WESTERN FEMINISM OR RIGHTS OF WOMEN IN ISLAM
by Asghar Ali Engineer
[ Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer is a renowned Indian scholar and activist, recognized for his work in promoting communal harmony and peace in India. Dr. Engineer has received numerous awards for his work, notably the 1997 Communal Harmony Award by the Government of India. In over forty years of exhaustive fieldwork, he has investigated and documented nearly every riot in post-independent India. He is the recipient of the prestigious R.B. Joshi Inter-Faith Award.
He was conferred a Doctorate of Literature by Calcutta University in 1993. Dr. Engineer has written extensively on Indian Muslims and Indian communalism in countless articles, weekly newsletters and books. He has forty-five books to his credit, both on communalism and Islam, and is currently the chairman of the Center for the Study of Society and Secularism (CSSS) and the Institute of Islamic Studies, both in Mumbai, India, whose address is:98, Himalaya Apts., 1st Floor, 6th Road, Santa Cruz(E), Mumbai 400 055, INDIA. E-Mail: CSSS@vsnl.com]
There is strong criticism of those who work for rights of women by conservative Islamists and they are accused of imitating Western feminism. It is debatable whether it is so but even if it is what is wrong with it? Western feminism is based on secular ideology but upholds dignity of women and their rights. If secularism is not always negation of religion (only atheistic secularism negates it, not other forms of secularism) and in most cases it is not, there is no objection to feminism. The Holy Prophet says acquire wisdom (hikmah) wherever it is found as it is believer's (m'umin's) property.
It is well known that until sixties even Western societies - despite their secularism - had not accorded equal rights (sexual equality is still not meticulously practised in Western societies) to women. In fact even right to inheritance and property was given to women in Western countries in thirties. In some countries women got right to vote only during the decade of thirties. The women had to struggle, a lot in the West for acquiring these rights, which Islam had given to them centuries ago.
Even in Western countries the debates go on many issues and many women's organisations are not fully satisfied about the women issues. Man's domination continues in most of the spheres including the domestic sphere. Man certainly enjoys more privileges, if not rights, in those western countries. Man still resists performing domestic chores and even wife beating is not unknown.
The fact is that patriarchal structure of society is still going strong and one does not know whether it will disappear in the foreseeable future. It is for this reason that with few exceptions political power rests with man in most of the countries. Again, in most of the western countries representation of women in legislative bodies hardly exceeds 10 per cent though their population is close to fifty per cent in all societies. It is for this reason that the feminists are struggling for equal rights in western countries too. All one can say is that the condition of women is somewhat better compared to third world countries or Islamic countries. Though in western countries equality of sexes has been established theoretically it is far from having been achieved in practice.
And those struggling for women's rights in third world countries in general and, in the Islamic countries in particular have to struggle against much greater odds. These odds remain insurmountable even if these women work within the framework of Islam. Many Muslim countries like Kuwait even refuse to give its women right to vote. The Saudi Government does not allow its women even to drive even when accompanied by their husbands, let alone go out alone in public.
We have such primitive conditions in several Islamic countries and if women protest against such intolerable restrictions they are dubbed as 'western feminists'. The real thing is that such demands of equal rights hurt male ego. Male domination is not at all Islamic, though it is justified in its name. Men use some selective verses from the Qur'an, ignore their social context and use them to perpetuate their domination. They conveniently ignore the verses empowering women or laying down equality of both the sexes. In fact in verses like 2:219, 2:228 and 33:35 there is clear statement about equality of both the sexes and yet they are totally ignored and instead they quote verses like 4:34 to establish their domination. They even distort the meaning of words like qawwam used in above verse to retain their hegemony.
They also use several ahadith (Prophet's sayings) to put undue restrictions on women. It is forgotten that thousands of ahadith cannot be even authenticated as many of them were forged by those who had anti-women attitude and these ahadith are used as authentic source for legislation about women even when they contradict clear Qur'anic assertions. Thus the Saudi law not allowing women to venture out alone is not Qur'anic but based on a hadith which prohibits women going out alone.
Even if the hadith is authentic one totally ignores the social conditions then and now. In those days there was conflict between the Jews and Muslims and the Jews used to tease Muslim women and so in view of this the Prophet might have cautioned women not to venture out alone. Most of the ahadith are narrated without mentioning any context or reason and these are followed by the orthodox 'ulama mechanically. And practices like prohibiting to drive does not even have any base in hadith. There were no automobiles in those days.
One cannot even derive it by inference or qiyas (analogy) as women were not prohibited by the Holy Prophet from riding camels or horses. The women did ride camels and horses and they even drove them by themselves. Such prohibition is nothing more than extreme conservatism of the Saudi 'ulama and their stubborn refusal to concede rights to women. It is interesting to note that while the Saudi Government does not allow women to drive cars the Iranian Government has started exclusive taxi service to be run by women. Thus Iranian women can not only drive private cars but can also be a taxi driver.
Similarly while the Kuwait Government refuses its women to vote other Muslim countries like Pakistan, Bangla Desh, Egypt and other countries allow them to vote. How does one explain these contradictory practices? Are their different Islams or there are differing attitudes towards women? Thus it is not Islamic sources but men's attitude which matters.
