“Learn this now and learn it well, my daughter: Like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always.”
In Khaled Hosseini’s novel about life in Afghanistan, A Thousand Splendid Suns, the character Nana, a poor unwed mother, gives this grim advice to her five-year-old daughter, Mariam. In 25 words, she tries to sum up the way the world thinks Muslim men govern the lives of women in the world of Islam
Too much of the thinking about Muslim women is done along predictable, clichéd lines. This is true of all shades of opinion, perception and scholarship .This opinion profiles Muslim women in stubborn stereotypes: supposedly powerless and oppressed, behind walls and veils, demure, voiceless and silent figures, discriminated and bereft of even basic rights. This picture keeps reinforcing itself, largely because this is how the Western media caricatures women in Islam. Recurring images beamed into our homes and phones keep strengthening the belief that Muslim women are being denied access to education, social space and privacy.
It is true that in societies trapped in poverty, illiteracy and ignorance, women continue to receive abominable and oppressive treatment. But then, this is true of all societies. Muslims cannot be singled out for such a flawed social order. The pictures we get of wife beating and other retrograde practices imposed on Muslim women are clearly aberrations which should not be generalized. The wrong practices rampant in some such societies have much to do with illiteracy, ignorance and sometimes dire poverty. In several cases, the plight of Muslim women is a direct consequence of a repressive and highly discriminatory state. A dispassionate analysis will reveal that vested interests in all societies, particularly those driven by patriarchal values, have resisted the uplift of women and have failed to concede them the legitimate rights they have been guaranteed by their faith, community and State. This distortion however should not deflect our focus from some path breaking and stellar contributions of Muslim women not just to Islamic civilization but to the secular society as well.
Islam was the first religion to formally grant women a status never known before. The Qur’an, the sacred scripture of Islam, contains hundreds of exordiums and commandments which apply both to men and women alike. The moral, spiritual and economic equality of men and women as propagated by Islam is unquestionable. In Islam, men and women are moral equals in God’s sight and are expected to fulfill the same duties of worship, prayer, faith, alms giving, fasting, and pilgrimage to Mecca. The triumph of Islam in the seventh century basically codified the position of women with its laws of spiritual and civic conduct. It banned female infanticide, limited polygamy to four wives, forbade sexual relations outside marriage and spelled out women’s rights in marriage and inheritance.
Those who study the Qur’an know that Islam elevated the rights of women beyond anything known in the pre-Islamic world. In fact, in the seventh century Muslim women were granted rights not granted to European women until the 19th century, such as property ownership, inheritance and divorce. That said, Muslims who codified the Qur’an and Hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) into Islamic law did not succeed in expunging the patriarchy of the pre-Islamic world from their practices. This distinction between the faith and the various manifestations of its practice is a subtle but extremely important one.
The debate over women’s rights within Islam is not a new one. For centuries, Islamic scholars, thinkers, and activists have been pondering this question of women’s rights, and reaching very different answers. The pre-Islamic environment of 7th century Mecca, with its tribalism, lack of law and order and constant warfare, was strongly male-dominated. The advent of Islam challenged the status quo and sought not only to introduce a new kind of social order but to limit the excesses of Meccan society, which directly harmed women and girls — abolishing the custom of burying baby girls at birth is one of the best examples of this spirit.
Today, the issue of Muslim women is held hostage between two extreme perceptions: that of a rigid and conservative Islamic approach and that of a Western ethnocentric and Islamophobic approach. Nevertheless, recent developments mean that at the heart of this intellectual effervescence, Muslim women are seeking to reclaim their right to speak in order to re-appropriate their own destinies. Indeed, today many female Muslim intellectuals living in Muslim societies and in the West, are questioning a number of negative preconceptions surrounding these issues. In particular, they contest the classical analysis which stipulates inequality between men and women by asserting that it is in fact certain biased readings, endorsed by patriarchal customs, which have legitimated these erroneous inequalities.
Given that both men and women have the same spirit thus it is only natural that the Quran obligates them to the same religious and moral duties and responsibilities. The Qur’an says: “O mankind! Be careful of your duty to your Lord Who created you from a single soul and from it created its mate and from them twain hath spread abroad a multitude of men and women. Be careful of your duty toward God in Whom ye claim (your rights) of one another, and toward the wombs (that bear you)” (Qur’an 4:1). It also says ‘O mankind, we created you all from a male and female, and made you into races and tribes, that you may know one another. Surely the noblest among you in the sight of God is the most God fearing of you’ (Q 49:13).
