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Zainah Anwar Discusses Sharia Law at Wilson Center Roundtable
November 19, 2012
By: Rebecca Aaberg | Printer Friendly

The Global Women’s Leadership Initiative (GWLI) of the Wilson Center for International Scholars hosted a roundtable discussion with Zainah Anwar, moderated by GWLI Director Rangita de Silva de Alwis. Anwar founded the groups Sisters in Islam (SIS), a non-governmental organization in Malaysia dedicated to ending discrimination against women justified by religious practices. She is also the director of Musawah, a movement promoting gender equality in Muslim families worldwide. Anwar serves as the Social Entrepreneur in Residence with the Stanford Center on Democracy, Development and Rule of Law’s Program on Human Rights. She provided a brief analysis of the work undertaken by the organizations she leads and answered more general questions about the relationship of Sharia law with the Quran and laws in majority Muslim countries, focusing on public policy.

De Silva de Alwis opened the discussion with an introduction of Anwar and the topic. She said that reinterpreting the Quran was crucial to work within the framework of human rights, and Anwar’s work sees the Quran “with compliance of human rights to reclaim the image of Islam in the image of both men and women” in order to “rescue it from the patriarchy.” Musawah uses the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) as the yardstick by which they measure the success or failure of current public policies in delivering rights granted through a progressive interpretation of the Quran. “Gender equality in the public sphere is almost always contingent upon gender equality in the family,” De silva de Alwis said.

Anwar highlighted bringing the discussion of religion and policy against discrimination against women into the public sphere. Moving the discussion from the private to the public sphere creates a “culture of public debate on matters of religion,” which is indispensable for securing rights. Language created a roadblock for SIS in implementing ideas on the interpretation of Islam because few Malaysians read Arabic. The religious community did not necessarily view them as legitimate agents to discuss the text, and SIS was not able to shape discourse through traditional platforms. In order to spread their ideas, SIS began to write letters to newspaper editors; the published columns would inform readers without having to seek permission from Islamic leaders. Anwar supported the credibility of non-Muslims and Muslims without traditional authority to speak on the subject by looking at the situation in terms of public policy: “If you take religion as a source of public policy, everyone has a right to speak on Islam…if you do not want us to speak on Islam, take the religion out of the law. …Everyone has a right to debate.”

SIS and Musawah seek to give women at the grassroots level access to the knowledge needed to get involved in family law reform, rather than imposing ideas on them. By exposing current legislation as utilizing a “discriminatory framework that governs women’s lives” and using scholarship to unpack the arguments made by governments against rights for women, Anwar’s organizations draw a connection between CEDAW and Muslim family laws in the context of Sharia. For those countries that have entered reservations at the signing of CEDAW, Musawah explores the religious justifications used. Anwar stated that using religion as an excuse for discrimination merely covers for the reluctance of those in control to relinquish power, even at the level of the household.

For more information on SIS, please click here.

For more information on Musawah, please click here.

For information about GWLI at the Wilson Center, please click here.



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