Dun, dun, DUUUUUN!
When there was paranoid talk of the ‘creeping Shari’a‘ in the U.S. I responded with the usual scoffing and eye-rolling and exasperated exclamations of you totally do not even know what Shari’a is and also that is so not even happening. Of course, that last bit would be irrelevant—it doesn’t matter what Shari’a law actually is because the U.S. has its own Constitution and that’s pretty much that—except that nearly all of the arguments against Shari’a revolved around what it was believed to be (and were steeped in Islamophobia.) Predictably, the paranoia focused on what this would mean for women, because the only time men pretend to care about women’s rights is when they can take advantage of the cause and conveniently use it to exert their racist agendas.
So as someone who gives an actual fuck about women’s rights and knows more about Islam than anyone on Faux News, I saw immediately how the occasional, individual application of Shari’a law would empower immigrant Muslim women against men who abuse them if these women are from educated backgrounds and had power in drafting their own contracts and interpreting Shari’a law—especially, crucially, during times when the American legal courts failed them.
Rafia Zakaria (via Clarisse Thorn) writes about Zainab, a Muslim woman who was almost immediately divorced, abused, raped, and abandoned by her husband (who, by the way, had a mistress) upon entering the United States, where she was utterly powerless. Luckily, her marriage contract under Shari’a Law, drafted by an attorney with translations in English, entitled her to ten thousand dollars if her husband divorced her; the contract also dictated a closed marriage: he could not marry multiple women, nor could he have a mistress without paying penalties for violating his marriage contract. Unluckily, Zainab was in America now, where a contract under Shari’a Law could not be enforced. American women–who divorce and marry freely with sexual and financial independence and without social stigma–do not need these protections, and the court system reflects this society: reasons for a divorce like adultery or abandonment are understood as irrelevant:
And so I faced the task of explaining an American legal reality of freedom and consent to a woman who had been married under circumstances that could not have been more different. Zainab expected spousal support and her argument for it was simple: she had given up everything to be married and feared the pain of an ineradicable stigma if sent back to Jordan. Again and again, she would ask me about her rights under the Islamic marriage contract, and repeatedly I would tell her that an Indiana court would not enforce a marriage contract based on Sharia law. Then she would exclaim, aghast, that if she could not get any rights or restitution under Islamic law, what indeed were her options under American law? My response, that all she would receive from an American court was a legally recognized divorce, no property, no spousal support, and no amount awarded for repudiating the marriage contract, was impossible for Zainab to digest. “How can this be?” she would ask. “This is America. Women are supposed to have rights here. How can a judge tell me that I deserve nothing after having been abused and abandoned?”
And so there I was, with my first Muslim client, confronting a predicament where the American legal tools at my disposal did not promise the best result for my client, a Jordanian Muslim woman. In my legal training, as well as my academic work, my focus had been almost entirely on the task of introducing women just like Zainab to the idea that the American legal system allowed them a level of equality and self-realization that was not yet available in Muslim countries. What indeed was fair in this case? The acknowledgement that Zainab had been wronged and deserved restitution, or treating her like any other American woman seeking a divorce? Should Said be treated like any other American husband whose marriage hadn’t worked and who wanted to be with another woman? Should Zainab’s unique situation as a Muslim woman whose chances of remarriage were severely affected by her divorce be considered in the case or ignored? More importantly, should Said have to pay to support a woman he had only been married to for a little over a year?
The American court system was not going to bring Zainab justice. But Islamic law, *designed* for women to conquer intense patriarchies, would afford her incredible victory.
When women move to the United States (naively trusting men to be their protectors), they bring with them the unjust power structure that existed in those countries—into a country in which they have even less influence because nothing is familiar to them. They also bring with them the instruments to defeat these injustices. And the appropriate way to level that unjust power structure is use against it the very interpretations that have developed from within those societies to rightfully restore power to women.
The most valuable thing to learn from Second Wave feminism is that while it is important for all women to be allies, to stand in solidarity, real freedom and equality comes from within each community. Empowerment comes from within. Sometimes, a woman needs to get the hell out of her sister’s way. Instead of raging about burkas and hymens, she needs to recognize that her colonialist mentality is destructive and regressive and virtually inapplicable to the women she is trying to liberate. She needs to realize that they don’t need her help. She needs to understand that there are things she doesn’t, that what she knows as the exercise of freedom is evolved from her own society and is not applicable to others under different power dynamics–in the same way that a man who has his own self-absorbed ideas about equality doesn’t understand why it’s not okay to joke with women about violence, even if he’d do it with a man, because he’s got his head too far up his ass to notice that you have to establish level ground (subdue the amount of violence against women by men) before same treatment / consequences or it isn’t equality. Characteristic privilege.
The fact that human rights are universal is exactly why they can be extracted from every society, and why simply eradicating significant ideologies (like religion) that were introduced to respect these rights is in fact to cut off access to these human rights for the women who need them. Due to differing levels of privilege, the message is universal, the application differs.
You’ve got 3 and 5, you don’t add 2 to both of them to make them 7.