Bravo is it?

Bravo, Rowan, says Jeevan Vasagar breezily. Well, he’s a man; easy for him to say.

In Tanzania, for example, Muslim family law applies to Muslim citizens. When it comes to questions of divorce, custody and inheritance, Muslim families settle their disputes at courts unique to their communities.

Yes we know, and Muslim family law treats women and men unequally. That is the problem.

There’s an interesting clash here – a classic liberal dilemma. Do you promote the rights of a minority community or do you worry more about the rights of Muslim women, who may get treated less generously under sharia than under secular law?

It’s not really a dilemma once you think about it hard enough. Just for one thing, the rights in question are not that starkly opposed, for the blindingly obvious reason that that ‘minority community’ includes women, so if the rights of women are a priority then at least half of that ‘minority community’ will not be losing any rights for the sake of the rights of women, because they will be women themselves. But in fact no one will be losing rights, because the goal is equality and equal justice under the law, not more rights for some and fewer for others. That’s why it’s not really a dilemma; it’s a pseudo-dilemma. That ‘minority community’ is not losing any rights unless you take unequal rights to be a right in themselves. Does a ‘minority community’ have rights to deprive some (half, most) of its members of rights arbitrarily? Well, you can declare that it does, but if you do you’re abandoning a meaningful idea of rights.

And by the way the goal is not to treat women ‘generously’ but to treat them equally. The goal is not to demand extra, it’s just to demand the same. Patronage not required, mere equality is both minimum and maximum – we want neither more nor less.

The problem is that the right, and their fellow-travellers on the Muslim-bashing left, will seize on this. For them, it’s a case of mediaeval misogyny versus western enlightenment. Suddenly, papers that oppose abortion and believe career women will always be unhappy start cross-dressing as feminists. Don’t believe this ruse – they’re just using feminism as a stick to beat Muslims with.

Bullshit. Some papers may do that, but papers don’t exhaust the category of people on the left who dislike Sharia – or as Jeevan Vasagar so elegantly calls us, the right’s fellow-travellers on the Muslim-bashing left. There are lots of us fellow-travellers on the Muslim-bashing left who do not oppose abortion (hello Jimmy Doyle!), and we don’t use feminism as a stick to beat anything. I don’t use feminism, I am a feminist.

Sharia already plays a role in devout Muslim lives, and has to be accepted and understood. But there also has to be a right of appeal. In Muslim countries that practice sharia, it is not a static entity but a living body of rules – just like secular law…

And? There’s a right of appeal, is there? So those Iranian women who get sentenced to being stoned to death for being in the company of men can appeal to be tried under secular law instead? And in any case, what use is a ‘right of appeal’ to women who are dominated, bullied, perhaps beaten? Like religion in general, sharia might be relatively harmless in the case of decent people who don’t bully others; but not all people are like that. Not all husbands would give their wives the chance to ‘appeal,’ and who else would enforce such a right? But as I said – Vasagar is a man, and it’s easy for him.

21 Responses to “Bravo is it?”