Akbar Ganji, Iranian journalist and dissident gave an extremely interesting Keynote Address to close the conference. The text and video of his talk will be available here shortly. I will focus here on the possible solutions that he suggested to the problem of human rights and discrimination against women in Islam. This is only a small part of his talk and therefore it is highly recommended for interested parties to read the text or watch the video.
The commandments of the Qur'an can be divided into primary and secondary commandments. If a problem is not solved by the primary commandments, they can be suspended. The problem can then be solved by issuing a secondary commandment. However, this suspension has never been used to deal with the problem of women. The Shia Muslims believe that Mohammed was followed by 12 imams, one of whom is missing. Until he returns, all of the laws should be suspended. Others argue that judges can take the place of the missing imam until he returns.
Ayatollah Khomeini offered his own solution. He declared that the Islamic political regime has primacy over everything else. This exists nowhere in the Qur'an. If the regime finds is expedient to change the laws of Islam for its own survival, it has the right to do this. The religion became subordinate to the government and an expediency counsel was created. About 15 years ago, the counsel ruled that half the income obtained during the marriage belongs to the women. This method can be used to dramatically expand the rights of women.
In the Qur'an it is written that religious messages were delivered to prophets in the language of the people. Fundamentalists and traditionalists say that this means Arabic. The modern Muslim, however, argue that this means the understandings and culture of people at the time it was written. All the rulings that have been received through the Qur'an were patriarchal because this was the only organization that the people could understand. This is not a solution original to Islam. Judaism and Christianity, in certain cases, have been reconciled with scientific discovery. Biblical creation can be seen as a metaphor that made sense to people in Biblical times because they would not have understood Darwin's theory of evolution.
There are a lot of passages in the Qur'an about justice, iniquity and discrimination. Theologians insist that God is just and, therefore, his rulings must be just. In the Shia tradition, it is said that justice is an independent concept by which the faiths can be judged (a better religion is a more just religion). One Grand Ayatollah has used the view that God's rulings must be just to make rulings of his own consistent with equality for women. He would like to set aside all the inequalities in the Qur'an.
One religious intellectual divides religion into accidental and necessary parts. Some things have entered the faith indirectly. Included in this list is Shari'a and the view that Arabic is the language of faith. What remains? The religious experience is all that is left when all of the accidental parts are stripped away. William James and J.L. Austin have expressed similar views. Everything patriarchal and discriminatory can be set aside.
There are two different kinds of rights in the Qur'an: people's rights and God's rights. All the rulings that have been sent are the rights of God. People's rights are the one's specifically mentioned in Qur'an as people's rights. If there is a contradiction, what should be done? Shia thinkers say that the people's rights should triumph. A woman has an individual right to dress how she wants. If God says that she must wear hijab there is a contradiction. She is not violating the faith if she refuses to wear it because her rights take precedence. The same applies to her treatment of her body.
The last solution presented is related to the Muslim possibility of abrogation. The idea is that if there are multiple rulings in the Qur'an that contradict each other, the later one should be seen to abrogate the earlier one. All of the patriarchal and discriminatory rulings were revealed in Medina. The later revelations, given in Mecca, are actually consistent with human rights and equality for women.