By Rehana Khan
Much has been written in recent years, particularly by a new generation of Muslim women writers, about gender-justice from within an Islamic framework. This no longer remains a mere academic exercise, though. Across the world, and, now, in India, too, activist groups are seeking to spread this message through practical engagement with Muslim women at the ‘grassroots’.
Recently, I had the opportunity to attend one such workshop—in Mumbai—organized by the Centre for the Study of Society and Secularism. The Centre is headed by the noted Islamic scholar, Asghar Ali Engineer, who has played a key role in the development of what is called ‘Islamic Feminism’, or what others, having problems with the word ‘feminism’, call a gender-sensitive understanding or interpretation of Islam. The intensive three-day workshop brought together almost fifty social activists, mostly Muslim women, and a sprinkling of journalists and academics from across India.
The first few sessions of the workshop were conducted by Zeenat Shaukat Ali, who teaches Islamic Studies at Mumbai’s St. Xavier’s College. Author of two important books that spell out a gender-egalitarian understanding of Islam, namely ‘Marriage and Divorce in Islam’ and ‘Empowerment of Women in Islam’, Dr. Ali is a prolific writer whose articles regularly appear in various newspapers and journals.
Dr. Ali’s first session set out the basic framework for a gender-positive approach to Islam. She stressed the need for Muslim women to study the Quran and the authentic Hadith reports for themselves, and, based on this, to evolve both an gender-just understanding of their faith as well as to critique dominant patriarchal interpretations, which she regarded as inauthentic. To back her case, she argued that the Quran regards males as females as ontologically equal, for it reveals that God has created humans from a single cell. The Quran, she said, envisaged men and women to be co-dependent and as complimentary to each other in an egalitarian way, as evidenced from the Quranic verse that relates that God has created beings in pairs. The concept of God as a patriarchal male figure, she argued, had no basis in the Quran, for the word ‘Allah’ does not have a gender. As evidence of the centrality of women in the Islamic tradition, she pointed out that when pilgrims to Mecca traverse the distance between the two hillocks of Safa and Marwah they are following a practice established by a woman: Hazrat Hajra (or Hagar), who was the first to do so. The Prophet Muhammad, she noted, did not hesitate to help his wives in some of their domestic activities, and in this way he challenged the notion that such work was only for women to do. A mark of the honour in which Islam held women, she said, was that married women were allowed to retain their surname, that they had the right to spend their earnings and their dowers (mehr) as they pleased, and that they could insert any conditions into their marriage contracts, provided these did not violate Islamic teachings. As for polygamy, she argued that the Quran envisaged it as a restrictive ordinance, and not the permissive one that many Muslims take it to be. Only a single verse of the Quran, she pointed out, referred to the permission to take more than a single wife, and this, too, was in the context of orphans and the need to take care of their rights. She also stressed the fact that the Quran repeatedly enjoins justice (adl) upon believers—and justice, she added, naturally also meant gender justice.
Summing up her case for gender-justice in Islam, she critiqued the tendency of numerous male scholars to interpret certain key verses of the Quran related to women out of their textual and historical contexts. This, she said, created the image, which she regarded as wholly un-Quranic, of women as sexual objects. This tendency, she noted, was part of a long, historical tradition that evolved in the post-Prophetic era, when the relatively egalitarian Muslim society was transformed into a vast empire, based on despotic monarchical rule and deep-rooted patriarchy, which, she stressed, had no sanction in the Quranic scheme of things.
