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Religious fundamentalisms in Muslim societies: the impact of the religious right on sexual and reproductive health and rights.


Defining 'religious fundamentalism'

Probably the biggest challenge in defining "religious fundamentalism" is to pull apart what is now a conflation of patriarchal heteronormative culture, religious orthodoxy and ideology, the political Islamic revivalism of the 1970s to the 1990s, and more recent 'post-9/11' global events that, more than ever, see fundamentalism as made synonymous with Islam. The sum total of this conflation, however, is in the growth and political prominence of religious right ideologies that increasingly use discourses couched in religion and culture to maintain and extend their political power over both public and private domains.

There are several devices employed to achieve this. These include substituting basic tenets with rituals and calling them syariah. Textual Islam may also be confused (deliberately or unwittingly) with political Islam. Shifting smoothly between textual and political Islam removes the distinction between them and results in an undue association of Islam with certain practices or regarding as Islamic that which are merely cultural practices of certain communities in the Middle East.

This leads one to conclude that the proponents of 'greater Islamisation' are perhaps fundamentalists to their political projects but not to the spirit of the religion. The fact that the formulation and practice of 'Islamic' laws can vary tremendously from one country to another, and even from one community to another, shows that 'syariah laws' or 'Islamic laws' have more to do with political choices that are made within different contexts than what is purportedly within the texts or 'fundamental' to Islam.

It is also worth noting that the growth of Islamophobia (both deliberate and unwitting) has moved the religious right even further to the right. It has also given regressive nation states the opportunity to deploy the 'Islam-under-siege' idea at the personal, national and the trans-border 'brotherhood' levels. The terms 'liberal,' 'progressive,' and 'Muslim feminist,' amongst others, have been positioned in opposition to terms such as 'militant,' 'radical,' 'conservative,' and 'Islamist.' This framing has, on the one hand, provided the opportunity for enlarging the discourse, but at the same time has created dichotomies that are simplistic and often damaging to subtle and nuanced discussion.

Impacts on women

The dynamics above have not only failed to address the existing human rights violations against women, such as sexual and gender-based violence, marital rape, female genital mutilation (FGM), honour crimes, forced and early marriages, acid attacks, mass rapes, trafficking in women, virginity tests and morality policing against women, which are perpetrated in the name of Islam in various Muslim contexts. Together with the negative effects of the ongoing wars, military interventions and economic globalisation, these dynamics have exacerbated the violence and discrimination faced by women. This paper is intended to present a brief insight into the impacts that arise from existing as well as new forms of political Islam on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR).

Pleasing men, policing women, protecting 'honour'

Muslim communities are not peculiar in frequently regarding women as needing to be 'pure' and 'chaste' virgins until marriage (and therefore requiring control), and men as needing to be 'macho' with sexual needs that are a 'given,' legitimate and something that they cannot control. However, there are many violations that are perpetrated against women to keep this 'social order' in check that are legitimised in the name of Islam. These include FGM, honour crimes, honour killings, virginity testing and restrictions on women's clothing, mobility and economic/political participation. These violations will find no support within textual Islam. Instead, they are merely legitimised by drawing on the power, authority and respect that people have for a higher order, which in this case is Islam.

There is also a growing trend of many syariah and 'syariah-inspired' laws to control 'moral conduct and sinful behaviour,' turning what are otherwise personal obligations into legal obligations, replacing personal values with 'state values' that have the force of law. Both Malaysia and Indonesia for example, are seeing the growth of morality policing sanctioned by the state at different levels. This moral policing is enforced by employees and other representatives of state bodies/institutions. In addition, members of the public are sometimes called on to assist by reporting errant behaviour or through other forms of vigilantism and 'snoop squads.' Records of prosecutions of Muslims in both countries under such religious offences indicate that there is a clear bias against working class men and women, students and young Muslim women.

