International: Profile of Women Living Under Muslim Laws: What’s In a Name?

Goethe-Institut's Art & Thought magazine

The preconceived notions about the working conditions of NGOs in general and feminist organisations in particular would seem to apply in this case. Behind a website crammed with a wealth of high-quality information in seven languages, successful campaigns, projects, and calls for solidarity, a lot of hard work is being done in backstreet offices. The international co-ordination office (ICO) of Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML, is situated in North London. Here, in a roughly thirty square metre corner of an old factory, five women and a handful of unpaid volunteers work, network, raise funds, publish, debate, and co-ordinate the work of a global network. The diversity of the team – which comprises women from Pakistan, Italy, Sweden, Nigeria, and England as well as people of Christian, Muslim and atheist orientations – is in itself a reflection of what WLUML is all about, namely bringing a diverse range of women with their different life experiences together, across national borders, questioning and overcoming existing gender orders together, and demanding gender justice. Women Living Under Muslim Laws is a name that invokes a variety of associations. However, behind these five carefully chosen words is a clear message.


First and foremost it is about women: women whose lives are influenced by laws, customs, and traditions that are presented as Islamic; women who live in Muslim majority or minority societies, are confronted through either their husbands or children with Muslim laws, who live as non-Muslims in Muslim spheres of influence, or who strictly reject being pigeon-holed in a religious category despite formally belonging to a religion. It is about women who biologically belong to the female sex, but who vehemently reject all other forms of gender-specific categorisation. WLUML is not, however, an organisation exclusively for women; gender justice is the guiding principle, and men have been a part of the movement since its inception. 

The establishment of the organisation twenty-five years ago was triggered by four specific, yet independent events that took place in different parts of the Muslim world (Abu Dhabi, Algeria, France, and India) where women were robbed of their human rights under reference to so-called Islamic laws. The violence that was perpetrated in these cases in the name of Islam unleashed passionate reactions and moved nine women from Algeria, Bangladesh, Iran, Mauritius, Morocco, Pakistan, and Sudan to break both the isolation of their sisters and the general silence. Ever since, the acquisition of autonomy and the power of definition over body and person has been the objective of the organisations and individuals from more than seventy states who work together under the WLUML umbrella. The objective is to refute the construction of a uniform Muslim world, the claim that there is only one possible way to be a woman of the Muslim faith, and, therefore, the image of Islam nurtured in the West. WLUML analyses the Muslim myths that are created by internal and external forces and the exploitation of religion, culture, and women’s bodies for the purposes of power politics, and seeks to engage in debate about them. The aim is to encourage women to demand for themselves the full variety of life opportunities and to use these opportunities to define their identity themselves. 

WLUML is a network whose openness and fluidity guarantees the autonomy of groups and individuals and allows them to develop independent strategies that are best suited to their local situations. There is no ideology here and no uniform standpoint; the network instead offers a discursive space for a brand of feminism that allows for local and personal specificities. The network declines to say whether there is a single brand of Muslim feminism that differs from other forms of feminism, whether the fight for emancipation should be launched from secular or religious ground, or how culture and tradition can best be filled with new, positive content. Nor is there a strategy that applies to – or would be useful for – all situations ranging from Canada to Indonesia via Algeria.

No ideological commitments

The positions range from Marxism to feminist theology. Ain-o-Salish Kendro in Bangladesh, for example, is a centre that offers legal advice; Sisters In Islam in Malaysia works on the reinterpretation of religious texts; and the organisation CADEF in Mali focuses on health issues and in particular on genital mutilation. At the moment, differing views on the issue of the burqa ban are emerging among the members of the network and attempts are being made to create space on the website to accommodate the debates within the network. The exchange between the networks and the breaking up of the dichotomous logic of patriarchal discourses allows for a joint learning process and continuing inspiration for local activism. The network serves as a framework for the exchange of information and the practising of solidarity. For many, WLUML is the only way they have to obtain political and legal material and to make contact with other women outside the borders of their own country. When one considers the political situation in many Muslim states that are shaped by undemocratic regimes, human rights violations and gender apartheid, the radical nature of this rebellion becomes all the more clear. Unlike other identity groups, which are formed on the basis of religion, ethnicity, or nationality, and allow women too to participate in tales of might and power, women’s rights activism is often regarded as treason and brings with it considerable risks.

