Islam and Women in Niger

Even though 98% of its population practices Islam, the Western African country of Niger is a secular state, protected by laws mostly inherited from the French. In recent years, the government has adopted some woman-friendly policies but rejected a few as well. What’s behind those rejections? What role does Islam play in the politics of women’s rights laws? Alice Kang, a PhD candidate in political science at UW-Madison with focus on African Studies, spent a year in Niger to look for answers. She sat down with Inside Islam to share her findings.

As you can hear from the first part of the interview, Kang’s interest in Islam and women’s rights started in Burkina Faso where she was a Peace Corps volunteer right after college. When it comes to debates on women’s rights issues such as abortion and family planning, she saw a parallel between what’s going on there and what’s going on in local communities in the United States.

Inside Islam Interview with Alice Kang, Part 1

In the second part of the interview, Alice described her findings about why the Niger government adopts some policies in the name of improving women?s lives and rejects others. After talking to more than 120 women’s rights activists, Islamic leaders and politicians, she concludes that religious leaders are not always opposed to women’s rights. “Instead, Muslim leaders selectively mobilize against policies that appear to undermine informal and formal institutions. A major determinant of women’s rights policy adoption is the government’s bargaining power with religious elites.”

A good example is the debate about legislation that requires wives and husbands to have equal say in where to live. The response to the legislation was extremely diverse in the Muslim community. Some women supported it, but others organized a mass protest against it because in their interpretation of the Qur’an, Islam requires men to provide shelter, food, and clothing for the family. The proposed legislation “actually takes away the responsibility from men and puts more burden on women.”

Inside Islam Interview with Alice Kang, Part 2

What’s the take-away for Americans, especially those who see Islamic laws as backward and violent against women? Kang urges people to learn more about the extreme diversity and syncretism in Islamic practice around the world. Islamic law is “a rich, sophisticated, and extremely long [practiced] area of jurisprudence,” she says. There is a group of international network of women’s rights lawyers, Women Living under Muslim Laws, that is using Islamic law to ensure that women’s rights are respected around the world.

Kang also encourages people to think about the diversity and syncretism in their own religious practice. As a Korean-American Buddhist, she said, “I didn’t realize that the way my family practice Buddhism is completely different from how a Japanese person may practice it. It’s definitely rooted in Korean culture where ancestors are extremely important. It may have nothing to do with Buddhism but we combine the two. I see the same thing with Islam.”

Inside Islam Interview with Alice Kang, Part 3

What similarities between Islamic practice and your own religious practice do you see? How does your religion or ideology debate and resolve women’s rights issues? We welcome your comments.

Other links recommended by Alice Kang: