Shari’ah: Divine Law or Gender Oppression?

A harsh campaign to step-up enforcement of Iran’s strict dress code is creating another example of the potential for Islamic law (or Shari’ah) to stifle personal freedoms.

Today, the BBC reports on the situation in Iran:

Police say they stopped more than 1,300 women for dressing immodestly on the first day of the campaign in Tehran.

More than 100 women were arrested on Saturday; half of them had to sign statements promising to improve their clothing, the other half are being referred to court.

The focus of the new campaign is to stop women wearing tight overcoats that reveal the shape of their bodies or showing too much hair from beneath their headscarves.

However, young men have also been arrested for sporting wild hair styles or T-shirts considered immodest. […]

[Read the rest on BBC]

While I’ll concede that my Western rearing may have imbued in me values decidedly different from those held in Iran and the rest of the Middle East, what is undeniable here is that the Iranian government is wasting vast amounts of resources enforcing a superficial morality, and punishing those who obviously do not internally adhere to the doctrine – this seems inherently backwards.

But while being arrested for improper dress may be ludicrous, it is perhaps the most benign abuse of human rights to date supposedly mandated by the Shari’ah.

In a high-profile case in 2002, a woman raped in Pakistan was originally convicted of adultery and sentenced to be stoned to death. By her own account and medical evidence, Zafran Bibi had been raped – but according to Pakistan’s archaic laws blended with the Shari’ah, the asbsence of four male witnesses to the rape was enough evidence for an adultery conviction. Thankfully, the verdict was overturned – but I would argue that this was largely due to the international community’s attention to the case, not to a sudden government moral epiphany.

Human rights Watch has also written about gender oppression in North Africa and the Middle East being legitimized by the Shari’ah – state and religious laws in these countries allow women no agency, even over their own bodies. In some countries, domestic abuse cases are non-existent simply because there are no laws against rape or beating within wedlock; women’s interactions with the state (in simple actions such as voting) are only allowed through male members of the family.

While this post can certainly do little justice to this complex topic, I wanted to express my feeling that dialogue over Islam-legitimized gender oppression is getting stifled under the guise of religious tolerance – and I would argue that it is this mechanism, this “dare you defy the word of God?” attitude, that has allowed this gender oppression to be perpetuated.

We ought to examine and challenge moral codes critically, despite whatever claims to legitimacy, in order to create humane societies.

Please feel free to comment – I’d be interested in hearing others’ opinions.

(Recommended reading: Nawal El Saadawi – Woman at Point Zero)

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