New Age Islam
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Islamic Ideology ( 6 Sept 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Promoting Gender-Just Islam: Insights From the Indian Context

Yoginder Sikand,




For many non-Muslims, Islam and gender justice appear to be wholly contradictory to each other. The late 1990s witnessed the emergence of a body of writing, as well as activism drawing from and further enriching this literature, referred to by the term ‘Islamic feminism’. To many non-Muslim women in the women’s movement, and to large numbers of non-Muslims generally, the term ‘Islamic feminism’ might appear to be a complete oxymoron. This owes, in large measure, to the ways in which Muslim women have come to be depicted in the so-called ‘mainstream’ media—as invisiblised, silenced, oppressed and chained by their menfolk, all in the name of Islam. If at all the so-called mainstream media does refer to Muslim women—and this is true not just of Indian media but of the dominant Western media as well—it is almost inevitably as hapless victims of a particularly cruel form of patriarchy that is seen to be rooted in, and insisted upon by, Islam itself. Islam, then, comes to be seen as the principal source of the oppression of Muslim women.


The notion that the marginalization of Muslim women owes principally or entirely to Islam is reinforced by the writings of influential male Islamic clerics, both traditional madrasa-trained maulvis (a term I prefer to use instead of ulema, which they call themselves by, which means ‘learned scholars’) as well as Islamist ideologues, fatwas issued by leading madrasas, and the policies of influential Muslim organizations, mostly led by maulvis, that have no women at all in leadership positions and that claim to speak for Islam and pose as the authoritative spokesmen of all the Muslims of India.


The purpose of this presentation is three-fold. Firstly, to challenge the commonsensical assumption that the marginalization of Muslim women is a necessarily product of Islam per se, and that, therefore, the solution to this predicament lies simply in reform of Islam or our understandings of it. Secondly, to seek to understand why patriarchal interpretations of Islam remain, at least, publicly, so dominant, pervasive, and influential in India today. And, thirdly, to highlight the attempts by certain contemporary Indian Muslim scholars and activists to critique patriarchy and women’s subordination in the name of Islam and develop alternate visions of Islam that are more gender-just, gender-sensitive and gender-inclusive.


Taken together, these three aspects that I wish to explore here clearly suggest that factors other than just religious must be taken into account as playing a central role in supporting and maintaining Muslim women’s marginalization. They also indicate that although mere religious reform, in terms of articulating alternate Islamic understandings about issues related to women and gender relations or reforming Muslim Personal Law to accord with contemporary sensibilities about gender justice, will not suffice as a solution, it is certainly an integral aspect of an overall approach to and strategy for Indian Muslim women’s empowerment.


Locating Indian Muslim Women in Context


As mentioned above, in media depictions Muslim women’s subordination is routinely sought to be explained as a necessary product and consequence of Islam. Islam thus comes to be seen as a well-defined, singular, monolithic body of knowledge, norms, laws, rules and prescriptions, including about women. In this way, the fact that, as a lived phenomenon, there is no single Islam but, rather, a set of numerous discursive traditions, diversely understood and expressed, is completely elided. The long-standing and continuing internal debates among Muslims associated with different sectarian groupings on the Islamicity of varying stances to a whole host of issues, including many related to women, is completely ignored.


It is, however, crucial to keep in mind while discussing the subject at hand today the fact that Islam has always been diversely understood, interpreted and expressed, and this diversity applies almost as much to prescriptions about women and gendered behaviour as it does to any other matter. This remarkable internal diversity and contestation, with each rival school of thought claiming to represent the sole true version of the faith, is facilitated by the absence in Islam of a central authority, such as the Church in the Catholic case, that is regarded as the locus or font of religious orthodoxy. This leaves open space for developing alternate, more gender-just understandings of Islam, based on a different reading of the principal Islamic textual sources.


