Islamic Family Law, Women’s Activism, and Everyday Forms of the Religious Life

What is the place of Islamic law in today’s world? How can women’s rights be expressed within its framework? How and why are debates about women’s rights tied to ideas about “reforming” Islamic law?

“Who’s Afraid of Shari’a Law?” is a project helmed by Lila Abu-Lughod, the Joseph L. Buttenwieser Professor of Social Science at Columbia University and Co-Director of the Center for the Critical Analysis of Social Difference (CCASD) which seeks ways to move beyond the polarized debates about women’s rights in Muslim societies. These debates divide those who advocate shari’a as a symbol (and practice) of authenticity and those who fear it as a sign of fundamentalist obscurantism, often in the name of secularism.  In the past two decades, the application of Islamic law to the regulation of women’s everyday lives has generated great controversy but has also inspired innovative thinking by feminists.

The project is divided into two phases. Phase One focuses on Islamic Family Law between international politics and local practice. This phase culminated in a spring 2011 conference at Columbia’s Global Center in Amman, Jordan on women’s rights, family law, and the politics of consent. Consent is crucial to the ways we imagine Muslim women’s rights to be infringed as well as to the ways reformers are attempting to guarantee them. What does consent mean in matters of intimate relationships? Is it the same concept in Islamic legal reasoning as in liberalism?

Phase Two is comprised of a series of three workshops on “Is Islamic Reform Secular? Women’s Activism and Everyday Forms of the Religious Life.” Abu-Lughod and her team look at competing legal systems, religious and secular, and at the rise of groups advocating for women’s rights within Muslim societies.  What are the crucial components in making such organizations effective and respected? Do they represent a positive model for democratic rights for women? Do recent transnational activist initiatives on behalf of Muslim women’s rights result in cooperation across difference, and if so, with what sacrifices and exclusions?