Nyla Ali Khan
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has issued new laws to allow women to apply for passports and travel without male guardians. The new laws, which will be implemented at the end of August 2019, “allow women to register a marriage, divorce, or a child’s birth, and obtain official family documents, which could ease hurdles women faced in obtaining a national identity card and enrolling their children in school.”
This change attracted the attention of news organizations worldwide, including in posts from The City Sentinel Online and CapitolBeatOK, an online news service.
Although women can now be legal guardians of their children, a woman still cannot leave a domestic abuse shelter, marry, pass on citizenship to her children, or give her children unilateral permission to marry without male consent.
It is important for readers to understand how gender (the understanding of male/female difference in societies) is constructed, reproduced, and transformed in Islamic societies. What role does religion play in shaping gender roles and gender expectations?
What differences do we find in the status of women in various Muslim countries and their relative equality or inequality with men? Saudi Arabia does not represent the “Muslim world” (a misnomer in and of itself).
Of the global population, 1.6 billion peole subscribe to Islam. No single country or culture defines Muslim life or belief. In the classes that I teach on “Women and Islam,” I remind students that all Arabs are not Muslims, and all Muslims are not Arabs.
An informed readership would compare Muslim women’s and men’s lives in a wide variety of cultures. Such a readership would focus on issues that concern Muslim women and men and that have brought them to the attention of international organizations, such as rights, citizenship, and refugee status as well as the role and interventionist politics of the developed world — the United States and Western European countries — in Muslim countries.
Culture inscribes a wide range of experiences which centralizing institutions attempt to render invisible and homogeneous. But people in Muslim countries are positioned in relation to their own class and cultural identities; their own relations to the West; their interpretations of religious law; and their concepts of the role of women and men in contemporary society.
Sharia law is not monolithic, and is interpreted differently by the four schools of thought – with Sunni jurisprudence and the schools of thought within Shia jurisprudence, prominent of which is the Ja’fari school. Muslim Personal Law, contrary to popular belief in the West, is not set in stone. Tunisia, for instance, is working its way to give Muslim women equal inheritance rights. It is one of the few predominantly Muslim countries to have banned polygamy.
The imposition of male guardianship on Saudi women (as well as travel restriction), legitimized by state-supported clerics, should have been called into question by educated Muslims long ago.
In this historical and cultural moment, critics and proponents of Islam often speak on behalf of Muslims, while rational Muslim women and men remain silent. Saudi Arabia’s strong oil lobby in D.C. has successfully swept under the rug issues of women’s rights in the Kingdom.
It is necessary, particularly in the United States, to read and understand Muslim women’s and men’s writings (in their own words) about religious practices, their political/feminist practices, and how these affect beliefs, convictions, and perspectives. It becomes incumbent on these writers, as they attempt to address both the West and their own cultures, to dismantle outdated and regressive “Orientalist” myths. There is a fine balance between challenging the Western representations of Muslim people and avoiding painting an overly romantic picture of the East.
To be clear, Saudi Arabia, which has imprisoned and allegedly tortured women’s rights activists, still has a long way to creating a level playing field for women — politically, diplomatically, economically, and educationally.
Note: Nyla Ali Khan is a Kashmiri-American academic and author, a member of the Oklahoma Governor’s International Team (OKGIT), and a member of the state Commission on the Status of Women.