The New Enlightenment: Theories in Islamic Reformation

Last night I had the pleasure of meeting Madhavi Sunder at the London School of Economics. An expert on women’s human rights in Muslim communities with a formal background in law, Sunder had been invited to speak about “The New Enlightenment: how Muslim women are bringing religion out of the dark ages“. Her views about international human rights laws fuelled her to write an article on women’s rights activism in the Muslim world, titled “Piercing the Veil“, which opens with the rather provocative statement, “human rights law has a problem with religion“. The dissertation looked at the failure to address women’s rights under even the most oppressive regimes because such law is reticent to interfere with religion and culture. 

In her lecture, Sunder begins with an analysis of pioneering work being undertaken by a group called Sister’s in Islam (SIS), a group which was set up to lobby and reform Malay family laws affecting disadvantaged groups, namely women. She hails the work of its Executive Director, Zainah Anwar, a former member of the Malaysian Human Rights Commission. Her work, she says, has enabled the reinterpretation of the Quran, and allowed women to question the norm, and through the process of osmosis, has also filtered into other countries where Muslim women are a disadvantaged group, and refers to it as “universal lobbying” of Muslim women who are “making a difference”. 

Quoting figures from a recent study by John L.Esposito and Dalia Mogahed entitled “Who speaks for Muslims: What a billion Muslims really think“, Sunder claims that over one billion Muslims globally anticipate equal rights in Islam, and then goes on to describe human rights as “rights guaranteed in a secular political world” – the audience gasp and the implication of her statement is clear; Muslims want to embrace secular human rights. But I am not entirely convinced and I start to wonder what this actually means and how is it different to Islamic human rights, if indeed there is such a notion, and whether these groups welcome equal right within Islam, or if these simply are basic human rights – above and beyond religious or cultural boundaries. 

The study Sunder relied on was based on researching around 50,000 Muslims globally via Gallup over six years, and it is difficult to say how representative this is of the majority view of Muslims, whose numbers presently exceed 1.3 billion. Contrary to Sunder’s claim what the research actually states is that “Muslims across the world want neither secularism nor theocracy. They want freedom, rights and democratisation … however, they claim that society should be built upon religious Islamic values and that the shari’a (Islamic law) should be a source of law. Simply put, the majority of Muslim women and men want rights and religion, and they don’t see the two as being mutually exclusive” – a direct contradiction to Sunder’s thesis.

In one of her slides, Sunder picturises two women sitting together in an organisation called Sisterhood is Global Institute (SiGI). The woman on the left is shown to be wearing traditional Islamic attire (the hijaab and jilbaab*), whereas the lady next to her is dressed in western clothing, she is not wearing the hijaab. Sunder points to each woman and highlights the distinct difference in appearance, making reference to their socio-economic background, “the first lady is from a poor background, whereas the second lady (without a headscarf) is from the city“, insinuating that the poor, uneducated lady is donning the hijaab due to lack of education and exposure to ‘progressive’ city-life.

This point seems the most relevant and I ask Sunder the extent to which she believes socio-economic deprivation limits progression in human rights. In answering my question, Sunder gives a somewhat vague response, and relies on her hypothesis about culture and religion being the causal factors in oppression and limitations to human rights for women. This seems like an easy answer. The Muslim world is currently predominantly based within the war-torn, third world – countries with high corruption, high unemployment, low skills, inadequate basic provisions, and civil unrest, to name a few. Secular countries on the other hand, are largely first world countries where human rights, equality and democracy flourish – those who live in these countries are comparatively at an advantage in terms of quality of life. So the two societies cannot be weighed side by side because the baseline is unequal. Probing Sunder further, I ask her whether she really believes that human rights are of primary concern to those living in countries such as Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, who often lack basic amenities, things that the western world take for granted. Her response is again blurred by her continuous subjective reliance on theories of culture and religion hindering progression. I am still not satisfied.

After the lecture I approach her and ask her to explain her theories in more detail, she explains that she is more interested in the process of change and “operationalisation of the new enlightenment“, i.e., the methods by which change takes place – which to me seems she wants to have an observational and analytical role in the reformation process, but her presentation instead implied that she is at the very centre of the change, implementing it herself. The problem with this approach is that non-Muslim theorists, although well within their rights to encourage and help promote change within a particular society, are seen as a threat or simply put “fire-starters”, who lack knowledge and intricate understanding of Islam and wider causal factors that contribute to the state in which Muslim countries are living today.

Recommended texts:Piercing the Veil – from the Yale Law Journal, 2003, by Madhavi Sunder

Who Speaks For Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think, by John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed

Shariah = Islamic legal system
Hijaab = Covering of the head
Jilbaab = Loose fitting dress


In the name of honour, marriage …and force

Yesterday the BBC broke a story about thirty three girls who have apparently disappeared from schools in Bradford – authorities suspect that the girls have been taken abroad to be forcefully married. The story is not new to the Asian community, particularly to those living in the North of England, but it is one that is slowly being acknowledged and responded to by the community, and to some extent, the current government. There are two problems, firstly the issue of force – be that implicit, or explicit; and secondly, the use of violence to protect honour.

Late last year the BBC aired a programme about honour killings and forced marriages – the content was shocking, and included a number of interviews with prominent Asian community leaders and Muslim figures; highlighting the degree of importance now given to this issue and engaging in discussions which until now have been silenced. The programme alone prompted around thirty referrals in Wales, which usually only gets around two per year, and the message was clear – We recognise this as a problem in our community, and we are willing to face up to it.

