Women in Islam Journal - Issue 6

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SIHA Journal / Issue No. 6


Women’s Land Rights in African Muslim Communities Why Land Matters for African Women Blocking the Sunlight

Sudanese Women’s Struggle for Democracy and Political Agency Why are AntiRape Laws Rejected in Somaliland and Somalia?

Te Politics of Women’s Bodies

DOSSIER: Equality Starts at Home

05 Three Questions To: Munira Yussuf


06 Nawal El Saadawi: The Daughter of Goddess Isis who Fought for Justice 10 Keeping Girls in the Game Te Story of a Female Sport Centre in Somaliland 12 Because She Cares Toyiba Yassin’s Pathway to Activism 15 Age is Not Only Measured in Years Sit Al-Nofor Bakar: a Nurse, Activist, and Artist 18 Nuruddin Farah: A Feminist Writer? Somali Womanhood in Nuruddin Farah’s Novels


22 The Politics of Shari’ah and Gender in Somaliland 25 Muslim Women in the Spotlight of Ethiopia’s Elections 28 Women's Land Rights in African Muslim Communities Why Land Matters for African Women 32 Multiple Identities What Does it Mean to Be a Queer Muslim African Woman? 35 Moving Beyond Tokenism An Open Letter by the Somali Women Journalists’ Rights Association


38 The Hijab Controversy Secularism and Islam in Europe

Stories of Survival Te Journeys of Migrant Women from Somaliland

Taking Roots Te Bangladeshi Community in Great Britain 48 There's a Reason Muslim Women Struggle to Make their Voices Heard

15 18 25 35
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POLITICAL 50 Without Fear A poem by Zahra Abdihagi Mahamed 52 Period Checks Te Policing of Prayer in Malaysia 55 Jailed for Crimes That Do Not Exist 58 Maid in Saudi Arabia A Photo Series by Tasneem Asultan PERSPECTIVES 62 Male anti-FGM/C Activists Negotiating Gender Power Relations in Somaliland 66 Blocking the Sunlight Sudanese Women’s Struggle for Democracy and Political Agency 69 How the COVID-19 Pandemic Exposes the Harsh Realities lived by Women in the Greater Horn of Africa 72 What makes women resist violent extremism in Mali and Niger? 74 Why are Anti-Rape Laws Rejected in Somaliland and Somalia? Te Politics of Women’s Bodies


HOME 78 The Perplexity of a Muslim Woman: Over Inheritance, Marriage and Homosexuality A Book Review by Ziba Mir-Hosseini 82 Free Our Family Laws! 85 Is Mahr a Gift or a Bride Price? A Perspective from Kenya 88 Reformist Qur’anic Methodologies Musawah’s Approach in Centring Muslim Women’s Voices to Uncover Qur’anic Ethics and Gender Justice 92 Film review – The Judge Te Multiple Pathways towards Gender Equality 94 The Battle Over Family Law in Egypt Shows Only the Personal Can Be Political, And Then Only So Far 98 The Echo

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99 SIHA Publications


Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA)

Editor-in-Chief Hala AlKarib

Editorial Coordinator Célia Hitzges

Editorial Team

Zemdena Abebe, Waha Ibrahim, Olive Nazziwa, Faith Sundby James, Yousef Timacade


Emadh Badawi, Kate Kingsford


Mohammed Attiya, Faisal el-Bagir, Sidahmed Bilal, Faisal Gorashy


Jeannine Ella Abatan, Zahra Abdihagi Mahamed, Leila Aded Osman, Amoun Aden Ismail, Guleid Ahmed Jama, Rushna Ali Sadler, Helmi Ben Meriem, Nathan J. Brown, Ismail Burhan Ismail, miriam cooke, Hawi Dahdi, Mark Fathi Massoud, Rihana Jemal, Laureen Karayi, Hala AlKarib, Nesrine Malik, Sanah Mehnaz, Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Muna Mohamed Hussein, Reel Muaz, Zainab Mwazighe, Flavia Nassaka, Kulsma Nur, Lyn Ossome, qabilah rue, Aisha Al-Sammani, Tashny Sukumaran, Faith Sundby James, Yousef Timacade, Maria Väkiparta, Shukria Yusuf Omer


Ahmed Abushariaa, Tasneem Alsultan, Data4Change, Nusreldin Eldouma, Salah Elmur, Algaddal Hassan Abdallah Salim, Shre Maha, Hussein Mirghani, Abdelwahab Nour, Nujuumarts, Anne-Laure Pierrelot, Ghazal Qadri, Tahira Rifath, Hussein Salim, Ibrahim Sayed, Galal Yousif, Munira Yussuf


Tarek Atrissi Design ISBN 978-9970-929-13-9

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What a journey it has been since the Women in Islam Journal frst launched in 2014. It is hard to believe that we are now releasing the 6th issue! Tis would not have been possible without the commitment of the many feminist activists – women and men – who have generously shared their knowledge over the years, and explored potential pathways to achieving gender justice in Muslim communities. It is gratifying amidst growing political polarisation worldwide to demonstrate our strength, solidarity, and resilience as a feminist and women-led movement with a voice and an agenda.

Te year 2022 presented us with new challenges and came with a wave of setbacks in the Horn of Africa. Unfortunately, the needs of people in the region are too ofen ignored as global transactional politics continues to take precedence. Across the Horn, political regimes are once more compromising citizenship equality and women’s rights to appease religious militants, armed militia, and other powerful players.

Te armed conficts in northern Ethiopia and other parts of the country have proven that even though laws have been passed in favour of women’s rights, women’s access to those rights continues to be marginalised. Te staggering scale of sexual violence in the country and the impunity for perpetrators of that violence make it painfully clear that women’s rights and safety are not on the political agenda.

In Sudan, the transitional government formed afer the overthrow of dictator Omar al-Bashir failed – for the most part – to address women’s rights issues; the expectations of Sudanese women who fought so hard for political change did not materialise. Instead, the military coup of October 2021 reversed the country’s transformation toward democracy and crushed hopes for social change.

Afer months of tension, Somali politicians fnally formed a government in May 2022 over a year behind schedule. Yet, the hardships endured by Somali women continue to be overshadowed by male politicians’ fghts over power and political position. None of the federal and regional governments across the Somali region have succeeded in making a breakthrough in protecting women and girls or promoting their rights in decision-making.

In March 2022, Amina Mohamed Abdi was killed in an Al-Shabab suicide bomb attack that lef 48 people dead in Beledweyn, Somalia, while campaigning for re-election to a parliamentary seat. A hallmark of Amina’s political career had been her drive to oppose violence and misogyny, even if that meant taking a stand against clan elders and religious militants. Amina rooted her opposition to gender-based discrimination and violence in the Qur’an and hadith, always pointing to gender justice within Islam to support her arguments. Amina’s killing is a tragic reminder of the threats faced by women who challenge the status quo in the region, and the need to support female activists and politicians more actively.

Considering these events, especially in Somalia and Sudan, recognition that dismantling militant Islamist ideology requires much more than security operations and economic sanctions is paramount. Without fostering long-term social and political transformation, we are doomed to fail and perpetuate cycles of violence. Trough years of struggle, it has become apparent to us activists and many other women that any transformation that turns a blind eye to gender equality is not a true transformation. Tis journal is a modest attempt to provide knowledge on the intersections between women’s rights and Islam that can guide and inspire activists, decision-makers, and any Muslim women and men committed to advancing gender equality in their communities.

In this issue of Women in Islam, we are taking more steps to infuence and change the narrative about Muslim communities in the Horn of Africa and worldwide. As in previous issues, the journal exposes the violations of women’s rights in Muslim minority and majority countries, while proposing concrete ways to advance gender equality and justice within Islam. Tis year’s dossier, for example, focuses on Muslim family law, exploring its impact on women’s lives and recent reform attempts.

As we introduce issue 6 of the Women in Islam Journal, we remain grateful to our readers worldwide. We have proudly observed our community’s growth, which gives us the confdence and strength to continue. We hope reading issue 6 will inspire and satisfy you, and we hope that you will continue to support us moving forward in our journey.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge the tireless work of our Editorial Coordinator, Celia Hitzges, and our editorial team, and express my gratitude to the Ministry of Foreign Afairs of the Netherlands and the Sigrid Rausing Trust for their generous support towards the production of this issue.

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Coined by Black feminist and scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, the term intersectionality refers to an analytical framework that helps us unpack how race, gender, age, class, religion, ethnicity, and other social and political identities intersect with one another to create different experiences of discrimination or privilege. Black women, for example, experience discrimination differently from white women or Black men. Intersectional approaches help us identify the power systems and structures that create and maintain patterns of discrimination and marginalisation, and design interventions that respond to these particular realities.

“There is no such thing as a singleissue struggle, because we don’t live single-issue lives” - Audre Lorde

of female members of parliament in Africa have been subjected to sexist behaviour or remarks, and 39% have faced sexual violence. In most cases, the main perpetrators of violence were their male counterparts. Women parliamentarians under 40, unmarried women, and women from minority groups face a higher incidence of violence, and women living with disabilities are the most seriously affected. Violence against female politicians is a threat to democracy as it deters women – especially young ones – from participating in politics and affects the capacity of state institutions to represent all segments of society.

Inter-Parliamentary Union, “Sexism, harassment, and violence against women in parliaments in Africa,” Issue Brief, November 2021.


Munira Yussuf

“I wanted to create a visual world to which Muslim girls and black women would fully belong, one that they could identify with.”

Munira Yussuf is a self-taught digital artist of Somali descent based in Sweden. Her love for graphic design and illustration started when she got her first computer at the age of twelve. Her goal as an artist is to break stereotypes and challenge the tendency in our societies to put individuals in boxes or ask them to fit the mould. Although she never went to art school, Munira is today making a living from her work. She hopes that her art and her experience will encourage other women to pursue their dreams.

Trough your piece, “Wear Your Crown,” what message do you want to convey?

Tis piece is part of a series that depicts the power of black women. I have used vibrant and “royal” colours, and portrayed women in proud or refective poses to convey the sentiment of strength and confdence. Colours are central to my work and telling of my state of mind. Bright colours such as pink and purple, for example, are associated with positive feelings and energy, while darker colour themes refect more sombre thoughts or melancholy.

Does your identity as a woman of Somali descent living in Sweden infuence your work?

My identity as a Swedish Muslim woman of Somali descent has defnitely infuenced my work. As a child, I always wanted to see people who looked like me portrayed in books, movies and visual art, but I could not fnd any work that spoke to my reality. I felt the need to change this and started making art to which people like myself could relate. I wanted to create a visual world to which Muslim girls and black women would fully belong, one that they could identify with.

Do you feel that your work refects on Somali women and their realities?

I feel that my work touches on the lives of Somali women although I do not necessarily focus on depicting their experiences in a realistic manner. Te notion of dreams is central to my art. I allow my characters to travel to diferent universes, to wander of, and escape the roles and representations to which they are usually confned. It is hard to describe but I would say that my art is abstract and provides an impression of freedom, the feeling that the world is full of possibilities.

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Nawal El Saadawi: Te Daughter of Goddess Isis who Fought for Justice

How can anyone encompass the life of Nawal El Saadawi, a woman whose passionate pursuit of justice continued unabated until 21 March 2021, the day she died? It is not enough to cite the dozens of books she wrote that were translated into multiple languages, or to list the international prizes, awards and honorary doctorates she received, or to recall the many feminist, justice-seeking organisations she founded and supported. To do justice to the life of this extraordinary woman, one would have to fill several tomes. Accordingly, this essay will focus on Nawal’s autobiography, her own account of how she remembered her life and assigned it feminist meaning.

Erasing the Divide between Personal and Political

In early 1993, after learning that the Egyptian Islamists who accused her of heresy had put her on their death list, Nawal El Saadawi found shelter at Duke University in North Carolina, USA. During her four years there, she wrote Awraqi Hayati in Arabic (“My Papers, My Life”). The first volume was published by Dar al-Adab in 1995. In 1999 London’s Zed Press published an English version of the book, translated by her then-husband, Sherif Hetata, and titled A Daughter of Isis. From the perspective of a feminist physician, activist and writer in her early sixties, Nawal constructs brick by brick the life of a fearless fighter for women’s rights across religious, ethnic and national boundaries.

is more real, more true than fiction, more creative, and more steeped in art…”1

For Nawal, being creative means connecting. Creativity brings body, mind, and spirit together and abolishes the gap between fiction and non-fiction. Creativity is also linked to memory. Since memory is never complete, one must draw on creative thoughts to retrieve the parts that time has erased. Linking is a key concept, not only in this autobiography but in all of her thinking. Her personal philosophy, life choices and life writing refuse division and abstract theorisation. For Nawal, theory distances the object of study, but the imaginary rooted in reality brings the object close, where the struggles, joys and challenges of a particular individual can be examined. Theory obscures the particularity at the heart of the universal.

A Journey of Resistance

In her autobiography, Nawal traverses the years to reach the child she thought she had lost. She connects the past to the present to the future, the individual struggle to the collective one, the self to the other.

Written in an almost mystical state, the book traces the life trajectory of a deeply spiritual Arab feminist activist committed to contesting colonialism, capitalism and the patriarchy.

1 Nawal El Saadawi, A Daughter of Isis: The Autobiography of Nawal El Saadawi (London: Zed Books, 1999), 293-4.

For over half her life, Nawal often told me, her autobiography had lain in wait under a sea of novels. Why? I would ask, and she would answer that soon after picking up her pen to write about her life, she would realise that she could not go on because the demand to adhere to some form of truth might damage others – as well as herself. This time, however, she stuck with the autobiographical project to the very last page. To her surprise, the project she had thought so different from the art of fiction was not: “In some ways autobiography

In the book, we read her dedication to changing gendered values and norms that extends beyond Egypt to the many cultures and societies she encountered in her numerous world travels.

Diving down through more than sixty years, she retrieves her childhood in Kafr Tahla, a poor village by the River Nile. Meandering through the village pathways and trusting the events that present themselves in all their wild woolliness, she chronicles

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the phases in her defiance of the gendered expectations of her rural society. Rejecting systemic gender injustice, she signals the first moment in her feminist trajectory: her refusal of a proposed suitor. Unlike the girls around her who tended to their femininity, young Nawal could not understand why women would tear the skin off their bodies as they removed hair from their arms and legs with sugar wax. Unlike many girls

Artwork by HUSSEIN MIRGHANI, Sudan

in her village who were considered eligible for marriage before puberty, Nawal refused to be married at the age of eleven, turning away suitors with her deliberately unkempt appearance and offensive actions.

Nawal does not write of this feminist awakening as a deliberate process. She pours stories into the stream of days: “Writing became a weapon with which to fight

miriam cooke is Braxton Craven Professor Emerita of Arab Cultures at Duke University. Her writings have focused on the intersection of gender and war in modern Arabic literature, Arab women writers’ construction of Islamic feminism, contemporary Syrian and Khaliji cultures, and global Muslim networks. She is the author of several monographs that include War’s Other Voices: Women Writers on the Lebanese Civil War (1987), Women and the War Story (1997); Women Claim Islam (2001), Nazira Zeineddine: A Pioneer of Islamic Feminism (2010), and Dancing in Damascus: Creativity, Resilience and the Syrian Revolution (2017). She has also published the novel, Hayati, My Lif e (2000).

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2 El Saadawi, A Daughter of Isis , 292.

3 El Saadawi, A Daughter of Isis , 128.

4 El Saadawi, A Daughter of Isis , 228-32.

5 El Saadawi, A Daughter of Isis , 11.

6 El Saadawi, A Daughter of Isis , 40.

7 El Saadawi, A Daughter of Isis 247-52.

8 When she wrote an endorsement for my Women Claim Islam. Creating Islamic Feminism through Literature (New York: Routledge, 2000), she was happy to be in the book. Yes, she accepted the label of Islamic feminist, but she chided me for putting her side by side with Zaynab al-Ghazali, the Egyptian fundamentalist founder of the Egyptian Ladies Association.

9 El Saadawi, A Daughter of Isis , 18-22.

10 El Saadawi, A Daughter of Isis , 152.

11 El Saadawi, A Daughter of Isis , 61.

12 El Saadawi, A Daughter of Isis , 195.

the system, which draws its autocratic power exercised by the ruler of the state, and that of the father or the husband in the family. The written word for me became an act of rebellion against injustice exercised in the name of religion, or morals, or love.”2 Creativity in life and writing mirrored each other in the battle to seize the rights owed to her as a woman who took up arms.

She denounces the different treatment that her brother received at home, although she was the smart one who had succeeded at school while he had consistently failed. Unlike her cousin Zaynab who married young and remained in their birth village, 3 Nawal left for Cairo to attend school, later earning a medical degree in psychiatry at Cairo University. From a young age and throughout her life, Nawal expressed her anger at gender injustice. In high school, she led a student uprising, shouting: “Long live Egypt in freedom…. My country, my country, I give you my heart and my love…” When the demonstrators appointed her the school’s delegate, her headmistress accused her of “causing a riot,” and she realised proudly how powerful she had become.4

She rails against men’s deliberate misinterpretations of religion. As a child, she had been puzzled by the idea of God. Is He the God that her father and brother think they own? Does their God punish girls? Surely He must, because already as a six year-old child, she noticed that when her clitoris was pulled out from between her thighs and cut, the women invoked Him, so He must approve.5 In the year of her excision she made a terrible connection: “I learnt these three words by heart and they were like one sentence: ‘God, calamity, marriage.’”6 With time she realises that this misogynist god is not God, for her illiterate grandmother taught her that the real God is the God of justice. Religious authorities had undermined her

spiritual life and “betrayed” the Qur’an by choosing “meanings that one’s reason refused.” 7 They made her hate religion, but not Islam.8

Embracing Contradictions

Her autobiography is surprisingly vulnerable and contradictory. The feminist we expect not to need her mother needs her right up to the end. Even as she is writing the autobiography when she is over sixty, she recalls through an act of daring imagination her mother’s despair when she hears that she has given birth to a girl.9 Almost twenty years older than her mother was when she died, Nawal still mourns her mother’s inability to express love for her children even if this love burns “like a flame but held back.”10 Her longing for her mother’s touch aches on the page.

In a world of suppressed love, she writes, women become cruel to each other. The midwife who cuts the clitoris of young girls seemed to feel satisfaction in the action: “a mixture of joy and revenge.”11 This cruelty “had grown in them through suppression, the steam held back under pressure until their bodies were filled with it to bursting point.”12

Nawal is no advocate of simple sisterhood. She sees that women do not always support each other in the global, class-patriarchal system.

This love-hate relationship spills over into the world of medicine that is both magical and weak. In sections referring to her medical profession, Nawal deplores the gap between her idea of medicine and the reality. Boxed into their specialisations, doctors can neither treat the whole body nor discern the links between

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sickness, poverty and politics.13 Nawal’s autobiography provides clues for understanding why she left the medical profession.

She chafes against her wavering emotions, especially concerning her parents. While her father excludes her from God’s sacred circle, he also insisted, against his wife’s remonstrance, that Nawal and her sisters be educated. However, no sooner had she started to succeed at primary school than he wanted her to come home. She was to help her mother, who now refused to take her daughter out of the school she had not wanted her to attend in the first place. When Nawal turned eleven it was time to go to secondary school, and her parents quarreled over whether this child could go to Cairo alone. Her mother insisted she could, since she would stay with her aunt. Whatever quarrel Nawal had with her father pales in comparison with her pride in his nationalist activities, especially during the 1919 Revolution against the British.14 This father is the man who reassured her of her creativity after her Arabic teacher discouraged her from writing. He was, we learn toward the end of the autobiography, “a very gentle father.”15

Liberating the Mind

Nawal is not the only Arab feminist to have tackled the autobiographical project. But none has been able to access the child that inhabited her until the day she died quite as directly as she did. Stirring her creativity, this rebellious child shaped the shapeless into compelling narratives and inspired her to challenge her readers to dream.

From childhood Nawal had had dreams of flying, even if without a known destination: “the truest of my dreams was born with childhood… It is reborn

as [the years] go by, gives birth to itself, for like the gods it is self-creating.” This dream transformed itself into a more concrete vision and hope for herself and the world: “I dream of facing the world openly, being myself as I really am… I dream of a different world, of a time when I will break through my shell, through the walls that hold me back, and prevent me from speaking, from saying what I want to say.”16

But, of course, her dreams did come true, because no one, however powerful, could prevent her from speaking, from writing.

miriam cooke

13 El Saadawi, A Daughter of Isis , 291-2.

14 El Saadawi, A Daughter of Isis , 107.

15 El Saadawi, A Daughter of Isis , 207. Her novels are full of dreadful men, mostly father figures. When I once asked her about her father, she laughed: “people think that because I am critical of men in my writings that my father must have been a terrible man.” No, he had always supported her.

16 El Saadawi, A Daughter of Isis , 116,186.

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Keeping Girls in the Game: Te Story of a Female Sport Centre in Somaliland

AMOUN ADEN ISMAIL holds a Master’s degree in development studies. She is the co-founder of the Ubah Inspire and Fitness Centre in Hargeisa and a sports enthusiast.

I have always cared about the many challenges faced by Somali women and believed that sport is essential to women’s wellbeing and empowerment. I myself did not get a chance to practise until I joined university. As a child, I envied the boys in my neighbourhood who could play football and other sports freely. I grew up with five sisters and one brother between Djibouti and Hargeisa. My parents were careful to treat us equally, and encouraged us to pursue education.

After I graduated from university, my desire to practise sport and make it accessible to other girls and women kept growing. This obsession was shared by one of my sisters, who came up with the idea of creating a sports centre for girls. This marked a turning point in my life. From the moment we talked about it, I dedicated all my efforts to turning this dream into reality.

My sister and I knew that it would not be easy but we were determined to make it happen. Luckily, we had the support of our mother, who believed in our project from the beginning. We were convinced that it was our duty to bring about change in our community and claim our right, as women, to practise physical activity. We had been waiting for too long and had to take action.

In Somaliland, there are many barriers to women and girls’ participation in sport. Although physical education is included in the curriculum of most schools, there is limited infrastructure for children, both girls and boys, to play sports.

In addition, many Somalis believe that sport is a male activity, and that, if women must play, they should be hidden from the male gaze.

Because girls are traditionally in charge of household chores, they also have little free time to engage in physical activity.

At first, our initiative was met with resistance. Several sheikhs (religious leaders) accused us of “spoiling the Islamic culture and faith.” Critics said that we would not be able to raise the resources to complete the project. The neighbouring Ummah (community) was reluctant to be associated with the Centre, fearing for the reputation and safety of their daughters.

For example, a current member of the Centre told me that her parents were upset when they heard that she was playing football. To discourage her from attending training, they warned her that her body would become “hard,” that it would affect her marriage prospects and ability to have children, and that Islamic culture did not allow girls to play football.

However, we did not allow these obstacles to hold us back and persisted in our endeavour, which led to the opening of the Ubah Inspire and Fitness Centre in 2017. Since then, dozens of girls have joined the club to play football and participate in fitness classes. In addition to improving girls’ physical health, our objective was to create a safe space where they could share stories and learn from each other.

In recent years, sport as a strategy for women and girls’ empowerment has gained recognition worldwide.

There is growing evidence that participation in sport can improve the self-esteem of women and girls, contribute to the development of their leadership skills, and help break down gender stereotypes.

In a context where women have few occasions to socialise outside the home, the centre is a rare space where they can meet other women.

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Moreover, the physical activity programmes offered by the Centre provide opportunities to bring the community together to discuss issues related to conflict management, reproductive health, genderbased violence and migration. Thanks to these activities, the community’s perception of the Centre and girls’ involvement in sport is slowly changing.

My biggest reward has been witnessing how the Centre has succeeded in changing the lives of many women and girls. It has given them a sense of belonging and hope, and a reason, for some members, not to migrate abroad. One girl, for example, told me that her character had changed, that she used to be quiet and to spend most of the time alone but that now she has many friends and feels confident. Nothing pleases me more than hearing these stories.

In just a few years, the Ubah Centre has gained the reputation of being the best place in Somaliland for women and girls to learn football, access international training opportunities, and take part in African Women Championships. As a consequence, the number of enrolments has been steadily increasing. Despite the Centre’s increasing popularity among girls, it unfortunately does not garner support from the government.

In December 2020, the Ministry of Youth and Sports cancelled the women’s football tournament that I had spent months organising. The news came by surprise on the day the competition was supposed to kick off. Ministry officials argued that the event was not in line with Islamic values and norms. They explained that they had received complaints from the public, including sheikhs, after images of the players training were broadcasted on TV and social media platforms. Sadly, some people in our community approved this decision. A woman living near the Centre told me that she was grateful that her children had a place to relax but that she disapproved of the tournament because “girls should not play in public.”

This was a huge setback and a disappointment for all the girls involved in the tournament. How could it be considered un-Islamic, knowing that women’s football tournaments happen in other Muslim countries? But, as one of the girls told me, it was not all negative, since it drew attention to the Centre and the players. Many people reacted positively and argued that Islam does not prohibit women from playing sports. In the case of this particular girl, her father changed his mind when he saw other parents advocating for girls’ participation in sport, and allowed her to continue playing with “proper dress.”

Despite the challenges, I remain focused on my goal to build a female football club at the national level that will represent Somaliland in international competitions.

It is my conviction that there is no contradiction in being a Somali, a Muslim, and a woman athlete, all at once.

Islam promotes good health and encourages both men and women to engage in physical activity. Our Prophet (PBUH) says, “A strong believer is better than a weak believer, and more affectionate to God” (Mishkat alMasabih, Hadith 5298). As women and girls, it is our right and our duty to practise sport and maintain a healthy lifestyle.

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Photo courtesy of the UBAH Inspire and Fitness Centre

Because She Cares

Toyiba Yassin’s Pathway to Activism

“While I was growing up, people would condemn the fact that I spoke my mind. They said that a Muslim woman should not speak up. I would challenge them to find where in the Qur’an it is said that women should not express their opinions.” Ethiopian activist Toyiba Yassin never shies away from challenging assumptions and sharing her views. She owes this confidence to her mother, who always encouraged her to stand up for herself. In a society where women are often expected to be quiet and obedient, Toyiba’s straight talk pushes men and women to question the religious and cultural norms that govern their lives.

Toyiba, you have spent the past 16 years organising women and advocating for their rights. What do you want to achieve, and do you think that you have been successful?

My ultimate goal is to challenge women’s subordination in Ethiopia’s society. I want to change the way women are treated by their husbands and families. I want them to be safe and respected at home and at work. My ambition is also to create solidarity among women. I feel that we, Ethiopian women, often share the same challenges, but fail to stand up for one another. I am not naive; I know that gender inequality is deeply rooted in Ethiopia’s society. We have a long way to go before women are treated equally. Progress has been slow, and the current context in Ethiopia is not conducive to it, but I still believe that we are on the right track. Regarding my own contribution, I am proud of the work I have done with the Yitawek Timret Self Help Group Federation. I believe that these groups have changed the lives of many women. They are more than places where women can save and borrow money: they are safe spaces where they talk about their problems, share ideas, and build a sense of sisterhood. Many women who have experienced domestic violence have found support and solutions within these groups.

Violence against women and girls is still largely accepted, especially when it happens within the family. You have been vocal about the rights of survivors, making the problem visible to all. Have you ever faced threats because of your work? How is your activism perceived in your community?

There was one time I received threats after supporting a woman who was working as a domestic worker and had been raped by her employer, a well-to-do man. Some people threatened to attack or rape my daughter. I told myself that if I kept quiet I did not deserve to be called a women’s rights advocate. This work is not easy, but I have to be brave enough, because if I don’t speak up for the women in my community, who will? I still receive threats today, but I am not scared. With all these years of experience, I have learned how to protect myself. And activism can also be rewarding. I often receive encouraging feedback from my community. It is very helpful for me to know that people, women and men alike, value my work. Government officials and other civil society organisations are also mostly supportive of what I do. But it has not always been like that. When I started advocating for women’s rights, I was afraid of being alienated by my family and friends and did not know where to look for support. Some people would corner me, saying that my work was irrelevant. But today, I have a close circle of friends I can rely on, and I am in touch with other women’s rights defenders who support me when needed.

You mentioned earlier that your mother has been a role model for you. In addition to having her as a source of inspiration, what drives your work on a daily basis?

I’ve always felt the urge to help the women and girls living in my neighbourhood. When my kids were younger, I used to drop them off at school. I would see

12 Women in Islam, 2023

older men taking advantage of young girl students, luring them into going to places like shisha (water-pipe) houses, or forcing them to engage in sexual relations. I could not stay quiet; I demanded that these girls be protected. In so many circumstances, I feel the need to step in, including when I see women being abused by their husbands, when I hear that a woman was raped ‘because of the way she dressed,’ or when I witness women assuming responsibility for all the household chores and struggling to make ends meet. The desire to help these women is what keeps me going; their courage inspires me.

How has your identity shaped your quest for justice? Has being a Muslim woman influenced your activism?

I think that all activists are influenced by their personal experiences and I am no exception. Twenty years ago, I decided to divorce my husband and went to a shari’ah court. I was told that I had to pay a compensation of 15,000 Biir to obtain divorce. I felt that this decision was unfair and argued that the Qur’an and shari’ah did not allow courts to pressure women into staying into failing marriages. Eventually, I was able to divorce without paying the compensation, but it was a long and complicated process. This experience was eye opening for me. I realised that many women were discriminated against in the name of religion and culture. It became obvious to me that I had to challenge those who use religion to justify women’s subordination.

In your opinion, what should be done to ensure that shari’ah courts uphold women’s rights?

I believe that more attention should be given to the nikah (marriage contract). So many women are not aware of their rights, and end up signing a marriage

contract without understanding its content. It leaves room for manipulation by the family members who arrange the marriage and don’t necessarily have the best interests of the bride in mind. If women were involved in the development of the nikah, they would have the ability to negotiate clauses that would

Women in Islam, 2023 13
Photo by the Strategic Intiative for Women in the Horn of Africa

protect them when entering the marriage and in case something happens along the way.

In my understanding, religion asks that women be treated with respect and dignity. The Qur’an does not grant a husband permission to abuse his wife, nor does it deprive women of their decision-making power. I think that there is a huge gap between the message of the Qur’an and its interpretation by lawmakers. Shari’ah courts and Islamic jurists must reflect on the current laws with the Qur’an in mind. I believe that a deep analysis and revision of the laws must be done; only then can the shari’ah be fair for women too.

You work with women from all walks of life. In what ways do you advocate for those who are similar and different from you?

I usually use arguments within the framework of Islam to defend the rights of Muslim women. As an example, a woman belonging to a self-help group came to me a few years ago because her husband was prohibiting her from travelling to another region in the country. I argued with the husband that shari’ah says that women should not commit adultery but does not say that they should not work, earn an income, or have their own projects. I also asked him if he would prevent his wife from travelling if she were offered an economic opportunity that would benefit them both. He found the arguments convincing and his wife was able to go on her trip. In some Muslim households, women cannot even go outside without the permission of their husbands. I know that some women had to dress like men to attend the self-help group meetings. It was the only way for them to escape the scrutiny of their family and neighbours. I believe that this knowledge of Muslim women’s realities is what makes my advocacy work more impactful. It allows me to stay in tune with women’s challenges and priorities. My

strategy is fairly similar when it comes to defending the rights of women from a different religious or cultural background. I am convinced that all religions vouch for the equal and fair treatment of women and that there is no justification for discrimination. I try as much as possible to interact and learn from people whose identity is different from mine. This is how you grow as an activist.

I understand from our discussion that you set high ambitions for yourself and feel deeply connected to the women you help out. It can be very demanding! Before we close this interview, could you tell us how you take care of yourself?

It is true that, sometimes, when a woman is denied justice, I feel exhausted. I wonder if I could have done something more for her. In these moments, I try to take care of myself. I go to a quiet place, meditate, sometimes cry, or spend time with my friends around a cup of coffee. I also find comfort in religion by listening to spiritual songs like Menzuma (a Sufi Islamic chant performed by Ethiopians, mainly to praise Allah and bless the Prophet Muhammad).

TOYIBA YASSIN was interviewed by Women in Islam

14 Women in Islam, 2023

Age is Not Only Measured in Years Sit Al-Nofor Bakar: a Nurse, Activist, and Artist

All the young women and men of my generation in Sudan remember the 17th of November 2021. It is the day Sit Al-Nofor Ahmed Bakar – Sitto as her friends liked to call her – was shot dead in Shambat in the north of Khartoum. That day, fifteen other people lost their lives while peacefully protesting against the military coup of October 2021 that put a halt to the democratic transition initiated after the overthrow of Omar al-Bashir in 2019. The 24-year-old nursing student at the University of AlNilein passed away immediately after a bullet fired by a soldier penetrated her skull. Sitto, who had been actively involved in the antimilitary coup movement providing medical attention to injured protesters, sadly became another martyr of the revolution.

