Azhar Aslam and Shaista Kazmi
The status of women in the Muslim world is a controversial subject. The position accorded to women by Qur’an and Sunnah of the Prophet differs vastly from practice within various Muslim societies. Over the centuries, various pre- and post-Islamic cultural values have crept into the body of religious corpus and have become embedded as “God’s laws”.
Well-defined and well-enforced property rights are one of the fundamentals for prosperity. In particular, women’s property rights are fundamental to women’s own economic security as well as wider economic development.
Our analysis of six different Muslim countries has concluded that the correct application of the rights granted by Islam can encourage female empowerment and promote the generation of wealth. The present lack of women’s property rights is classic example of institutional disconnect between theory and practice in Muslim countries.
In case of Pakistan particularly, the status of women’s property rights is different from the provisions of law in this context. Article 23 of the Constitution of Pakistan states that, every citizen shall have the right to acquire, hold, and dispose of property in any part of Pakistan. It further guarantees the rights to property and equality of citizen as fundamental right, and calls to strike down any custom having the force of law as far as it is inconsistent with fundamental rights. There is no direct provision in the Constitution on women’s inheritance but it does provide guarantees and principles to ensure justice without discrimination. Inheritance in Pakistan is governed by Islamic Shariah as codified in the Family Laws Ordinance 1961 and the Muslim Personal Law Act (1962).
Pakistani law is an amalgam of Islamic and British colonial law synthesized by the male legislators over the time. In practice the physical property is almost always in the name of male household head. Women, who are nearly half of the population, are deprived of their property rights. Women from different social classes own property, with differing levels of control, according to their monetary resources and social status. The main factor that defines the level of women’s participation in economic activity is the perception of her social position.
Although there is no research that directly measures women’s access to their property; however, from the low level of the social and economic indicators for women it can be inferred that a large majority of the women in Pakistan face social & economic obstacles to own or administer their property. The secondary position of the women in the society is reflected in the social indicators showing lower literacy rate, low labor force participation and a high maternal mortality ratio. There are various social, economic and construed religious impediments to women’s access to own property.
According to ‘The Index of Economic Freedom’, Pakistan’s economy is 56.8% free, which makes it the world’s 93rd freest economy. The rank of Pakistan in property rights index is 30 which put it in the ‘repressed group’. But having been declared very high on the list of failed states and clealry with a faltering economy, excluding women on the basis of custom rather than including them in the main stream of activity, is one of the most crucial failures of Pakistan both as a scoiety and as a nation. There was never a more appropriate and high time to bring about the massive socio-political change that is fundamental to our survival.
Most Westerners and many in the world of Islam are unaware of the rights granted to women by Islamic Law. These comprise independent ownership of property and the right to trade, buy or sell. Islam has provided clear cut strategies for empowering women – to augment their status, and to add to the social and economic wellbeing of society. The full and proper implementation of women’s property rights and the consequent economic freedom will promote female entrepreneurship.
Women’s status becomes particularly important when they are responsible for managing loans and savings. They benefit from microfinance services that enable them to generate and control their own income. Research shows that credit extended to women has a significant impact on their families’ quality of life and especially benefits their children. The enforcement of property rights also brings immense social gains and strengthens the position of the underprivileged, the most fundamental tenet of Islam. Asset control gives women greater confidence and decision-making power within households and helps protect against the risk of domestic violence.
It is clear that if Muslim countries acted to bring their laws, and even more importantly their practices, in conformity with the Qur’an and the practice of Prophet Muhammad, they would ensure well-protected property rights for women. It is crucial that Muslim countries and societies focus on identifying and eliminating discriminatory practices, including complex or antiquated legal systems and the local customs and traditions which are often conceived as part of Islam. They must create and implement policies that empower women to own, administer and manage property.
Islam provided the platform for these steps 1,400 years ago. It is time for Muslims to use that platform.
This article is based on the research paper “Muslim women and property rights” by Azhar Aslam and Shaista Kazmi, published in the June 2009 edition of Economic Affairs.