By Farahnaz Zahidi
January 30, 2015
“I have a problem. My husband said ‘Talaq’ (divorce) to me thrice in one sitting. Everyone says the divorce is final now although he revoked his decision within hours. I have too much at stake here, and want to stay in this marriage. I have heard that the words uttered thrice in the same sitting count as one according to some Muslim jurists. What do you say?”
These were the words of a desperate woman aged 31, and the query was directed to a female Islamic preacher.
While the preacher explained basics to her, the disclaimer at the end was: “To have a legitimate version, I would suggest you ask a Mufti.”
The girl was puzzled. This female preacher had the required knowledge and had studied Islamic Sciences in depth. Why could she not confirm it?
“Because I am not a mufti. No woman in Pakistan is. I am not certified to give you this answer. You will have to consult a male scholar.”
And so it is. In a country that presently has close to 250,000 female students studying Islamic sciences across the country, not one female mufti (an expert expounder of Islamic jurisprudence) is to be found in Pakistan. With the exception of Dr. Farhat Hashmi, even a thorough internet search will prove exhausting and futile if you try and search for mainstream Islamic scholars from Pakistan. Neighbouring India, with one of the largest Muslim populations in the world, is stuck in the same lurch.
While women study, preach and uphold religious teachings and values, there is an unsaid line which they do not cross. Beyond that line is a man’s domain. In the hierarchy of serious religious scholarship and clergy, women remain submissive and at best supplementary in terms of Islamic intellectual thought. Thus, the narrative that has evolved over the centuries sorely lacks the female voice, not just in South Asia but world over. Islamic female scholars, both in the mainstream and esoteric circles, and both from a faith-based and a critical scholarship premise, have risen again. The mark has been made, but only in the upper tier of Muslim cultures. The change remains to trickle down.
“In our culture, the woman remains dependent on the man, even the educated and self-reliant ones. Traditional Islamic scholars do not want this to change. If women start learning and studying at the level of men, many existing ideological ideas will be questioned. Most traditional scholars want to stay in a state of permanent utopia. Two things are at play here: patriarchy and a monopoly over the corridors of the power that comes as an advantage of religious leadership,” says Ibrahim Quazi, a worker of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), one of Pakistan’s strongest right wing political parties.
JI, while seen as a hardliner group, has to its credit bringing the signature face-covered veiled women both into the political and evangelism arenas.
Though female voices have always been part of the Islamic Intellectual Tradition, they are not as audible as men’s voices. When asked the possible reason for this, Aurangzeb Haneef, scholar and teacher of Islamic Studies, feels that religion discouraging women is not one of them.
“In the formative and classical period, as well as going on into the medieval period, women’s contribution to the intellectual corpus is palpable. This is especially true for transmission of Hadith,” he says.
Haneef feels that in the modern period, the field has become increasingly dominated by men.
“While religious organizations such as JI have women representation, their organizational structures are not conducive to supporting women’s scholarship independent of men.”
Allowing women to enter this sphere could possibly alter gender-based power dynamics in Muslim societies. A case in point would be Laleh Bakhtiar, an Iranian-American author who is the first American woman to translate the Quran into English. The most debated in all of her translation is her interpretation of a verse of the Quran, where Bakhtiar translated the verse as “husbands should go away,” instead of the husband being allowed to hit the wife mildly if she crosses all limits (including committing infidelity in the opinion of many).
“I believe that it was because I was looking at the verses from a female perspective,” says Bakhtiar, in her answer to Al Jazeera.
While Dr Hashmi may not agree with some of the non-traditional interpretations of Bakhtiar and others, she has to her credit brought a surge of Pakistani women from all strata of society into the fold of deliberated Islamic study. The liberals in Pakistan often see Dr Hashmi as a strict hardliner. Yet, she has also had to face opposition from more strict and traditional schools of thought.
“It is sad that there is such a dearth of Islamic scholars who are women. It is very important that women come into this field and invest their time into research in Islamic Studies. In fact, there is nothing against a woman becoming a Muftiah,” says Dr Hashmi.
Her expertise is Hadith Sciences, and in this she is inspired by historical accounts of Muhaddithat (female Hadith narrators and scholars). One of the recent literary works on the subject is by Akram Nadwi who has compiled a biographical dictionary called “Al-Muhaddithat: The women scholars in Islam.” As he began his research, he hoped to find 20 to 30, but ended up finding more than 8000 of them.
“It is easier to perpetuate male authority and to cite men (even on ‘women’s issues’) than to acknowledge women’s voices, particularly where women do not have the same easily recognizable credentials or public profiles as their male counterparts,” says Kecia Ali, Associate Professor of Religion at Boston University. “One way to begin to chip away at this disproportionate emphasis on male scholarship is to bring women’s voices and contributions to the fore on many issues, not just those concerning women.”
But Haneef says that women have a natural advantage when it comes to such issues.
“Women can think, understand, and deliberate better on issues pertaining to women and gender relations.”
The role of women as mothers and nurturers makes them safe choices, for teaching and preaching, seen as lighter ‘fluff’ work, but intensive research and redefining discourse is seen as too hardcore for the gentler sex. This is in sharp contrast with women at the time of the Prophet (pbuh), who were nurturers and home-makers, as well as scholars. One of the most prominent Islamic jurists of her time was his wife Umm Salama, known for her Fatawa. Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, Chairman Pakistan Ulema Council, says that these examples must be followed.
“Muslims have inherited a big chunk of their knowledge of religion from these honoured women. Even today, women must play their role. But it is not necessarily patriarchy at work that is hindering this process. If women, themselves, decide to forge ahead in this field, no obstacle will stop them,” says Ashrafi.
One such woman is Emaan Asif, a business graduate who gave up her professional career by choice, and is currently studying to become an ‘Aalima, a degree in Islamic sciences awarded by traditional schools. Yet, Emaan has no scholarly ambitions for doing this. Her reason is simply to learn more about her faith and “become a better Muslim”. Her husband, Asif Misbah, supports her through the demands of this period of painstaking extensive study.
He feels one must venture into this field “as long as it does not compromise any fundamental life-role or leads to Sharia non-compliance in any aspect, for both men and women.”
According to Haneef, the female voice is necessary and her perspective essential in the Islamic narrative.
“By virtue of her position, ‘Ayesha added aspects of the Prophet’s (pbuh) life to the Hadith corpus that were humane, personal, and intimate and might have been lost,” he says, citing the Prophet’s (pbuh) wife as an example.
While the change may have begun with a resurgence of women being seen in the area of Islamic scholarship, “it will be a long and discontinuous process,” says Ali. “But like anything worth doing, one must try.”
Bakhtiar is hopeful and feels that change takes time.
“We have to be patient.”
Farahnaz Zahidi is a Pakistani writer and editor, who writes to "tell stories that need to be told and contribute towards a better Pakistan, a better world." Her areas of focus include gender, environment, peace-building and Islam. She currently works for The Express Tribune. She blogs at Chaaidaani and her photo-journalism can be seen on Flickr.