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Drafting a New Story: Women's Rights in the Middle East

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Thanks to the Bahrain Women Association for this article summarizing one of their discussion panels on women’s issues in Islam affecting women not only in Bahrain, but across the region.

Bahrain Women Association – for Human Development (BWA) conducted the fourth and final open discussion series titled: “Towards a Successful Family Partnership” which ends the “Women … New Paradigm” project it launched on the 21st of March 2009.

BWA President Eng. Saba Alasfoor delivered a speech at the closing ceremony, marking the end of the discussion series that also happen to be on the BWA’s ninth anniversary. She said: “It’s been fifteen months since we launched the BWA’s project ‘Women … New Paradigm’ with a long-term vision aiming to correct the false beliefs rooted in the culture that have downgraded women in the community with unjustified reasons, as neither human nature nor the Quran validates that women differ from men in rights and duties”.

She continued: “Unfortunately, more than 50% of the survey respondents still want to forbid women’s guardianship, and 54% believe that the testimony of a woman carries only half the weight of a man’s. Moreover, 7% were against women’s testimony in general. We continue to hear that some are skeptical about the benefits behind discussing women’s rights, and wonder and why researchers attempt to introduce innovative ideas.”

In the first session of the open discussion, Mr. Isa AlSharqi, a researcher from Al Tajdeed Cultural & Social Society, emphasized that polygamy is not a rule that Islam has enforced, but that it is an existing Arab social custom that Islam has appropriated and regulated. He noted that “there is a big difference between when a religion establishes a certain rule and when a rule exists and requires trimming and reorganizing. Establishing a rule to be introduced to people should be generated from the essence and spirit of the religion, whereas in the second case, the right thing to do may be to stop the rule if society has reached a certain stage of development in which the problem and causes of the existing rule have vanished. In fact, it is necessary to work towards getting the community to that stage, as it did in the case with slavery.”

Mr. AlSharqi clarified: “The verse of upon which scholars legitimize man to marry more than one wife, ‘if you fear that you cannot act equitably towards orphans, then marry women of your choice two and three and four; but if you fear that you will not be able to deal justly with them then only one or what your right hands possess; That is nearer to prevent you from doing injustice’ (Qu’an 4:3) is unrelated to multiple wives. It was and still is a dilemma for all who tried to explain it; some interpreters invented different word pronunciation types that bear a load to the words it was not meant to carry.” He stressed that “the opinion is that the verse is about the marriage of male and female orphans.”

The second session had number of speakers discussing underage marriage issues. Mrs. Huda AlMahmood, vice president of the Bahraini Sociologists Society, said that “by authorizing underage marriage we are legitimizing social irresponsibility.” She wondered about the justice behind this practice, and refused to have these practices validated in the name of religion. Mrs. AlMahmood called for researches to seek solutions exploring the root of the problem, and asked for social responsibility towards marriage issues.

Dr. Fawzia Al-Hani, a human rights activist from Saudi Arabia, said “our communities instill in girls’ minds that waiting for marriage is among the most important duties towards self-awareness and a sense of self.” She added: “family formation is not limited to the physiological reproduction but also requires intellectual, emotional, cognitive and social maturity to achieve the social objectives of a family. Unless girls are mature and educated they will not be able perform this role.”

Mr. Isa Sharqi mentioned: “Young girls have been included in marriage issues, even though Quranic verses which addressed marriage issues focused on women only. All marriage verses use the term ‘women,’ usually reserved for adult females. Small girls are excluded from marriage topics, and their parents’ guardianship during their immaturity should not impose on them what to be applied on matures, this applies to males as well”.

Lawyer Hassan Ismail called for women’s associations to study the medical and health damages caused by underage marriage for those under 15 years of age.

At the end of the open discussion forum, the President Bahrain Women Association expressed her thanks to all those who contributed significantly to the success of the project from their various positions and responsibilities, and extended her appreciation to the Al Tajdeed Cultural & Social Society for their contributions to presenting this innovative, enlightening research. She added: “This is the fourth and last open discussion forum of ‘Women … New Paradigm’ series, which ends the culture establishment phase to correct the perception of women in society, but initiates a new phase for setting practical steps for making sustainable change towards restoring rights and dignity for women.”

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