Among the Indian Muslims, sectarian divisions continue to abound. Most Indian Muslims are Sunnis, and they are divided among themselves on the basis of school of jurisprudence (the majority being Hanafis, with a small minority of Shafi‘is and Ghayr Muqallids, who do not subscribe to taqlid or ‘blind following’ of any particular school of jurisprudence); and the basis of school of thought (mainly Deobandis, Barelvis, Ahl-e Hadith, Ahl-e Quran, and Jamaat-e Islami). Shias form a minority among the Indian Muslims, being mostly Ithna Ashari Imamis, but also Nizari and Mustalian Ismailis, these latter two being, in turn, divided into several different largely endogamous sect-like groupings. Each of these different Sunni and Shia formations has its own distinct understanding of Islam. On some key issues related to women, these groups are characterized by considerable diversity, certain groups being more women-friendly, or less women-unfriendly, than the others. Even within each of these schools of jurisprudence and thought there is some amount of diversity and difference among various ulema, including, sometimes, on issues related to women. In addition to these are the number of independent-minded Islamic scholars and writers who do not identify themselves with any particular sectarian grouping. To assume, therefore, as the media projects it, a monolithic Islam confronting and oppressing all Muslim women is grossly misleading. The diversity of interpretations of Islam that has been a phenomenon characteristic of the lived Islamic tradition since the demise of the Prophet thus opens up the possibilities of offering in the market-place of competing versions and visions of Islam alternate, gender-positive expressions of the faith that while challenging patriarchy in the name of Islam also questions the image of Islam per se as necessarily and irredeemably patriarchal as purveyed by the dominant media that echoes the views and prescriptions of the patriarchal, reactionary maulvis.


While recognizing that Indian Muslim women’s overall subordination owes, in part, to patriarchal understandings and interpretations of Islam (as distinct from Islam per se) that are projected by the maulvis as normative, it is crucial to recognize that this subordination is not wholly caused or constituted by Islam/patriarchal versions of Islam, contrary to what the media projects and what many non-Muslims also believe. The subordination of Indian Muslim women as a whole cannot be understood apart from taking into account the overall subordinate and heavily marginalized conditions of the Indian Muslims, who today rank almost at par with the Dalits in terms of economic and educational indices. Indian Muslim women are a doubly victimized and oppressed minority—as women and as Muslims. A meaningful analysis of their overall subordination thus cannot remain content with explaining it, as the media tends to do, solely in terms of patriarchal interpretations of Islam and Muslim Personal Law without taking into account their economic and educational marginalization and that of the Muslim community as a whole and the threats to their lives, properties and identity from an indifferent or even hostile state and Hindu chauvinist forces. From this it follows that prescriptions for the empowerment of Muslim women solely in terms of reform of Muslim Personal Law or the promotion of more ‘progressive’ interpretations of Islam are necessarily limited and blinkered. Such prescriptions conveniently locate the roots of the overall subordination of Muslim women solely within the community—blaming Muslim men and male maulvis for their plight, while ignoring the larger picture of the marginalization of the Indian Muslims as a whole, including the story of discrimination and anti-Muslim violence that has caused massive loss of life and property over the decades while further strengthening insular, backward-looking tendencies and the hold of the conservative, indeed reactionary, maulvis on the community. These prescriptions also ignore the crucial fact that for most Muslims, including Muslim women, addressing the alarming overall economic and educational backwardness of Muslims in general, and Muslim women in particular, including through state-sponsored initiatives, and confronting the challenge of Hindu chauvinism and growing Islamophobia in Indian society may be a more serious and immediate priority than the task of promoting gender-sensitive interpretations of Islam and Muslim Personal Law. In this regard, it ought also to be recognized that the continued marginalization of the Indian Muslims as a whole provides a conducive atmosphere for the conservative patriarchal maulvis and their patriarchal understandings of Islam to thrive. Conversely, it seems probable that if Muslims were to feel more secure and prosperous, the community as a whole would be more receptive to alternate, more ‘progressive’ and gender-sensitive understandings of Islam and would probably be more willing to consider much needed reforms in the present regime of Muslim Personal Law in order to ensure much-needed gender equality.


Explaining the Dominance of the Patriarchal, Conservative Maulvis


Among the many practical difficulties involved in the task of promoting and popularizing gender-just interpretations of Islam is the enormous influence of the patriarchal, conservative male maulvis, who consider themselves the authoritative spokesmen and interpreters of the faith. Most Indian Muslim organizations, at both the state and the national levels, are led and controlled by maulvis. The maulvis run several thousand madrasas across the country and an even larger number of maktabs. Although, contrary to what is commonly believed, only a very small number of Muslim children go on to train in madrasas to become maulvis, the maulvis exercise a vast influence on Muslim opinion, and shape notions about the ideal Muslim woman, something of major concern to them, through their madrasas and maktabs, the pulpits of their mosques, and through the many Muslim publishing houses that churn out the literature that they pen.


