Libya’s declared adherence to Sharia law: What does it mean?

This map displays those countries that use Sharia law and to what extent. Here, author Zakia Salime looks at the different interpretations of Sharia law. Image from Creative Commons.

Assistant professor of sociology and women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University

Should the West worry about Mustapha Abdul-Jalil’s declaration that Libya shall embrace Sharia law?

As a feminist scholar who has also written on feminist debates about women’s rights in the Islamic Sharia, I am feeling very disturbed by both his statement and the alarming messages that follow in Western media.

Firstly, it is important to note that modern debates about the Islamic Sharia carry a colonial legacy and create a dualism between existing legal systems that were not necessarily codified into laws, were in some cases unfriendly to women while granting them other types of protections and rights; and the positive law introduced by colonial rule. The latter is what regulates the capitalist organization of life in the post-colonial state.

For instance, it was the post-colonial state in North Africa that codified women’s rights (or rather, obligations) in the family, based on the highly patriarchal patriarchal interpretations of Quranic texts, grounded in the Maleki Fikh (one of the four schools of interpretation of the Islamic sources). This means that in these countries the Sharia as a legal code shrunk to the domain of family law. Hence, questions relating to marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance rights are all regulated by the Sharia, while other domain of economic and political activity broadly defined are regulated through positive law and followed international norms and regulations.

Secondly, since Sharia is a matter of interpretation (Sharia is not compiled in a single book; we have four main schools of interpretation), the codification of women’s rights also incorporated some of the restrictions put on women’s property ownership, travel, or work that originated not in the Islamic Sharia but rather in the Napolean Code and British Common law. This explains how issues of permissions get incorporated to various codifications of family law in the region. To the exception of independent Tunisia in which the codification of women’s rights followed a principle of gender equality through the abolition of polygamy, repudiation, and through granting custody and alimony rights, most codification of family law in North Africa and the Middle East has included many restrictions and inequalities that have been addressed, with more or less success, by women’s movements in the region. Despite the fact that property and inheritance rights are granted through Quranic scriptures, the various codifications of family laws found ways to restrict women’s access to these rights and prevent discussions about how they could be reformed, knowing that the Sharia is also historically contingent.

As my book Between Feminism and Islam shows, two decades of debates among feminists and Islamists have enabled the women’s movements in North Africa and the Middle East to identify these various influences in ways that are empowering and adequate to their own needs.

Back to Mustapha Abdul-Jalil’s declaration. I find it disturbing because of its timing. I believe that decisions about the legal system Libya should embrace should be made by a democratically elected constituency and not by self-appointed individuals, regardless of the important role they have played in managing the transition. To the average Muslim, the Sharia means a personal path, a set of moral guidelines for everyday behavior. It is based on the principles of justice, equality, fairness, integrity, and preservation of life, among others. When the Sharia is hijacked by persons or governments to justify their hold on power (as in the cases of Nigeria and the Sudan) and when the Sharia is used as a means to justify men’s control over women’s bodies, behavior, and movement (as in the case of Saudi Arabia or Iran) then we have good reasons to worry about the Libyan case. However, I am not sure Mustapha Abdul-Jalil can set the clocks back. The Maghreb has had three decades of feminist activism to reform the various codifications of family law, with the leading case of Tunisia and, since 2004, Morocco. As part of the Maghreb, Lybia can not stand outside of these dynamics.

In the West, the Sharia has been confused with customary or newly invented practices such as those labeled “honor killing” or the horrifying cases of stoning. These practices are becoming the lens through which liberal and right-wing media alike understand the impact of the Sharia on women.

While in no case should one dismiss the impact of these practices on the women subjected to them, we need to understand them in their particular context of post-colonial struggles that have impacted certain societies as well as the neo-colonial struggles over self-determination that are inscribed in gender norms. One can think about the cases of Pakistan, Palestine, or Iraq. To fully understand these practices we need to bring together, history, politics, economic struggles, and entrenched patriarchy.


Zakia Salime is assistant professor of sociology and women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University. She is author of Between Feminism and Islam: Human Rights and Sharia Law in Morocco.

“Between Feminism and Islam challenges the common assumption in the media and the academy that Islamism and feminism are quintessentially opposed ideologies. Through a careful sociological and ethnographic account of Moroccan feminist and Islamist women’s organizations, Zakia Salime shows how the two have transformed each other through decades of activism, debate, and engagement. This is an indispensable book for sociologists of gender, religion, politics, feminism, the Middle East, and Islam.”
—Saba Mahmood, author of
Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject

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