride’s family, with a financial penalty for failing to uphold the bargain; and an extreme example of forced marriage.

The problem is not just in the global South. Among migrant Muslim communities in Europe, imams sanctify religious marriages without ensuring that the required civil ceremony has been completed. In effect, they endorse a situation where the ‘wife’ has little legal protection of her financial rights and many such ‘marriages’ are a means of evading laws against polygamy.

But there is also evidence that states are slowly responding to concern about the role of clerics in family law, primarily raised by women’s rights activists. In Indonesia, the current draft bill on marriage proposed by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, introduces prison sentences and fines for officials who facilitate marriages in contravention of the law. In Saudi Arabia, the state recently intervened in the marriage of 12-year old girl to an 80-year old, raising hopes that the kingdom may be considering a ban on child marriage.

However, the state response is often half-hearted. Six years ago, the Government of Punjab in Pakistan issued a directive to all official Nikah (marriage) Registrars to abide by the provisions of the 1961 Muslim Family Laws Ordinance and Rules – or face cancellation of their licenses. According to Warraich, “Two years later when I was working with Nikah Registrars in the southern Punjab city of Multan, the Registrars themselves said implementation of this directive was weak.” He found that while some Registrars are educated and knowledgeable, others despite having a state license, “Can’t even write and have to take along a madrassah assistant to fill in the standard marriage contract form”. In Azerbaijan, the focus of the government’s response to the wave of illegal underage marriages has been less on prosecuting the solemnisers and more on just raising the age of marriage to 18 years.

But while states may or may not be slowly attempting to enforce or introduce local laws that tighten regulation of the role clerics play, there are many examples of women’s rights groups in Muslim countries and communities working with male religious leaders to end discrimination against women, including in the contentious areas of family law and violence against women.

In Egypt, the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance (CEWLA) which has been working to reform family laws for several years and is currently advocating an alternative draft family law, is building a group of 40 clerics who are aware of international conventions that support CEWLA’s vision. In Sri Lanka, the Muslim Women’s Research & Action Forum has long been working with Quazis, religious court judges who hear family law cases for Muslims, to improve women’s access to justice; over the years some have become “close and important allies of MWRAF. In Mali, Femmes et droits humains (Women and Human Rights) conducted research on female genital mutilation and used the results of the research to build alliances with strong, progressive religious leaders who would support the work through talk shows, participation in dialogues, and networking with other religious leaders. One of Warraich’s paralegal trainees last month told how activists in the remote Sindh district of Pannu Akil worked to persuade a maulvi not to solemnize a marriage between an 80-year old man and a young girl. Three times he refused the powerful family’s call to come and perform the ceremony, and eventually absented himself from the village leaving the family to conduct their own ceremony. “There are possibilities for convincing these religious figures,” notes Warraich.

Yet beyond organised alliances and dialogue between women’s groups and male religious decision-makers, there is an increasing trend of ordinary male clerics who are taking a stand for women’s family law rights of their own accord. According to Warraich, in Pakistan they are principally being motivated by “changing social tendencies, more cases going to courts; they hear about these things.” He finds that “many are asking questions about how they can deal with the social problems they come across”.

These are not sophisticated ‘moderate Muslims’ who make women’s rights to education, equality in marriage or political participation conditional on the ultimate recognition of male authority; these are people who simply believe that mistreating another human being is wrong, end of story.

The Muslim community in the United States may apparently be very different from the context in Pakistan, but many of the social problems, including domestic violence and forced marriage, are sadly similar. In the US and in Britain, in contrast to the stereotype of uniformly extremist young male Muslims, there are also examples of younger preachers who are taking a stand against violations of women’s rights. One example, is 25-year old Imam Khalid Latif, a chaplain for the New York Police Department who began giving sermons in his teens and who was a runner up in the 2009 National Sermon Contest with an address “Real Men Don’t Hit Women”.

But taking a stand is not easy. Preachers who raise questions about gender relations in open online forums such as Islamic Awakening invariably find themselves subjected to a barrage of abuse from those who are less open to measured dialogue. That the abuse comes from a vocal minority, rather than reflecting majority opinion, does not make it any less vitriolic. Meanwhile for the Nikah Registrars in Pakistan, the problems are more tangible. According to Warraich, they sometimes fear for their own safety when resisting a likely forced marriage: “They asked me ‘What can we legally demand when we suspect the bride has been kidnapped and is being forced into marriage? People don’t even show us the bride. These are powerful people, what security is there for us if we refuse to conduct the marriage?’”

Cassandra Balchin3 May 2010

Cassandra Balchin is a freelance researcher, writer and human-rights advocacy trainer, and has been part of the network Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) for fifteen years.