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Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy

Topic / Gender, Race and Identity

Women’s Rights as Human Rights: The History of the Transnational Feminist Organization – Women Living Under Muslim Laws

Over the last 28 years, the language of women’s rights has become entwined with human rights and constitutional rights discourse, particularly in the Global North. The slogan, “women’s rights are human rights,” was publicly adopted into the document in the aftermath of Hilary Clinton’s renowned speech in September 1995.[i] It was here, at the Fourth World Conference on Women, that 89 governments finally conceded that any law discriminating against women directly violated their freedoms and right to equality.[ii]

While this slogan gained unprecedented attention at the Beijing Conference, the notion itself was birthed much earlier. Throughout three successive conferences, held in Mexico City in 1975, Copenhagen in 1980, and Nairobi in 1985, women’s groups called for a legal framework to uphold gender equality.[iii] These women hailed from diverse ethnicities and nationalities, gathering to bring attention to the various ways in which gender-based violence and discriminatory practices were affecting their lives, such as sexual abuse and marital and child custody discrimination.

The transnational feminist network Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) was officially formed in 1984 with the aim of promoting human rights, gender justice, and equality for those women whose lives are shaped, conditioned, or governed by patriarchal and/or authoritarian interpretations of Islam. WLUML played an increasingly front-line role in international conferences from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. At the Beijing conference, for example, WLUML formed part of the influential civil society, and Farida Shaheed, one of WLUML’s founding members and sociologist by profession, was also present as a representative for the government of Pakistan.[iv]

The network was founded by eight other women from diverse Muslim backgrounds, including women from Algeria, Tanzania, Iran, and Mauritius.[v] Their initial collaboration had begun earlier, in 1982, as a solidarity action committee that centered on unity between, and for, women from Muslim contexts whose human rights were not recognized because of their gender.[vi] The women had initially come together in response to four cases where women were denied their rights by laws justified under the name of Islam.[vii] The first case concerned the imprisonment without trial of three Algerian women who criticized the proposed ‘Islamic’ Family Code, which significantly curtailed the rights of women within marriage. The second case concerned one woman challenging the constitutionality of the Muslim Personal Status laws related to divorce in India. The third advocated against the sentencing to death of a domestic worker in Abu Dhabi after being sexually attacked by her employer. And the final case supported the demands of the ‘Mothers of Algeria’ seeking custody of their children.[viii] These cases, and the success of the solidarity committee in preventing injustices, inspired Algerian sociologist Marieme Hélie-Lucas with the idea to form WLUML. She saw clearly how bringing together women from different Muslim backgrounds had the potential to effect powerful change.

The WLUML network became a coordinated response to counter the spread of politicized Islam that often threatened women’s autonomy in many Muslim countries. For example, following the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, Pakistan adopted similar laws restricting women’s dress in public, and throughout the 1980s, there were coordinated attempts to standardize Muslim family laws. The women who founded WLUML intended to cultivate reciprocal relationships between women from Muslim contexts by prioritizing in-person exchanges where participants shared their experiences and country-specific developments regarding such laws. This facilitated the sharing of knowledge that was necessary to challenge discriminatory laws and strengthen the agency of women who were often represented as passive victims.

Pioneering Feminism from the East

Women from both the Global North and Global South were present and active participants in international conferences between 1975 and 1995. However, the concept of feminism was still largely dominated by Western perceptions and attitudes towards women of Muslim and Eastern identities, often regarding them as submissive, dependent, or the victims of despotic patriarchs.[ix] Such beliefs were even held by many Western feminists, who, though well-intentioned, also often thought of women in Muslim contexts as helpless victims without a voice.

Factions of Western feminist movements were unaware of the extent to which local, front-line women activists and groups actively campaigned for their rights in various liberation struggles – whether fighting to overthrow discriminatory family laws in Algeria or carving out feminist identities in countries such as Pakistan and India.[x] WLUML’s first wave of activism (1982 -1991) was influenced by the sudden and tumultuous anti-women reforms across the Middle East and Asia, particularly in countries such as Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Algeria.