“Smiling she was, Dreaming to tear down the wall of fear, Cotton and gauze that can heal the city’s wound, To everyone their dream”1

Sitto joined the long list of young Sudanese men and women who were killed while resisting the political Islamist and militarised regime, which has been desperate to regain control over Sudan, with their own bodies, slogans, and songs. If the regime cut Sitto’s promising life short, it could not erase her legacy: she will stay in the memory and hearts of millions of Sudanese people. She will continue to live there alongside the other courageous men and women who have lost their lives fighting for freedom and peace. Sitto’s words on the banner she once raised were accurate: she was


Women in Islam, 2023 15
A poem by Hassan Bakri about martyr Sit Al-Nofor.

REEL MUAZ is a Sudanese engineering surveyor, a law student, and a feminist activist. She is a fellow at the United States Institute of Peace and the founder of the feminist Medanik Movement established in 2019 during the sit-in at the military headquarters in Khartoum. Reel also works for the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA).

"beautiful, free, perfect, respected, precious, loved, brave, great, inspiring, and strong." She was indeed the personification of hope and courage, and embodied the dream of a better future for Sudan.

Sitto was born in 1997 in an ordinary Sudanese family and was the youngest of her siblings. She grew up under the political Islamist regime of Omar al-Bashir, who came to power through a military coup in 1989 and ruled Sudan until he was deposed in 2019. For three decades, al-Bashir’s totalitarian and dictatorial regime sought to control all aspects of Sudanese people’s lives by promoting an obscurantist ideology and using the state apparatus, including the military, to monopolise power and resources. It attempted to instrumentalise the women’s movement by co-opting groups such as the Women’s Union and recruiting women within the Popular Defence Forces, an Islamist militia affiliated to the regime. More broadly, al-Bashir’s government aimed to pit Sudanese people against each other to weaken the opposition to the internal wars it waged across the country. These wars led to the forced displacement of millions of civilians and the genocide of ethnic groups, while corruption, nepotism, repeated human rights violations and support of terrorism resulted in Sudan’s international isolation.

Sudanese women suffered extensively during this dark era: they experienced fierce repression and systematic targeting. The regime developed laws and policies to justify the violation of women’s freedom and bodies, and to criminalise their presence in public space. It gave the police arbitrary power to control women’s behaviour and daily interactions in the name of religion and morality, and exposed women and girls like Sitto to various forms of violence and discrimination.

“We can influence society in many ways. However, some people think that change can only happen through war; they are blind to the world’s colours.”2

Despite her short activist life, Sitto showed unparalleled courage and perseverance in building a

new Sudan where women would enjoy justice, security, and freedom. Like many girls of her generation, Sitto’s public political engagement started during the December revolution in 2018, when thousands of women took to the street to bring about change in the country. Her male and female friends remember that she was present in all protests, leading the ranks. They say that she was never deterred by the long distances, and did not let the raging soldiers and Islamic fundamentalists intimidate her, despite witnessing repeated attacks, incarceration, and sometimes the killing of peaceful protesters.

Sitto was a strong supporter of the revolution and determined to see her rights as a Sudanese citizen and woman recognised and protected. She was part of the crowd who victoriously stormed the Armed Forces’ Headquarters – the Ministry of Defence – in Khartoum on the 6th of April 2019. She participated in the threemonth-long sit-in in Khartoum, which ended tragically on 3rd June 2019 when the army, with the support of militia groups and the Rapid Support Forces, 3 violently dispersed protesters, killing hundreds of them. During the sit-in, Sitto worked as a paramedic and a nurse in the many field clinics spread across the protest zone. She provided care to the protesters wounded during violent confrontations with security forces.

Sitto understood that the struggle for democracy and women’s rights were interconnected.

She participated in many campaigns to end violence against women and girls. She was involved, for example, in the "Pink for Kandaka" campaign launched in 2019 to denounce the abuses faced by female protesters and show solidarity with survivors of rape. Sitto’s political engagement did not limit itself to opposing the ruling political system; she was also determined to combat domestic violence, forced marriage, and all other oppressive social beliefs and practices that demean women, kill their desire for life, and deprive them of their human rights.

16 Women in Islam, 2023
2 Sit Al-Nofor interview with the Wakib platform.

Sitto was not only a dedicated medical professional and an activist but also a gifted artist, who used her art to share her vision of the world. She used to spend her free time making drawings or painting murals with other artists in different parts of the city, including the vicinity of the sit-in area. Her interest in art and handicrafts kept growing during the two years following the revolution, and she participated in many exhibitions. She also designed and produced handicrafts and accessories, which brought her fame and earned her the admiration of many young women who bought her products.

“Sitto was a feminist driven by what she had experienced in her life”3

Sitto, like many young women in Sudan, was fighting her way through modernity and tradition, navigating conflicting conceptions of family and society.

The death of her sister in childbirth, after she had married at a young age, deeply affected Sitto’s personality and life choices. She witnessed at first hand the negative impact of early marriage on girls, and was adamant not to follow the same path. She studied and worked hard to maintain her financial independence. In 2020 for instance, she worked as a waitress in a restaurant in Khartoum to make a living. At her workplace, as in the streets of Khartoum, she refused to be silenced, and gained the respect of her colleagues and friends by exposing the clients who harassed her.

This tension between ‘the old’ and ‘the new’ is a struggle that women and girls in Sudan face on a daily basis. This conflict became particularly apparent in the aftermath of the December revolution. Women had participated in large numbers in the peaceful demonstrations that led to the political transition. It was therefore not possible anymore for Sudan’s conservative society, influenced by three decades of Islamist rule, to ignore women’s role. Sudanese people

had to face the socio-economic reality and the fact that today women contribute significantly to their households’ income and the national economy. The revolution clearly showed that it is no longer possible to limit the roles of women to within the household. Their political and social demands have become legitimate.

However, the tensions resulting from this change still dominates the relationships between young women and men in Sudan. Sit Al-Nofor, like many of her peers, had to fight several battles at the same time. She did not only defy the political Islamist regime but also challenged the overall patriarchal system. Her struggle started in the family sphere where she questioned gendered norms and power relations, before moving to the public space, where she embraced collective action for gender equality. Sitto will remain a source of inspiration for many Sudanese women and girls, who continue to honour her memory. In her daily struggle, Sitto spoke for all the women and girls in Sudan who face systemic discrimination and fight for a brighter future.

Unfortunately, some still turn a blind eye to women’s demands and sacrifices. The leaders of the December revolution, for instance, did not appropriately integrate the feminist agenda that Sitto and her peers struggled for. They were unable to relate to women, ignore their claims for the most part, and minimised their contribution to political and societal change. They failed to understand that the demands of the December revolution for freedom, peace and justice are inseparable from the battle for women’s rights.

Regardless of the direction in which Sudan is heading and the many obstacles women will likely face, the fact remains that Sitto and her companions’ struggle for gender equality is a sweeping and irreversible movement that is only getting stronger: nothing can stand in its way.


Translated from Arabic by MOHAMMED ATTIYA

3 The RSF is a paramilitary force that was established in 2013 under the Sudanese intelligence bureau, the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS).

4 One of her friends in an interview about her life. He preferred to remain anonymous.

Women in Islam, 2023 17

Nuruddin Farah: A Feminist Writer?

“My interest in writing started long before I knew how one went about it.”1 Nuruddin Farah discovered his passion for writing early in life. Born in 1945 in Baidoa, Somalia, Farah moved at the age of one to what was then the British-administered Ogaden, where his father was a translator. During his school years in Ethiopia, Farah was introduced to Western literature and began looking for Somali characters in books. “The reason why I was looking for Somalis was so that I would be able to say ‘this is something I know, this is something that is not alien,’” he explained.2 The closest reference to Somalia he found at the time was a prince with his own name – Nuruddin – in 1001 Nights. This story that Farah has repeated in several interviews probably explains why as a novelist he made sure to write about Somali society, culture and history in all his books. Farah also traces his origins as a writer to the influence of his mother, who was a renowned poet in Somalia.

1 Nuruddin Farah & Kwame Anthony Appiah, “Nuruddin Farah by Kwame Anthony Appiah,” BOMB , 87, April 1, 2004.

2 Ahmed I. Samatar, “Interview with Nuruddin Farah,” Bildhaan: An International Journal of Somali Studies 1 (2008): 87.

3 Helmi Ben Meriem, “(Re)claiming the Body of the Somali Woman in Nuruddin Farah’s From a Crooked Rib,” Bildhaan: An International Journal of Somali Studies 15 (2016): 84

4 Samatar, “Interview with Nuruddin Farah,” 89

In 1963, three years after Somalia’s independence, Farah’s family fled the Ogaden when border conflicts erupted between Somalia and Ethiopia, and moved to Mogadishu. A few years later, Farah went to study literature and philosophy at Panjab University in India, where he wrote his first novel, From a Crooked Rib, published in 1970. His next novel, A Naked Needle , the unblinking portrayal of life under Dictator Siad Barre, earned him the fury of the regime and he was forced into exile in 1976. Farah spent the following decades travelling and teaching in Africa, Europe and the United States and made his next visit to Somalia in 1996, more than 20 years after leaving his home country. Farah wrote countless novels, plays, short stories, essays and film scripts. Amongst other topics, his diverse work reflects on the history and politics of Somalia, the impact of social and gender norms on Somali people, the dictatorships, and the struggles for human rights and freedom.

From the beginning of his career, the hallmark of Farah’s work has been his interest in Somali women’s experiences. Several of his novels are told from a woman’s point of view, and his capacity to capture female subjectivity has pushed some of his readers to assume that he was a woman.3 Because of the authenticity with which Farah tackles the issues of womanhood and gender, critics and readers alike often describe Farah as a feminist writer, a ‘label’ that he embraces: “I’ve always thought that society could not be considered free, democratic, developed, let alone ‘civilised,’ when a large segment is kept out of the mainstream of politics and life. It has always been my belief, as well as that of many, many other Somali poets, writers, and thinkers, that women ought to be given a central position in the life of the nation.”4

18 Women in Islam, 2023

Somali Womanhood in Nuruddin Farah’s Novels

In this essay, Tunisian scholar of Somali Studies Helmi Ben Meriem examines Nuruddin Farah’s novels to answer one question: Is there really something called “the Somali woman”?

Somali women are often depicted in the West as a homogenous, monolithic group and associated with negative images: poverty, famine, violence, and weakness, among others. In “How to Write about Somalia,” Somali-British scholar Safia Aidid satirises how Somali women are commonly portrayed in the media: “If you must use a woman, you have two options. Either a close up with enough space for a young child strapped to the woman to be visible in the frame, or a more distant shot that shows a faceless group of women as an undifferentiated mass of cloth.”5 As described by Aidid, depictions of Somali women by media outlets too often obliterate their individuality.

This essay, taking Farah’s novels as its foundation, disputes this reductive image of Somali women.

It acknowledges that women in Somalia are as diverse in their makeup, beliefs, struggles, challenges and accomplishments as other women across the world.

This does not mean that Somali women do not share some aspects of their lives, but simply that their commonalities should not be exaggerated at the expense of their personal experiences. Throughout his novels, Farah introduces the reader to a diverse range of Somali women that defies “the myth of the Somali woman as chattel, commodity, and a creature with little power.”6

In any reading of women’s issues in Farah’s fiction, it is crucial to stress that Farah, though driven by his strong belief in equality between men and women,

is committed to representing the Somali woman in all her manifestations. As Farah states, “I would like to give everyone the chance to be heard, even if I disapprove of the positions they take.” 7 Thus he does not shy away from portraying those elements within Somali society that still believe women are inferior to men. In Sardines, for example, Idil urges her son to divorce his wife because “he was living in her house, [...] he was driving her car, [...] he was dependent on her economically, and, worst of all, [...] he had no bank account of his own.”8 In Idil’s view, to have the wife as the head of the household is a disruption of the social order, where men are “the kings of the household,”9 and is tantamount to her son losing his “manhood.”10

Farah also questions the notion of freedom and dispels the idea that Somali women are either subservient or rebellious. In North of Dawn, Waliya, an ultra-conservative Somali woman, resettles in Oslo, Norway, with her two children. Waliya brings with her a variety of conservative views on gender relations, dress codes, and eating habits, as well as many others. She strongly approves of the lashing of her son by an Imam for “his unpardonable sin of drinking, and for liaising with apostates [his secular grandparents].”11

For Farah, Waliya, the epitome of many other Somali women, is free in the way she is, by her own choice, committed to a life that is considered patriarchal by some of the people around her.

This, however, does not conceal the fact that many Somali women are subjected to patriarchal imperatives that are at times justified through religion. Farah’s novels are filled with female characters whose bodies, lives and interactions are controlled by men. In Sardines, the grandfather of the protagonist, Medina, argues that “a woman needs a man to intercede for

5 Safia Aidid, “How to write about Somalia,” Journal of the Anglo-Somali Society 59 (2016): 48.

6 Christine Choi Ahmed, “Finely Etched Chattel: The Invention of a Somali Woman,” in The Invention of Somalia, ed. Ali Jimale Ahmed (Lawrenceville: Red Sea Press, 1995), 157-90.

7 Nuruddin Farah, “Interview 1986,” in Maps (Janson: Penguin Books, 2000), 11.

8 Nuruddin Farah, Sardines (St. Paul: Graywolf Press, 1992), 10.

9 Nuruddin Farah, Yesterday, Tomorrow: Voices from the Somali Diaspora (Cardiff: Cassell, 2000), 157.

10 Farah, Sardines , 17.

HELMI BEN MERIEM holds a Ph.D. in English Literature with a major in Somali Studies. He has published several short stories and poems.
Women in Islam, 2023 19
20 Women in Islam, 2023

her and present her to Allah; a woman’s God is her husband.”12 For him and traditionalist Somalis, a woman has no agency of her own and lacks the intellectual capacities needed to be autonomous.

In his fiction, Farah unravels “the way in which a society restricts its people’s choices, particularly women’s personal choices using an age-old religious ‘superstition’ [...] while it is silent on patriarchal domination, maltreatment and violence.”13 Thus, by manipulating interpretations of Islam and cherrypicking Islamic teachings, the oppression of women is sanctioned as a religiously-guided and righteous act and women’s defiance of it becomes “a form of betrayal” synonymous with rejecting Allah’s laws and with being un-Islamic – which can result in violent reprisal.14

Throughout his novels, Farah insists on the necessity for women to claim agency, to chart their rightful place within Somali society and to disrupt “the master gender narrative.”15

Somali women need to persist and “take the authority of their voice and use it effectively in order to defend their position,” including ridding society of the view that women are inferior, weak, and vulnerable.16

In fact, most women in Farah’s fiction refuse to accept man as the “unchallenged master”17 and they explore and draw on “the untapped sources of energy [and] of the humanness of women.”18 Farah’s female characters aim to take charge of their lives and to contribute to the shaping of Somalia – moving from being passive to being active.19 In order to achieve this move, Medina, for example, advocates for women’s emancipation in the private domain as in public space, including in politics. Medina’s struggle for liberation is fought on two fronts: against her conservative motherin-law at home, and against dictator Siad Barre at the level of wider Somali society.

Through his characters, Farah also reveals how Somali women support each other to achieve autonomy. Elba, the protagonist of From a Crooked Rib, a passing character in A Naked Needle, and a supporting character in Sardines, runs away to Mogadishu to escape an arranged marriage. This move to the city brings her face-to-face with a new reality

of gender roles, emancipated women and freedom. She takes full advantage of her new situation and learns to improve her life – acquiring knowledge and building her business. Part of her success in Mogadishu is centered on a community of women that embraces newcomers and assists them in shaping their lives, particularly Asha who “considered [Ebla] her equal” and supported her until she became a prosperous store-keeper.20 Characters like Asha demonstrate that there are women who “do not depend for their survival on the patriarchy.”21

Farah’s novels also highlight how decades of conflict have changed gender roles and dynamics. Following the collapse of Siad Barre’s regime in 1991, Somalia entered a long period of instability characterised by a civil war. As Farah writes, “almost all women you talk to about the civil war interpret the current community-based mutiny in the peninsula in ways that are antithetical to the views held by the generality of men.”22 The civil war presented women with the opportunity to develop their own rules and build a different society. For instance, in Knots, Cambara takes action to transform her surroundings, providing shelter to orphan Somali children and showing them a world free of violence. When the state is no longer functional, women are able to redefine their roles and challenge traditional norms. Cambara exemplifies the wish for equality of many Somali women, who want peace to be restored but refuse to return to an orderly but male-dominated society.

In essence, instead of the usual reductive thinking about Somali women, Farah explores the multitudes of meanings of womanhood. From the ultra-conservative woman who upholds the patriarchy to the woman who risks it all for the sake of her independence – and also the woman in limbo, undecided and wavering between the two extremes – Farah maps a mosaic of womanhood that can only be appreciated in its totality, with all of its internal inconsistencies and variations. Farah’s writings also reflect his vision of a society “that is not based on oppression and domination” of one gender over the other but, rather, of cooperation and equality.23


11 Nuruddin Farah, North of Dawn (New York: Riverhead Books, 2018), 233.

12 Farah, Sardines , 57.

13 Asis De, “Lost Years of a Nomad: Exploring Indian Experience in Nuruddin Farah's Oeuvre,” Tydskrif vir Letterkunde 57, no. 1 (2020): 40.

14 Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Heretic (New York: HarperCollins, 2015), 89.

15 Ladan Affi, “Men Drink Tea While Women Gossip,” in Putting the Cart before the Horse: Contested Nationalism and the Crisis of NationState in Somalia, ed. Abdi M. Kusow (Lawrenceville: Red Sea Press, 2004), 93.

16 Farah, “Interview 1986,” 8.

17 Farah, Maps , 28.

18 Farah, Gifts , 246.

19 Betty Oliver, “Yuusuf and His Brothers,” in Emerging Perspectives on Nuruddin Farah, ed. Derek Wright (Trenton: Africa World Press, 2002), 693.

20 Farah, Rib, 121.

21 Ahmed, Ali Jimale, “Nuruddin Farah and Somali Culture,” Tydskrif vir Letterkunde 57, no. 1 (2020): 12.

22 Farah, “Clichés,” 4.

23 Dubravka Juraga, “Nuruddin Farah’s Variations on an African Dictatorship: Patriarchy, Gender and Political Oppression in Somalia,” in Emerging Perspectives on Nuruddin Farah, ed. Derek Wright (Trenton: Africa World Press, 2002), 295.

Women in Islam, 2023 21

Te Politics of Shari’ah and Gender in Somaliland

In this article, Professor of Politics Mark Fathi Massoud presents some of the findings of his book, Shari‘a, Inshallah: Finding God in Somali Legal Politics . Based on historical research, observations, and interviews with Somali lawyers, activists, religious leaders, political actors, and aid workers, Massoud reveals how shari’ah matters for women fighting for the rule of law in Somaliland.

Many policy analysts argue that Somaliland has provided the strongest evidence of peace in the Horn of Africa. Since it reasserted its independence from Somalia in 1991, and despite not being recognised as an independent country by the United Nations, Somaliland has made strides to build the rule of law, a way of governing without arbitrary power. But this peace has also come at a high price for women. Tis is because throughout Somali history, men have dominated Somali families, states, and the law – serving as the leaders of colonial and state governments, militant groups, clans, elders’ councils, and religious orders.

In this context of male domination, women have been put in the position of having to choose between faith and nation just to be accepted as human beings deserving respect and dignity. But some contemporary women activists have taken up and used the same religious and legal tools as men. Tey have sowed a diferent understanding of shari’ah – commonly translated as Islamic law – that they hope, inshallah, Somalis will follow.

My book, Shari‘a, Inshallah: Finding God in Somali Legal Politics, analyses these attempts to govern and advance women’s rights with shari’ah. In the book I

trace approximately 140 years of Somaliland’s legal and political history, from the 1880s and the arrival of British colonial administrators to the present day.

The book challenges Western policy analysts’ understandings of shari’ah as a tool of oppression.

Instead, it shows how religion and shari’ah can help rebuild the state and rule of law and limit arbitrary powers in confict-afected settings.

In particular, the book documents how vastly diferent actors in Somaliland’s history – British colonial administrators and Somalis fghting against them, Somalia’s dictator Mohammed Siad Barre and the citizens who struggled against his authoritarianism, and women’s rights activists who resist oppression – share something important in common. Tey all turned toward shari’ah, rather than away from shari’ah, to achieve their own goals. While some political elites like colonial ofcials and Siad Barre deployed shari’ah for their own nefarious purposes, others – including women lawyers and activists – saw the values associated with shari’ah, peace, and the rule of law as mutually reinforcing social goods.

An Evolving Women’s Movement

As part of my research, I conducted more than 50 interviews with activists who have devoted their professional lives to women’s rights. Tey are part of a small, elite class of multilingual, educated, and sophisticated Somali women – and some men. Aged between 20 and 70 years old, these activists have lived

EQUALITY 22 Women in Islam, 2023
Shari'a Inshallah , Cambridge University Press

through periods of violence, insecurity, peacebuilding, and nation-building, as well as economic progress and recession. Although they do not represent the full diversity of Somali women involved in advancing women’s rights, their work reveals the ways that some Somali women have been speaking about Islamic principles to push for gender equality.

It is worth noting that women have not always adopted an Islam-frst approach to advancing their rights. Tis strategy evolved over time. Although women were involved in the struggle for decolonisation in the 1950s, as in other transitional states, women’s concerns largely took second place to the focus on building national identity and interclan unity.

Siad Barre’s military regime, which was in power from 1969 to 1991, promoted women’s rights in theory but inhibited their development in practice. In 1975, the regime, professing what it called “scientifc socialism,” announced a family law that legislated gender equality in family matters such as inheritance. When a group of religious leaders spoke out against the legislation, including at Mogadishu’s famous Cabdulqadir Mosque, the government rounded up the sheikhs for “preaching the Islamic faith falsely.”1 Soon afer their arrests, ten of the sheikhs were executed by fring squad and twenty-three were sentenced to twenty to thirty years’ imprisonment.2 Tis episode, which is seared into collective memory, did long-term damage to the cause of women’s rights.

Activists I met spoke of the challenges of addressing women’s concerns in a context where granting women rights had been a feature of authoritarian rule.

Later, during the civil war in the 1980s and 1990s, women got involved in providing services to survivors. Tey formed “self-help groups” to assist the wounded and collect money for the sick. Gradually these groups became more organised. What began as community service shifed toward advocacy for women’s rights in education, politics, and society. International NGOs also arrived with resources and experience. Moving from service to advocacy, and possibly in an attempt to distinguish themselves from the Siad Barre dictatorship,

some activists decided to fght for women’s rights within the framework of shari’ah rather than against it. Teir goal was to ensure that building a nation did not also mean building a patriarchy.

Women activists explained to me that it is legitimate for shari’ah to be one of the sources of their commitments. In Islamic legal theory (usul al-fqh), shari’ah is divine law interpreted by jurists. Its primary sources are the Qur’an and the Hadith. Because shari’ah encourages a diversity of interpretations, there is no right or wrong way to interpret it. As one Somali activist reminded me, Muslims “can fnd support for almost everything” in shari’ah.

Pushing for Gender Rights within Islam

Women activists I met understood that the public teachings of Somali jurists and sheikhs was central to how people understood shari’ah in society. But these women activists also studied shari’ah themselves and they saw an inherent feminism in it that was not refected in cultural life or in sheikhs’ religious sermons and media broadcasts. To these women, shari’ah was a path to justice. Tey felt that learning the Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad on justice and equality would help to ensure that contemporary interpretations of shari’ah refect these principles. In the words of one activist, for women to achieve equality they “have to know their rights in the Qur’an.”

To help Somali women learn their Islamic rights, activists focused attention on some of the issues afecting many women’s daily lives: education, family, health, politics, and public life. For example, one activist fghting for girls’ education explained to local parents how shari’ah demands that both “boys and girls have the right to education.” Similarly, human rights groups in Hargeisa emphasised that the Prophet Muhammad himself taught women and men, and encouraged his followers to do the same. Other activists I talked with invoked shari’ah to explain why girls should be allowed to play sports, separately from boys, and publicly argued that allowing women to stand for election “is Islamic.”

When I asked women why they were turning to shari’ah for support, they told me that they were guided by their Islamic faith. While refecting on her own motivations, an NGO executive director told me:

is a Professor of Politics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a Visiting Professor of Law at the University of Oxford. This contribution is derived from the author’s book, Shari‘a, Inshallah: Finding God in Somali Legal Politics (Cambridge University Press).

1 David D. Laitin, “Revolutionary Change in Somalia,” Middle East Research and Information Project Reports 62 (1977): 6–18.

2 Iman Abdulkadir Mohamed, “Somali Women and the Socialist State,” Journal of the Georgetown University-Qatar Middle Eastern Studies Student Association 4 (2015), 7. Historical records differ as to the actual number of executed sheikhs; some say 10, others 11, and others 12.

Women in Islam, 2023 23

“Every step I can take is based on my Islamic religion. It’s part of my motivation. If I am a Muslim woman, and I want to go to my job and have a normal life, it’s [all] based on Islamic religion.” Another said she was “simply trying to [remind] people…that we [women] are Muslim.”

The Challenges of Confronting Patriarchy

But the strategy in which women discuss their rights under shari’ah is a difcult one because their eforts are hindered by Somaliland’s patriarchal society and historical context. Women have long been blamed for the Siad Barre regime’s heinous acts against religious leaders. Activists I interviewed said that some Somalis viewed feminist campaigns with suspicion, as if the activists were “working for what…that [Siad Barre] regime [did],” in other words, advocating for the killing of religious men.

Somali women told me that these accusations have been followed by further charges that they are the accomplices of foreign aid groups imposing their Western imperialist agenda. For instance, United Nations agencies have been encouraging principles associated with international human rights law to grow in Somaliland. But to some Somalis, especially conservative religious leaders and clan elders, encouraging international law also means sideling shari’ah. International law and Western feminism challenge patriarchy, but to these Somalis they also seem to challenge religion. Somali NGOs promoting human rights, especially those receiving funding from the international community, have regularly been accused of being enemies of Islam.

In addition, relying on shari’ah to advance women’s rights can be a double-edged sword.

hold religious and political power. Tey fnd themselves reliant on male sheikhs – whose opinions are widely considered reliable and authoritative – to support feminist interpretations of religious texts.

Te problem is no more real than in advocacy promoting women’s health. Women I met have asked sheikhs to speak out publicly against child marriage and female genital mutilation, trying to persuade them that these harmful practices should not be permitted because “Islam always promotes…health and dignity.” But some religious leaders continue to resist women’s views, insisting instead that shari’ah permits these practices to preserve women’s premarital virginity and prevent women from experiencing sexual pleasure.

Renegotiating gender norms is a challenge in a society where power largely remains in the hands of men and where the involvement of women in the public sphere is regarded with suspicion. In Somaliland, although there are more women law graduates than ever, some of those I met have found it difcult to fnd stable employment. Others have been questioned by family members about their commitment to Islam because they work in a legal system supported by Western aid groups and United Nations agencies. And although more women than ever ran for public ofce in Somaliland’s parliamentary elections in 2021, none were elected.

A More Feminist Future

Despite the real challenges and frustrated opportunities, Somali women activists are still struggling for their rights. Tey are not giving up in the pursuit of a feminist justice. Tey continue to interpret theological and legal texts in less patriarchal ways. State-building and peace-building, like pushing for gender equality, cannot succeed without taking religion and faith into consideration. Rather than being systematically regarded as a threat to the rule of law, religion instead nourishes the path toward the rule of law and a more egalitarian society. With faith, women activists are laying this feminist foundation for the future of Somaliland.

Women face substantial cultural and legal challenges when interpreting shari’ah diferently from men who

EQUALITY 24 Women in Islam, 2023
Shari’ah means different things to different people and can be used to push for gender equality or to perpetuate gender discrimination.

Muslim Women in the Spotlight of Ethiopia’s Elections

Ethiopia’s 2021 national elections, organised amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing conflict in the Tigray region, engaged the attention of both the country itself and the international community. Millions of Ethiopians were called to elect the members of the House of People’s Representatives (HPR) – the lower chamber of parliament – and the regional state councils. This vote was the first electoral test for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed since he took office in 2018 with a pledge to unify the country. The governing party (the Prosperity Party) won the majority of the HPR seats although national and international actors expressed criticism about the electoral process. It is estimated that a fifth of potential voters failed to participate in the election due to insecurity and logistical problems.1

In particular, no voting was held in the Tigray region, where a conflict started after the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) attacked the northern command of the Ethiopian military in November 2020.

Abiy Ahmed, who was once praised for his reforming zeal and efforts to end the decades-long conflict with Eritrea, has since been criticised for his unwillingness to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Tigray that has now spread to the neighbouring Afar and Amhara regions.

In this context, little attention was given to the many candidates who ran at the federal and regional levels, and the increased participation of Muslim women in the political arena did not make the headlines. However, this trend represents a significant shift when looking at the history of Ethiopia. Islam was introduced in Ethiopia in the seventh century C.E. and is now practised by about one-third of Ethiopians across the country.

Muslims, despite representing a very large group within the national population, have historically been excluded from defining the state’s policies and participating in governance.

This is mainly due to the dominant role of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church – one of the oldest organised Christian bodies in the world – in the culture and

politics in Ethiopia. Orthodox Christianity has been so strongly tied to Ethiopian national identity that Muslims have often been regarded as outsiders.

Muslim women entering politics often face intersectional barriers linked both to their religious background and their gender. In Ethiopia, as in many other countries, women have long been underrepresented in elected and high-level government positions, although some progress has been achieved in recent years. From 1995 to 2015, the share of women

1 BBC News, “Ethiopia Election: Abiy Ahmed wins with huge majority,” BBC News , July 11, 2021, https://www.bbc. com/news/worldafrica-57791868

Women in Islam, 2023 25
Illustration by ANNE-LAURE PIERRELOT, France

2 Eden F. Hailu, “Who Speaks for Whom? Parliamentary Participation of Women in the Post 1991 Ethiopia,” Journal of Developing Societies 33, no. 3 (2017): 352-75.

3 Abdi L. Dahir, “Ethiopia’s new 50% women cabinet isn’t just bold—it’s smart,” Quartz Africa October 16, 2018, https://qz.com/ africa/1426110/ ethiopias-newcabinet-is-50women/

4 Kewser Idris, interview with Rihana Jemal, July 5, 2021.

5 Amina Ayano, interview with Rihana Jemal, July 13, 2021.

6 Zebiba Ibrahim, interview with Rihana Jemal, July 5, 2021.

7 Robin Richards, Barriers to women and girls’ participation in electoral processes in Ethiopia and policy response (F4D, 2020), 4.

in parliament grew from 2% to 38.8%.2 In 2018 Abiy Ahmed appointed women to half of the presidential cabinet positions, placing key portfolios such as the Ministries of Peace, Trade, Defence and Industry under the leadership of women. He described the move as a means to “show respect” for women’s participation in nation-building and “disprove the adage that women can’t lead.”3 Among the ten women appointed in his cabinet, three were Muslim, including the Minister of Peace, the Minister of Women, Children and Youth, and the Minister of Urban Development and Construction.

The Muslim women candidates to the 2021 national election that we met confirmed that the political arena is slowly opening up to Muslim women. “Even though I don’t know the exact number [of women], in this election we have seen increased numbers. Also in the ruling party there are many Muslim women candidates,” said Kewser Idris, a candidate for the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice party.4

Amina Ayano, running for the Freedom and Equality Party, also noticed the increased participation of Muslim women in the election: “In the past the engagement of Muslim women was very low; it was almost zero. I can say that there was little to no participation of Muslim women in politics, but now there is some improvement to the point that it has become very noticeable and eye-catching where our campaign photos are posted, especially because we [Muslim women] can be identified through our hijab. But I still believe that we are not participating as much as we should.”5

Other candidates, however, are not so convinced that the visibility of Muslim women in the electoral process has improved significantly. Zebiba Ibrahim, who ran for a seat as a member of the Balderas for True Democracy party, expressed a more sceptical viewpoint: “From my perspective most Muslim women aren’t that engaged in politics, (…) because participating in politics in the Muslim community is out of the ordinary. (…) It might be because some think that politics is a lie, [for women] being led rather than being a leader has been the norm, and there are some obvious pressures from the community.”6

In many instances, Ethiopian women with political ambitions are still shut out of local and grassroots

political processes as a result of the traditional gender norms that limit their engagement in public life. The history of violence in recent elections may also discourage them from participating in politics. In a society where violence against women is pervasive, women with political aspirations are often subjected to psychological abuse, including threats to their families’ security and attacks on their moral character, as well as physical and sexual assault or sexual harassment.7

Within the Muslim community, the belief that Islam restricts women’s role to household work (i.e. caring for and raising a family) and that the political domain must be left to the men contributes to limiting women’s involvement in politics. This belief, however, is considered misguided and is challenged by Ayano: “Let’s go back and check how the women during the time of Prophet Muhammed – May God’s blessings and peace be with Him – lived. They used to participate actively in politics, they even led wars. For example, Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her) used to be a teacher and educated a lot of men and women. (…) Women of Medina used to engage actively in their community, they were courageous, brave and strong. So it is not Islam that is limiting women, but the society and community because they don’t have a deeper understanding of the religion. We need to take women of that generation as our role models, study their history and learn from them.”

In Ayano’s view, Islamic teachings allow both men and women to become representatives of their community.

