women symbol with the crescent logoThis October the Fourth International Congress on Islamic Feminism was held in Madrid, Spain.

The conference hosted over 1,500 globally represented attendees and lecturers who discussed topics on Islamic Feminism, including: problematics in defining Islamic Feminism, Qur’anic hermeneutics and feminist readings of the Qur’an, gender equality in the Middle East and Feminist Activism, and gender rights justice in the construction of male superiority over women in Islam.

One of the goals of these continued conferences is to validate Islamic Feminism as a growing phenomenon by providing a forum for intellectual discourse.  Aiming to celebrate and support women’s rights groups and organizations around the world as they work toward reinterpreting scripture, giving women an educated voice and challenging patriarchal systems that use religion to subjugate women.

Two weeks after the conference closed, Saudi Arabia was voted onto the executive board of UN Women.

Saudi Arabia. Where women cannot drive it is illegal for women to drive, vote, or leave the house without a niqaab and where there is strong, enforceable social pressures to cover. Saudi Arabia. Where some women cannot visit a doctor, travel, go to university, work or leave their homes without the expressed consent of their male guardian. Saudi Arabia.  Ranking 130th out of 134 countries for gender parity.  Saudi Arabia. Where Saudi UN officials defend polygamy by saying it’s required to help satisfy the sexual urges of men. Saudi Arabia. Where there are no laws protecting against child marriage and where rape victims are routinely punished for being alone with a man and charged as adulterers. Saudi Arabia. Home to Islam’s most holiest sites, the birthplace of the Prophet, and the main source of petrol-funded, political Islam.

The Goals of the UN Entity on Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women includes advancing global gender equality by helping inter-governmental bodies formulate global policies and standards and helping Member States implement these standards.  The controversy over Saudi Arabia joining this executive board is clear: how on Earth does the UN expect to enforce these global standards on a Member State who clearly has a horrendous record of violating women’s rights, and who falls back on a politicized religious interpretation to bypass any Western global standard of equality? As activist and liberal Muslim Mona Eltahawy so aptly points out in her special to the Toronto Star:

In 2000, Saudi Arabia ratified an international bill of rights for women but stipulated that the country’s interpretation of Islamic law (Sharia) would prevail if there were conflicts with the bill’s provisions. So why sign in the first place? Especially as that interpretation is where so much discrimination against women originates — polygamy, half inheritance allotted to a man, little access to divorce and child marriage among them.

Talk about completely undermining the Islamic Feminist movement.

What many Islamic (and some Muslim) Feminists will argue is that the Qur’an and teachings of the Prophet are filled with proofs supporting women’s rights and social justice.  The society that the Qur’an was revealed to regarded women as little less than chattel, and it was changes to this patriarchal system that the Prophet attempted to bring about.

The Qur’an prohibits violence toward women and expressively condemns female infanticide; it provides women with inheritance rights, the right to testify, to divorce, to own property and assets; and requires both women and men to equally fulfill religious duties.  Historically, women were teachers of some of Islam’s most treasured male and female scholars, passed down prophetic traditions required in the formation of Islamic law, were key translators, led armies on the battlefield and ruled kingdoms. Women are afforded the right to be active participants in all aspects of religious and social spheres.

Part of the problem that we face today is in the interpretation of these sacred sources, and a complete revisionist history of women’s roles and rights in society.  Islamist parties have interpreted the Qur’an and prophetic traditions according to their cultural worldview of women existing as second class citizens (or worse). This culture of female subjugation and constructed male authority has become so ingrained in people’s daily life and traditional expressions, that divine religious authority becomes conflated with the human constructed state. So speaking out against misogynist state policies is like speaking out against Islam.

According to Mona Eltahawy, the fact that Saudi Arabia has been voted onto the UN Women is less about truly effecting change in the country and more about the power of “generous contributions” and the benefits that “membership on a powerful agency” could one day bring the Kingdom.  Like Eltahawy, I really can’t see how Saudi Arabia will do anything but rubber stamp and possibly gain a few extra points on the gender parity scale.

Some believe that their membership will put Saudi Arabia on the spot and that increased international attention will actually help women’s rights organizations gain more ground. I’m not holding my breath. While they won’t exactly have the power to shape global standards on women’s rights according to a politicized Islamic worldview, they will donate. And the money going to help promote women’s rights will come from one of the world’s worst offenders of these rights.

I really don’t know how to feel about that.

Unless of course, in some brilliant irony, the money coming from Saudi will go toward empowering Muslim women in their objective to reinterpret scripture, and God willing, help them challenge patriarchal systems that use religion to subjugate women.

Image Credit: Paul Schmid / The Seattle Times

Cross-posted at Womanist Musings.