And when Muslim women demand their rights - and Islamic rights at that - they are denounced as western feminists. It is a fact that Muslim women enjoy differing degree of rights in different Islamic countries. While in Turkey Mustafa Kemal Pasha introduced secular Swiss code thus according equal rights to both men and women on one hand, and, the total restrictions in Saudi on the other hand. In other Muslim countries like Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Jordan etc. there is comparatively greater latitude of freedom for women. It is because the rulers in these countries are more liberal towards women.
Thus it is not Islam, which comes in the way but man's attitude which determine the laws of Muslim countries regarding women. But these men in various Muslim countries invoke name of Islam to stem the tide of women's movement for better rights dubbing it as western feminism.
Some Muslim countries like Pakistan and Bangla Desh had or have women prime minister and some Muslim countries like Kuwait do not accord women right to vote. Such gross contradictions are really difficult to gloss over in the name of Islam. It all depends either on social conditions of that country or even on political exigencies.
When Fatima Jinnah tried to contest for the office of President in early sixties against Ayuub Khan, the latter wangled a fatwa from the conservative 'ulama that a woman cannot become head of the state. They quoted a hadith from the Holy Prophet that if a woman becomes head of a nation that nation will face disaster. However, the supporters of Fatima Jinnah which included head of Jama'at-e-Islami Maulana Maududi approved of her contesting the President's election. They also managed to obtain a fatwa to this effect from a prominent 'alim like Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi who justified on grounds that in democracy the head of a state does not have absolute powers but depends on votes of members of parliament whose majority is of men.
All these political games are unfortunately played in the name of Islam rather than giving women rights due to them in a modern democratic society and which are not contrary to the teachings of the Qur'an. Most of the Muslim women in Islamic countries are not guilty of following 'western feminism' but are agitating for their Islamic rights. The Taliban regime was the worst offenders in this respect. They not only followed the rigid Saudi laws but put more restriction than the Saudis do.
The Taliban who were essentially following tribal norms justified all that in the name of Islam. They did not even allow women to go out for schools and madrasas totally ignoring the famous hadith of the Prophet that seeking knowledge is obligatory both for Muslim men and Muslim women (muslimah). The prophet separately mentioned Muslimah keeping in mind that soon after him the Muslim men would restrict women from acquiring knowledge. The Prophet used the word 'ilm which includes both religious as well as secular knowledge.
However, with few exceptions throughout medieval ages Muslim women were not allowed to acquire literary skills and reason was cited that learning reading and writing would corrupt them and they might write 'love letters' to strangers which is sin. Today no one argues on these lines and of course Muslim women are acquiring secular as well as religious knowledge in public institutions. And this is no more considered as un-Islamic.
Thus what was considered un-Islamic until yesterday has become perfectly Islamic today and is accepted with good Islamic conscience by men in all Islamic countries. Many Muslim countries even permit co-education, which was great 'sin' until recently. Thus it can be seen that much depends not on Islam but on social dynamics, on medievalism or modernity, on orthodoxy or liberalism.
The man in male-dominated society in Muslim countries forgets that Islam ushered in its days a great revolution, which can be called feminist revolution today. It accorded equality to both man and women in various ways sometimes saying that "women have rights similar to those against them" (2:228) and sometimes saying for everything men and women will be equally rewarded (33:35).
But except for initial period of few decades Muslim women never enjoyed equality in the Islamic world. Soon, for various reasons, more and more restrictions were imposed on them. Though there was absolutely no place for monarchy in Islam, the institution of monarchy developed in the Muslim world within 30 years of the death of the Prophet and all feudal customs and traditions associated with monarchy came to be adopted by Muslim monarchs (though continued to be called caliphs for religious reasons) including severe restrictions on Muslim women. In other words all feudal practices were imposed on women in the Muslim world which continue until today.
Within hundred years after the beginning of the Islamic calendar she almost lost all her Qur'aic rights. Qur'an recognised her as legal entity and gave her all rights including contracting marriage, divorce, right to inherit, to have her own property, to earn and have her own income and to own her own business. But by the time the Umayyads consolidated their rule, all pre-Islamic traditions and customs were revised and also feudal traditions added to them thus completely subjugating women.
The Qur'an had required her to dress in dignified manner and conceal her sexual charms, the Muslim society put her under veil requiring to conceal her face completely. She could only peep though her two holes provided in the veil. This is no where the intention of the Qur'an yet this form of veiling is practised in many Islamic countries today.
She was confined to her house whereas during the Prophet's time and for quite some time thereafter she even took part in battles fought against non-Muslims. It is said that it was Umm Ammarah who saved the Prophet's life in the battle of Uhud. However, from Umayyad period onwards she was not even allowed to go out of home without her husband's permission after marriage and with father's permission before that and that too accompanied by some male relative called mahram (a blood relation with whom marriage is not permissible like brother, uncle etc.)
