Islam and Women: The New Paradigm
By Moin Qazi, New Age Islam
20 September 2015
O People, it is true that you have certain rights over your women, but they also have rights over you. Remember that you have taken them as your wives only under God’s trust and with His permission. If they abide by your right then to them belongs the right to be fed and clothed in kindness. Treat your women well and be kind to them, for they are your partners and committed helpers.
Prophet’s Farewell Sermon
A mother is a school. Empower her and you empower a great nation.
Hafez Ibrahim, Egyptian poet
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.
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. In today’s increasingly global world, however, 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
The portrayal of Muslim women that we glimpse in the media is grim and sombre. The public perception of them is one of 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, privacy and educational and development programmes for their socio-economic uplift. The prejudicial media keeps using selective stories for reinforcing its own notions. On account of these projections, the views of the general public remain skewed.
We know how much the media salivates over the carcasses of stories of Muslim female oppression and licks its lips at the thought of the harems of women consigned to polygamy across the Muslim world. Well the reality is that the media is thriving on fantasies and polygamy is largely irrelevant to the lives of the vast majority of Muslims
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 as the usual Muslim stereotype. 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 the 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 fulfil 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. But part of this codification was to place women, in unequivocal language, below men: “Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property” (in support of women). (Q4: 34).
Some modern Islamic writers and thinkers believe that, taking the Qur’an as a whole; women are given an equal-but-different status rather than an inferior one. But most Muslim laymen and scholars, living, it should be remembered, in an already patriarchal civilization, have taken such verses the way many Christians take the story of the Creation and the Fall: literally.
The specific verses of the Qur’an, which address themselves to men or women, deal with either their physical differences or the role they each have to play in safeguarding the moral fibre of the society that Islam envisages. The Qur’an affirms that men and women are created from one soul to be partners to each other, that males and females have the same religious responsibilities, and that both genders will receive like rewards on the Day of Judgment. In only a few instances are circumstances for men and women notably different in the Qur’an. Passages that seem to affirm male authority over women are based on the Islamic understanding that men are responsible for the financial support of women.
The Qur’an says ‘Allah created you from a single soul, and from the same soul created his mate’ (.Q4; 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’ (Q49:13). 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 labour. You are the offspring of one another’ (Q3: 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 within tranquillity: He ordained love and kindness between you. There truly are signs in this for those who reflect ‘(Q30:21) It further affirms, ‘… for women are rights over men similar to those of men over women.’(Q2:226)
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.
Islam promotes and teaches humans to practice balance in all aspects of life with moderation. As humans we are influenced by our culture and traditions; political, economic and psychological experiences not only shape our attitudes and behaviours but separate and divide us. Consequently our world views and religious views differ from place to place, era to era and across cultures thereby continuing to irresponsibly link religion, in this case Islam, to the oppression of women. The alleged retrograde practices of the community take the world’s focus away from understanding the overwhelming problems of the Muslim world and the cause of its troubles. Not to mention, it provides an easy scapegoat for those looking to legitimize their illegitimate actions which are detrimental to humanity.
Empowerment of Women
Muslim women’s traditional importance in Islamic society has always been and continues to be the foundation of the Islamic family. Social values strongly reinforce orientation towards marriage and children as the normative pattern based on Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) own example. Child rearing and early education and socialization of children are among women’s most important tasks in Islamic societies worldwide. Although traditionally excluded from public male domain, Muslim women have been privately involved in study and oral transmission of Islamic source texts (Qur’an and Hadith, narratives about the Prophets etc). In modern times, they have entered into both secular and religious forms of education with enthusiasm supporting their long standing role as family educators and moral exemplars, and training for professional careers in the workplace outside the home.
The Qur’an recognises the childbearing and childrearing roles of women, but does not present women as inferior to or unequal to men. On the contrary, central to Islamic belief is the importance and high value placed on education. From the true Islamic point of view, education should be freely and equally available to women as much as men.
Modern reforms have made polygynous marriages difficult; permitted wives to sue for divorce in religious courts, particularly in cases of cruelty, desertion, or dangerous contagious diseases. A woman has right to have her husband support her financially, even if she has a job or is independently wealthy; she can keep her finances separate from his and invest them wherever she wishes; she can specify the sum of money she expects to receive should the marriage end in divorce or should she be widowed; she can negotiate the right to divorce her husband at will, should he, for example, take another wife; she can reserve the right not to cook, to clean, or to nurse her own children.