In Islam, a woman is given the right to express her political allegiances and opinions and has the obligation to denounce injustice.

“Islam never restricts our role, it never said a woman should just sit at home, raise kids and do housework, we [women] can also participate in politics, economic and various other social activities,” Ayano stated.

Other challenges specific to Muslim women were brought up by the candidates we interviewed, including the discrimination Muslim women still face in the area of education. In Ibrahim’s experience, many girls were barred from going to school. “Seeing a Muslim woman

EQUALITY 26 Women in Islam, 2023

learn, succeed in her education and professional career (…) was not valued, in the community I know,’’ she explained to us. In addition, the formal education system was not welcoming for Muslim girls and women, as removing the hijab was required in most formal education centres, a condition deemed unacceptable for many women or their families.

Muslim women engaged in politics also face social stigma as their presence and behaviour in the public space are sometimes viewed as inappropriate. As Idris recalls, she received negative feedback from some members of her community for her involvement in a political campaign, where she was seen on a sound truck broadcasting loud music to attract voters. Some were disappointed to see a Muslim woman involved in this kind of activity, while others were just surprised. “It [women’s participation in political campaigns] is out of the usual trend,” Idris pointed out. “There was some judgment and some people in the community haven’t accepted it,” she added.

Muslim women candidates are not only scrutinised by the Muslim community: they also attract the attention of the general public, mainly because of the hijab that some wear.

If some candidates want to be identified as ‘Muslim women politicians’ and embrace this identity, others regret the emphasis put on their religious background or gender and simply wish to be regarded in the same way as any other politician in the country.

Idris, for example, wants her competencies and responsibilities within her party to be fully recognised. In her opinion, the focus should be put on her political platform and the benefits she can bring to her constituency rather than her identity. As she explains: “Sometimes even people from the external community tend to identify me as a quota for the party. They tend to state that I am part of the political party because there is no Muslim in the party. But the reality is that there is a high competition and I have competed well and earned my spot to be a candidate, I wanted this to be considered and be leveled as such.”

Regardless of the way women position themselves, they understand the expectations their candidacies create in the Muslim community. “I am identified as a Muslim woman politician. The ummah expects a lot from us in terms of solving the problems of the community. There is a lot of injustice and discrimination in Ethiopia just because of the fact that you are Muslim,” Ayano stressed.

Despite diverging political views and approaches, the three candidates we met agree that the political system in Ethiopia needs to be more inclusive and representative of the country’s diversity. They believe that Muslim women’s participation in politics is in its early stages, and that there is still much progress left to be made.

Education may be the key. In Idris’ opinion, investing in girls’ education is the best way both to increase women’s political participation and change the social and religious norms that restrict their involvement in the public sphere. She attributes the rise in the number of women running for parliamentary seats to the fact that attitudes towards girls’ education in the Muslim community are already changing, and that more and more families send both their sons and daughters to school.

Although they face a number of challenges, the three women candidates remain optimistic as they receive encouraging words from Muslim and non-Muslim people alike, and feel that their political engagement can make a difference.


Editor’s Note: This article was written before the national election was held. None of the Muslim women candidates interviewed for this article were elected.

RIHANA JEMAL is a fifth-year law student at Addis Ababa University and Program Coordinator at Addis Ababa University’s International Humanitarian Clinic.

KULSMA NUR is a law graduate from Addis Ababa University (class of 2020). She is currently working as a journalist at Addis Zeybe.

Women in Islam, 2023 27

Women's Land Rights in African Muslim Communities

1 Social reproduction refers to the daily reproduction of working-class households through the acquisition and provision of such basic needs as food, shelter, clothing and healthcare.

2 Sirisha Naidu and Lyn Ossome, “Social Reproduction and the Agrarian Question of Women’s Labour in India,” in Agrarian South: Journal of Political Economy, vol. 5, Issue 1 (2016): 50-76.

3 UN Habitat, Women and Land in the Muslim World: Pathways to increase access to land for the realization of development, peace and human rights (2018), xi.

4 UN Habitat, Women and Land in the Muslim World, p. xi.

5 Millicient Odeny, “Improving access to land and strengthening women’s land rights in Africa,” Paper Prepared for Presentation at the Annual World Bank Conference on Land and Poverty (2013).

In the last few decades, eforts to strengthen women’s land rights in many African countries have focused on promoting land titling and women’s ownership of land. While property rights might ofer more stable means for women to access and control land and its produce, the focus on ownership neglects the myriad ways in which women under diferent legal, religious and customary systems are able to negotiate usufruct rights (right of use) over land. Advancing women’s rights to land requires a more nuanced approach that explores the relationship between women’s demand for land, the reproductive functions that women perform, and their power within communities.

Understanding Women’s Struggles for Land

Why is access to land so important to African women? To answer this question, one must consider women’s land rights in the context of the Global (or Agrarian) South, and in relation to the centrality of land, nature and the commons to processes of social reproduction.1 Today, it is becoming apparent to many that the postcolonial neoliberal capitalist state has failed to break with the colonial model of dependence on a non-capitalist, rural subsistence realm to supplement the wage economy. Wage earnings remain extremely distressed in most African countries, and have sunk lower in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the result that many can no longer survive merely on wages. Instead, most working class households, both rural and urban, depend on a combination of livelihoods, which include wage labour, petty commodity production, and subsistence agriculture. All of these three labour processes are to some extent dependent on access to land.2

Falling wages place an increased burden on women especially in poor and working class households that do not have sufcient or alternative sources of income. In such cases, women depend on some kind of access to or use of land to meet their daily needs - for their food, animal feed, frewood, medicine, shelter, etc.

Women’s struggles for land rights therefore ought to be understood in relation to these reproductive needs, and not only as property to be owned.

In this regard, ongoing agrarian resistance initiatives –many of which are led by rural women – signify deep economic distress, and speak to the salience of land as the basis of social reproduction.

Women’s Avenues for Claiming Land: Statutory Versus Customary Systems

Te majority of post-independence African states have introduced statutory laws or adhered to international human rights frameworks that guarantee women’s equal access to land. Tese legal reforms are supported by mainstream discourses that establish a direct link between women’s access to land on one hand, and socio-economic development and food security on the other. By the same logic, women’s ownership of land is presented as contributing to women’s empowerment, protecting women from “violence and health hazards, [and enabling] them to play a bigger role in the stabilisation of societies in crisis and confict.”3 From this perspective, women’s access to land therefore enhances their “security, stability, independence and freedom.”4

Parallel to the existence of statutory laws, traditions and local cultures continue to infuence women’s access to land across the continent. In Africa, the bulk of the land, as an economic asset, is under customary tenure, administered by norms, historical practices and unwritten laws based on tradition and cultural afliation.5

Most customary land tenure systems allow women to access land, though often this access is dependent on the existence and goodwill of male relatives.

EQUALITY 28 Women in Islam, 2023

Despite this limitation, many activists and researchers challenge the assumption that women’s rights and customary law are systematically in opposition to one another. Although customary law is not always progressive and can make it difcult for women to own land, it still provides some fexibility and negotiability. It sometimes, for example, allows women to inherit land, even if the portions are smaller or nontransferable to children.

When looking at customary law today, it is also important to highlight the infuence of colonial authorities, which in the process of supposedly preserving local cultures, actually set about ‘inventing’ African traditions for Africans. Customs were codifed and reinterpreted by colonial powers in order to refect their patriarchal nature, and serve their interests. Trough these changes, African men gained greater control over decision-making, including those related to land. Many of the invented traditions

were fundamental to the allocation of economic and political privilege within a concept of rapid social change and instability engendered by exploitative colonial policies.

African Women’s Land Rights under Islamic Traditions

Alongside statutory and customary laws, Islamic traditions also regulate the property rights of women in Muslim communities in Africa, which account for about 40% of the continent’s population.6 Islamic traditions refer to diverse human-made codes of laws based on a hierarchy of sources, of which the Qur’an and the Sunnah are the most important. However, the interpretation of both sources varies among the diferent Islamic schools of thought and is infuenced by local socio-political contexts. Tese complex interactions refect on women’s access to land and property rights, which difer from one place to another.

6 Houssain Kettani, “Muslim population in Africa: 1950-2020,” I nternational Journal of Environmental Science and Development , Vol.1, no 1 (2010).

Photo by the Strategic Intiative for Women in the Horn of Africa
Women in Islam, 2023 29

7 UN-Habitat, Women and Land in the Muslim World, 30.

8 I owe an immense gratitude to Dr. Natasha Issa Shivji, through whom I first encountered the history and literature of the waqf, and whose work has enriched my own ongoing enquiries on gender and land questions in Africa. See her scholarship on this (e.g. “Bounded by Land: Histories of the Indian Ocean as told through the crisis of the Waqf lands in Mombasa Kenya,” and other references in this piece).

9 Nobert Oberauer, "Fantastic Charities: The Transformation of Waqf Practice in Colonial Zanzibar,” in Islamic Law and Society, vol. 15, Issue 3 (2008): 316.

10 Nobert Oberauer, "Fantastic Charities,” 316.

11 Natasha Shivji, “Secessionism in Mombasa: A nation’s kaleidoscope,” in Cityscapes (2021): 48-49.

12 Shivji, “Secessionism in Mombasa,” 48-49.

Tis being said, land and property laws that are based on Islamic traditions usually protect a wide range of property rights – including the right to acquire, hold, use, administer, inherit and sell property, including land. Islamic law envisages four main types of land tenure: (1) mulk - land in full ownership; (2) miri – land owned by the state, under which a range of access and usufruct rights for individuals can be created; (3) waqf - endowed land, permanently allocated to charitable use for specifc benefciaries, or purposes, or devoted to general or family welfare; and (4) mawat - unused or dead land that can be converted into private land through reclamation. Under Islamic law, both men and women have autonomous legal identities, separate property rights, and can access all the diferent types of land, even though conditions might difer. With regard to mulk, for example, Islamic inheritance laws stipulate that a woman’s share is generally half of that of a male relative.7

Nonetheless it is important to note that religious guidance does not exist in a vacuum. Te socio-cultural context signifcantly infuences the way Islamic laws are enforced and the ability of women to access and own land. Legal systems in most African countries are dominated by men, who sometimes rely on Islamic traditions to enforce gender-discriminatory practices. Tis occurs especially where state institutions are weak, such as in fragile or confict-afected states. In these situations, it becomes easier for men to override women’s land rights under claims of guardianship or to protect the interests of the extended family or clans.

Land Commodification in Muslim Communities

Te debate on the perils and possibilities of land commodifcation has long historical expressions among Muslim communities and is exemplifed by the struggle over waqf endowments in the Kenyan and Zanzibari coast. Waqf refers to the act of dedicating the usufruct of any property for religious or charitable purposes. When a waqf is created, the property is ‘tied up’ and held in perpetual trust for the beneft of the community at large.

In an attempt to capture the income derived from waqf endowments, British colonial authorities sought to modify and control waqf practices.8 Tey worked

to suppress the system of patronage by local elites upon which waqf was built. According to colonial conceptions, families had to “be autonomous, economically self-contained social units engaging in wage labour or capitalist enterprises, unhampered by bonds of dependence and loyalty.”9 British ofcials considered the provision of ‘charity’ to destitute individuals as an inappropriate use of waqf. “As a result, the have-nots of society were deprived of a traditional safeguard for social security,”10 and women were unable to use a mechanism under which they could secure access to land.

Today, the relevance of waqf is quite contested. As Natasha Shivji writes, “proponents of the commodifcation of land argue for maximum output and proft.” Tey assert that “waqf is an out-dated system that holds land, rendering it useless and denying an exchange value associated with it.”11 On the other side of the spectrum, those resisting the commodifcation of land argue that waqf is “a sacred historical arrangement that protects the land for the beneft of the community and assists the poor.”12 Tey call for reinstating waqf endowments as a form of resistance to land grabs.

Te point to note here in relation to waqf is the potential protection it provides to communities who are increasingly vulnerable to market forces in the face of ongoing large-scale land sales and dispossession.

The reality is that bringing poor women into the realm of landed property might in fact place them only a step away from the market, such that any sign of economic distress is likely to lead to the sale of property and further dispossession.

Communal protection of lands therefore remains an important basis for the protection of women’s land claims.

Competing Systems of Authority – The Case of Somalia

When thinking about women’s land rights in Muslim communities, one must also consider the tensions arising from the co-existence of competing systems of authority. Somalia, for instance, has three parallel

EQUALITY 30 Women in Islam, 2023

legal systems – customary, religious, and secular –with shari’ah being recognised in the Constitution as the primary source of law. Where the secular system contradicts Islamic laws, the latter takes precedence. Islamic law mainly governs family-related issues such as marriage, divorce and inheritance. Customary law (Xeer), which is more prevalent in the countryside but also applied in urban areas, is used for administering, managing and regulating common property such as grazing land, forests and water. Xeer therefore dictates to a large extent the modalities by which women can access land for their daily needs. While government institutions ofen push for the enforcement of statutory law, many cases are still being solved through customary and shari’ah laws. A major problem, therefore, is that the coexistence of these three systems opens the door to discriminatory practices as people choose their legal route according to which system promises to be more benefcial to them.13

In relation to women’s land rights in Somalia, Xeer has been shown to place some restrictions on women’s access to and ownership of land. Actual areas of land controlled by women are relatively small. However, customary law also provides some fexibility and grants women protections and privileges. Women, for instance, can exercise power in indirect ways through their choice of a husband and through their role in negotiating agreements, between clans or family members.14 Researchers Besteman and Cassanelli found, for example, that in some cases women were able to secure economic partnerships over land use with their sons, particularly if the son was unmarried or had a wife who was occupied with children.15

Tese complexities highlight the pragmatism that is ofen necessary in negotiating women’s access to land. It is also important to distinguish between the needs and demands of rural and urban women: while the former retain basic links with the reproduction, survival and sustenance of families and communities, the focus on land as property is a more elite demand with wider accommodation in statutory laws.


Te preceding illustrates the signifcance of understanding land in relation to the reproductive roles which women play within households, and which in

poor rural and urban settings cannot be abstracted from their dependence on land, nature and the commons –whether it be for access to food, frewood, water, ritual, or other functions. Te clamour for property in land conceals a little-acknowledged fact in the literature: that land is, at its core, a fundamental basis for life, survival and cohesion in society, and that any ‘right’ attached to it is primarily the right of all women to enjoy dignifed lives, where access refects need.

In Africa, Muslim women negotiate property and land tenure systems that are at the intersection of custom, religion, kinship, and family relations. Tus, battles for Muslim women’s equal access to land should not only be fought on the streets and through public protest, but also inside the home and through renewed negotiation with customary and religious authorities.


LYN OSSOME is Associate Professor of Political Studies at Wits University, South Africa, with specialisations in the fields of feminist political economy and feminist political theory, and research interests in gendered labour, land and agrarian studies, the modern state, and the political economy of gendered violence. She is the author of Gender, Ethnicity and Violence in Kenya’s Transitions to Democracy: States of Violence (2018) and coeditor of the volume Labour Questions in the Global South (2021).

13 Shukri Ismail, “Interview: Women and Land Rights in Somaliland,” in Perspectives , no. 2.13 (2013): 23-24.

14 Michael Walls, “Women’s Political Participation in Somaliland,” in Journeys from Exclusion to Inclusion: Marginalized women’s successes in overcoming political exclusion, (IDEA, 2013), 164-197.

15 Catherine Besteman and Lee V. Cassanelli, The Struggle for Land in Southern Somalia: The War Behind the War, (Westview Press, 1996), 91-92.

Women in Islam, 2023 31

Multiple Identities: What Does it Mean to Be a Queer Muslim African Woman?

qabilah is a queer Muslim feminist storyteller who recounts stories of women in search of ‘the sacred’ by investigating the complexities of divinity, identity and power. qabilah’s work attempts to ‘unmake’, refine and re-tell Islamic feminisms by theorising and challenging normative ideas of gender, sexuality and religion.

On the night of Eid al-Adha 2021, I attempted to change my Twitter bio to include a rainbow fag. Te anxiety that accompanied this supposedly simple act of including an emoji on my social media was a clue that I wasn’t ready. For a long time, I personally considered the act of 'coming out' unnecessary, especially online. Recently, however, this viewpoint has shifed. I aim to express my identity freely, whether it is socially acceptable or not, and to curate a space that allows for my peaceful existence.

Filtering Identities

What does it mean to be a queer Muslim woman? Tis question has followed me for years as I have battled to defne my identity and reconcile my sexuality with my faith. My frst contact with Islam, as a child growing up in Ghana, taught me love, forgiveness, giving and kindness. Most importantly, the word iqra (read, or seek knowledge) was constantly repeated, and this instilled in me a life-long yearning for knowledge. While my parents allowed me to understand Islam and certain practices such as wearing the hijab on my own terms, this 'freedom' ended when it came to my sexuality.

As I grew older, I was exposed to a diferent perspective within Islamic thought, namely, the ‘message of fear'.

Patriarchal views of women's identity as either flawless heterosexual believers or wretched sinners impacted my definition and knowledge of Islam.

conceptions of God. Was Allah all-kind and loving, or was He to be feared? Tis understanding of Islam drove me away from my faith, and my realisation of my queerness was the fnal blow. I could no longer relate to a religion, which confned me to the ‘sinner category’ at a time when I was trying to embrace my selfood fully.

For years, I craved a sense of belonging, which neither the Muslim nor the non-Muslim community ofered. Out of caution, I deliberately fltered out my queerness both online and ofine. Online, I carefully engaged with queer content, just enough but never too much, and refrained from using the rainbow fag emoji. Similarly, ofine, I avoided falling in love or being in public relationships with women, which seemed easy in theory but was more complicated in practice. I was afraid of the unknown, scared of what might happen if I outwardly embraced my queer identity. From the case of a little boy whose sexuality was mocked in the street as he walked to the mosque, to the older women who were expelled from their community by force because they were single and suspected queers, I had witnessed too many incidents of violence against LGBTQIA people to take the risk of exposing myself.

1 Muslimgirl.com is a digital platform and community of Muslim women who write about the realities and narratives of the community through the lens of lifestyle, religion, gender, etc.

I began to approach my faith with trepidation and worried that I was failing to meet my religious commitments. It was an endless cycle of believing that I was a bad Muslim woman. I spent a lot of time echoing the words of the sheikhs in my madrassa saying: “Fear Allah,” and felt conficted between the two opposing

For years, I also wondered what my family's reaction would be if they found out. I paid attention to my friends' responses to queerness, the look of disgust on their faces when they spoke about other queer people saying: “Oh, I heard she’s a lesbian now.” I observed how they intentionally misgendered trans people and asked whether I was 'one of them' when I attempted to correct them. I listened to people referring to the story of Prophet Lut and the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to justify their queerphobia. I felt sickened but not surprised afer reading the homophobic comments under a post that Muslimgirl.com1 had published on Instagram during Pride month. All these reactions pushed me to remain as discreet as I could for as long as possible, if not forever. I believe that this

EQUALITY 32 Women in Islam, 2023

strategy is not isolated; to date I have met very few openly queer Muslim women. Many of us cultivate invisibility to protect our space and sanity.

The Language of Fear

Being queer in Ghanaian society has always been dangerous and it is becoming even more so. Currently, LGBTQIA Ghanaians face heightened state and community violence legitimised by the newly proposed

anti-LGBTQIA bill for “proper human sexual rights and Ghanaian family values.” Tis bill, introduced in parliament in August 2021, would make it a crime to be gay, bisexual or trans, or to advocate for LGBTQIA rights, punishable by up to 10 years in jail.2 So if queerness was already risky, it is even more dangerous today.

Te fact that signifcant segments of the population, including Christian authorities, support the bill demonstrates that queerphobia is not unique to

2 Emmanuel Akinwotu, “Ghana: Anti-Gay Bill Proposing 10-Year Prison Sentences Sparks Outrage,” The Guardian, July 23, 2021, https:// www.theguardian. com/globaldevelopment/2021/ jul/23/ghana-antigay-bill-proposing10-year-prisonsentences-sparksoutrage.

Women in Islam, 2023 33
Artwork by MUNIRA YUSSUF, Sweden

3 Leanne M. Dzubinski and Amy B. Diehl, “The Problem of Gender Essentialism and Its Implications for Women in Leadership,” Journal of Leadership Studies 12, no. 1 (2018): 56-61.

4 Abeera Khan, “In Defence of an Unalienated Politic: A Critical Appraisal of the ‘No Outsiders’ Protests,” Feminist Review 128, no. 1 (2021): 132-47.

5 Sylvia Tamale, “Challenging the Coloniality of Sex, Gender and Sexuality,” in Decolonization and Afro-Feminism (Ottawa, Canada: Daraja Press, 2020), 92-131.

6 Minna Salami, Sensuous Knowledge: A Black Feminist Approach for Everyone, (London.: Zed Books, 2021), 56-7.

7 Salami, Sensuous Knowledge, 56-7.

Muslims. Te injunction to ft heteronormative ideals is connected to gender essentialism. Many people view gender as based on biological sex. To them, gender diferences are directly determined by genetic diferences between men and women. In this framework, gender is believed to be natural and immutable, and heterosexuality becomes the unique, ‘normal’ mode of sexual orientation.3

Religious institutions are not the only ones relying on the language of fear to consolidate power. As the current context in Ghana reveals, the state is using a similar strategy to validate community violence against queer people. By spreading the idea that the existence of LGBTQIA groups threatens 'family values' and turns the nation into a sinful hub, the state invokes the very 'fear Allah' tactic that allows those in power to control people's lives and bodies. When the Ghanaian state takes an open stance against LGBTQIA communities, it indirectly recruits agents to 'watch', report, and carry out violence against queer people on its behalf.


For a long time, I have sufered an identity crisis. I felt like an imposter attempting in vain to reconcile my many selves. I thought that I was failing on all counts: I was failing to be a good Muslim and I was terrible at being the free, openly queer woman that secular feminists would like me to be. I refused to let my life and sexuality be governed by fxed heterosexual norms, but could not at the same time publicly embrace all facets of my identity.

Being queer and Muslim is a complex position to be in, especially when the afrmation of your identity is considered to be a stance against Islam on the one hand and as haram (forbidden) on the other. For some secular feminists, Islam and queerness are simply incompatible. Te challenges of being queer and Muslim are also exacerbated by Islamophobia, where the 'otherness' of being Muslim comes with the assumption that Islam is predisposed to violence and oppression.

As such, much solidarity with queer Muslims becomes conditioned upon how much we conform to liberalist politics 4 that disseminate the idea that Islamic cultures are inherently violent, and women must be ‘saved’ from their community and brothers.

Yet the real issue lies in the fact that most of us are navigating systemic violence from a four-fold oppression standpoint as black, queer, Muslim, and women.5

Currently, I believe my sexuality is valid, and my close friends have made my journey brighter. I realised that my rocky relationship with religion had been governed by gendered religious politics rather than a genuine bond with God. Religious practices continue to be political, and so does sexual identity. Still, I try to create a bubble that allows me to engage with faith on my terms. Tis in no way means I have arrived at an ultimate religious fulflment because the journey of understanding what my terms are requires continuous refection and learning.

I understand that merely expressing my identity as a queer Muslim woman is a political statement in itself, as it defes the ‘default’, the ‘norm’, the ‘neutral’ as defned by the dominant group.6 I realise that the politicisation of identity can be liberatory in many ways. It helps build communities, give visibility to discriminated groups, allow collective action, foster pride, etc.

However, to me, freedom and reconciliation imply considering each distinct part of me as a whole, without reducing my identity to being Muslim, black, female or queer.

I claim the right to just be, without asserting a particular identity.

Tis decision is supported by the argument presented by feminist writer Minna Salami, that when “identity is only and automatically political, it reduces one's humanity to a performance of dissent.”7 As argued by Salami, using identity as a weapon leaves the abused “predictably and perpetually fatigued and resentful” since it fails to “disarm the power of the oppressive narrative.” Envisioning identity as confning instead of liberating reproduces, to some extent, existing hierarchies and dominant thinking.

My goal today is thus to free myself from predefned notions of identity, to be myself even if it goes against the approved perceptions of who I should be. To be me simply means to be.

EQUALITY 34 Women in Islam, 2023

Moving Beyond Tokenism

In its second issue, the Women in Islam Journal paid tribute to Saado Ali Warsame, a Somali singer and member of the Federal Parliament (MP), who was murdered in Mogadishu in 2014. That year, Warsame was the fourth MP to be killed in terrorist attacks. Sadly, eight years later, female politicians in Somalia are still confronted with threats, physical violence, and hostility. In March 2022, MP Amina Mohamed Abdi was killed along with 47 other people in a suicide bomb attack claimed by Al-Shabaab. Amina, who was first elected in 2012 at the age of 24, was a vocal advocate for human rights. As a former Qur’an teacher, she was not afraid of challenging gender discrimination using her extensive knowledge of Islamic traditions. Amina’s tragic killing reveals the grim reality faced by women who enter politics and aspire to leadership positions in Somalia. Their opponents often go to various lengths to deter them from entering the political arena using character assassination, smear campaigns, trolling, and other forms of harassment and intimidation. Despite the threats and the risks, many Somali women courageously continue to claim their rightful place in society and the country’s leadership.

An Open Letter by the Somali Women Journalists’ Rights Association (SOWJRA)

Women in Islam, 2023 35
Photo courtesy of the Somali Women Journalists' Rights Association

OSMAN is a female journalist and women’s rights activist born and based in Mogadishu, Somalia. She graduated from Plasma University earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Mass Media. She has been working in Somali media as a reporter, presenter, broadcaster and editor for the last ten years reporting on violence against women and children. Osman is a founding member and the Executive Director of the Somali Women Journalists’ Rights Association. She has also recently founded Arraweelo Voice, an online platform that reports on harmful practices against women and girls in Somalia.

To: Te Federal Government of Somalia

Ladies and gentlemen, I as the Executive Director of SOWJRA and speaking on behalf of women journalists in Somalia have taken it upon myself to ask this simple question to our government and leaders: is it not time to accept women’s participation in Somalia's leadership and their instrumental role in shaping the country's destiny?

We are your mothers, sisters and beloved wives. Over the years, you have witnessed our sufering and struggles. You are aware of the many violations and abuse we experienced during the civil war and its afermath. Yet despite all these challenges, we never gave up and did everything in our power to save the children from the fames fuelled by their fathers. We made life possible, supporting you through these challenging times. As we shared through your difculties, why can you not share leadership? Tis is unfair!

We all know of the signifcant role played by women in the peacemaking process and the socio-economic development of the country. You, our government leaders, are quick to praise and acknowledge women for their role in the liberation; and even though words are important, actions are more signifcant. I therefore urge you to live up to your words and take concrete steps to increase women’s participation in political leadership.

We, the women, make up more than 50% of the Somali population. Every year, thousands of women graduate with the hope of having their talent and competencies recognised and utilised. Despite the high number of educated women, only a few occupy high-paid jobs and leadership positions, while the rest remain largely reserved to men. We believe that this needs to change. Do you not agree?

I, for example, have been working for the Somali National Radio and Television for the last ten years. While some of my male classmates were ofered important positions in the government during this period, I, in all these years, never got the chance to hold a leadership or management position. I would therefore like to ask my government: is my knowledge and experience less valuable than that of a man? Or are there other hidden reasons that you believe hinders a woman from exercising leadership?

Trough my work with SOWJRA, I’ve learnt that less than 1% of female journalists hold leadership positions in their workplaces. Tis alarmingly low fgure is telling of the level of inequality in our society. If even the women with microphones are denied the right to lead, how then can we expect ordinary women’s voices to be represented and heard by a larger audience?

While I do not deny the eforts made by many government ofcials and organisations and individuals in civil society, I believe that there is still a long journey ahead to bridge the gap. It is true that the government and the two chambers of the Somali parliament approved a 30% quota for female lawmakers. Tough I applaud this initiative, I also call on the government to ensure that it translates into tangible results.

EQUALITY 36 Women in Islam, 2023

How disappointed I was to see that women were elected to just 21% of parliamentary seats in the 2022 elections, well short of the 30% threshold! In reality, women still struggle to access fnancial support to hold campaigns and lack the political networks and connections of their male peers. Instead of paying lip service to the idea of women’s political representation, male leaders should actively promote and support female candidates.

I would also like to remind our government of the necessity to apply gender quotas more widely within the public and private sectors, so that women can access leadership positions in all spheres of society. I believe that it is necessary to carry out an in-depth study about equality in employment opportunities. Tis would help us identify the main barriers faced by women in the workplace and put in measures to guarantee women’s access to diverse and top positions within public and private institutions.

In addition, I would like everyone to understand that we women are not claiming roles and responsibilities that are prohibited by religion. Neither Islam nor the constitution denies women the opportunity to lead. So let us stop hiding behind religion to legitimise discrimination against women!

Women have proven over and again that they can perform in all sectors of work, including in government. Tus, I would like to ask our government one last time: why are women still prevented from leading this country? Are there rules that we are not aware of? Dear leaders, please give all Somalis a clear and honest answer. We, the women, are ready to break the ceiling, if only we could see it!

Regards, Leila Aded Osman Executive Director of SOWJRA Mogadishu, Somalia

Women in Islam, 2023 37

Te Hijab Controversy: Secularism and Islam in Europe

1 European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, Muslims in the European Union –Discrimination and Islamophobia, 2006.

What is it that fuels Islamophobia and foments hate? If you take a closer look, the answer is clear: it is the notion held by some that Islam is irreconcilable with democracy and poses a long-term threat to Europe and its secularism. Islamophobia is not a new phenomenon; there has always been stigma against Muslims in European societies as Europe has to a large extent built its identity in opposition to the Muslim

world. Although Muslims have lived in Europe for centuries, the largest part of the Muslim population in Europe arrived as migrant workers during the economic boom of the 1960s. Former colonial ties also played a significant role in countries like the United Kingdom, France and the Netherlands, which received a significant number of migrants from their former colonies.1

38 Women in Islam, 2023
Illustration by GHAZAL QADRI, Kashmir

In the first few decades following World War II, Muslims were not perceived as an immediate threat, since migrants were largely invisible in public space and were contributing to the wellbeing of European societies.2 This perception changed when the economic boom came to a halt and Muslim families settled more permanently in the 1970s and 1980s. Anti-Muslim sentiment gained ground and was later compounded by the rise of militant Islam and the terrorist attacks that struck several European countries. Recent waves of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees from impoverished and war-torn countries have also created anxiety among the non-Muslim European population, a fear that has been instrumentalised by populist, nationalist movements to consolidate their political platform.

It is against this backdrop that Islam is increasingly presented as jeopardising Europe’s identity, security and social fabric, and that Muslim women who wear a hijab (headscarf) have become a symbol of ‘otherness’ and a source of discomfort or fear.

All over Europe, recent years have witnessed heated debate about what is acceptable attire for Muslim women in public spaces. Everywhere, the notion of secularism has been used to justify the ban of the hijab in schools and other public institutions. Secularism, however, often means different things to different people. It can be defined as the separation of the state from religious institutions, the neutrality of the state towards all religions, or the rejection or exclusion of religion from public life. If the notion of secularism reflects different realities that need to be understood in their historical, political, and social context, what is clear today is that the term is increasingly politicised and used in a ‘narrow’ understanding in order to exclude some religions, particularly Islam. In many instances, the authorities invoke the responsibility to protect secularism when they restrict freedom of religion and limit women’s choice to wear a hijab. This tendency is particularly worrisome considering that little attention is given to the impacts of these restrictive policies and measures on the lives of the Muslim women who are told what they should or should not wear on a daily basis.

For years, hijab-wearing Muslim women have turned to national and regional courts to make their voices heard. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) is the highest regional institution where grievances can be brought after exhausting all national remedies. The Court has handled multiple cases of State restrictions placed upon the right to religious expression by banning the headscarf in public institutions. It has, in most cases, consistently ruled in favour of the States. Two interesting cases stand out and have even become teaching examples in law schools: Dahlab v. Switzerland (2001) and Layla Sahin v. Turkey (2004). The former involved Ms. Dahlab, a primary school teacher who wore a headscarf to work. After four years of employment, the school’s authorities requested Ms. Dahlab to stop wearing hijab, although none of the pupils or parents had complained about it. They argued that it went against the school’s mandate to respect pupils and parents’ religious and political beliefs and to ensure denominational neutrality. The second prominent case of Leyla Sahin v. Turkey involved a fifth-year medical student at Istanbul University who was prohibited from attending certain classes and exams, and suspended when she refused to remove her headscarf. Both women brought their case to the ECHR, which ultimately decided against them.

Historically speaking, the decision of the Court on those two cases is not surprising since it is consistent with previous rulings. However, one might question the Court’s reasoning and the way it labeled the hijab as "a powerful external symbol," which “appeared to be imposed on women by a religious precept laid down by the Qur’an” that was “hard to reconcile with the principle of gender equality."3 The Court also stated that wearing the headscarf was "incompatible with a tolerant, secular society that respects the rights and freedoms of others."4 In relation to Ms. Sahin’s case, the court did not question the Turkish government’s explanation that, in a context where Islam is the majority religion and religious fundamentalism a growing concern, wearing the headscarf could be seen as exerting pressure on non-wearers. The ECHR considered that the ban of the hijab was a legitimate way to protect the rights of others and preserve the pluralism and secular nature of the university.

