Muslim Women's Rights, A New Favorite Smokescreen Of Strongmen

The authoritarian and religious men leading Saudi Arabia, Iran and India are using women's rights progress for purposes other than helping women.

Last October in Kolkata, during Muharram celebrations.
Last October in Kolkata, during Muharram celebrations.
Rafia Zakaria*


NEW DELHI — A lot was done in the name of Muslim women in the waning weeks of 2017. Saudi Arabia gave permission for women to enter the previously forbidden sports stadiums and allowed female contestants participating in an international chess tournament in Saudi Arabia to forego the abaya and hijab. In future months, the kingdom benevolently promised, women would be permitted to drive trucks and motorcycles, in addition to driving cars.

In Iran, the government announced that the moral police that normally patrols the streets and automatically mete out punishments for ‘bad hijab" would now only be counseling women on the virtues of ‘good hijab." Automatic punishments would be a thing of the past.

Then there was India, whose autocratic and notoriously xenophobic leader tried to paint himself as a champion of the country's Muslim women by supporting the passage of the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights of Marriage) Bill. The Bill, which has until now only been passed by the Lok Sabha, or lower house of parliament, not only makes oral talaq a criminal offense, but goes further by actually imposing a jail term of three years on those found to be using this method of severing marital ties.

Women, particularly Muslim women whose fortunes and futures have been regularly used as pretexts in the half century past, are not stupid.

If one is a Muslim woman, one has to try hard not to snicker at this clamoring inside three separate countries: a monarchy, a theocracy, and a supposed democracy — and their pitiable attempts to ‘help" Muslim women. The monarchs of the kingdom, playing as they are to a largely foreign audience, can be seen slapping the backs of other men, at having gleaned a few more miles of positive press from the lifting of a driving ban whose most immediate consequence is not the liberation of women, but the firing of immigrant drivers.

Similarly in Iran, the throttling of dissent for decades, the suffocating environment perpetuated by a system that hardly allows men or women to breathe, and affords even fewer opportunities to engage in global discourse, will hardly be dissipated by the reining in of a noxious arsenal.

Finally, there is the case here in India, a country whose cosmopolitan character and democratic institutions have proven woefully inadequate before the advance of Hindu nationalism. With systematic and terrifying doggedness, the purveyors of Hindutva have undermined all checks and balances, thus proceeding to vilify the minorities with gusto.

In accomplishing this campaign of vilification and marginalization of Indian Muslims, the rulers next door have borrowed a case from the colonial playbook, sect against sect and women against men. If the white colonialists of old aimed to save Indian women from Indian men, the Modi government's ‘neo-colonialists' seek to save Muslim women from Muslim men.

So while Saudi Arabia plays to the gallery abroad – as a country whose pliability and goodwill is valuable on the world stage – and Iran courts an audience of young people, India pretends to protect some of its poorest minority women from the poorest minority men. Freeing them from oral divorce in which a man declares ‘I divorce you" three times and considers a marriage dissolved, will — to paraphrase Indian external affairs minister M.J. Akbar — liberate the women from the repressive yoke of this practice. We are witnessing a situation similar to the one in the days of the old colonialists, when India's Muslims and Hindus went for each other's throat on cue; today the warring parties involve Muslim sects in India.

In India and in Saudi Arabia and in Iran, men have, as is their habit, installed themselves as the ultimate arbiters of deciding what will or will not free Muslim women from the repression they face. Each set of these domineering men, separated as they are by sect, or faith or purpose, has devised its own entirely male recipe for helping the very women whose views the men regularly ignore.

To cover up personal corruption or religious prejudice or abuse of power, they have decided now to turn to this: spinning their own welfare as the noble desire to liberate or ingratiate themselves with women.

It is likely to fail. For starters, women, particularly Muslim women whose fortunes and futures have been so regularly used as pretexts in the half century past, are not easy to fool. True concern for Indian Muslim women would not just be coming down hard on divorce laws but making attempts to reduce the rampant discrimination and harassment that they (along with Muslim men in India) regularly face.

Similarly, a sincere desire to liberate Iranian or Saudi women is not to lift the onerous restrictions that the state should never have imposed in the first place, but to restore to them the freedom of thought and dress and belief that have always been their birthright.

Declaring themselves the champions of Muslim women, the autocrats and theocrats and lapsed democrats of the world forget that the oppressed may be silenced, but they are not stupid. To become true supporters of Muslim women, men in all three of these countries need first and foremost to shut up and listen.

*Rafa Zakaria is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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