Islam anticipates the demands of Western feminists by more than a thousand years: a stay-at-home wife can specify that she expects to receive a regular stipend, which is not that far from the goals of the Wages for Housework campaign of the nineteen-seventies. Elsewhere, the fully empowered Muslim woman sounds like a self-assured, post-feminist type—a woman who draws her inspiration from the example of Sukayna, the brilliant, beautiful great-granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), who was married several times, and, at least once, stipulated in writing that her husband was forbidden to disagree with her about anything. All these conditions are based on the canons of Islam and on early Muslim practice, but they are rarely applied, since centuries of male-dominated culture have so obscured the essential equality of the sexes at the core of Islamic marriage that a woman’s failure to include these provisions in the marriage contract can be understood as implying that she has waived them.
According to Islamic jurisprudence based on the Qur’an, the contract can be used as an instrument by which a woman can lay out her expectations about the shape she would like her marriage, and thus her life, to take. It goes back to the very early days of Islam, when it was understood that women entered marriage equally, unlike previous regimes, in which she was chattel. A Muslim woman cannot be forced to enter into marriage without her agreement; indeed she has the right to revoke a marriage to which she did not agree in the first place.
We now have an inquisitive and empowered generation that will not easily accept rules and codes without reasoning them out and arguing on every strand before embracing it. A very heartening development is that unlike earlier times when only those who had finally retired from all worldly responsibilities would make the Hajj pilgrimage, the youth is very actively participating in this most potent Islamic exercise. A Hajj is a revolutionary experience which radically transforms one’s mindset and provides a correct perspective of Islam. An exposure to a composite global culture gives an invigorating perspective to the pilgrim.
Women in the West
Contrary to popular belief, women across the entire world are facing subjugation. The first Woman’s Rights Convention in the United States was held in 1848 at Seneca Falls, New York. It minced no words. It launched a vigorous attack on man’s domination of woman along these lines:
He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she has no voice.... He has taken from her all right to property.... He closes against her all avenues of wealth and distinction which he considers most honourable to himself. As a teacher of theology, medicine or law she is not known. He has denied her the facilities for obtaining a thorough education, all colleges being closed against her.... He has endeavoured in every way to destroy her confidence in her own peers, to lessen her self-respect and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.
For the next three quarters of a century a relatively small number of devoted women led the charge. On most counts they won. In 1920 the last major barrier to full citizenship fell with the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the right to vote.
Today, 166 years after the war cries from Seneca Falls, what is the American woman doing with her hard-earned rights? Some of them, particularly the right to own things, she has exercised with vigour. Most of them, particularly political and educational rights, she has allowed to languish.
President John F. Kennedy in 1961 appointed the first Commission on the Status of Women under the chairmanship of Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt. Its report was delivered on October 11, 1963, after almost two years of work by a large and distinguished group of experts. On the matter of political rights the report notes:
The generation that struggled to obtain votes for women would have difficulty believing that the use of the right they gained would be as desultory as it is in many communities. Visitors from abroad, alike from countries whose women are active in the early suffrage movement and from countries where newly acquired independence has enfranchised large populations within the past few years, are surprised at the low percentage of adult Americans that appear at the polls.
Hillary Clinton, who ran for President of the U.S. in 2008 noted in her Concession Speech, “I am a woman and, like millions of women, I know there are still barriers and biases out there, often unconscious, and I want to build an America that respects and embraces the potential of every last one of us.”
Few Muslim women outside the urban areas may want to behave like Western women. The sexually exploitative element remains high in the West, however strident the rhetoric of sexual equality. Perhaps this is best illustrated by the well known cigarette ad depicting a woman smoking: ‘You’ve come a long way, baby’. The message is clear: you too may now die of cancer through smoking. The high rate of divorce and sexual disease are common consequences of the reckless drive to equate the sexes and ‘free’ sexual relationship.
Muslim Response to Western Feminism
What is the difference between Islamic and Western feminism or is there no difference at all? If we go by the definition of feminism as an ideology to empower women, there is no difference. However, historically speaking, Muslim women lost the rights they had due mainly to the tribalisation of Islam, which was dominated by patriarchal values.