Dr. Ali’s second session dealt with various fiqh rules related to women. Patriarchal jurists claimed, she said, that a woman’s evidence is half that of a man, thus implicitly arguing that women are of lesser worth or intelligence. This, she insisted, was a contentious argument. The Quranic verse that lays down a second woman witness (2:282), she said, dealt only with commercial transactions, about which women at the time it was revealed knew little. Hence, it needed to be seen in its historical context. On the other hand, she pointed out that numerous other verses in the Quran that mention witnesses do not specify a second women witness. Likewise, Dr. Ali discussed the controversial practice of triple talaq in one sitting, which, she stressed, is not the Quranic method at all. She insisted that there was an urgent need to reform Muslim Personal Law as practiced in India today—indeed to codify it—particularly in order to prevent the arbitrary divorce of Muslim women by banning the practice of triple talaq in one sitting and replacing it with the Quranically-prescribed method, although she felt that the Government of India would continue to hesitate to do so for fear of the opposition of patriarchal ulema who would be quick to (wrongly) brand such a move as a violation of the shariah. Dr. Ali argued that the Muslim Personal Law, as currently observed in India, was not fully in accordance with Quranic teachings, and that it was constructed by British colonialists and drew heavily on traditional fiqh rulings rather than directly on the Quran, which explained certain patriarchal provisions that it upheld.
The second key resource-person at the workshop was a maulvi from Mumbai, Maulana Shoeb Kothi, a graduate of the Dar ul-Ulum at Deoband. Like Dr. Ali, he argued that the Quran envisions men and women to be equals qua human beings, and as deserving of the same divine rewards or punishment for the same deeds. From the Quran it is clear, he said, that one’s status in God’s eyes depends not on one’s gender (or other ascriptive identities), but simply on the level of one’s taqwa or God-consciousness and good actions. He contrasted this egalitarian vision with that found in the Bible, where Eve is blamed as a temptress and as the cause for Adam’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden—a thesis that is absent in the Quran. Yet, despite the Quranic insistence on gender egalitarianism, he pointed out that in the post-Prophetic phase patriarchal prejudice began to colour dominant interpretations of the Quran and the authenticated Hadith, to which was added the baneful influence of certain Jewish and Christian traditions and beliefs about women as innately inferior.
To illustrate his point, the Maulana cited the instance of the Quranic verse which says, ‘Your wives are as a tilth unto you; so approach your tilth when or how you will’ (2:223). This verse has been interpreted by some patriarchal scholars to mean that women have to submit to their husband’s sexual desires and control, even against their will. The Maulana argued that this represented a complete misinterpretation. What the verse actually meant, he argued, was that a woman should be treated as something precious, just as a farmer regards his tilth or field with love and care and does all he can to protect it from harm.
The Maulana also spoke of how several reports began to be concocted and wrongly propagated as Hadith narratives simply in order to justify the subordination of women. Even today, he said, these fake reports are routinely presented in order to deny Muslim women the rights that the Quran gives them. In this regard he advised that all reports that are described as Hadith must meet two basic criterion to be accepted as valid: they must be in accordance with the Quran; and they must be in conformity with the known facts of nature and science. If they failed these tests, he said, they should be rejected.
A key term used in the Quran with regard to relations between spouses is qawwam, which, the Maulana pointed out, has been used by numerous Muslim scholars to suggest male domination and female subordination. He argued that this represented a gross misinterpretation of the term, which, to him, actually signified ‘supporter’. In other words, he went on, it meant that the husband must help or support his wife and lighten her burden. It also indicated a man’s duty or responsibility towards his wife, rather than the male supremacy that many Muslim scholars (and others) presumed it to suggest. When, in the verse that talks of men being the qawwam of women (4:34), the Quran mentions that ‘God has favoured some more than others’, what is meant, so the Maulana argued, is not general male supremacy at all. Rather, as a verse that appears earlier in the same Quranic surah reveals, ‘men enjoy certain qualities, and the women enjoy certain qualities.’ In other words, he clarified, God might have favoured women with certain qualities that men do not possess. Likewise, some women are certainly more favoured in God’s eyes than a lot of men.
Although himself a madrasa-trained scholar, Maulana advised Muslim women that there was no need for them to engage in taqlid or blind following of the traditionalist maulvis for not everything they said, including on women’s issues, was necessarily valid or fully in accordance with the Quranic vision. Instead of taqlid, he said, it was necessary to exercise aql or reason, for that was what the Quran itself repeatedly insisted.
