Rahaf Al-Qunun’s predicament became a cause célèbre in the West. Her plight, which is sadly familiar to many Muslim women, also presents an important opportunity.
Facing the death penalty for shaming her family and renouncing Islam were justifications for granting asylum in Canada, but her safety will require state security to thwart death threats.
Although some Saudi journalists claimed the intense publicity was intended to blacken the kingdom’s image, and the teen was simply a rebellious girl running from family problems, real dangers lurk for independent-minded Saudi women. Al-Qunun, who has changed her family name to Mohammed, pledged to encourage and help other Saudi women who seek freedom from gender-based discriminatory laws.
Ironically, Saudi Arabia is in the throes of a women’s reform project led by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS), and initiated previously by King Abdullah. Notwithstanding recent reforms such as the right to drive and train as pilots, Saudi women face cultural and religious restrictions.
Autocratic rule has allowed MbS to introduce reforms by decree, and imprison women activists who seek to make changes themselves, particularly to ‘guardianship laws.’ Male guardians, usually family members, are required to consent in matters of education, health, marriage, employment and travel. Women who defy their guardian risk being charged with ‘disobedience’. Saudi clerics who try to enforce strict sharia fear that dangerous Westernisation lures the youth away from their religion and culture.
But the genie of reform has escaped, and changes in discriminatory laws seem inevitable as Saudi youth interact eagerly with social media and the global world.
Unlike Saudi Arabia, other Muslim majority countries with patriarchal societies and laws built on sharia are not pursuing significant reforms.
In Iran, posting a video of your group dancing to Pharrell Williams’ Happy, removing your hijab and swinging it on a stick in the street, or indeed any form of ‘bad hijab,’ are punishable offences. For girls, the legal age of marriage is set at thirteen. Same-sex activity is criminalised. The law of tamkin requires a woman’s obedience and unrestricted sexual submission to her husband. Divorce is very difficult for women but a husband can divorce his wife unilaterally and without grounds. Other laws impose inequality in court testimony and inheritance.
Desire for individual freedom has drawn many young Iranians to an underground lifestyle, with rock music, parties, secular clothing and cohabitation known as ‘white marriage’. Religious authorities have turned a blind eye to this ‘Westoxified’ conduct if kept out of the public domain.
In Afghanistan, women are locked up for the ‘moral’ crime of running away from home. Reforms that had outlawed forced marriage, domestic violence, rape, and baad, the barter of girls to resolve disputes, were passed by presidential decree but not ratified by parliament.
Under Pakistani law, extramarital sex is a criminal offence. Domestic violence is rife and estimated to occur in 80 per cent of homes. This violence includes thousands of honour killings and choola (‘stove deaths’) in which a woman is soaked with fuel and set alight. The death is then ascribed to a burst kitchen stove. Reasons for the murders include failure to bear a son or a husband who wishes to marry a second wife but can’t afford to keep the first. In parts of Indonesia, Malaysia, Somalia, Nigeria and Mali, extremists enforce harsh patriarchy and strict sharia on women.
Despite the such violations in many Muslim majority countries, academia and feminists sympathetic to cultural relativism have largely ignored the sexism they would condemn in their own societies. Nor have they championed Pakistani Christian Asia Bibi, acquitted of blasphemy but still in hiding from violent mobs.
The UN’s foundational Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is committed to equal gender rights. However, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a large bloc of Muslim-majority states, adopted the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI) based on sharia. In effect, the CDHRI renounced the UDHR to which OIC members were already signatories. In a bizarre move, the UN recently elected Yemen, the lowest-ranking country on world gender equality, as a vice-president of the UN-Women Executive Board.
By not defending basic women’s rights in Muslim majority countries, the feminist movement and the UN have allowed entrenched sexist discrimination to persist. Instead, they should have endorsed and promoted the recommendations of the Arab Human Development Report 2005: Towards the Rise of Women in the Arab World, prepared by the UN, which declared, ‘An Arab renaissance cannot be accomplished without the rise of women,’ and urged Muslim countries to adopt the 1981 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, aimed at combatting sexual discrimination. Although mostly ratified, it was plagued by reservations of Muslim states that considered the provisions counter to sharia. The ADHR urged Muslim states to amend their laws and revoke the pretext of conflict with national law. If women’s rights are universal, as outlined in the UDHR and the Convention, then gender discrimination must be fought and conquered. If the CDHRI has equal recognition, Islamic restrictions on women’s rights are deemed acceptable, and by implication, any religious or culture-bound sexism can be sanctioned.
Muslim women activists such as Mohammed are clear on this issue and press for changes to oppressive laws by virtue of universal rights. However, the ideology of cultural relativism is a barrier to objective criteria. Unopposed, it also damages the values and hard-won laws that protect rights for all people in Western democratic societies.
Abandoning the relativist position would assist the integration of a growing Muslim population in the West, support reform in Muslim majority countries and put pressure on those resistant to reform.
Mohammed’s flight to Canada offers a timely opportunity to review the universalist versus relativist dilemma, and settle a lamentable impasse that obstructs women’s reform in Muslim majority societies, fractures UN foundations and undermines objective standards in the West.
Ida Lichter is the author of ‘Muslim Women Reformers: Inspiring Voices Against Oppression’ (Prometheus)