By Zahid Khan
In the wake of a recent controversy involving a fatwa (aimed at controlling Muslim women working outside their homes), the well-known Mumbai-based writer Javed Akhtar rightly noted that the times are gone when such fatwas had any effect. Today, he said, these fatwas have almost no impact at all. They are becoming increasingly irrelevant. Our Muslim society must warmly welcome voices such as Akhtar’s that are emerging from within our community.
The furor witnessed over the recent fatwas is, of course, nothing new. These fatwas, that come out with distressing regularity, have become a subject of much debate and discussion in India. Most of these fatwas are anti-women. Shortly before the Deoband madrasa issued its fatwa advising Muslim women to avoid working in offices, Saeedur Rahman, rector of the Nadwat ul-Ulema, a large and influential madrasa in Lucknow, declared that Muslim women had no right to abandon purdah and address public gatherings. Rather, he insisted, they should remain confined within the four walls of their homes. Another recent fatwa advised Muslim women to avoid standing for elections to panchayats. Yet another fatwa strongly condemned girls being educated in schools where boys also study. A whole slew of similar fatwas have been issued in recent years, all concerning women—on a range issues, including on of even such minor matters such as whether or not women can cut their hair, use perfume, wear pants, and so on.
In contrast, it is striking to note that Islam provides for equality for men and women. Prior to the Prophet Muhammad’s advent, girls had no share in the property of their fathers. Islam did away with this restriction, and this was a truly revolutionary step. Prior to the Prophet, marriage was generally considered to be a life-long sacrament, and women had no way to escape tyrannical husbands. Islam’s message of women’s liberation broke with this tradition. It insisted that women could not be married off against their will, that they could fix their dower as they pleased, and that they could also have their marriages dissolved if they wanted to. In addition, Islam gave women complete freedom to pursue education.
In fact, Islam does not place any restriction on women’s education and work. This is what we must tell those mullahs and maulvis who issue fatwas to deny women their right to work and who consider their earnings to be unlawful or haraam. We need to tell them that Hazrat Khadijah, the first wife of the Prophet, was herself a rich trader. Before he was appointed as a prophet, Hazrat Muhammad used to work for her. In addition, she had several other male employees. If (as some mullahs insist) a woman’s earnings are haraam and if it is also haraam for men and women to work together, one may well wonder if our mullahs and maulvis will now start pointing fingers at these historical facts!
It is also incumbent on us to inform these men who spend their entire lives reciting the Quran and who are seen as learned in the Hadith and other books that Hazrat Ayesha, another wife of the Prophet, led an army in the Battle of the Camel. Narratives of bravery about Hazrat Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter, and his grand-daughter Hazrat Zainab also abound. And the fact that Umar, the second Caliph, appointed a woman, Shifa Bint Abdullah, as the overseer of the market, is also well-known.
Today, it is essential for us Muslims to understand the true meaning of the Quran and Islam for ourselves, and to wrest this right from the ‘policemen’ of religion, the mullahs and maulvis. The entire Muslim society, particularly Muslim women, needs to come forward to do this. And, although belatedly, this task has already begun.
(This is a slightly modified translation of an article titled ‘Bedar Hota Samaj Aur Be-Asar Hotey Fatve’ published in the Hindi monthly Qaumi Farman, July 2010. The magazine can be accessed online on www.qaumifarman.com).