The first objective of the proposed project is to verify, understand and document the precise scope and nature of the application of IFL in a sample cross-section of Islamic countries and communities around the world. This “mapping process” will occur in two stages, an initial global survey during phase one of the project, coupled with in depth examination of three situations in the pilot study part of this first phase. The second phase (for which funding is not sought by this proposal) will consist of in depth examination of five countries and two communities in the second phase of the project.
The second objective of the project is to explore and substantiate possibilities of IFL reform within particular communities of Muslims in their specific cultural, theological, legal and institutional contexts. With due regard to professional and scholarly standards, the goal is to influence policy and law reform in Islamic counties and communities regarding the status and rights of women and children. Once clarified and tested through the two phases of this project, this approach to IFL reform can be applied in other situations. Before turning to the operational side of these two phases, here is some justification of the proposed scope, followed by further elaboration on the rationale of the objectives of the project.
What is basically proposed here is a global survey to chart the field, to know who is doing what, how and what are the conclusions or results of their work. Despite the obvious need for this as an essential prerequisite to intelligent critical examination of the theory and practice of IFL with a view to its reform and positive development, no such study has been done yet. But for such a survey to achieve its objectives, it has to go beyond a mere review of formal legislation or occasional judicial pronouncements in various countries. A comprehensive and insightful survey must penetrate the facade of official legality to the realities of actual daily life for individual people, their families and communities. IFL is clearly too important to the individual and collective self-identity of most Muslims around the world for its role and significance to be appreciated from a formalistic survey of the law as it “ought to be.” That is why in depth studies of the type described below are necessary for truly understanding what is happening, in what respects it needs to be reformed and how to achieve that objective.
The proposed case studies are therefore integral to understanding the actual practice of IFL with a view to proposing and implementing effective reform as and when necessary. Only detailed and systematic study of how IFL affects the daily lives and social relationships of actual men, women and children, of how people adjust to and cope with the consequences of the application of the law will give us the insights we need for devising and implementing reform initiatives. Such studies are also necessary for testing the relevance and efficacy of reform initiatives already attempted in different parts of the world.
But since such studies cannot be undertaken all at once in every Muslim country and community, we have to begin with a select sample of situations. There is also the need to verify and refine the criteria of selection of appropriate situations, and to develop valid methodologies for the study of each type of situation. That is why this proposal suggests implementation of pilot studies in three situations during the first phase of the project. However, while three might be a manageable number of studies for a start, it is hardly sufficient for drawing legitimate conclusions for the wide variety of situations that exist on the ground. For that reason, we propose to add another seven detailed studies during phase two of the project. Though even a total of ten studies under this project will not cover the full range of possible situations, it will certainly give us better bases for understanding the nature and consequences of the implementation of IFL in Islamic communities around the world. Expanding the sample in this way will also enable us to develop and refine the methodology of research for similar studies in the future, to be undertaken by a larger number of researchers, each in her or his own setting.
This proposal is not premised on the claim that the theory and practice of IFL in various settings and contexts are not studied at all. On the contrary, this project presupposes the existence of such studies, and will draw upon their findings and recommendations, particularly those which have a similar or compatible orientation and methodology to what is proposed for this project. The proposal also assumes that there is a variety of reform initiatives undertaken in several Islamic countries and communities which should be examined in order to evaluate their efficacy and learn from their experiences. A close review of previously done work on both counts (studies and reform initiatives) in the field will be undertaken in the first phase of the project.
Pending further examination during phase one, the working hypothesis of this project may be summarized as follows:
- Existing studies of IFL tend to be largely theoretical, often theological or legalistic in conception and approach, with little reference to actual practice in cultural context.
- Some studies with a more practical orientation (such as those done under the auspices of Women Living Under Muslim Law or other women’s rights/ human rights organizations) are critical of aspects of the theory and practice of IFL in certain situations. But such studies include little comparative analysis, and/or attempt to formulate reform proposals with particular regard to strategies for their local advocacy and implementation.
- To the extent that reform proposals are made in studies of the first or second type, they are made in broad theoretical terms, and without the involvement of local groups and organizations which might pursue practical implementation within the country or community in question.
These remarks are not, of course, intended as final criticism of existing studies in such a wholesale and generalized manner, or to dismiss them as totally lacking practical utility. Rather, these remarks are offered by way of hypothesis, subject to verification and clarification through the work of the proposed project. It is only reasonable to expect, for example, individual researchers to focus on their specific academic objectives which have to be achieved with very limited time and resources. Women and human rights organizations are also constrained by such factors as the mandate of their particular organization, and the expectations or orientation of their own immediate constituency regarding the priorities and/or strategies of the organization.
While this project has its specific objectives too, we believe that they are significantly different from those of purely academic efforts in that they seek to develop an integrated model of reform oriented research as explained below. This project also has its constraints, but we believe them to be sufficiently consistent with its objective as to enable it to make a valuable and unique contribution. That is, our claim is that the objectives and methodology of this project supplement the work being done by others in ways they are unable or unwilling to do. In particular, we believe that what we propose to achieve through this project is unlikely to even be attempted by international women’s and human rights organizations for the following reasons.
It should be recalled here that the current model of women’s and human rights organizations evolved in Western societies where such organizations tend to focus on generating political pressure for change, rather than themselves adopting specific reform proposals or solutions for political and legal problems. The latter role is normally played by political parties or other civil society organizations and the public at large. This is particularly true when such specific advocacy activities involve what and human rights organizations perceive to be delicate or complex theological considerations, as is the case with IFL. International women and human rights organizations, such as Women Living under Muslim Law, have emerged out of this Western model, and came to define their role in similar terms. Such organizations should be appreciated for what they do so well — and they do play a vitally important role — but they should not be expected to do what they are not equipped and inclined to do.
But why is this also true of local chapters based in Islamic countries and even indigenous organizations like the Pakistan Human Rights Commission? The reason for this is what I call “the dichotomy of secular versus religious discourse.” Partly due to the Western model they adopt, but also because of their own experiences in the past, human rights advocates in Islamic societies insist on a strictly secular universalist approach for two main reasons: First, they are concerned that once they engage in a religious discourse about the rights of women or human rights in general, they will be drawn into a relativist paradigm that repudiates the foundations of the principle of universality of human rights itself. Secondly, rights advocates, who almost always have a secular education and liberal lifestyle, feel that they lack the conceptual and terminological tools, or personal orientation, for effectively engaging in an Islamic discourse.
Whatever may be the reasons for this reluctance, its clearly unfortunate consequence is that the Islamic public at large, and women as the beneficiaries of the advocacy of rights in particular, are faced with what appears to be a stark choice between Islam and internationally recognized human rights of women. Regarding the subject of this proposal in particular, instead of arguing for equality for women under IFL as a matter of Islamic principle, women’s human rights are presented as the product of international treaties, whose implementation is demanded by international organizations based in the West, in opposition to Islamic norms and institutions, as articulated by conservative and fundamentalist forces in society.
In light of these remarks and earlier-mentioned tentative hypothesis, I would emphasize that the ultimate objective of this project is to generate and promote credible and sustainable internal possibilities of IFL reform in Islamic societies and communities. In seeking to do so through the efforts of local researchers and advocacy organizations in the situations it covers during its two phases, the project will also be developing a model for implementation in other situations. These objectives will be realized through the following process.