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Is traditional Islamic law on adultery fair to women?


Farzana Hassan


Is traditional Islamic law on adultery fair to women? Adultery, or a mere suspicion of adultery, can often land many young Muslim women in trouble with the law, especially what passes for law among the Taliban and their types in some parts of the Muslim world. Why does an act that cannot take place without two parties result in such dire consequences for women alone?



The obvious answer is the relative ease with which guilt can be established for women rather than men. For example, pregnancy is often interpreted as proof of adultery, and rape is often taken as adultery. This is because Islamic law in many parts of the Muslim world makes no fundamental distinction between rape and adultery.


But even if the law established culpability equally to both sexes, one must answer a very basic question about the resulting punishment. If adultery is seen as a crime (and medieval punishments seen as civilized), the provision of one hundred lashes to both the adulterer and adulteress is ostensibly fair. But is it still fair when one considers the privileged sexual opportunities for Muslim men?


A man may marry up to four wives, over and above the several concubines with whom he may have sexual relations. Doesnít that reduce a manís chances of committing adultery, which would technically be defined as sex outside of marriage? A woman, on the other hand, has no such options. She may express her sexuality only within the bounds of her marriage to one husband. Therefore, even a single encounter with a man not her lawful husband immediately brands her an adulteress. The man may escape the charge of adultery by having several partners and regarding them all as legal.


Such inequality of opportunity, which imposes the charge of adultery on a woman much more easily, makes equal punishment utterly unfair. Jurists and other modern exegetes of the Quran must recognize this unjust situation, where terminology has simply been manipulated to legalize menís multiple unions and criminalize the same ones in the case of women.


Islamic law does not take into account the inequality of opportunity between men and women to express their sexuality. What is deemed perfectly legitimate for men is criminalized for women, leaving them vulnerable to sexual offences more often and far more easily. Laws must therefore be based on secular principles that do not discriminate between men and women.



Farzana Hassan is a Toronto-based freelance writer and author of "Prophecy and the Fundamentalist Quest." She is the former president of the Muslim Canadian Congress, an organization representing progressive and secular Muslims. She can be reached at

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