By Yazeed Kamaldien
Pending legislation on personal law will give Muslim women power to fight the discrimination they suffer at the hands of men.
A draft Muslim Personal Law (MPL) is being discussed around the country and the national Muslim Youth Movement (MYM) Gender Desk has just concluded a conference about it entitled: Realising Muslim Personal Law: Rights, Prospects and Challenges.
In terms of the draft, Muslims would soon have their marriages recognised within the country's judicial system. Muslim children would no longer be regarded as illegitimate and married couples could have their rights implemented by force of law.
The MYM invited various organisations, including the Islamic Social Welfare Association (Iswa), the Muslim Judicial Council (MJC) and the Muslim Assembly, to the conference.
MYM national president Na'eem Jeena said: "Through this conference we aimed at empowering women, in particular, to grapple with the Bill. The Muslim community in South Africa is patriarchal, and when we talk of justice we need to think of empowering women.
"Men already have rights when they are born. Women have rights prescribed to them in the Qur'an, and we want to make sure they don't get just the scraps of that. We need a woman-friendly MPL."
Waheeda Amien, assistant director of Muslim women's rights group Shura Yabafazi (Consultation of Women), said the MPL will eliminate discrimination against and abuse of women in Muslim communities.
"We aim to ensure that women's rights are protected and promoted. We have been involved in the process of the MPL since our inception in 2000 and want to ensure that it protects women.
"Our organisation will provide legal assistance, support, advice, representation, awareness and education workshops for women."
In her address to the conference, Julie Herring, from the Gender Advocacy Project, said: "You need to restore your dignity. You need to take control and say the situation is not acceptable. Speak to your communities, politicians, use the media, your mosques and all existing opportunities to be proactive.
"But most importantly, be informed and prepared to face challenges. MPL is about power - women gaining power and men giving up some power."
Conference participants, mostly women, called for a number of stringent measure to be included in the bill to counter the abuse of polygamy.
In Islam a man can have up to four wives, but a woman cannot have more than one husband.
In view of the HIV/Aids pandemic, some participants also suggested that tests be mandatory in a marriage contract.
Some even suggested that a prospective second wife be allowed to demand HIV/Aids test results from both the future husband and his current wife. The first wife should also be able to request the results of a test on the prospective wife.
Ashraf Mohamed, a public interest lawyer, said: "MPL is an opportunity for us to improve the public perception of Muslims. There are Muslims all over the world who are craving for this opportunity, and we need to use it. We have existed as a minority and on the fringe of society for too long."