By Moin Qazi, New Age Islam
25 July 2017
A non Muslim woman goes to her Muslim neighbour and asks if she could borrow a copy of the Qur’an.
“Of course, “says the Muslim. “We’ve got plenty! Let me get you one from my library.”
A week later, the non Muslim returns.
“Thanks so much,” she says. “Fascinating. But I wonder, could you give me a copy of the other Qur’an?”
“Um, you’re holding it,” says the Muslim.
“Yeah, I read this,” replies the non Muslim. “But I need a copy of the Qur’an that’s followed by Muslims.”
The joke is right. All this talk about discriminating oppression women is not what the Qur’an says!”
In recent years, on account of the global socio-political climate, the phrase ‘Muslim woman’ might conjure an image 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.
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. Muslim women across South Asia are slowly getting empowered to stand up to patriarchal practices that undermine their dignity. They believe that rights have been accorded to them in foundational Islamic texts but that cultural interpretations of these same texts disallow what is rightfully theirs. They do not call this a feminist struggle but describe it as reclamation of their faith.
What prevailed in the early centuries of Islam was a radically different version of Islamic tradition. Its luminaries included women like Ummal-Darda, a seventh-century jurist and scholar who taught jurisprudence in the mosques of Damascus and Jerusalem.
Her students were men, women, and even the caliph. The fourteenth- century Syrian scholar Fatimah al- Bataihiyyah, who taught both men and women in the Prophet’s mosque in Medina, drawing students from as far away as Fez.
The Women Scholars in Islam, a seminal work by Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi, stands as a riposte to the notion, peddled from Jakarta l to Morocco, that Islamic knowledge is men’s work and always has been. “I do not know of another religious tradition in which women were so central, so present, and so active in its formative history,” Akram wrote.
Women scholars taught judges and imams, issued Fatwas, and travelled to distant cities. Some made lecture tours across the Middle East.
Qur’an’s message of equality resonated in the teaching that women and men have been created from a single self and is each other’s guides who have the mutual obligation to enjoin what is right and to forbid what is wrong.
A lot of inspirational women, who were strong, vocal, and fighting for their rights, none of them felt that their faith was at odds with their conviction that they, as women, should be equal citizens.
Muslim women’s activism around education and equal opportunities are often underpinned by their emancipatory readings of foundational Islamic texts. They are now also challenging patriarchy around unequal power hierarchies in society and the objectification of women’s bodies in some sections of the media .In this regard they stand with their sisters of all hues and stripes.
Part of the dilemma of women’s positions in Muslim society stems not so much from the principles of Islam itself but from extremely conservative interpretations of Islam or from the practice of traditional customs considered to be “Islamic”. A new breed of Islamist femininists is emerging that is making a strong pitch for “real” Islam, not tradition. Women are studying the Quran and Islamic law in order to challenge conservative male-dominated interpretations rejects tradition and demand application of true Islamic norms. Muslim women are boldly challenging traditions in many parts of the Muslim world provoking a split between Islamic modernists and traditionalists on their place in society.
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. In Islam, a woman is seen as an individual in her own right, an independent entity, and not as a shadow or adjunct to her husband or any other male. Muslim women are entitled to education, work, business ownership, and inheritance the same way as men are.
Although traditionally excluded from the public male domain, Muslim women have been privately involved in study and oral transmission of Islamic source texts (Qur’an and Hadith). In modern times, they have entered into both secular and religious forms of education with enthusiasm. 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.
A closer look at and evaluation of the roles Muslim women have played in many fields including literature, law, art, Islamic studies, the humanities, social sciences and administration — reveals that women, past and present, have achieved and made a rich contribution to the intellectual and cultural life in the Islamic world, despite the ways in which they have been caught in the problematic intersections of thought and patriarchal politics. From the first centuries of Islam, women were respected – and held authority – as religious scholars, teachers and leaders, for example as narrators and teachers of Hadith.
The modern Muslim woman draws her inspiration from the example of Sukayna, the brilliant, beautiful great-granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad who was married several times and, at least in one of her marriages, stipulated in writing that her husband was forbidden to disagree with her about anything.
