Mr Ahmed Zaoui Discusses Women, Islam and Human Rights
Speech Delivered On behalf Of Mr Zaoui By Miranda Harcourt – Great Hall, Parliament Buildings December 14 2004
Please forgive me dear listeners, as I have been unable to prepare this speech with the facilities of a library. This is
a summary of a lecture I have been preparing on the issue of women, Islam and human rights which will be published early
next year after I have had the opportunity to complete it with more explanation and detail.
Blame the customs
Thank you for the honour of addressing you this evening. Just a few days ago it would have been extraordinary for me to
think that I would be apologising for not being here in person, however I am sure you will understand that I am in need
of rest and am not able to travel to be here this evening. And when I heard about what you were eating tonight I was
sure I could not make it.
It is a great relief to me to be released and living with the community of Dominican Friars in a spirit of cooperation
and tolerance. The recent decision to allow this to happen confirms my belief in the integrity of the justice system in
NZ and the importance of always practicing the virtue of democracy, in that all aspects of government are allowed to
function independently, transparently and with a commitment to fundamental human rights.
One of the reasons I have been asked to speak this evening is in my capacity as a democratically elected politician in
the first round of general elections in Algeria in 1991 before the military coup. Many people have speculated what the
implications of my party, the FIS, being in government would have meant for the women in Algeria.
I would therefore like to take this opportunity to clear up a common misunderstanding or disinformation campaign against
my political party, the FIS, that we planned to implement Sharia law and to oppress women by forcing them to wear hejab.
First, as outlined above there is and was no defined set of Sharia law to be implemented. I can say this without any
hesitation as I was one of the two religious advisors to the FIS - the other was my colleague, Cherrati, who was killed
inside an Algerian prison in end of 1994 by the Government. It is a fact that there had been no programme ever drawn up
nor any intention to implement any set of laws based on a model of “Sharia law” and there were no laws, plans or
policies proposed or intended to curb the freedoms and rights of women, Islamic or non-Islamic. This is because the
framework of governance which our party followed was a modernist Islamic model of governance, based on democratic
processes of consulting and reflecting the wishes of the Algerian people. This was a new form of Islamic governance
based on the democratic process and there is no comparable model in any country. The top priority of the FIS was to
install democracy to bring new traditions of dialogue and to then let the people choose.
This evening I wish to briefly touch on the Islamic view of women, the situation of the tragedy for women in Algeria,
and to share some personal experiences. Since being here, I have seen many letters to the paper and heard on the radio
many inaccurate statements regarding not only my views of women but the Islamic view of women. When my lawyer first told
me that many people thought that I wanted to put her in a veil I did not believe her. When she insisted this was true
and I saw it for myself in a letter to the Editor, forgive me, but I could not help but to laugh uproariously as it
reveals how much distance there is to bridge between my beliefs, Islamic values and such misconceptions.
The main message I wish to convey this evening to you is that the sources of Islam are more liberal than the particular
manifestations that are cited as the rule. I should explain my approach to Islam is that I am a moderate and I view
Islam as an instrument of peace. Human rights are born from a certain philosophy. Secularalism views these rights as
having emerged from the experience of history. But with Judaism, Christianity or Islam, these rights are given by God,
who created us and made us free.
The correct approach to understand the Islamic view of women
To understand the Islamic view of women it is critical to draw from the original sources and not from interpretations
or particular practices. I wish therefore to draw the contrast between the origins of Islamic teaching which is the
Koran and the Sunna or Hadith (sayings and deeds of the Prophet) and cultural practices.
I should comment here regarding the issue of Sharia law which is often confused with Islamic thought and teaching on
womens human rights. Sharia is not a set body of laws (like the 10 Commandents written in tablets of stone), but is open
to interpretation and reinterpretation. Of course, as in all religions, the interpretation of religious laws/practices
are dependent upon the times and contexts in which they develop.
To turn to some examples:
For me, discussing the role of women in Islam is not a shameful or taboo subject because Islam acknowledges the multiple
roles of women in all spheres of society. In the origins and sources of Islam in the Koran, it is clear that women are
qualified in themselves to be independent and to have a legal personality. They could be financially independent and own
their own property and be active in public life.
An example is the first wife of the Prophet Mohammed, KHadijah. She owned an international trading business and the
Prophet, her husband, worked for her. She was the owner and he was the manager of her affairs.
Another example is that in Islam, women do not take their husband’s name. This recognises that women do not lose their
identity. So, my wife is not Leila Zaoui, but Leila Tidjani.
