Photo by Shadi Ghadirian

Four or five years ago, the term Sharia, which for Muslims denotes Islamic law, meant scant little to Americans. As I write this in the fall of 2010, America’s perceptions of Islam and Muslims have changed markedly. A few months from now, when Oklahoma voters march to the polls, they will face “question 755” on their ballots. Born out of the “Save Our State” constitutional amendment passed by the Oklahoma legislature earlier this year, question 755 will implore voters to forbid courts from using international law or Sharia law in their decisions. In state legislatures in Tennessee and Louisiana, similar bills await consideration. And in New York, Tennessee, Florida, and California, Americans are fiercely protesting the construction of mosques. These local cataclysms have been fueled by a steady stream of Taliban executions and floggings, all carried out under the supposed imprimatur of Sharia. It is in this landscape, constructed of faraway images of women whose burqas flap about in the dust, as well as of avenging state senators in the American heartland, that I am often asked about the possibility of Islamic feminism.

I grew up in the eighties in a Pakistan that had just escaped the shackles of military rule. My own dawning political awareness came at the euphoric time when Pakistan was about to elect its first female prime minister. It had been a grisly decade, one in which Pakistan’s own militarized version of Sharia law had played a defining role. In the late-seventies, in an effort to legitimize his dictatorship, General Muhammad Zia ul-Haque, who had grabbed power in a military coup, initiated an “Islamization” program. With the goal of producing a pure society by criminalizing all temptation, Islamization produced laws whose draconian and misogynistic character was conveniently packaged in Islamic-sounding terms and references. In real life, this meant that men and women could be asked to produce their marriage documents by any police officer. Women on television covered their hair and were never shown having any physical contact with men, leaving children like me to digest British sitcoms so censored that they often lasted only ten minutes.

It is not that preoccupations with Islamic law took up much of my attention in those early years of my life, or that I worried about the fact that legally I counted as only half a witness while my twin brother, with whom I competed and fought daily, counted as a whole. Yet these precepts, because of their existence and their ubiquity, were an invisible yet determinative theme in my life. They dictated, for example, the manner in which our home was arranged, such that an entering unrelated male could be led directly to a reception room in the front of the house, never encountering any women. In later years, it would decide who I was allowed to visit and when, which schools I would be sent to, and myriad other details of my own life and the lives of the women in our family.

My aunt Amina was married before I was born so she didn’t live with us, though she was a frequent visitor. Her visits were a cause of much excitement for us kids, whose ordered lives of school and homework did not allow for many novel experiences. The highlight was the fact that in the early years of their marriage, her husband, Uncle Sohail, rode a motorcycle. This vehicle provided hours of entertainment and speculation. If adults were around, we were sometimes allowed to sit and pose on it, a delight for my brother especially. Once, and only once, I remember my brother and I being given a ride around the block on it. Oh, the exhilaration of the achingly familiar landscape of our block transformed into a whizzing blur of shapes. Other times, Aunt Amina would come alone to spend an afternoon with us, often bearing special treats that she had made for us during the week.

The adult worlds of my aunts and grandparents were separated from us not simply by the boundaries of age, but also of language. My paternal grandparents, migrants from India, spoke a North Indian dialect that I was never formally taught. A quick turn into this language could insulate adult discussions from being overheard by children or servants in a world with little privacy from either. Of course, not being taught does not mean not learning, and at the age of six I could decipher just enough, quickly translating the words falling from my grandmother’s mouth as I played with a doll or stared at a jigsaw puzzle. When conversation slipped into this dialect I became immediately alert that some juicy bit of news was about to be divulged. It is through these shreds that I pieced together my Aunt Amina’s struggles with her in-laws and her husband. After seven years of marriage, she had failed to bear children, and her infertility was the source of unending troubles for her. Subject to constant taunts, she was often treated like a maid, given the crudest of tasks as a reminder of her status as a barren woman. Weddings were particular trials, as she was often excluded from celebrations. In one horrific instance, her oldest sister-in-law would not let her greet and kiss a new sister-in-law, saying loudly to all present that the touch of a barren woman was inauspicious.

Uncle Sohail hadn’t died, but perhaps it would have been better if he had. Instead, he had chosen to take a second wife.

Through the fog of memory it is difficult to know when and where cultural perceptions transmit themselves to children, but I remember often feeling terribly sorry for my aunt. My brother and I, always looking for new playmates who in our imaginations would have piles of new toys to share with us, imagined a childless house to be a singularly boring place. No playmates meant no toys. Aunt Amina proved us wrong every time with a collection of toys she kept just for us. Her little house, fascinating to us because it represented a miniature version of the large dwelling we inhabited ourselves, was decorated everywhere with pictures of children. Babies from all over the world, cut out from calendars and magazines, adorned the walls of the kitchen, living room, stuck between cabinets and even under the glass of the dining table. Shining happy talismans of hope, they formed the silent chorus of encouragement that my Aunt clung to.

It was just another pleasant winter morning when I woke to find Aunt Amina sitting at our breakfast table. Her presence was ominous since she had never, in my ten years, spent a night in her father’s house, always returning to sleep in her husband’s home as tradition and culture demanded. Her hair, always neat in a thick dark braid, was unkempt, her wheat-colored skin, usually flawless, was covered with blotchy tear stains. She managed a wan smile as I, already in my school uniform, looked at her with the mixed curiosity and apprehension of a child who does not yet know how to react to distraught adults. I was given little information that morning, even though I did manage to inquire on my way to school whether Uncle Sohail had died.