The most shocking part however was that it was not only the traditional mindset of first generation immigrants, but one that has infiltrated into second generation British Asian and Muslims – citizens who have been born and brought up in this country. Crimes against young men and women who refused to marry out of force, or worse, against those who ‘fall in love’ with someone outside their own caste, sect, or family – people who are then likely to be ostracised by their own community for rebellion. Estimates by Reunite are that around 1,000 women are subjected to forced marriages annually in the UK (and these are just the reported cases amongst the Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi community and do not include the large proportion of men helped by the Foreign Office’s Forced Marriages Unit.)

A few days after watching the programme I decided to catch up with Nazir Afzal, Director of West London Crown Prosecution Service. Nazir’s work in this area began in 2004 when he held his first conference on honour-based violence; his aim was not merely to raise awareness about this issue, but also to develop strategies to deal with such crimes. The resulting interest was phenomenal, “victims hadn’t heard a man speaking out against this issue, and once I’d done this conference, they wouldn’t let me go”. Being tactically placed, with access to senior police officials and Ministers, Nazir has not only been in a position to prevent these crimes from taking place, but also to help prosecute perpetrators guilty of such acts of violence.

But the question is why do young British Asians and Muslims who have grown up in such a multicultural society agree to partake in acts of violence and forced marriages? Without wanting to justify the motives or actions of those responsible, Nazir claims that the perpetrators are often victims of society themselves who succumb to social, cultural and family pressure. Nazir disagrees that the problem is linked to strict religious ideologies within the Muslim community, “this behaviour by no means makes this a religiously induced problem, the causes range from ignorance to a lack of information” he assures me, “mosques are now beginning to talk about it, but even they feel threatened by the community. Men often suffer from identity politics which is infused into them from an early age.” The concept of ‘man being a piece of gold and women being a piece of silk’ is largely believed by young Asian men – who choose to stick to “tribal values” more so than their parents.

But why then is the problem so apparent within the Muslim community? Is this problem linked to a school of thought which promotes forced marriages and justifies violence for the sake of honour? In order to get a better picture of the problem we must examine the demographics of the Muslim community – Around 74% of Muslims are of Asian origin – predominantly Pakistani at 43% – of this community, the majority are originally from Azad Kashmir (including Mirpur and Kotli), equating to around 50% of the British Pakistani community – these are often groups who have undergone chain-migration, live in silos, and try to emulate a particular lifestyle from the Indian Subcontinent.

Second, there is the issue of low attainment and high unemployment which both contribute to overall social well-being and liveabilty (or quality of life). The Muslim community, makes up around 1.5 Britain’s today and has one of the highest unemployment rates at almost 18%. Together, the Pakistani and Bangladeshi community is estimated at around 1.8 million people, of which around 60% is of working age. Of that the unemployment rate is around 17% amongst Pakistanis and approximately 20% amongst Bangladeshis (the current UK unemployment rate being 4.3%).

Educationally, around 33%, that’s one in three Muslims have no qualifications. Out of this group, Pakistani and Bangladeshi boys have the lowest rate of basic, entry-level qualifications (such as NVQ Level 2, GCSEs or O’Levels) at round 22%. Approximately 48% of Bangladeshi women and 40% of Bangladeshi men have no qualifications, compared to 40% of Pakistani women and 27% of Pakistani men with no formal qualifications. The percentage of those with no qualifications in the UK is around 15%.

To add to these factors, Asian and Muslim communities tend to group together and often reside in shared accommodation – this continues after marriage to maintain the traditional “joint family system”, though around 32% of Muslim households experience overcrowding, with Hindu and Sikh households experiencing around 22% and 19%* respectively.

These are all are interlinked causal factors and contribute towards general social status, acceptance, awareness, honour and cohesion – not being fully integrating into British society or accepting the “system” because they are not a part of it. In terms of marriage, Asian communities tend to group together, to maintain social and religious cohesion and a sense of identity. – this ultimately leads to less integration, and the preservation of one’s “natural identity” – they are often seen by the younger Asian generation as an obligation towards an ageing, yet very alive elder generation who they are still somewhat indebted to or bound by cultural ties. Women are more often than not seen as the “honour” of the family and are encouraged to nurture a sense of cultural identity – and so if they do decide to lead a life independent of cultural restrictions and limitations, they are seen as a disgrace and their actions are a crime.

These are all factors which undoubtedly add to slow-progression and ago-old feudal mentality amongst some within these communities. Until these social causal factors are addressed, little can be done to change the perceptions amogst young Asians – but we must acknowledge that this problem is not one that is linked to religious ideology with its roots in Islam or any other established religion.

Later this year, the government will bring into force the Forced Marriages Act 2007 – a rather ‘delicate’ piece of legislation which aims to protect “individuals against being forced to enter into marriage without their free and full consent and for protecting individuals who have been forced to enter into marriage without such consent” – the Act does not limit itself to force through means of violence, but also through coercive methods which include psychological pressure – a problem faced by a large proportion of young British Asian adults, the majority of whom are bound by perpetual indebtedness and ‘honour’ in the UK today.

Although welcomed by many enforcement bodies and community leaders, the Act is essentially looking to reduce the number of immigrant-marriages by force, a strategy which seems more in line with current immigration limitation plans, than to reduce forced marriages. It will not abolish the long-standing tradition of emotional pressure, nor will it, in my opinion, prohibit or deter crimes committed in the name of honour.

If you fear you may be forced into an arranged marriage, are suffering, or know someone who may be, you can contact:

FCO Forced Marriages Unit: 020 7008 0151
Southall Black Sisters: 020 8571 9595
International Campaign Against Honour Killings:

*Data has been sourced from National Statistics Online.