But in these particular cases, who are the 'others' that the Court tries to protect? Are they the parents

2 Bichara Khader, "Muslims in Europe: The Construction of a ‘Problem’,” in The Search for Europe. Contrasting Approaches (Madrid: BBVA, 2015).

3 Sahin v. Turkey, Application no. 44774/98, European Court of Human Rights, November 10, 2005, Paragraph 98.

4 Carolyn Evans, “The Islamic Scarf in the European Court of Human Rights,” Melbourne Journal Of International Law, Vol. 7 (May 2006).

Women in Islam, 2023 39

SHUKRIA YUSUF OMER is an international human rights law expert based in Katrineholm, Sweden. She has an LLB Degree in Law from Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia, and a LLM Degree in International Human Rights Law and Labour Rights from Lund University, Sweden. She has a range of experience working in legal consulting firms as well as for international nonprofit humanitarian organisations. She is passionate about human rights, women's rights and migrant rights.

of the pupils at Dahlab’s school, who never expressed concerns about her religious garment? Or are they Leyla’s classmates, who did not seem troubled by her wearing hijab in class? While there are certainly debates to be had regarding the role of the hijab in creating and perpetuating gender hierarchies, the ECHR failed to deal with the unique features of the cases, and to listen to the women who testified that they wore the headscarf of their own free will. The court overlooked the fact that the two women did not belong to any fundamentalist groups and did not try to enforce their beliefs in any way that would be regarded as intolerant of the views of others.

What these decisions reveal is the extent to which Muslim women have ceased to be considered individuals in their own right and have become casualties of the long-standing debate of Islam versus the West.

to ban workers from wearing any visible sign of their political, philosophical, or religious beliefs. The ECJ explained that the ban was " justified by the employer's need to present itself neutrally to customers or to prevent social conflicts." This new judgment, which is seemingly neutral since it applies to all religions, is in reality likely to affect Muslim women disproportionately. The hijab, contrary to other religious signs, cannot help but be ostensible since it is worn on the head. This ruling may therefore limit the participation of hijab-wearing women in public life. In addition, the vagueness of the decision leaves plenty of room for misinterpretation and can further fuel the existing discrimination against Muslim women.

5 The European Court for Human Rights is made up of four sections and a Grand Chamber. The Grand Chamber hears a small, select number of cases that have been either referred to (on appeal from a Chamber decision) or relinquished by a chamber, usually when the case involves an important or novel question.

6 Lautsi v. Italy, Application No. 30814/06, European Court of Human Rights, March 18, 2011.

To add fuel to the fire, the approach of the ECHR towards the display of religious symbols in public space took a different track in 2011 when the Grand Chamber5 ruled on the case of Lautsi v. Italy. The case was originally filed by Ms. Lautsi, who complained that crucifixes were prominently displayed in the school attended by her two children. She felt these prominently displayed Christian symbols contradicted the principle of secularism in which she wished to educate her children. In apparent contradiction with previous rulings, the Court considered that the Italian State was within its rights to allow the display of crosses in public schools. The ECHR argued that the crucifix was “a passive symbol,” and that its presence did not result in indoctrinating the students. Interestingly, the Court did not provide a precise definition of a passive symbol and did not explain why the crucifix, contrary to the hijab, was not considered a “powerful external symbol.”6 It simply mentioned that there was no teaching of Catholicism in the school or intolerance towards minorities. In its decision, the Grand Chamber clearly showed that it understands the two religious symbols – the hijab and the crucifix – to have different impacts on people, particularly children.

More recently, a ruling from the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in July 2021 allowed European employers

All in all, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. If this right is absolute, the right to manifest a religion or belief can be and has been restricted by States when considered necessary to protect public safety, public order, health, or the rights and freedoms of others. What is problematic is the fact that the hijab, contrary to other religious symbols, seems to be consistently viewed as a threat to national security, gender equality and state secularism. On several occasions, courts across Europe have ignored the voices of Muslim women and assumed from the outset that the hijab was a sign of discrimination and violence.

Given that a significant number of Muslim women choose to wear hijab, it is doubly insulting to deny them that option by arguing that their decision was necessarily coerced.

It negates the fact that Muslim women have agency over their lives. It is also important to recognise and consider the impacts of policies restricting Muslim women’s ability to wear the headscarf on their educational and professional prospects, as well as on their social life. It seems counterproductive to curtail women’s choices and aspirations in the name of gender equality and the fight against oppression. In today’s European multicultural societies, no woman should be forced to follow a dress code in the name of religion or secularism.

40 Women in Islam, 2023

Stories of Survival: the Journeys of Migrant Women from Somaliland

Hodo1 dreamt of a better life. A life where she would not go hungry and would decide whom to marry. Like many women and girls in Somaliland, Hodo decided to migrate abroad to escape poverty and build a life on her own without family pressure. She followed the man she loved to Ethiopia, unaware of the trap closing in on her.

“I was in middle school when I started a love relationship with a man of about 30 years old. Our relationship got stronger in three months. He was handsome and used to ofer me everything I needed.

Terefore I gave him my trust and that was when he told me that living in Hargeisa was too hard and that he preferred to seek a better life abroad,” the 24-year-old woman recalled.

When Hodo’s parents suspected that she was in a relationship, they decided to marry her of to an older man without her consent. “My family saw me having a mobile phone and going out in the evenings so they decided to accept the marriage proposal from a restaurant owner in his forties,” she explained.


For anonymity, the interviewees’ real names have been replaced by pseudonyms.
Women in Islam, 2023 41
Artwork by HUSSEIN SALIM, Sudan


TIMACADE is currently pursuing a master’s degree in International Law at New Generation University in Hargeisa. He has worked for several NGOs, including SIHA Network, and is a regular contributor to Women in Islam.

Te institution of marriage and female virginity are considered important elements in preserving family honour in Somali culture. In a context where education and job opportunities are limited, a woman’s future ofen depends on the marriage she makes. For these reasons, parents are sometimes pressured to marry of their daughters at a young age.

Te prospect of marriage precipitated Hodo’s departure. “[Afer hearing of the proposal] I escaped with the other boy [the 30-year-old boyfriend] to Ethiopia, where he issued me a passport and sent me to Saudi Arabia," she remembered with emotion.

Gender inequality is a strong driver of migration when women have economic, political and social expectations that cannot be realised in their country of origin. In Somaliland, girls like Hodo run away from home to avoid early or arranged marriages, protect themselves from violence, or have more agency over their lives.

Tis is the case of Fardus, a 22-year-old woman who lef Somaliland because of the psychological and physical violence she sufered at home. “I have two brothers and I am the youngest in the family. My father was very strict and my brothers followed my father’s footsteps (…). I was not allowed to go out, nor were my friends permitted to come to my house. I felt like I was in jail. I couldn’t go anywhere, I had no mobile phone to contact my friends. I was blamed for everything I did and I was beaten if I tried to speak out against my father’s decisions,” she told me.

By migrating, Fardus hoped to escape the control of her father and brothers and the social norms that confned her to the home. In Somaliland’s clan-based and conservative society, the belief that women are subordinate to men remains widely held. As experienced by Fardus, challenges to male authority and traditional gender roles can be met with resistance or violence.

Despite deeply patriarchal structures of power and decision-making, women are actively involved in

the economic life of Somaliland. In the wake of the confict with Somalia in the 80s and 90s, many women have become the primary breadwinners and heads of households. Today, both women and men recognise the necessity of women’s fnancial contributions to household income.

In this context, women and girls’ migration is sometimes viewed as a means to rise out of poverty. Ayan, for example, was convinced by friends to seek a well-paid job as a live-in domestic worker in Saudi Arabia. When she decided to migrate, her family did not have enough money to buy food, and ofen skipped two meals a day. "I decided to leave to help my family because they are very poor," the 21-year-old woman explained.

Unfortunately, women and girls’ expectations when migrating are not always met and their journeys can turn into nightmares. Tis is what happened to Hodo who, with the complicity of her boyfriend, fell into the hands of trafckers. Afer reaching Ethiopia, Hodo’s boyfriend arranged her travel to Saudi Arabia, where she thought she would work as a domestic worker. Upon arrival, a Somali lady, presumably her boyfriend’s relative, and an Arab man were waiting for her at the airport. Tey escorted her to a house where she was forced into domestic servitude and sexually exploited for three months.

Soon afer her arrival, Hodo realised that she was pregnant by her boyfriend and was chased away by her abusers. “I was not able to fulfll the household tasks and could no longer satisfy their [the men of the family] sexual needs because I was in the early months of pregnancy and I was very sick,” she said. Afer being sent away, Hodo went to the police for support but was received with more violence. “ Te police did not listen to my situation but treated me as a criminal and put me into prison, interviewed me and fnally deported me,” she added.

Hodo’s sufering and demands for justice were not only ignored by the Saudi police but also by her parents

42 Women in Islam, 2023

and family. Soon afer she arrived in Hargeisa, Hodo informed her mother of her desire to press charges against the people who had been involved in her trafcking, including her boyfriend. “I wanted to bring that fellow [the boyfriend] to justice but my parents and the elders of my family only requested the elders of his family to accept the child as theirs. My family blamed all the mistakes on me,” she explained.

Te reaction of Hodo’s parents refects the way many cases of sexual exploitation are handled in Somaliland. Because sexual violence brings shame to the survivor’s family, some parents, such as Hodo’s, prefer to settle the case outside of the formal court system. Compensations are negotiated between the survivor’s and perpetrator’s families with the support of community elders. In the case of a rape, the survivor is sometimes forced to marry her rapist to save the family honour.

In 2018, Somaliland passed a bill that criminalises sexual ofences, including rape, sexual assaults and trafcking. Although a signifcant milestone, many survivors continue to opt out of the formal justice system or are not aware of their rights. Te predominance of men in legal structures, the lack of survivor-centered services, and the low capacity of police to gather sufcient evidence to prosecute and convict, also contribute to discouraging survivors’ pursuit of justice.

In Hodo’s case, the family of her boyfriend agreed to provide for the child she had with him. However, he never faced justice for his involvement in her trafcking and is now living abroad while Hodo must cope with the trauma and the social stigma of being a survivor and a single mother.

Many reasons push migrant women to return to Somaliland. Some are unable to complete their journey and are deported before or upon reaching their destination. Some voluntarily turn back when they realise how dreadful and dangerous the journey can be. Others are unable to secure employment, do not obtain the job they were promised, or do not receive the payment promised for their work.

Ayan, who had migrated to support her family, frst travelled to Yemen where she was arrested and detained in a camp for two months. From Yemen, she paid a broker to facilitate her trip to Saudi Arabia, but was once again caught by the police and deported to Mogadishu and then to Hargeisa.

Migrant women are not always welcomed when returning to their home communities. When speaking of their traumatic experiences, they are sometimes blamed for what happened to them and ostracised by friends and family. “When I returned, I faced anger from my family. Tey did not trust me anymore, thinking that I would go back and would steal money from them to make the trip again. I have also faced rejections from the community because they feared that I would convince their children to cross the border,” Ayan explained.

Listening to female migrants’ stories and identifying the challenges they face during and afer their journeys are key to protecting women and girls against trafcking, supporting survivors of violence, and enabling returnees to reintegrate into their communities.

Yet despite these stories of violence and exploitation, migration is not always so grim. It also presents women with opportunities that are not always available in Somaliland. In addition to supporting their families ‘back home,’ migrant women can gain fnancial autonomy, access education, learn new skills, and interact with people from diverse backgrounds.

When walking the streets of Hargeisa, you will likely hear of the successes of female returning migrants who are now running popular restaurants, guesthouses, or other businesses in town. You will hear about their pride and about the determination of the next generation of women to take control over their future.

Women in Islam, 2023 43

Taking Roots: Te Bangladeshi Community in Great Britain

In this article, Rushna Ali Sadler, PhD candidate at the University of Leeds, retraces her journey from Sylhet, Bangladesh, to the London borough of Tower Hamlets. She reflects on a dramatic event that shaped her life and identity: the shooting of her father by a British far-right group. Her story sheds light on the experiences of Bengali1 Muslim families who moved to the United Kingdom in the 1970s and 1980s and settled there. It discusses the racism they encountered, their struggle for equality, and the aspirations of the second generation of Bengali Muslims in the UK.

The Journey

I had barely reached double digits in age when we landed at London’s Heathrow Airport on a midApril afternoon in 1980. Accompanied by my parents, younger sister, and brother, the long journey had been uneventful but emotionally fraught. Until that point I had only ‘met’ my father a handful of times. Our migration had not been explained to us children, albeit I had been told that I would be going to a hospital in London to alleviate the pain in my right ear. Yet I had witnessed the intense emotions with which my maternal grandparents had bid us farewell.

complexities of traditions such as these. It dictated the way I articulated my identity and ‘anchored’ my sense of belonging, and required me to live up to the expectations set by my family and my community.

Whilst my father resided in London, his older brother and mother stayed in Bangladesh. My Dhaddi (paternal grandmother) was resolute in never leaving the land of her ancestors, leaving my father with that one bond to the desh (country). After marriage, this bond was stretched to include a wife and, later, three children. Because of his ‘dual’ sense of belonging, my father seemed to feel at home both in the East and the West.

1 An ethnolinguistic group originating from Bangladesh and parts of India. Historically and currently, the vast majority of the Bengali population in Bangladesh is Muslim.

2 Katy Gardner, Global Migrants, Local Lives: Travel and Transformation in Rural Bangladesh, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.

It was customary in our village not to question one’s parents and elders. This had nothing to do with gender but more with being respectful. In contrast, decades later as parents in England, we would encourage our children to ask questions and openly discuss any decisions impacting family life. I do not argue that one custom is better than the other but rather that both seem to work in their respective environments. What is certain is that the evolution of family values has often been a source of concern for parents settling in a foreign land.

My father was raised in London by his father, my Dhadda (paternal grandfather) who was in the British Merchant Navy. In his role as Serang he was the head of a lascar crew (sailors from the Indian subcontinent employed on British ships). Although my Dhadda died before I was born, I grew up being called “the Serang’s nathin” (granddaughter). As a child, I was happy with this moniker, which gave me a sense of security. It would only be later in life that I fully understood the

However, changes in immigration rules in the 1970s transformed his reality as a perpetual traveller. The Immigration Act of 1971 imposed restrictions on the flow of immigration from Bangladesh by stipulating that only a wife and dependents under 16 were permitted to join their husbands and fathers who were already settled in the UK. Consequently, many Bengali migrants started to bring their families over in the event that they would not be able to do so in future. 2

Coincidently, the new legislation came into effect just a year after the independence of Bangladesh. Two of my Mammas (maternal uncles) had played a prominent role in the Liberation War against Pakistan, which meant that the political struggle had been brought to ‘our front door.’ Understandably, my father worried about our safety and encouraged my mother to join him, even though she was reluctant to leave her family at first.

44 Women in Islam, 2023

It so happened that whilst my father was considering possibilities in England, back in Bangladesh a situation arose that would result in my needing urgent medical attention. My father took the earliest flight to Bangladesh and made the necessary travel arrangements. Thus, on that cold day in mid-April, we landed at Heathrow Airport and life as I had known it would never be the same again.

A Baptism of Fire

My parents had planned a short stay in East London with a relative; my father hoped this would help my mother ‘find her feet’ before making further plans. Also, the house was within walking distance of the Royal London hospital where I was due to have surgery on my ear. Within a year of arriving and after I received medical treatment, we moved to the nearby district of Poplar. For the first time we were living as our own family unit: mum, dad, and siblings.

One normal Saturday I was watching TV with my siblings when there was sudden, frantic, loud knocking. My mother went to answer it and I followed behind her. It was our downstairs neighbour; he handed my mother a shopping bag covered in blood and told her that my father had been shot. It had happened at the end of our street while my father was on his way back from the store. The shock, utter disbelief and fear in my mother’s face mirrored my own. In the hours after my father was taken to the hospital, we had policemen posted outside of our door in case we needed protection.

It was only later that we found out that my father had been shot by a member of the National Front, a far-right, fascist political party in the UK. Fortunately the bullet went through his right hand and stopped short of his throat. He survived but was never the same again, and this incident had profound and lasting repercussions on my family and the trajectory of my own life.

Combating Racism

Unbeknownst to me at the time, we had arrived only two years after the racially motivated killing of Altab Ali, a 25-year-old textile worker of Bangladeshi origin. This murder was symptomatic of the racial antagonism and hostility stirred up by British Member of Parliament Enoch Powell in his ‘Rivers of blood’ speech of 1968. Speaking before a group of conservative activists, Powell argued that if immigration from the Commonwealth continued, a violent clash between white and black communities was inevitable. With its racist and provocative rhetoric, this speech embodied the fears of significant parts of the British population.

East London in the 1980s was a volatile and hostile place, with white supremacist groups engaged in campaigns of organised and systematic violence against the Bengali community. Ali’s murder awoke and mobilised many invisible, marginalised, and alienated Bengalis to take a stand against hatred and


is currently writing her PhD thesis – an autoethnography on identity and belonging – and is affiliated with the University of Leeds. She is also a PhD Tutor with the Brilliant Club Scholars programme and an Academic Skills Advisor at the University of Bradford.

Rushna was the first in her family to move out of London and relocate to West Yorkshire where she lives with her husband, four children, and six-year-old granddaughter.

She is an avid reader with a passion for learning and teaching. She is committed to equality, diversity, inclusion and widening participation in higher education.

Women in Islam, 2023 45

3 Catrin Nye and Sam Bright, “The murder that mobilised the East End,” BBC News , May 4, 2016.

4 John Eade, “The Search for Wholeness: The Construction of National and Islamic Identities among British Bangladeshis” in A Question of Identity Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998.

intolerance and ask for recognition.3 The 1980s marked a generational shift in activism, from the concerns of the first-generation migrants with the politics of the subcontinent and the struggles for Bangladesh’s independence, to the emergent second generation whose principal interest was the struggle against racism and engagement with local government.4

When my father returned from hospital he retreated to his room and it was not until later that I understood the severity of his ensuing depression. In those days, my mother became increasingly overwhelmed by daily life in London. Back in Bangladesh she only left the house on special occasions, but here she had to adjust quickly. Despite her reluctance to put me into a dangerous situation, she increasingly depended on me to perform daily errands in the neighbourhood.

Finding my Own Path

After my father was shot, I kept asking myself why it had happened and how I could help my parents. I felt that learning English and gaining an education were essential steps. In Bangladesh, I had had no formal schooling aside from a very relaxed private tutor who let me leave whenever I wanted to.

Within a few months of arriving in East London, my father enrolled me and my sister in a school run by the Church of England because it was the only one with a place for us both. My father thought that this was better than no school at all. I was the only Asian person in my year, as was my sister in hers. Finding myself in an unfamiliar environment posed many challenges and there were no structures in place to support someone like me at the time. I sat in the back of the class, embarrassed at not understanding

my teacher, and struggling even to hear her. It wasn't long though before she took me under her wing and instilled in me a lifelong love for learning.

Following the attack, my father was unable to go back to work: in fact, he never worked again. I soon started to work part-time to support my family and did so throughout my studies. After leaving school with good grades, I enrolled in a computer studies class at a nearby college and developed a desire for higher education. However, the income I brought home seemed to help the family, and as things started to improve at home, I pushed aside my educational aspirations.

Instead, I took on a well-paid full-time job and rapidly became the sole breadwinner, which at the time broke the mould of conventional Bengali family and gender dynamics. This set a precedent with my siblings: when one left home, the next in line would

46 Women in Islam, 2023

take his or her place and support the family. As I am one of seven sisters and one brother, my sisters would go on to break many more assumptions about Bengali families and culture concomitantly with any stereotypical ideas about Muslim women. In the end, it took me slightly more than two decades to fulfil my dream and acquire a higher education degree at the University of Leeds.


While growing up in East London, I witnessed the emergence of a vibrant and dynamic Bengali-British activist community. Many children like me – who migrated to London having left everything we knew behind, only to arrive at our destination and be told that we didn’t belong – have felt compelled to make a stand through community activism. The struggle to defend our ‘Bengali-ness’ whilst asserting our right to

settle in the UK not only influenced our notions of self and belonging but also impacted the ways that the subsequent generation (our British-born children) articulated and negotiated their own identity.

Towards the end of the 1980s the Salman Rushdie Affair5 would herald a shift from needing to defend our Bengali-ness to defending Muslim-ness. Although admittedly it was not as clear cut as that, it certainly felt this way at the time. It is also worth noting that a community that had been united in their fight against racism seemed somewhat disunited when faced with such a controversy. The outrage was shared but not the method of mobilisation against it.

I feel it appropriate to close this article with a quote from late author Caroline Adams, who compiled the life stories of the first generation of Bengali sojourners in Across Seven Seas and Thirteen Rivers. “The Bangladeshi community in Britain began to take root, on the territory marked out by the first few casual pioneers who found the way ‘across seven seas and thirteen rivers’ from Sylhet to Aldgate. Here at last was the memorial to those thousands of nameless who died in cold water and blazing engine rooms. The Empire had finally come home.”6

This quote reminds us how the UK is shaped by its imperial history and that Britain is home for generations of Bengalis. When asked if she would write a sequel to her book, Adams replied that she hopes the second and subsequent generations of Bengalis will write their own stories. This hope has largely materialised as members of the Bangladeshi community in London continue to stand up for their rights.

5 In 1989 Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa placing a death sentence on the author of The Satanic Verses for blasphemy against Islam, calling on Muslims everywhere to execute those associated with the novel.

6 Caroline Adams, Across seven seas and thirteen rivers: Life stories of pioneer Sylhetti settlers in Britain (London: THAP Books, 1987), 66.

Women in Islam, 2023 47

Tere's a Reason Muslim Women Struggle to Make their Voices Heard

This piece was originally published in the British newspaper, The Guardian , in 2021. It provides readers with a window into the politics of representation that Muslims living in the United Kingdom face.

Zesha Saleem is a young, hijab-wearing freelance journalist at the start of her career. Like all young journalists, she has developed a tough exterior in order to be able to weather the unpredictability of work and the sting of rejection. But when she is successful and her work is commissioned and published, she has to contend with another obstacle: online abuse.

1 Samira Shackle, “Trojan horse: the real story behind the fake 'Islamic plot' to take over schools,”

The Guardian, September 1st, 2017.

2 Jamie Grierson, “Complaint upheld over Times story about girl fostered by Muslims,” The Guardian, April 25, 2018.

3 Leigh Holmwood, “Sun pays £30,000 damages to Muslim bus driver accused of fanaticism,” The Guardian, February 26, 2009.

4 Ella Cockbain and Waqas Tufail, “A new Home Office report admits grooming gangs are not a ‘Muslim problem,’”

The Guardian, December 19, 2020.

5 Harriet Sherwood, “Muslim Council of Britain elects Zara Mohammed as its first female leader,” The Guardian, January 31, 2021.

“Whatever I write, there will always be people forcing me to justify things that have nothing to do with the piece,” she says. She is frequently asked if she has been forced to wear the hijab, questioned on what her views are on women being arrested in other countries for not wearing it, and told that she cannot be taken seriously on matters of science if she believes in Allah. Her parents worry about how long she can carry on in her chosen field if this is the reception that accompanies her hard work.

Or take Lena Kamal (not her real name), a screenwriter, who told me of an experience she had with a broadcaster that burned her badly. “I took part in what I was told was a comedic piece about microaggressions,” she says, “and the way it was edited and distributed left me open to horrific online hate, which has put me off interacting with media for life, really.” Saleem and Kamal are among many British Muslims who may feel cautious, sceptical or even hostile to the idea that there is value in participating in Britain’s mainstream public sphere.

These experiences are part of a longer story about Muslims in this country, who have for decades been portrayed not as ordinary people, as fallible as anyone else, but as a problem, a threat, an enemy within. In some cases, British Muslims have been described as part of a “Trojan horse”, as in the confected and

debunked claims that Muslims were planning to “take over” schools in Birmingham in 2014.1 But we could also think of the deep social and psychological effects of the Prevent programme, which tried to effectively criminalise young Muslims for talking about politics in certain spaces, or the paternalistic debate about “banning the burqa” during the “war on terror” in the 2000s. All of this conspired to make Muslims avatars in the national consciousness for something other: an indulged and disruptive group who were privileged by a cowed liberal establishment.

The result is a breakdown in how British society communicates with and about Muslims, one exacerbated by a Conservative government that has established a regime of impunity – if not actual reward – for Islamophobia. But it is in parts of the British media that the breakdown in trust is most evident. The truth doesn’t need to get in the way of a good story: from a white Christian child supposedly forced into foster care with Muslim families, 2 to Muslim bus drivers said to be kicking passengers off a bus so they could pray, 3 to successfully portraying child-grooming as if it were exclusively associated with Muslim men,4 the onslaught is relentless. Sometimes, months later, publications may print corrections or apologies, and even pay damages, but it’s too late.

This breakdown played out early 2021, in a more subtle but nonetheless revealing episode, after the Muslim Council of Britain elected its first female secretary general,5 Zara Mohammed. In an interview with Emma Barnett on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, Mohammed was asked, among other things, about the number of female imams in the country. Mohammed clarified that her role was not a religious or spiritual one, but Barnett still pressed on with the line of questioning,

48 Women in Islam, 2023

which Mohammed continued to assert was outside her remit. It made for uncomfortable listening.

To some, it will have sounded like a legitimate question asked of a Muslim woman in a senior leadership role, one that she evaded. To others, it sounded like the familiar test that Muslims are subjected to when they participate in the public sphere: the implication was that Mohammed’s appointment meant little – even when progress is made, it’s never good enough.

The “gotcha” element was exacerbated by another invidious feature of today’s media landscape: the editing of these moments for social media, which eliminates context and provokes reaction. To me, the Woman’s Hour interview sounded like two parties sitting on either side of lines drawn over many years, a division that has made healthy discussion about certain issues so difficult. How do you answer a question such as that, when at the back of your mind is the anxiety that any answer will give yet more ammunition to a media machine that takes pleasure in savaging Britain’s Muslims?

Because that’s one thing that Islamophobia does: it closes Muslim communities up and makes them defensive, distrustful, afraid that any public

reckoning with issues within those communities will be used against them. Kamal told me she now refrains from “criticising or engaging with debate about the Muslim community”.

It has become popular to claim that Islamophobia is a fiction to “shut down” debate.6 But the reality is that we have now been living in such a hostile environment that we are unable to create a clearing within which the things that we all care about – women’s rights, radicalisation, social and economic exclusion – are discussed without fear. With so many years of suspicion bearing down on every exchange, a conscious effort needs to be made to create that space, one in which conversations are longer, not optimised for viral social media buzz, and in which Muslims are playing a role behind the scenes so they can point out when content is inflammatory and editing unhelpful. If we want to talk about chilling effects on free discussions, let’s start here.

NESRINE MALIK is a Guardian columnist and the author of We Need New Stories: Challenging the Toxic Myths Behind Our Age of Discontent.


Republished with permission from The Guardian

The piece originally appeared on the website www.theguardian.com on 15 February 2021.

6 Melanie Philipps, “Islamophobia is a fiction to shut down debate,” The Times , May 7, 2018.

Women in Islam, 2023 49
Artwork by AHMED ABUSHARIAA, Sudan

Without Fear

Stemming from the depths of agony and despair There is a story we collectively share Feel our pain through the cracks of my voice And listen to the stories we fear to unfold

Behind the walls of anxiety I have decreased all movements. Into the midst of dawn I disappear as the wrath of excessive trust takes over my soul.

Parts of me that were once private and sacred have now been exposed. Deep in the cyber world trapped by the chains of fear

My eyes witness unpleasant sights and suddenly I am scared to put up a fight.


I feel alone in this part of the world.

But together as one, we can come and do what’s right

We can redefine the status of women Online

As they are more precious than diamonds and pearls combined

Raising generations and building foundations

We deserve to be honored and respected

So hear us loud and hear us clear when we say

We demand a life without fear! A simple stress-free life Without fear

Illustrations by DATA4CHANGE

ZAHRA ABDIHAGI MAHAMED is a poet and digital storyteller based in Mogadishu, Somalia. She was born and raised in Canada and moved to Somalia in 2015. She is the Executive Director of the media company Somali Storytellers, which helps communities express themselves through digital storytelling and conducts awareness campaigns on social issues. Zahra won an award in 2019, when she came third in an international Somali-language poetry competition.

Women in Islam, 2023 51

Period Checks: the Policing of Prayer in Malaysia

TASHNY SUKUMARAN is a senior analyst with Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies. She is the founder of 50-50 Malaysia, a tool to connect policymakers, journalists and members of the public with female experts in, on or from Malaysia. Tashny also operates Kolektif BungaRaya, a support group for survivors of sexual harassment and assault. She holds a postgraduate degree in human rights law from SOAS, University of London.

1 For anonymity, the interviewees’ real names have been replaced by pseudonyms.

2 The interviews were conducted in July 2021.

It was a quiet Tuesday night in October when Mai1 messaged me. I had not been in touch with her for several months. “Do you remember the checking period thing?” she asked. “It stopped for a while but sadly they did it again today.” Mai was describing the possibly uniquely Malaysian phenomenon of period checks: when girls and women are asked to prove that they are menstruating when they fail to carry out prayers mandated by Islam.

Tese checks usually take place in all-female religious or boarding schools or vocational colleges with oncampus hostels and are carried out in a variety of ways – from hostel wardens demanding that residents ‘swab’ their genitals with cotton pads or buds to display blood, to teachers asking their students to produce bloody sanitary towels.

Afer futile attempts to contact the Ministry of Education, Mai and I decided to go public on Twitter. A rule of thumb in Malaysia is that when things go viral, action is taken. Yet again the rule was proven true. Within hours the Minister of Education made a visit to the vocational college accompanied by top civil servants. Pledges that the ‘period checks’ would never happen again abounded, questions were asked in Parliament, and statements were released by women’s rights groups.

But this wasn’t the frst time that ‘period checks’ had made national headlines. In May and June of 2021, a student-led movement to #MakeSchoolsASafePlace blossomed afer a 17-year-old schoolgirl named Ain Husniza publicly called out a rape joke made by her teacher. Te hashtag, made popular on Twitter and Instagram, quickly turned up hundreds of harrowing anecdotes from children and adults alike detailing various forms of sexual harassment, violence and grooming they endured during their school days.

An Instagram page called “Save Te Schools MY” then began curating these stories, publishing them anonymously to raise awareness about the normalisation of sexual violence in the Malaysian education system. Testimonies poured in, with period checks being one of the leading complaints.

Among the many women who shared their stories online, a few consented to speak with me about their experiences. Twenty-fve-year-old Fatima2 vividly remembered her days in a boarding school and told me of one particular instance when she was summoned to the infrmary afer skipping prayers: “ Te warden asked me to take of my underwear and prove that I was on my period. (…) I told her that I was wearing a pad, so she asked me to distance myself as she would be disgusted if there was lots of blood,” she said.

For Maryam, who lived in her college’s hostel, period checks were carried out in a manner that resembled a scene from the dystopian drama Te Handmaid’s Tale “We would be asked to gather and given cotton buds to swab ourselves. We’d then have to produce the bloody cotton bud to prove we were really on our periods,” she explained.

Save Te Schools MY founder Puteri Nuraaina Balqis Mohd Asri noted that the phenomenon of period checks seemed to occur exclusively among Malay Muslim girls. “Given that Muslims can’t perform their prayers when they have their menses, teachers [who conduct period checks] assume that they are lying just to escape prayer sessions. It is not cultural, but rather a combination of lack of trust and moral policing, despite the fact that Islam itself condemns such behaviour,” she said.

Tese period checks appeared to be at least anecdotally commonplace in Malaysia, with one interviewee saying that she was “surprised” at the furore when the news frst


broke. “It is an open secret. (…) I thought it happened everywhere and that parents supported it,” Fatima said. During her time at boarding school a decade ago, her irregular period became gossip fodder for the wardens.

“One warden gave me air zamzam (water from the Zamzam well in Mecca) to help with my stress, so that my period would be regular. What bafed me was that she spoke loudly so that everyone could hear, and my ustazah (religious teacher) looked at me, puzzled. Several teachers stared at me and one of them even said, ‘kecil-kecil lagi dah istihadah’ (so young, already on your period).”

For those in boarding schools located far from home, isolation at a young age compounds their vulnerability, Nana noted. “We go to boarding schools young, like 13. So we don’t realise some things like period spot checks are straight up crimes,” she said.

Her experiences at a well-known Malaysian boarding school were traumatic. “ Tere was one time the supervisors called everyone on their periods back to the dormitories and made us line up according to the days we were on our period,” she related. “Every time it happened I was just really scared – I couldn’t even think of calling them out,” she added.

Women in Islam, 2023 53
Artwork by SHRE MAHA

In Fatima’s opinion, even if girls attempted to push back or protest, they would be told of. “ Tey believe in policing your ibadah (worship). Tey feel if you question them, you are going against Allah. Te problem with these schools is a religious belief and sense of superiority gone too far,” she said, relating other incidents such as the shaming of a teacher who became pregnant out of wedlock, and an assembly where students were asked to display their necks and cleavage for ‘love bites.’