I can imagine what my mother must have thought of that question. Uncle Sohail hadn’t died, but perhaps it would have been better if he had. Instead, he had chosen to take a second wife, a woman who worked with him at the bank. Aunt Amina had come to our house after refusing his request to take a second wife. The annex that he had been building all year, supposedly to accommodate visiting relatives, was in fact quarters for a new wife. For three days and nights she had pleaded with him to reconsider, and every time he had refused, reminding her that this was his right as a Muslim man. (Though polygamy is not very common in urban Pakistan—indeed, at the time, I had never heard of it and no one in our family had multiple wives—lately it is being popularized as a religiously prescribed social panacea to the problem of too many destitute women.) My aunt recounted to my grandfather and father, her male guardians, how she had told him that it was better to kill her than to force her to watch him marry and share everything that was theirs with another wife.

In hushed tones, the topic of divorce, or khula, was discussed. How would it happen? Would he allow it? Aunt Amina’s marriage contract, signed years ago, had been drafted by an old imam, who had not thought to add a clause allowing her to petition for divorce. I did not understand the impute of the discussions then. I did know that I had never heard of divorce; the women around me, every single one, were either too young to be married or awaiting marriage or married with broods of children. I invested the idea of divorce with the same foreboding invested in it by the women of the family.

For days, my aunt remained in my grandmother’s room, leaving only to pray after the neighborhood mosque sounded the call. Sometimes she would join us at the dinner table, but she ate little, and did not speak at all. A few times we tried to joke with her, imagining that our childish insistence could lift her out of her misery, but we were unsuccessful. Parades of older male relatives came to the house and had conferences with my father and grandfather, from which all the women were excluded. The imam, who had performed her marriage, came to advise the family of the religious and legal options, providing little solace. The marriage contract he had drafted did not provide any options for her; it did not contain a clause forbidding polygamy, it did not provide for a significant settlement to be paid to her. As a divorced woman she would be destitute, stigmatized, and even more humiliated than as a rejected wife.

Then, one morning, as suddenly as she had appeared, my Aunt Amina was gone. Her belongings, which were neatly arranged on a bureau in my grandmother’s room, had been replaced by the porcelain knick-knacks that had stood there before her arrival. I was told that she had returned to “her” house, her husband’s home. Because the information supplied was so meager and because the uncomfortable silence she left in her wake provided so few clues to what had happened, I spent hours imagining what she must be going through. Her husband would marry this new woman and she would be there to witness it. Weddings are noisy affairs in Pakistan, and the arrival of a bride was always accompanied with fireworks, music, and fanfare. I imagined her standing at the upstairs window of her house looking down into the central courtyard and the other apartment, the one where the new bride would soon live. I imagined her alone, watching her own husband as a bridegroom greeting a new bride. The same relatives who had welcomed my aunt into the family, people who knew her family, who had pretended to care for her, would now sit, consuming large celebratory plates of rice and mutton and sweet delicacies to celebrate the second wife, unconcerned at how a life lay destroyed just upstairs.

The marriage happened. The new wife’s name was never mentioned in our house, a wishful invisibility, perhaps, that became a habit. In the end, their marriage arrangement was both surreal and terribly ordinary in its pragmatism. Her husband rotated wives every week; during “her” week he would live upstairs, take all his meals in her section of the house, and the following week he would switch. In the weeks she was “off,” my aunt was excused from all wifely duties. His affections, of course, were similarly divided; for years hence she would still talk of how hurtful it was to watch them get dressed and go off in the car while she watched from her upstairs window. Much of my aunt’s life was thus defined by this watching from windows, a constant vigil to see how her husband changed as he descended the stairs from her life with him to another one entirely. Divided thus between “off” and “on” weeks, her life oscillated between loved wife and abandoned wife, loneliness and servitude.


In the decades since I migrated to the United States, it was convenient to think of Aunt Amina’s story as something that took place “back there,” that had little or no relevance to my life as a Muslim woman in the U.S. I felt that a clean line could be drawn between the legal secular world in which I was being trained and the transcendent gray area of women’s rights and responsibilities in Islam. Muslim women living in the West could take advantage of rights available to women in the West, get divorced, remarry, and not have to worry that their husbands could take another wife. I was a practicing Muslim, but I did not believe that the messy issue of Sharia had any place in an American courtroom. It was easy, it seemed to me, to leave the vexing terrain of Sharia to be wrestled within the Muslim world.

It was with these assumptions that I began a one-year stint working at a domestic violence shelter in Indianapolis, Indiana. I had just finished defending a dissertation that focused on the choices between religious and gender identity that Muslim women face as members of minority communities in the West. A partnership between the domestic violence shelter and a local Muslim community organization provided a unique opportunity to work with women I had written about. The project aimed to provide legal assistance to Muslim women who were filing for divorce with the idea to show them that the community supported survivors and not their abusive husbands. It was meant to tackle head-on taboos that would otherwise prevent women from seeking separation. Providing a context that was sensitive to religious and cultural identity would help in the transition to independence.

Academia, with its well-known insularity, provides depth but also isolation. So, though I had passed the bar and begun to practice law, I had little experience working with abused women. I was well-schooled on the struggles of Muslim women, including their efforts to redefine the faith from within and to lobby for increasing representation and equality within mosques. But I saw the battle to define positions of equality within American Islam as issues only important to a small activist and scholarly minority, far from the realities of everyday lives of ordinary Muslim women. A secular legal system, in my opinion, provided sufficient protection to Muslim women in diaspora communities. In American law, I believed, lay the bulwarks of equality that would insure that, at least in the West, Muslim women would not be discriminated against.

