Emory Report

October 25, 1999

 Volume 52, No. 9

An-Na'im wins prestigious human rights award

Abdullahi An-Na'im, Candler Professor of Law and an internationally known scholar and human rights activist, was named the recipient of the 1999 Van Pragg Award from the Dutch Humanist Ethical Society in The Netherlands for his work in promoting human rights.

An-Na'im is being cited for his role "as a broker between Western advocates of universal human rights and the Islamic world, and for his academic work that encourages dialogue and understanding on human rights between secular and religious leaders." A specialist in comparative and Islamic law, An-Na'im currently is directing two international research projects that are aimed at connecting scholarship with real-world reforms.

His research project on "Women and Land in Africa" has just received its second grant from the Ford Foundation ($318,000 in 1996, $208,000 in 1999) for its grassroots investigation of women's legal and actual access to land ownership in seven African countries: Cameroon, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Senegal, Uganda and, beginning this year, Rwanda and Mozambique.

In each of these countries, said An-Na'im, researchers working on the project found "legal and customary limitations on women that are universal. Women work the land, but they don't control it. They are the primary producers of food, but there is no way for them to get funds, or to decide on crops to plant."

The predicament of women in these countries is exacerbated by "the very nature of the post-colonial state," said An-Na'im. Constitutions and laws may grant women equality on paper, but in practice customary law is very powerful, especially on the community level where the state may have less legal influence. For women in these countries, he continued, economic and social rights are linked to political and civil rights. "The ability of women to act politically will determine their success economically."

Researchers working on the project--most of them women living in the countries being studied--have been serving as both scholars and community activists, said An-Na'im. They are using archival research, empirical surveys and dialogues to generate practical proposals, such as establishing small credit banks to assist women in securing land or developing strategies for collective land purchase. The next phase of the project, likely to prove more difficult, will involve advocacy and activism, as researchers seek to win support for their proposals and publicize their findings.

An-Na'im also is directing an international research project on Islamic family law that includes a global mapping of the legal, cultural, sociological, demographic and political realities of Muslims in as many as 40 countries. The project, funded last fall by a $371,000 Ford Foundation grant, encompasses in-depth case studies of Islamic family law in Egypt, a predominantly Muslim country, and in the United States, where Muslims are a fast-growing minority.

Once the global mapping is complete, the project will turn to thematic studies such as incidents of violence against women--An-Na'im mentioned the practice of "honor killing" a wife who has an affair or is seeking divorce--or what happens with custody of children or property in interreligious marriages.

Again, An-Na'im's aim is to link information with advocacy; the project has established a web site at <http://www. law.emory.edu/IFL>. "We're expecting people to use the bulletin board at the site to start getting reactions," he said. "We want anyone in the world to be able to download this information and use it as a resource. For advocacy to be effective, exchange of information is critical." And without advocacy, he added, "the real world will never change."

An-Na'im will travel to The Netherlands in December to accept the Van Praag Award and give a lecture on his work.

-Elaine Justice

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