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Islam, Women and Feminism ( 14 Jun 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Islam and Muslim Women’s Social Roles

By Maulana Waris Mazhari

(Translated from Urdu by Yoginder Sikand)

The issue of Muslim women’s freedom is a much-debated subject today. The traditional ulema and the modern educated Muslim intelligentsia appear to be completely at loggerheads on the issue. The former insist that women must be controlled as much as possible in order to protect Muslim society from immorality and sexual licentiousness, and that they must remain confined to their homes. They believe that women must play no social roles outside the domestic sphere whatsoever. If women are permitted to do so, they argue, it would open to floodgates of chaos and lead to a breakdown of society. On the other hand, the modern-educated Muslim intelligentsia is in favour of expanding women’s roles outside the narrow domestic sphere, and many of them go so far as to consider the hijab or modest dress for women as a symbol of oppression.

The female personality, it must be admitted, is extremely sensitive. On women the character of a society depends as much as it does on men. It must also be admitted that the attitude of Muslim religious circles towards women and women’s issues is influenced less by Islam and shariah norms than by other factors, among these being a marked reaction to the perceived widespread immorality in the West as a result of the free intermingling of sexes in Western societies. While in the West women have made important gains in several respects, it cannot be denied that in the name of women’s liberation and freedom they have been turned into sexual beings and commodities. This unfortunate phenomenon has led to a reaction among the ulema, leading them to insist on the control of women and on confining them to the domestic sphere as a defence mechanism for fear of Muslim society also falling prey to the same social ills that today plague the West. This stance may have had some temporary benefits, but it has caused a tragic loss to the Muslim community by denying half its population—Muslim women—the opportunity to develop and put to proper use their talents, skills and capacities.

It is not just the traditional ulema who, because of their excessively defensive and cautious approach to women’s social roles, have caused such damage to Muslim women and to the wider Muslim society. Even the supposedly ‘enlightened’ and more ‘modern’ Islamic scholar, Maulana Syed Abul ‘Ala Maududi shared similar views. In fact, in his widely-red book Purdah Maududi comes across as even more stern and extreme in his opposition to women’s freedom than the traditional ulema. For instance, the putative founders of the four major schools of Sunni Muslim jurisprudence and their followers all allowed for Muslim women to keep their faces unveiled, while Maududi stiffly opposed this, along with several modern ulema, claiming that a woman’s face was the centre of her beauty and, hence, a principal source of fitna or strife. It is striking to note that the classical ulema did not consider this argument as worthy of attention. However, going against their opinion, the influential twentieth century Deobandi scholar Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanwi even went to the extent of insisting that a woman’s name must never be mentioned in a newspaper. An ideal woman, according to him, is one who hides in her own home and is so unknown outside that her neighbours are not even aware of her existence. He allowed for girls to acquire only basic literacy skills but not to advance beyond that. Thanwi’s contemporary and virulent opponent, Ahmad Raza Khan, the leading figure of the Barelvi sect, was even more dismissive of women, going so far as to demean them. So opposed to women’s rights were some of these ulema of relatively recent times, who are still immensely popular among their followers today, that they upheld and propagated a completely baseless and utterly laughable theory that women’s voices were also to be ‘veiled’. It can be confidently said that their approach towards women and their rights and roles was in marked contrast to that of the early ulema, who were clearly more accommodative and accepting of women and their social roles.

How this strong misogynist streak and extreme defensiveness and sensitivity with regard to women emerge among the ulema is a subject that requires close and detailed historical scrutiny. The origins of this lie far back in history, in the medieval period, when, in the wake of the Tatar invasions and devastation of Muslim lands, chaos reigned supreme. It was perhaps but natural that a marked defensiveness and insularity emerged at this time in order to consolidate Muslim society that had suffered such widespread destruction and bloodshed. This was reflected in increasing restrictions on women, which were absent in the early Islamic period, including at the time of the Prophet. It was at this time that questions such as the permissibility or otherwise of women learning to read were hotly-debated. The renowned medieval Hanafi scholar Mulla Ali Qari went so far as to issue a fatwa declaring it impermissible for women to learn to write, and even wrote an entire book on the subject to justify his point, although there had been notable literate women in the early Islamic period, many of who were, in fact, the teachers of renowned maleulema. For over six hundred years the ulema continued to inconclusively debate whether women were permitted to read and write, and it was only in the late nineteenth century that a fatwa was issued, by the noted Indian scholar Maulana Abdul Haye Firanghi Mahali, abrogating the fatwa of Mulla Ali Qari.