“Period spot checks aren’t about whether you’re praying or not, whether you’re lying or not – it’s because people don’t believe in or respect a woman’s right to her body,” Fatima added.

Te phenomenon of policing women’s bodies and behaviours in the name of religion has become more commonplace in Malaysia, with activists voicing concerns that the nation is moving towards an increasingly conservative form of Islam – making being a woman in Malaysia increasingly fraught.

In 2020, as domestic violence soared under lockdown conditions brought on by COVID-19, the nation’s Women, Family and Community Development Ministry was lambasted for releasing an infographic with recommendations for avoiding household confict which included advising women to “giggle” and “avoid nagging.”

Tis conservative shif, however, is opposed by many young people for whom gender equality is a nonnegotiable. Te initiative of Puteri Nuraaina is just one of many grassroots, youth-led movements blossoming in Malaysia and working to combat rape culture and gender-based discrimination.

Still, many students think that eforts to make schools safer must be ramped up. “I don't want future generations to grow up in an environment where rape jokes, period taboos, sexual harassment are normalised,” 14-year-old schoolgirl Dee said.

Tis most recent case of period checks kicked of another nationwide discussion of the phenomenon, with commentators pointing out that such practices –ostensibly to bolster prayerfulness – were tantamount to zann (negative thinking) and tajassus (looking into people’s afairs). “Both are sins,” tweeted one Malaysian, quoting Surah Al-Hujurat 49:12: “O you who have believed, avoid much [negative] assumption. Indeed, some assumption is sin. And do not spy or backbite each other.”

For now, the Education Ministry has pledged once more to stamp out period checks in schools and colleges and has emphasised that any institution found to be carrying out these checks would face punitive action. Now that the commitment has been made, the followthrough must also be realised.

While we celebrate this small step towards the protection of women’s and girls’ rights in Malaysia, we must honour and thank 18-year-old Mai, a student who dared to speak up against period checks in schools. As the patriarchy endures, so ofen it falls to women and marginalised groups to protect each other, plant trees and sow seeds: even and especially in battles where religion is used to oppress rather than empower.


Jailed for Crimes Tat Do Not Exist

Sudanese women have a long history of participation in public life. Tey fought together with men for Sudan’s independence and have been at the forefront of pro-democracy movements over the last decades. Trough their continuous struggles, women have gained better access to education, health care, and employment. Tey have started working in professions previously reserved for men and become instrumental to the Sudanese economy.

Te military coup of 1989, however, resulted in signifcant setbacks for women’s rights. Afer seizing power, the political Islamist regime sought to exclude women from the public space and laid the foundations for their humiliation and oppression in the name of religion. Political Islamists took advantage of Sudanese people’s strong sense of identifcation with Islam to legitimise a set of discriminatory laws and policies – the public order laws – that criminalised women’s participation in public life.

Tese laws gave sweeping powers to authorities to control what women wore, to whom they spoke, with whom they met, and any job they might hold. Tey criminalised a wide range of social interactions and behaviours considered ‘immoral’ or ‘indecent,’ such as dancing in the presence of men, singing, consuming or selling alcohol, having consensual sex and falling pregnant outside marriage. Tey also introduced harsh penalties for perceived ofenders ranging from a fne to imprisonment, fogging, or death by hanging.

Although the public order laws are applicable to all Sudanese people, they have mainly been used to intimidate women, in particular female alcohol brewers, tea sellers, students, and human rights defenders.

Women have found themselves arbitrarily accused of violating public religiosity or engaging in ‘obscene’ acts such as prostitution or adultery simply for wearing the ‘wrong’ outfit or being with a man in public.

Te implementation of these laws has resulted in hundreds of women being sent to prison for crimes that do not exist.

Despite the repeal of the public order laws following the revolution of 2019, their enforcement continues unabated. Political Islamists and their advocates still claim that criminalising women’s presence in public space is part of Islamic teachings. Tis discourse, which is widely disseminated among conservative segments of society, contributes to legitimising and normalising violence against women.

Flogged and Imprisoned for Wearing Trousers

Safa, a student living in a female dormitory, shared her story with me: “I went to visit my friend at her workplace in a restaurant in Khartoum. During my visit, policemen violently raided the place, and forced me and the female staf, including my friend, to board their van. Tey insulted us using obscene language throughout the trip to the public order court. When we arrived, we were brought before the judge and I learned about the charges against me: I was accused of smoking shisha. Tis was untrue but the judge ignored my testimony. Instead he approved the police charges and added an extra one – that of wearing indecent outft – just because I was wearing trousers. I was sentenced to forty lashes, in addition to a fne of seven thousand

is a journalist and a woman human rights defender. She is the Editorial Head of Madaniya News and a member of the Sudanese Journalists Network, the Jahr Human Rights Network, and the Female Journalists Protection Centre.

Women in Islam, 2023 55

Sudanese pounds for smoking shisha, which was equivalent to four hundred US dollars at the time.”

Safa’s sentence was immediately enforced and she was fogged, despite her medical condition: “I asked them not to fog me because I have diabetes and my wounds would not heal easily, but they did not listen to me. When they started to fog me I begged them to stop, but they continued to beat me severely. I have sustained many injuries from the beating and have been receiving treatment for more than a year now.” Because she could not pay the fne, Safa was then put in prison. Fearing the reaction of her family, she decided to hide the situation from them. “I sent a message to my roommates telling them that I was staying at a friend’s place so that my family wouldn’t know that I was in prison. I was afraid that they would prevent me from returning to school if

they knew of the incident. I stayed in prison for a whole month until a do-gooder learned about my story and paid the fne.”

Safa explained that the environment in the prison was horrendous and that she was regularly mistreated, but that it was the sense of injustice more than the poor conditions of detention that afected her the most: “What hurts is that I was punished even though I did not commit a crime. Te judge refused to listen to me and did not allow me to defend myself or access a lawyer.” Tis experience has understandably shaken Safa’s confdence in the justice system: “ Tis made me realise that we are living under a regime that does not respect human rights and criminalises women’s daily activities by instrumentalising social and religious norms. I started to view policemen and judges as evil and unjust to women, as individuals who use their positions of power to oppress others.”

Unfortunately, Safa’s experience is not isolated. Te application of the public order laws ofen results in fnes, imprisonment, and other brutal punishments for activities that relate to aspects of daily life such as clothing choices or social interactions with family members, friends, or colleagues. Women are being punished for simply expressing themselves or engaging in economic and professional activities.

Since the majority of women being arrested cannot afford to pay courtimposed fines, many end up in prison in deplorable conditions.

Women’s prisons in Sudan are notoriously overcrowded; there are for instance about 1500 women – some accompanied with their children – in the Omdurman prison, which is only designed to accommodate fve hundred inmates.

“This is Not the Time”

Sudanese women have been fghting against these humiliating laws and the political Islamist regime for years. Tey played a critical role in the revolution that led to the ousting of Omar al-Bashir in 2019. Women participated in the daily demonstrations in large numbers despite the regime’s crackdown on protesters.

Artwork by GALAL YOUSIF, Sudan

Teir demands for justice and equality did not end with the overthrow of al-Bashir: women called on the transitional government to conduct substantive legal reforms and ratify international agreements such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). With perseverance, they organised rallies and sent memoranda to the Prime Minister and the Minister of Justice to advance their rights. In response, political Islamists staged counter-rallies to block the ratifcation of CEDAW and the repeal of the public order laws, and were successful in preserving the status quo.

With no regard for women’s role in the revolution, the transitional government showed little interest – verging on indifference – in the issue of women's rights.

Ofcials kept saying that it was “not the right time.” Teir inaction allowed the continuation of violations of women’s rights throughout the two and a half years of transition, which ended with the military coup of October 2021 and the return to power of the political Islamists afliated with the al-Bashir regime.

Amira Othman: Targeted for Her Activism

Following the October coup, the regime intensifed the repression against women activists in pro-democracy demonstrations using tactics such as sexual violence, abduction, and imprisonment. Amira Othman, a wellknown Sudanese politician and activist, and the head of the “No to Women’s Oppression” initiative, was arrested in January 2022 afer masked individuals raided her house at dawn. She spent more than two weeks in the women’s prison in Omdurman.

Amira, who sufers from health problems that hinder her movement and ability to walk, told me that the prison administration ignored her medical needs: "I told them that I needed a toilet seat because of my health condition but my demands were not taken into consideration. I was subjected to repeated humiliation during my detention. Tey would use my health needs to undermine my dignity. Tis is a form of torture.” Amira was kept in the same cells as death row inmates and shared their harsh living conditions. Tere was only

one toilet and one bathroom for the approximately forty-eight women and six children living with them. Te prison had no running water or functioning sewage system. Women were forced to empty the toilet and pour the waste outside using buckets. Many inmates had to sleep on the ground in the outer courtyard as there was not enough space inside the prison building.

As highlighted by Amira: "Te health situation in the prison is dire. Women with chronic diseases cannot receive any treatment. Before being jailed, I learned about a female prisoner who died because the prison administration failed to transfer her to the hospital or call a doctor. In the case of pregnant women, authorities expect them to cover their own transportation costs to the hospital. If a woman cannot aford it, she must walk.” Not only are women deprived of medical care, but they are also denied legal aid. Some women who cannot aford a lawyer must wait for a minimum period of eleven months to be released. Amira also spoke sadly about the chains around the legs of the women sentenced to death. Some women are put in chains for years, causing physical disability, in addition to the fogging and daily abuse they experience. Te children living with their imprisoned mothers are also victims of multiple forms of abuse. Overcrowding, combined with poor sanitation facilities and the lack of food, has a serious impact on their health. Diseases such as diarrhoea and dysentery are widespread among the children and infants living in the Omdurman prison. Cases of children being used as free labour and being beaten when they refuse to work have also been reported.


Te imprisonment of Sudanese women based on moral allegations and religious views is a violation of their human rights. Tis is in contradiction with Sudan’s national and international commitments to combating discrimination, ensuring equality before the law, and eliminating torture and ill-treatment. Let’s re-establish the facts here: the real criminals are not the women going about their daily activities, but those who prevent half of the Sudanese population from freely and fully participating in public life.


Women in Islam, 2023 57
Translated from Arabic by MOHAMMED ATTIYA

Maid in Saudi Arabia

A domestic worker peers out from behind a door at a wedding in Jeddah.

The oil-rich countries of the Persian Gulf largely depend on migrant labourers from Africa and Asia for their societies and economies to function. It is common in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to fnd several domestic workers, mainly women, employed in a single household to perform daily tasks such as cleaning, cooking, or looking after the children.

The experiences of women migrant workers vary greatly: some migrate consciously and legally, while others are traffcked or smuggled. But regardless of their migration path, most women are ill prepared to face the challenges awaiting them. They lack substantial information on the realities abroad, the nature and type of work they will perform, and the cultural norms and traditions that will govern their day-to-day life. These challenges, however, do not deter the many women who embark on migration journeys with hopes for a better life.

This photo series, “Maid in Saudi” by Tasneem Alsultan, transports us into the daily realities of female domestic workers in Saudi Arabia. It explores how domestic workers adapt and conform to a society that governs their lives so closely. These photos are testimony to the diversity of women’s experiences and relations with their host families. Whilst some of the women count the days until they can return home, others see their work as an escape from a worse scenario. Because they operate within the private sphere of people’s homes, domestic workers’ experiences can range from being treated as one of the family, to becoming a scapegoat for every problem that arises in their employers’ home. These are the complex dynamics that Tasneem’s photos capture beautifully.

Born in the US and raised between the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia, where she is currently based, Tasneem is an investigative photographer, storyteller, and global traveller. Her work largely focuses on documenting social issues and rights-based topics in Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf region through a gender lens, challenging stereotypical perceptions of the Middle East, and portraying a region and people that do not conform to expectations.

58 Women in Islam, 2023

Saada was attending school in Addis Ababa when her family decided to marry her to an older man from the neighbourhood. She refused for fear of missing out on school, but her family informed her that she had no choice. Obediently, she sat through her own wedding. After a few days, she informed her husband that education was her priority. He left her that week.

After completing high school and getting divorced, she found an opportunity to work abroad. She is now working as a domestic helper in a Saudi family and is expected to perform a wide range of duties, from cleaning and cooking to looking after the children.

Women in Islam, 2023 59

Saada spends most of her days at her employers’ home, alone or with the family. She has developed a relationship with some of them, especially the children.

Although she is well integrated into the family, the hierarchies of power remain obvious.


Suty has been working as a housemaid for the same family for the last thirteen years. She has not visited her family in Indonesia since she arrived in Saudi Arabia. Her initial salary was $160 a month, but she now earns $400. With this money, she has built a farm and a big villa for her family. She is about to retire and takes an ironic view of her situation: “It’s funny, because I think I’m more wealthy than the old couple I look after.”

This is the first time Seef has left her home country of Namibia. She has never lived in a house with electricity or modern appliances before, and has been trying to adjust to the place that will be her home for the next two years. Yet despite the fact that she has already paid the placement agency a high fee for the visa and permits allowing her to enter Saudi Arabia, the family she lives with was informed last week that Seef has failed her medical test.

Her blood test shows that she has had tuberculosis, and Saudi Arabia’s health regulations do not allow employees who may carry the disease to stay in the country. Hearing that she had to go back, Seef collapsed in tears. Although they have no common language, the family she lives with understands that she is worried about returning home without the financial support everyone was relying on. One of her six children is very ill, and working abroad is the only way she can afford medical care. She has three days left in the country, and the atmosphere in the house is sombre.

Women in Islam, 2023 61

Male anti-FGM/C Activists Negotiating Gender Power Relations in Somaliland

Maria Väkiparta, a passionate defender of women’s rights, dissects the engagement of young men in the prevention of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) in Somaliland. Building on the findings from her doctoral dissertation,1 she examines how male anti-FGM/C activists discursively negotiate violence against women, gender norms, and the patriarchal order.

1 Väkiparta, Maria, “ Young Men Against FGM/C in Somaliland: Discursively Negotiating Violence, Gender Norms and Gender Order ” (PhD diss., University of Helsinki, 2019).

2 Adriana Kaplan, Babucarr Cham, Lamin A. Njie, Ana Seixas, Sandra Blanco, and Mireia Utzet, “Female Genital Mutilation/ Cutting: The Secret World of Women as Seen by Men,” Obstetrics and Gynecology International (2013).

3 Gerry Mackie and John LeJeune, “Social Dynamics of Abandonment of Harmful Practices: A New Look At the Theory, ” Special Series on Social Norms and Harmful Practices , Florence: UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, 2009.

4 Nesrin Varol, Sabera Turkmani, Kirsten Black, John Hall, and Angela Dawson, “The Role of Men in Abandonment of Female Genital Mutilation: A Systematic Review,” BMC Public Health 15, no. 1 (2015): 1–14.

5 Edna Adan Ismail, Amal Ahmed Ali, Abdirahman Saeed Mohamed, Thomas Kraemer, and Sarah Winfield, Female Genital Mutilation Survey in Somaliland. Second Cohort , Hargeisa: Edna Adan University Hospital, 2015.

Amongst international institutions, researchers and activists engaged in preventing FGM/C, the practice is now conceptualised as a human rights violation and as a form of gender discrimination. It is argued that challenging stereotypes about gender power structures will pave the way for abandoning FGM/C. Simultaneously, researchers and activists increasingly urge men to voice their opinions about the practice.

Despite some geographical variation, men seldom directly participate in the decision-making and execution of FGM/C.2 It is mainly mothers, grandmothers, or other elderly community women who perform FGM/C.3 FGM/C thus represents a form of gender-based violence in which women comprise both the primary victims and main perpetrators. However, men also play a signifcant role in its continuation as fathers, husbands, and community and religious leaders.4

As part of my dissertation research, I engaged in semistructured individual interviews with 19 university students (15 men, 4 women) who volunteered in local anti-FGM/C campaigns in Hargeisa. We discussed FGM/C practices, FGM/C prevention strategies, gendered roles and ideals, and gender equality.

In this article, I briefy illuminate how the male interviewees construct knowledge and beliefs about gender through hierarchical diference discourse and masculine responsibility discourse. I highlight how these discourses challenge some forms of violence against women while legitimating others, and reproduce the patriarchal gender order in many ways while renegotiating some elements of prevailing gender norms.

FGM/C and Gender in Somaliland

In Somaliland, the prevalence rate of FGM/C renders it nearly universal. An overwhelming majority of girls undergo the most radical type, locally referred to as pharaonic cutting, but there is some evidence of a shif towards less radical types, locally labelled sunnah cutting.5 Te ofen overlapping justifcations for the continuation of FGM/C in Somaliland include tradition, religion, purifcation, controlling girls’ sexual desire and premarital sexuality, and safeguarding their virginity and thereby marriageability.6

Despite FGM/C predating the emergence of Islam and religious scriptures not mandating the practice, the belief that female genital cutting is a religious requirement contributes to its continuation.7 In Somaliland, religious scholars disagree about Islamic guidance on the practice. For example, amongst 38 religious leaders interviewed in Newell–Jones’ study,8 a clear majority described pharaonic cutting as ‘not required’ under Islamic law, but sunnah cutting as ‘honourable.’ Despite persistent local and international campaigning, there is no specifc law criminalising FGM/C practices, as key ministries disagree on which types of FGM/C should be banned.

As in many Islamic societies, the position of women in Somaliland is determined by the Qur’an, the tradition of the Prophet Mohammed, and the interpretations of Islamic law and traditions, infuenced by social customs and practices.9 In Somali society, gender represents a fundamental structuring principle that infuences all spheres from the family, to politics, to the economy.10 In Somaliland, radical versions of political Islam have

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gained ground since the civil war and have precipitated a shif towards stricter interpretations of gender roles. Despite women’s entrance into the informal economy during the civil war, people continue to conceptualise gender roles along pre-war ideals: women as responsible for the household and men as responsible for activities outside the home including generating income. Women are denied inheritance in customary law, and have limited access to fnancial assistance such as micro-credit.11

Te signifcance of the clan system represents another signifcant reason for the continued subordination of women. A woman’s loyalty to the clan is considered weaker than a man’s because a woman’s clan alliance ofen transfers following marriage. Tus women are excluded from clan-based political decision-making and forums, including open councils (shir) where adult men debate and make decisions.12 Women are never considered the most respected, senior elders of the society, and in cases involving conficts between women and men, male elders ofen protect the interests of men.13

Discursive Constructions of Gender Power Relations

Te hierarchical diference discourse that emerged from my interviews with young anti-FGM/C activists locates women and men in strictly separate roles and spheres: women in the private sphere and men in the public arena. Tis strict gender segregation is presented as a ‘balanced’ division of rights and responsibilities and justifed by Islam. It is further legitimised by emphasising ‘natural’ gender diferences, which entails defning feminine and masculine as dichotomous and in opposition to one another.

Guled: Because we are a Muslim community, there are diferent roles for women and men. As such, the primary role for women is to maintain everything related to the home, and raising children, and taking

them to school and all that is related to the house. Also, nowadays, many women participate in community issues. […] Women’s life is not like in the past. Tey are entering into community life. Earlier, all [women’s] roles concerned the home, but now they are in public. And, as Muslims, we do not support this culture.

Most interviewees agree that changes in gender roles have taken place. Some, like Guled, are hesitant about the growing participation of women in public life, appealing to the roles prescribed by Islam. Representing men’s superiority as ‘divinely ordained’ renders it particularly stable, especially as power to renegotiate gender norms remains in the hands of male religious scholars.

Other young men are more supportive of the change. Some explain that women are now more educated and thus capable of entering new felds, and others, like Muuse, view women’s income as a contribution to family resilience.

Muuse: In my opinion, it is somehow good, somehow not good. It is good when women learn something and when they come outside [from home]. It is good for the family, the fathers or the husbands of all Somali families. Most of them [families], their daily income is increased by women, because they work outside [the home]. So, at that part, it [women’s productive role] is good. And regarding learning, it is good. But when it comes to leadership, it is not good for a woman to lead the nation.

However, supporting women’s economic role as ‘good for the husband and the family’ is problematic. Women’s work is exclusively seen as a means to contribute to the family’s well-being. Tis perception neglects women’s right to fnancial autonomy, and therefore the means to independence from marriage.

In many interviews, Somaliland was presented as a gender equal society. Segregation is not seen as

6 Ibid.; Katy NewellJones, Empowering Communities to Collectively Abandon FGM/C in Somaliland: Baseline Research Report , ActionAid, SOWDA and WAAPO, 2016.

7 Janice Boddy, “Body Politics: Continuing the Anticircumcision Crusade,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 5, no. 1 (1986): 15–17.

8 Newell-Jones, Empowering Communities to Collectively Abandon FGM/C in Somaliland

9 Academy for Peace and Development, Women’s Rights in Islam and Somali Culture (Hargeisa: United Nations Children’s Fund, 2002), https:// www.unicef.org/ somalia/SOM_ WomenInIslam.pdf.

10 Peter Hansen, “Circumcising Migration: Gendering Return Migration among Somalilanders,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 34, no. 7 (2008): 1109–25.

11 Alicia Luedke, Women Do Not Belong Under Acacia Tree. The Conditions Experienced by Women Street Vendors in Somaliland, Strategic Initiative for women in the Horn of Africa, 2018.

12 Judy El-Bushra and Judith Gardner, “The Impact of War on Somali Men: Feminist Analysis of Masculinities and Gender Relations in a Fragile Context,” Gender & Development 24, no. 3 (2016): 443–58.

13 SIHA, Towards Developing a Methodology to Work With Men Against Violence of Women in the Horn of Africa, SIHA, 2013.

Women in Islam, 2023 63


VÄKIPARTA holds a PhD in Gender Studies from the University of Helsinki, Finland. She defended her doctoral dissertation ‘Young Men Against FGM/C in Somaliland: Discursively Negotiating Violence, Gender Norms and Gender Order’ in 2019. Currently, she is engaged in FGM/C prevention through her work at a Finnish nongovernmental organisation, which strives to prevent FGM/C in Somaliland and Kenya.

jeopardising gender equality because the separate roles assigned to men and women, and understood as prescribed by Islam, are viewed as ‘balanced’ and ‘equal’. In some accounts, women appear as powerful change agents ‘behind the scenes,’ which downplays the need to promote their formal decision-making power. In others, women are even blamed for disrupting the ‘gender balance’ through claiming rights (or roles) which are not prescribed to them by Islam:

Liban: Tere is not that much inequality in Somaliland. Everybody has a role and inequality happens when men assume the role of women and women assume the role of men. And if there is inequality, it is the women who take over some of the roles of men. For example, women moving from their role in the house and going to work leads to slight inequality.

Finally, strict gender segregation is justifed by representing gender equality as a ‘zero-sum game.’ In these accounts, improvements in women’s labour market status (through, for example, afrmative action) are portrayed as discriminatory towards men.

Muuse: Te job has qualifcations and conditions. Tese qualifcations include knowledge level, experience, and similar things. Finally, they said ‘you know, women are especially encouraged to apply’. […] So, in that way, there is gender inequality.

Te masculine responsibility discourse, in turn, justifes men’s superiority through men’s substantial responsibilities towards their nation and their family:

Stressing men’s primary role as the family breadwinners, constructing men as ‘natural leaders,’ and representing anti-FGM/C campaigning as both a male and professional responsibility is strongly aligned with the idealised ‘Somali manhood’ which emphasises responsibility, protection, and care for one’s family and country.14 As stated by Young,15 however, such ‘masculinist protection works to elevate the protector to a position of superior authority and to demote the rest of us to a position of grateful dependency’.

In the masculine responsibility discourse, interviewees also highlight the unique ‘leverage’ that young men are assumed to possess in anti-FGM/C work through their impact on the marriageability criteria in their society.

Mahad: Before we attended the training, we used to date some girls who had undergone FGM. But since we now understand the problems of FGM and we learned new information about FGM, we no longer date women who have undergone FGM.

Hussein: Some people believe that if [they] arrange FGM for their daughter, she will marry. So, if now any woman or any young girl who undergoes FGM will not be married, they [parents] will stop [cutting their daughters].

14 El-Bushra and Gardner, “The Impact of War on Somali Men,” 443–58.

15 Iris Marion Young, “The Logic of Masculinist Protection: Reflections on the Current Security State,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 29, no. 1 (2003): 1–25.

Ahmed: Te role of young men in this [anti-FGM/C] campaign is to frst start from themselves, raise awareness, then convince the community […]. Te men, you know, have more roles as cultural leaders, religious leaders, students, you know, as government politicians, all this.

Abas: I think everything that is needed in the family, he [husband] must provide as I think or as I believe. […] If the man is not working, even his family will not be respected, or they will say you are neglecting [your family].

‘Protecting’ women from FGM/C by changing marriageability criteria, however, upholds the idea of women’s dependency on marriage, and men’s preferences in partner selection. Moreover, young men’s preference to marry uncut women doubly victimises women who underwent FGM/C. Beyond the eventual lifelong health problems caused by FGM/C, cut women thereby risk not fnding a partner because of the very procedure that was supposed to guarantee their marriageability.

Discussion on Men’s Engagement to Combat FGM/C

Critical analysis of the discourses used by the male anti-FGM/C activists unveils how women’s subordination is justifed, normalised, and (re) produced. Tis is problematic because FGM/C is a form of patriarchal violence, which happens because

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of patriarchal structures, beliefs, and values. happens to women precisely because of their gender and preserves and extends gender inequalities through various practices and structures. FGM/C is a valued tradition, which is ofen assumed to be mandated by a religious doctrine. It is linked to understandings of honour, which justify the use of violence to control women’s virginity and fdelity. Women’s socio-economic subordination upholds women’s dependency on marriage and thus FGM/C as a prerequisite to marriage. Health problems and child marriages, which ofen follow FGM/C, further disadvantage women’s possibilities of gaining an education and participating in working life. Furthermore, the refusal or reluctance of (mainly male) political, religious and traditional leaders to intervene against FGM/C through, for example, speci legislation and policy, contributes to the perpetuation of the practice.

I therefore argue that programmes to combat FGM/C – whether engaging men or women – must address the patriarchal structures and practices that perpetuate it. Te practice should be seen as a symptom of gender inequality and oppression, not (only) as a contributor to women’s health problems. Working to deconstruct men’s superiority can proceed, for instance, by helping the participants to develop critical consciousness of patriarchal structures, including constructions regarding what is ‘natural’ and ‘normal.’17 Interventions engaging men should not draw on ideas associated with hegemonic masculinity, such as strength, or being a warrior or a leader, that reinforce the genderinequitable masculine ideals.

Tus, to engage men in preventing FGM/C in Somaliland, one should not appeal to men’s responsibility as ‘fathers of the country’ or ‘protectors of women and children,’ as such a strategy represents women primarily as victims. Yet men must feel welcomed and view FGM/C as an issue relevant to their lives. Individualistic approaches tend to ‘blame individuals who receive privilege for both the privilege

that they reproduce and for that which they are unable to prevent.’18 Tis is particularly true in Somaliland, where young men are not only marginalised by uneven global and local income distribution but also because of their age. Tey are ofen seen as immature and volatile, lacking leadership skills and knowledge, and are therefore excluded from positions of power.19

Finally, while engaging more men, the role and potential of women in FGM/C prevention must be fully supported so that women can understand their role in reproducing their subordinate position and their right to live without subjugation.20


16 Bell Hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, Cambridge: South End Press, 2000.

17 Rachel Jewkes et al., “Hegemonic Masculinity: Combining Theory and Practice in Gender Interventions,” Culture, Health & Sexuality 17, no. S2 (2015): 112–27.

18 Tal Peretz, “Seeing the Invisible Knapsack: Feminist Men’s Strategic Responses to the Continuation of Male Privilege in Feminist Spaces,” Men and Masculinities , OnlineFirst, 2018.

19 SONYO, Somaliland Youth Status Survey Report (Hargeisa: Somaliland National Youth Umbrella Organization, 2016), https://sonyo. org/wp-content/ uploads/2016/10/ YSS.pdf.

20 Jewkes et al., “Hegemonic Masculinity,” 112–27.

Artwork by IBRAHIM SAYED, Sudan
Women in Islam, 2023 65

Blocking the Sunlight Sudanese Women’s Struggle for Democracy and Political Agency

Confronted for decades with violence and the gender repressive agenda of militant Islamists, Sudanese women have shown over and again their ability to stand frm and fght for their human rights and dignity. Today, as Sudan plunges into a profound crisis, Sudanese women courageously persevere in demanding democratic change and greater political agency. Despite all the risks involved and ofen without support, they continue to take to the streets to protest against the military coup of October 2021 and the deterioration of the living conditions of millions of Sudanese.

In the mid-1990s, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations stated that Sudan had more than 35% women-headed households. Fastforward more than 25 years later, this number has probably doubled, if not more. While undertaking the lion’s share of care work and providing for their families, women have also been making incredible strides to assert their agency and presence within the public spheres. Tis became apparent in 2019 when Sudanese women contributed massively to the overthrow of Omar al-Bashir’s regime.

66 Women in Islam, 2023

Following the 2019 revolution, pro-democracy civil society groups and the remnants of al-Bashir’s military elites made a power-sharing deal that led to the formation of a transitional government tasked with ruling the country until elections could be held. Unfortunately, this long-awaited change of government did not translate into concrete gains for women. Te unbalanced political agreement allowed afliates of the al-Bashir regime to remain in power and their ideology thus remained intact. Te weak and inexperienced civilian government lacked the capacity to confront the militarised group and was unable to prevent the October 2021 coup.

It is clear today, that the militarised faction of the transitional government and the militant Islamists have never been interested in anything other than keeping Sudan captive to the same cycles of violence and poverty. Tey had no intention to shif away from the political Islam ideology that has long been hindering Sudan’s opportunities to achieve peace and stability.

Looking back, it is not surprising that little progress was made during the transition to conduct legal and institutional reforms towards gender equality. Tat being said, there are also reasons to celebrate; we cannot deny the incredible achievements made by the Sudanese people, women and men, throughout the brief transitional period.

During this period, women founded sports teams, involved themselves in creative activities, and took up professions that had been reserved for men during the previous regime, becoming trafc police ofcers, car mechanics and drivers, carpenters, etc. Sudanese women's voices rose on all platforms, and through their participation in peaceful protests and marches they demanded their human rights, while spreading awareness about gender equality.

Now, at this critical time in Sudan's history, women are standing at the front lines again, fghting to

prevent their country from slipping back into dark times. Sudanese women bravely continue to occupy public spaces and defy a regime that tries to tighten its grip on women and girls and resorts to old tactics of intimidation and violence.

Since the frst days afer the 2021 October coup, incidents of violence against women protesters have surfaced. Images of women being beaten up, pushed, and harassed by security forces have been documented and shared on diferent social media outlets. On the night of December 19, 2021, over 13 cases of gang rape against women and girls at the hands of military-afliated forces were reported. Te message to women was clear: “do not engage in public and civil actions or you will expose yourself to assault and violence.” In the following months, hundreds of women were arrested, kidnapped and tortured, while being subjected to sexual violence in detention as reported by many women activists.

For more than three decades, Sudan’s political Islamists have relied on gender segregation and women’s subjugation to legitimise their control of society and by extension of the country’s resources. Teir ideological discourse is reliant on excluding and demonising women who occupy public space.

HALA ALKARIB is an activist, writer and research practitioner from Sudan, and has a long history of promoting the rights of women in the Horn of Africa and East African region. She is the Regional Director of the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa and the Editorin-Chief of Women in Islam.

However, it is wishful thinking to believe that women can be confined to the private sphere in a country like Sudan, whose economy is highly dependent on female labourers.

Since they could not simply ban women from the public realm, political Islamists decided to make women’s presence difcult and risky. To do so, they legitimised acts of violence against women in both public and private spaces by shaping and using the criminal and personal status laws to their advantage. Tey also promoted rigorous interpretations of Islam and misogynistic discourses that portray women as subordinates in need of being disciplined.

Women in Islam, 2023 67

Te problem with this strategy is that it does not relate to the lived realities of Sudanese women and societies in their diversity. Sudan is an African country that has historically relied on the eforts of women to sustain its economy and social fabric. Tus, the desperate attempts of political Islamists to exclude women from public life are as illogical as trying to block sunlight.

What is also important to understand is that religion is just a mask used by political Islamists to advance their ambitions.

What they are aiming for by promoting gender segregation and repression is to exclude women from the political struggle and undermine the idea and the practice of democracy.

Tey are not motivated by religious ideals but their thirst for unlimited political power.

If this military coup succeeds in taking over the country, Sudanese women will likely face another cycle of obscurity and violence, and the law, once again, will not be on their side. Sudan is still not a member of the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and has not signed or ratifed any of the international protocols or instruments that could have improved the status

of women. In addition, there are still active laws that allow violence against women and girls and impunity for perpetrators.

Te reasons Sudanese women took part in the 2019 revolution in large numbers are the same reasons they are now actively involved in the coup resistance. Women are well aware that any militarised government with political Islam as an ideological ground will jeopardise their rights, security and safety. Sudanese women understand that their political agency and access to justice are conditioned on the presence of a civil and democratic system of governance that respects women’s rights and humanity. Only under such a government can women be part of legal and political reform processes and meaningfully contribute to bringing about change in society.

