Skip to main content

Feminism in Islam is finally having its moment: Quran may be Muslim woman’s most direct route to equal rights

By Moin Qazi*
“Learn this now and learn it well, my daughter: Like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always.” In Khaled Hosseini’s novel about life in Afghanistan, "A Thousand Splendid Suns", the character Nana, a poor unwed mother, gives this grim advice to her five-year-old daughter, Mariam. In 25 words, she tries to sum up the way the world thinks men govern the lives of women in the world of Islam.
Too much thinking about Muslim women is done along predictable, clichéd lines. This is true for all shades of opinion, perception and scholarship. This opinion profiles Muslim women in stubborn stereotypes—supposedly powerless and oppressed, behind walls and veils, demure, voiceless and silent figures, discriminated and bereft of even their basic rights. This picture keeps reinforcing itself, largely because this is how the Western media caricatures women in Islam. Recurring images beamed into homes and phones keep strengthening the belief that Muslim women are being denied access to education, social space, and privacy.
It is true that in societies trapped in poverty, illiteracy, and ignorance, women continue to receive abominable and oppressive treatment; but then this is true of all societies. Muslims cannot be singled out for such a flawed social order. The pictures of wife-beating and other retrograde practices imposed on Muslim women are clearly aberrations which should not be generalised. Wrong practices rampant in some societies have much to do with illiteracy, ignorance, and sometimes dire poverty. In several cases, the plight of Muslim women is a direct consequence of a repressive and highly discriminatory State.
A dispassionate analysis will reveal that vested interests in all societies, particularly those driven by patriarchal values, have resisted the upliftment of women and have failed to concede them the legitimate rights they have been guaranteed by their respective faiths, communities and States. This distortion, however, should not deflect focus from some path-breaking and stellar contributions of Muslim women not just to Islamic civilisation but to the secular society as well.
The landscape for women in Islam is changing. Muslim women are challenging patriarchy that all women experience 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 backgrounds. There are so many bright women graduating from universities and joining the workforce. In Islam, a woman is seen as an individual in her own right, an independent person, and not as a shadow or adjunct to her husband or any other man. Muslim women are fully entitled to an education, work, business ownership, and inheritance.
Islamic feminists insist that Islam, at its core, is progressive for women and supports equal opportunities for both men and women. They are arguing for women’s rights within an Islamic discourse. 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. Islamic feminists claim that Islamic law evolved in ways inimical to women, not due to any inevitability but because of selective interpretation by patriarchal leaders. Across the Muslim world, Islamic feminists are combing through centuries of Islamic philosophy to 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.
It is worth noting that a number of contemporary Muslim women are the modern realisation of the continuing legacy of strong Muslim female leadership. This is evident from Muslim women’s pivotal roles in the Egyptian, Tunisian, Libyan, and other revolutions to leading American Muslim female voices in U.S. law, religion, medicine, academia and a myriad of professions. Indeed, it is past time that Muslim women are viewed with new eyes. They are not necessarily the stereotyped victims, but can also be the heroic protagonists much like they were some 1500 years ago.
Muslim women’s traditional importance in Islamic society has always been and continues to be the foundation of the Islamic family. Social values strongly reinforce orientation towards marriage and children as the normative pattern based on Muhammad’s own example. Child rearing, early education, and socialisation of children are among women’s most important tasks in Islamic societies worldwide. Although traditionally excluded from the public male domain, Muslim women have been privately involved in the study and oral transmission of Islamic source texts—Quran and Hadith. In modern times, they have entered into both secular and religious forms of education with enthusiasm. They support their long-standing roles as family educators, moral exemplars, and also as professionals in the workplace outside the home.
The Quran recognises the childbearing and childrearing roles of women but does not present women as inferior to or unequal to men. On the contrary, 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.
Islam anticipates the demands of Western feminists by more than a thousand 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 nineteen-seventies. Elsewhere, the fully empowered Muslim woman sounds like a self-assured, post-feminist type. She is a woman who draws her inspiration from the example of Sukayna—the brilliant, beautiful great-granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad. She was married several times, and at least once stipulated in writing that her husband was forbidden to disagree with her about anything. All these conditions are based on the canons of Islam and early Muslim practices. A Muslim woman, cannot be forced to enter into marriage without her agreement. In fact, she has the right to revoke a marriage to which she did not agree to in the first place.
Few Muslim women outside the urban areas may want to behave like Western women. The sexually exploitative element remains high in the West, however strident the rhetoric of sexual equality. Perhaps this is best illustrated by the well-known cigarette ad depicting a woman smoking, “You have come a long way, baby.” The message is clear that they too may now die of cancer through smoking. The high rate of divorce and sexual diseases are common consequences of the reckless drive to equate the sexes and ‘free’ sexual relationships.
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 recognising and consciously accepting the broad cultural differences between Western and non-Western conceptions of autonomy. It is required on their part to start respecting social standards that reflect non-Western values. They should pay heed to what the previous First Lady Michelle Obama expressed to hijab-wearing students, “You wonder if anyone ever sees beyond your headscarf to see who you really are, instead of being blinded by the fears and misperceptions in their own minds. And I know how painful and how frustrating all of that can be.”
Women are now elbowing their way into political and civil society, and universities. The trajectory of Muslim women’s movement gives hope that even in Muslim societies that present cultural and political obstacles, women are finding opportunities to rise up and to bring their societies up with them. The key is to do so within Islamic paradigms. Now there are female politicians, journalists, entrepreneurs and educators, urban and rural, who are making impressive inroads. Societies that educate and invest in women become richer, more stable, better governed, and less prone to fanaticism. On the other hand, those that limit women’s opportunities are poorer, more fragile, have higher levels of corruption, and are more prone to extremism.
Islamic feminism faces strong resistance from the faith’s conservatives who want to preserve the male interpretation of Islam. Yet the movement’s roots in the Quran give it a better chance at changing attitudes than a transplanted women’s liberation movement from the West. In the end, the Quran may be an Islamic woman’s most direct route to equal rights. While this is only just the beginning, it is clear that feminism in Islam is finally having its moment.
---
*Associated with the development sector for almost four decades, author of "Village Diary of a Heretic Banker"

