Saturday, February 19, 2005

Ellen Goodman gets it. She really, really gets it.

I can think of no better indicator that ignorance about religious faith is waning than Ellen Goodman's article yesterday on Women's Rights in a Shi'ite Iraq.

I cannot imagine her writing this five years ago:
Until now, the discussion about the future of Iraqi women has been framed as a conflict between secular and religious camps. For the most part, advocates of women's rights talked in a secular voice, while opponents talked in religious tones.

In the wake of this election, the struggle over the status of Iraqi mothers, wives, and daughters may well have to shift to religious grounds.

When you use the word ''sharia" and talk about the Islamic code, most Americans assume there is a single set of laws to be lifted and applied like a reactionary grid over every country that calls itself Islamic. But scholars describe something quite different: a rich set of moral principles and varied, evolving laws.

Sharia may literally mean ''the path to God," but the legal cobblestones are different in nearly every Muslim country and subculture. Nations as progressive on women's roles as Tunisia and as repressive as Saudi Arabia both defend their family laws as sharia.

Not surprisingly, the Koran is as open to debate and interpretation as the Bible. Elora Shehabuddin at Harvard Divinity School compares it to the movement to abolish slavery: ''Two groups read the same text and came up with different interpretations." So too, she says, ''One can argue that the spirit of Islam is justice for everyone. Or one can argue that men should be superior and that's the end of it."

On the matter of polygamy, for example, one passage in the Koran seems to allow men to take four wives as long as they treat them equally. But another passage describes the impossibility of treating these wives equally. So the Tunisian reading of the Koran outlaws polygamy while in Saudi Arabia, polygamy is a man's prerogative. In some Muslim countries, polygamy is even grounds for divorce.

The laws of sharia vary as well on modesty -- a long-sleeve blouse or a burka. They even vary on inheritance. The once-liberal laws that gave daughters half the inheritance of sons have been modified and equalized in some countries, but not in others. And if the Saudis find a reason in the 1,400-year-old Koran to ban women from driving automobiles, other countries scoff at this reading.

If politics hinges on religion, religion is also political.

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