July 8, 2007

Women's Rights and Islamic Laws

Nowadays there is a strong voice in Muslim societies, among them Iran, which claims reinterpreting Islamic laws in favor of women's rights.
But the question is that which Islamic laws may be reinterpreted to which extent? In other words, is a modern understanding of Islam able to enforce equality conforming to international norms and standards?
Briefly: Can Islam bear such reforms and still preserve its known identity as being Islam?
Recently, Iran's leader was quoted as saying "Some issues about women, which exist in religious jurisprudence, are not the final say. It is possible to interpret new points through research by a skillful jurist". This quote may truly reflect the fact that this attitude not only exists between Women's Rights Activists, but also enjoys the support of some Ayatollahs in Iran, especially those who try to make Islam more consistent with day to day life of a modern world.
This group of Ayatollahs claims that Islam would support such reforms, but how?
A brief description of the basis of such reforms form the point of Shiite is following. Firstly you will read a little about the way that an Ayatollah can state a Fatwa (religious decree), and then we will consider some of the issues related to women's rights.
There is an Arabic term in the glossary of Shiite, called 'Ijtehad'. This word is derived from 'Jahd' which means 'trying so hard'. Ijtehad officially means 'the process of deriving Islamic laws from original resources'; and these original resources are: Quran, Tradition (quotes and behaviors of Holy Prophet and Infallible Imams), Reason, Ejmaa (general agreement of all Mujtaheds about the same law).
Those who study in theological schools after some years (after passing some certain courses, including but not limited to: Arabic literature, Quran, History, etc) are recognized as Ayatollah which means that they are able to get into original resources and find God's decree in every case.
The important part of the story is that some kinds of Fatwa may change during the ages. For example, consider the case of chess. Old Ayatollahs would agree that chess is forbidden in Islam. But Ayatollah Khomeini (founder of Islamic revolution) stated a revolutionary Fatwa that "Shiites are allowed to play chess if chess is not considered generally as a mean of gambling and as long as they do not bet on chess".
This fatwa was a very important one: there are some quotes of Infallible Imams which state explicitly that 'chess is forbidden', But Ayatollah Khomeini concluded that though there is such an explicit ban on chess in Tradition, it is Gambling which is forbidden not chess itself.
Now, let's consider the case of inequality between Men and Women in financial issues of which Islam seems to be approving.
We have some verses in Quran which explicitly state that 'woman should inherit half of a man' or 'money paid to the (family of a) male victim is 2 times of a female victim'. But some Mujtaheds today believe that this belongs to the time in which Woman was used to staying at home, and the only element of family which was economically active and had to be the only breadwinner was Man. In such a system, a Man is worth 2 times of a Woman and his loss would press the economy of family (and society) 2 times of a woman's loss. Then, some Ayatollahs conclude that it is the financial values and responsibilities of the person which determines the rate of inheritance or blood money, not the gender.
Finally, in a modern life that man and woman work together and share the expenses of the family, also both of them are active workers or business doers in the society, the decree may change: man and woman may inherit equally, and the money paid to the family of a victim will be fixed whether that is he or she.

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