Women voters stand in line to cast their ballot in Egypt's first major democratic vote, the Constitutional Referendum, 2011. Photo Credit: the author.
Sometimes I can see what people are interested in by what they type into search engines in order to get to my site. This morning, I saw the following question: Does Shariah allow women to vote? This is an interesting question. Again, we must make the distinction between Shariah, and fiqh, which is Islamic Jurisprudence as applied.
I think that we should start this inquiry with reflections upon the words of Arzu Merali, the Director of Research for the Islamic Human Rights Commission. Writing in The Guardian, she notes that neither men nor women could vote under Mullah Omar's regime in Afghanistan. Mullah Omar was the spiritual leader of the Taliban, and was Afghanistan's "head of state," from 1996 to 2001. She makes the important point that the cruel excesses and limitations upon womens' rights in Taliban-led Afghanistan must be seen as an indictment of the Taliban's prejudices, and cultural views, not an indictment of Islam.
By the way, I myself am not a practicing Muslim. I am a practicing Presbyterian and sometimes Unitarian Universalist. However, I have a deep respect for many of the world's great religions, including Islam, Buddhism, Christianity and Judaism. Zakat, which is a pillar of Islam, is basically tithing. Ramadan, which is a pillar of Islam, is basically a more rigorous version of Lent. Accordingly, do not interpret my words as an attempt to convert you. Rather, interpret my words as an attempt to "get it right."
Saraji Umm Zaid, writing at modernmuslima, makes a very important point. She notes that we must respect Shariah, but that we should not fall into the trap of focusing on the "virtues of the Ideal Place of Women in Ideal Islam." Rather, we must confront the reality on the ground. It is not enough, she argues, to simply place all the negative aspects of how women are treated in predominantly Muslim societies, on "culture." She notes that among conservative Muslims,
 there is a resounding silence when the issue being raised is Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), honor killings, forced marriages, the unequal application of hadd punishments on women, or the denial of education to girls and women.
Saraji Umm Zaid urges the average Muslim to petition governments, and urge for change against these practices. She states that Muslims can no longer afford to be silent about human rights abuses, especially those committed against women, in the name of Islam. I provide a long quote from her here, because her words are simply brilliant:
Prophet Mohammed, sallalahu aleyhi wa salaam, was mocked and assaulted because of his strong and courageous stance on the status of women. He came with a message that lifted women up and gave them dignity. Fourteen hundred years later, we have descended back into the dark pit of Jahiliya, and Muslim women around the world find themselves cast into the same slavery that the Prophet, sallalahu aleyhi wa salaam, was sent to liberate them from.
It does not make you a "radical feminist" to decry honor killings and volunteer for peaceful campaigns to educate and change laws. Raising your voice against Female Genital Mutilation does not mean you want to "undermine Islam." To the contrary, working against these injustices in the way of Allah is a manifestation of the desire to uplift Islam and the Muslim people.
When the Taliban decided to deny education to any girl over a certain age, it is the conservative Muslims, the ones who profess adherence to "Qur'an and Sunnah" that should have spoken the loudest against this. The longer we stay silent, the more people, both Muslim and non Muslim, will begin to equate "Shar'ia" with the oppression of women.
Returning to the topic of voting, the teachings of Islam, according to Jamal A. Badawi, author of "The Status of Women in Islam," Al-lttihad, Vol. 8, No. 2, Sha'ban 1391/Sept 1971, informs us that Islam gives women the right of election, as well as of nomination to political offices. Women have the right to participate in political affairs and the Holy Quran gives examples of women who participated in political discussions and even argued with the Prophet Mohammed (See Qur'an 58: 14 and 60: 10-12).
Interestingly, Pakistan, a predominantly Muslim country, has had a woman head of state, Benazir Bhutto, and several other prominent female politicians. According to Saimah Ashraf, women in Pakistan are allowed to drive, vote, attend co-educational universities, and hold paying jobs.That being said, life in Pakistan is not very pleasant for women, as there are honor killings and high rates of violence against women there, but that is another topic.
Certainly, women just voted in the last referendum here in Egypt, and the Egyptian legal system is based in part on Shariah. The Parliament in Egypt is currently suspended, so no women or men are serving in it. The country is being run by the SCAF, which appears to be composed entirely of men. There is certainly a lot of room to expand the role and influence of women in Egypt now that the country is in the process of forming new political parties.
The right to vote was established in Iran in 1963. Iran has a very high number of women in Parliament, and women form more than half the entering class in Iran's universities according to Simin Royanian as well as an article in the BBC by Roxana Saberi. According to that article Women in Iran's Parliament are very active, and women also serve in local government. However, in Iran, women cannot be judges, and have many social rights restricted. President Ahmadinejad is quite conservative on the role of women, and wants them home with their families.There is a lot of room for improvement on the political role of women in Iran. According to Raz Zimmt, writing about Iran's parliamentary elections, currently only eight women have been elected in the 8th Majlis (elected in March 2008), in comparison to four women in the first, second, and third Majlis; nine in the fourth Majlis; 14 in the fifth and sixth Majlis sessions; and 13 in the seventh.
I have not had time to review the situation of women and the vote in Saudi Arabia, but this quick survey indicates that under Shariah, women certainly have the right to vote, and in many countries that are governed by Islamic Jurisprudence, women have that right as well.
I would like to leave you with some wise words from Dr. Christina Jones, a professor of Law from Germany with expertise in Islamic Law:
I would like to leave you with the following proposition: It is possible to use Islamic law in the interests of women's rights. It is possible to combine the very best for women from all of the interpretations of the Quranic text. The decision to do this is political.