I picked up Zainab from the motel where she had been abandoned by her husband, Said. Married only a year earlier in Amman, Jordan, she could not drive and spoke little English. Zainab, whose name I’ve changed to protect confidentiality, had left friends, family, and a job behind to be with a man who had promised her a life of comfort in the United States. They had met at a wedding two years before, when her cousin had wed one of his brothers. Punctuated with the romance of the wedding, one of the few instances when young men and women could socialize in Amman without the usual restrictions, they had a few clandestine conversations. During one of these, he had slipped her a small gold ring and asked her to marry him. The act was unusual. Marriages were nearly always initiated by elders in Zainab’s conservative family and the fact that he had taken the step of asking her himself, even if secretly, was indescribably winning to a young girl who had never before been the subject of such attentions.

The couple’s marriage was arranged by Said’s family, who showed up at Zainab’s home a few months after Said’s departure. Zainab remembered well serving tea to his mother, as the old woman inspected her from head to foot without any hesitation at all. Said’s family was known to Zainab’s, but this was the first time they had visited. A little daunted by the severity of her potential mother-in-law’s black attire and scrutinizing gaze, Zainab consoled herself with the thought that she would not have to live with the old lady. When her father called her to his room later that night to formally ask her if she wanted to accept Said’s family’s proposal, Zainab was delighted to say yes. Even though she had exchanged a bare twenty words with Said and had not been alone with him for a single moment, Zainab called their match a “love” marriage.

The departure of many young males abroad has made the transnational marriage a common occurrence. Embellished with the glamour of life abroad, these young men return to their home cultures and are often able to have their pick of brides. Young girls like Zainab, daunted by the specter of marital futures defined by meddling mothers-in-law, expectations of producing broods of children, and often also juggling careers in tough economic times, covet a proposal from abroad. Many imagine that the man himself, after having lived abroad, is likely to have less traditional views and be less dominated by the views of his family, adding to the allure of the match. In the piles of glossy wedding pictures that Zainab and I pored over the days that followed our first meeting, I saw an opulent ceremony attended by hundreds, and a resplendent bride who barely resembled the drawn and terrified woman I saw before me.

Sitting in the brand-new Nissan Altima that Said had bought with the wedding money they had received in Jordan, he looked at Zainab calmly and in Arabic pronounced the words “I divorce you” three times.

Things had unraveled fast after her arrival in the United States. During a hurried “honeymoon” in Chicago, Said appeared preoccupied, a marked and drastic change from the attentive groom of a bare week earlier. Several times during the night, he had stolen outside to talk on his cell phone in rapid English, which Zainab did not understand. It was after one of these conversations, when Zainab insisted on knowing who he was speaking to, that Said struck her across the face for the first time. A stunned Zainab lay in her bed crying for the rest of the night, suddenly filled with trepidation about this new life in which she was all alone. After months of nights spent imagining what America would be like, and how she would decorate her new home, Zainab longed for her childhood room and the bed she had shared with her younger sister.

It was not long after arriving at their suburban condominium that she discovered that Said had an American mistress. He made no effort to hide either his phone calls, his visits to her or the fact that he had no intention of leaving her. In a photograph stuck in a kitchen drawer, Zainab saw that she was an older woman, perhaps even older than Said, who at thirty-five was ten years older than Zainab. Zainab had confronted him that night when he returned home. Why had he said nothing in their long conversations and internet chats over the ten months of their courtship? Why had he married her and told her he loved her when he was in love with someone else? She had many questions for him that night, but in exchange she received only blows. Later that night, he raped her. This became a pattern. Every time she confronted him about leaving her alone while he went to visit his girlfriend, she was punished. After one fight during which she threatened to tell her parents and his family what was going on, he imprisoned her in a closet for two days. He disconnected the land line in the apartment and only allowed her to call home through his cell phone with a phone card. He watched her the entire time and did not let her speak for more than ten minutes. If she gave any indication of crying during the conversation, he promised to punish her. But despite the pain and humiliation, Zainab did not leave. Even as she recounted the story in tears in the shelter office that first day, she insisted that she had wanted desperately for the marriage to work because she did not know how she would face her friends and relatives at home if she were sent back a divorced woman.

Zainab had not spoken to her family in over three months when Said dropped her off that day in front of the Extended Stay America motel where I would pick her up a week later. Sitting in the brand-new Nissan Altima that he had bought with the wedding money they had received in Jordan, he looked at her calmly and, in Arabic, pronounced the words “I divorce you” three times. Then he had gotten out of the car and unloaded her things on the sidewalk. Before driving off, he had handed her a stack of legal papers. In the long days that Zainab spent sitting alone, hungry, and frightened in the motel room, she had gone over each page. They were civil divorce papers from a court in Indiana that pronounced her divorced. Said had signed Zainab’s name fraudulently several times, alleging in the papers that the divorce was mutually agreed upon. Only once did she remember signing a page, which Said had pulled out after a rare meal at a restaurant. Zainab had been so delighted at his affectionate behavior that evening, reminiscent as it was of better days in Jordan, that she had not even read the page before she signed it, only glancing at the English lettering before printing her name. Through this trail of deceptions, Said had managed to legally divorce Zainab without ever entering a courtroom.

There I was, with my first Muslim client, confronting a predicament where the American legal tools at my disposal did not promise the best result for my client.

