The “Threat” of Sharia Law and the War on Women

Over the past several years, politicians have spent considerable time taking on the phantom threat of Sharia law. Legislators in more than a dozen states have attempted to capitalize on anti-Muslim hysteria by promoting laws that would prevent courts from applying the religious codes of Islam.

As examples, Oklahoma Sen. Rex Duncan sponsored a proposal in 2010 to amend the state’s Constitution to prohibit state courts from using or even considering sharia or “international” law in their decision making. Former Presidential Republican candidate Newt Gingrich called Sharia “a mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States and in the world as we know it.” And Herman Cain announced that he would not nominate an American Muslim to his cabinet because Muslims are trying to “gradually ease Sharia law and the Muslim faith into our government.”

Like any religious code, Sharia can be used for good or ill, depending on its interpretation. However, much like the excessive attention to voter “fraud” that led to recent voter ID laws, there is simply no evidence that sharia poses any threat to the American justice system.

Indeed, a federal appeals court in January upheld a ruling to block implementation of the proposed constitutional amendment in Oklahoma, finding that proponents of the amendment:

do not identify any actual problem the challenged amendment seeks to solve. … [T]hey admitted … that they did not know of even a single instance where an Oklahoma court had applied Sharia law or used the legal precepts of other nations or cultures, let alone that such applications or uses had resulted in concrete problems in Oklahoma.

As the ACLU further noted,

The court cases cited by anti-Muslim groups as purportedly illustrative of [the threat of Sharia law] actually show the opposite: Courts treat lawsuits that are brought by Muslims or that address the Islamic faith in the same way that they deal with similar claims brought by people of other faiths or that involve no religion at all.

The question must be asked, then, what exactly is the anti-Sharia movement trying to accomplish? If there is no evidence of any threat to secular, democratic jurisprudence, why would any lawmaker waste time chasing a ghost?

The answer may be that these conservative lawmakers are engaging in a political two-step, at once rallying support against a “common enemy” while simultaneously enacting laws that, in substance, lead to the same oppressive results of the Sharia they denounce so loudly.

In fact, it is conservative legislators and policymakers in the U.S., not the American Muslim population or U.S. courts, who are attempting to impose law and policy that eerily mirror laws in countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Yemen–where Sharia is a source of law–and in Iran and Iraq, where it is forbidden to enact legislation that is antithetical to Islam. On issues ranging from domestic violence to health care to civil liberties, conservative law and policymakers seem to be taking a page from the books of their professed enemies.

Here are some examples:

Reproductive Rights

SHARIA/ISLAMIC LAW–In Yemen and Iran, abortion is only legal when a woman’s life is in danger. There is no exception for rape or incest.

U.S.–The stance of U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan and other conservative legislators on abortion is identical. Several House members voted in May to outlaw abortions in the District of Columbia after 20 weeks with no exception to protect a woman’s health.

Domestic Violence

SHARIA/ISLAMIC LAW–A 2010 Report by Freedom House reveals that there are no public or private shelters for abused women in Iran and, due to prevailing attitudes, domestic violence there remains a private hardship. Similarly, a 2012 report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on women’s rights in Kuwait noted that there are no government-run or -funded shelters or hotlines specifically for victims of domestic violence.

U.S.–In 2012, conservative members of the Senate Judiciary Committee voted against renewing the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which provides, among other things, for community violence prevention programs and battered women’s shelters.

Bullying Women’s Rights Activists

SHARIA/ISLAMIC LAW–According to a 2010 report by UNHCR, the Yemeni media is regularly used to attack and vilify women’s rights activists and reinforce traditional gender roles. Quasi-official newspapers publish slanderous articles about women journalists and activists in order to turn the community against these women and intimidate them into silence.