Women also find themselves the site of a perceived contest between the values of the 'permissive West' and the 'pious East.' The headscarf and hijab (1) have come to act as an index of where a woman stands in relation to this context. Whatever the choice, it is the women's body which remains the greatest battlefield for social and political control.

'Family' laws

Sexual relations and pregnancies outside of a 'legitimate' heterosexual marriage are generally deemed unacceptable in most parts of the Muslim world. There seems to be a 'womb to tomb' obsession with policing the morality of a woman. She is expected to be completely 'chaste' before marriage and completely compliant with regards to sexual and reproductive matters after marriage.

State services have come to structure this and give it state legitimisation. In Malaysia, for example, sexually active single women, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, will find it nearly impossible to access state health services. Such services have been organised primarily around the expected reproductive role of a married woman.

In matters of marriage and divorce too, women are constantly reminded ad nauseam of their subordinate positions in the home and are warned of the dire consequences of challenging this. Ways in which this occurs include the following:

* The presence of a wali (male guardian) to 'give the woman away' in marriage is still a legal requirement in many countries with Muslim populations.

* Polygyny has become synonymous with Islam, when clearly its origins preceded the growth of Islam. The verse on polygamy is frequently interpreted and codified as the right of a Muslim man in several countries. In other contexts, however, the verse is interpreted as a restriction towards banning the practice altogether (and polygyny is indeed legally banned in some Muslim countries).

* Obedience and the offence of nusyuz (disobedience) hangs like the proverbial Sword of Damocles over Muslim women's heads as it is linked to losing their spousal rights to financial maintenance.

* Domestic violence is under reported as some women believe that Islam gives men the right to beat their partners.

* In some countries, women still face great difficulty in accessing divorce when the reverse is rarely the case. Unilateral divorces and the manner of their pronouncement by the husband have seen various injustices perpetrated on women. These include pronouncements of divorce over the phone and via mobile phone SMSes/text messaging as have happened in Malaysia.

Access to contraception and abortion

As with many other aspects of Islamic jurisprudence, there are varying levels of acknowledgment and acceptance of contraception and abortion. In most Muslim-majority countries, abortion is generally prohibited with exceptions usually made where the health of the mother is at risk. Perceptions and interpretations of what is haram (prohibited) or halal (permitted) in Islam similarly has an effect on contraceptive use.

HIV, sex education and access to information

More so than many other diseases, many people often closely link HIV/AIDS with issues of morality; many regard HIV/AIDS as an indication of poor moral standards. This results in a tendency to move the response to the virus from one of prevention, treatment and care, to one that judges the behaviour of infected person and their moral integrity.

In Malaysia, for example, a religious leader suggested that persons living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHAs) ought to be left on an island to die, and the infection deemed punishment from God. In many contexts, access to information on HIV is limited (sex education in Malaysia is reluctant to frankly discuss the issue). In any case, the orthodox understanding of obedience to the husband means that refusing sex is seen as a sin and as being nusyuz or disobedient. As this has bearings on financial maintenance, the wife is not in a bargaining position to negotiate condom use.

Impact of Islam on persons of other faiths

* The case of conversions in Malaysia

In the case of Malaysia, converting from Islam to another religion has become highly politically charged. An example is that of Shamala Sathyaseelan, whose children were converted out of their religion and into Islam without her knowledge and consent. Another is the case of Lina Joy, who wishes to be administratively recognised as having left Islam in order to marry her Christian partner but whose applications have been rejected. More recent is the case of Revathi who was incarcerated for six months in a 'rehabilitation' centre, losing access to her husband and children because she was deemed to still be a Muslim.

* Islamic' norms and notions applied to non-Muslims

In addition to the above, notions of proper gender/sexual/ moral conduct that are founded on orthodox notions of 'Islamic understanding' have increasingly become applied to Malaysia's significant non-Muslim minorities (which constitute as much as 40% of the population). To give but two examples of this: non-Muslim couples have been charged under municipal laws for holding hands in public. In one prominent case, an elderly married American couple, who were holidaying in Malaysia, were asked in their hotel room to demonstrate to Malaysian Islamic authorities that they were married.