From the late 1970s, women’s rights were violated through a series of systematic policies across these countries, such as the rise of Hudud laws, imposition of compulsory Mahram (where a woman is instructed to be chaperoned by a male relative), and enforced hijab and niqab. Against this backdrop, WLUML navigated the early stages of their advocacy through four key pillars: peacebuilding and resisting the impact of militarization, preserving multiple identities for women through exposing fundamentalisms, widening the debate on women’s bodily autonomy, and promoting and protecting women’s equality under laws.[xi]

While these pillars provided the basis from which WLUML operated, what was arguably more fundamental was the direct, cross-cultural exchanges amongst network members. In 1988, WLUML received a grant as part of the United Nations Women and Development Decade programme and brought 30 women from countries such as Sudan, Algeria, and Indonesia to a village house in Aramon, France. It was from here that Marieme Helie-Lucas initiated a series of cross-cultural experiences. Haleh Afshar, Professor of Economics and Gender Studies at York University, and Riffat Hassan, Islamic feminist scholar of the Qur’an, mediated this session.[xii] It was decided that 18 out of the 30 women would spend three months in foreign countries, observing local and varying interpretations of Islam, which shaped the extent to which women were valued and regarded.[xiii]

This initial experiment inspired a ten-year research program amongst WLUML members, who not only collected evidence and research on women’s related issues in more than twenty countries, but also encouraged their network to build more women’s groups at a grassroots level.[xiv] Essentially, these efforts paved the way to help elevate local women’s consciousness about their diverse yet similar experiences. This simple act of going into the field to learn directly from women whose lives were shaped and affected by Muslim laws – and leveraging their respective languages to publish their testimonies – was the fundamental difference between networks such as WLUML and certain other Western feminist groups.

Regional activism with a transnational approach

In bringing local women’s testimonies to the wider women’s movement, WLUML helped to insert the experiences, struggles, and concerns of women from Muslim contexts into international dialogues on women’s rights as human rights. Through gathering varied first-hand experiences from women in local languages, WLUML made a clear move to help decolonize and decentralize the domineering Western feminist narrative and work towards greater transnationalism. This was necessary, given that global feminist literature tended to be heavily imbued with colonialist messaging – even to date – even though feminism didn’t solely emerge from the West.

In fact, many women scholars from Muslim contexts have written extensively on feminist issues and experiences, some of which date back to the eighth Century. Nouria Ali-Tani, a researcher in the transformation of international politics from a feminist perspective, references some examples of 20th Century Eastern feminist literature, including Sultana’s Dream (1905), revolutionary reflections on a feminist utopia by Indian activist Rokeya Sakhawat Hosain, and The Harem Years (1987), a biographical account of the restrictive world of upper-class women in Egypt, by Huda Shaarawi, pioneer of feminism in Egypt.[xv]

Such literature has played a significant role in shaping WLUML’s transnational efforts and grassroots work. For instance, Sultana’s Dream isa feminist utopian novel in which Sultana dreams of a city of women where men carry out household chores typically deemed as “women’s work.” WLUML employed the book in two ways: firstly, as a consciousness-raising tool, and then to teach factions of women within their network to read in English. Perhaps the most prominent example of feminist literature used by WLUML to equip and educate women activists is Great Ancestors: Women Asserting Rights in Muslim Contexts.[xvi]This publication, jointly produced by Shirkat Gah Women’s Resource Centre and WLUML, worked to profile and pay homage to those women who defied and changed the contours of women’s lives in Muslim contexts from the 8th to mid-20th Century.

However, WLUML’s transnational approach extended beyond decolonizing the narrative via publications. Charlotte Bunch, the founder of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership and Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies at Rutgers University, was particularly instrumental in conceptualizing Violence Against Women (VAW) since the 1970s and the World Conference on Women in Copenhagen in 1981 when the term was formally adopted.[xvii] Prior to this conference, Violence Against Women had been typically segmented into specificities such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), sexual violence, and bride killings.[xviii] Bunch’s worked to consolidate these anti-women and anti-girl ordeals across the world into a unifying movement that helped to strengthen WLUML’s transnational activism.

Since its inception, efforts to stop violence against women, whether on legal, religious, or cultural grounds, whether in the public or private sphere, have been at the heart of WLUML’s advocacy and research. WLUML joined the Transnational Working Groups in 1985 and focused on raising public awareness of violence against women in international spaces.[xix] For example, WLUML collected around a thousand affidavits throughout the early 1990s directly from Bangladeshi women who suffered rape by factions of the Pakistani army during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. It is estimated that up to 400,000 Bangladeshi women were raped as a weapon of war.[xx]

WLUML presented these affidavits at the Global Tribunal on Violations of Women’s Human Rights in Vienna in 1993 after undergoing a robust legal process as per the Tribunal’s policy. Moreover, WLUML joined forces with other organizations, such as the Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL), which under the leadership of Charlotte Bunch, facilitated a day-long conference where 33 women from 25 countries presented accounts of violence against women.[xxi] These testimonies detailed violations of women’s rights in conflict, the domestic sphere, societal, legal, and economic discriminations, and perceptions of women’s bodily rights. This Global Tribunal was the first of five international tribunals organized by CWGL, designed to gain global recognition that women’s rights are human rights on a UN platform.

