- Women, the Koran and International Human Rights Law: The Experience of Pakistan
Around the globe Muslims are being drawn into disputes about how their religious doctrines relate to women’s international human rights. Controversies rage over whether Islam can embrace equality in rights or can only endorse an “equality” encumbered by numerous qualifications. Publications on this topic have proliferated, ranging from ones defending traditional Islamic rules and deprecating any conflicting principles of women’s international human rights to ones asserting that, when correctly understood, Islam supports the ideals of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Women’s Convention).1 A dramatic flourishing of Islamic feminism has recently challenged formerly ascendant patriarchal ideals, which feminists argue [End Page 1155] were improperly imported into the Islamic tradition, where they subsequently influenced laws at the national level. Meanwhile, Islamist movements that espouse reactionary interpretations of the Islamic sources have inspired Islamization programs in several countries that have set back women’s rights.
Niaz Shah’s book has the character of a montage, offering selected personal reactions by a Sunni Pakistani to the competing visions of women’s rights that are in circulation. Shah’s approach to the Qur’an, Pakistani cases and laws, and international law affords an illustration of what some Muslims consider to be the issues that matter most and which authorities should be consulted. They indicate how readily educated Muslims engaged in assessing women’s rights now shift back and forth in consulting Islamic sources, national laws, and international human rights law. As often happens where authors are immersed in controversies about women’s rights in Islam, there is more interest in discussing various substantive rules than in ensuring theoretical and methodological coherence. Thus, for example, in Shah’s arguments, Islam and women’s international human rights are sometimes portrayed as compatible, while at other times he writes as if they diverge and as if the claims of Islamic culture should supersede those of the Women’s Convention.
On occasion Shah speaks of the Qur’an as aiming to give women equality, and he criticizes various discriminatory Pakistani cases and laws, treating them as deviating from what he sees as the equality principle in the Islamic Revelation. He proposes that if one takes “a holistic view” of the Qur’an and sees its verses in their proper context, one appreciates that it “has given women equal rights in all spheres of life.”2 However, Shah shows considerable ambivalence about whether the kind of equality that is provided in instruments like the Women’s Convention can actually be squared with Islam or whether such equality is even desirable. At various junctures he suggests that cultural relativists have valid grounds for objecting to international human rights, and he opines that “universalists should refrain from imposing their ‘sole’ standards on the rest of the world.”3 More specifically, he proposes that “the women’s human rights system should be sensitised to Islamic human rights principles.”4
Shah squarely endorses the complementarity thesis, asserting that the Qur’an “does prescribe different social roles for different sexes.”5 In this he sides with Islamist ideologues and governments of Muslim countries that have used the complementarity thesis to justify their resistance to women’s international human rights. Muslims who accept the thesis that men and women are designed by Nature to play distinct, complementary social roles do not agree that laws that assign different rights to women and men are necessarily discriminatory. The complementarity thesis has been vigorously criticized by feminists, both inside and outside Muslim countries, as a device to deflect criticisms of laws and policies maintaining patriarchal authority and relegating women to a subordinate, domestic role. In this connection, Shah seems [End Page 1156] to believe that, whereas the Women’s Convention does give women the right to work, it is deficient if “a woman chooses to be a housewife,” a choice “that must be respected.”6 How the Women’s Convention fails to respect a woman’s choosing...