Muslim Women and Family Law

Journalist and activist Cassandra Balchin has written an article titled “Home truths in the Muslim family”, that discusses the changing dynamic of Muslim families and family law. Although the article gives out a lot of hopeful vibes, its’ “head in the clouds” feel ignores the “feet on the ground” reality.

Balchin makes some great points about the fact that many family laws just aren’t cutting it for Muslim women around the globe. The statistics she gives are heartening, mentioning that several predominately Muslim countries are updating their family codes to reflect pushes for equality and fairness. But this assumes that it’s the laws that lag behind society, which just isn’t always true. Yes, there are men and women who want family laws in their countries to change. But that doesn’t mean society at large wants this, too. Many men are reluctant to dismantle the patriarchal interpretations that work in their favor, and women themselves are often maintainers of conservative societal norms that harm women.

The idea the change begins and ends with family law is a false one. To use female genital cutting as an example, many governments in West Africa (which include Muslim, Christian, and animistic communities—FGC is not a specifically Muslim issue, remember) have outlawed the practice. But this doesn’t mean it’s gone away; to the contrary: it’s gone underground. Since it’s underground, it’s not regulated, and so it’s less likely to be done safely in a sterile environment. The taboos surrounding female genitalia are left in place, which takes away hope of eventually educating the population of the dangers of this practice and phasing it out with open dialogue, education, and discussion.

This is the main problem with Balchin’s article. It simmers lots of complexities (based on socioeconomic factors, history, race, sect, Qur’anic interpretations, etc.) down into one big, warm bowl of progress that goes down smooth. For example, she insinuates that predominately Muslim countries are hurtling towards progress, while Western Muslim communities are going the opposite direction:

“While many Muslim countries are stuck with these laws, in most there is a visible movement for progressive reform of family laws. Ironically, the exceptions are mostly minority migrant Muslim communities in the West, where religious fundamentalists appear to have successfully drawn a veil over the extraordinary activism that is taking place in the supposedly ‘backward’ rest of the Muslim world.”

Balchin makes it seem as if the West is full of extremist immigrant Muslim communities whose aim is to drag western Muslim women back into the Dark Ages as soon as they establish themselves the West. Her paragraph forgets the women’s networks and progressive Muslim coalitions that work to fight the multiple oppressions and difficulties that both home-grown and immigrant Muslim women face. Western Muslim communities are similar to those in predominantly Muslim countries in that they are not homogenous. Assuming that immigrant Muslim communities in the West are full of regressive fundamentalists is just as reductive as assuming all West Asian Muslims are itching for progress.

When speaking about the reasons that there are an increasing in the amount of households headed by Muslim women, Balchin states several acceptable factors related to socioeconomic issues and globalization. But she also leaves out the fact that many of these factors don’t always reach rural areas: yes, in Iran, the amount of women in the universities is surpassing 60%. That doesn’t mean that every woman in rural Pakistan is literate, or that every woman in rural Morocco has a university education. It doesn’t even mean every woman in Iran is literate or employed: despite the high university figures, the country’s unemployment rate is still staggering, and women are often not employed if there’s a male candidate for the same position, especially if he has a family to provide for.

And including “male drug addiction” among the reasons for an increase in female household? I’d like to see some hard figures before I believe this, especially since “drug” is a big vague. Coke? Heroin? Opium? In Iran and Afghanistan (countries closest to and hit hardest by opium production), the increasing addiction rate for both genders is a major social issue. But while drug addiction is a difficult problem for all societies, the figures for these two countries aren’t indicative of all predominately Muslim countries.

Articles like Balchin’s are good hope-builders, but often veer into blissfully oblivious territory. We must be careful to remember that just because laws are enacted doesn’t mean they are enforced, and enforcement and attitudes usually differ between urban and rural locations, different socioeconomic statuses, and different sects.