Poring over Zainab’s case in those first few days, I felt dejected. In recent decades, most states have passed legislation that makes divorce a “no fault” issue. This means simply that if either a husband or wife asks a court for a divorce, it is automatically granted without anyone having to prove conditions such as adultery or abandonment, as was the case in decades past. Divorce in America is no longer punitive and courts want to stay away from deciding whether the husband or the wife is responsible for the breakdown of the marriage, an issue considered legally irrelevant to their future lives. All of this makes sense in a post-feminist society where women can marry and divorce at will and are unlikely to be stigmatized by the breakdown of a marriage. In a world of blended families and frequent divorces, few judges imagine a marriage as short as a year to have significantly impeded the life of either the husband or the wife. Spousal support, or the idea that the husband should have to pay his wife till she gets back on her feet, is largely unimaginable. While I could get her case re-opened by demonstrating the fraudulent circumstances behind the divorce decree, there were few options to get her much-needed monetary support beyond the basics of survival that were available at the shelter.

And so I faced the task of explaining an American legal reality of freedom and consent to a woman who had been married under circumstances that could not have been more different. Zainab expected spousal support and her argument for it was simple: she had given up everything to be married and feared the pain of an ineradicable stigma if sent back to Jordan. Again and again, she would ask me about her rights under the Islamic marriage contract, and repeatedly I would tell her that an Indiana court would not enforce a marriage contract based on Sharia law. Then she would exclaim, aghast, that if she could not get any rights or restitution under Islamic law, what indeed were her options under American law? My response, that all she would receive from an American court was a legally recognized divorce, no property, no spousal support, and no amount awarded for repudiating the marriage contract, was impossible for Zainab to digest. “How can this be?” she would ask. “This is America. Women are supposed to have rights here. How can a judge tell me that I deserve nothing after having been abused and abandoned?”

And so there I was, with my first Muslim client, confronting a predicament where the American legal tools at my disposal did not promise the best result for my client, a Jordanian Muslim woman. In my legal training, as well as my academic work, my focus had been almost entirely on the task of introducing women just like Zainab to the idea that the American legal system allowed them a level of equality and self-realization that was not yet available in Muslim countries. What indeed was fair in this case? The acknowledgement that Zainab had been wronged and deserved restitution, or treating her like any other American woman seeking a divorce? Should Said be treated like any other American husband whose marriage hadn’t worked and who wanted to be with another woman? Should Zainab’s unique situation as a Muslim woman whose chances of remarriage were severely affected by her divorce be considered in the case or ignored? More importantly, should Said have to pay to support a woman he had only been married to for a little over a year?

As a lawyer, I had been trained to find the fair and just result for my client, one that would make her whole and give her the best chance at rebuilding her life. And ironically, it was Zainab’s Islamic marriage contract that provided the best hope in this regard. Unlike the perfunctory and poorly drafted marriage contracts often used in my native Pakistan, Zainab’s contract had been drafted by an attorney, duly signed and witnessed, and had certified translations in English. Its clear stipulations mandated not only that Said did not have the right to contract any polygamous marriages, but that Zainab had the right to divorce him, something otherwise difficult for many Muslim women to do. The contract also imposed additional duties in the event of divorce upon Said. Not only did he have to provide spousal support for two years, but pay a pre-fixed amount, ten thousand dollars in this case, to Zainab if he chose to divorce her. The terms of the contract were indeed hopeful if they could be enforced. But in a climate where just the term Sharia evoked images of the Taliban and of amputations, I struggled to find a way to introduce the contract without allowing for a flood of negativity about Islam and Sharia that might destroy Zainab’s chances of success.

Further research provided more hope than I had expected. After a discussion with some colleagues, I found that the contract, because it had been so carefully worded, fulfilled all the requirements of an enforceable contract under U.S. law. There was no reason that I could not ask for it to be honored as a pre-nuptial agreement. It was this argument, then, that I ended up presenting in Zainab’s case. A few days after we had submitted to the court, we got word that the judge had signed the order and approved the proposed settlement, never questioning the premises of the agreement. The final order of the court asked for support to be paid for two years and the ten-thousand-dollar amount to be paid in installments to Zainab during the same time. Clutching the court’s order that summer afternoon, Zainab was happier than I had ever seen her. Her Muslim faith and American future, it seemed, had come together. Within a month, Zainab had moved out of the shelter and into an apartment and was beginning to take the first tentative steps toward a new life in the United States.


Zainab and Aunt Amina’s stories are separated by culture, time, and the vastly different worlds in which their choices and futures were determined. Together they illustrate the complexity of Muslim women’s interactions with Islamic law. In the patriarchal culture of Pakistan, Aunt Amina remaining a rejected wife was better than being a discarded one. Zainab struggled with the same issues decades later, and yet it was not Western culture or conventions that came to her rescue but the very marital contract that had been so unable to save Aunt Amina. Her story exposed to me the superficiality of the logic that, in America and under American law, justice is a guarantee for women, and that under Islamic law women would perennially be oppressed.

Zainab’s case does not and cannot change the fact that in the vast majority of Muslim countries, Islamic law, interpreted for centuries by men, is being used as a tool to enslave women and enable the sort of tragedies that defined Aunt Amina’s life. But it does present the argument that if things are to change, the recipe lies not in eliminating faith from the legal sphere but rather redefining it in a way that empowers women using the very tools that were used to enslave them.

Cases like Zainab’s, even when they occur in faraway America, represent for Muslim women strategic ways to take back the instruments of law that have been appropriated by male jurists and interpreters for centuries. Arguably, it is in places like Canada and the United States, which believe reform can only go in the direction of providing more rights to women, that this act of crucial taking back is possible. This, then, is the project of Islamic feminism, one defined in small, piecemeal victories that represent a taking back of a realm instead of surrendering it. Zainab was empowered by the outcome of the case not merely because she had received a monetary settlement crucial to her survival, but also because she had, in an elemental way, been able to use her faith to define her empowerment, a prospect denied to too many Muslim women, for too long.


