The Logic Behind 1+1=1: When Gender Discrimination Takes a Religious Disguise

By Mustapha Hadji
On 5 August 2015 my father passed away after twelve years of chronic illness. His passing was devastating to the whole family, but it would have been even more devastating for my sisters and my mother had we followed Moroccan inheritance law. This law is based on Sharia law, and according to it, it would have been my brother and I that would have taken most of what my father had left us. Legally speaking, two men would have taken more than the share of four women. Luckily, my family cares more for fairness than the law.

Our case is unfortunately exceptional. Things are brutal for women when it comes to inheritance. In Morocco and elsewhere in the Muslim world, many women are not treated fairly and repeatedly see their inheritance and related rights violated. Unfortunately, these women are left with no choice but to acquiesce.

The puzzling thing about Sharia law is the selective fashion in which it is applied. For instance, the 2011 Moroccan constitution stipulates both in its preamble and Article 3 that Morocco is a Muslim country and that Islam is the religion of the State.[1] However, Sharia law is only applied when it comes to marriage and inheritance (Code of Personal Status). This shows that the application of Sharia law stems from an ingrained social discrimination against women and not because of the legislator’s passion for Sharia law and desire for it to be the legal backbone of the country. In fact, many laws in Morocco could be qualified as being “un-Islamic” as these laws legalize what purely and simply contradicts the precepts of Islam. For instance, some of the government’s revenues come from the selling of alcoholic products, lottery tickets and financial products based on interest rates which are unequivocally forbidden by Sharia law. Furthermore, Morocco’s civil and criminal codes are not Sharia-based laws but are legal vestiges left by the former French rulers to which the Moroccan independent State added some embellishments.   

“The application of Sharia law stems from an ingrained social discrimination against women.”

Therefore, one might ask why is it so difficult to change the social rules so that women can enjoy equal rights to men? As shown above, the religious argument is not watertight due to its selective application and that people do not mind that Sharia law does not govern all the spheres of their life.

The answer to this question is not black and white as the underlying problems are multifaceted and require a good understanding of the social and political power structure of a given society. We all know that the status quo is convenient for those who hold power and benefit from it. In our case, men are privileged by the logic of 1 + 1 = 1 and hence they are adamant and unwilling to let go of this privilege. To legitimise this blatant discrimination, they advance religious arguments which are hard for women to challenge and contest because religion is a realm governed exclusively by men who have no interest in changing the situation.

Furthermore, many Muslim countries are governed by autocratic governments that do not give much room for freedom of expression and freedom of conscience; they use a very elaborate tool kit of oppression to keep things under their absolute control. This oppression transcends society as whole, and it seems that it gets channelled from one cluster to another creating a cascade of domination. If we analyse this social reality through a gendered lens, we can see that men and women are both oppressed. However, there is a difference in the degree of oppression suffered by both genders. Women are oppressed far more by the system and by men who transform their anger and powerlessness created by the system into an oppressive force used to dominate the other social groups, particularly women.

“Muslim countries will not advance unless they create conditions that elevate women.”

The selective use of religion to justify gender discrimination rooted in cultural and social practices must come to an end. Muslim countries will not advance unless they create conditions that elevate women and put them on the same footing as men. It is time to level the playing field and remove social and cultural barriers preventing women from effective participation in society. I think that Tunisia understood this reality and is working towards equality between both sexes[2] despite the resistance of the old social structures. What Tunisia is doing is a milestone that I hope will spillover to other countries in the region and be the trigger for other long-awaited reforms necessary for the establishment of democratic and human rights conscious States in North Africa.  

Mustapha holds an MA in Global Affairs from the USA. While in the United States, Mustapha worked as an adviser at an Arab Embassy in Washington DC, as an Africa researcher with a USG contractor in Virginia and a field protection delegate with an international humanitarian organisation. Mustapha is currently a fellow at the Moroccan Institute for Policy Analysis.  Mustapha’s research interests include African affairs, conflict resolution, and human rights and democratisation.

[1] Art. 3: Islam is the religion of the State, which guarantees to all the free exercise of beliefs.

[2] For further details, see the report submitted by the Commission on Individual Liberties and Equality (COLIBE) to the Tunisian president on 08 June 2018.