In relation to the absolute, woman is equal to man in all essential rights and duties; God makes no distinction between man and woman. They are to be equally rewarded or punished for their deeds. The Qur’an says: ‘Their Lord answers them, saying: I will deny no man or woman among you the reward of their labours. You are the offspring of one another’ (Q 3:194). ‘Man’ is not made in the image of God. Neither is a flawed female helpmate extracted from him as an afterthought or utility. Dualism is the primordial design for all creation: ‘From all (created) things are pairs’ (Q 51:49).The Qur’an further says: ‘Another of his signs is that he created spouses from among yourselves for you to live with in tranquility: He ordained love and kindness between you. There truly are signs in this for those who reflect ‘(Q 30:21) It further affirms, ‘… for women are rights over men similar to those of men over women.’(Q 2:226) We must appreciate the spirit in which the Qur’an considers the congenital differences between the two genders resulting from their creation, and espouses a relationship based on equal justice between men and women.
The traditional structure of Islamic society is based not on quantitative equality, but on the reality of complementarily, although there are exceptions .in these complementarities of functions man is seen as the protector and provider of his family and its imam. The woman is the real mistress of the household, in which the husband is like a guest. Her primary duty has been seen as that of raising children and attending to their earliest education, as well as being the buttress of the family .like all the traditional societies, Islam has honoured the work of homemaker and mother as being of the highest value, to the extent that the Prophet said that “heaven lies under the feet of mothers” .Islamic society has never thought that working in an office is of a higher order of importance for society than bringing up one’s children.
In a climate where we are constantly warned about a ‘clash of civilisations’ and the West’s strategy of perpetual war with Muslim countries, there is a fundamental need to dehumanize the ‘enemy’. The overemphasis on the Muslim man’s perceived misogyny overshadows the complete lack of scrutiny of the West’s oppression against Muslim women. The strategies being pursued by the so called Western brigade of women’s emancipation are a part of the ideological war that is going on between neo-colonial elements in the West and Islamic societies. The aim is not to emancipate the women from the presumed slavery, but a means of reinforcing Western imperialism and mobilizing consent for the ongoing wars against Muslim countries. The West appears to have gone too far in its attempt to achieve gender neutrality. While it is politically correct to readdress inequality prevalent in traditional practices, a worldwide gender neutral society is a macabre idea fraught with serious consequences. Such an artificially attained sameness between boys and girls can be a dangerous experiment.
Contrary to the Eurocentric viewpoint, Muslim women are not a blank slate. When they are given the opportunity, Muslim women are integrating, participating in civic, economic and social life while raising children who are productive members of society. The distorted picture that we get is on account of the deliberate attempt to highlight the negative aspects and glossing over the positive developments. The Western world must understand that the new generations of Muslim girls are now in the vanguard of a revolution that is propagating the learning and understanding of the Qur’an. There was a time when a primary reading and understanding of the Qur’an was discouraged, and whatever Qur’anic education was imparted was only through secondary sources. The education had obviously an ideological spin and the youth grew up with a colored Islamic worldview.
The newer generation of Muslim women is trying to understand their social position from the Qur’an itself. Across the Muslim world, Islamic feminists are combing through centuries of Islamic jurisprudence to highlight the more progressive aspects of their religion.
These women embody a spirit of critical enquiry that has led them to raise questions about Islam which their predecessors would shudder to ask. Social networking has given these women a collective identity and they now have a transnational network. Critical questions raised in one corner are creating ripples across the world. Social networking sites have far wider and faster reach than the sermons of the mullahs. It will no longer be possible to subjugate women, particularly when they are enlightened about not just Islam but all religions and creeds. The new Muslim woman no longer depends on their household males for clarification on religious issues from the local mullahs. The internet gives her access to most authentic information. She is now a truly empowered woman. Her intellect has an identity independent of her family.
It is clear that Muslim women’s empowerment, like many things, cannot be imposed on a country or a culture from the outside. Men and women within these conservative communities must first find their own reasons and their own justifications to allow women a fuller role in society. Increasingly, they are finding those reasons within Islam. Like men, women deserve to be free. In today’s increasingly global world, the stakes are higher than ever—for everyone. Societies that invest in and empower women are on a virtuous cycle. They become richer, more stable, better governed, and less prone to fanaticism. Countries that limit women’s educational and employment opportunities and their political voice get stuck in a downward spiral. They are poorer, more fragile, have higher levels of corruption, and are more prone to extremism.
Empowering women should be as much a man’s responsibility, as it is a woman’s aspiration. As Rumi says in the Mathnawi, “This woman, who is your beloved, is in fact a ray of His light. She is not a mere creature. She is like a creator”.