Comments

Anonymous said…

TRENDING

What's behind public sector banks showing huge profits in 2nd quarter of 2022-23?

By Thomas Franco*  The quarter two results of the public sector banks (PSBs) appear to be noteworthy compared to a few years ago. All these banks showed good profits in the financial year 2021-22. Twelve PSBs made a net profit of Rs 25,685 crore in quarter 2 of FY23 and a total of Rs 40,991 crore in the first half of 2023. The combined profit of 12 banks in March 2022 was Rs 66,539 crore which was 110% more than 2021 – Rs. 31,816 crore. The Asset Quality Review of 2015 saw a surge in NPAs of PSBs jumping to Rs 8.96 lakh crore in March 2018 from Rs 2.17 lakh crore in March 2014. This was simply because the norms for NPAs were changed from 180 days to 90 days, and all restructuring of even genuine accounts was done away with. In 2018 NPA of SBI was 5.73% which has come down to 0.8% in Q2 of FY23. The NPA of Canara Bank has come down to 2.19% from 7.48% in Mar 2018. The same trend is seen in all public banks. Now SBI has seen a jump of 74% in its net profit, while Canara Bank’s profit is

Economist-editor's allegations on Narmada defamatory, baseless: Medha Patkar

Counterview Desk  In a reply directly addressed to well-known economist, journalist and columnist Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar’s two articles in the Times of India (republished here and here ), calling them defamatory and wondering whether they were borne out of “ignorance or a conspiracy through political alliance”, Narmada Bachao Andolan leader Medha Pakar has said that the Narmada Sardar Saravar Project and the people's movement by adivasis, farmers, labourers, fish workers, potters and all the generations’ old communities from the river valley have suddenly come to be focused on, since the Gujarat elections are in the doorstep. She believes that while the “defamatory accusations with baseless conceptions such as ‘urban naxals’ are to be laughed at as the electoral strategic moves, one gets shocked to read the articles by a known old columnist like Swaminathan Ankalesaria Aiyar, published in a reputed daily like the Times of India." According to her, Aiyar’s two articl

Business back to normal? IIM-A survey says, sales expectations have sharply improved

By Our Representative  The Indian Institute of Management’s Business Inflation Expectations Survey (BIES), which polls a panel of business leaders to find out their perception of slack in economy, including their inflation expectations, year-ahead cost expectations and the factors influencing price changes, such as profit and sales levels, etc., has said that the cost perceptions data indicates signs of moderation in price pressures. Carried out for September, the survey says, the cost pressure of the reporting firms has shifted from “very significant increase (over 6%) to moderate increase (3.1% to 6%).” It adds, “The percentage of firms perceiving over 10% cost increase y-o-y has declined. Over 21% of the firms in September 2022 round of the survey perceive that costs have increased very significantly (over 10%) – down from 26% recorded in August 2022.” Claiming to be a unique survey, in that it goes straight to businesses -- the price setters -- rather than to consumers or household