Islam, it must be stressed, does not support the sort of emancipation of women as is current in the West, but nor does it stand for the sort of extreme restrictions on women, tantamount to imprisonment, that many traditionalist Islamic scholars advocate. The Islamic position is somewhat in between these two extremes. It stands for freedom of women at the social level within certain limits and with certain conditions. If the issue is looked at from the perspective of the Quran and the practice of the Prophet and the early Muslims, it would be evident that Islam does not place any restriction on the physical movement of women. It also outlines women’s social roles in considerable detail, roles that early Muslim played, not being bound within the four walls of their homes. A good illustration of this is the appointment of a woman, Shifa Bint Abdullah al-‘Adawiya, by Umar, the second Caliph of the Sunnis, as the superintendent of the market of Medina, the then capital of the Islamic Caliphate. Today’s traditional ulemamight regard the marketplace as the most potent site of fitna or chaos, but yet this woman was appointed to oversee Medina’s commercial hub. At the time of the Prophet, women were free to pray in mosques and even offered their services on the battlefield. They would listen to the sermons of the Prophet in the presence of men, without any restriction, and would ask the Prophet questions. Umm-e Haram, a woman companion of the Prophet, requested him to pray for her so that she might be able to participate in jihad in the path of God. During the Caliphate of Uthman, the third Sunni Caliph, she sailed to Cyprus, where she participated in a battle. Asma, daughter of Abu Bakr, father-in-law of the Prophet and the first Sunni Caliph, helped her husband Zubayr Bin al-Awa‘am in his work outside their home, and would even massage his horses and travel a long distance to get grains for them to eat, which she would carry on her head. The case of the Caliph Umar being corrected by a woman while delivering a sermon and making him admit his error is well-known.

From these instances, it is clear that in this period of Muslim history women’s minds and voices were not ‘veiled’. Nor was there any discussion of keeping men and women rigidly separate from each other. The books of Hadith are replete with narrations that clearly indicate that at this time men and women saw each other’s faces, spoke to each other, engaged in transactions with each other and assisted each other in different activities. The wives of the Prophet, known as the ‘mothers of the believers’ (ummhat al-mu‘minin), were specially required, as the Quran indicates, to observe purdah, but this did not stop male companions of the Prophet from appearing before them and learning from them. The youngest of the Prophet’s wives, Ayesha, had many male disciples, to whom she related numerous narrations of and about the Prophet.

Besides these examples from early Muslim history, one can cite references in the Quran to prove the point that certain forms of interaction between men and women is indeed permissible in Islam, in contrast to what many traditionalist ulema might argue, Thus, for instance, the Quran talks about the meeting between the prophet Solomon and Bilqis, Queen of Sheba and their conversation; the meeting between Zachariah and Mary, mother of Jesus; and the meeting and discussion between the daughter of Shoeb and Moses and of the former taking the help of the latter to provide water to her animals. Since the Quran exhorts Muslims to emulate the practice of the previous prophets, it is obvious that these forms of interaction between men and women are also permitted to Muslims.

The Quran states: ‘The believers, men and women, are protectors, one of another: they enjoin what is just, and forbid what is evil’ (9:71). The Quran considers it the responsibility of both men and women to perform various social roles, the performance of which is not possible without their common participation and mutual assistance. Given this, the extreme hesitation or reluctance of some Islamic scholars to allow Muslim women to play these legitimate roles has, to a large extent, to do with local cultural mores rather than with the teachings of Islam or the practice of the Prophet and the early Muslims.

It is a fact that misogyny has been in existence for centuries, and traces of it remained in societies that later became Muslim even after accepting Islam. At the same time, it is also undeniable that, for the first time, Islam sought to provide women with their legitimate rights, and to provide them an elevated status in society. The Prophet and his companions strove to combat deep-rooted prejudices against women, not just on the ideological plane but also in practical terms. However, after the early Islamic period, when Muslim society entered a phase of decline, women’s status suffered a major set-back. Just as Islamic justice demanded that slavery be abolished but, yet, slavery still remained, so, too, while Islam sought to emancipate women, anti-women prejudice could not be fully rooted out from Muslim society. To buttress this prejudice, many narrations were concocted and were falsely attributed to the Prophet and to his companions that projected women in an extremely derogatory fashion. One such false narration, which, lamentably, is still often quoted in traditionalist ulema circles, exhorts: ‘Take the advice of women but do the precise opposite of what they advise.’ Another such tradition declares: ‘To obey a woman is a matter of shame.’ A third such fabricated narration declares: ‘Men were destroyed when they obeyed women’. Yet another such concocted narration claims: ‘If women did not exist, the right of God to be worshipped would have been performed in a better way.’ Likewise, the following statement was falsely attributed to the Imam Ali: ‘Woman is wholly bad.’ 

In this light of all this, it is incumbent on Islamic scholars to review their position on and understanding of women and critique and challenge the deep-rooted misogyny that is, unfortunately and wrongly, seen as inseparable from Islam. It is imperative that our traditionalist scholars no longer stand in the way of Muslim women being able to access the rights granted to them by Islam, and which they enjoyed at the time of the Prophet.

Maulana Waris Mazhari is the editor of the New Delhi-based monthly Tarjuman Dar ul-Uloom, the official organ of the Graduates’ Association of the Deoband madrasa. He can be contacted on

Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, Bangalore