* Impact on sexual minorities

Transgendered and transsexual persons are often vulnerable to social persecution and violence as well as legal prosecution. In Malaysia, for example, transsexuals can be detained under either the Civil Laws as well as the Syariah Laws. However, Muslim transsexuals, in particular male-to-female transsexuals, are more often arrested under the Syariah Criminal Offences Act for "wearing women's clothes for immoral purposes" and are fined between US$200 to US$800, or imprisoned. Compare this with the US$7-14 fine for non-Muslims under the Civil Laws.

Sex-reassignment surgery for Muslim transsexuals is illegal in some Muslim majority countries, but legal in others such as Iran or Egypt. This does not however suggest that Iran or Egypt is particularly lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ)-friendly. Reports of capital punishment of gay men in various 'Islamic' countries continue to be heard, and the infamous Queen Boat arrests in Cairo in 2001 in which 52 gay men were arrested, tortured and tried under the law has shown that the expression of sexual preferences other than heterosexuality is more unacceptable than defying gender norms.

Civil society responses

Before outlining some specific responses from civil society on the growth in political Islam, it is worth noting the debate on whether to engage in the Islamic/religious framework or not, and to what extent women can resist the impacts of religious fundamentalism from within the religious framework.

Approaching the discourse from a secular perspective with no references to religious texts may work in some contexts. In other contexts, however, such as where there is no functioning democracy, engaging with the religious framework may become necessary.

Because religion does matter to many women, even when a piece of legislation may protect their rights (as in the case of domestic violence or access to contraception), they may not necessarily access those rights because they deeply believe that the religion says otherwise. So the rejection of the religious discourse may not be useful for women who hold religion dear to their hearts. Religion is a source of strength for many, including for many feminists who believe that there is no contradiction between the basic tenets of the religion and the basic principles of human rights.

In some contexts, Islam is used as a source of public policy. As such, not engaging from within a faith-based framework leaves the space to the right-winged discourse to define what religion means for all of us, codify it and then use it to discriminate. Groups that engage with the religious framework assert that if Islam is used as a source of public policy, everyone must be able to discuss it. In addition, these groups emphasise that there is a diversity of opinions (both classical and contemporary) where interpretation is concerned and the state position may not be the 'authentic' position. They also promote the understanding that there is a wide difference between the text and human understanding (which is fallible and changeable).

Whether one engages with the religious framework or not, however, it is evident that either of these strategies does not exist in isolation but is indeed mired within many other local and global dynamics. If we are to advocate for meaningful change in the lives of women, then it is important to also work on effective democratisation and advancement of human rights, long-term work on building gender equality, challenging politicisation of Islam as well as Islamophobia, and addressing the economic and political hegemony of global politics.

Below are some examples of the work that has been undertaken by civil society groups around the world to address the impacts of the religious right on the lives of women:

Reforming the law, testing the law, testing the judiciary

There is a trend towards codification and a change in basic understanding of the basis for marriage. Morocco, Fiji, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Francophone Africa (Benin, Chad, Mali and Niger), for example, have seen entire new codes either being introduced or are awaiting final passage. Others have made either significant modifications or advocated change to single aspects of the law. What is interesting to note is that in several countries (e.g., Morocco, Bahrain, Algeria), there has been significant discussion around the basis for marriage, with the relationship being recasted from one of 'servitude' and obedience to one of mutual partnership. Reference has also been made to changed or changing social conditions and the need for reform in response to this.

Affecting, broadening and redirecting the discourse

Many groups have found it necessary and important to get the issues into the public domain and to ensure public discourse on matters related to Islam to guard the discourse from being hijacked by a small and loud minority. They have used a myriad of ways, including media work, training workshops, seminars, forums and publications. They have increased public awareness and capacity to take on the questions of the role of religion in politics and democracy and to deal with conflicts in the legal system, as well as offered a rights-based understanding of Islam, and others.

