By Asghar Ali Engineer
Nov. 4, 2011
THE Arab world has seen great political turmoil since the beginning of 2011. The Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown before January ended. Then a similar turmoil erupted in Egypt and hundreds of thousands of people poured into Cairo’s Tahrir Square to protest against Hosni Mubarak, another long-serving dictator who was forced to step down.
Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain have also seen unprecedented protests. All this has been much written about and need not be repeated but what concerns us here is the role of women in these revolutionary changes taking place in the Arab world. In the countries concerned women have played a very significant role — from Tunisia to Yemen.
The Tahrir Square mobilisation was due mainly to a young girl’s appeal on Facebook. The role of women in political mobilisation was so crucial that it was being expected that the Nobel for peace this year would be given to women from Arab countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. It went to women from Africa and Yemen. Laureate Tawakkul Karman of Yemen played a crucial role in the protection of human rights and political mobilisation in her country, though there still remains a political stalemate in Yemen.
What is important to note is the role of women in the political mobilisation in these male-dominated societies and, secondly, the shattering of the myth that Muslim women merely sit at home and are worth nothing more than domestic workers. Muslim women have proved that they can mobilise the people far more efficiently and purposefully. It is interesting to note that many women in Tunisia and Egypt were quite active in trade unions. They put their experience gained in the union activities to proper use to bring about change in the political structures of their countries.
But post-revolution, a shadow of doubt may hang over their heads now. The question is: what will this democratic revolution offer them in terms of social liberties? Will it scrap certain rights that they gained under dictatorships? There is some truth to this fear, as much as there is a possibility of Islamic laws, as they are today, being imposed in these countries. In Tunisia the al-Nahda party, which describes itself as a moderate Islamic party, has won elections. But fortunately the al-Nahda leader Rashid al-Ghanushi has declared that there will be no changes made in the gender-sensitive laws that bar polygamy, for instance.
However, Libyan women are not so fortunate. The Libyan leader who is projected as the new prime minister after ousting Gadafi has announced that Islamic laws will be imposed and polygamy will be reintroduced. Gadafi, undoubtedly a dictator who had to go, had introduced and consolidated a gender-justice regime in Libya. He had given equal rights to women, as provided for in the Quran. He had abolished polygamy and given Libyan women important roles in public life.
Gadafi maintained that to confine women to homes was an imperialist conspiracy to paralyse half the population in the Islamic world. He had created a special women’s force in the army and assigned them duties as bodyguards. It was a revolutionary step forward for Libyan women. Now such measures risk being reversed if the new Libyan leaders, specifically mentioning polygamy, are going to impose Sharia laws that hark back to the mediaeval times.
It, of course, remains debatable if the Sharia laws, as they last evolved during the mediaeval age when patriarchy reigned supreme, should be re-imposed as they were back then and remain today. Whether suitable changes need to be made through ijtehad in keeping with the spirit of the Quranic values that emphasise social justice remains a very valid question today.
For instance, to say that polygamy is permitted and hence it must be reintroduced is really injuring the spirit of the Quran. At best it is a half-truth. Polygamy has been allowed in the Quran but in a specific context and with rigorous conditions. Anyone who reads the two verses of the Quran on polygamy (4:3 and 4:129) can see that justice is more central in Allah’s commands than taking multiple wives. If justice is so important then how can polygamy be made an overriding norm?
In the 1970s, whenever a dictator declared his country an Islamic state, he would introduce Hudood laws (punishments for theft, adultery, etc.) as if these were more central than the factors that motivated a person to commit such crimes, or as if punishing is more important than reforming a person. Similarly, today, when dictatorial regimes are ending, declarations are being made that more equitable family laws will be revisited and polygamy will be permissible, as in the case of Libya.
I have always maintained that gender justice is very central to the Quran, provided the Quran is read in its proper context. Today, with a greater role being played by women in public life, it is all the more important that gender justice be made equally central in the Sharia laws through the contextual and normative understanding of the Quranic verses in their true spirit.
The existing Sharia laws, which are manmade laws based on one or the other interpretation of the Quran and Sunnah, may not be acceptable to many educated men and women owing to social awareness and a sense of justice. The Quran unambiguously stands for gender justice and equips women with all the rights given to men. The mediaeval interpreters missed this because they were people of their own times and of tribal customs.
Asghar Ali Engineer is an Islamic scholar who also heads the Centre for Study of Society & Secularism, Mumbai.