In the West, on the other hand, women had no rights but won them through a great deal of struggle known as ‘feminism’. But there are significant differences between Islamic and Western feminism. Islamic feminism is based on certain non-negotiable values, i.e. equality with honour and dignity. Freedom has a certain Islamic responsibility whereas in the West freedom tends to degenerate into licentiousness, not in law but certainly in social and cultural practices. In Western culture, sexual freedoms have become a matter of human right and sex has become a matter of enjoyment, losing its sanctity as an instrument of procreation.
In Western capitalist countries, woman’s dignity has been compromised and she has been reduced to a commodity to be exploited. Her semi-naked postures and her sexuality are exploited commercially and unabashedly. It is totally against the concept of woman’s honour and dignity. Unfortunately, many Western feminists do not consider this objectionable but accept it as part of women’s freedom. Some (though not as many) even advocate prostitution as a woman’s right to earn a living. This is against the concept of Islamic feminism, which while sanctioning sexual gratification to be as much of a woman’s basic right as a man’s prohibits extramarital sexual liaison. This, on one hand, upholds a woman’s honour and dignity, and on the other, exalts marital relations to the level of sanctity, restricting it for procreation. Islamic feminists have to observe certain norms which Western feminists are not obliged to.
Muslims have taken strong umbrage at the deliberate attempts by the media and public intellectuals for selectively portraying the negative side of the Islamic world. They feel that pervasive generalizations about Islam’s oppression of Muslim women are not only offensive but contrary to Islamic ethos and disrespect to the extraordinary contribution of devout and pious Muslim women not just to Islamic civilization but to the world at large. This is because secular Western feminist notions, often viewed as the cure-all remedy for alleged misogynistic practices in the Muslim world, are frequently met with suspicion and rejected by Muslim men and women alike.
Muslim society normally views such ideas as unwanted foreign intrusions into their domestic, religious and family matters. Muslims particularly resent appropriation of authority by Western society to determine what is right or wrong. They believe that most Western notions of feminism are in total conflict with Qur’ānic injunctions and threaten the value based society that Islam has fostered all though the ages. Islam equally strongly abhors the aggressive feminism of today that wants to storm male bastions and tear down the gender balance of society. Some of these feminist movements are basically driven with the motive of demeaning the dignity of men folk.
The line demarcating exclusive male and female spaces is growing blurred, and we are becoming insensitive to the serious moral consequences and implications of a utopian dream of a gender neutral society. One is reminded of the great feminist Gloria Steinem who believed that “a feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of both women and men”
The majority of Muslim women who are attached to their religion will not be liberated through the use of a secular approach imposed from the outside by international bodies or from above by undemocratic governments. The only way to resolve the conflicts of these women and remove their fear of pursuing rich and fruitful lives is to build a solid Muslim feminist jurisprudential basis which clearly shows that Islam not only does not deprive them of their rights, but in fact demands these rights for them. Muslim women have been quite suspicious and resentful of Western feminist concern about “their plight.” For one, they note, that Western culture has not exactly improved the status of women. It created “super moms” who are eternally exhausted and turned female sexuality into a commodity.
A survey by the Gallup Organization published in New York Times on June 8, 2006 has revealed that Muslim women do not think they are conditioned to accept second-class status or view themselves as oppressed. According to the poll, conducted in 2005, a strong majority of Muslim women believe they should have the right to vote without influence, work outside the home and serve in the highest levels of government. In more than 8,000 face-to-face interviews conducted in eight predominantly Muslim countries, the survey found that many women in the Muslim world did not see sex issues as a priority because other issues were more pressing.
When asked what they resented most about their own societies, a majority of Muslim women polled said that a lack of unity among Muslim nations, violent extremism, and political and economic corruption were their main concerns. The Hijab, or head scarf, and Burqa, the garment covering face and body, seen by some Westerners as tools of oppression, were never mentioned in the women’s answers to the open-ended questions.
Concerning women’s rights in general, most Muslim women polled associated sex equality with the West. Seventy-eight percent of Moroccan women, 71 percent of Lebanese women and 48 percent of Saudi women polled linked legal equality with the West. Still, a majority of the respondents did not think adopting Western values would help the Muslim world’s political and economic progress.
The most frequent response to the question, “What do you admire least about the West?” was the general perception of moral decay, promiscuity and pornography that pollsters called the “Hollywood image” that is regarded as degrading to women.
