On March 30 and 31, a distinguished multidisciplinary group of international scholars and activists will convene at the Washington and Lee School of Law to discuss various women's issues at the Gender-Relevant Legislative Change in Muslim and non-Muslim Countries symposium.
Louise Halper, symposium director and professor of law at W&L says, "Many people assume that Muslim women can't speak for themselves, that they need to be given a voice." From her travels in the region—Turkey, Egypt and Iran, among other countries—and her Fulbright Fellowship as a senior lecturer in Law at Marmara University in Istanbul, she saw a different picture. "Women have so much to say. In my Gender, Law, and Culture class, I show a documentary to help my students counteract these assumptions that Muslim women lack agency. The film is by one of our symposium speakers, Ziba Mir-Hosseini, a legal anthropologist. It's called Divorce-Iranian Style and shows Iranian women speaking out in their own behalf in a Tehran divorce court—it's very impressive. True, a lot of these possibilities are not fully realized, but there is no faceless homogeneous Muslim woman—there is a lot of differentiation. Islam in Indonesia is very different from Islam of Tunisia.
"We don't do enough comparative work," she continues. "We tend to 'other' Muslims and the Islamic world, without remembering how recently things changed for women here. The whole idea of this symposium is to demystify differences among women here and there. There have to be ways to talk about gender issues that are comparable to how we talk about them in the U.S., not making 'them' different from 'us.' "
Symposium participants include Zainah Anwar, executive director of Sisters in Islam, a Malaysian activist who agitates to maintain and increase the progress Muslim women have made in that region, Marie-Claire Foblets of Louvain University in Belgium, a professor of both law and anthropology who studies Muslim women in Europe, and Martha Albertson Fineman of Emory Law School, a feminist scholar of trends in American law.
"We hosted this symposium at the Law School because we want to show that, no matter where you are, law must be interpreted, whether it's a revelation or a constitution," explains Halper. "The way in which it is interpreted depends on the political and social and economic situation of the country; it is always contextual. We want to ask what are these contexts, what are the opportunities that are favorable to the advancement of women. Many think 'well you can't have change in Islamic law,' but all law is open to being interpreted and modified," she observes.
"The trope in discourse is that the situation of Muslim women is unique and so terrible that it must be changed," asserts Halper. While she agrees that Muslim women still face discrimination and obstacles, she observes, "We haven't overcome all these obstacles either. In fact, it is striking that some of the arguments being presented today, such as should women be able to initiate divorce or would that destroy the family, mirror arguments presented on the same topic in the West pretty recently."
This year's symposium is presented by the Sidney Lewis Law Center at W&L and jointly sponsored with the Islamic Legal Studies Program at Harvard Law School where Halper was a Visiting Professor in 2004-05. "I'm very grateful to both the Law Center and the ILSP for their support of this program," Halper said.
For more information about the symposium, visit the Web site at http://law.wlu.edu/lawcenter/symposium.
-- by Lori Stevens