Rafia Zakaria

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney, a political philosopher and the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan.”

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50 Comments on “Muslim Grrrls

  1. I would like to comment that while this article is very good and the author’s recommendations for further reading are excellent, the editor’s recommendation of “Infidel” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a terrible choice! Ms. Ali was admitted into the Netherlands as a refugee only to have the truth surface later that she lied on her immigration papers. They kicked her out of the parliament and now she lives in the US. If her stories are to be believed, she had an abusive upbringing, and unfortunately conflates that with Islam. She believes incorrectly that Islam and feminism can never go together, and she is being proven wrong again and again by many feminists the world over. I would suggest eliminating any mention of her writing from a recommendation list.

  2. “…if things are to change, the recipe lies not in eliminating faith from the legal sphere but rather redefining it in a way that empowers women using the very tools that were used to enslave them.”

    There is no place for religion in western courtrooms. The separation of church and state took place hundreds of years ago; this division needs to be upheld. Look at the history and practices of any religion – Islam AND Christianity – and you will see a tool of patriarchal oppression, used by men to subjugate women. It would be a terrible mistake to let the success of this one case cast a shadow over the thousands of atrocities perpetrated against women under Sharia law.

  3. No matter how many reasons we give for feminine rights and equality, the dogmatic islamists will always find justification by hook or crook. Give him a hadith or a verse and they will say please dont bring issues when u dont know islam. Ask an Imam. And he will give a myriad of meanings for one word to completely suit his purpose:

    “Arrijaalun qawwaamoon alan nissaa” means men are guardians over women. Thats interpretation of Quranic verse. You can search by word qawwamoon in the Quran’s index for the reference.

    “There is no such thing as contagion and nothing has bad omen. If there is bad omen in anything then it is in Woman, House and Horse!!!” Bukhari

    No doubt women are half-witness because of alleged poor memory, dependent by force not will, and can always be divorced without reason but cannot divorce their husbands even if tortured. And the legendary father’s love “beti is ghar se jaa to rahi hai ab teri laash hi wapis ani chahiye”.

  4. Have you ever read her book?

    I think it is very sad that we continue to victimise a person who was already a victim of many life threats because of the truths described in her book.

    Women are too often to hard on other women and muslims do not like that one of them talks about these hoorible truths.

    By the way, in her immigration papers she used one of the two names of her grandfather and this was not a lie as it was later proved that what she did was legal. She was not kicked out of the parliament and of the country. She decided to leave Holland.

  5. I think this article points to the only way that Sharia law — with regard to marriage/divorce — can assist American law in cases like this, and it is in the marriage contract. The USA recognizes many contracts drafted within and without its borders, just as it did this one.

    As one poster said, there is NO place in American courtrooms for religion — any religion. But there IS a place for a valid contract created and signed in an International jurisdiction.

    The truth, then, is that the contract has to be drafted correctly at the outset. Any woman in a foreign country, seeking to marry a man who is moving to or living in a Western country, MUST have her marriage contract drafted with an eye toward the Western court system. Muslims in America need to get the word out to their sisters in Islam around the world, and ensure that their contracts are rock-solid in both the East and West. Then if a situation like this should arise in the West, the woman is protected as she was originally intended to be.

  6. I have never heard an adequate explanation of why women from countries which do not deprive women of their humanity (e.g.western democracies) have not excoriated Muslims for this brutal subjection of their sisters

  7. “Her story exposed to me the superficiality of the logic that, in America and under American law, justice is a guarantee for women, and that under Islamic law women would perennially be oppressed.”


    I don’t think an outlier case breaks the general rule. Many more women under Islam end up like Aunt Amina than like Zainab.

  8. I agree that the courts should remain completely secular, and this one case does not break, but rather underscores, the rule. As others have pointed out, the well-drawn contract saved her, not Sharia.

    American justice initially did not work for Zainab in such a way that it does not work for anyone under similar circumstances; that fact and her abuse are certainly not particular to Islam.

    If anything, the possibility for abuse is enshrined in religious law, Sharia and others. And that is the sad irony for Zainab and all women of faith in most religions: what they “take back” is inherently/structurally counter to their basic human rights (“wives, submit to your husbands,” eg.).

    The best hope for freedom for everyone is the secular state, including the freedom of Muslims to practice their religion within its legal boundaries.

    Secularity is the only way in a pluralistic world.

  9. “She believes incorrectly that Islam and feminism can never go together, and she is being proven wrong again and again by many feminists the world over”: Do you have any specific, concrete examples of how Islam, an inherently patriarchal religion, can possibly go together with feminism? Or are you too busy advocating censorship and slandering Ayaan Hirsi Ali to even try to back up your ridiculous assertions?

  10. Hi Ni Dieu ni maitre,

    If you want a prime example of someone who reads the Koran really well, finds progressive ideas in it, and is a Muslim feminist and lesbian, look no further than the brave and brilliant Irshad Manji.

  11. I wonder if the experiences described by Ms. Zakaria, esp. of her days in Pakistan aren’t simply a product of a backward uneducated society and not of Islam itself ?

    I would argue that such experiences are not solely Islamic – I come from India – and we find such attitudes in non-Muslims as well – and oftentimes practices and beliefs even more bizarre and superstitious.

    News articles (I admit to having no first-knowledge) from Buddhist and Taoist China are also replete with such stories of such outright inhumanity.

