Abstract— Women, Islam, and the Law

Patricio N. Abinales


Hjh. Nik Noriani Nik Badlishah, editor
Islamic Family Law and Justice for Muslim Women
Malaysia / Sisters in Islam / 2003

Gender, Muslim Laws and Reproductive Rights
Davao City / Pilipina Legal Resources Center, Inc. / 2001

The essays in these workshop proceedings deal with sexuality, reproductive rights, and gender violence in Islamic societies, as mediated by larger and conflicting regulatory perspectives – patriarchy, various interpretations of Islam, and laws of the modern state. These mediations are most apparent in the comparative overviews ofIndonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore offered by Islamic Family Law and Justice for Muslim Women. These report on “areas of discrimination against women in the substantive provisions as well as the implementation of Islamic Law legislation.” The workshop also “highlighted best practices and put forward strategies for reform.”

The countries where the patriarchal system is deeply embedded in “tradition” and further validated by Islamic teachings that subordinate women to men are those whose state structures are often centralized but weak, corrupt, and inefficient. For decades in Indonesia, no civil law governed husband-wife relationships, and the state still has virtually no power over Islam. Contrast this to Singapore where the state is authoritarian but efficient, managing overlapping jurisdiction between civil and Syariah courts, allowing Muslims a choice between them, and regulating Syariah courts’ deliberation and decision-making processes.

The Philippines and Malaysia can be located between these two “extremes.” The Moro National Liberation Front rebellion prompted the Philippines’ first Code of Muslim Personal Laws, which is variously interpreted and applied. But the main problems facing Muslim women are poverty and the state’s inability to promote development and stability. In several Muslim provinces, the state’s only presence is the military. In Malaysia, the devolution of Islamic family law to the state level has resulted in conflicting regulations between states and with federal law. Promoting local autonomy, the central government may have created a situation hostile to improving women’s status in religion.

The irony is this: in many Islamic countries, state modernization has restricted individual and group rights and limitated certain basic freedoms in the name of development. Success, where it occurs, has much to do with (mostly male) leaders governing from above. Strategies for reform, therefore, may be opposed not only by conservatives and neo-traditionalists, but by state leaders suspicious of change emanating from below.

Gender, Muslim Laws and Reproductive Rights deals with female sexuality and reproductive rights in Indonesia and the Philippines. Interestingly, these papers confirm theoretical arguments in the first book: despite opposition from male-dominated institutions, there is basis in Islamic thought for women to transform khilafah (woman’s full agency) into a worldview. Early Islam accorded women property rights, a say in marriage and divorce, and the right to enjoy or refuse sex. However, reactionary ideas are not confronted head-on and there is very little the essays can be conclusive about. The reality is that conservative forces have the upper hand in the politics of most Muslim societies today.

Patricio N. Abinales
Patricio N. Abinales is associate professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University

Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Issue 5 (March 2004). Islam in Southeast Asia

Read the full abridged version of the article in English HERE