HEADLINE: Under the veil of Muhammad A number of recent cases have highlighted the repression of Muslim women and further fuelled western suspicions of Islam. But, many strict laws of Islam pre-date the religion.

When Islam began in 7th century Arabia, it raised women from the status of chattel. The Prophet Muhammad stopped the infanticide of baby girls, limited polygamy to four wives per believer, ordained that women should keep their fathers' names and enabled them to own property.Yet today, the repression of Muslim women feeds mutual suspicion and recrimination between the West and the Islamic world. This year, death sentences handed down to two Nigerian women who bore daughters more than nine months after divorces raised an outcry in Europe. Both were condemned to be buried to their necks and stoned to death; in neither case were the men who fathered the children punished. Safiya Husaini was acquitted in March, after Amnesty International collected 350,000 signatures and the Spanish presidency of the EU pleaded with the Nigerian government for mercy.

But in August, Amina Lawal received the same sentence in the same circumstances. As a convicted adulteress, Lawal is to be stoned to death in January 2004, when her daughter Wasila is weaned. She can appeal to three higher courts and it is possible that the sentence will not be carried out.

There are other examples of gross violations of Muslim women's right to live. In the holy city of Mecca on March 11th, a fire in a girls' school showed how deadly Saudi Arabia's segregation laws can be. According to a report by Amnesty International, the Mutawa'een or religious police prevented the girls from escaping because they were not wearing headscarves. And they prevented rescuers from going into the school because they were not immediate relatives of the girls. As a result, 15 schoolgirls burned to death.

"The situation of women in Saudi Arabia is untenable by any legal or moral standard," a recent Amnesty report concluded. "The Saudi Arabian government has long shirked its responsibility and flouted its international obligations by allowing, or turning a blind eye to, the misery and suffering endured by women primarily because they are born female."

In Jordan, so-called "honour killings" continue despite legislation intended to curtail them. At least nine Jordanian women have been murdered by close male relatives this year. In July, 24 year-old Suwad Mahmoud was forced to marry her boyfriend when her family discovered their relationship. When Mahmoud's brother learned that she was pregnant at the time of the wedding, he strangled her to death with a telephone cord.

Historians of religion say that Muslim women fared better during the Golden Age of Islam, until the 11th century. But in recent decades, fundamentalism has combined with tribalism to worsen the repression of women. Latifa Ben Mansour, the Algerian author of Freres Musulmans; Freres Feroces says the Nigerian death sentences and other abuses have nothing to do with "true Islam". She recalls the North African tradition of the "sleeping child", a willful, collective ignorance applied in more tolerant times to children born of adultery. "If a man went away for two or three years and a child was born in his absence, the child was said to have slept in its mother's belly," she says.

Islamic inheritance laws give twice as much to male heirs as to females. Ben Mansour says her own experience of this injustice, as a child in Tlemcen, turned her into "a hard core secularist". Her father died when she was four and a half years old. Within a week, her uncles arrived to claim their inheritance. "They went in the library and said, 'girls don't need books'," Ben Mansour recalls. "They counted the bracelets I wore as part of their inventory. They didn't know it, but my mother was pregnant. When my little brother was born, everything returned to normal. My life, and the lives of my mother and sisters, depended totally on a newborn. We would have lost half of our belongings." Many of the laws associated with Islam pre-date the religion, says Odon Vallet, professor of the history of religion at the Sorbonne and the author of Femmes et religions. Stoning to death and the amputation of thieves' hands were first practised in Mesopotamia 2000 years before Jesus Christ. These traditions were perpetuated in the Jewish Torah and Islamic Shari'a.

Two new books, Inside Iran: Women's Lives (by Jane Howard, Mage Publications)and Les femmes iraniennes entre Islam, Etat et famille (by Azadeh Kian-Thiebaut, Maisonneuve & Larose) describe how the Islamic Republic of Iran has softened some sexist traditions, under pressure from women. "They push society," Kian-Thiebaut says. "There is a lot of tension, because men don't want to let women participate in family decisions or politics. But even the most liberal ayatollahs will not touch what is in the Koran - namely polygamy and inheritance." The Moroccan university professor Fatima Mernissi cites Khadija, the Prophet's first wife, who was a successful businesswoman, and Aisha, his youngest wife, who led men into battle on a camel, as evidence that Islam is not sexist. Prof Mernissi says Scheherezade, the clever heroine of The Thousand and One Nights who saved her own life by entertaining a bored potentate with her stories, is a role model for Arab women.