At my new job in the WLUML office, where I have been given the task of sorting twenty-five years of archive material for the upcoming anniversary, I realise what networking really means. The walls are papered with posters bearing slogans like ‘The best among you is he who is best to his wife’ from Malaysia, or ‘There is no honour in killing’ from Palestine. In addition to a map of the world, there is, of course, a table with the world’s numerous time zones to allow members of the network in the US, Egypt, and Indonesia to somehow find a time for a telephone conference that will suit everyone. When women are threatened with forced marriage or stoning, when children are kidnapped, laws misused or legal work is hindered, campaigns are launched, often in conjunction with other organisations such as Amnesty International and Rights and Democracy. Be that as it may, the boxes that surround me tell tales from a different era. Hand-written notes, letters, and faxes that tell women’s stories pass through my hands. I find out just how much courage it takes to demand women’s rights in environments that are shaped by tradition and religion. It means losing the fixed points that previously shaped one’s identity, the familiar support and sense of belonging to a group. In such cases, WLUML acts as a kind of safety net, back-up, and new family and offers moral and personal support. This support, which is co-ordinated by the ICO, has liberated many from isolation and brought them into influential positions. Farida Shaheed, a member of the network from Pakistan, has been elected by the UN Human Rights Council to the post of Independent Expert on Cultural Rights, while Rashida Manjoo from South Africa has been made UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women. Members of the network have also been presented with awards such as the International Service - Human Rights Award for the Defence of the Human Rights of Women or the Human Rights Defenders Tulip Award.


Gender relations are an important order and orientation factor for every society. Changing established roles is not only a question of coming up with new definitions, it also means, in concrete terms, that the people involved have to acquire social, economic, cultural, political, physical, and psychological areas of life in a new and very individual manner. This changes society as a whole and, therefore, women’s realities of life.

In order to renew gender relations, not only inspiration, imagination, and a faculty of abstraction are needed; specific information is also essential. In 1988, an exchange programme sent eighteen women from fourteen different countries to Muslim-influenced areas with which they were not familiar for a period of three months. This allowed the programme’s participants to expose that which in their native countries was considered and presented as being sacrosanct in Islam for what it was: a cultural specific. It allowed them to recognise that certain dress codes and other practices that are legitimated with reference to Islam – such as genital mutilation, child marriage, widow inheritance, honour killings or the withholding of health care – are entirely secular and born of the human mind. At the same time, common ground in everyday matters was identified: the strict division of the public from the private, patriarchal family structures, and diverse forms of violence. 

Economic, social, and political structures have changed in the meantime and local strategies have to be adapted in order to meet the new challenges. Nevertheless, the life of women is still characterised by control rather than freedom. Perceptions of women and families are fixed and serve as the basis on which a group defines its identity. Moreover, fundamentalist forces continue to try and play the ‘women’s card’ for their own ends. In this regard, the four basic themes specified by WLUML in the early days still apply and are a guideline for new projects: peace-building and resisting the impact of militarisation; preserving multiple identities and exposing fundamentalisms; widening debate about women’s bodily autonomy; promoting and protecting women’s equality under laws. The focus on personal exchange between members of the network on the issues of living conditions and life experience also remains. Moreover, the wealth of new means of communication has allowed for the provision of new and improved, constant and prompt support over huge geographical distances.

Feminism is not a Western discovery and the essential components of patriarchal structures are inherent in both Muslim and all other societies. These are facts. It is also a fact that in all societies, feminist ideas are demonised, rejected, made fun of, and portrayed as being contemptuous of tradition and religion because they call the existing order into question. Through my work, I learn what standing up for women’s rights in various parts of the world really means. I discover a biography of Huda Shaarawi, a pioneer of Egyptian feminism, and Sultana’s Dream, a revolutionary feminist utopia dreamt up by Rokeya Sakhawat Hosain in India in 1905. In category F of my catalogue system, there are books such as Feminist Theory of the State, Muslim Women Reformers, and the WLUML publicationGreat Ancestors: Women Asserting Rights in Muslim contexts, which traces the history of women’s rights activism from the eighth to the twentieth century. The letter F encompasses the issues of feminism and women’s empowerment. Right from the word go, WLUML resisted the portrayal of Muslim women as submissive, dependent, or the victims of despotic patriarchs. By translating international feminist texts into local languages, the members of the WLUML network have made an active contribution to the ongoing development of global feminism.

The WLUML recently organised the fourth Feminism in the Muslim World Leadership Institute in Dakar. This event not only marked the start of the generation change, it also celebrated it. On the one hand, activists who have been involved right from the word go passed on their knowledge; on the other, young women contributed to the debate experiences, needs, necessities, and challenges drawn from their personal contexts. This keeps the network and the feminist debate alive and its finger right on the pulse of time.


Religion is a private matter and WLUML does not consider itself to be an organisation that focuses on matters of faith. Nevertheless, it feels that women should be encouraged to play a role in the interpretation of religion and to take part in discourses. In this regard, it is not about theology, but about Muslim realities, things created by people and, therefore, social science debates. The emphasis on Muslim and not Islam in the organisation’s name is intended to help correct myths. The reason for this is that the exploitation of religion in the political arena has led to states labelling themselves and laws as Islamic, i.e. as being ordained by the Koran. In this way, reality is distorted again and again, making things that humans have created with secular interests in mind impossible to challenge. People are required to accept, without asking questions. The focus shifts from social, economic, and political questions to a seemingly theological, moral level. At the same time, the idea of a collective Muslim identity is constructed. The fact that this one single identity and the Islamic state with all the laws that go with it do not actually exist is evidence of the wide variety of historical, political, cultural, and social structures that exist in the communities and states of the Muslim world.

