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Political Science Professor Examines Arab Women and the Law

By Margaux Kay LaPointe, '11

Catherine Warrick, Ph.D., an assistant professor of political science, delivered a lecture entitled, “Arab Women and the Law,” on Tuesday, Jan. 22. Warrick addressed the ways women are and are not disadvantaged in the Arab World, exploring the very real problems affecting Arab women. Working comparatively, she addressed two major misconceptions and four problems confronting women in the Arab world.

Misconception #1: It’s all about Islamic law. Warrick said that the Arab world based its laws on European models. Islam’s role is as the official religion, a source of legislation, and family law for Muslims. With few exceptions, it is not the basis for criminal law.

Misconception #2: Arab (or Muslim) women are uniquely oppressed. Warrick asked the audience, “Why do women seem so oppressed? Images.” Images, especially those in the media, typically show women fully clothed in black. To counteract this, Warrick used her PowerPoint presentation to display an image of Queen Rania of Jordan dressed in a modern business suit. While social and economic class is a factor, dress is not entirely dependent on it. Warrick was quick to point out that “not just elite women [participate] in political and public life.” Dress also depends on region, age, and personal preference. Although they have had required dress, “Islamic women were never not recognized as people.” This has happened in the West in the form of coverture and Married Women’s Property Acts.

Warrick explained that these misconceptions have arisen because the media focuses on outliers, which are considered newsworthy. State and tradition, not Islam, are the true source of problems, she said.

Real Problem #1: Honor killings. Honor killings are pre-meditated murders of women by family members (typically by fathers and brothers, and often instigated by mothers) because of some sort of shame the women brought to the family. Murderers are hung, but honor-killers spend a few months in prison. Warrick said, “This is the downside of studying Arabic law. There are so many sad things.”

Real Problem #2: Rape law. Warrick asked the audience, “What to do with a raped woman?” Rapists can avoid prosecution by marrying their victim. Victims consent to avoid honor killings. Warrick explained that rape victims face many problems with family and the law, and there are no social programs in place to help them.

Real Problem #3: Nationality law. A woman’s nationality is not transferable to her children and spouse, Warrick said. Therefore, a major problem occurs when children become stateless after divorce.

Real Problem #4: Divorce law. Arab men have more divorce rights than Arab women, Warrick said. To divorce his wife, a man can simply say, “I divorce you,” three times. Women, on the other hand, must show cause and try to reconcile. Warrick said that the court is forced to decide if the woman has been abused and if the abuse, in the court’s opinion, warrants divorce. Women try to work within Islamic law for divorce; they surrender their dowries so the men will initiate the divorce.

Feminists in the Arab world believe that “if you really want to change the law, change the family,” Warrick said. This is why feminists in the Arab world consider divorce and nationality laws vitally important. The Arab world seems to oppress women because it considers them too powerful, Warrick said. Islamic law tackles this through constraint.

Margaux Kay LaPointe, ’11, is a first-year student from Lebanon, Pa. She is an intern in the Office of Communications in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Villanova University. Margaux plans on majoring in communication with a specialization in public relations.

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Director of Communications, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

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