An overwhelming majority of the women polled in each country cited “attachment to moral and spiritual values” as the best aspect of their own societies. In Pakistan, 53 percent of the women polled said attachment to their religious beliefs was their country’s most admirable trait. Similarly, in Egypt, 59 percent of the women surveyed cited love of their religion as the best aspect. It would pertinent to quote the great writer Naomi Wolf at length:
Are we in the West radically misinterpreting Muslim sexual mores, particularly the meaning to many Muslim women of being veiled or wearing the chador? And are we blind to our own markers of the oppression and control of women?
The West interprets veiling as repression of women and suppression of their sexuality. But when I travelled in Muslim countries and was invited to join a discussion in women-only settings within Muslim homes, I learned that Muslim attitudes toward women’s appearance and sexuality are not rooted in repression, but in a strong sense of public versus private, of what is due to God and what is due to one’s husband. It is not that Islam suppresses sexuality, but that it embodies a strongly developed sense of its appropriate channelling - toward marriage, the bonds that sustain family life, and the attachment that secures a home.
Outside the walls of the typical Muslim households that I visited in Morocco, Jordan, and Egypt, all was demureness and propriety. But inside, women were as interested in allure, seduction and pleasure as women anywhere in the world.
Indeed, many Muslim women I spoke with did not feel at all subjugated by the chador or the headscarf. On the contrary, they felt liberated from what they experienced as the intrusive, commodifying, basely sexualising Western gaze. Many women said something like this: “When I wear Western clothes, men stare at me, objectify me, or I am always measuring myself against the standards of models in magazines, which are hard to live up to - and even harder as you get older, not to mention how tiring it can be to be on display all the time. When I wear my headscarf or chador, people relate to me as an individual, not an object; I feel respected.” This may not be expressed in a traditional Western feminist set of images, but it is a recognisably Western feminist set of feelings.
The main difference between the Islamic and Western views concerning women is that one is norm based and the other that is value-free. The Islamic view offers a model for women to follow which is intended to be universal and normative in its impact. It takes a stand on many aspects of the life of the individual and the community. While women are free to struggle with how they will incorporate these values into their lives and their life styles, general definitions are clearly available as to what constitutes right and wrong and differentiates justice from injustice. The Islamic sources outline general principles and guidelines while it is up to the individual to apply these and give them meaning.
The Western perspective strongly resists any agreed upon general principles or guidelines for women. It does not see a universal condition affirming model for the life of women. Making any statements about what a women’s life should be like is considered as not leaving her free to make up her own mind according to her own conscience with or without reference to any outside source. This very essential difference may become clear when we consider each paradigm’s views of society. The norms based Islamic approach to women and the supposedly value free Western based approach to women can be explained, in part, by each system’s very different view of society. The Qur’anic view insists on interdependence while the Western view encourages atomization and independence. The Western view sees society as a place where the individual should be as free as possible to pursue his/her own definition of norms to the extent that he/she likes without hurting anyone else. Injury to another individual in the Western view of society usually means physical or material injury. The rights of the individual and his/her social, economic and political sovereignty are paramount.
The purpose of society is to gain the individual his/her rights and to guarantee order and equal opportunity to make the pursuit of rights possible. To make this possible, society must be defined as value free to avoid clashes or the prevention of others to pursue their own personal definition of happiness or success or fairness etc. In the Western model, value judgments are considered to be ‘biased’ and an impingement of another’s rights. The only value judgment allowed is the one of material equality. No one would argue, for example, that it is right to be poor or wrong to be rich. In the value free society the norm to measure inequality is usually based on material criteria.
Islam can never reconcile to the Western approach of feminism articulated by leaders like Simone de Beauvoir in the first wave of feminism. The Second Sex was de Beauvoir’s exhaustive effort to grapple with the strange predicaments that being a woman creates for a human being. The dilemmas she analyzed continue to obsess and sometimes torment modern women—the conflicts between meaningful work and maternity, the temptations of dependence, the painful artifices conventional femininity requires. Her work anticipates both second wave feminism and the reaction to it:
[T]he independent woman today is divided between her professional interests and the concerns of her sexual vocation; she has trouble finding her balance; if she does, it is at the price of concessions, sacrifices and juggling that keep her in constant tension,” she wrote, words that are no less true all these decades later.
De Beauvoir’s fundamental insight, which is now such conventional wisdom that it barely seems like an insight at all, is that throughout recorded history, humanity has been understood as male, with women situated as inessential others. Man is subject, women is object. This asymmetry, de Beauvoir argued, frustrates women’s dreams, deforms their psyches, and alienates them from themselves, while also dooming attempts to form reciprocal, loving relationships with men.
