Can Sharia Law Benefit Women in the West?

Photo courtesy of Shirin Neshat

A recent article by Indiana attorney Rafia Zakaria in Guernica magazine begs the question of whether or not Islamic feminism is possible.

Zakaria takes us from her personal account of a childhood spent in Pakistan, to her experiences as a social worker helping battered women in Indianapolis, where the complexities faced by married women in the Muslim world seem without boundaries. Ironically, it was in Indianapolis that the author realized that an Islamic version of a prenuptial agreement could grant women more rights than one filed in America.

Representing a Jordanian woman whose husband divorced her by forging her signature then abandoning her in a motel room, Zakaria worked tirelessly to help the woman gain more rights than American law had allowed. In a harrowing tale fraught with many obstacles, Zakaria eventually managed to grant the woman a fair chance at financial stability in her chosen home country--by convincing the court to honor her Islamic pre-nup.

Zakaria's piece couldn't be more timely, as a handful of state legislatures are contemplating passing policies that would ban Sharia law from being practiced in the U.S. Whether or not Sharia law is in all actuality a threat to state and federal constitutions is also under debate. So far the squeakiest wheel in the "Sharia v U.S. law" debate has been Newt Gingrich, who received a standing ovation at a Values Voter Summit recently by demanding a national call to action regarding the issue.

The author's conclusion from her client's ordeal is that sometimes even traditional, faith-based laws can strengthen the U.S.'s more modern court systems. But is a breach in the separation of church and state even tenable to westerners, even if it does lift the oppression of women?

Zakaria writes, "...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."

I want to agree with this assessment, but is it really possible to take minute aspects of Sharia law and integrate them into the U.S. justice system in a way that is progressive and beneficial to all?