Tireless years of activism and advocacy from women’s networks such as WLUML resulted in a historic win for feminism in 1993. During the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, women’s rights were formally recognized as synonymous with human rights through the Vienna Declaration on 25th June 1993.[xxii] Following this, the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (DEVAW) in December of the same year.[xxiii]

Many young women and girls today perceive women’s rights as having always been a guaranteed and natural right. While it is now for so many women, the lack of regard for women as equal beings in both the private and public sphere, particularly during the 1970s onwards, provided the very inspiration behind WLUML’s inception. Reactionary women groups braved severe struggles and opposition – often at personal cost to their lives and mental health – throughout the past few decades of fighting to conceptualize and consistently uphold women’s rights as human rights. Yet the battle wages on. Women’s rights continue to be in flux in many Islamic countries, as conservative governments, communities, and rigid patriarchal structures both in public and private continue to relegate the value of women and girls.

Today, we are witnessing the progress and gains made in the name of women’s rights be rolled back – whether in Afghanistan, which is in its second year of Taliban rule, or in Turkey, where the government pulled out of the Istanbul Convention. The rise of violence against women and violations of their human rights are all clear indications that women groups around the world need to come together now, as they have done in decades gone by, to protect the legacy and labor of former women activists, groups, and movements. WLUML’s contributions over the past four decades entailed actively mobilizing women groups at every level – grassroots, national, regional, and international – and helped work towards a transnational feminist network. WLUML’s unique contribution primarily lies in closing the feminist gap. At the time of its inception, women’s narratives and imaginations of their experiences and activism were predominantly dominated by Western feminist groups. In cultivating this transnational approach to women’s rights, WLUML carved out new spaces and opportunities in feminist imaginations, perspectives, and approaches for women from Muslim contexts.

[i] UN Declaration, Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing Declaration, (September 1995)

[ii] Equality Now, International: Holding Governments Accountable in the Beijing +15 Review Process, (17th February 2020)

[iii] National Geographic, Women’s Rights are Human Rights’ 25 years on, (15th September 2020)

[iv] Homa Hoodfar, Women Living Under Muslim Laws, interview by Anniesa Hussain and Dana Kamour, Zoom, 01/02/2023

[v] Women Living Under Muslim Laws, Our History,

[vi]  Farida Shaheed, Controlled or Autonomous: Identity and the Experience of the Network, Women Living under Muslim Laws, (Journal of Women in Culture and Society 19, no.4 1994), 997

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Marieme Helie-Lucas, ‘Women Living Under Muslim Laws’ / ours by right…

[ix] Goethe-Institute’s Art & Thought Magazine, International: Profile of Women Living Under Muslim Laws: What’s In a Name? (January 2011) 

[x] Urvashi Butalia, Community, State and Gender: On Women’s Agency during Partition, (Economic and Political Weekly, April 1993)

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Homa Hoodfar, Women Living Under Muslim Laws, interview by Anniesa Hussain and Dana Kamour, Zoom, 01/02/2023

[xiii]  Farida Shaheed, Controlled or Autonomous: Identity and the Experience of the Network, Women Living under Muslim Laws, (Journal of Women in Culture and Society 19, no.4 1994), 1011

[xiv] Women Living Under Muslim Laws, Knowing Our Rights: Women, Family, Laws and Customs in the Muslim World, (Third Edition 2006), 90

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Farida Shaheed, Aisha L.F. Shaheed, Great Ancestors: Women Asserting Rights in Muslim Contexts (2005)

[xvii] Homa Hoodfar, Women Living Under Muslim Laws, interview by Anniesa Hussain and Dana Kamour, Zoom, 01/02/2023

[xviii] Women Living Under Muslim Laws,WLUML Campaign History (1984 and 2008)

[xix] Homa Hoodfar, Women Living Under Muslim Laws, interview by Anniesa Hussain and Dana Kamour, Zoom, 01/02/2023

[xx] Anushay Hossain,1971 Rapes: Bangladesh Cannot Hide History, (Forbes, 2012)

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] United Nation,Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, (25th June 1993)

[xxiii] United Nations, Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, (20th December 1993)