BRIDGE Report 4: The Position of Women in Islamic Countries: Possibilities, Constraints and Strategies for Change

Author: S. Baden
Publisher: Institute of Development Studies UK
Publication Date: Sep 1992
How much discrimination do women in Islamic countries face in daily life' What can be done to address this inequality' Focusing on predominantly Muslim countries of Egypt, Bangladesh, Mali, Yemen and Sudan, this report shows women to be considerably disadvantaged in many areas of society. Broad trends show low levels of female political representation, women's lack of access to land and credit, the continued dominance of Shariah laws (personal status laws based on Islamic principles) in defining women's roles and a strong male bias in divorce laws. Evidence highlights that women's experiences in these countries are far from homogeneous. Female education levels vary hugely, with women in Egypt achieving particularly high levels. Women's movements have been gaining strength, and while significant gender gaps remain, Islamic countries have seen increasing demands for legal, economic and social reforms to improve women's status.

The movement for gender equality and women's rights in the Islamic world still has a long way to go, complicated by differing interpretations of Islamic texts, roles they prescribe for women, and the complex and contradictory coexistence of Shariah, customary (based on custom) and secular (non-religious) law. Moreover, the women's issues have often been central to attempts to resist western influence. The following findings depict the current situation of women: . Continued domination of Shariah law in the area of marriage and family, which often overpowers civil or constitutional laws in defining the wider social roles of women. Some discriminatory practices (e.g. dowry, female genital mutilation) have no religious basis although are often thought to. . Divorce laws are generally biased towards men, with men usually getting custody of children. This has serious implications for women who depend on the support of sons in their old age. . Women generally lack control over household resources, though this is less so in Mali where women and men control separate budgets for their different responsibilities. . Women's education generally varies from a relatively high level in Egypt, to very low levels in Pakistan and Bangladesh. . Women's labour force participation rates overall appear lower than those in non-Muslim countries, partly due to the underreporting of women's income- earning activities. . Women are often active in the informal sector, but women's participation tends to be underreported. For example, women's public sector employment is higher than normally recognised in all countries, with Egypt and Sudan displaying high proportions of women in professional jobs. . Women's access to land and credit is often limited and insecure, though less so in Mali. Evidence from Bangladesh shows that targeting credit to rural women often results in resources being captured by men. . The Islamist movement has accorded women a much more active role in religion than previously, which can be associated with more gender-neutral interpretations of religious text. . Although in most cases women have gained formal political rights, female representation remains low. Women have been relatively active in both Islamic and non-Islamic informal political movements and organisations. Current activities and demands of women's organisations include: . Advocating for legal reform, with preoccupation on resistance to regressive changes in existing laws (e.g. Naripokkho, Bangladesh; Committee for the Defence of Women and the Family, Egypt; women's groups in Southern Yemen). . Academic research on women's rights under the Islamic religion. . Proactive fighting for rights of women workers (e.g. Mahila Parishad, linked to Bangladesh Communist Party, and Sudanese Women's Union). . Organisation of groups of rural women around development-oriented NGOs, to make demands for economic and social change (e.g. land rights for poor women). . Legal literacy campaigns (e.g. BRAC, Bangladesh) which are most successful when directed at a broad range of women and implemented alongside standard legal services or specific campaigns. . Activities organised by Islamic groups such as vocational training, education, day care and health facilities for women, funded by a combination of zakat (Islamic tax used for redistributive purposes), minimal charges and in some cases foreign assistance. . Policies of free and open access to education for girls, and developing educational materials for specific groups of women (e. g. New Woman Group, Egypt).