Not anti-Islam

It is also important to emphasise that the main challenge in the fight for women’s rights is not Islam. There are many Islamic theologians who have produced a convincing feminist exegesis of the Koran. Moreover, WLUML has on numerous occasions worked with traditionalulema who came to value the productive contribution of WLUML to the community of Muslims as soon as they realised that no one in the network is in fact working against Islam. Furthermore, it is wrong to assume that religion plays an important role in the lives of all women. Here, as in other parts of the world, it is about social and political realities, structural inequalities, actions, and motivations for action.

Because, however, the Koran is invoked in matters of living space and the control of women, it is impossible to avoid addressing the key source, the Koran. WLUML’s second project, which ended in 2004 with the publication For Ourselves - Women Reading the Qur’an,focused on this very issue. The plurality of existing and potential interpretations of the Koran that are described in this publication provide encouragement to ask thorny questions.

I have reached the letter I, which covers the issues of identity and sexuality. The ICO is constantly being sent new material for this section, so I take the precaution of reserving a few extra shelves. Identity policy, the definition of collective identities and their projection onto women’s bodies is a hot topic not only in feminist discourses. The broad scope of recent debates ranges from sexual rights and orientations, desire, and perceptions of the body to dress codes. The next category, J, which covers the issues of society and culture, is also very much in demand at the moment. The definitions of culture that are doing the rounds and the various cultural manifestations that strengthen women, but can also weaken them considerably, have to be analysed and discussed. The only category yet to be tackled is V, violence against women, which grows and grows without any input from me. Violence against women in the family is no longer suffered in silence, and multiple manifestations of direct, indirect, and structural violence are now openly referred to as such. WLUML reacted by launching campaigns. At present the projects ‘Women Reclaiming and Redefining Culture’ and ‘Stop Stoning and Stop Killing Women’, both of which are funded by the UN, are currently underway. In this way, the archive is constantly growing and expanding to reflect current global political events and discourses. The necessity to react in an informed manner has brought together a quite astonishing body of materials. The variety of themes reflects the development of women’s rights and human rights debates over the past twenty-five years. My work is, therefore, akin to a journey into the past; it shows how gender roles, discussions, and arguments have changed over the years.

Identity, culture, violence, and women’s bodies ... Ayesha Kariapper, an English member of the network with Pakistani roots, conducted research into this issue, and the WLUML recently published her findings as a book. Walking a Tightrope: Women and Veiling in the United Kingdom addresses the widely-discussed issue of veiling and how controversies surrounding this issue have influenced the strategies of those involved. We spent the last few weeks polishing up the text, finalising exact Arab transcriptions, and completing the bibliography. Now the first reading of the book at the School for Oriental and African Studies in London is fast approaching. An exhibition entitled ‘Dress Codes’ will be held at the same time. Put together by WLUML, it provides information about dress codes in seven different states and regions in the past and present, about regulations and practices, and about clothes as an important pillar in the construction of a Muslim identity.


There is no such thing as the one, uniform Islamic set of laws; there is no such thing as a codified Sharia. There are, however, four different schools of Islamic law, the art of arguing and interpreting various legal sources, and centuries-old debates. In this arena, culture, religion, and politics are merged by social and state forces with a view to controlling people, especially women. It is here that identity is defined and the fight for power takes place.

The specific use of the plural (laws) in the organisation’s name is a reference to the variety of defined Islamic laws and the frequently controversial interpretations. The regulation of contraception and abortion is a good example of this. In Algeria, this issue has been addressed in a variety of different ways depending on the political situation in the country; in Tunisia, both are permitted; in Bangladesh, contraception, abortion and sterilisation are enforced by the state. In all cases, an Islamic reference system is used as the basis of legitimation. At the same time, several formal legal systems exist in parallel within most Muslim states and communities. A secular civil code is supplemented by religious law and customary law. There are also informal customs and traditions, which have been internalised and included in the process of socialisation and are adhered to with the help of self-censorship or the threat of physical or psychological punishment. The complexity of the legal situation is roughly synthesised to form a whole and is presented as an Islamic code. Individuals rarely have exact information that allows them to verify the origin and the legitimacy of the legal means being applied. Most public law relating to areas such as trade, tax, or administration is based on colonial and other legal structures imposed from outside. In societies where religion continues to enjoy a high status, on the other hand, matters relating to civil status, family, or groups as well as customs and traditions are frequently and without question raised to a religious level and are decided at that level. This means that laws on civil status and families are allocated to an Islamic system of references, thereby contradicting constitutions that are generally secular. Algeria is a good example of a country where contradictory secular and religious laws exist side by side. The equality of men and women before the law was anchored in the constitution of 1976. At the same time, the constitution notes that the status of women is worthy of improvement and that the state will, among other things, start addressing change in the judicial system. Islam is mentioned as being a liberating and an equality-affirming force in this process. In 1984, however, family laws were passed by an FLN government. These laws can be considered misogynist because they stipulate the fact that in all areas of the family and civil status, women cannot legally make decisions for themselves and are absolutely dependent on a man to make decisions for them. Although these family laws were watered down to a certain degree in some points in 2005 by the Bouteflika government, their inherent fundamental inequality remains.