GoI's productivity linked incentives to corporates 'without independent analysis'

Counterview Desk  Wondering how prudent is the Government of India's (GoI's) Productivity Linked Incentive (PLI) scheme, EAS Sarma, former secretary, GoI, in a representation to Nirmala Sitharaman, Union finance minister, has said it appears to be nothing more than subsidy to the private sector without any responsibility. Giving a specific example against the backdrop of announcement of 50% subsidy covering the project cost of the Vedanta Group's decision to set up a semiconductor fabrication plant in Gujarat, in collaboration with Foxconn, Sarma says, "The total cost of this project is reported to be Rs 1,54,000 crore. 50% of this works out to Rs 77,000 crore." Stating that this creates the impression that the entire subsidy allocation for the semiconductor manufacturing sector would be appropriated by this company, Sarma says, "The Gujarat government did not lag behind in liberally announcing similar incentives for the Vedanta-Foxconn project. It offered 7

Buddhist shrines were 'massively destroyed' by Brahmanical rulers: Historian DN Jha

Nalanda mahavihara By Our Representative Prominent historian DN Jha, an expert in India's ancient and medieval past, in his new book , "Against the Grain: Notes on Identity, Intolerance and History", in a sharp critique of "Hindutva ideologues", who look at the ancient period of Indian history as "a golden age marked by social harmony, devoid of any religious violence", has said, "Demolition and desecration of rival religious establishments, and the appropriation of their idols, was not uncommon in India before the advent of Islam".

Hindutva groups threat to peace, freedom: US diaspora groups tell FBI, other govt depts

By Our Representative  The Islamophobic and neo-Nazi ideology of Hindutva is a clear and present danger to peace and freedoms in the United States, a coalition of civil rights organizations told key officials of the U.S. Attorney General’s Office, the US Department of Justice (DOJ), and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) at a recent event in Edison, New Jersey. At the event titled United Against Hate, activists from American Muslims for Democracy (AMD), Hindus for Human Rights (HfHR) and Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC) made detailed presentations on this ideology of Hindu supremacism that is committing mass persecution of India’s Muslims and Christians and is rearing its ugly head in New Jersey as well as across the US. Attending the event were David S Leonardis, Special Investigator from the New Jersey Department of Law & Public Safety; Michael E Campion, Chief of the Civil Rights Division for the US Attorney General's Office; and Jonathan R Norbut of the U.S. Dep

BJP poll gimmick? Bilkis Bano rape case 'pardon' vs Rajiv assassins' release

By Sandeep Pandey*  Supreme Court has released six convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. This was bound to happen as earlier AG Perarivalan was released in the same case, setting a precedent. Even though four of them are Sri Lankans but a popular Tamil sentiment favoured the release of these convicts which is why Tamil political parties supported this and resolutions were passed by different governments in Tamil Nadu to his effect.  Rajiv Gandhi paid the price of sending Indian Peace Keeping Force to Sri Lanka where it got entangled with Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and eventually the whole operation ended up is a fiasco.  However, most importantly Sonia and Priyanka Gandhi and probably Rahul too do not have any objections to the release of these convicts. In fact, Sonia Gandhi played an important role in getting the death sentence of the only lady among the convicts Nalini commuted to life term through the Tamil Nadu Governor. Priyanka visited Nalini in Vellore Jail and

Diminishing returns: Hydro projects contribute less than 10% of India's power generation

Counterview Desk  Pointing out that India’s hydro generation remains around 10% for the last six years, the advocacy group South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) has said that power generation from hydropower projects continues to show diminishing returns, as has been the story close to three decades now. Yet, says SANDRP in a note, the Government of India continues to push large hydro by announcing a slew of additional subsidies for hydropower projects, more for political economy reason. In fact, attempts are being made to flog unviable hydropower projects with various kind of manipulations, illegalities and violations, it adds. Text : In last six years, from 2016-17 to 2021-22, India’s large hydropower projects (projects above 25 MW installed capacity) have contributed just around 10% of the total power generation, going as low as 9.68% in 2017-18. In fact, in three of these six years, large hydro contributed less than 10% and recovering only marginally in the rest,

Swami Vivekananda's views on caste and sexuality were 'painfully' regressive

By Bhaskar Sur* Swami Vivekananda now belongs more to the modern Hindu mythology than reality. It makes a daunting job to discover the real human being who knew unemployment, humiliation of losing a teaching job for 'incompetence', longed in vain for the bliss of a happy conjugal life only to suffer the consequent frustration.