Last week the Center for the Study of Islam & Democracy (CSID), a Washington-based organization dedicated to promoting freedom, democracy, and good governance in the Arab and Muslim worlds, sponsored a conference on “The Rights of Women in Islam and Muslim Societies.” And leading Muslim women scholars from the United States and other countries spoke about the rights of women in Islam from the time of the Prophet Mohammed to the present.
Radwan Masmoudi, who was born in Tunisia and holds a Ph.D. degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is founder and president of CSID. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s Press Conference USA and with Roquia Haider of the Bangla Service, Dr. Masmoudi says CSID was established 8 years ago to help counter problems such as rising extremism in the Muslim world. He says the “key to the success of democracy” in the Arab and Muslim worlds is to show that it is compatible with Islam.
Radwan Masmoudi says he believes the standard of human rights and of women’s rights in some Muslim-majority nations is “unfortunately unacceptable.” In pre-Islamic Arabia of the 7th century, he notes, the teachings of Islam were actually “revolutionary” with respect to the rights they gave women in comparison with other religions and other civilizations at that time. For example, Dr. Masmoudi says, Islam gave women the right to vote, the right to own property, and the right to study. According to Radwan Masmoudi, women have historically played a “very big role” in ijtihad – that is, in the process of interpreting the Qur’an and the Sunna (or Islamic traditions) for their local community. Unfortunately, he says, that right has not been “upheld throughout Islamic history.” According to some Islamic scholars, during the 15th and 16th centuries of the Common Era the process of ijtihad virtually “stopped.”
Dr. Masmoudi says that the issue of women’s rights is closely associated with the call to “re-open the doors of ijtihad.” He suggests that the “secular appeal to international human rights law” has largely failed in Muslim “popular culture.” But, in the past 20 years a new movement called “Islamic feminism” has gained influence. He says there has been considerable controversy in some Muslim countries about shari’a, especially in regard to how it affects the rights of women in areas such as divorce, property rights, and workplace restrictions. According to Dr. Masmoudi, the real question is not the validity of Islamic law but how Muslims modernize or re-interpret shari’a. Muslim law, he says, is supposed to protect the family and society and to establish justice.
Radwan Masmoudi says that the Qur’an respects men and women equally. But local “cultural factors” – rather than Islam – determine what rights women are believed to have, and religion is “used to keep the status quo.” He says that, because women are in charge of raising the children, it is especially important for them to be well educated and involved in society.
In some Muslim countries – for example, Morocco, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Turkey, and Tunisia – women are working through civil society organizations to fight for their rights, Dr. Masmoudi says. But, in “very conservative societies,” such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, women continue to face great challenges. In the United States, Dr. Masmoudi notes, Muslim women enjoy democratic freedoms that many contemporary Muslim scholars view as fully “Islamic.” He suggests that American Muslim women may have a special role to play in contributing to the process of ijtihad.
For full audio of the program Press Conference USA click here.