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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.
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*Associated with the development sector for almost four decades, author of "Village Diary of a Heretic Banker"

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