Diversity and difference, both within and between societies, continually give rise to a series of important and potentially divisive questions, as societies embodying different civilizational outlooks and values and divergent epistemologies are increasingly voicing differences on issues ranging from political representation and social autonomy to gender and sexuality. Finding morally defensible and politically viable answers to these questions is arguably one of the great challenges of our time.
One particularly divisive framework in which many of these issues have been addressed is "human rights," as they have come to be conceived and codified in international human rights charters and proclamations. Premised on an absolute equality between human beings "without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinions," the human rights scheme arguably fails to convincingly indicate how such an imagined equality should be promoted and maintained in the face of difference. The question that needs to be continually asked is who determines what constitutes equality? In this context, any system that is viewed to violate the principle of equality is deemed to be problematic.
The recent spat over Tunisia's Islamist-lite political party Ennahda's non-adoption of a presidential initiative to establish full equality between men and women in inheritance is a case in point. Characterized in a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report as an "official rejection" and a "blow to women's rights in the country," the uproar over Ennahda's position is consistent with a discourse that first developed in the 19th century around "the problem of the status of Muslim women" and continued until today in the guise of human rights discourse. HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth described Ennahda's position in a tweet as follows: "Tunisia's Ennahda Party misses an opportunity to become a modern Islamist party as it rejects President Beji CaidEssebi's pledge to establish full equality between men and women in inheritance." His use of the term "modern" is instructive, as it betrays the roots of this discourse, which since the 19th century has regarded the Sharia as a religious law that is largely inappropriate for a modern society. This criticism has been external as well as internal, from colonial administrators and Westernized elites, respectively.
In the context of family, the Westernized urban elite in 19th century Cairo reproduced westernized discourse of the ideal family, articulated among 19th-century "reformers" within the context of the "problem of the status of Muslim women." Qasim Amin's famous text "The Emancipation of Women" is exemplary in this regard. Long regarded as a seminal work in the history of feminism in the Arab world, others have conceived of it in different terms. For the Egyptian-American scholar of Islam Leila Ahmed, while ostensibly calling for women's "liberation," Amin was, in fact, calling for a transformation of Muslim society along Western lines, and the replacement of a supposedly oppressive Islamic patriarchy with that of Western-style male dominance. Thus, Amin's discourse was nothing more than a deliberately reproduced colonial attack on "native" culture and society, what Talal Asad refers to as helping "eradicate bad habits among natives."
Like Amin's call for the "emancipation" of women, the push for the abolition of Sharia-based inheritance law in Tunisia, and the reaction by HRW and others towards Ennahda for refusing to support the motion, while ostensibly about equality, represents a continued agenda directed against alternative conceptions of society and family that modernity has deemed to be "inappropriate." In the former case, the attack was directed against traditional family structures in favor of the nuclear family, while in the latter we are witnessing a reduction of the sum of society to its parts, namely the autonomous individual.
Although in some ways beside the point, it should be stated that Sharia-based inheritance laws are complex. Even a cursory examination of the rules of inheritance reveal that privileging one gender above the other is not the objective nor its basis, despite what the polemicists constantly tell us. Rather, they are a reflection of a worldview that is based on an alternative epistemology and ontology to that of post-enlightenment modernity. The problem with human rights as a universal ideal, is, in-fact, its universalism. The universal pretensions of the discourse are what allow it to label all practices that contravene its ideals as "culturally relativistic" and thereby "cruel," "barbaric" or at the very least "problematic." Furthermore, the human rights discourse as a project involves an active sociopolitical agenda. People (read "backward" people) must be persuaded, pushed and even coerced into transforming themselves into something worthy of the redemption and liberation of modernity. As the practice of human rights organizations themselves illustrate, the cruelty of the state is not the only or even the primary concern, but rather the customs or ordinary people that are deemed intolerable.
It can safely be said then that Ennahda's defense of Sharia-based inheritance laws is not about seeing women as being inferior. It is rather what remains of traditionally informed defense of the conception of the family and society in the face of the ongoing atomizing effects of modernity.
* Editor at TRT World, Ph.D. student in the Arab and Middle East history program at the American University of Beirut