    Would such attitudes be uncommon in medieval Christianity – or even some parts of modern Catholicism ?

    Are we confounding the correlation that Islam is a found in backward (i.e. poor, uneducated, pre-industrial, superstitious, oppressed) cultures with the idea that Islam causes such backwardness ?

  12. Perhaps we should consider context before offering absolute conclusions.

    Inside strongly Islamic countries where Sharia seems to be quite established, re-interpreting it and attempting to use the more progressive passages of the Koran seems like a sensible approach for women.

    Yet, as an American reading this long, detailed, and sad story, I see no reason to support the spread of religious fundamentalism – of any sort – into our secular legal system. Further, the United States Constitution provides exceptional protections for freedom of speech that I am quite reluctant to see replaced. Finally, numbers add precision. It’s impossible to overlook the huge preponderance of cases where “misunderstanders of the religion of peace” have “misunderstood” Sharia to inflict physical and emotional abuse of women.

    Bottomline: use whatever cultural resources you can to protect basic human rights – and women and girls count as humans.

  13. Perhaps we should consider context before offering absolute conclusions.

    Inside strongly Islamic countries where Sharia seems to be quite established, re-interpreting it and attempting to use the more progressive passages of the Koran seems like a sensible approach for women.

    Yet, as an American reading this long, detailed, and sad story, I see no reason to support the spread of religious fundamentalism – of any sort – into our secular legal system. Further, the United States Constitution provides exceptional protections for freedom of speech that I am quite reluctant to see replaced. Finally, numbers add precision. It’s impossible to overlook the huge preponderance of cases where “misunderstanders of the religion of peace” have “misunderstood” Sharia to inflict physical and emotional abuse of women.

    Bottomline: use whatever cultural resources you can to protect basic human rights – and women and girls count as humans.

  14. Excellent, interesting article. However, I disagree with the writer’s statement that “if things are to change, the recipe lies not in eliminating faith from the legal sphere but rather redefining it in a way that empowers women using the very tools that were used to enslave them.”

    The U.S. ruled on the contract, plain and simple. Rather than mire the court system in questions of faith and religion, which has no place in a U.S. court. What needs to be redefined is contractual negotiation going leading up to these marriages. One rule for all before the law, regardless of religion, race or sexual orientation.

  15. This is what I want to know; the husband in this story not only did not suffer any consequences for his behavior, his behavior appears to be condoned by his culture. How is this possible? How can anyone have such disregard for the welfare of another? How can he be allowed to get away with it?

  16. As others have said, I don’t see that Sharia had much to do with your client’s success. She had a contract and it was enforceable under American law. The only connection I can see is that Sharia law might have required a contract. That’s interesting but still irrelevant — the contract’s the thing. Could the Judge have drawn on an implied contract? i.e. under Sharia law there should have been one and the Judge will make one up? Seems unlikely.

    So please explain the connection as many of us don’t get it.

    But at any rate, congratulations to you and your client!

  17. Thomas Jefferson’s sentiments about religion “never picking his pocket” as a justification for secular neutrality are still to a degree relevant, but then ( and I admit I am not a scholar of that period ) perhaps we should go beyond neutrality given the global reach of religion and twentieth century extremism. As a practical matter the collision of an antiquated fundamentalist culture with ours’ has to be contained. We must have learned something, I presume, from the experience of doing so with Communism. Our encounter with Islam, fanatical or otherwise, has been a preponderantly negative one. I just don’t see a gain for our acculturated citizens by importing what seems to me to be an encoded, encrusted and thoroughly unenlightened tribalism into our society.

  18. This article is so much blather. Koran 4:34 says God made man superior to women. Thus what could “Islamic feminism” possibly mean? Why do we need so many paragraphs to conclude you can’t have Western-style feminism in Islam when that’s your starting point?

  19. I am not a lawyer and I do not have any legal education but as soon as I read that there was a contract prepared in Jordan, I knew what had to be done. Contracts are enforceable no matter where they were done. It has nothing to do with Sharia, the so called law of Islam.

  20. The only reason the Islamic contract was useful in this situation is because of Zainab ignorance and naivete (which is not her fault but the fault of the culture that raised her and keeps women ignorant and naive). American style freedom can only exist in a society where women and men are treated equal, with equal educational and social opportunities. In this situation it would be much harder for Zainab to be blindsided by a horrible marriage situation, and she would not have to retreat under religious law.

  21. After reading this article I conclude a properly drawn up marriage contract was, in the U.S., acknowledged as valid.

    I do not conclude from this that it therefore would be a good idea to import all kinds of offshore legal procedures, customs and folklore–and endorse them as a welcome enrichment of western values.

  22. It need not entirely surprise us when an open, modern and enlightened society–such as the United States on occasion may be considered to be–honors well-crafted, thoughtful and humane legalities originating in another culture.

    What may surprise us is that closed, medieval and unenlightened cultures continue their attempts to behave as if they have a broadly worthwhile contribution to make to 21st-century societies.

    It escapes me from where such putative attempts derive the gall to do so–other than perhaps the long established fact closed cultures see themselves as perfect beyond measure.

  23. One is astounded to arrive at the author’s conclusion after reading these sad but wonderfully told tales of two Muslim women’s marriages, namely that the Muslim Faith and Sharia Law are tools of empowerment for Muslim women! As many commentators have pointed out, it was the existence of a well formulated CONTRACT in the one case as opposed to the other that made the difference in outcomes, given a society and a court system that honors and enforces the validity of contracts. This is an argument for putting major life engagements on a contractual basis, and for a legal system that honors and enforces such agreements, but has nothing to do with the Muslim Faith and Sharia Law, as Amina’s tragic fate clearly shows. Her inadequate contract was after all drawn up by an Imam, while Zainab’s adequate one was prepared by an attorney.