It was also necessary, the Maulana advised, for Muslim women to study the Quran for themselves, and to emerge as scholars in their own right. This was no wrongful innovation, he pointed out, adducing the example of a woman who, when the Caliph Umar once spoke against large dowers for women, stood up to argue that he could not forbid what the Quran had allowed—and the Caliph immediately recognized his error. This woman, the Maulana said, was obviously well-versed in Islam and so was able to argue the case for the rights that the Quran provided women. This incident, he clarified, took place in a mosque, and in front of a congregation, which clearly suggested that at this period women were still allowed to enter and worship in mosque-spaces. The later ruling against women praying in mosques that is observed by several Islamic schools of jurisprudence was, he says, simply an administrative measure and not a shariah-based order and so could be changed if necessary. Similarly, the fact that this woman spoke out during a congregational meeting in the mosque also clearly indicated that the claim of some clerics that a woman’s voice is awrah or something that should be concealed, and that it should be ‘hidden’ from unrelated males, is questionable. Further stressing the key role of women in early Islamic scholarship, the Maulana referred to a recently-published book, Al-Muhadithat, by Akram Nadwi, an Indian writer presently based at Oxford, that lists several thousand Muslim women in the early centuries after the demise of the Prophet who were noted Islamic scholars. The most authentic collection of Imam Bukhari’s corpus of Hadith, he said, was written by a woman, Karima Bint Ahmad, whose version is current today. The copy of the Quran which was regarded as authentic and was used as the prototype by Muslims was also preserved by a woman—Hazrat Hafsa. All these instances, he stressed, clearly showed that for Muslim women to emerge as religious scholars or alimas in their own right was not a wrongful innovation at all. What was required was for Muslim women to regain their Quranic right to speak for themselves, the Maulana stressed. He fortified this point with the help of an example: when a woman, Khamsa Bint Hizam, was married to a man by her father, she approached the Prophet saying she did not want to be with her husband, having been married forcibly to him, without her willing consent. Thereupon, the Prophet declared the marriage void. The Maulana contrasted this with the lack of freedom in choosing their spouses that continued to shackle the lives of numerous Muslim (and other) women today in India.
To fortify his plea for Muslim women to play a more active role in community activism, Maulana cited the instance of the first wife of the Prophet, Hazrat Khadjiah, who comforted the Prophet when he received his first revelation and gave him her support and comfort. Another of his wives, Hazrat Umm Salamah, suggested a way out, which the Prophet accepted, when many of the Prophet’s male companions did not heed his advice to return to Medina from Hudaibiyah. When the Muslims, led by the Prophet, conquered Mecca, a woman, Umm Hani bint Abi Talib, sister of Imam Ali, granted an oath of protection to two idolaters who had actually fought the advancing Muslim forces. When she informed the Prophet of this, he responded, “We give our collective oath of protection to anyone you have pledged to protect, Umm Hani’. This example clearly indicates, the Maulana argued, that early Muslim women were even engaged at the highest levels of public affairs. Likewise, the Maulana noted, the Quran relates that a daughter advised her father to employ Moses. All these women, he said, had played a major role in the mission of the Prophets, so there was no reason why Muslim women should not play such a role today—in the field of scholarship as well as social activism. In this regard, and, like Dr. Ali before him, the Maulana wholeheartedly supported moves to reserve seats for women in elected bodies and critiqued the claims of those who regarded this—and, indeed, any public significant role for women—as ‘un-Islamic’.