The Islamic definition of society is almost the opposite of the Western one which makes the norms based versus the value free based difference in the two paradigms most important to understanding their respective views about women. The Islamic position differs from the Western position in four different ways: 1) that God/revelation provides the best unbiased source of knowledge about how men and women should live and organize themselves, 2) that without guidance and discipline, individuals will pursue greed and self interest which will not lead to the benefit of the whole community, 3) that progress comes from sacrifice and cooperation and recognition of the need of one another and not individualism and lastly, 4) that society has the right to ask its members to respect and abide by certain moral standards in public to which alternatives are not acceptable. The purpose of society is to safeguard human relationships and relatedness and especially the family. The concept of injury to another is not just material and physical but also moral and emotional. Unlike the Western view of society, Islam recognizes certain aspects of human organization such as faith, family and interdependence as universals and necessary to the condition of all communities.
We may also explain differences in the Islamic and Western views of women by looking at the influences of certain ideas on these societies regarding the family. Islam views the family as a natural phenomenon and the best institution provided by God for the moral, physical and social development of the human race. It is invested with tremendous responsibility as the provider of values for continuing a norm based society. Most of the social injunctions in the Qur’an are designed to protect and promote the family. The Qur’anic injunction making men financially and morally responsible for women was intended to free women from wage labour so they could concentrate on the more important task of raising the next generation. Women are seen in the Qur’anic view as the keystone to the family and thus motherhood is held in the highest esteem of all possible positions within an Islamic community.
Early Western feminism, on the other hand, has made the family the central target of its attack on the organization of society. The concept of patriarchy singled out the family as the main cause of the oppression of women. The feminist movement saw the family as a social unit which enslaved women for the purposes of reproduction and the delivery of wage free services to men such as childrearing, food preparation, cleaning and sexual pleasure. Because the family requires sacrifice, feminists claimed that women were being cheated and seduced by romantic notions into making all the required sacrifices for the continuation of society.
The feminists did not see the family as a moral institution or as having any normative value. Because material inequality was accepted as an injustice, they argued that the family was depriving women of their opportunity to gain material equality with men. Thus the main feature of the feminist movement became leaving the home for wage labour in the work force. The measure of value changed from how many children a woman had to how much money she earned and how effectively she could compete in the public market. Her criteria for success became ‘equal’ to that of men’s.
Western feminism shifted the focus of women from the family to themselves thus bringing women into line with the general Western view of the importance of individuals pursuing their own interests. Unlike the Islamic paradigm which insists on the value of the mother in the family and society, the early Western feminist movement helped to devalue the role of the mother in the eyes of society. The devaluation of motherhood as a profession, however, also has to do with industrial societies not valuing unpaid work. The focus on the family was instrumental in the feminist campaign to destroy norms by defining them as oppressive to women.
The Qur’anic Position of Women
The Qur’an enshrined a new status for women and gave them rights that they could have only dreamed of before in Arabia, so why the seeming disparity between what once was and what now appears to be? The answer lies in the deterioration of basic Islamic education that occurred in the Muslim world after the disasters of the Mongol invasions and the Crusades in the eleventh through thirteenth centuries. The patrilineal traditions in the Middle East that preceded Islam both improved and curtailed the freedoms of women in its earliest days. Much of the blame for the most constrictive interpretations of Islam is placed on the Abbasid dynasty, which ruled from the mid-eighth century onward and interpreted Islam in a legalistic and rigid manner designed to serve state interests, thereby sacrificing much of the ethical, normative thrust of the religion as practiced in the days of Muhammad (peace be upon him).
While many uneducated Muslim men might argue against education and employment for women, women clearly want these options for themselves. Islam clearly provides incredible role models through Khadijah, the Prophet's entrepreneurial first wife who was a very successful caravan trader. Women are chomping to learn and earn regardless of age. This came home to me starkly when.
To be economically self sufficient disenfranchised women have three key mantras: to be educated, employed and to invest in their children's education - and particularly their daughters - who are often not financially supported by their fathers who favour their sons. It is mothers who recognize that their daughters will not be empowered if they do not invest in their education and so they do while the fathers are primarily inclined to pay only for their sons' education. But both mothers and fathers are Muslims, pray to the same God, at the same mosques, guided by the same Quran.