  24. rafia:

    the morass of centuries has to be clawed back and dismantled a brick at a time

    more luck to efforts by you and others such as riffat (a href=> link to correct the abuses and misinterpretations of the past centuries

  25. While it may indeed be incorrect to conflate Islam and violence, what *does* emerge, in crystal clear fashion, is the utter lack of support for women in the islamic world when they try to leave abusive situations. How dreadful that even one’s *family* would reject you and insist that you put up with an abusive, possibly dangerous situation.

    So what if Hirsi Ali lied on her f@#$ing immigration application? She did so out of fear. Let me guess, those of you who latch onto this bureaucratic infraction have never fudged your income on tax forms, or never given a false phone number because you didn’t want the gov’t services calling you, right? Give me a break.

  26. While I have sympathy for Zakaria’s point, I think that this one story of a Muslim woman benefitting from Sharia law does not make it compellingly. It is not a grand journey of discovery, nor is it overcoming adversity, to have a Muslim marriage contract enforced in America. Nor is it, as some doubtless would say, bringing Sharia law to the US. The marriage contract was simply a contract, and to not enforce it would have been denying Zainab her rights, no matter where on the globe she lived. That is the function of contracts. American contract law is designed to allow for the enforcement of all legitimate contracts, just one of many rights afforded to all people who live in the US. This story does not say much, in my opinion, about Sharia law–if anything, it shows that America really is the place of freedom it is cracked up to be. Another moral of the story could be: read every contract before you sign it, and make sure it is fairly written, because it is enforceable.

  27. As everyone said, it was the contract that was honored, not sharia law. HOWEVER, such a contract — which was very detailed and allowed for payment in the case of divorce — is not typical in our society, where divorce is no-fault and we no longer believe that women need to be protected and provided for. It wasn’t just a leave-with-what-you-brought-to-the-marriage sort of prenup. So, the contract itself, because it relies on the notion that women must be protected, showed elements of “Islamic feminism.”

    I don’t agree with the author’s conclusion and I don’t think US courts should consider religious law of any kind. But I do think that change must come from within, and change sometimes has to operate within the logic of the original system. In that case, the article is a plea for the rest of us to see this as a good first step, rather than dismissing anything that contains any element of sharia law.

  28. I think the part that many people are missing as an above poster mentioned is that the contract is part of Sharia law, it isn’t seperate it is a requirement under Islamic law to have a wedding contract, and generally most of the contract is supposed to come from the woman’s family. Without a wedding contract(under shariah law) there is no marriage…. so as a muslim if i get married by the state(though being married by a judge isn’t legal islamically) without a separate signed contract my marriage is not valid. In my contract i gave myself the right to divorce if my husband tried to get another wife, I got a trip to the islands, and a certain amount of money. Having a contract is part of Islamic Law. If the contract would have been more beneficial for the man, everyone would use that as an example of why Shariah law is so horrible and no parts of it should ever be applied in our society.

  29. Well written. The bottom line here is that Muslim men and women need to feel a sense of urgency to study and learn this faith. Without proper knowledge, and implementation of that knowledge, Muslim men and women are at risk of being hurt, and hurting each other with the weapon of ignorance. And my sentiments are for all of us who willingly and lovingly observe this faith — irrespective of what judicial system and cultural practices we are citizen to.

  30. Thank you all for your thought provoking comments. I would like to respond to some of them

    @ Jesse: the binary of oppression/liberation is precisely what I am trying to dislodge through this essay. Everyday “liberation” is indeed not based on this binary but piecemeal and therefore quite undramatic. However, in its very ordinariness it does change lives…narratives can give us varied lessons and so generalizations of any sort should not be constructed on them (in my opinion)

    Also, to those who pointed out that it is the contract that was enforced…I agree completely…the question I am trying to raise is the crucial nature of flexibility and innovation in concepts of justice…and the ability to accept or reject strategies based on whether they accomplish that larger purpose rather than their origin in Islam or Western liberalism

    @Sabrina …what you identify as the botton line is precisely what I am trying to say. I appreciate it very much.

  31. According to the same writer of this excellent article,it was her own preconceptions about the never possible acceptance of the agreement-her client was in possession of- by the American courts what stopped her from filing for the enforcement of such contract by American legal authorities. Is was after:

    “Further research provided more hope than I had expected. After a discussion with some colleagues, I found that the contract, because it had been so carefully worded, fulfilled all the requirements of an enforceable contract under U.S. law.”

    The second opinion the consulted colleagues of her provided, showed her how wrong she was.

  32. All she means that you cannot alienate muslim socieitie of Islam. It might not be as most in the west fears it to be. Sharia is male jurist made law and can be reformed. This is more pragmatic rather than uselessly trying to de religionizing muslim societies which is not going to happen.

  33. This is a problem with Islam as far as women is concerned. I have a personal experience with a friend in UK who had married for eight years or so

    and did not have children. How his wife will worry? I was very close to them and during discussion with me, once she confided to me, “Om Bhai, you do not know, if I do not have children, he will leave me and remarry”. This is in late 1970s. It is a long story but at long last, she did have children and somehow, she gave the credit to my blessings and thenafter they both practically treated me very personal friend. Of course, till that time, I had no idea and never took interest in religion. They were one of my very special friends.

    Now with the internet and the Islamic terrorism, Islam is always in the news…..???

    God bless

    Dr. O. P. Sudrania

  34. Hi.

    How come my comments critical of sharia law were deleted?

