Emory Report

September 8, 1998

 Volume 51, No. 3


Law professor An-Na'im promotes the rights of women

While it's quite expected to see women champion their own rights, there is one Emory law professor who has dedicated much of his research and scholarship to feminist causes. "In the grand sweep of human history, women are the last of the oppressed to be liberated," said Abdullahi An-Na'im. "The level of any civilization may be determined by how women are treated within that culture. In many cultures, women are still the most disadvantaged 'minority.'"

The former executive director of Human Rights Watch/Africa works internationally to confront and improve the acceptance and practice of human rights. He believes that internal cultural transformations are essential to changing the status of women.

This philosophy has led An-Na'im, the recipient of two Ford Foundation grants, to push the strategies of social struggle to a higher level, tying scholarship to activism and encouraging shared ownership of the outcome. "If academic theory has no resonance in people's lives, there is no point in pursuing it," he said.

For An-Na'im, who specializes in comparative and Islamic law, the link between scholarship and basic human rights hit very close to home when he was arrested and exiled from his native Sudan in 1985 for his moderate views. A member of the liberal Islamic group Republican Brothers, An-Na'im saw many of his colleagues jailed and the group's founder killed.

After leaving Sudan, he came to the United States as a visiting law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles and later held positions in Canada, Sweden and Egypt before returning to the United States to take the helm of Human Rights Watch/Africa.

His nearly two-year stint there left him wiser and somewhat critical of the West's approach to human rights. "It was an environment that took human rights too much for granted," An-Na'im told the Montreal Gazette in 1995. Western countries naively believe, he said, in "the notion of human-rights dependency: that all the West has to do is stand firm and pressure the rest of the world to comply."

In 1996 the Ford Foundation awarded An-Na'im a grant for a five-country study of "Women and Land in Africa," a grassroots investigation of women's legal and actual access to land ownership.

The women researchers who led the studies are recognized in their countries as both scholars and community activists. In Cameroon, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Senegal and Uganda they focused their inquiry on married, divorced and widowed women, selecting populations that would allow them to compare the impact on land rights of differing religious affiliations, judicial and social structures.

At a spring 1998 follow-up workshop in Entebbe, Uganda, participant research-ers shared their findings: there are consistent contradictions in legal and sociological realities for women's tenureship of land in targeted African countries. Inheritance as a traditional means of obtaining land is no longer a valid assumption; by custom, even the most educated and liberal women surrender their landholding birthrights to male family members.

Archival research, empirical surveys and subsequent dialogues generated multiple proposals, like one for establishing small credit banks that would assist women in securing access to land and another for encouraging collective land purchase.

Researchers are determined to continue the project by submitting a second grant application to fund additional country studies, to broaden community outreach and to develop ways to influence policymakers who determine land tenureship rights.

The project's process, by encouraging women to communicate tension, fears and problems related to their land rights, presented an opportunity to consider options and share strategies. "Women and Land" confirmed An-Na'im's model for analyzing and addressing social issues, proving that advocacy must have an organic connection within the society where change is sought.

An-Na'im's second Ford Foundation grant will focus on Islamic family law. He hopes to investigate how international Muslim communities are negotiating their identities within secular settings. His research will look at concentrated Muslim communities and identify proposals for reform by learning how Islamic family law has evolved due to external economic, judicial and social pressures.

Part one of the project will involve global mapping of actual legal practices, contructing socioeconomic profiles for communities around the world. "The hypothesis is that in practice the family does not follow principles of [Islamic jurisprudence]," An-Na'im said. "Communities adapt the Islamic legal codes to meet their own needs. They may be giving or denying rights to women without regard to Islamic family law."

Phase two will involve case studies conducted by research teams in Egypt and the United States. An-Na'im chose Egypt because it is a Muslim-led society exposed to multiple ideologies about women's rights and social traditions. He chose the United States for its liberal, secular environment, Christian and European influences, and "neutral" family law.

Through this project An-Na'im, who has five children of his own, hopes to pose questions that may potentially resolve social issues confronting women and children limited by legal and customary practices. He expects that, in this dynamic process, proposals for change will come from the communities themselves.

An-Na'im will speak in depth on human rights at the year's first Great Teachers lecture, "Human Rights and the Dangers of Apathy," Sept. 17 at 7:30 p.m. in Cannon Chapel.

--Cathy Byrd

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