Muslim businesswomen, warriors and storytellers are rare. Where Muslim women succeed, it is often through the influence of male relatives. Turkey, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Indonesia have had female prime ministers in recent years.

But as Mernissi admits in her book Le Harem Politique (Albin Michel, Paris), this hadith (saying of the Prophet) is the focus of every debate on women's political rights in the Muslim world: "No people who entrust their affairs to a woman will ever know prosperity." Although Saudi Arabia was until recently considered the closest US ally in the Persian Gulf, and Iran figures in President George W Bush's "axis of evil", Iranian women are light years ahead of Saudi women. Because Tehran promotes family planning, the average number of children in an Iranian family has dropped from seven to two and a half since the 1979 revolution. Female literacy in Iran averages 80 per cent - nearly 100 per cent among women under the age of 24. President Mohammed Khatami was elected in 1997 and re-elected last year largely on the strength of the female and youth vote. Eleven of 290 members of the Iranian Majlis are women.

For Westerners, the wearing of hijab - literally meaning "curtain" - is a sign of subjugation. The Koranic verse which is used to justify the custom is ambiguous: "Tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and to display of their adornment only that which is apparent, and to draw their veils over their bosoms." Some Muslim women interpret this to mean only that they should dress modestly. Others prefer to err on the safe side and wear gloves, thick stockings and veils that cover their faces.

In Iran, hijab is a symbol of the Islamic revolution, which is why it is so difficult to alter the dress code. When she interviewed Ayatollah Khomeini shortly after the revolution, the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci demanded to know why women were forced to wear what she called a "filthy medieval rag". In Fallacci's version of the story, she tore off her headscarf and threw it on the floor. In the Iranian version, Khomeini told Fallacci that the covering was required only of women who were still attractive to men. Since she had passed menopause, he implied, it did not apply to her.

The imposition of the veil says as much about Muslim men's concern for the "purity" of women as it does about the women who wear it. Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet and the founder of Shi'ite Islam, said, "Almighty God created sexual desire in ten parts; then he gave nine parts to women and one to men." An unspoken fear underlies the fundamentalists' demand that women be covered and segregated: fear that like the Prophet when he glimpsed Zeinab, the beautiful wife of his adopted son, they will be tempted. Male desire is considered so powerful that the warmth of a woman's body on a chair can spark it. "When a woman leaves a place where she has sat, a man must not sit in the same place until it has cooled," concluded a Shi'ite theologian quoted by Kian-Thiebaut.

A United Nations Development Programme report on the Arab world released this summer came to some devastating conclusions about the treatment of women in the Arab world. It is important to remember that only one in six Muslims is an Arab, and that the world's five most populous Muslim countries are not Arab.

The report was drawn up by 30 Arab experts from the Middle East and North Africa. The 22 countries of the Arab League, which represent 280 million people and 5 per cent of the world's population, had the lowest level of female emancipation in the world, it concluded. One in two Arab women is illiterate. "The use of Arab women's abilities, through participation in political and economic life, remains the lowest in the world in quantitative terms," the report says.

The legacy of colonialism is often used to explain the subjugation of women in the Arab world, since feminism is seen as a form of cultural invasion. In Algeria, women who do not wear headscarves, speak French and demand the abrogation of the sexist family code are routinely denounced as "westernised". In Iran, the revolution against the Shah rejected the western powers that supported him. The author Jalal Al-we Ahmad invented the word gharbzadegi - literally "westoxification" or "poisoned by the west".

In Afghanistan, which is virtually a US protectorate, with US agents guarding President Hamid Karzai, the government recently announced it will take women presenters off television and ban Indian movies, which are deemed un-Islamic by fundamentalists. Sima Samar, who served as minister for womens' affairs in the interim government in Kabul, was dumped in June because fundamentalists in the Loya Jirga which elected Karzai claimed she had "insulted Islam" in an interview with an Afghan newspaper in Canada.

In Iran, where women's status is evolving faster than in any other Muslim country, Western policies have an enormous effect. Since President Bush's speech denouncing Iran as part of the "axis of evil", Ayatollah Khamenei and the conservatives who support him have gone on the offensive, spelling harder times for women.

The author Jane Howard, who lived in Tehran for five years, says it is essential that Iran not be further isolated. A speech like Bush's undermines the academics, lawyers and writers who are trying to change things. "It should be absolutely obvious to the West that they should support Khatami, whether or not he has the power to carry out his programme," Howard says.

"He stands for country girls going to school; he stands for women who voted for the first time in their lives."

(Lara Marlowe -- Irish Times -- October 2002)