Until then, the women of Sudan remain on the front lines to resist any action that diminishes their humanity and the value of their contribution to society. Tey will continue, sometimes at a hefy price, to expose the injustice and violence of the repressive regime currently in place. Despite the militant Islamists’ efort to push them away from the public space, Sudanese women will make their voices heard and their power seen.

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How the COVID-19 Pandemic Exposes the Harsh Realities Lived by Women in the Greater Horn of Africa

When asked about their realities under the COVID-19 pandemic, many women in the Greater Horn of Africa agree that “life has become so hard.” Despite the lack of quantitative data, it is clear that the circumstances surrounding the pandemic have negatively impacted women and girls in the region. Movement restrictions on the one hand and closures or reduced access to services on the other have lef women simultaneously more at risk of violence and less able to seek help.1 COVID-19 containment measures have also contributed to increased economic hardships, rendering the vulnerable even more vulnerable. Women, who already faced discrimination in employment, were particularly impacted by the economic fallout of the pandemic. In this article, urban poor women from Somalia, Somaliland, Uganda, and Ethiopia share accounts of the violence they experienced during the pandemic.2 In each of their stories, they expose pre-existing patterns of abuse that were exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis.

For these women, violence came in diferent forms and became more frequent with the onset of COVID-19. Te pandemic created conditions that further enabled perpetrators, already emboldened by weak justice systems, to abuse women and girls with impunity. In Sahra’s case, her attackers used the pandemic as a means to gain access to her home in Somalia. A group of men impersonating government health ofcials came to her house, saying they were distributing masks. Afer sending her children of to buy sweets outside, they violently beat and raped her. Since the attack, Sahra feels panic any time she sees a government ofcial. To make matters worse, she was isolated from everyone for 14 days as her family

believed she had contracted COVID-19 from her attackers. When she fnally saw her husband two weeks later, he called her ‘a whore’ and accused her of inviting the men into their house.

Across the region, quarantine measures and self-isolation eforts have lef streets deserted and contributed to making public spaces unsafe for women and girls. Despite the danger, many had no choice but to continue to walk long distances and go to isolated places to make ends meet. Tis is the case of Amina from Somalia, who was robbed and raped by two men one evening on her way home: “I lef the [employer’s] house afer dusk and was forced to walk back home since the COVID-19 containment measures were in place, and so there wasn’t any mode of transport (…). I believe that it is due to the lockdown that this has happened to me.” Like Sahra, Amina was also accused by her husband of wanting this to happen. He blamed her for choosing to go so far, ignoring the fact that she had few alternatives as the family needed the income afer he lost his job. Khadija, another Somali woman, was also attacked as she was returning from work at her laundry business. Te three assailants raped and robbed her. Tis traumatic experience combined with frequent arguments with her husband during the pandemic period, lef Khadija feeling “emotionally broken.”

Jamilah and her family in Somalia went days without food during the height of the pandemic, creating a pressure to contribute to the household that pushed her to leave her home despite the danger. Jamilah, who could no longer aford charcoal for cooking, went to the forest nearby to collect frewood and was attacked by four men. “ Tey tried to rape me, but I fought them.

1 AUC-WGDD, UN Women, OHCHR and UNFPA, Gender-based violence in Africa during the COVID-19 pandemic , 2020.

2 All names have been changed to protect the speakers’ privacy and safety.

Women in Islam, 2023 69

Ten they used a knife to cut my thighs and forced themselves on me.” Jamilah was found injured on the ground hours later by her children. “It is the lack of jobs that drove me to the forest to look for frewood.” Increased economic insecurity also forced some families to marry their daughters of to ease fnancial burdens. For Hodan, the school closures in Somaliland meant that her family of 11 lost their only income – her father’s teaching salary. As one of the older girls, she was forced to accept a marriage that she did not want to help her family overcome fnancial distress.

In Somaliland, the pandemic has resulted in huge numbers of men out of work and boys out of school. Unfettered by daily obligations, groups of men and boys have been increasingly harassing women and girls in public places. Ayaan, a 36-year-old tea shop owner, explained that her male clients started staying longer and harassing her to avoid paying their bills. For Saamiyo, the harassment she faced at work paled in comparison to the distress she experienced when she learned that her teenage daughters, who she had to leave at home while at work because of the school closures, were harassed by the older male relatives she had trusted to look afer them.

As in the case of Saamiyo’s daughters, many women experienced violence at the hands of family members, especially husbands. Jamilah, for example, explained that her family “lived of debts from the nearby shops,” and was in desperate need of income. Her husband, however, would ofen beat her when she managed to fnd work: “Once [when returning from work] my husband wanted to get intimate with me and, since I was feeling really tired, I couldn’t do it. He beat me up and blamed me, saying I had gone out to sleep with other men. Whenever I tried securing a job to fend for my family it was still a problem for my husband, to the point that I’m now assured of a beating whenever I return from my hustles [working].”

Patricia’s life also drastically changed for the worse during the pandemic. In Uganda, the strict governmental lockdown meant that she and her

husband were suddenly confned to the same living space. Te 25-year-old woman explained that her husband has four other wives and he had not spent an entire week with her since 2012. With her husband in the same household, she was unable to continue to work at a nearby restaurant, where she had been employed without his knowledge. Her husband was adamant that none of his wives could seek employment, as he believed that it was inappropriate for them to interact with other men. Without her income or his (he is a taxi driver and all transportation was suspended) she struggled to provide food for their child. “He blamed me for embarrassing him,” she explained, “I had asked a neighbor for some fsh soup to add to my baby’s food. He said I was impatient and unreasonable and that I wanted to show the neighbors that he is a weak man. Ten he boxed me on the face.”

Although there were no strict lockdowns imposed in Ethiopia, economic strain coupled with compromised health services have aggravated existing vulnerabilities. As an informal domestic laborer, Mahlet was already in a precarious position when the pandemic hit. Te wife of the married couple that employed her contracted COVID-19 while away and could not return to Addis Ababa as planned. Mahlet thus found herself alone in the home with the other employer – the husband – who came home drunk one evening and raped her. “Had it not been for the pandemic, my madam wouldn’t have been away for long and the man wouldn’t have time to stay at home,” she said. Mahlet became pregnant afer the rape and fed from her employer’s home. She still recalls how difcult it was for her to receive medical attention as public health centres were converted into COVID-19 isolation wards and were unable to take her in. Seven months pregnant, and aching from pain, she had to walk for an hour and a half to fnd a health centre that could admit her. Unable to fnd work during and afer her pregnancy, she is now homeless.

For Selam, living on the street in Ethiopia became much worse when the pandemic started. Making ends meet by begging for money suddenly became much more difcult as people became wary of coming near

70 Women in Islam, 2023

her for fear of contracting the virus: “We [the homeless population] were treated as if we were all positive.” She, like the women interviewed in Somalia, recognised that the streets had become a more dangerous place for women during the pandemic, “it is true that life in the street by itself makes me vulnerable to violence and harassment, but it was more so during the time of lockdown,” she said.

For a myriad of reasons – such as lack of or limited access to the knowledge and resources needed to report a crime, the reality that many reported cases do not result in perpetrator convictions, and the fear of reprisals

and stigmatisation by families and communities – none of the women interviewed for this piece reported the crimes they had endured to law enforcement. According to a lawyer working with Justice Centre Uganda, an entity that provides legal aid to vulnerable communities, this is not surprising. Based on her experience, most survivors of violence prefer to stay silent, especially when the perpetrator is their sexual partner or husband. Women are afraid of losing their main source of income when they are fnancially dependent on their tormentor, or of being shamed for speaking up.

Te women who chose to share their stories with us showed tremendous bravery and resilience. We hope that their stories will contribute to reaching the longoverdue turning point in which societies unite and mobilise to end violence against women and girls.


This article was compiled by Faith Sundby James, based on testimonies collected by Hawi Dahdi, Muna Mohamed Hussein, Ismail Burhan Ismail, and Flavia Nassaka during interviews they conducted between September and November 2021.

Women in Islam, 2023 71
Artwork by IBRAHIM SAYED, Sudan

What Makes Women Resist Violent Extremism in Mali and Niger?

In recent years, the Sahel region has witnessed an increase in armed violence connected to the spread of violent extremism, the intensification of local conflicts, and the persistence of transnational organised crime.1 Today, a myriad of Islamist groups affiliated to the Islamic state or to Al Qaeda, including Boko Haram and Katiba Macina, a member of the jihadist coalition Jama’at Nus-ratul Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), are operating in territories across Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon. To extend their influence, extremist groups have taken advantage of different factors and vulnerabilities including poverty, poor governance, lack of basic services, and local conflicts. 2 Researcher Jeannine Ella Abatan found that, whether voluntarily or forced, women play a central role in these groups. They assist them in recruiting new members and in obtaining the operational, logistical, financial and subsistence resources needed for their activities, or participate directly in their operations as scouts, armourers or suicide bombers. 3 In this article, originally published by the Institute for Security Studies, Abatan provides tangible avenues on how to prevent and limit women’s engagement in violent extremism.

1 William Assanvo, Baba Dakono, LoriAnne ThérouxBénoni and Ibrahim Maïga, Violent extremism, organised crime and local conflicts in Liptako-Gourma, Institute for Security Studies, 2019.

2 Folahanmi Aina, “Mapping the contours of Jihadist groups in the Sahel,” The Conversation, September 24, 2021.

3 Jeannine Ella Abatan and Boubacar Sangaré, Katiba Macina and Boko Haram: including women to what end?, Institute for Security Studies, 2021.

4 Jeannine Ella Abatan, “Women at the heart of Boko Haram and katiba Macina”, ISS Today, April 13, 2021.

5 Abatan and Sangaré, Katiba Macina and Boko Haram: including women to what end?

6 UNHCR, SAHEL crisis 2020 –Responding to the urgent needs of refugees, internally displaced, returnees and others of concern, June 2020.

7 Abatan, “Women at the heart of Boko Haram and Katiba Macina.”

Research has shown why women join violent extremist groups in Africa,4 but much less attention is given to those who leave or don’t enlist at all. What makes some women resist recruitment? And why do those who join sometimes disengage?

Te Institute for Security Studies (ISS) has recently explored the circumstances that allowed women to reject or cut ties with Boko Haram in Niger’s Difa region and Katiba Macina in Mali’s Mopti and Ségou regions.5 Understanding these factors is key to women’s safety. It will prevent their association with armed groups and reduce their exposure to extremist violence.

In Mali and Niger, women have mostly escaped recruitment by feeing areas where the groups are active. Some end up in camps for internally displaced persons,6 while others take refuge with relatives who live far away or send their children to family members in safer parts of the country. Women interviewed in Niger took refuge there afer escaping areas occupied or under attack by Boko Haram in Nigeria.

Tose who didn't fee avoided places where the groups were active, and refrained from publicly criticising them. Interviewees said terror groups ofen targeted people who openly opposed them. Others said they knew of the group’s activities in their area but didn’t encounter them.

Some women in Niger said their knowledge of Islam and the Qur’an stopped them from joining Boko Haram.

In Mali too, women said they weren’t convinced by Katiba Macina’s religious discourse and could deconstruct and identify inconsistencies in recruiters’ rhetoric.

Tis means that governments should invest in girls’ education from an early age – including religious education – and remove the many socio-cultural, religious and security barriers that obstruct their access.

Another factor preventing recruitment for some women in Mali was that they didn’t have a death to avenge. In both Mali and Niger, women have joined terror groups afer witnessing or experiencing atrocities by defence and security forces in the name of counterterrorism.7 Tey gave their allegiance to violent extremists to avenge the deaths or abuse of loved ones at the hands of those meant to protect them.

Other women decided not to enlist for fear of being arrested or killed by the soldiers fghting Boko Haram and Katiba Macina. Tis was especially true in Niger, where most women associated with Boko Haram live in the group’s camps. Tose abducted by Boko Haram or forced to collaborate with Katiba Macina said a military presence could have prevented their enlistment. In Niger, some women saw military ofensives against Boko Haram as a chance to escape.

Military responses could improve women’s safety but must be accompanied by measures that deal with the root causes of violent extremism. 8

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Such responses must also be mindful of human rights and tackle impunity by state and non-state armed actors.

Financial security is another reason women don’t join extremists. Women in Mali told ISS researchers they had an acceptable form of income and one that Katiba Macina’s activities didn’t directly threaten. Others had regular fnancial support from relatives in the diaspora.

In both countries, for men and women, the fear of family or community rejection and the infuence of relatives and local leaders kept them from collaborating with terror groups. Some were dissuaded by their parents (especially mothers and grandmothers), who sometimes threatened to curse or disown them if they did. In Niger, women said they were infuenced by the experience of their peers who had joined Boko Haram but had become disillusioned.

Others were infuenced by prominent local fgures (community and traditional leaders, imams, marabouts, etc.) who advocated against association with violent extremist groups.

Religious leaders and social networks play an important gatekeeping role by filtering and dissecting the disinformation spread by recruiters.

Tose trying to prevent violent extremism in communities must be supported and protected from retaliation by the groups.9 Counter-narratives should be encouraged to help individuals and communities build resilience to violent extremism. Governments need to work with religious and community leaders as well as civil society actors to achieve this.

For those who fed the areas where Boko Haram or Katiba Macina were active, having a chance to rebuild their lives in a safe environment was vital. But interviews conducted with women in refugee or displaced persons camps revealed that poor living conditions in the camps tested their resilience, leading some to consider enlisting with the terrorists. Tis means that humanitarian and development approaches are vital for managing refugees who have fed violent extremists.

For those who decide to leave terror groups, reintegration programmes must meet their needs to prevent them from rejoining. Some women who lef Boko Haram in Niger said dashed expectations around reintegration made them consider going back. To work, these initiatives must be gender-sensitive and actively engage the communities women will return to.

Te decision to not enlist in a violent extremist group isn’t a linear process. Some women who intended to join Boko Haram backpedalled afer a family member intervened. In others, women who resisted recruitment were coerced or abducted by the groups. Some women who joined Boko Haram ended up feeing to escape forced and abusive marriages and harsh living conditions.

Long-term responses to preventing violent extremism must involve reinforcing women’s resilience to the groups involved. Tis, in turn, requires a sound understanding of the many and ofen interconnected factors that infuence women’s decisions about both recruitment and resistance.

is a Senior Researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), Regional Office for West Africa, the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin, based in Dakar, Senegal.

She holds a Master’s degree in Security Studies from the University of Pretoria, South Africa.

She believes everyone has the right to live in a safe environment, which was the foundation of her desire to undertake research that has a social impact.


This article has been republished with permission from ISS Today, which originally featured the story on its website, www.issafrica.org, on 25 November 2021.

8 Ibrahim Maïga, Répondre à l’insécurité dans le Liptako-Gourma, Institute for Security Studies, 2021.

9 Ornella Moderan, Jose Luengo Cabrera, and Boubacar Diallo, “Abductions: the hidden face of Mali’s

Artwork by AHMED ABUSHARIAA, Sudan
Women in Islam, 2023 73

Why are Anti-Rape Laws Rejected in Somaliland and Somalia?

The Criminalisation of Rape in the Largest Muslim-Majority Country

Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim-majority country, passed an anti-sexual violence bill in April 2022 afer several highly publicised cases of sexual crimes sparked a public outcry. Te law had been in the works for a decade. It was frst debated by Indonesia’s parliament in 2016 but rejected by conservative groups, including Islamist parties, who argued that it contravened religious and cultural values. Te adoption of the bill, which criminalises several forms of sexual violence while providing for the protection and recovery of survivors, was celebrated as a major victory by Indonesian women’s rights advocates.1

versed in Islamic law. In fact, neither country has a university dedicated to Islamic education and research, as Indonesia does.

So if rape laws are compatible with Islam in Indonesia, why not in Somaliland and Somalia?

In fact, another example closer to home shows that legal reform is possible. Djibouti, a Somali-majority country, prohibits rape and allows courts to consider marital rape as an act of violence punishable under criminal law. Tis is a major protection for women, even though marital rape remains taboo and is, in practice, rarely prosecuted.3

1 Sebastian Strangio, “Indonesian Parliament Passes Long-Awaited Sexual Violence Bill,” The Diplomat, April 13, 2022.

2 Data from the World Bank, 2020.

3 United Nations Development Programme, Djibouti Gender Justice and the Law, 2018.

4 For information about Islamism in the Horn of Africa see for example, Ken Menkhaus, “Political Islam in Somalia,” Middle East Policy, Vol. IX, No. 1 (2002), and Georg-Sebastian Holzer, “Political Islam in Somalia: A fertile ground for radical Islamic groups?” Geopolitics of the Middle East , no. 1 (2008).

With around 87% of its 273 million population adhering to Islam, Indonesia has more Muslims than all the countries of East Africa combined.2 It is a home to rich Islamic traditions, and renowned Islamic universities and religious scholars. Although Indonesia is a Muslim-majority country, it is not an Islamic state, but rather a secular democracy, which protects freedom of religion and provides opportunities to diverse political and religious groups, including conservative ones, to participate in policy and law-making.

In light of Indonesia’s example, one may wonder why Somalia and Somaliland have failed to pass a similar law. Opponents to the criminalisation of rape and other forms of sexual violence would argue that such a law is un-Islamic. Tis argument, however, appears to be fawed. It is safe to say that Somaliland and Somalia are not ‘more Islamic’ than Indonesia or better

74 Women in Islam, 2023
Artwork by NUJUUMARTS, Somaliland

Opposition to Legal Reforms in Somaliland and Somalia

Elders and religious leaders in Somaliland and Somalia remain oblivious to the changes happening in several Muslim-majority countries and continue to oppose legal reforms that would work toward curbing sexual violence. In Somaliland, the government suspended the implementation of the Rape and Sexual Ofences Act shortly afer it was passed by both Houses of Parliament and signed by the President in 2018. Tis law, which was considered a signifcant milestone in the fght against gender-based violence, was strongly opposed by Islamists,4 who asserted that it was inconsistent with religious teachings and shari’ah

Under pressure from religious leaders, the government introduced a new bill in 2020 – the Rape, Fornication and Related Ofences Bill – which allows practices such as child marriage and makes it difcult, if not impossible, to prosecute suspects of rape. Te new bill, which was approved by the lower chamber of parliament, puts the emphasis on the notions of fornication and adultery and calls for the implementation of the punishments laid down in shari’ah for cases of rape. It criminalises zina – a consensual sexual intercourse between two people who are not married to one another – and defnes rape as a “forced zina.” Tis narrow defnition is problematic as it excludes marital rape and places the burden on the survivor to prove the occurrence of force, where the absence of proof of force ofen results in the survivor being charged for zina and facing punishment instead of receiving support.

In a similar fashion, the Sexual Ofenses Bill introduced in Somalia in 2018 was aborted before the Somali Parliament approved it, and an attempt was made in 2020 to replace it with a new bill permitting child and forced marriage and including weak procedural protections for survivors.5 As legal reforms stall in both Somaliland and Somalia, the outdated Penal Code of 1964 continues to apply to criminal matters, including sexual ofences. Tis code, which fails to comply with international human rights standards, is not derived from Islam, but is based on the 1930 Italian Penal Code, which came into being in Italy under fascist rule.

The Place of Islam in Somali Society

Tere are profound diferences in the status of women across predominantly Muslim countries. Tis is due to the fact that a society’s understanding of the Qur’an is conditioned by its “social, political and economic attitudes,” which are “determined by the prevalent social structure.”6 Islam is therefore as diverse and complex as the cultures of the countries in which it is practiced.7

In Somaliland and Somalia, the interpretation of the Qur’an is infuenced by the country’s social structure. Somali society is organised along binding ties of patrilineal kinship: it is divided in lineages, in which membership is determined through the father.8 Groups with a perceived common descent are referred to as ‘clans’ and sub-clans. Knowing one’s descent is crucial as it validates clan membership, which is one of the most signifcant aspects of one’s identity. Clan afliation infuences a person’s access to protection, resources, livelihoods, education, etc.

Clan relations are governed by Somali customary law or Xeer 9 Xeer is based on the precedence of prior cases decided by an ad hoc panel consisting of only men (gudi, xeerbeegti, guurti).10 Te interaction between Xeer, Islam and statutory laws creates a complex legal system that ofen fails to protect women’s rights. In all three systems, women have little say in decision-making. Xeer, for example, is exclusively administered by men with the purposes of preserving peaceful relations between clans where assigning monetary compensation when harm is inficted to a member is a frequent mechanism for maintaining the peace. In this system, violations against marginalised clan members, such as women, become secondary.11 Te statutory system is also dominated by men with almost no representation of women within formal courts, legal ofces and police stations.

The exclusion of women from the different legal systems does not emanate from the Qur’an per se, but from society's patriarchal structures, power imbalances and stratifications.

5 Nita Bhalla and Mohammed Omer, “Outrage as Somali parliament drafts law permitting child, forced marriage,” Reuters, August 11, 2020.

6 Asgharali Engineer, The Rights of Women in Islam, (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Private Limited, 2008): 72.

7 Anna King, “Islam, Women and Violence,” Feminist Technology, Vol. 17, no 3 (2009): 293.

8 Ioan Myrddin Lewis, A Modern History of the Somali: Revised, Updated and Expanded (Oxford: James Currey Ltd, 2002): 10.

9 Lewis, A Modern History of the Somali, 10.

10 Ioan Myrddin Lewis, A Pastoralist Democr a cy: A study of Pastoralism and Politics among the Northern Somali of the Horn of Africa (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961): 168.

11 Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa, The Other War – Gang Rape In Somaliland, (2015): 15.

Women in Islam, 2023 75


JAMA is a practising human rights lawyer and legal researcher based in Hargeisa, Somaliland. He is also a programme advisor to the Strategic Initiative to Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA).

Men, primarily old and conservative men, who wield considerable power in Somali society and governance, dictate the role and rights of women under Xeer, shari’ah and statutory laws. Te fact that rape is considered a criminal ofence in many Muslim countries, including some with similar sectarian and ethnic compositions, illustrates that having laws against sexual violence does not contradict the Qur’an or the Hadith. Leaders in Somalia and Somaliland need to recognise that what is blocking legal reforms is not the supposed confict between rape laws and Islamic texts and traditions, but the strong opposition from a small group of men who are against any progressive legislation that promotes women’s rights.

Tis resistance to social change is also connected to the rise of the Salaf and Wahabi movements in Somalia. Tese movements have sparked a major shif in the practice of Sunni Islam and introduced a doctrine that is rooted in the conservative culture of Saudi Arabia and the literal interpretation of the Qur’an.12 Tis extreme ideology places severe restrictions on women’s participation in the public sphere and seeks to gain control over their bodies and lives.

Failing Advocacy

Civil society organisations also have their share of responsibility in the unsuccessful attempts to pass or enforce laws against sexual violence.

They have failed to develop a convincing narrative that responds to the growing influence of militant Islam and the arguments used by the most conservative segments of society.

Moreover, project design and planning are ofen made in the Global North with little or inadequate participation of Global South organisations. Tis topdown approach is an obstacle to developing creative ways to advance women’s rights by using local and indigenous knowledge and structures. It also reinforces the untrue sentiment that local NGOs are guided by foreign agendas and that the notions of gender equality and women’s rights are imported concepts that have no roots in Somali culture.


Te resistance against anti-rape laws and progress toward gender equality in Somaliland and Somalia stems from diferent factors, including religious extremism and the lack of women in positions of power within state institutions and society at large. One of the most visible examples of the patriarchal nature of Somali society and governance system is the fact that there are currently no women in the bicameral Parliament of Somaliland.

It is urgent that the political leadership of Somaliland and Somalia understand that the movement against women’s rights is one that will not limit itself to women’s issues. Tey should realise that the aspiration of these well-funded and ideologically motivated Islamist entities is to rule Somaliland and Somalia and apply their strict version of Islam.13 Terefore, approving and implementing anti-rape laws and other progressive laws would have far-reaching benefts for society and the sustainability of statehood.

12 Holzer, “Political Islam in Somalia,” 2

13 Markus Virgil Hoehne, “Counterterrorism in Somalia: How external interference helped to produce militant Islamism,” Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology (2009): 2.

Many local and international non-governmental organisations (L/INGOs) working in Somaliland and Somalia are reliant on external support and funding to function. As such, they avoid taking risks and prefer to implement non-controversial projects even if their impact is limited. Tis project-driven approach and lack of coordination among L/INGOs also provide extremists with an opportunity to promote their own discourse. Too many L/INGOs are apologetic and accommodating to them and avoid conducting bold advocacy campaigns that directly challenge the extremists’ narrative.

Te donor community should also hold L/INGOs accountable, promote transparency and anti-corruption, and support ideas directed towards challenging the regressive anti-women and anti-human rights discourses, being spread by extremists across the Horn of Africa. Projects and interventions should be bottomup, led and designed within and by the Global South.


76 Women in Islam, 2023



Artwork by Abdelwahab Nour Women in Islam, 2023

Te Perplexity of a Muslim Woman: Over Inheritance, Marriage and Homosexuality

A book

1 Both the translation of the verse and the account come from Seyyed Hossein Nasr et al., The study of Qur'an: A new translation and commentary (New York: HarperOne, 2015).

Chapter (surah) 58 in the Qur'an is titled "She Who Disputes." Te occasion for its revelation is reported to have been an incident in Medina when a Muslim woman came to the Prophet with a complaint and did not leave until she got justice. Her husband had told her, afer years of marriage and childbearing: "You are to me as my mother's back." Tis was a pagan oath that, once uttered by the husband, made sexual relations with his wife unlawful and resulted in a form of separation called zihar Te husband was then released from all his conjugal duties, but the wife was kept in a state of limbo for the rest of her life, unable to leave her husband or remarry. Having no way to sustain herself and her children, the woman who came to the Prophet wanted the marital bonds renewed. As reported in one account, the Prophet at frst could see no way out and told her: "You are [now] forbidden to him," implying that the marriage could not be renewed. But she did not accept this and kept arguing her case with the Prophet; "they went back and forth in this manner" until God intervened. It was then that the opening verses of chapter 58 were revealed: "God has indeed heard the words of she who disputes with thee concerning her husband and complains to God. And God hears your conversation. Truly God is Hearing, Seeing." Te following verses (58: 2-5) abolished this form of separation (zihar).1

Afer the Prophet's death, the revelations stopped, and slowly but surely, the process of sidelining women and their concerns began.

By the time the schools of jurisprudence ( fiqh) were consolidated almost two centuries later, women's voices had been silenced, and their concerns could not be reflected in the process of law-making.

But they did not give up; they continued disputing and demanding justice. Olfa Youssef is one of them, and her book Te Perplexity of a Muslim Woman: Over Inheritance, Marriage, and Homosexuality is an eloquent instance of this tradition of disputation and of the issues that concern Muslim women in the twentyfrst century.

Te Perplexity of a Muslim Woman is the frst book by this prolifc and renowned Tunisian scholar to have been made available in English. For this we must thank Lamia Benyoussef, herself a Tunisian teaching in the US and a scholar of nineteenth-century Arabic, French, and English literature. First published in Arabic in 2008, it has been reprinted several times, and pirated copies are available online. Benyoussef began the translation in 2010 out of frustration about the absence of English translations of important Arabic work, with the aim of breaking "the silence in the [sic] Anglophone academia over the critical scholarship of Muslim women who reside in the MENA [Middle East and North Africa] region in the feld of Islamic Studies” (9). In her excellent preface, she refects on the challenges she encountered as

78 Women in Islam, 2023

a translator, and provides a useful introduction to Olfa Youssef's life and work in pre- and post-revolutionary Tunisia. Olfa Youssef, born in 1966, belongs to the generation who were the frst benefciaries of the legal and educational reforms initiated by Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia's frst president (1955-1987). Tunisian family law, codifed in 1956 immediately afer independence, remains the most progressive, egalitarian code among Muslim majority countries, and the only one that bans polygamy. Te prestigious traditional religious school, al-Zaytuna, was integrated into the secular educational system in the early 1960s and turned into a college of the university.

In time, this led to scholars in the humanities and social sciences engaging with Islamic tradition and history beyond the limits of traditional perspectives. Despite Bourguiba's autocratic rule, his modernising reforms opened a space where scholars fuent in Arabic and French could bring the tools of new branches of knowledge–such as hermeneutics, linguistics, sociology, and psychotherapy–into their understanding of religious tradition.

What distinguishes Youssef among these scholars is her ability to reach a wider public. Since the early 1990s, she has appeared on Tunisian and Arab satellite channels, presenting programs and taking part in discussions. She maintains a blog and is active on Facebook and Twitter. She has also been subject to ferce critique, which became violent in tone in the afermath of the 2010 Revolution. In Arabic, and in an erudite fashion, Youssef engages with the critics of her work. Since August 2013 she has been under police protection following threats to assassinate her on the anniversary of the Tunisian Personal Code (promulgated on August 13, 1956).

Te focus of Te Perplexity of a Muslim Woman is on the Qur'anic verses that are invoked to justify women's lesser share in inheritance, their subordinate place in marriage, and attacks on sexual diversity. In a brief introduction, Youssef explains why this challenge is an absolute necessity because of the immense power of "the established explanations of the Qur'an on the Muslim imaginary and jurisprudence in the Muslim world."

Muslims fnd themselves forced to choose between two apparently conficting paths. One is to heed "calls for the desertion from a religion which refutes gender [equality], calls for the stoning of homosexuals, and forces women to be always sexually available to their husbands." Te other is to heed "calls for the acceptance of the literal interpretations of religious scholars, turning the latter into the ofcial spokesmen of the Great and Almighty God" (22).

Youssef sees both positions as problematic and fawed: the frst one because "the foundations of culture are unconscious," and those born or socialised into Muslim societies "cannot erase with one stroke, or through a conscious and rational act, the imprint of the social unconscious." Te second position is fawed because those Muslims who adhere to the call for acceptance of the literal interpretations of religious texts, instead of worshipping God, end up "worshipping the scholar in diferent forms and manifestations" (22). Youssef ofers a third choice: staying in religion and advocating justice, as we understand it today, and just laws by showing the openness of the Qur'an to the possibilities of readings for ijtihad (deriving legal rulings). She is keen to stress that, in doing so, she is asking for "neither reconciliation nor fabrication of facts as some might say," but "to question and deploy reason out of the desire for a truth I do not claim ownership of as others do" (22)."[I] am driven in this by the profound belief that I am neither proclaiming a fnal truth nor confrming an unequivocal interpretation when questioning the divine word [and that] only God knows the true meaning of the Qur'an" (21).

Youssef rejects all shades of absolutist thinking, whether in a religious or in a secular guise: "I am at the farthest point from fundamentalism in both its religious and modern façade: I do not ofer any fnal or readymade answers, for I belong to the world of questions before answers and perplexity before certainty" (22).

What she offers is an approach and a methodology that enable Muslims to combine faith and modernity – a modernity that is rooted and cultivated in an indigenous tradition.

ZIBA MIRHOSSEINI is a legal anthropologist specialising in Islamic law and gender and Islamic feminism, and a founding member of the Musawah Global Movement for Equality and Justice in the Muslim Family (www.musawah. org). Currently a professorial research associate at the Centre for Islamic and Middle Eastern Law, University of London, she has held numerous research fellowships and visiting professorships. She has published books on Islamic family law in Iran and Morocco, Iranian clerical discourses on gender, Islamic reformist thinkers, and the revival of zina laws. She has also codirected two award-winning, feature-length documentary films on Iran: Divorce Iranian Style (1998) and Runaway (2001).

Women in Islam, 2023 79

“I hold that the Qur'an, even though the word of God, is a linguistic statement subject to diverse interpretations like any other statement and I assert that anyone who claims to possess the true and the unique meaning of the Qur'an is speaking in the name of Almighty, setting himself in the omnipotent position of one who has absolute knowledge, and deceiving people into thinking s/he possesses the truth only He, the Great and Almighty God, possesses” (21).

Te Perplexity of a Muslim Woman is a powerful and a sophisticated challenge to traditional readings of Islam's sacred texts. It comprises three chapters, in which Youssef lists what she fnds perplexing in the established interpretations and the laws based on them. Tere is no overall conclusion, but each chapter ends with a short section titled "Tat Which Lies afer Perplexity," where Youssef summarises the key arguments and evidence presented in the chapter and poses a number of ethical and rational questions that make a case for the necessity of her challenge.

In chapter 1, the focus is on gender inequality in inheritance laws. Tis is an area of law that is commonly held not to be open to reform, because, it is argued, there are explicit Qur'anic texts on this matter that leave no room for either reinterpretation or ijtihad. Youssef shows the fallacy of such a line of argument. She points to the existence of verses in which women are allocated either an equal share or a bigger share than men.

In verses relating to inheritance, it is not gender but fairness and equity that serve as criteria for the allocation of shares.

She also provides evidence of instances where explicit texts have been ignored in the interest of justice, beginning with the suspension by the second caliph, Umar Ibn Khattab, of two explicit Qur'anic verses, one on cutting of a thief's hands, the other on the allocation of zakat (charity) in the interest of justice, and the nineteenth-century Muslim consensus to abolish the slavery that the Qur'an did not abolish.