Islamic feminists insist that Islam, at its core, is progressive for women and supports equal opportunities for men and women alike. Deeply religious, profoundly determined and modern in every way, they are challenging not only the unjust restrictions placed on them by their own societies, but also the tired stereotypes and empty generalizations placed on them by the West. Some of the leading proponents are actually men—distinguished scholars who contend that Islam was radically egalitarian for its time and remains so in many of its texts.
Women are chipping away at those customs that they consider oppressive. To the reactionaries who accuse them of deviating from Islam, Islamic feminists argue there is a difference between Islamic jurisprudence—a man-made legal scaffolding developed for the specific conditions of medieval Muslim life—and the divine law itself, which is eternal, immutable and calls for justice. It’s not the Quran they question, but how particular and skewed interpretations of it have solidified into truth.
Islam may not always be the sole factor in the repression of women. Local, social, political, economic and educational forces as well as the prevalence of pre-Islamic customs must also be taken into consideration. In some societies they are a pervasive influence. But in many cases proper application of the Sharia, Islamic law, remains a major obstacle to the evolution of the position of women.
Women are now elbowing their way into political and civil society, and universities. Despite present cultural and political obstacles, they are finding opportunities to rise up -- and to bring their societies up with them. They recognize the key is to do so from within the Islamic realm.
Across the Muslim world, Islamic feminists are combing through centuries of Islamic jurisprudence to cull out and highlight the more progressive aspects of their religion. They are seeking accommodation between a modern role for women and the Islamic values that more than a billion people in the world follow.
Western women should be respectful of other paths to social change. it is ridiculous to parameterize social norms for universal contexts .The western feminists cannot appropriate to themselves the wisdom or competence to hand out certificates on the correctness or otherwise of female social norms. The dominant western feminism has now become somewhat synonymous with a strong sense of individualism. It has also contributed to creating a sense of rivalry between men and women, which has a bearing upon child development and is not conducive to a healthy family or society.
Few Muslim women outside the urban areas may want to behave like western women. The high rate of divorce and sexual disease are common consequences of the reckless drive to equate the sexes and ‘free’ sexual relationships. Comparison may mean little outside the cultural context but it is important to point out that, until 100 years ago, western women had virtually no rights in law or practice.
It is for women of the respective societies ,and not even their men, to best evolve norms suited and appropriate to their cultural and social values . First, there are multiple causes of discrimination against women, and religion is but one. Second, it is futile to focus on misery elsewhere as an escape from the realities of our own lives. Third gender relations influence and determine women’s options in all societies. And fourth, the issue of power remains crucial for understanding gender inequality in any society.
Few Muslim women may want to behave like western women. The high rate of divorce and sexual disease are common consequences of the reckless drive to equate the sexes and ‘free’ sexual relationships. Muslim women believe that rights have been accorded to them in foundational Islamic texts but that cultural interpretations of these texts disallow what is rightfully theirs. They do not call this a feminist struggle but describe it as reclamation of their faith.
Comparison may mean little outside the cultural context but it is important to point out that, until 100 years ago, western women had virtually no rights in law or practice. Over 1,000 years before the first European suffragette, Islam gave far-reaching rights and a defined status to women. It smacks of shallowness of western female scholarship that they are not aware of the richness of Islamic discourse on women .Islam anticipates the demands of western feminists by more than 1,000 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 1970s.
Western thinkers and practitioners must reconsider their assumptions about the role of Islam in women’s rights and approach this topic with a more nuanced lens. They must understand the necessity of recognizing and consciously accepting the broad cultural differences between western and non-western conceptions of autonomy as well as respecting social standards that reflect non-western values.
For empowering women, men have to be properly sensitized so that women are allowed both time and freedom and opportunity to chart out a path of social and economic independence. Treating women with the inherent dignity that they were created with, ensuring that they are given equitable opportunities to succeed is necessary to uphold the Qur’an’s vision,
"O you who have attained to faith! Be ever steadfast in upholding justice," (Q4:135).
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. Empowering women should be as much a man's responsibility, as it is a woman's aspiration. As Rumi says in the Masnawi, “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”.
In today's increasingly global world, the stakes are higher than ever—for everyone. Societies 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.
To those opposed to reformist ideals, let us remind them of Iqbal’s assertion: “[t]he teaching of the Qur’an that life is a process of progressive creation necessitates that each generation, guided but unhampered by the work of its predecessors, should be permitted to solve its own problems.”
Moin Qazi is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker .He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades .
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