Women in the public sphere Contrary to popular perception, women were key participants in the public sphere as well as
the private sphere. Women were political leaders as well as leaders of scholarly thought. The best example is the wife
of the Prophet, Ayesha. She was the main leader of the opposition when there was a problem of succession in the third
Caliph. She is now a symbol of political participation. Ayesha is also the main scholar in the history of Islam. The
main source of sayings of the Prophet in the Hadith; half of these sayings are attributed to Ayesha. Hundreds of
scholars came from other countries to hear her lectures. She held discussions, lectured about issues and engaged in
Women in the private sphere Islam itself never limited the role of women to being keepers of the home. That role was
imposed by tribal customs and feudal societies.
Women as the equal of men In Islam, it is said that male and female are created from the same source. A Hadith of the
Prophet says that women are the sisters of men, which is interpreted as meaning that women are the equal of men.
Some examples may help to illustrate this. Eve was not responsible for the sins of Adam. The Koran considers the guilt
of both and says that both were tempted. Some verses talk directly of the responsibility of Adam. In Islam, men and
women could both receive an inheritance. Sometimes, Islam is criticised because men receive a greater inheritance than
women. This, however, is not a rule of Islam. In fact, sometimes women receive more. This illustrates the dangers of
generalising about Islam from particular examples taken out of the religious and cultural context.
These are only a few of many thousands of examples. In a verse in a Koran, there is a dispute between a woman and the
Prophet about her rights. Why would this verse be included in the sacred text except to emphasise that women are equal
to men and could even challenge or debate with the Prophet himself. The direct implication of this is that women can
argue for herself and defend her rights. She does not need anyone to paternalise her or speak on her behalf.
I now want to move on the second dimension of this issue, one that is particularly close to my heart, the suffering of
the women of Algeria. Before I begin, I wish to be clear that I do not differentiate between those who wear the veil and
those who do not. Furthermore, we must bear in mind the Algerian cultural and historical context.
To express the position of the Algerian woman, I must speak in metaphors. The story of the Algerian woman is captured in
moments of non-existence. In the midst of the Algerian tragedy, women have lost everything – not only their basic rights
as human beings but their basic rights as women. They must look for their disappeared children, husbands, brothers and
fathers. One of the most known slogans in Algeria is “give us back our sons”. The only photos you see are those showing
women crying in the cemeteries. The World Press Association photographic award in 1997 was of an Algerian women crying
in a cemetary. Their only act is to cry.
Women are not only the victims of oppression. They are also the tools of oppression. A false dualism has been created
between Islam and women. After the coup of 1991, the junta launched a disinformation campaign against Islam by claiming
that it would restrict the rights and freedoms of women. For example, as recorded by Colonel Samrawi, a former secret
services officer, the Algerian secret services threw acid on women in the streets of Algerian and blamed this on Islam
and the FIS. The purpose, of course, was to perpetuate the myth in Algeria, and the world, of the dangers that Islam
supposedly poses to women. Unfortunately, this myth was recently perpetuated in NZ in an article in the New Zealand
I am proud to say that my family has always held and promoted a respectful and progressive attitude towards women. Let
me give you an example. I was born in a secluded village. In this village, the custom was that women never went out and
if they did it was only at night. In 1966, electricity was introduced into the village. The people were unhappy because
it meant that women could not be hidden at night. They thought it showed the end of the world, as though Satan was
coming. My father was the imam of the village, the center of religious thought and activity in the village. Despite
popular opinion, my father was not concerned with this change and held strongly to his progressive views. Incidently,
our household was the first along with the postman to have a television in it! My first memory of television is The
Fugitive, the man always on the run.
My father is an example of how Islam can facilitate rather than frustrate or prevent the embrace of modernism, and in
doing so be a force for improving the rights of women. Age-old attitudes can also be shifted. My uncle used to hide his
daughters and his wife in his house at night. Now he has a daughter at university.
Finally, Islam does not permit violence against women. The nation that does not respect women does not deserve to exist.
The sons in my family have always been taught that if they hit girls, they are not men. I can give the example of a
relative who was being mistreated by her husband. This had been a problem for some time and I tried to intervene and to
speak with him, but he would not listen. So I refused to speak to him further. I advised her that because he would not
change, she should divorce him. She was very resistant to do this. It was only after two years that she agreed to seek a
divorce through the courts. However, the judge would not listen to her and refused to give her a divorce. Here is an
example of a woman who is oppressed. This cannot be said to be the will of Islam. Islam, in its essence, seeks to
protect and promote the rights of women.
I would like to finish with the last speech of the Prophet, who spoke of what must be the two guiding principles in
human life. Firstly, we must pray. Secondly, we must respect and honour women.