U.S.–Conservative pundits unfurled their wrath on women’s rights activist and law student Sandra Fluke earlier this year after she testified to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on the importance of requiring insurance plans to cover birth control. Rush Limbaugh repeatedly called Fluke a “slut” and “prostitute.” Fox News host Sean Hannity advised that she “take a year off of law school to pay–to fund, you know, the remaining three years of one’s sex life.” Ann Coulter labeled her a “hysterical drama queen.”

Women’s Rights Organizations Stifled by Religious Lobby

SHARIA/ISLAMIC LAW–In 2008, a panel of Islamic clerics and prominent tribal chiefs in Yemen created the movement for protecting virtue and fighting vice, which condemned a proposal to allocate 15 percent of parliamentary seats to women and decreed that a woman’s place is in the home.

U.S.–In 2009, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) refused to support the Affordable Care Act if it didn’t include an amendment to block insurance companies from covering abortion. The USCCB also instructed priests to speak about the amendment during church services and to issue bulletins urging Catholics to oppose the entire health care bill if the amendment didn’t pass. Prior to this, the USCCB administered federal money allocated for providing services to victims of human trafficking but prohibited its subcontractors from using these tax dollars to provide counseling on contraception and abortion to victims of human trafficking, despite the fact that many trafficking victims are also victims of sexual assault.

Access to Healthcare

SHARIA/ISLAMIC LAW–In Iran, the parliament passed a law in 1998 that fully segregated the health-care system, severely compromising women’s health because there are not enough women physicians to serve the women in Iran.

U.S.–An official report by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce’s minority staff noted that conservative House members:

… have voted to strip women of access to preventive health care and contraception, to eliminate federal support for reproductive and maternal care services, to cut funds for important nutrition programs for pregnant women, nursing mothers, and families, and to allow insurers to discriminate against women and charge them more than men for health insurance policies. … They have voted to end the basic guarantees that the Medicare and Medicaid programs provide to low-income women or women who are seniors.  They have voted to increase the exposure of pregnant women and women of childbearing age to dangerous toxic chemicals. And they have voted numerous times to restrict women’s access to legal abortions.

Workplace Gender Inequality

SHARIA/ISLAMIC LAW–In Saudi Arabia, a decree was issued in July that reaffirmed strict sex segregation in the workplace. In Iran, where women have used education as an important means for achieving economic independence, the month of August saw 36 universities across the country ban 77 fields of study to women.

U.S.–In April, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker repealed the state’s 2009 Equal Pay Enforcement Act, which had allowed victims of workplace discrimination to seek damages in state court. In 2011 and 2012, conservative House members voted against allowing the Paycheck Fairness Act, which addresses the pay disparity between men and women, to be considered by the House. They also rejected amendments that would have increased funding for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and would have required the Department of Defense to conduct outreach to women-owned businesses as part of the procurement process.

The substance of Sharia law, it seems, is of less concern to certain policymakers than the political capital gained by exploiting jingoistic fears. It is not Sharia law that threatens to erode democratic principles; rather, it is lawmakers engaged in the War on Women who imperil ideals of equality and democracy by consistently promoting laws that restrict more than half the population’s access to healthcare, employment, free speech and other basic rights.  Having lifted the veil, it appears that anti-Sharia proponents have nothing to fear but themselves.

Photo via user Matt57 licensed under Creative Commons 3.0.


Maria Angela Johnson is a litigator in private practice with a passion for human rights law. She has worked with AsylumAccess, the Midwest Immigrant and Human Rights Center’s Anti-Trafficking Project and Northwestern Law School’s Juvenile Asylum and Refugee Clinic. Angela currently volunteers with Kids in Need of Defense, helping unaccompanied minors obtain legal status. Angela writes for the Fahamu Refugee Legal Aid Newsletter and has been published in the Seattle Journal for Social Justice and Women Lawyer’s Journal. She was also featured in The Rumpus’s Funny Women column in October 2012. In her spare time, Angela enjoys yoga, running, camping, travel, playing ukulele, baking pies, drawing, hanging out with her husband and walking her dog.