Capacity building for activists and communities

There are also several groups (e.g., in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines) that actively engage in capacity building for activists and communities alike to be able to engage in the religious discourse. 'Engaging with the religious discourse' has for several civil society groups included:

a) building jurisprudential literacy on how laws are formulated;

b) researching alternative interpretations and opinions among traditional and contemporary scholars; and

c) promoting new interpretations based on independent reasoning that responds to contemporary challenges.

In many contexts too, this has gone hand in hand with building critical literacy on democracy and human rights, and the need for effective democratisation in both politics and interpretation of religious texts if rights are to be upheld.

Building coalitions across movements locally, as well as regionally and internationally

* At the local level:

Article 11 in Malaysia is one example of how the conversion case of one woman led to two women's groups highlighting the case, and subsequently the formation of a coalition that now deals with the larger issues of freedom within and of religion.

Reforms to the Muslim Family Laws as in the case of Morocco and Turkey, for example, have often been the result of major and lengthy campaigns by coalitions of women's groups (faith-based and secular groups). The latter have used documented cases of how the laws cause harm and injustice, as well as have provided templates and guidelines for reforms.

* At the regional and international levels:

There are several coalitions, networks, trans-border organising and research groups that have formed across national boundaries to highlight and advocate for changes to laws and practices that are harmful to women. Examples include, the Collective '95, Women Living Under Muslim Laws, the Coalition on Sexual and Bodily Rights (CSBR) and the research network Women's Empowerment in Muslim Communities.

CSBR, for example, is a bi-regional network which currently includes 38 organisational members from Algeria, Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Morocco, Pakistan, Palestine, the Philippines, Tunisia, Turkey and Yemen. The activities of the coalition include organising regional and international meetings, conferences, workshops and trainings on sexuality and sexual rights; supporting national campaigns and efforts to promote sexual rights; advocacy and lobbying for legal reforms in the domain of sexuality; producing and disseminating research and publications; and advocacy at the United Nations level for the advancement of sexual and reproductive rights.

Engaging 'progressive' Muslim scholars

There is a sizeable number of Muslims scholars who champion greater accountability in the democratic process and human rights principles, and in so doing have become to be recognised as 'moderate' or 'progressive' Muslims. These scholars, however, are sometimes ambivalent towards, or at times outrightly reject, gender-inclusive or sexuality-inclusive understanding of Islam. Some civil society groups have seen it necessary to engage these scholars and to raise their gender awareness and sensitivity.


(1) Hijab refers both to the Islamic headscarf worn to conceal hair and neck, as well as the Islamic practice of dressing modestly in clothing that covers most of the body.

Zaitun "Toni" Mohamed Kasim (1967-2008) is an activist, facilitator, trainer and writer on social justice issues, whose expertise covered such issues as gender, sexuality, sexual rights, human rights and women's rights, as well as the rights of women in Islam. Before she passed away in June 2008, she was actively involved in the women's rights and human rights movements in Malaysia, including Sisters In Islam, Amnesty International Malaysia and Suaram. Toni was also a member of regional and international networks, such as the Coalition on Sexual and Bodily Rights, the Consortium Advisory Group for the Research Programme Consortium on Women's Empowerment in Muslim Contexts, and ARROW's Program Advisory Committee.

In 1999, Toni ran in the Federal Elections in Malaysia as the first independent women's candidate running on a gender platform. She announced her intention to contest again in the Malaysian 2008 General Elections, but her failing health forced her to withdraw. Her passing away is a huge loss not only to her friends and family but to the human rights, sexual rights, and women's rights movements in Malaysia and the world.
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Author:Kasim, Zaitun Mohamed
Publication:Surfacing: Selected Papers on Religious Fundamentalisms and Their Impact on Women's Sexual and Repro
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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