Contemporary Islamic apologists such as Georgetown University Professor John Esposito, his protégé Dahlia Mogahed, and political activist Linda Sarsour constantly whitewash sharia as benign and pro-women. In this context, Georgetown University law Professor Lama Abu-Odeh provides a refreshingly critical outlook on sharia and women, as shown by her June 21 discussion of sharia at Washington, DC’s Middle East Institute (MEI).
Following a screening of The Judge, a film about the first female sharia court judge in the Palestinian Authority, Abu-Odeh analyzed a gradual “historic defeat of Islamic law” among Muslim countries. Sharia “used to just regulate practically everything, and then every other field of law, civil, commercial, criminal, started to be influenced by European codes and became secularized,” she noted. Yet beginning in the 19th century, a “shrinkage of the historic jurisdiction of Islamic law” had relegated sharia in these countries to family law issues such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance.
Abu-Odeh elaborated upon this family law and its understanding of a marriage contract whose “Islamicity,” she has previously written, “came to symbolize the last bastion of a dismantled legal system.” As stipulated in numerous Muslim personal status codes with their references to “obedience,” she stated at MEI, the “marriage of contract is a marriage of sexual access for the husband in return for financial obligations for the woman.” According to this arrangement, for a wife “there is no such notion as marital rape. You basically have to sleep with you husband to earn your maintenance,” or nafaqah.
Abu-Odeh delineated the limited ability women have to negotiate provisions in such Islamic marriage contracts. A woman could contract to use contraception during the marriage for a certain period, such as when she is pursuing a degree, or to receive a weekly quota of meat, but her contract cannot violate the Islamic definition of marriage. Thus a prospective wife “cannot say we will only have sex once a week”; nor can she forbid her husband from practicing Islamic polygamy, although she can demand a right to divorce in case her husband takes another wife. Abu-Odeh added the caveat that in reality, during Islamic prenuptials “most women don’t bargain, in fact you will have a bad reputation if you bargain.”