Water Provision Improves Girls Education (2-3)
The timely, thought-provoking essays of this book provide valuable evidence of the impact of different gender and faith perspectives on practical development issues while also highlighting the complexities and ambiguities of religious influences. Development workers, researchers and social activists will gain from these studies a greater awareness and more critical understanding of how different religious beliefs and practices, whether of Christianity, Buddhism or Islam in the Middle East, Asia, Africa or Latin America, can either be a potential barrier or alternatively a strong incentive for social change.’
Legal matters which concern women in their role as wives and mothers – for example, disputes over inheritance, marriage, divorce, and child custody – are therefore commonly conducted or resolved within the Islamic legal system rather than the parallel Nigerian civil legal system.
In questioning such issues, Muslim feminists have found themselves in the middle of a conflict between Islam and the ‘West’, facing a double-edged sword. The importance and relevance of women’s participation in the Islamic movement, and the emergence of Islamic women’s movements in the Muslim world, have been interpreted by some as ‘an ambiguous political struggle’, where women are on the one hand ‘fighting actively against their inequality, but on the other [are] accepting or supporting their own subordination’. But despite conflicting interpretations of our struggle, the fact of the matter is that Muslim women activists are confronting issues of concern to the generality of Muslim women; and we are doing so in our own way. This chapter is my personal reflection on this struggle. What are the consequences for women who attempt to reform gender relations in Muslim societies? What problems do we encounter, and how do they relate to the ideas, plans, and programmes of GAD? GAD, Islam, and the West GAD can be seen as a battlefield in which the conflict between Islam and the West is played out in Muslim societies. While much writing on women and development in Muslim societies from Western academic researchers and media commentators shows a lack of understanding and bias, GAD is viewed with suspicion by some Muslim scholars as offering a means to the West to wipe out the values and beliefs of Muslim societies. Some Western writers do indeed suggest that Muslim women challenging women’s oppression within Muslim northern Nigeria 99 may be used to attack Islam and undermine Islamic values. Mervyn Hiskett, for example – a British scholar who has spent years in Northern Nigeria and who has written on how to deal with the expansion of Islam in the West – describes women as ‘Islam’s Achilles’ heel’; his solution is the assimilation of Muslim women into ‘Western’ culture.
Bugaje, a Nigerian Islamic scholar, who is a liberal on gender issues, echoed these suspicions in his 1997 discussion of women’s empowerment: ‘these two decades, during which the UN championed the globalization of women’s issues, happened to be the two decades during which the UN became increasingly a tool in the hands of a few Western nations who were using it to achieve their selfish political goals. … This left many Muslims unsure about the role of the UN in respect of women’s issues’. While I would wish to challenge such general suspicions on the part of Muslim scholars, they are borne out to some extent by certain UN documents dealing with women, which emphasize individual rights more than responsibilities and community rights. Moreover, the incompatibility of the documents with some Islamic values – especially regarding inheritance law, moral values and practice, and the role and nature of the family – is apparent. For instance, Article 15.4 of the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) says: ‘States Parties shall accord to men and to women the same rights with regard to the law relating to the movement of persons and the freedom to choose their residence and domicile’. While this may seem reasonable, problems arise in practice for Muslim women, since it is incompatible with Islamic ideas of household relations, and the division of responsibility between husband and wife. Once a marriage contract is fully concluded and enacted, it is the husband’s responsibility to provide the material and sexual needs of his wife. In return, the movements and activities of the wife outside the household need the consent of the husband. In Hausa society, the principle of male responsibility for maintenance is reinforced by the fact that it is seen as socially appropriate for a wife to seek divorce if her husband fails to support her. Records from courts in Sokoto from 1988 to 1998 show that 53 per cent of the civil cases brought before the court (not all of which are concerned with divorce) are maintenance-related.
Other principles adopted in international documents carry similar messages. In the Forward-Looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women, agreed at the Third World Conference on Women in Nairobi in 1991, the 50th paragraph agrees that women should have equal rights with men in matters of inheritance. This is incompatible with the Islamic law of inheritance, which gives women half of what men inherit due to the laws regarding men’s responsibility to maintain women.
Moreover, UN documents do not recognize the abuse of women’s economic rights inherent within the current Western development model. They therefore fail as an instrument for Muslim women to use in fighting the mismanagement and exploitation of resources in the developing world, both by the elites within those societies, and those in the West.
Even if such suspicions are unfounded, and GAD programmes are not in principle intended to undermine Islamic values, the exclusion of religion from development discourse and practice is in itself Western in orientation, and contrary to Islamic principle. Perhaps more importantly, it is unrealistic. The lives of women in many Muslim societies, including those of Northern Nigeria, challenge the idea of considering gender issues separately from religion: Islam is not just a religion to which we claim allegiance, or which we mark through performing rituals. It is a total way of life, and we aspire to conduct our lives according to its teachings. In her study of the influence of Islam and Western education on women in Sokoto, northern Nigeria, Knipp identifies three categories of women: non-Western-educated women, young women, and professional women.
Some of their words are presented here.
A non-Western-educated woman says: ‘Islam is a great influence on what I say and do, what my relation is supposed to be with my husband, my family and my children’. Another woman explains: ‘Most things that you do in life are guided by the religion: whatever you do, you do for God’s sake. … Islam is my religion … it guides one as to how he’s going to lead his life’. A young university student says that ‘every single thing, how to enter a toilet, how to stay with others, how to acquire knowledge, everything is in the Qur’an … personally, to me, Qur’an is everything’. One professional womAn states: ‘Islam is a way of life, not a part of life; whatever I do, I hope it conforms with the religion, so more or less all my behaviour, all my acts, I’m praying they conform with the religion. It is more or less my own way of life’. It can be seen from these words that any GAD initiative which is based on the idea of a separation between women’s religious and gender identities will risk alienating and excluding many Muslim women.
By Ursula King Bristol University, 04/05/2012