    I feel that misplaced political correctness enabled you to censor my criticism of Islam, and that you guys have only including uncritical comments.

    And if that’s the case – just so you know – that’s not okay! That’s betraying a certain civic trust, actually. Just thought you’d like to know that.


  35. This article seeks to justify sharia law as a modern tool of law and justice, which it is not. It ignores the basic fact that sharia law essentially is a medieval legal framework, and one should not be wasting so much time and space on it in the twenty-first century.

  36. Contrary to what some posters here believe, the second story is not of a ‘sharia law should be observed by US courts’ theme, but looked upon as an example of how women may secure their interests in perfectly legal ways. A marriage contract is NOT a religious document, it is (provided it is prepared properly) a legal, binding CONTRACT between two people. The fact that it may be prepared in agreement with sharia law is irrelevant. What IS relevant is that even with sharia law being the original driving force behind the contract, it still satisfied the requirements of US contract law and was therefore admissable. In this case- and I pray there are many others like it- the woman was able to secure her rights in both legal worlds and make the best of a bad situation.

  37. Reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book would be a wonderful thing for anyone to do. An eye-opener.

    This lawyer must not be a very good one: she told her client that she could not expect from an American court any property settlement or spousal support. Why? That is something that lawyers can fight for. That it was in the marriage contract made it easier, yes. However, in the woman’s own country I’m sure she’d’ve been screwed after the divorce: turned out of her family’s house, maybe even an honor killing involved. She’d ‘ve been blamed for losing her husband’s affection, for challenging him, etc. Lucky for her she lives in the USA.

  38. This is a fantastic article! I loved it, a great read for any lawyer like myself.

    I think the comments left support the writers opinion of the negative connotations people have regarding Sharia law.

    The ignorance shown in these posts are at times laughable and but for the most invoke pity at the poor education of people who know nothing of an alternative. Whilst on the whole it may not be compatible with US law there are laws out there that have some worthy lessons to teach.

    What is clear is that Sharia law and the concept of a contract are linked. I’ve seen such marriage contracts in museums from the 13th/14th century from various ‘Islamic’ countries.

    The Western legal system of course has its flaws but the writer makes the point that at times there are moments of flexibility.

    Carol’s post is possibly the most irrelevant thing i’ve read in a long time. The mention of honor killings was funny, what a story, you should get in to fictional writing! It’s women like you that hold back women of all races, nationalities and religions. Attributing ridiculous cultural practices without knowing the person, their culture, education and faith.

  39. I find it difficult to grasp the objectives of this article. Your lead paragraph indicates that the article will be about how Sharia and women’s right aren’t “mutually exclusive”. But the vast majority of the article attempts to project Sharia in a negative light (despite not providing any Quranic quotes to substantiate these claims). Then, strangely, the article concludes that Sharia will be of benefit for Muslim women if it is practiced in the American judicial system.

    You cannot fiercely criticise something then conclude by saying by saying it can be positive.

    It seems your stance is that Sharia is misogynistic, which is not true. Sharia was the law that introduced women’s rights to people in 600ad.

    I think that your unfortunately distressing upbringing and your line of work have resulted in you seeing this anomaly perception that Sharia is misogynistic. It’s not. Western countries have their own issues with women’s’ rights like the glass ceiling in work forces issue and women being underpaid compared to men, to name a couple.

  40. Regrettably ms. zakaria very much like irshad manji and ali hirsi, has learnt the the precise short cuts to find a niche in the western intellectual circles.

    Its a shame that a person of ms. Zakaria’s intelligence can spew such half-baked ideas and dishonest opinions on a subject that needs much more contemplation and an honest insight. I am sure that a narrow minded, bitter and jaundiced opinion such as hers would be approved and loved by her western counterparts in every aspect. I would also like one of these Hirsi’s to apply their model to our western world and see the crass come out.

  41. Regrettably ms. zakaria very much like irshad manji and ali hirsi, has learnt the the precise short cuts to find a niche in the western intellectual circles.

    Its a shame that a person of ms. Zakaria’s intelligence can spew such half-baked ideas and dishonest opinions on a subject that needs much more contemplation and an honest insight. I am sure that a narrow minded, bitter and jaundiced opinion such as hers would be approved and loved by her western counterparts in every aspect. I would also like one of these Hirsi’s to apply their model to our western world and see the crass come out.

  42. I agree- religion needs to stay out of government and law. In this case, yes it was helpful to Zainab.

    What if that contract had been less favourable or even gravely unfair to Zainab, as it was to Aunty Amina? If this were the case, could Said use the marriage agreement as a legal contract like Zainab had in this anecdote? Let’s say Zainab was from a wealthy family but she was cut off monetarily when she moved to USA. Could Said request payment from her, after all of his abuses, if it was in the well-written agreement they made before they married? What a disaster.

    Keep religion out of government. Perhaps it might be an idea to consider amending American law instead…rather than cherry picking bits of Sharia law. Nevertheless, an intriguing article. Thanks.

  43. If you’re still on the fence: grab your favorite earphones, head down to a Best Buy and ask to plug them into a Zune then an iPod and see which one sounds better to you, and which interface makes you smile more. Then you’ll know which is right for you.

  44. I think the emphasis here should not be on the fact that marriage contract is drawn up under Sharia law or not…the fact that the contract is consistent with Western requirements for legality is much more important…perhaps Muslim women need to be made more aware that contracts drawn up by professionals, rather than hasty ones generated by relatives, is the key to determining their future, rather than whether the contract comes from an Islamic or Western context…

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