Muslim women in India protesting against the use of Sharia as a tool for oppression. anjay Purkait/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Sharia is often portrayed as barbaric and particularly regressive in terms of women’s rights. Citing Sharia, lawmakers in some Muslim-majority countries have punished theft with amputation, and sex outside of marriage with stoning. Women have been also forced to stay in abusive marriages and flogged for defying Sharia because they were wearing trousers.

Commonly translated as Islamic law, Sharia is a broad set of ethical principles found in the Quran, Islam’s holy book, and in the teachings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad. It is not a strict legal code, leaving it open to varying interpretations by governments and religious leaders.

Public outcry over Sharia has led to more than 200 anti-Sharia bills being introduced across the United States. The European Court of Human Rights has twice ruled Sharia incompatible with human rights. Conservative analysts have called Sharia the world’s “other pandemic,” a comparison to COVID-19.

However, many Muslim women do not regard Sharia as being incompatible with their rights. My research shows how women – typically small activist groups in many countries – are using Sharia to fight against oppressive practices.

Sharia and women’s rights

I interviewed nearly 150 women’s rights activists, religious leaders, officials and aid workers over the past decade in Somalia and Somaliland, where more than 99% of the population is Muslim.

The region has suffered cycles of famine and drought, as well as a brutal dictatorship and civil war that led to the collapse of Somalia’s government 30 years ago and the split between Somalia and Somaliland.

I wanted to learn why women were demanding Sharia and whether Sharia could help rebuild societies after war. My book, “Shari‘a, Inshallah: Finding God in Somali Legal Politics,” tells the story of peace builders and peacemakers oriented toward, rather than away from, Sharia.

Because Sharia encourages a diversity of interpretations, there is no right or wrong way to interpret it.

Women activists I met saw an inherent feminism in Sharia. Muslims “can find support for almost everything” in Sharia, a Somali activist reminded me. It’s just that women “have to know their rights in the Quran,” she added.

These activists help their local communities understand women’s rights in Islam. For example, one activist fighting for girls’ education explained to local parents how Sharia demands that both “boys and girls have the right to education.” Billboards put up by human rights groups referred to the Islamic teaching that to educate a girl is to educate a nation. They emphasized that Prophet Muhammad himself taught women and men and encouraged his followers to do the same.

Another activist I talked with invoked Sharia to explain that girls should be allowed to play sports. She explained to parents that not allowing their daughters to play goes against Sharia, which “gives rights to human beings.”

Yet another called the Quran – one of the sources of Sharia – her guide to persuade women to run for public office. Allowing women to stand for election, she publicly insisted, “is Islamic.”

Patriarchy and interpretations

Part of the problem with the often brutal interpretation of Sharia has been that men have been aligning it with their political views. “The custodians of law are men,” an aid worker told me.

Indeed, some religious leaders insist that Sharia allows child marriage and female genital mutilation to preserve women’s premarital virginity and prevent women from experiencing sexual pleasure.

Activists I met tried to put an end to these harmful practices by sharing harrowing stories in workshops with religious leaders. One activist told me that in one such workshop she had related the tragic story of a young girl whose pelvis shattered during childbirth. Another shared the story of a child who drank bleach to avoid a forced marriage.

These women wanted religious leaders to share these stories with others. They argued that Sharia could not be used to permit child marriage and female genital mutilation. Protecting women “is so clearly written in the Quran,” said one activist who added that “Islam always promotes the person, health, and dignity.”

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Reclaiming women’s power

Religious leaders in these countries have, however, been reluctant to speak publicly on these issues. But many of the Somali women I met were reviving a centuries-old tradition – of women teaching and interpreting Sharia. In the seventh century, Aisha, the Prophet Muhammad’s surviving spouse, was among the first Muslim authorities to render decisions on sacred law that men had to follow.

The Qal’bu Maryam women’s mosque in Berkeley, California. Kristopher Skinner/MediaNews Group/East Bay Times via Getty Images

Not just in Somalia and Somaliland, but in many parts of the world, Muslim women are reclaiming their rights by studying and sharing Quranic verses and prophetic teachings. In Malaysia, for example, groups like Sisters in Islam and Musawah have been publicly putting forward feminist interpretations of Quranic verses to teach women about gender equality and inheritance rights.

In Egypt, women have invoked Sharia to expand access to divorce.

In my research in Sudan, I saw women lawyers teach women displaced by civil war that their rights come from God. On the Day of Judgment, these women said to one another, God will judge those who tried to take away women’s God-given rights.

And in Los Angeles, California, a women’s mosque offers women-led sermons, classes and events.

By interpreting theological and legal texts in less patriarchal ways, these women, as I found, are shattering age-old sexist interpretations of Sharia.