The influence of the traditionalist male maulvis as religious authorities is further magnified by the fact that the Muslim middle-class, that could have competed with them in claiming to lead and represent the community, and interpret Islam, is numerically weak, particularly in north India, where the bulk of India’s Muslims live, many members of their class having migrated to Pakistan in and around 1947. Prior to 1947, it is instructive to note, a number of middle-class Muslims who had received a ‘Western’ liberal education were actively engaged in promoting discourses of Islamic reform, including about women, often having to face the wrath of the traditionalist maulvis for daring to differ from them and to trespass into what they considered was solely their territory. The Partition severely depleted their numbers, and the traditionalist maulvis assumed their place as putative spokesmen of the community and as representatives of Islam. The clout of these maulvis was further strengthened as a result of the politics of patronage, with various political parties vying with each other to curry their favour in return for Muslim votes, and hence unwilling to alienate them by patronizing Muslims who could challenge the maulvis’ conservative and patriarchal versions of Islam. The state continues to accept the patriarchal maulvis as spokesmen of Islam and of all Muslims, as evidenced by its capitulation to their demands on the Shah Bano case, for instance. This tendency is also reflected in the media as well.


The task of promoting gender-just understandings of Islam continues to face stiff opposition from the traditionalist maulvis, who are quick to brand Muslim women who differ from them and articulate a discourse of Islamic feminism to be ‘Western agents’ and as allegedly lacking the proper credentials to speak about and for Islam. It is instructive in this regard to note that the number of Muslim women today who write on Islamic issues, and not just on issues related to Islam and women or Muslim women, is so negligible as to be non-existent. Although Muslim bookshops across India are stocked with books with such titles as ‘The Ideal Muslim Woman’ and ‘Women’s Rights in Islam’, almost all of these are penned by conservative male maulvis, almost entirely graduates of conservative madrasas. With the exception of a few cases in Kerala, almost no Islamic magazine, journal or publishing house in the entire country employs any women. It can fairly be said that, overall, Muslim institutions run by the maulvis are hostile to any independent initiative on the part of women to interpret Islam on their own in any way that might differ from theirs. In recent years, a number of women’s madrasas have mushroomed across the country that offer their students higher Islamic education. Yet, by and large, they promote a conservative and deeply patriarchal version of Islam, and have not produced anything remotely resembling an Islamic feminist discourse in any sense of the term.


The task of promoting alternate, gender-just understandings of Islam is one that, presumably, middle-class Muslim intellectuals, women as well as men, with a liberal education would shoulder. Yet, this has not happened in the Indian context on the scale that one might have hoped. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, as mentioned above, the influence of the conservative male maulvis, and the power of the fatwa that they wield, which easily scares away all but the most intrepid from daring to defy their prescriptions. Secondly, the small size of the Muslim middle-class itself. Thirdly, the tendency of many members of this class, like those of other religious backgrounds, to be more concerned about their own class issues and their consumerist and careerist aspirations than those of the community as a whole.  Fourthly, in-built patriarchal biases even among non-maulvi Muslim intellectuals and ‘lay’ Muslim organizations, who would consider women’s issues far less pressing than say Muslim poverty, illiteracy, and identity-related concerns. Fifthly, a noticeable tendency among many middle-class Muslims to downplay their ‘Muslimness’ in an environment of mounting Islamophobia for fear of being branded as ‘communal’ or even worse. Sixthly, the fact that Islamic Studies, in both madrasas and university departments, is not the preferred option for the vast majority of middle-class Muslims, which severely limits their capacity to engage in the terrain of Islamic discourse and further magnifies the dualism between the Muslim middle class intelligentsia and the maulvis, there being few fora where they can engage in any meaningful dialogue. And seventhly, the absence of fora and community support and funding for Muslim women seeking to develop discourses of gender justice in Islam and to engage in activist mobilization based on these.


Islamic Feminism in India: Conceptual Tools and Strategies


 In the course of my limited work on the subject of Islam and gender, about which I have written sporadically in the couple of years, I have come across several writings by Indian Muslims, both men and women, that critique the patriarchal prescriptions of male maulvis on Islamic grounds, using Islamic arguments based on different readings of the same sources used by the maulvis or else other additional or alternate sources. These writings take the form of pamphlets, books, letters to the editors of newspapers, and postings on online discussion groups. Some of the crucial issues that they address, on which they dissent from the arguments of the patriarchal maulvis, for many of whom the ideal Muslim woman is one who remains in her home confined to domestic motherly and wifely duties, include the right of Muslim women to dress as they please (provided they, like men, abide by certain standards of modesty), to choose their own spouses, to stand for election, to enroll in colleges, and to work outside their homes. Some of these writings are responses to particular events  and the fatwas that these have occasioned, berating the maulvis, using Islamic counter-arguments, for their stance that they condemn as anti-women and, interestingly, as ‘anti-Islamic’ as well.


