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Does Sharia Law Promote Women's Rights?

DaliaIn thinking about women's rights, sharia law, or Islamic law, doesn't typically come to mind.

Yet, according to a survey conducted by Dalia Mogahed, executive director and senior analyst of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies and appointee to President Obama's Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, the two are closely intertwined. Her survey alleges that a majority of Muslim women believe sharia law should either be the primary source or one source of legislation in their countries, while viewing Western personal freedoms as harmful to women.

The survey's findings appear in the book, Who Speaks for Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think, co-authored by Mogahed and John Esposito, Georgetown University professor and founding director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, named for its Saudi royal benefactor. While Esposito is well-known as one of the foremost academic apologists for radical Islam, Mogahed is making her name as a shill for sharia law. Mogahed employs the Gallup poll, which has been criticized by knowledgeable authorities as misleading and unscientific, to portray sharia law as what Muslims women want.

She spoke last month by phone to the UK-based Islam Channel women's television program “Muslimah Dilemma.” Hosted by Ibtihal Bsis, a member of the Islamist organization Hizb ut Tahrir (Party of Liberation), and featuring national women's media representative for Hizb ut Tahrir, Nazreen Nawaz, the interview (view here; complete transcript here) presented a biased, pro-Islamist platform for discussing Muslim women's rights. Hizb ut Tahrir's self-described objective is “to resume the Islamic way of life by establishing an Islamic State that executes the systems of Islam and carries its call to the world.”

So it was with ostensible credibility that Mogahed could utter such preposterous statements as:

…we found that the majority of women around the world associate gender justice, or justice for women, with sharia compliance whereas only a small fraction associated oppression of women with compliance with the sharia.


The perception of sharia and the portrayal of sharia has been oversimplified in many cases, even among Muslims. It is usually associated with maximum criminal punishment and laws that are hard for people to understand holistically, around family law, that to many people seem unequal for women. So I think that part of the reason is that there is this perception of sharia is that sharia in not well understood and in fact, Islam as a faith is not well understood.

And, ominously:

Well, I think what my role is, is very clear to me: to convey to the advisory council and through the advisory council to the president and to other public officials what it is Muslims want.

In delivering these outlandish pronouncements, Mogahed was soft-spoken and careful to confine her commentary to the results of her study. Not so with fellow guest Nazreen Nawaz, who took up the bulk of the interview expounding didactically on the benefits to be bestowed upon humankind by the revival of a Khilafah state, or caliphate. The caliphate envisioned by Nawaz is a mythical one, hearkening back to the so-called “golden age of Islam,” where, according to the party line, all was progress and advancement and everyone lived in harmony. If we could only return to the halcyon days, she urged, all the considerable problems of the Muslim world would be solved. As she put it: “Islam came to solve human problems.” These utopian beliefs reflect those Marxists who insist that “real communism” has not yet been implemented, Stalinism or totalitarianism is an aberration, and that the solution lies in implementing a “true” Socialist state.

Claiming that the brutality of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the mullahs in Iran are distortions of sharia law rather than examples of its true implementation, Nawaz promised that under the proposed caliphate, rulers would be democratically elected and accountable to the people, while women's rights would be protected.

Demonstrating the utter delusion of a fanatic, Nawaz alleged that:

We know that sharia pioneered rights for women. This idea that women have the same rights of citizenship to a man, this was unheard of in empires or civilizations of the past. And we know that Islam brought this.

Nonetheless, Nawaz conceded that “there is evidence from Islam that says the Muslim woman cannot be the ruler of a state. This is from the Islamic text,” but managed to justify this exclusion by pointing to recent Muslim women leaders such as the late Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan who, she claimed, have “brought very little in terms of the lives and the standard of living of women in these countries.”

She also defended Islam's “strict regulations in terms of social laws” and expressed admiration for precisely those features of Islamic law that most oppress women:

…men and women cannot socialize, they cannot be alone together…in terms of lowering the gaze, all of these things, the dress code, they're all there to insure that there's a healthy cooperation so that men and women can focus at the job at hand.

In contrast, Nawaz condemned the West for allowing women too much personal freedom, citing the breakdown of the family and promiscuity as the results:

I think living in the West we see some of the fruits of this idea of liberty and this idea of freedom, where people are free to have any relationship they want to. I believe that it's caused a lot of problems in the social structure, you have adultery, you have problems of teenage pregnancies….

These are indeed dire consequences, just not, as Nawaz believes, of personal liberty. Rather, they result from the dissolution of the moral framework that supports liberty itself. The struggle to maintain the family structure and women's dignity amidst growing libertinism is alive and well in the West. But when given the choice, who would trade liberty for the opposite outcome: totalitarianism?

Furthermore, Nawaz demonstrated a lack of understanding about how women's rights, and indeed human rights, have been achieved historically in the West:

Women have made a lot of progress in the West in terms of economic, political rights, education, and so on. But I would reject the claim that these values of secularism, and liberal values, and even in terms of democracy have, that they can claim victory for this progress. Because if we remember history, women actually had to fight against these values in order to secure their rights….And women even today have to fight in secular democracies against discrimination of these levels.

In the face of this vigorous defense of sharia law and strident condemnation of secular democracy, Washington insider Mogahed said not a word. Only when prompted to comment directly on one of Nawaz's diatribes on the fictional caliphate did Mogahed finally speak, and then she restated the results of the Gallup poll in such a way as to provide backhanded support for Nawaz's Islamist views. As she put it:

What Muslims around the world tell us they believe is that the key to progress is attachment to their spiritual and moral values. They really do see, many of them, that Islam offers a solution for their problems and they see Islam as their society's greatest asset. When we asked people what they admired most about the Muslim world, what they tell us is their attachment to Islam, Islamic values, value of hospitality, the value of family. So I think that whereas people around the world do feel that the problems are diverse, many of them do mention Islam as a part of that solution, and when we ask people what can Muslims do to help themselves, one of the most frequent responses is for them to unify and another is for them to follow Islam and make it a greater and more authentic part of their lives.

If making Islam a “greater and more authentic part” of Muslim's lives results in the implementation of sharia law, based not in mythology but in contemporary practice, the predictable outcome is the furtherance of backwardness, repression, intolerance, and inequality afflicting the Muslim world today. Is this really, as Mogahed would have it, what Muslims want?

More to the point, is it really what Americans, looking to President Obama's choice of Mogahed as his advisor on Muslim affairs, want?

Now that's a subject for a poll.

By Cinnamon Stillwell

Cinnamon Stillwell is the West Coast Representative for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum. She can be reached at

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