The Qu'ran does not distinguish between the sexes but says "men and women have the same spirit; there is no superiority in the spiritual sense between men and women."(Qur'an, 4:1, 7:189, 42:11) But we all know that in reality, women are discriminated against -- not necessarily because of the faith -- but rather due to the cultural context of the countries in which many millions of Muslim women live
On a historical level, Islam was incredibly advanced in providing revolutionary rights for women and uplifting women’s status in the seventh century. Many of the revelations in the Qur’an were by nature reform-oriented, transforming key aspects of pre-Islamic customary laws and practices in progressive ways in order to eliminate injustice and suffering. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) received a series of revelations, each building on or superseding customary laws. Sometimes later revelations advanced earlier revelations, providing guidance to the new community as new challenges and problems arose.
Confronting the Modern West
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’ān. There was a time when a primary reading and understanding of the Qur’ān was discouraged, and whatever Qur’ānic education was imparted was only through secondary sources. The education had obviously an ideological spin and the youth grew up with a coloured Islamic worldview.
The youth is trying to understand from the Qur’an itself the conceptualization of gender and gender relationship. We have to concede them enough ground when they say that several Muslim practices insofar as the women are concerned are at odds with Qur’anic injunctions. No attempt is being made to understand the Qur’an thematically, which is what the great scholar Fazl ur Rehman repeatedly emphasized. Unfortunately he had to face strident criticism for his frankness and candour and was charged with heresy. 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 women no longer have to depend 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. The Qur’an is now no longer perceived to be a scripture to be touched and read by the sanctified few. Today it has become a permanent book of guidance for every Muslim individual.
Today more women are active in the discussion and reformation of identity than at any other time in human history. By going back to primary sources and interpreting them afresh, women scholars are endeavouring to remove the fetters imposed by centuries of patriarchal interpretation and practice. By questioning underlying presumptions and conclusions they are creating a space in which to think about gender. Drawing upon enduring principles of human rights, enshrined in the text, they extract meanings that can interact with the changing moral and intellectual circumstances of the reader. And women scholars and activists are also busy constructing a system of legal reforms that can be implemented today for the full status of women as moral agents at all levels of human society.
Islam can empower women as is evidenced by numerous instances of religiously observant Muslim women who strive towards and achieve professional, financial and social success in accordance with their understanding of religious scriptures. As for those Muslim women who are deprived of similar opportunities, Islamic law can be used to empower them. Wherever Islamic law does not prevail Muslim educationist can create awareness of these rights and sensitize both Muslim men and women to each other’s obligations in the Islamic paradigm.
Reappraisal of Mindset
We have to introspect why Muslim women are not able to model themselves in the secular domain in the moulds in which matriarchal icons like Khadija and A’isha were cast. These women played a key role in the mission of the Prophet in spreading Islam. It was their exemplary initial efforts around which the golden age of Islam crystallized. They were the defining emblems of Islamic civilization. The Prophet was centuries ahead of the men of his time in his attitudes toward women, and not surprisingly, right after he died, men started rolling back the reforms he began. The Prophet may have been too advanced for the mindset of 7th-century men, but his compassion for women is exactly the model that Muslims in the 21st century need to emulate today.
The sad comparison of women of the Golden Age of Islam with their present situation raises many questions. It is almost as if a catastrophe took place to alter their status so dramatically. The reason for the drastic change in Islamic women’s status lies in the 19th and 20th centuries, when European powers colonised Muslim lands. This period of colonisation affected society both internally and externally. There was a loss of confidence, which resulted in a loss of tolerance. Muslim men reacted to this loss; not unnaturally, by doing what they thought was necessary for the protection and integrity of their families. They secluded their women from the prying eyes of foreign troops. Burqas, the black, tent-like attire women wear, became common. Women were now allowed to go no farther than their front yards.
The reforms that took place in the early years of Islam are clearly progressive, changing with the needs of the society. However, the more detailed rules that were laid out by the classical jurists allowed many pre-Islamic customs to continue, and also reflected the needs, customs and expectations of the society in which they lived instead of continuing the progressive reform that was started during the time of the Prophet. The trajectory of reform begun at the time of the Prophet was thus halted in the medieval period through the further elaboration of Fiqh, which was then selectively codified in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The modern world is incredibly different than it was during the early centuries of Islam and the medieval era. The example of progressive reform from the beginning of Islam must be used to address the needs of the people today. Islam did provide superior justice for women, but the trajectory was halted.