These written resources can be said to represent the emergence and development of a sort of nascent Indian Islamic feminist consciousness, although this is still in its formative stages and certainly not an organized movement. A number of conceptual tools and interpretative strategies are used by these scholars and activists to challenge the patriarchal prescriptions and pronouncements of the conservative, patriarchal maulvis on issues related to women. Firstly, the argument that certain prescriptions or terms related to women as mentioned in the Quran and Hadith can be diversely interpreted, including in a more gender-friendly sense (as, for instance, the term zaraba, which, conservative maulvis argue, allows men to beat their wives, and the term qawwama, which they take to imply husbands ruling over their wives), there being no singular and unanimously agreed understanding of these. Secondly, the argument that certain prescriptions about women in the Quran and the Hadith (such as those related to the giving of evidence, veiling, and inheritance rights) that are seen, by some, to militate against gender-justice, must be seen in the particular historical context in which these verses are believed to have been revealed (or uttered by the Prophet, in the case of the Hadith), and in relation to what are termed the ‘causes of revelation’ (asbab-e nuzul). In other words, it is argued that they are not necessarily binding across space and time, and, hence, being amenable to change and reform if the need arises. Thirdly, the argument while some of the rules of worship or ibadat may be fixed, some of those related to social affairs or muamilat—and these include crucial issues related to women and gender relations—can change, if need be, with a change in social context through recourse to contextual re-reading and re-interpretation or ijtihad. Fourthly, the argument that with regard to certain legal prescriptions contained in the Quran, a distinction should be made between the letter of the prescription and what is perceived to be its underlying spirit or rationale (illah), cautioning against an unwarranted literalism that might tend to defeat the latter. Thus, for instance, the argument for equal inheritance rights for daughters and sons based on the claim that the Quran stands for gender equality but that the rules of inheritance that it lays out were suited for seventh century Arabian society, and that if they are sought to be transported to our contemporary context they would defeat this supposed Quranic intention or purpose. Fifthly, and related to the above, the argument that although God desires gender justice and equality, the Quranic revelation, in order to be effective, had to address itself to the given historical reality of seventh century Arabia and so had to accept  certain existing social practices while intending to gradually reform them in an ideal direction. Thus, for instance, the claim that the Quran accepted the male privilege and slavery as existing social facts, but, at the same time, it intended Muslims to work to overcome these gradually and achieve full gender equality and eventually abolish slavery as well. Hence, the suggestion that the ‘concessions’ to patriarchy in the Quran (in the form, for instance, of rules about veiling, the husband’s qawwama, the worth of women’s evidence and so on) were intended to be only temporary, and, that as society evolved God intended for these ‘concessions’ to be replaced in order to ensure perfect gender equality. Sixthly, that certain claims and arguments about women (such as effectively denying them higher education by insisting that co-education is haram or opposing compulsory registration of marriage) put forward by the conservative maulvis ignore the ‘underlying’ or ‘higher’ ‘aims of the shariah’ (maqasid-e shariah) or even subvert them, sometimes by a misplaced literalism that is insensitive to context, and so are not valid or acceptable. Seventhly, the argument that certain reports contained in the corpus of Hadith that clearly heavily militate against women, which the conservative maulvis routinely invoke in their fatwas and other writings and take to be authentic and binding (such as, for instance, the so-called hadith report which quotes the Prophet as announcing that any people ruled by a woman would never prosper), are suspect or downright fabrications, and hence not to be accorded any merit at all. Eighthly, the argument that the body of jurisprudence or fiqh developed in the centuries after the prophet Muhammad, is a human, rather than a divine, product, being the work of human effort and reflection on the Quran and Hadith, and hence not identical to the divine shariah—in contrast to how  many conservative and patriarchal maulvis view it. From this it follows that numerous restrictive fiqh prescriptions about women, projected by the maulvis as normative and binding, are really not so. Ninthly, the argument that some of the prescriptions devised by the conservative maulvis with regard to Muslim women (such as forbidding them from access to the public sphere and even the mosque or sanctioning arbitrary triple divorce in one sitting) are based on the opinions or ijtihad of later scholars and depart from the practice of the Prophet and his companions, and so are not binding or even ‘Islamic’ at all. And tenthly, the argument that there is no priesthood in Islam and, hence, that Islam does not countenance the claims of madrasa-based clerics to be the sole authorities and interpreters of the faith, and that, therefore, their dictates about Muslim women need not be necessarily taken to represent the authentic position on the matter. In this way, they open up the possibilities for a radical democratization of Islamic religious authority while at the same time pushing for a democratization of Islamic religious interpretation as well in a more gender-sensitive manner.