Chapter 2, "Perplexities over Marriage," speaks to my own work. It begins with a discussion on whether mahr (sadaq) is required for a valid marriage. Mahr is the sum

of money or any valuable that the husband has to give upon marriage or later, and is defned in fqh (Islamic jurisprudence) as an essential condition of the marriage contract. Youssef then goes on to show, frst, that there is no single verse in the Qur'an that speaks of mahr as mandatory; and second, that in some of the Prophet's marriages there was no mahr. She argues that payment of mahr was a social custom that "the Qur'an has […] neither prohibited nor imposed" but merely made the wife its direct recipient, instead of her guardian or her family (50-51). Ten she raises a question: now that we know the Qur'an has not made mahr a requirement of marriage, how can we explain that fqh has made it one of the three essential elements – the other two being the ofer (ijab) by the woman or her guardian, and acceptance (qabul) by the husband? Her answer is that most commentators saw marriage as a contract like any other sale contract. What is sold in marriage is a woman's vagina, and the husband buys it by paying

80 Women in Islam, 2023
The Perplexity of a Muslim Woman , Rowman & Littlefeld Publishing Group

mahr; she quotes one of the greatest of the early commentators, Fakhr-al-Din Al-Razi: "if the Almighty God had added the giving of the mahr to them, it is because it is the price of their goods" (51). She goes on to stress that neither in the Qur'an nor in the Prophet's hadith is there any indication, implicit or explicit, that a correlation exists between the payment of mahr as a price and the perception of women's vaginas as goods. What she concludes is that views and reasoning such as those of Al-Razi can only be understood as "projections of historical perceptions and social imaginary onto [the] Qur'an" and are thus tied to historical context, and this is why contemporary jurists who are bound by a diferent social imaginary are "embarrassed to say that [mahr] is a form of exchange" in that sense (53). Yet they go on to reproduce the commodifcation of women's sexuality unconsciously by not exposing and challenging the jurisprudential assumptions that have given rise to legal rulings in marriage. Te rest of the chapter ofers illuminating deliberations on other areas of marriage and sexual relations, under intriguing headings, for instance: “Perplexity Tree: Te Obedience to the Husband in Bed” or “Perplexity Nine: Sex with One's Hand.”

Te last chapter, "Perplexity over Homosexuality," ofers an enlightening discussion on the criminalisation of same-sex relations.

The rise of political Islam and the revival of fiqh penal concepts relating to sex outside (heterosexual) marriage have made this an area of acute tension with international human rights laws.

Youssef argues that such criminalisation has no basis in the Qur'an and Sunnah; once we go back to them, "we fnd ourselves facing various forms of philosophical perplexity" (103). Tere is no mention in the Qur'an of sexual relations between women, and the passage used to justify the ban on sex between men – the story of the People of Lot – concerns "anything that harms others, and in the context of sexuality, specifcally refers to the raping of men by men" (127). What she aims to highlight in this chapter is "the divergence of opinions on this issue between religious scholars […] and […] the enormous diference in attitude toward homosexuality between

the old religious scholars and commentators on the one hand and common Muslims today on the other hand" (127). For Youssef, the condemnation of homosexuals on the basis of such subjective rulings speaks of the "psychological anxiety and refusal of diference, not to mention one's psychological dividedness on the unconscious level."

Te Perplexity of a Muslim Woman: Over Inheritance, Marriage, and Homosexuality is a tour de force of reason and erudition in the course of which Youssef holds a critical conversation with classical and contemporary Qur'anic exegetists and jurists to show how human interpretations throughout the centuries have closed the Qur'an to possibilities of readings for justice. It is a valuable contribution to a new genre of literature that is opening Islam's sacred texts to new readings in line with twenty-frst-century values, concerns, and questions, enabling Muslims to remain within their faith yet be critical of dominant interpretations of the texts and the laws made, and discriminations justifed, in their name. Lamia Benyoussef does an excellent job of translating a text that was written for an "insider" readership, but I have a few quibbles: the most important is the translation of musawah as "equity" (for example, 22 and 42). "Equity" is the term used by apologists for traditional fqh gender notions for "complementarity" of gender rights and is a world away from Youssef's intention in using musawah, which, it is clear from the text, means "equality." Less important is the mistranslation of mahr/ sadaq as "dowry"; strictly speaking, it is "dower"; dowry, which does not exist in Islamic law or Muslim custom, is almost the reverse of dower.


This article was originally published in 2018 in Hypatia : A Journal of Feminist Philosophy.

Women in Islam, 2023 81

Free Our Family Laws!

under the law – Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Civil, and Customary –which are all governed by diferent pieces of legislation. Te Christian, Hindu and civil marriages are monogamous in nature (one man one woman) while the customary and Muslim marriages allow for polygamy.

Bride price is a common practice used to validate customary marriages in Uganda. It consists of a contract where material items or money are paid by the groom to the bride’s family in exchange for her hand in marriage.1 Tis custom, still valued by many Ugandans, has long been defended as an institution that cements families together, stabilises marriages, and protects wives from abuse. However, its purpose and relevance are increasingly being challenged in today’s society.

Tis woman has been living with her husband for more than ten years. She contributed to the acquisition of household assets and lent him money to construct their home. Now that the house is completed, she is being evicted because the land title is in his name. She did not sign a loan agreement with him,” a magistrate explained.

In Uganda’s patriarchal society, marriage is ofen considered a means for women to access resources and improve their social status in the community. All too ofen, however, the law fails to protect their rights under marriage and women, as in the case described above, fnd themselves trapped in unequal or abusive relationships, or lef without assets or livelihoods.

Formal marriage is a sacred rite of passage in Uganda, which gives social recognition and respectability to women. Tere are fve types of marriages recognised

Women, in particular, understand its negative impacts. Over the years, I have heard women raise the same concerns during my visits to many rural communities. Tey complain that women are treated as “queens” during their marriage ceremony, but that as soon as the celebration comes to an end, they are considered by their husbands and his immediate and extended family to be mere possessions from whom obedience is expected.

A couple of years ago, a gruesome story made the headlines: several newspapers reported that a woman had been forced to breastfeed puppies by her husband. Afer being arrested, the husband justifed his behaviour by saying that he had spent all his savings to pay her bride price and had no money lef to buy milk for his dogs. Although sensationalist, this story reveals how bride price is sometimes used to legitimise the objectifcation of women and violence against them.

Te practice, indeed, is ofen associated with domestic violence. Women are usually expected to

1 Gill Hague and Ravi Thiara, Bride Price, Poverty and Domestic Violence in Uganda, 2009.
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Painting by SALAH ELMUR

refund the bride price when ending the marriage. Tis can prevent them from leaving abusive relationships, as women, in many instances, cannot aford to pay back the bride price. Family members, who beneft from the practice, are also reluctant to support survivors. Tey are ofen quick to send a woman back to her abusive husband, arguing that she must be strong and should not embarrass her family. While a 2015 Constitutional Court ruling bans the refund of bride price afer divorce, enforcement remains a challenge in a context where the justice system is weak and dominated by men. As a result, thousands of women are lef in dire situations.

Muslim women experience similar challenges considering the fact that the customary practice of bride price intertwines with that of mahr – money or possessions paid by the groom to the bride at the time of Islamic marriage. In addition, Muslim women are ofen denied the right to consent to their own marriages. Muslim brides in Uganda must receive permission from a guardian as a pre-condition to their nikkah (marriage contract). Tis requirement is a clear violation of Muslim women’s autonomy and is inconsistent with Article 31 of Uganda’s Constitution, which requires the consent of the bride and the groom for a marriage to be valid.

Polygamy is also a common problem afecting women from various religious backgrounds. Both customary and Muslim marriages allow polygamy, giving men the exclusive right to marry up to four wives under Islamic traditions and an unlimited number of women under customary law. Proponents of polygamy argue that by keeping men happy, it limits the number of divorces. Tey say that it contributes to reducing women’s care burden and allows every woman to fnd a husband since women outnumber men in most countries of the world.

For Muslim women, Islam and shari’ah are used to justify the practice although the Qur’an sets clear limitations on polygamy, including the requirement to marry only one wife if a husband is unable to uphold equality and fairness between the wives (Surat an-Nisa’ 4:3).2 In practice, the reality is usually far from the justice that is required by Islam. Polygamy ofen strains families fnancially and emotionally, as multiple wives and their children must share – and sometimes compete for – the husband or father’s resources, attention and time. Evidence shows that men in polygamous unions are sometimes unable to support their families, leaving their wives and children destitute. Polygamy also exposes women to depression and anxiety, in addition to increasing risks of domestic violence.

It is clear that customary and religious marriages, as currently practised in Uganda, foster gender inequalities by enabling male dominance and control over women’s bodies and lives.

Marriage celebrations are ofen occasions for opulent functions, but rarely seen as an opportunity for both parties – husband and wife – to agree on values and principles that will lead to a fair and balanced relationship. Instead, current practices encourage women’s submissiveness and limit their decisionmaking power in all spheres of life, including their sexual and reproductive lives.

Te necessity to protect women’s rights within the institutions of marriage and family has long been recognised by the women’s movement in Uganda. Women’s rights activists have been advocating for a unifying and comprehensive law on domestic relations based on principles of non-discrimination and gender equality since the 1950s.

Te amendment of the Succession Act in 2022 represents a signifcant milestone. Te law introduced new provisions which mandate that a wife shall inherit 20% of her deceased husband's estate in the event he dies without a will (intestate). It also recognised the right of women to pass their property through intestate succession, an option that was not considered in the previous version of the law, in addition to protecting the spouse from eviction from the residential holding. While this is a progressive development, one may wonder if this is yet another gender responsive legislation that will remain on paper. Will custodians of culture support the implementation of this law? Will a man respect his sister-in-law’s rights afer his brother has died? Only time will tell!

Despite some successes, attempts to reform family law have met, for the most part, stif resistance and backlash from faith-based leaders, Christian and Muslim alike, and other infuential groups including male policy makers. Tis is particularly true for the Marriage and Divorce Bill, which has languished in parliament for decades. A version of it, titled the Domestic Relations Bill, was frst brought before parliament in 2003, a product of the eforts of women’s rights activists and government ofcials that was kick-started by the 1964 Marriage and Divorce Commission.3 Tis bill aimed to replace outdated laws and change existing practices within marriage and divorce. On the issue of polygamy, it required a husband to receive permission from

LAUREEN KARAYI is a women’s rights advocate who holds a Master’s Degree of Arts in Development Studies and a Postgraduate Diploma in Gender Equality Studies from the University of Iceland. She is currently employed at the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA) as a Regional Project Coordinator for the We Cannot Wait Project.

2 Musawah, Policy Brief 3: Ending Polygamy in Muslim Marriages , 2021.

3 Godiva Akullo Monica, “How long shall we wait? An analysis of the Marriage and Divorce Bill 2009,” available at: https:// cepa.or.ug/

Women in Islam, 2023 83

4 Jude Etyang and M. Nalunkuuma, “Muslims insist on polygamy,” Newvision, March 30, 2005.

his wife to take a second wife. Te law also called for women to be given a fair share of a husband’s wealth if divorced or in the event of the husband’s death, while putting a ban on practices of bride price and dowry.

In 2004, Muslim leaders gathered during the Eid al-Adha celebration to reject the bill, claiming that it contradicted Islamic marriage practices and the Qur’an verses pertaining to polygamy and women’s inheritance. Muslim leaders, who were all men, called upon women to obey Allah. As a result, infuential Muslim women withdrew their support for the bill and joined the protests. Between 2004 and 2005, several demonstrations were organised with protesters holding placards and banners with messages such as “the Qur’an is our constitution” or “Ugandan women condemn the Domestic Relations Bill.”4

Other opponents to the bill claimed it promoted western notions and ideologies by introducing marital rape as an ofence. In Uganda, it is still a taboo to speak out against marital rape. As a woman prepares for her marriage ceremony, she is usually taught by her ssenga –a sister of her father – to be a “good” wife, which implies being submissive and fulflling her husband’s sexual needs. Tis idea that a woman should never say no to a man is reinforced by faith leaders on the wedding day who ofen use religious scriptures to remind the new wife that her body now belongs to her husband! What is hers is his!

Te proposal to criminalise marital rape in the Marriage and Divorce Bill received strong opposition from diferent groups of society. When this clause was presented to Ugandan legislators, a former Minister of Justice said: “I fnd the demands of women advocates somehow ridiculous, no woman should claim to have been raped by her husband since he has rights to her body within the marriage.” Te Legal and Parliamentary Afairs Committee was forced to tone down the bill and recommended that all references to marital rape be deleted. Women activists conceded with the hope that the bill would be enacted into law. Tis hope, unfortunately, has not yet materialised.

Te postponement of the legal age for marriage was another contentious issue. Te 1973 Customary Marriage Registration Act sets the minimum age for marriage at 16 while the 1906 Marriage and Divorce of Mohammedans Act allows girls to marry as soon as

they reach puberty. Te resistance of conservative and religious leaders to law reform has frustrated numerous eforts to prevent teenage pregnancies and child marriage. Today, 34% of Ugandan women are married before the age of 18 and 7% before the age of 15. Child marriage throws young girls into situations they are unprepared for and robs them of their childhood. It also increases the likelihood of teenage pregnancies and associated risks of maternal mortality and morbidity. As they stand both laws are inconsistent with Article 31 of the 1995 Constitution that sets the minimum age for marriage at 18. Tey also confict with Uganda’s obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

Since 2003, the Marriage and Divorce Bill has been rejected by parliament on several occasions. In early 2009, the bill was split into two to increase chances of passage. A separate bill meant to govern family relations within Muslim communities was created – the Administration of Muslim Personal Law Bill. Prominent Sheikhs were granted many of their demands with regard to inheritance and polygamy, although they accepted the increase of the legal age of marriage to 18. To date, neither of these two bills has been passed.

Women, who make up more than 50% of the population, deserve to live in dignity and to be treated as equal human beings.

Family is a cornerstone of women’s access to social, political, and economic empowerment.

It is therefore critical for the Ugandan government to address injustice within the family and to reject the status quo. Law reform should not be held hostage by religious and conservative groups, who are not representative of the majority of the population. Women have waited long enough: the time has come to ‘free our family laws’ and enact a Marriage and Divorce Bill that protects women’s rights!

84 Women in Islam, 2023

Is Mahr a Gif or a Bride Price? A Perspective from Kenya

Hajira (not her real name) comes from the Taita ethnic group in Kenya.1 Despite the many proposals she received from Muslim men within and outside her community, she never married. Hajira was raised and educated by parents who understood the positive impact of both Islamic and secular education. She placed particular emphasis on furthering her Islamic studies with the aim of gaining insight into the teachings of Islam. With this knowledge, she came to realise that her community’s approach to Islam difered from the jurisprudence developed by various schools of thought.

During her studies, Hajira learned that marriage in Islam is a social institution and a legal contract between two parties who freely consent to it, and are able to fulfll their duties as required by Islamic traditions. She was told about several conditions for marriage, one of them being mahr. Mahr was presented as the legal right of the wife, a gif she receives from her husband upon marriage. Hence, she was surprised when all the men who proposed to her were reluctant to meet this specifc condition. Culturally in her community, mahr is given to the parents instead of the wife.

Marriage Laws in Kenya

Kenya is comprised of multiple tribes with diferent languages, cultures, religious traditions, and authorities.2 Alongside these ethnic groups are the descendants of Arabs and Indians who have been in the country for centuries as a result of early trading. Tere are also recent Asian and European immigrants who settled in Kenya during the colonial period. To accommodate this diversity, the country developed a plural legal system made up of customary, religious and English common law. Te Marriage Act no. 4 of 2014 recognises fve types of marriages: civil, customary, Christian, Hindu, and Islamic.

In Kenya, Islamic marriages are performed by Kadhi courts, Muslim religious courts that were in existence

along the coast of Kenya before the British colonisation in the 19th century. In 2010 the new Constitution of Kenya strengthened the position of Kadhi courts and granted them jurisdiction over questions of Muslim law relating to personal status, marriage, divorce and inheritance. However, Kenya does not have specifc codifed law relating to Muslim marriages and family relations. Tus, issues pertaining to marriage and divorce are governed by a combination of Shari’ah principles and judicial precedence.3 Te interpretation of law and procedures also difers based on the Islamic schools of thought. Consequently, there is no homogenous jurisprudence governing Muslim personal status matters in Kenya, and decisions by Kadhi judges are infuenced by their own interpretations of Shari’ah.4

The Dower: a Widespread Practice

In Kenya, marriage in most ethnic and religious groups is preceded, accompanied or followed by payments by the bridegroom or his family to the bride's family. Te payment of a dower is regarded as compensating for ‘the family’s loss of their daughter’s productive labour.’5 It was traditionally made in cattle or other livestock, but today money is ofen given in lieu or in addition. Usually, the amount to be paid is not fxed by custom but is negotiated between the families.

Tis custom has been the topic of debate in Kenya. Some argued that it refected society’s view on women as a commodity that can be bought and sold. However, the practice is today widely accepted as a gif between two families who wish to join together or an incentive for spouses not to divorce.

1 The Taita people are a Kenyan ethnic group located in the Taita-Taveta County. They speak Kidawida, which belongs to the coastal Bantu linguistic group. They mostly depend on agriculture.

2 “Kenya’s People and Culture,” Ministry of East Africa Community and Regional Development, accessed September 2, 2017, https://meac.go.ke/ kenya-peoples-andcultures/.

3 MUSAWAH and AWAPSA, Joint Report on Article 16, Muslim Family Law and Muslim Women’s Rights in Kenya (MUSAWAH, 2017), 5-6.

4 Ibid.

5 John F. Spry, Report of the Commission on the Law of Marriage and Divorce (Kenya, 1968), 32.

Women in Islam, 2023 85

Mahr and its Definition in the Qur’an

Under Islamic law, mahr is strictly payable to the bride. It is hers exclusively and she is free to decide how to use it. No one has the right to take possession of it without her consent, including her parents and her husband. Te profts she may generate using her mahr also belong to her.

Te Qur’an utilises diferent terms to refer to the practice including sadaqah (bridal gif) as in Surah An Nisa 4:4: “And give the women [upon marriage] their [bridal] gifs graciously. But if they give up willingly to you anything of it, then take it in satisfaction and ease.”6 Te Qur’an also uses the word ajr (reward, wage, payment, compensation) as in Surah Al-Ahzab 33:50: “O Prophet, indeed we have made lawful to you your wives to whom you have given their due compensation

(…).”7 Tese verses demonstrate that mahr is regarded as compensation given to women for leaving their home and adapting to an unknown set-up.

Te Qur’an does not set a specifc amount for mahr, which can be paid immediately or deferred to a later date. Traditionally, it should be compatible with the fnancial standing of the husband-to-be and can be given in the form of money or in kind. It may be of no material value, but it is in the interest of the wife, if possible, to agree on a mahr whose value will not decrease signifcantly over the years.

Mahr: a Bride Price?

Nowadays norms are changing and Muslims around the world are speaking of marriage in terms of reciprocal and complementary rights and duties,

6 Sahih International Translation. 7 Ibid.
86 Women in Islam, 2023

mutual consent, and respect. In this context, mahr is sometimes dismissed as an outdated practice, with some women associating it with a ‘trade price’. Some feminists argue that Islamic jurisprudence describes marriage as a type of sale and that the mahr is the price paid by a husband to acquire the right to his wife’s marital duties, including sexual availability.

However, this understanding of mahr can be challenged, and the potential benefts of a dower for women should not be ignored. Te Qur’anic verses on mahr suggest that it is a kind of gif. By defnition, a gif is given freely; it is not exchanged for something else. Mahr can thus be seen as a gif given by a husband to his wife without expectations, to show his devotion to her. It can be regarded as a mark of respect and commitment.

It is also important to recall that Islam does not only consider marriage a way to make sexual activity licit, but also a social contract with wide and varied responsibilities and duties. Te words of the Prophet Muhammad in his fnal sermon echo this: “O People it is true that you have certain rights with regard to your women but they also have rights over you. Remember that you have taken them as your wives only under Allah's trust and with His permission (…)."

The Potential Benefits of Mahr

In a context like Kenya, mahr can provide women with economic support and security. However, women rarely receive it. Due to the interplay between religion and culture, mahr is ofen paid to the bride’s family instead of the bride herself. In some cases, the woman never knows what her exact dower is. In addition, Kadhi courts are sometimes reluctant to enforce the issuing of mahr and women can be pressured to renounce it.8

Hajira, who insisted on receiving mahr as a condition of marriage, witnessed the challenges faced by women in her village. In her community, most people are poor and have limited access to education and employment. Early marriages are common and women are vulnerable to diferent forms of abuse.

In particular, Hajira remembers the story of a woman who received a cup as a token mahr. Tis woman had three children when her husband decided to take another wife. Te man did not have the ability

to take care of two wives and denied her support. Subsequently, she decided to leave, but did not fle for divorce in the Kadhi court. She thought it would be useless to seek divorce since she was the one who opted out of the marriage. Without child maintenance or assets, she struggled to raise her children on her own. Unfortunately, she realised too late that a more signifcant mahr could have given her some form of fnancial security and helped her start a new life.

In another instance, a woman decided to marry the man she loved without demanding a mahr. Te parents, who were initially not involved in the marriage because of a family dispute, demanded a dower later on which was paid in installments. A few years on, the love turned sour and the husband became abusive. Te woman, who had four children, found herself in a situation where she could not go back to her parents and had no means of livelihood.

What these stories show is that mahr can provide a woman with fnancial independence during marriage or give her the ability to leave a bad one. A deferred mahr can protect a woman against arbitrary divorce, since the husband would have to pay the full amount in that event. Mahr can also be considered a bargaining tool which a woman may use to pressure a husband who wishes to take a second wife.9


Hajira stood frm on her principles and is today a fercely independent woman in her early sixties. She takes time to visit other women to share her vision of marriage and discuss the rights granted to women by Islam. She encourages young women in her community to demand that mahr should be paid to them directly. She insists that mahr provides women with economic security and autonomy during and afer marriage. For Hajira, marriage establishes interdependent rights and duties for each spouse. In her opinion, depriving a woman of her mahr, regardless of the sum, opens the door for further limitations of her rights within the couple and the family.


MWAZIGHE is a Kenyan NGO worker and human rights advocate. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in law and keeps abreast of the current issues affecting women in her community.

8 “Kenya Report to Musawah”, accessed September 9, 2021, https://arabic. musawah.org/sites/ default/files/Kenyareport%20for%20 Home%20Truths. pdf

9 Ursula Günther, Martin Herzog and Stephanie Müssi, “Researching Mahr in Germany: A Multidisciplinary Approach,” R eview of Middle East Studies 49, no. 1 (February 2015): 23–37.

Women in Islam, 2023 87

Reformist Qur’anic Methodologies:

Musawah’s Approach in Centring Muslim Women’s Voices to Uncover Qur’anic Ethics and Gender Justice

1 Asma Barlas, Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an, London: Saqi Books, 2019; Fazlur Rahman, Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition, London: University of Chicago Press, 1982; Amina Wadud, Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

2 “About us,” Musawah, accessed June 1, 2021, https:// www.musawah.org/ about/

3 Musawah, “Qur’anic Ethics on Marriage,” YouTube, February 4, 2021, https:// www.youtube. com/watch?v=Vxgy38vn94

4 Alongside the work of these three scholars, which I mention as Musawah’s work, I also refer to the scholarship of other reformist scholars who are not working in collaboration with Musawah. The work of Amina Wadud, Fazlur Rahman and Kecia Ali are mentioned in this article to highlight the similarities between these reformist methodologies in approaching the Qur’anic text.

5 Musawah, “Qur’anic Ethics on Marriage.”

6 Wadud, Qur’an and Woman

7 Wadud, Qur’an and Woman, 3.

As the primary authoritative scriptural text in Islam, the Qur’an has been a major focus of contemporary Muslim scholars, irrespective of whether they are considered conservative or progressive. Te work of reformist and feminist scholars has, however, been centred on challenging traditional, male-centric, patriarchal readings of the Qur’an to arrive at gender-just readings. Scholars such as Amina Wadud, Asma Barlas, and Fazlur Rahman have critiqued traditional Qur’anic exegesis for its atomistic nature and have called for a Qur’anic hermeneutics that focus on a holistic, ethically orientated reading of the Qur’an.1 A more recent efort toward advancing a reformist methodology for rereading the Qur’an can be seen in the work of Musawah.

Musawah, the Arabic term for equality, is an organisation dedicated to equality and gender justice within the Muslim family. Not only do they uphold gender justice as necessary, but they assert that it is intrinsic to Islam and the wider Qur’anic intent. Working within both an Islamic and human rights framework, they create a space for ‘Islamic scholars, activists and legal practitioners’ to accentuate and substantiate their demands for justice.2 Whilst relying on the Qur’anic text, Musawah has largely focused on classical jurisprudence (fqh), and more specifcally Muslim family law, to critique and contextualise its implementation in contemporary Muslim communities.

As part of its most recent series, Reclaiming ‘Adl and Ihsan in Muslim Marriages, Musawah builds on existing work to propose a reformist Qur’anic methodology. In collaboration with the organisation, scholars Asma Lamrabet, Omaima Abou-Bakr and Mulki AlSharmani have advanced a methodology to arrive at an ethically informed, gender-just reading of the Qur’an.3 Troughout this article, I will refer to the work of these three scholars as Musawah’s work, as the development of this Qur’anic methodology has been carried out in association with the organisation.4

According to Musawah, the proposed methodology for rereading Qur’anic verses not only allows for Qur’anic gender justice to be achieved but also advances the recognition of a Qur’anic ethical framework. Musawah emphasises that a reformist methodology does not disregard the works of classical Muslim exegetes. Tis is not a rereading of the Qur’an that is detached from Muslim intellectual history. It engages with the classical readings, learns from them, and alongside contemporary scholarship, aims to revive and advance Qur’anic ethics, thus leading to gender justice.5

Tis article focuses on Musawah’s reformist Qur’anic methodology as an example of contemporary reformist methodologies for rereading the Qur’an. I will examine the components of this methodology, which is holistic, thematic, historical, intra-textual, linguistic, and ethically orientated. I will also highlight the objectives and implications of this approach in relation to contemporary concerns within Muslim communities.


A central aspect of the Musawah methodology is its holistic approach. Reformist Qur’an scholar Wadud utilises a similar method in her rereading of the Qur’an from a woman’s perspective.6 Wadud emphasises that ‘the whole text, its Weltanschauung or worldview’ is a fundamental concern if one is to arrive at a just understanding of the Qur’anic text.7 Only afer understanding the Qur’an’s ethical worldview can we begin to engage with issues concerning gender. Similarly, for Musawah, the theological, spiritual, ethical and normative are all interconnected, so reading the Qur’an in a manner that is not holistic can only result in fragmented understandings. Such fragmented readings have given way to existing patriarchal assumptions, negatively afecting the lived realities of Muslim women.

EQUALITY STARTS AT HOME 88 Women in Islam, 2023

Contemporary reformist scholars have critiqued traditional tafsir (exegesis) works for their atomistic nature, where verses of similar concern are not read collectively.8 Musawah afrms that such atomistic readings have occasioned damaging patriarchal conceptions of marriage, divorce etc., which have directly impacted Muslim women’s lived experiences. Tey call for the utilisation of a thematic approach where a verse concerning marriage, for instance, is read collectively and alongside all Qur’anic verses pertaining to marriage and family life. Tis collective reading approach allows for a comprehensive understanding of the thematic whole.

Taking marriage as an example, Musawah stresses that rather than focusing on isolated verses, such as Qur’an 4:34 that has been traditionally understood as deeming men superior to women, all verses concerning marriage – such as the conditions for entering a marriage, spousal relations, the duties of men and women etc. – must be read collectively to establish the whole Qur’anic view on marriage.9 Such collective readings reveal how foundational ethical principles in marriage, such as al-mawaddah (afection), al-‘adl (justice), and al-qist (fairness, equity, and equality), have not been utilised in the formation of marriage laws within the Islamic legal traditions of many countries. Traditional understandings of verses 4:34 contradict these ethical Quranic values and thus disregard the broader intent of the Qur’anic text.10


Te roots of gender-biased readings of the Qur’an are not only the result of atomistic readings.

Approaching the text as ahistorical has proven to undermine its broader ethical principles.

Musawah states that the Qur’anic message is universal, but one that has occurred in a particular historical context for a particular community. Tus, when reading the text, it is necessary that the historical context, norms, and realities of the frst community (the community at the time of the text’s revelation) are taken into consideration.

Rahman, a modernist scholar, similarly stresses that the Qur’anic text was revealed at specifc moments in history in response to particular circumstances. According to him, a reader must comprehend the implications of Qur’anic verses in their context and subsequently determine their universal intent. Such an approach is what Rahman calls the hermeneutical double-movement.11 For Rahman, the process of interpretation requires moving from the present situation of the reader to the Qur’anic context, and then back to the present context. Te frst step requires one to understand the ‘meaning of a given statement by studying the historical situation or problem to which it was the answer.’ Te second step is to generalise the specifc understandings derived from step one to uncover the general ‘moral-social objectives.’12 Without engaging in such a hermeneutical process, one becomes restricted by literalist readings and neglects the core universal ethical values of the Qur’an.

Literalist, ahistorical readings are exemplifed in classical readings of Qur’an 4:3 that legitimise polygamy.13 Such readings have been critiqued by scholars such as Wadud for being divorced from their historical context. Wadud argues that verse 4:3 is the response to a specifc crisis faced by early Muslim communities, in particular that of the unjust treatment of orphans.14 At the time, marriage was proposed as a practical solution to prevent the exploitation of orphans by guardians. In addition, Wadud highlights that verse 4:3 calls for justice between co-wives, a condition that cannot be met in the lived experiences of women in polygamous unions. According to Wadud, polygamy is therefore not in line with the overall Qur’anic ideal of justice and a just marriage.


Another component of Musawah’s methodology is the intra-textual approach, which involves interpreting the Qur’an through the Qur’an. It implies seeking clarifcation of Qur’anic verses via other verses. Tis does not require the verses to be of the same theme. Instead, it focuses on how diferent units of the Qur’an speak to each other, thus expanding the thematic analysis. Tis approach is not new; classical exegetes also engaged in such readings of the text. However, Musawah critiques how their readings upheld existing patriarchy. Musawah argues that the intra-textual approach can also allow for

8 See Barlas, Believing Women in Islam and, Asma Lamrabet, Women in the Qur’an: An Emancipatory Reading, England: Square View, 2016, and Fazlur Rahman, Islam and Modernity 9 Musawah, “Qur’anic Ethics on Marriage.”

“Men are in charge of women, because Allah has made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women). So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah has guarded. As for those from whom you fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and chastise them. Then if they obey you, seek not a way against them. Allah is ever High, Exalted, Great.” Qur’an 4:34, Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall translation.

10 For a detailed analysis of verse 4:34, see Ziba MirHosseini, Mulki alSharmani and Jana Rumminger (eds.), Men in Charge?

Rethinking Authority in Muslim Legal Tradition, London: Oneworld, 2015, which explores this verse both textually and through its practical manifestations in contemporary Muslim communities.

11 Rahman, Islam and Modernity, 6.

12 Rahman, Islam and Modernity, 6.

13 “And if you fear that you will not deal fairly by the orphans, marry of the women, who seem good to you, two or three or four; and if you fear that you cannot do justice (to so many) then one (only) or (the captives) that your right hands possess. Thus, it is more likely that you will not do injustice.”

Qur’an 4:3, Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall translation.

14 Wadud, Qur’an and Woman, 83.

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SANAH MEHNAZ is a doctoral candidate at the University of Leeds (UK). Her research examines the concept of honour within Islam and Muslim communities through an analysis of the Qur’anic text, hadith corpus, and maqāsid al-sharī’ah (objectives of Islamic law). Sanah has presented at several international conferences and co-organised inter-faith trainings on Muslim women for the Church of England. She recently coled the Islam and Feminism Critical Reading Group run by The Iqbal Centre at the University of Leeds.

egalitarian readings of the Qur’an. For instance, it allows for legalistic verses to be situated in the broader textual context and Qur’anic theological and ethical frameworks. Trough such a reading, patriarchal legal rulings that contravene broader Qur’anic ethical principles of justice and equality can be contested and reformed.


In their linguistic inquiry of the Qur’anic text, Musawah emphasises a holistic approach once again. Tey are not only concerned with the meanings of single words and their grammatical constructions. More broadly, they focus on language in terms of key terms, how they can be identifed, how meanings of the same words difer in varying verses, how such terms function as concepts, etc.15 Similarly, Wadud stresses the importance of the whole revelation and particular context of the relevant verse in understanding the meanings of key terms. She calls this a ‘dual process’ where each term is both kept in its specifc context and also understood according to the broader concerns of the text.16 Tis allows for the analysis of specifc terms in relation to all their occurrences within the Qur’anic text. Terms are thus interpreted intra-textually.

