In the wake of 18-year-old Rahaf Al-Qunun’s stirring social media pleas to escape the clutches of patriarchy and a possible death sentence this week, Al-Qunun has rightly kickstarted a lot of debate surrounding her situation.
Reading her ordeal, one feels sympathetic towards her plight, as her story leaves a lot to be unpacked–of discriminative laws that leave her education, marriage, and travel at the mercy of her guardian in Saudi Arabia, her departure from the folds of Islam, her family allegedly posing a threat to her life, and the need to assess apostasy laws in practice in Islamic countries.
Likewise, it’s felt that Rahaf’s is a case of a family desperately seeking to control the life of an 18-year-old, to the extent of subjecting her to grave atrocities by using the law of the land to their advantage.
As someone who understands and believes that Fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence, is the work of scholars and not of laymen, I wouldn’t try to interpret the aspects of Fiqh that relate to this case. Scholars have had debates on apostasy, and what lies on the other side of it–blasphemy–what Islam prescribes regarding them, how various sects view them, along with the fatwas by different scholars, and the punishments associated.
However, it’s important to question the laws drafted by humans, and its execution in various countries. Likewise, it’s felt that Rahaf’s is a case of a family desperately seeking to control the life of an 18-year-old, to the extent of subjecting her to grave atrocities by using the law of the land to their advantage.
Drawing attention to the apostasy laws through the report in The Law Library of Congress, one realizes more than 20 Muslim-majority states have laws that declare apostasy by Muslims to be a crime. As of 2014, apostasy was a capital offense in Afghanistan, Brunei, Mauritania, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. What is, however, extremely important to evoke is the fact that executions for religious conversion have been infrequent in recent times, with only four cases reported since 1985. So it would be fair to assume that rarely are the apostasy laws used to punish the actual abandonment of Islam. It is imperative to note that some predominantly Islamic countries without laws specifically addressing apostasy have persecuted individuals or minorities for apostasy using broadly-defined blasphemy laws. Hence, it would also be fair to conclude that apostasy and blasphemy have often been used on the back of one another, with little precision over their definition.
Rahaf’s Saudi Arabia, besides its capital laws on apostasy, also imposes stringent guardianship laws that restrict the basic rights of women, leaving these rights at the behest of their male relatives. And this is probably what set-off her fleeing, as Saudi women are required to get written permission for marriage, passport renewal, traveling without a guardian, seeking a job, and even applying for education.
Rahaf’s is a classic case of patriarchal clasping, and a vicious cycle of power systems where the patriarchy is conflated with religion, wherein the quest to the abandonment of one would lead to manacling from the other.
What this essentially translates to is that not only are women being shackled by their male relatives under the garb of religion, but they face a possible death penalty for rejecting the supposed basis of these laws–the religion. Rahaf’s is a classic case of patriarchal clasping, and a vicious cycle of power systems where the patriarchy is conflated with religion, wherein the quest to the abandonment of one would lead to manacling from the other. Therefore, we must ask if one should stop questioning the patriarchy only because it is exercised in the name of religion? That hardly seems to be in the best interests of the victims of patriarchy.
“I shared my story and my pictures on social media and my father is so angry because I did this…I can’t study and work in my country, so I want to be free and study and work as I want.” – Rahaf Al-Qunun.
Rahaf told us that she fears serious physical violence and death threats from her family, while a Thai official was quoted as insisting that they are committed to maintaining diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, and also Rahaf’s safety as well. As this statement came in light of the Saudi embassy intervening to seek repatriation of Rahaf to her home country at the behest of her family, we must wonder, and question, if diplomatic ties must supersede Rahaf’s pleas for safety from patriarchy.
Another important aspect of apostasy laws, as the report points out, is how they are often passed as broad laws that bring in various aspects of religion. Of the surveyed jurisdictions that do not expressly criminalize apostasy, many have laws that include broadly-worded provisions on insulting Islam or its Prophet, and blasphemy, which could potentially be used to prosecute persons for apostasy. This category of countries includes Algeria, Bahrain, Indonesia, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Oman, and Syria. However, of the countries surveyed, Egypt is the only country known to have prosecuted apostasy in this manner. In 2007, a person who converted to Christianity was convicted under the country’s blasphemy laws.
Blasphemy laws seek to protect religious sentiments of people. The need to have these laws in place cannot be ignored, for even the EU recently ruled that criticism of Prophet Muhammad PBUH constitutes to incitement of hatred. With the ever-growing presence of Islamophobia, bigots have often resorted to blaspheming various important aspects of Islam to further their own agenda. At the same time, implementation in Islamic countries must be viewed under a microscope too.
Pakistan, a predominantly Islamic country that has specific blasphemy laws, saw a majoritarian Muslim woman embroil a Christian woman by the name of Aasiya Noreen in a blasphemy case that resulted in a death sentence. This case saw Aasiya held in custody for 8 years on flimsy charges of blasphemy over a domestic spat between the two neighbors. What Pakistan’s judiciary managed to do eventually was to interpret the Fiqh to principles of mercy and protection of minorities, and grant freedom from impending capital punishment for Aasiya. This may not have been the case with more conservatively-governed countries, hence it is vital to reassess how Islamic concepts like blasphemy translate to laws for civil societies, and more importantly, how judiciaries interpret them.
What followed the dismissal of Aasiya’s death sentence were thousands of religious patriarchs wreaking havoc in the country in protest of the judgment. Here, we must question the use of these laws to oppress minorities–a clear retraction from our Islamic values–and the ensuing rampage by men who claim to be the guardians of religion.
Consequently, it is important to call for varied female scholarship in all Islamic countries, free from the patriarchal pleats of the lawmaking system, as well basic freedom as was often the norm in the times of Prophet and Sahabah.
In both the cases, we have women who have borne the brunt of laws formulated by men who stake claims over our merciful religion, often viewing the laws from a monolithic lens. It must be stressed that these countries are just that; countries and not religious jurisdictions. They form their laws on the interpretation of religion by scholars who are more often than not, men. This is not to say that men aren’t victims of this patriarchy, as a lot of scholars seek to reserve capital punishment in such cases for men. However, the inherent patriarchy of these human systems translate to leaving women like Rahaf and Aasiya reeling. Consequently, it is important to call for varied female scholarship in all Islamic countries, free from the patriarchal pleats of the lawmaking system, as well basic freedom as was often the norm in the times of Prophet and Sahabah.
As a last thought, I urge the systems in place to reclaim religious narratives so that Muslims, men and women alike, can stop fearing the hijacking of issues for politically-driven narratives. Only then can we ensure the freedom, dignity, and safety of women like Rahaf Al-Qunun and Aasiya from the clutches of Islamophobia and patriarchy.
I remind those in power that constitutional laws are by humans, and it is important to assess them to ensure we don’t have patriarchy and majoritarianism hijacking Islam as a religion.