Muslim women’s challenges discussed in Oslo

What are the main social, cultural and legal challenges facing Muslim women in the Muslim world and Europe today? This was the overarching question of the two-day conference held by the NCHR in cooperation with the Institute for Cultural and Oriental Studies and the Faculty of Theology/Plurel in October.

In her keynote speech, Ziba-Mir Hosseini focused on current developments in the 20th century.

The conference gave around 50 participants from academia, NGOs and governmental ministries the opportunity to engage with 15 leading experts on Islam and women’s rights from Indonesia, Iran, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, France, UK and Norway.  The conference was divided into four sessions, each offering a variety of viewpoints on the challenges and opportunities ahead.     

The Life of the Family – Legal and Social Approaches 

In her keynote speech, Ziba-Mir Hosseini focused on two developments in the 20th century: the changed relations between religion, law and gender and the emergence of new reformist and feminist voices and scholarship in Islam. These developments, she argued, have made the intimate links between theology and politics increasingly transparent and have unmasked the power politics behind those who claim to act in the name of religious ethics and Shari’a.

Mulki Al-Sharmani further discussed the interesting work of a women’s rights organisation in Egypt, that are attempting to create a new religious discourse that affirms egalitarian gender relations and rights, based on Islamic vision, knowledge, and ethics. However, she underscored that there are a number of challenges that hinder, thus far, its large scale influence in Egypt. In this session, the participants at the conference also heard Aïcha El Hajjami talk on the obstacles and challenges of the Moroccan Family Code, ten years after its enactment, and Batool Al-Toma discuss how Shari’a courts have proved problematic for converts to Islam and why the British legal system is preferred.      

Legal Approaches to Muslim women’s Challenges

In the second session, Lynn Welchman discussed qiwama and wilaya, commonly understood as sanctioning men's authority over women, as legal postulates in modern family laws, whereas Rania Maktabi gave a political science lecture on how the impact of the Arab uprisings has impacted on female citizenship. She argued that the challenges related to the strengthening of civil rights of a Muslim women living in a state where Islam is majority religion differs considerably from those facing women living in a multi-religious state. Monika Lindbekk continued this discussion by focusing on the challenges facing the enforcement of CEDAW in Egypt.       

Democracy versus Women’s Rights? 

The third session started with Dalenda Largueche and Maike Voorhoeve giving their perspectives on Tunisian women’s rights after the “revolution”. Largueche explained that Tunisian women are now facing the challenges of political Islam, which is clearly rolling BACK women’s rights and status. Voorhoeve elaborated on this topic by explaining that whilst the Islamist dominated government has left the legislation untouched, the debate on women’s rights has changed significantly. Further, Mona Abdel-Fadil gave a though-provoking speech on the sexual assaults in Tahrir Square, arguing that the purpose of the attacks are to inflict psychological trauma on both the female victims and their male kin, thereby prohibiting the victims and their kin from political protest. This speech was followed by Dima Dabbous who explained how persistent lobbying by women’s organisations in Lebanon led to the approval of a draft law to protect women from family violence. Lastly, the Iranian lawyer and poet, Sedigeh Vasmaki, strongly argued that at the same time as women are fighting to change their conditions, thousands of Islamic schools across Muslim communities are teaching wrong and unjust laws, traditions and beliefs about women. Thus, according to Vasmaki, Muslim women’s future movement is a “movement against the old understanding of the sharia”.     

New Conservative Interpretations of Women’s Questions 

The last session of the conference offered findings from empirical research on Islam and women’s rights. Whereas Maryam Borghée presented her findings from interviews with women wearing the Islamic face veil in France, Kristina Groβmann and Lanny Octavia focused on the case of Indonesia.  Groβmann explained how Aceh has become a flagship model in the introduction of sharia in Southeast Asia, and how women’s organisations exert influence within the on-going drafting process of Islamic legislation, demanding a just and gender-sensitive Islamic Criminal Law. Octavia also provided a highly interesting lecture on the factors that motivate Indonesian women to engage in fundamentalist Islamic movements that paradoxically are detrimental to their interests.

Overall, the two-day conference offered useful insight into the challenges and opportunities for Muslim women, and raised important questions and concerns that need to be addressed by academics and practitioners in the time to come. The seminar also contributed to fruitful international networking that may help establish a platform for future cooperation.       


Published Nov. 5, 2013 1:23 PM - Last modified Nov. 5, 2013 1:47 PM