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Legal frameworks inspired by Muslim jurisprudence (also referred to as Shari’a) regulate the lives of as many as 600 million women around the world, a majority of them living in Asia. Personal Status Codes or Family Codes impact various aspects of women’s status as citizens, professionals, wives, mothers, etc.

As in many other, non-Muslim contexts, questions linked to women’s bodies tend to generate fierce debates especially in the arena of reproductive rights. A number of women’s rights defenders from Muslim societies have noted that Family Codes often become more restrictive where conservative and/or extremist religious voices are able to influence, more or overtly, state institutions. Among these, groups associated with political Islam are particularly concerned with curtailing women’s control over their reproductive capacities.

Focusing specifically on the issue of abortion, this paper examines recent laws and debates from a range of Muslim countries since the 1990s onward – including Iran, Malaysia, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Yemen, Algeria and South Africa. Based on a review of Muslim scholars’ legal opinions regarding abortion, it asks whether one can identify a unanimous view regarding the permissibility of abortion across Muslim societies.

How do Muslim laws seem to evolve over the last two decades with regards to access to abortion services – is there a homogeneous trend or rather regional variations? Are politico-religious (or “fundamentalists”) groups increasingly powerful in shaping legal frameworks? Or do governments adjust legal prohibitions on the basis of socio-economic realities? How do women’s groups navigate these tensions that have direct impact on their bodies? How do reproductive rights advocates formulate responses and how are these received?


This chapter was originally published in Self-Determination and Women’s Rights in Muslim Societies, edited by Chitra Raghavan and James P. Levine. (Brandeis University Press, 2012)



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