Reforming Islamic Family Laws through Islamic feminism in Morocco, Egypt, and Lebanon

Beirut, February , 2020: The Arab Institute for Women of the Lebanese American University held a full-day conference to deliberate the results of a two-year research project on Islamic feminism and reform of Islamic Family Laws in three selected Arab countries – Morocco, Egypt and Lebanon. The event was held at Gefinor Rotana Hotel on September 27th, 2019.

The research project, which was funded by The Carnegie Corporation of New York, showcased a number of results and recommendations that were shared with key legal figures in the Arab region, including INGOs and NGOs as well as national and Arab regional judicial and political organizations.

The recommendations for how an Islamic framework may be used to further reform family laws in the select countries, outlined by the research team in policy briefs, were the center for discussion.

As Dr. Connie Carøe Christiansen, the principal investigator, put it, “Islamic feminist activism is here defined as researcher-activists who individually and/or in international & local NGOs, in networks and knowledge-building projects align on the finding that Islam and gender equality combine and combine as well with human rights. This activism represents a strategy, which opens for the critique of gender inequality in classical understandings of Islamic scriptures, and in the versions of modernity hitherto promoted by Arab states. Consequently, there is a potential for transnational networks and organizations more forcefully setting the direction and ambition for reform of family laws (also known as personal status codes) across the Arab region.”

Four research papers were elaborated, and the policy papers for discussion at this event were based on these papers.

Hosn Abboud, lecturer at the American University of Beirut and an Islamic feminist, said in her comment: “It is very important that women engage in knowledge which is very much needed. Women perspectives were not included or incorporated in the judicial system, this is why now we are saying we have the knowledge, we want a change, we want reform, we want to protect our citizenship, and freedom. This only comes when we share in the authority and knowledge.”

Malika Benradi, Professor at the Faculte de droit in Rabat, a jurist and feminist, said: “It is important to draft recommendations according to the priority and depending on each country. Prioritization is necessary as well as implementing these reforms in light of long term and short term goals.” She noted that “the recommendations are all important in regards to advancing the case of women.”

Speakers during the conference discussed the case of each of the three countries, highlighting the importance of reclaiming women’s rights and the need to reform several aspects of family laws.

In Morocco, Researchers Fatima Outaleb and Fatima Sadiqi argue that in the post-Arab Spring period, secular and Islamic feminist voices continued to lobby for equality between the sexes and for progressive Ijtihad. However, the source and nature of Qur’anic text interpretation was still subject to heated debates between secular and Islamist political wings as they increasingly intersected with what constitutes ‘Islamic feminism’. “While secular voices consider it a reflection of conservative political views that resist progressive reform, conservatives, especially Islamist politicians, consider ‘feminism’ itself a ‘Western’ import,” they said.

Azza Soliman and Sara Abdel Ghany, two human rights activists from Egypt, point in their policy briefs to the guaranteed political and economic rights for women in the 1956 Constitution. Women were actively encouraged to take part in the public life of the new welfare state. However, 1920s family laws that sustained a medieval patriarchal system remained unchanged. This anomalous legal/political system was sustained for over six decades under different presidential systems. Egyptian presidents, with strikingly different political ideologies, ensured that the state remained religious by maintaining male dominance in the family.

Civil activist Reem Maghribi and Ph.D candidate Youmna Makhlouf discussed the case of Lebanon, indicating that inequality is not only present between men and women, but also between women of different religious sects. This has complicated the feminist agenda and led to a lack of synchrony and strategy, with different groups calling for very different approaches to pushing for gender equality. 

Moroccan Judge Dr. Anass Saadoun assured that “the recommendations are focused on goals that can be achieved,” explaining that “Qur’anic interpretations can develop according to the society’s needs and the development of certain cases.”

At the end of the day, a panel discussion was held to summarize thoughts that were debated including means to push for policy making and the use of Qur’anic interpretations of published by feminist academics in judicial courts.

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