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Islam, Women and Feminism ( 21 May 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The phantasmagoria called Muslim women

By Ishtiaq Ahmed

May 18, 2010

Whenever outmoded religious laws and practices stood in the way of progress, reformers started an internal critique and ended up recommending that the secular state, respectful of religion as a spiritual and moral code as well as of the human rights of individuals, alone can serve as the basis of a pluralist democracy


The past few days have been filled with such dramatically contrasting news about the fortunes of Muslim women that one can call them a phantasmagoria. A phantasmagoria is a changing scene made up of many elements in which the changes that take place make it impossible to know what is real and what merely an illusion or a deception.


A couple of months ago, President Asif Ali Zardari signed the Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Bill 2010, aimed at providing a safe working environment. The ceremony held in the President’s House was attended by a large number of women activists, parliamentarians and members of civil society. He reiterated the government’s commitment to ensuring equal rights for men and women in accordance with the Constitution. Some people would find President Zardari’s solemn words, “We have to create a Pakistan where the coming generations, my daughters, can be proud of the fact that they live as equals” a bit amusing but as we say, ‘dair aye par drust aye’ (better now than never).


The Act is indeed a very progressive piece of legislation. I believe Sherry Rehman was also one of those who initiated the bill though she was not present at the ceremony when the president signed the bill into law. Its various authors are claiming that it is the most advanced legislation anywhere in South Asia. If that be true, I am going to make my colleagues at the Institute of South Asian Studies in Singapore take notice of one area in which Pakistan is ahead of other South Asian societies in a positive way.


However, the effect of the good news was somewhat dampened when I read that a committee of the upper house of parliament, the Senate, has banned the play ‘Burqavaganza’ of the very accomplished Madeeha Gauhar of Ajoka. The play is a critique of the obscurantist burqa lobby. I hope that the National Assembly overrules the reactionary ban imposed by the Senate committee.


It is necessary that laws that demean women are repealed as well. The so-called Law of Evidence remains on the statutes of the Pakistani legal system. Then there are the so-called Hudood Ordinances, which provide the basis for the oppression of both men and women. These draconian laws were passed by a dictator who was privately very fond of Indian films and some Indian film actors were treated as part of the family. Why he imposed such laws, the more learned members of our elite tell me, was because he had no other basis to justify his illegal military coup. That is interesting indeed. Unlike Iqbal, who argued that in times of crisis Islam has saved Muslims, I am convinced that now it is time to save Islam from the iron grip of misogynists of one type or another.


The easiest and most honest way to do this is to follow the example of the rest of the world. Whenever outmoded religious laws and practices stood in the way of progress, reformers started an internal critique and ended up recommending that the secular state, respectful of religion as a spiritual and moral code as well as of the human rights of individuals, alone can serve as the basis of a pluralist democracy. One day we will also reach that conclusion because the evidence around us tells us that Iqbal and the mullahs have had it all wrong. Ours is a culture still bound to scholasticism — a philosophical school and method of reasoning in which verification or testing of propositions is not admitted; rather the skill is to weave fantastic tales in defence of this or that dogma.


Another very heartening news these days has been the election of some Pakistani women to the British parliament. One of them, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, elected on a Conservative Party ticket, has been inducted into the cabinet of Prime Minister David Cameron. She does so in her capacity as Chairperson of the Conservative Party. Baroness Warsi originates from Gujjar Khan. Her father was a mill worker who by dint of hard work and enterprise moved up and gave his daughter the education she needed to attain the high office she has reached now.


Simultaneously, however, as if as a bad joke, someone looted a jewellery shop in Manchester dressed up in a burqa. The burqa can also be a veritable accessory to mischief. Years ago I saw a Punjabi film. In one of the scenes, an overly pious burqa-clad individual joins the company of the heroine and her friends. The burqa-clad person tries to move as close as possible to the heroine, which rouses suspicion. Upon being asked to remove the veil in purely female company, that person says in a very horsy voice that her piety forbids her to show her face even to girls. That makes everyone more suspicious. The girls remove the niqab only to find the late Rangeela perched among them. I think the scene ends with Rangeela receiving a lot of curses and shoes landing on his head.


But the news this week is also thoroughly confusing. The famous Deobandi seminary has issued a fatwa declaring women working for wages and salaries as haram. The noted Shia cleric, Maulana Kalbe Jawad, endorsed that fatwa saying, “Women in Islam are not supposed to go out and earn a living. It is the responsibility of the males in the family.” Earlier I heard him say on television that women should not take part in politics. Their function is to give birth to politicians! That sort of wisdom I have always believed cuts across the Sunni-Shia divide. People waste a lot of time distinguishing between them on doctrinal issues, and fail to see the consensus among them on reactionary social values.


Deoband has subsequently issued a statement that its ruling had been misunderstood and Kalbe Jawad also said that he did not oppose women working if they worked separately from men as in Iran. So, for a while the ambiguity these clerics have created can conceal their real stances on women and women’s rights.


The title of today’s article should now make sense if it did not at the start. Who really are the Muslim women — those who are confined within the four walls of the house, or those who sit in parliament, or those who work alongside men and make an equal contribution to society as thinking human beings? What is real and what is not?




Ishtiaq Ahmed is a Visiting Research Professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) and the South Asian Studies Programme at the National University of Singapore. He is also Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Stockholm University. He has published extensively on South Asian politics. At ISAS, he is currently working on a book, Is Pakistan a Garrison State? He can be reached at