By Syed Kamran Hashmi
How Should Muslims Treat Their Women?
This question in one form or another grabs the headlines every few weeks. From a moral point of view Islam does not leave any ambiguity for its followers. Islam holds the highest respect for a woman as a mother, with paradise lying beneath her feet. No matter how well you serve your parents, Muslims believe, you can always do better. As a daughter too, a woman guarantees a heaven in reward to her father. These moral principles do not make the news, however. What grabs media’s attention instead are the legal questions.
Can a woman be stoned to death under the Islamic law or be flogged publicly? If so, why? Can a man beat his wife? If yes, how hard and under what circumstances such behaviour is permitted? What is the minimum legal age for a girl to get married? Can her consent at the age of 10 or 11, even when she has reached puberty, be considered a real consent? Does she understand at that young age what it means to be married, get pregnant and take care of a husband and a neonate?
On top there are matters related to inheritance and jurisprudence, although they are not called into question as often, but down the road they will also arise. Why would the daughter get half as much the estate of her father as the son? Why should her testimony, regardless of the situation, be not considered equal to that of a man?
How about polygamy? I know the permission to have more than one wife comes with a perquisite to treat all of them justly. But why is a man allowed to have more than one spouse while a woman does not? With the genetic testing nowadays in case of confusion, we can find out about the paternal gene of the child. So should we now permit women too to have more than one husband? Or should we redefine marriage between two consenting adults instead of three, four or five?
These are not easy questions. Anyone among Muslims challenging the divine injunctions take the risk of being labelled as a non-Muslim, and may even run the risk of losing his or her life. But I do not think avoiding these questions through fear or coercion will take Muslims anywhere. It can surely delay, but these concerns will remerge eventually.
Realising that both Muslim states and Muslim scholars have attempted to address them. How? Mostly by believing that the reason for our current state of affairs is because we have drifted away from the original message of the Holy Quran. And if we read the Holy Quran thoroughly, understand its spirit and implement its laws we would not only find answers to all our concerns but also reclaim our past, a past in which new ideas and scientific research was streaming out of many Muslim heartlands.
Currently, two countries are trying to do just that: Iran and Saudi Arabia. Is anyone of them close to reclaim the “old glory” or even be found on that track? With some differences in details, they have more in common in regard to treatment of women than not. On scientific method too, they follow each other’s lead in going downhill.
Individual scholars too have tried to bring new understanding of the Islamic principles. I do not doubt their sincerity, however, their “creativity” in explaining the meanings of the Scripture is remarkable, to say the least. For instance, regarding the verse about “beating” of women, some say it means to hit lightly without leaving a mark, and others claim it is to shake her as if you are angry while asking a question about her extramarital affair. Still others pronounce that it means to forsake her and nothing more. The relevant verse, on the other hand, uses the word Wazribu derived from the root Zarb (hit) as in Zarb-e-Azab. Now tell me, are we forsaking Taliban or beating them lightly or touching them gently?
To give you another example, for some the word Hoor-ul-Ain, which generally is understood as the beautiful virgin means grapes. So according to them, Muslims, irrespective of gender, would get 72 grapes in paradise instead of virgins with big eyes. I understand that every word in Arabic like many other languages carry more than one meaning, some of them just the opposite of each other. But the question is how often we will impart a different meaning to the same word. And for how long we will debate on one being more logical than the other. And who will decide about the validity of either of the claims?
Before the modern era began, let us say half a millennium ago, all the world religions treated their women almost the same way. There were differences, of course, but Islam did not stand out alone as the only one being harsh. With reformation, the West adopted a more pragmatic approach of resolving their issues, while Muslims relied upon their past as the solution of their contemporary problems. That is why, you will not find a westerner — even when he claims to be a devout Christian and believes in every word of the Bible as the word of God — who tries to implement the rules suggested by the New Testament.
I think Muslims will have to do the same. The modern age demands a new understanding of the role of women in family and society, a society in which they take part in science and education, literature and arts, research and critical thinking, and even in war and policy making as much as men do. The idea of a domestic servant locked up in the house cooking, cleaning, dusting and washing clothes will not last long.
Syed Kamran Hashmi is a US-based freelance columnist.