Many legal systems, one injustice

The identities on offer to women are a constant reminder of limits defined by religion, culture, tradition, and not least men. Conflicts between laws arise again and again in many legal matters where different legal sources could be used to make a decision. The source that is ultimately chosen is, with astonishing regularity, the one that discriminates against women. This goes to show that the intention is not simply to apply Islamic law, but to control women. A case from Pakistan illustrates this point. Here, despite the fact that state law does not accept it as a legitimate form of divorce, divorces generally take the form of a husband verbally repudiating his wife with reference to Islam. In sharp contrast to this, when it comes to questions of property ownership, decisions are generally made on the basis of old British colonial law that does not afford women the Islamically-guaranteed right to inheritance and private ownership.

Calling so-called Islamic laws into question, rejecting them, and reformulating them is an act of rebellion; those who do so risk losing the support of the community and potentially also the valid identity that they held up until that point. Because women generally have only limited political and economic resources, this operation requires an incredible amount of courage and a solid foundation of information. The aim of WLUML’s third project, ‘Women and Law in the Muslim World Programme 1991–2001’ was to provide such a foundation. The document ‘Knowing Our Rights: Women, Family Laws and Customs in the Muslim world’ analyses the state of the law in twenty states. It also outlines various strategies adopted by women and highlights both positive and negative trends, focusing in particular on family laws. At the same time, it was important for WLUML to place the arguments within the context of the international discourse on human rights in order to be able to bring states to task and to create a solid basis of legitimation. It is essential that international standards, as defined by the CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women) or the UN Declaration of Human Rights, are implemented so that we can move from the specific to the universal and from the local to the global, thereby defying cultural relativism. For example, it was important in this regard to lift the debate about forms of violence such as honour killings, enforced sterilisation, genital mutilation, or forced marriage onto the level of human rights and to condemn them as elementary abuses of human rights.

Funding problems

The work of the WLUML is also directly dependent on the global economic situation and, consequently, on donors’ willingness to give. This has declined dramatically both in the public and the private sector in recent years; social organisations in particular have to deal with considerable cuts in their budgets, which is why I have to end my work, even before I have examined and sorted all the material. At least the catalogue system has been established. From A for Islam to Z for journals and newspapers, it reflects the holistic approach, the analytical depth, the multiple strategies, and the global partnerships of WLUML. Looking through the rows of shelves, I ask myself what it is that makes WLUML so special and what it is about the organisation that fascinates me personally. I have always been impressed by the size of the network, the variety of links both within and outside Muslim or feminist organisations, the honest solidarity, and the speed with which its members react to abuses of women’s rights. WLUML has filled a niche in this regard. The fact that it has contacts in the most varied social strata in many different countries has also given the members of the network a good feeling for political and social developments, allowing them to react at an early stage with analysis and activism. The current challenge posed by the various brands of fundamentalism that are networking at global level was identified as a key factor in the battle for new gender orders, independence, and identity as far back as the 1980s. New organisations are constantly springing up within the framework of the many individual projects that are launched. Just three such organisations are the Women’s Resource Centre in Tashkent, the Women’s Research and Action Group in India, or Women for Women’s Human Rights in Turkey. In the meantime, WLUML has succeeded in establishing itself at international level as a reliable source of information, which means that queries from academic circles, NGOs, or even government agencies have to be answered on a daily basis.

These global synergies mean that people are now working together to think and demand the unthinkable. Nevertheless, massive defence mechanisms are still working hard to fight the change in gender roles. These mechanisms must be overcome. That they really do still exist is illustrated by recent calls for solidarity with Sakineh Mohammadi, who was sentenced to death by stoning in Iran, and with migrant women who are being tortured in southern Algeria.

Nouria Ali-Tani studied Politics and Islamic Studies in Hamburg and has been conducting research into the transformation of international politics from a feminist perspective. 

Translated by Aingeal Flanagan

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann

January 2011

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