Ethically Orientated

Musawah argues that an ethically orientated reading, intent on advancing a systematic ethical framework, is fundamental. Tey stress that classical exegetes have put the emphasis on legal reasonings over ethical ones.

birr (righteousness, and graciousness), al-taqwa (piety, and god-consciousness), al-mawaddah (afection), al-rahmah (compassion), al-‘afw (tolerance, and magnanimity), and al-fadl (bountifulness, and giving generously).19 It is these principles that readings of the Qur’an must not oppose or contravene. Musawah stresses that the aforementioned ethical principles all occur in verses concerning women, marital relations, and divorce.20 Yet none of these principles infuence legal rulings concerning women, or issues relating to marriage and divorce. Tey further assert that seeking these Qur’anic ethics calls Muslims to a higher ethics of the self.21 Tis allows for these values to be linked to social justice work.

Connecting Lived Realities and a Gender-Just Qur’anic Methodology

Te utilisation of the Musawah approach has direct implications, not only on furthering understandings of the Qur’an, but also on the lives of Muslim women. Tese implications occur in two ways: frst, by developing a systematic Qur’anic ethical framework; second, by using this framework to reform legal rulings that are detached from the broader Qur’anic ethical vision. Similarly to the way in which slavery has become accepted as contrary to the moral trajectory and ethical intent of the Qur’an by contemporary Muslim communities, despite a strong history of slavery in the pre-modern Muslim world, Musawah’s Qur’anic methodology can likewise pave the way for patriarchal gender-biased understandings and legal rulings to be recognised as contrary to the Qur’anic intent.

15 Musawah, “Qur’anic Ethics on Marriage.”

16 Wadud, Qur’an and Woman, xiii

17 Musawah, “Qur’anic Ethics on Marriage.”

18 Kecia Ali, Sexual Ethics & Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith and Jurisprudence London: Oneworld Publications, 2006.

19 Musawah, “Qur’anic Ethics on Marriage.”

20 Musawah, “Qur’anic Ethics on Marriage.”

21 Musawah, “Qur’anic Ethics on Marriage.”

22 Musawah, “Qur’anic Ethics on Marriage.”

Musawah highlights the need to narrow the gap between theoretical conceptions of Qur’anic ethics and legal principles and rulings, which are overtly patriarchal.17

Te disconnect between the legalistic understandings of issues such as marriage and divorce from the broader Qur’anic ethical framework is also highlighted in the work of Kecia Ali, Sexual Ethics and Islam, in which she reveals how legal constructions of marriage, within Islamic legal texts, are based on the legal structures of slavery.18 Tey are not rooted in Qur’anic ethics.

Within this Qur’anic ethical framework, Musawah identifes ethical principles such as al-‘adl (justice), al-qist (fairness, equity, and equality), al-ma’ruf (goodness), al-ihsan (kindness, and moral beauty), al-

Musawah’s proposed Qur’anic methodology is a work in progress for their latest knowledge building research initiative. Despite no concrete output as yet, Musawah’s initial fndings highlight the possible direction their rereading of marriage verses will take. Teir methodology reveals four interconnected Qur’anic ethical domains that directly relate to the vision of marriage within the Qur’an.22 Te frst domain looks at how human and family relations are conceived in the Qur’an. Musawah points out that all humans are regarded as ontologically equal and created from a single essence (al-nafs alwāhidah) and its equal partner (zawj). Te second domain relates to the nature of marriage, which is presented in the Qur’an as a strong agreement between husband and wife (mīthaq ghalīz). Tird, Musawah highlights that marriage is described as a sign of God (ayāt) and a resting place, which must

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be guided by relational values such as al-muwaddah (afection) and al-rahma (compassion). Tese ethical values must be mutual if an egalitarian marriage partnership is to be achieved. Finally, the fourth domain is concerned with broader aspects of marriage and family relations such as choice of marriage partners, childcare, divorce, inheritance, etc. Musawah stresses that all of these areas are presented in the Qur’anic text in a specifc group of verses, all of which are defned by the Qur’an’s ethical values (the list of these values has been given above).23 Musawah emphasises that reading marriage verses within the context of these four ethical domains will uncover the egalitarian Qur’anic vision of marriage and family relations.

The methodology proposed by Musawah more broadly paves the way for reformation of existing patriarchal readings of the Qur’an.

For example, verses emphasised in patriarchal interpretations such as verses on polygamy (Qur’an 4:3), men as qawwamun (protectors and maintainers) (Qur’an 4:34) etc. can be reread through an ethical lens, allowing gender-just readings to emerge.24 Tis can in turn lead to the development of more egalitarian, ethically-informed Muslim family laws and a durable transformation of the realities of Muslim women.


Te Qur’anic approach emphasised by Musawah engages with the works of classical exegetes, situating it within the ‘tradition.’ However, it is also attentive and responsive to the needs and demands of contemporary Muslim communities. Trough demanding the recognition and advancement of a systematic Qur’anic ethical framework, such an approach not only reafrms the universality of the Qur’anic text but also allows for the reformation of legal rulings that contravene the foundational principles of the text. Musawah’s approach strives to reach understandings of the Qur’anic text that connect its ethical values and reasonings to the legal aspects. It stresses the right and duty of Muslim women to engage with and extract meaning from the Qur’an. Centring the reform of gender-biased legal rulings within the Qur’anic text is an approach that is both indispensable and authoritative for the Muslim community. It demonstrates that the fght for gender justice can be embedded within the Qur’an and its ethical framework.

23 Musawah, “Qur’anic Ethics on Marriage.” 24 “Men are in charge of women, because Allah has made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women). So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah has guarded. As for those from whom you fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and chastise them. Then if they obey you, seek not a way against them. Allah is ever High, Exalted, Great.” Qur’an 4:34, Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall translation.

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Film review – Te Judge

Te Multiple Pathways towards Gender Equality

HALA ALKARIB is an activist, writer and research practitioner from Sudan, and has a long history of promoting the rights of women in the Horn of Africa and East African region. She is the Regional Director of the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa and the Editorin-Chief of Women in Islam

Tere are several pathways to change, and Erika Cohn’s intimate and well-balanced documentary – Te Judge – explores how Kholoud Al-Faqih is making a diference for Palestinian women. Al-Faqih, who started her professional career as a lawyer defending female survivors of violence, is the frst woman judge to be appointed to shari’ah courts in Palestine. While the flm retraces her struggle to fnd her place in a maledominated justice system, it also reveals how shari’ah courts in Palestine, as in other Muslim societies, shape women’s realities by promoting a traditional vision of family life. Released in 2018, Te Judge showcases one of the many attempts by Muslim women to reclaim power and autonomy in their private and public lives.

Muslim Family Law: An Area of Much-Needed Reform

Te flm’s importance, in my view, lies in its subtle analysis of the power relations entrenched in Muslim family law. Shari’ah courts in Muslim societies govern matters of marriage, marital relations, guardianship, divorce, child custody and inheritance, to mention a few. Tese courts, whose decisions infuence women’s

everyday lives and social status, are almost exclusively controlled by men and guided by a deeply ingrained patriarchal ideology that shapes the understanding of family relations. For centuries, shari’ah courts have served patriarchal interests by obstructing women’s development and legitimising gender discrimination in both Sunni and Shia societies. Despite the development of the human rights framework and the gains made by Muslim women in recent decades, family law in Muslim-majority countries largely remains in the hands of traditional, conservative jurists.

Most of the jurisprudence (fqh) developed and referred to by shari’ah courts is based on traditional and classic jurists’ views and interpretations. As Al-Faqih asserts, most judges across the Muslim world apply “10th century ideas in the 21st century.” Tey approach traditional jurisprudence as sacred rather than addressing it as the product of individual jurists who meant to establish social, political and economic order in their societies and based on their historical context. Tis sanctifcation of fqh and the use of religion to consolidate political authority have hampered attempts to reform family law in Muslim societies.

Enlightened Pioneers

In the documentary, Erika Cohn captures Al-Faqih’s enlightened approach to her role as a Shari’ah court judge and a Muslim jurist. She illuminates Al-Faqih’s capacity to listen to both women and men, and exercise her authority while being aware of the limitations specifc to her context. Despite the pressure, Al-Faqih does not shy away from enforcing just and equitable interpretations of the Islamic faith. She does not hesitate to “throw a rock and stir the stagnant waters.” By challenging the status quo, Al-Faqih courageously contributes to transforming the practice of Muslim family law and infuencing societal conceptions of family relations and gender roles.

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Judge Kholoud at her desk

Te flm also highlights the role of Sheikh Tayseer AlTamimi, a forward-thinking Shari’ah judge who served as a Chief Justice. During his time in service, Al-Tamimi supported the appointment of female shari’ah judges despite the opposition of traditional and conservative actors. Te hiring of Al-Faqih and her colleague Asmahan Al-Wahidi in 2009 would not have been possible without his courage and perseverance. As this particular example demonstrates, the alliance between women leaders and progressive male jurists and scholars is ofen strategic in achieving breakthroughs for women.

Confronting Resentment with Wisdom and Hard Work

Te interviews with Palestinians, both male and female lawyers and ordinary citizens, reveal widespread scepticism about the capacity of women to act as shari’ah judges. Some believe that women are too emotional to be impartial judges, while others go as far as saying that women judges are hostile towards men and encourage divorce.

In contrast to these negative perceptions, the flm highlights Al-Faqih’s relentless work, and impressive ability to reconcile traditions, Islamic faith and the human rights of women and men in her court. As the flm progresses, it becomes obvious that her commitment and competencies generate respect and admiration among her colleagues and the community she serves.

Away from the courthouse, the documentary gives a glimpse of Al-Faqih’s day-to-day life as a mother and a wife. It follows her as she raises her four children, discusses marriage and divorce law with friends and neighbours, and visits her parents. It shows how AlFaqih embraces her many responsibilities, and is able to balance her personal and professional life with the same level of integrity and dedication.

Setback and Resilience

Film director Erika Cohn interviews Husam AlDeen Afanah, a conservative Islamic mufi (jurist), and outspoken critic of women serving as shari’ah judges. Dr. Afanah argues that there has not been a single female judge in Islamic history, and that no Islamic school of thought allows it. He strongly rejects Sheikh Al-Tamimi’s argument that tradition has overruled the more liberal essence of shari’ah and that Islamic

jurisprudence does not prevent women from becoming judges. As for Al-Faqih, she defends that being a judge in a family court is not a religious position, but a job to be performed based on qualifcations, knowledge and abilities, all of which women are more than capable of attaining.

One year afer appointing Al-Faqih, Sheikh AlTamimi was forced to retire and replaced by a conservative head judge, who sidelined Al-Faqih and her female colleague by removing their caseloads and reducing their role to administrative work. Tis situation did not deter Al-Faqih, who remained committed to regaining her authority as a judge. She continued to fght for her right and the right of other women to join the shari’ah court system. Eventually, both Al-Faqih and Al-Wahidi were reinstated in their positions and reassigned courtrooms, while more women were hired as judges in Palestine.

Te flm intelligently refects on Al-Faqih’s balanced personality and strengths, showing how she walks the fne line between observing Islamic traditions and culture, and enforcing justice and equal rights for women. In one of her cases, a man, who is already formally married, asks for a new marriage license. AlFaqih asks him to provide the formal consent of the frst wife, testifying that she is aware of and accepts her husband’s second marriage. Commenting on this situation, Al-Faqih explains that while she acknowledges that polygamy is allowed in Islam, she herself refuses to be part of a polygamous union, and does not encourage the practice. In another instance, we see Al-Faqih clearly speaking against domestic violence and making concrete decisions to protect the woman being abused. Taking this strong stance is no small feat in a society that still considers domestic violence a private matter.

Te documentary makes it apparent that Kholoud Al-Faqih is not only a woman judge but also a judge with a deep understanding of the challenges faced by women in her society. She is in touch with the complex realities of the women and men coming to her court. Erika Cohn portrays a frm but compassionate judge dedicated to ensuring that women are treated fairly within their families and society at large. Tis feminist documentary, in my view, is a must-see for all women living in Muslim societies and beyond.

Women in Islam, 2023 93

Te Battle Over Family Law in Egypt Shows Only the Personal Can Be Political, And Ten Only So Far

NATHAN J. BROWN, a Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University, is a distinguished scholar and author of six well-received books on Arab politics. His areas of expertise include Islamist movements, Egyptian politics, Palestinian politics, and Arab law and constitutionalism.

In Egypt over the past few years, the space for public discussion – much less contestation – about political issues has become as narrow as at any time over the past half century. Much discussion in Egypt (and among Egypt watchers) has been focused on the presidential initiative for some kind of national dialogue – a vaguely defned process that is expected to produce little concrete change but might be seen as a slight loosening of the strictures on political discussion for a small number of (generally fairly tame) actors. But in one area far from the unexciting news about an unpromising dialogue, Egypt has seen politics aplenty: family law reform.

An Oasis of Debate

1 Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, “A new report by EIPR: legal inconsistency in the inheritance distribution of Egyptian Christian women,” EIPR Press Release, May 16, 2022.

Te feld of family or “personal status” law is technical in some ways (precise legal provisions for guardianship or for registering divorces, for instance) but the details on such matters pack tremendous punch. All Egyptian citizens are subject to family law from the moment they are born (when their religion – and thus the family law that is applied to them – is entered on their identity papers) and even afer they die (when their property is distributed among their heirs1). Te stakes for Egyptian husbands and wives; those who are betrothed and those who are widowed or divorced; children and parents; and even grandparents and grandchildren can be high. Unsurprisingly, therefore, discussion of change has always attracted great attention.

Even in Egypt’s constricted public sphere, family law is a subject of lively debate and lobbying – and the country’s leadership has promised a comprehensive

new law. Yet the public debate and the private drafing seem disconnected – people are free to talk all they want, but a small number of ofcials will draf a law out of public view. And it is not clear what it will say.

Among the matters that have attracted the most debate in recent years are divorce rights and procedures for husbands and wives, visitation rights, child support payments, and the distribution of various facets of child custody and guardianship. On none of these is there any attempt by any signifcant actor to move outside of an Islamic legal framework or existing legal categories (many of which are derived from Islamic jurisprudence). So any discussion of family law in Egypt is flled with legal terms that come out of Islamic jurisprudence, generally involving the contractual aspects of a marriage or provisions for raising children. But for all the common vocabulary, variations in how those terms are defned, interpreted, and applied can be wide indeed. Even seemingly small changes in what a term means or how it is applied can have tremendous impact. For instance, how harm (darar) is defned – in either legal text or judicial practice – profoundly afects not merely whether a wife can seek divorce but also material claims in the event of a divorce and the balance of power in a troubled marriage. Te profound implications of subtle shifs in family law and ofcial practice have led to a large number of technical or legal questions becoming the focus of protracted wrangling. Te fnancial obligations of a husband divorcing his wife; how those are calculated and enforced; and the grounds for which a wife can ask a court to divorce her from her husband have been the subject of legal tinkering for a century.

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And it is not merely text that is at issue: enforcement mechanisms matter a great deal in determining whether a right in law exists in practice. Many areas marry the moral with the material: A mother caring for children is entitled to housing support from her former husband, raising the stakes in custody disputes. Rapid infation has decreased the value of the mahr (a sum given to the bride by the groom at the time of a wedding with a later portion sometimes promised to her in the event of divorce or the husband’s death), with deep social efects. Because of this infation, husbands who promised a large mahr in the event of divorce are less inhibited; but wives, too, fnd divorce through khul’ (a form of divorce, now the most common in Egypt, in which the wife does not need to claim abandonment or harm but is obligated to return the mahr) more attractive.

But not just real estate and money are at issue: many Egyptian fathers have complained that the law gives them few rights to see their children; mothers sometimes complain that they are deprived of say in some critical matters, or that they have trouble obtaining the support they are entitled to. Te precise blend of rights and obligations of divorced parents has thus been the subject of particularly intense tussling in recent years.

Is Religion the Issue or Not?

Te debates are sometimes broadly understood as pitting advocates for religious tradition against advocates for women’s rights. And certainly proponents for religion in public life and for gender equality are active participants in the debate. Since the drafing of the 1971 constitution (when a very general gender equality clause was qualifed by reference to the rulings of the Islamic sharia’h), some arguments are framed precisely as pitting two camps against each other. Te country’s current constitution has perhaps the least qualifed endorsement of gender equality, but that language remains vague and its precise meaning uncertain because of the deeply gendered nature of Egyptian family law, based as it is on Islamic jurisprudential conceptions of marriage as involving reciprocal but not identical rights and duties between husband and wife.

But even on a philosophical or ideological level, much more is involved than quoting religious texts,

constitutional clauses, or international human rights standards. Advocates of religious law ofen posit that it is actually quite protective of women; advocates of women’s rights similarly argue that their demands are completely consistent with divine guidance properly understood. Debates sometimes therefore seem to be less about diferences of principle than disagreements about authority. Who can speak for religious or legal standards is ofen as divisive an issue as what those standards say.

And on a practical level, understanding the debate solely as one between Islamism and feminism misses much of what Egyptians actually experience. In real life, the issues are complex and sometimes leave the abstract debates quickly behind. Te most searing conficts can go much deeper than sloganeering about religion, secularism, liberalism, and cultural authenticity. Te practices being regulated by the state reach deep into family life and have grown up along with a host of social practices that seek to steer them, build on them, or mitigate their efects. Negotiations during an engagement ofen focus far more on precise arrangements governing housing and major appliances, where law and religion provide only the vaguest guidance. And most reform proposals being discussed in Egypt today start with such social realities (and attempts to modify them) rather than abstract principles.

It is legal, for instance, for a husband to have more than one wife, though it may sometimes earn him moral disapproval. But social pressures and expectations, while strong, are not the only strictures governing the practice. Tose are applied within a legal framework that has changed its approach to the fne print of such marriages. Debate and contestation have thus centred on a set of detailed questions: Must a husband notify his frst wife? Is she entitled to ask a court for divorce if she wishes? How will courts calculate his material obligations? A total ban on polygamy has been mooted on occasion, but even advocates for women’s rights have hesitated before pressing the idea too hard for fear that a husband wishing to marry a second wife would be incentivised to divorce and abandon his frst wife rather than continue to provide for her.2

Nor is the law always what matters most. Ofen legal texts seem secondary to the practices that can give them

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2 Hadeer ElMahdawy, 3Q&A with lawyer Azza Soliman: The campaign for a Just Family Law,” Mada, April 20, 2022.

meaning (or vitiate them) regarding how papers are served, where visitation takes place, and how incomes can be uncovered or concealed. In discussions of actual family disputes, one quickly enters into a world where people scramble to use or avoid the rules in ways that are barely visible in legal texts themselves. Reformers in the past have been aware of this, attempting to shif the system in subtle ways from one that is largely adjudicative to one that works for conciliation, counselling, problem-solving, and remembering the interest of children. Such eforts have been limited in part by resources: the Egyptian state does not have the depth of personnel necessary to run a system that fully incorporates social workers and family counsellors, though some initial forays have been made.

Politics Without Process; Process without Politics

Te debate about the law confronts some complicated social realities, but it is not only the detailed and technical nature of the thorny issues that makes the politics opaque. What makes the issue especially hard to follow is that the politicking, while intense, is only partially in public view. Many actors have come forward with proposals for a comprehensive new family law. Some parliamentarians in the 2016–2020 body pushed their ideas, but their proposals were shunted aside while the government drafed its own proposal. Tat process was protracted and very uncertain – in February 2021, a draf was fnally ready and was initially presented as coming from the cabinet, but it was pulled from public view one day afer it appeared without explanation. Other bodies have moved ahead with their own proposals. Most notably, Al-Azhar, the leading voice of ofcial Islam in the country, made a move to transition from being reactive (criticising those ideas being foated that it found inconsistent with Islamic law) to being proactive. Mindful of its constitutional role as the main reference for Islamic knowledge, Al-Azhar’s most senior body – the Council of Senior Scholars – fnally weighed in with its full proposed draf in 2019. It was a bold move, but it was not welcomed by some advocates for women’s rights, who charged that its provisions were a move backward in their eyes. Other groups and individuals have fooded public discussions with a host of suggestions, amendments, and comprehensive drafs. A coalition of women’s rights groups launched a “Just Family Law” campaign earlier this year with its own set of proposals.

What is notable about the debate is not the participants or the positions – these have been somewhat consistent over years and even decades – but the politics. In post-2013 Egypt it is impossible to fnd an area in which there is such cacophonous and public debate with such a wide range of proposals and opinions: women’s rights groups, father’s rights advocates, religious scholars, and others all have weighed in. Some of these voices are not merely opinions but carry ofcial weight (such as the National Council for Women, parliamentarians, and Al-Azhar). One of the most striking moments of public discord within the Egyptian state came when the country’s president publicly clashed with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar about provisions for husbands divorcing their wives orally. Te dispute was a bit more technical than it appeared (Al-Azhar’s position is that oral divorce is valid but it is legitimate for the state to ask for ofcial procedures registering the divorce before it is ofcially recognised), but the televised disagreement continues to reverberate in public discussion.

But that debate, while fully visible, seems disconnected from any actual policy and authoritative drafing process. Even as the noisy discussion has played out in the public sphere, there has been a quiet efort inside ministerial bodies and the cabinet – with unknown participants and procedures. So in public, arguments and politics seem to spin as if the debate will afect the outcome.3 But the debate seems inefectual in practice and the various participants do a far better job of articulating their own positions rather than speaking to each other. Meanwhile, ofcials are free to act without regard to what is played out in public.

In May 2022, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi called into a television broadcast, cited his responsibility for Egyptian families, and called for a new law. Te next month, he pushed the minister of justice to form a body to come up with a fnal answer – or at least a fnal

96 Women in Islam, 2023
3 Nathan J. Brown, Arguing Islam after the Revival of Arab Politics , (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

proposal that should fnd its way to the parliament, where deputies are already making clear that they are hoping for a draf that will address most difcult issues in a manner that will satisfy all the competing demands.

So who are those who have been asked to fnd their way through the thicket and draf a law that will satisfy all these competing claims? Some observers quickly noted that the body is male-dominated. But just as remarkable is that it is formed exclusively of judicial personnel and is doing its work behind closed doors. It excludes representatives from Al-Azhar or concerned civil society groups. Te committee has six months (subject to extension) to develop a comprehensive proposal. But it is not clear how (or if) it will consult with interested actors. By handing the matter to the committee, the regime has not forestalled the public debate, which continues to be quite lively. But it has disconnected any clear link between that debate and any eventual outcome.

An Imposed Consensus?

If the committee’s task is to incorporate all voices, that is likely impossible: there are too many interested

parties who have staked out public positions to satisfy all demands. Te committee’s makeup and operating procedure suggests it is more likely that there will be an outcome but not a resolution. When it comes to family law, Egyptian politics is lively—so much so that it seems difcult for any decision to be made that does not spark unhappiness in an infuential quarter. And family law is unique among all areas of Egyptian life in that debate in society has led to gridlock thus far. It remains to be seen if the judges can break it; if they do so, it may be more by shutting the debate out than by steering it toward agreement, compromise, or consensus.


Republished with permission from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The piece originally appeared on the website www.carnegieendowment.org on 12 July 2022.

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Illustration by IBRAHIM SAYED, Sudan

Women in Islam reflects the opinions and concerns of women living in traditional societies that use religion to determine what women can and cannot do. I was very impressed by the references to the Qur’an and Islamic jurisprudence to challenge those who exploit religion to control women. This journal calls for a deeper understanding of the ways in which religion views women in all aspects of life. I find myself in agreement with Ziba Mir-Hosseini’s vision of Islamic feminism and her argument that patriarchy and authoritarian politics must be addressed concomitantly. The latest issue of the journal exposes the many forms of violence and discrimination women experience, such as forced marriages, trafficking, stigma and exclusion. It demonstrates that the customs, traditions, and laws used to oppress women have nothing to do with the Qur’an but rather with human invention. True Islam calls for equality, dignity and justice for all. Muhammad Abu Awf, a Sudanese reader

Women in Islam addresses varied and unique topics, which makes it an interesting and pleasurable read. I was particularly interested in the dossier in the fifth issue about women and revolutions. It brought back memories of the December revolution in Sudan and its slogans, including: “Listen up girls, stay strong, it’s a girl revolution!” When reading about the contribution of African Muslim women in political and social mobilisation, I recalled the noble women of Wadi Howar, and their role in feeding the people who participated in Khartoum’s utopian sit-in in 2019. Shaymā Tāj As-Sirr, a Sudanese Attorney

I read the fifth issue of Women in Islam very carefully and found the content so engaging that I ordered all the previous issues! The journal explores a wide range of topics from the profiles of influential women – such as Aisha Musa, member of the Sudanese Transitional Sovereign Council, or female imam Ani Zonneveld – to the legacy and experiences of African groups in the Middle East and South Asia or the stories of women survivors escaping Salafist groups in Kenya. (…) The journal provides food for thought in an enjoyable and visually pleasing format. It is bold, beautiful, and definitely worthy of reading! Khalid Faddul, a Sudanese Columnist

Thank Allah; Islam has honoured and dignified women! (…) As the poet Salah Karamallah said: the woman was not created from the head of the man so that she would not be higher than him, and not from his feet so that she would not be beneath him, but she was created from his side to be his equal. I commend the journal for raising crucial topics such as forced marriage, the experiences of women in conflict zones, the struggle of Sudanese women for equality and justice, and their heroic role in the revolution. The article about the stigma and isolation faced by childless women in Sudanese society particularly drew my attention. It shows how women are blamed for the failure to procreate despite the progress of science, and how they suffer from it. There is also a nice photo story about the sit-in and protests during the revolution in Sudan. I thank SIHA Network for producing this interesting journal and putting the focus on women and their issues. Fathiya An-Noor Saeed, a Sudanese Housewife

Women in Islam has been a very interesting read and an inspiration to my team at Addis Powerhouse, particularly in the development of our local newsletter in Ethiopia. The way the journal intersects feminist art in its narration of familiar yet bold stories makes for consistent, enjoyable and high quality content. The article “Women on stage: voices from behind the wall” featured in Issue 5 is a colourful depiction of a blooming sisterhood between Romisa, a young woman from Sudan, and Muslim women performers from her birthplace, and is quite frankly one of my favourites. In this piece, Romisa reflects on how the Sudanese women she interacts with are silenced by the same exclusionary system that affected her in the West, and her commitment to stand with them, even when their shackles are very different from her own Hanna Lemma, Founder and Director of Addis Powerhouse, Ethiopia

SIHA Journal Issue 05/2021 WOMEN IN ISLAM SIHA Journal Issue No. 5 9 770231 104143 DOSSIER: Women in Re voluti on Why Islamic Feminism? Muslim women's quest for gender justice within Islam Traffcked on the Kenyan Coast Women survivors refect on their experiences at the hands of human trafckers From the Personal to the Political Te struggle of Sudanese women in politics af the revolution :ﻒﻠﻤﻟا ةرﻮﺜﻟاو ءﺎﺴﻨﻟا ﺔﻳﻮﺴﻨﻟا ،اذﺎﻤﻟ ،ﺔﻴﻣﻼﺳ ا ؟ن اذﺎﻤﻟو تمﻠﺴﳌا ءﺎﺴﻨﻟا تﺎﻌﻠﻄﺗ ةاوﺎﺴﳌاو ﺔﻟاﺪﻌﻟا ﻮﺤﻧ ﻲﺼﺨﺸﻟا ﻦﻣ ﻲﺳﺎﻴﺴﻟا ﻰﻟإ تﺎﻴﻧادﻮﺴﻟا ءﺎﺴﻨﻟا عﺎﺿوأ ﺔﻴﺳﺎﻴﺴﻟا ﺔﻛرﺎﺸﻤﻠﻟ ﻦﻬﻴﻌﺳو ةرﻮﺜﻟا ﺪﻌﺑ ﺎﻣ نادﻮﺳ ﰲ رﺎﺠﺗ ﺎﻳﺎﺤﺿ ﻰﻓ ﺮﺸﺒﻟﺎﺑ ﻞﺣﺎﺴﻟا ﺔﻘﻄﻨﻣ ﻲﻨﻴﻜﻟا ﻦﻬﺑرﺎﺠﺗ ﻦﻋ يﻜﺤﻳ تﺎﻴﺟﺎﻧ ﴩﺒﻟا رﺎﺠﺗ يدﺎﻳأ ﲆﻋ ﺔﺤﻴﺻ ﺔﻜﺒﺷ ﺎﻫرﺪﺼﺗ ﺔﻳرود ﺔﻠﺠﻣ / ٥ دﺪﻌﻟا
98 Women in Islam, 2023

Women in Islam reflects women’s aspirations for justice and equality and documents the violations they have suffered due to society’s narrow perceptions of their roles. The fifth issue examines in depth the reasons for the exclusion of Sudanese women from the political sphere and the revolution, including the impact of the guardianship model and gender stereotypes. (…) I was very impressed by the review of the book by Asma Lamrabet - Women in the Qur'an: An Emancipatory Reading. This book provides invaluable insight into the ways religion is misinterpreted and used to perpetuate violence against women and justify male guardianship over them. It is rich in content and explains how, why, and by whom women’s rights are violated. Azza Muhammad Abdallah, a Sudanese Journalist

My experience reading Women in Islam can simply be described as eye opening. Issue 5 was especially efficacious in capturing how women’s religious identity can affect their journey as women fighting for gender equality. The most interesting read for me was the article titled Trafficked by Al-Shabaab: Stories of Kenyan Women Returnees. It is impossible to relate and stand in solidarity without amplifying the stories of survivors. This issue was successful in doing that through offering unique perspectives of women in the Horn of Africa. I also appreciate the captivating graphics throughout the journal that made the experiencing of reading Women in Islam informative and enjoyable at the same time. Yordanos Nega, Ethiopia.

The journal is quite intriguing and shows the many challenges Muslim women are confronted with, while highlighting the diversity of issues faced by Muslims in Africa and around the globe. This publication exposes the discrimination faced by women in the name of religion. Please continue your efforts to expose such realities and how certain people misinterpret religion for their own political ends. Sadia Ahmed, Director of Administration and Finance, Ministry of Religion, Somaliland


Do you wish to highlight the challenges, experiences and achievements of women living in and alongside Muslim communities? Do you want to contribute to the growing voices against prejudice and gender inequality within Muslim societies?

Send your article or essay to: journal@sihanet.org

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This report examines the evolution of the women’s movement in Somaliland and some of the challenges encountered by women’s rights advocates. It demonstrates how the SomaliaSomaliland confict of the 1980s and 1990s continues to infuence gender relations and the dynamics of women’s rights activism in the self-declared independent nation. It also gives a comprehensive snapshot of current gender inequalities in Somaliland, and how they hinder women’s ability to push for equality and to infuence laws, policies, and the political agenda. Finally, it provides insight into how to strengthen the women’s movement and bridge key gender gaps in Somaliland.


This research paper was released before the military coup of October 2021 brought the democratic transition in Sudan to a standstill. It provides a historical analysis of the women’s movement in Sudan, and examines its role in the revolution that led to the overthrow of dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019, outlining the strengths and challenges of the Sudanese women’s movement, and the potential avenues to enhance women’s meaningful participation in peacebuilding and the political transition processes. As Sudanese women organise to restore civilian rule in the country, it provides useful recommendations and highlights the need for the government and other political actors to shift their approach towards women’s rights and gender equality.


Amani’s Diary is a comic book that calls attention to the normalisation of gender-based violence (GBV) in South Sudan. The story depicts the life of Amani, a 15-year-old girl living in a small town north of Juba.Amani’s experiences speaks to the challenges faced by many girls in South Sudan, who grow up in abusive family environments, are exposed to physical and sexual violence, or are forced to marry at a young age. Designed as an educational tool, this comic book provides information on how to prevent and respond to GBV in an accessible format, and challenges some of the gender stereotypes and harmful practices that are still prevalent in South Sudan.

For further publications, resources and the latest updates from our work, visit www.sihanet.org

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Women in Islam, 2023 99
A Policy Paper by the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA Network)

SIHA, the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa Network, was born of the social justice movement. Since 1995, it has grown to a membership of over 100 indigenous African women’s rights organisations. SIHA works in a variety of cultural, political, and geographical environments in Uganda, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia, Somaliland, Sudan, and South Sudan.

SIHA firmly believes in the collective power of African women. The network was built on the shoulders of women’s rights activists from the Horn of Africa, and has been sustained by their

relentless commitment to advance gender equality and their cause. As an inclusive and diverse feminist women’s rights network, we draw strength from the multiplicity of women’s experiences and voices.

SIHA's vision is that all women and girls in the Horn of Africa have the right to live in a peaceful, just environment, and to exercise their equal rights as human beings. To make this vision a reality, SIHA aims to unlock the massive potential of feminist and women’s rights movements in the region by strengthening and supporting collective action for social and political change.

SIHA acknowledges that almost all challenges that women face are based on socially and politically constructed norms that actively subordinate women. Thus, our work foregrounds fundamental political transformation, with a focus on challenging political repression, fundamentalism, and restrictive traditions.

SIHA is committed to generating and disseminating knowledge informed by women’s lived realities and day-to-day struggles. Women in Islam is one of SIHA’s many publications.

Issue No. 6, 2023
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