Cultures that arose since that time have been characterized by customs and local cultural leanings more than genuine Islamic values. The lives of the first Muslim women represent valuable models transcending time and physical boundaries. These Islamic models can serve as powerful, culturally authentic tools in advancing the human rights agenda towards increased female empowerment in the political, social and economic spheres within Muslim societies and communities. The contributions of these women to the Muslim community are undeniable and to some may even appear almost mythical.
Some may mistakenly subscribe to the erroneous notion that contemporary Muslim women cannot attain such great stature and that these are just the tales of Muslim legends without modern day applicability. The women are representative of many others who lived, fought, learned, worked and led during Islam’s foundational period, and beyond. Their male companions, and the caliphs who assumed Muslim rule following the demise of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), treated them with respect, admiration, appreciation -- and, as equals.
In the twentieth century, the combined spread of literacy, the availability and promotion of public education for both girls and boys, expansion of job opportunities for women, and the rising number of conversions to Islam from other religious traditions, particularly in the West, have added to the desire of Muslim women for greater empowerment in the practice and interpretation of their faith. As in other areas of life, Muslim women have proven to be resourceful and creative, and dedicated to claiming ownership of and responsibility for their faith both individually and communally. This is in spite of the challenges they have often faced in gaining access to the appropriate religious training facilities and establishing credibility with the male religious establishment, particularly conservatives. Today, Muslim women are active in Qur’anic study circles, mosque-based activities, community services sponsored by religious organizations, and Islamic education, as both students and teachers. There are a rising number of female Qur’an reciters, Islamic lawyers, and professors of Islamic studies throughout the world.
Muslims can further activate their reform process by re-examining the lives of the very first Muslim women who lived during Islam’s formative period not just as historical figures but as modern Islamic models that can be emulated today. Indeed, these women embody viable political, social and financial models with relevance to the perplexities of the modern world. While many Muslims around the world learn about such Muslim women in grade school, their relevance to the contemporary context is frequently overlooked. Most critical aspects of their personalities are overlooked. By learning about and celebrating their examples, men and women can better understand and build upon notions of proper Muslim women roles while using a culturally authentic paradigm.
Contemporary Muslim women’s activism in claiming an interpretive role within the Islamic tradition tends to focus on three key aspects of religious life: reciting, teaching, and interpreting the Qur’an; participating in and leading public worship; and interpreting Islamic law. There are a multiplicity of voices in these debates, some conservative and some self-designated “progressive,” with some claiming a position of equality with men and others affirming certain unique roles for men and women. Vibrant, passionate, and often contentious, these debates are among the most important in defining Islam in the twenty-first century. Although significant strides have been made in the insertion of women’s voices into Islamic debates, challenges clearly remain, particularly in widely-accepted conservative interpretations that appear to be supported by Qur’anic texts. Muslim women have successfully networked and engaged in dialogue and cooperation with other Muslim women globally; however, the ultimate success of joining women’s voices to the interpretation of Islam requires their acceptance as equally capable interpreters alongside their male colleagues. Many Muslim men support and encourage this dialogue within Islam, as critical to the development of Islam in the twenty-first century.
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. They have enormous potential; it needs to be unlocked. The great poet Iqbal, while paying tribute to Prophet’s daughter Famina, extols the great virtues God has endowed the women with:
Apne Sehra Mein Bohat Aahu Abhi Poshida Hain
Bijliyan Barse Huway Badal Mein Bhi Khawabida Hain!
Fatima! Go Shabnam Afshan Ankh Tere Gham Mein Hai
Naghma-e-Ishrat Bhi Apne Nala-e-Matam Mein Hai
Raqs Teri Khak Ka Kitna Nishat Angaiz Hai
Zarra Zarra Zindagi Ke Souz Se Labraiz Hai
(In our desert many deer still hide! and in the spent clouds
Many flashes of lightning still lie dormant!
Fatima, though our grieving eyes weep tears like dew over you,
Our dirge is also a celebration song.
How thrilling is the dance of your dust,
Every atom of which is charged with life.)
(Fatima Bint-e-Abdullah- Bang-e-Dara-128)
Moin Qazi is a well known banker, author and Islamic researcher. He holds doctorates in Economics and English. He is author of several books on Islam including bestselling biographies of Prophet Muhammad and Caliph Umar. He writes regularly for several international publications including Daily Sabah (Turkey) Moroccan Times, Chicago Monitor, Sudan Vision and Times of Malta. He was also a Visiting Fellow at the University of Manchester. He is based in Nagpur.