Shazia Shaikh, a research scholar at the Centre for the Study of Society and Secularism, addressed the third session of the workshop on the issue of fatwas related to women. Noting the numerous fatwas issued by maulvis belonging to various madrasas over the years clearly targetting women’s rights, she clarified that a fatwa was by no means the edict or ruling that many people presumed it to be. Rather, it was just an opinion, and could be countered, based on a different reading of the Islamic texts, by other opinions, if need be. There was an urgent need, she said, for only properly-trained muftis to issue fatwas, and they must have a deep understanding of contemporary societal needs and conditions so that their fatwas could be contextually-sensitive and appropriate. It was essential for them to exercise their reason, rather than to blindly follow the prescriptions contained in the medieval fiqh books, that were developed in a vastly different social and historical context. She also stressed the need for ijtihad or creative reasoning in matters of fiqh, especially fiqh rules related to women, and pointed out that, contrary to what many traditionalist maulvis believed, there is a major distinction between shariah or the Divine Path, which is immutable, and fiqh, which is a human product and hence open to change and reform. Fatwas, she stressed, must be measured using the Quran as the criterion and in the light of the Quranic mandate of justice and equality. If they failed this test, she insisted, they should be rejected.
A fourth key resource-person at the workshop was Niloufer Akhtar, President of Mumbai’s Family Court Bar Association. Based on years of working in the courts, she surmised that over sixty per cent of cases that were filed in the Mumbai Family Courts were by women and involved cruelty by their husbands. Many of these women were Muslims. She indicated that few of these women were aware of their legal rights, including the right to have their marriage dissolved through the courts. She also spoke about the pressing issue of vast numbers of Muslim women who were arbitrarily divorced by their husbands through the un-Quranic method of triple talaq in one sitting. She lamented that the proper Quranic procedure of divorce that calls for arbitration before, or in order to prevent, divorce, was not widely followed—it was not even mentioned in the Compendium of Islamic Laws that was prepared some years ago by the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board. She had, she said, pointed this out at several meetings of the Board, but, she regretted, no action had been taken by the Board in this regard. She lamented that the Board was not sufficiently sensitive to the practical problems faced by divorced Muslim women.
The fifth key speaker at the workshop was the noted Mumbai-based feminist scholar Flavia Agnes. She critiqued the widely-held notion that Muslim women are bereft of rights and that Hindu women are guaranteed equal rights by the law, which they presumably enjoyed. This notion, she said, was factually untenable and contributed to misplaced negative stereotypes about Islam and Muslims. While she supported the demand for the reform of Muslim Personal Law to bring it in accordance with Quranic equality in terms of women’s rights, she warned that feminists demanding for a Common Civil Code could unwittingly play into the hands of the Hindutva lobby that championed such a Code, albeit for a different purpose—to undermine Muslim community identity. In today’s climate of growing Islamophobia, she said, it was increasingly difficult to raise the problems faced by Muslim women for fear that even well-meaning efforts could reinforce negative images of Islam and Muslims. She spoke about the insensitivity of numerous Indian ‘secular’ women’s groups (who otherwise constantly lament what they refer to as the plight of Muslim women suffering patriarchal Muslim men, including clerics) to Muslim women killed, raped or maimed by Hindutva mobs, often in league with agencies of the state. She also referred to routine sensationalist reporting of Muslim women in the media which sought to make wild and wholly untenable generalizations—about all Muslim women being oppressed by their menfolk—on the basis of certain instances, while consistently ignoring positive stories of Muslim women—of them taking increasingly to education and jobs or of positive judgments based on the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act of 1986, which was passed by the Indian Parliament on the urging of Muslim groups.
The workshop was structured in a lively, interactive fashion, allowing participants to express their views and experiences. A number of Muslim women—mostly poor, some of them from slums and remote villages—shared their own stories—of being forced into marriages against their will or being denied higher education by their parents, of being harassed by rapacious in-laws for bringing in what they regarded as insufficient dowries, of living in constant fear and insecurity of being divorced in an instant by their husbands and of being regularly beaten by them, of drunken spouses who refused to dissolve unworkable marriages while continuing to mistreat them, and of maulvis, jamaats and the police who remained insensitive to their problems. All of these, they insisted, based on what they had learnt during the three days at the workshop, were a gross violation of the principles of Islam. And that was the message, they promised, they would spread once they returned to their homes.