A hadith was also invented requiring her to be totally obedient to her husband and that sajda before husband would have been ordered had it not been prohibited for anyone except Allah. This hadith is reflective of the feudalisation of Islamic ethos. In other words women by then had lost her autonomy and what revolutionary changes and empowerment of women effected by the Qur'an were totally lost.
It would be interesting to quote here from a medieval text to show the concept of an ideal woman prevailing in that society. "An ideal women", according to this medieval writer, "speaks and laughs rarely and never without a reason. She never leaves the hose, even to see neighbours or her acquaintance. She has no women friends, gives her confidence to nobody, and her husband is her sole reliance. She accepts nothing from anyone, excepting her husband and her parents. If she sees her relatives she does not meddle in their affairs. She is not treacherous and has no faults to hide, nor bad reasons to proffer. She does not try to entice people. If her husband shows his intention to performing the conjugal rites, she agrees to satisfy his desire and occasionally provokes it. She assists him always in his affairs, and is sparing in complaints and tears; she does not laugh or rejoice when she sees her husband moody or sorrowful but shares his troubles, and wheedles him into good humour till he is quite content again. She does not surrender herself to anybody but her husband, even if abstinence would kill her. Such a woman is cherished by everyone." (See Shaykh Nefzawi, The Perfumed Garden. Tr. Richard F. Burton, New York, 1964), p-97). This is how a Muslim woman was pictured in medieval ages.
It is these feudal restrictions that we have inherited from our past and we glorify them as 'Islamic' and any deviation from it is condemned as western feminism. These restrictions are still practised in most of the Muslim countries because they still have not been democratised and women have no access to modern education. There is hardly any Muslim country, which has democratic governance. Either there is monarchy or military dictatorship or controlled democracy.
However, modernisation is also going apace and it is difficult for the rulers in Muslim countries to resist spread of modern education among women. More modern education spread among women and society becomes increasingly democratised, awareness for rights grows among them and they demand their rights either on Islamic or secular grounds.
It is interesting to note that while in several Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait women are demanding modernisation and political and social rights some women in Turkey are keen to go into hijab. In many non-Muslim countries also a section of Muslim women are taking to hijab. It is important to note the reasons for the same.
Though in general women are demanding their rights in all countries some Muslim women feel proud to observe Islamic dress code. It is more for reasons of identity. Westernisation (which is not necessarily modernisation and one must distinguish between the two) has led to certain excesses in manner of dressing which violate sexual modesty as the whole emphasis is on displaying feminine charms and body line rather than conceal them.
Today there is feeling among the people in developing countries of western culture assuming hegemonising role, which creates resentment. Globalisation has further strengthened the hegemony of western culture and the people of developing countries have become quite conscious of their own culture and cultural practices. The Muslim women are also taking to their own cultural way of dressing to assert their cultural identity. Hijab should thus be seen as part of this process rather than a way of restricting women. Thus hijab today is part of visible cultural identity than anything else. However, this hijab should not be imposed and should not cover face to become restrictive. Wearing scarf or chador as Iranians call it, should suffice.
Such way of dressing should neither be imposed nor should it be opposed. In Turkey, the Member of Parliament was also not allowed to attend the House wearing hijab. She was disqualified from membership fearing she represents fundamentalists in Turkey. Such compulsion to wear only western dress is as condemnable as making it compulsory to wear hijab. A woman should be free to wear dress the way she likes though within the limits of modesty.
One should not condemn any movement for empowerment of women as western feminism. Women are as much human beings as men and today women's rights are part of human rights. Women have every right to take part in all social, cultural and political movements. They should not be debarred from any arena. There is no sphere of activity in which women have not excelled men. It is only in Muslim countries that she is still restricted from taking part in public sphere.
It is unfortunate that there is even debate whether a woman could pray in the mosque or not. Many Muslim communities still do not permit women to pray inside mosques let alone allow them to take part in public activities. In countries like India now there is reservation in jobs and even in political bodies like panchayats and municipalities and municipal corporations. There is reservation for women for posts of sarpanch and mayors. Some conservative `ulama gave fatwa that a woman cannot contest elections. Muslim women in India rightly defied such fatwas and contested elections.
Such fatwas are given more out of ignorance of Islamic jurisprudence. The past traditions should alone cannot be the guide for issuing such fatwas. As society is changing social legislation should also change in a healthy way. Such change does not necessarily amount to imitating the west. While we should condemn globalisation in as much as it imposes western hegemony we should not reject modernity per se.
Islamic legislation should be dynamic and the concept of ijtihad does provide spirit of dynamism to Islamic shari`ah. It is unfortunate that our `ulama are quite incompetent to understand modern society. They are totally past oriented and they think everything past is in keeping with Islamic practices. Time has come to critically evaluate all past practices and legislate afresh in many areas in keeping with the Qur'anic values on one hand, and modern spirit on the other.
Our `ulama laid more emphasis on hadith literature than on the Qur'an, particularly, when it came to legislating about women and the hadith literature reflects medieval feudal ethos than the real Qur'anic spirit. There is, therefore, great need today for women theologian who could properly interpret and appreciate the Qur'anic verses concerning women's rights.
This writer has no hesitation in asserting that Qur'an is very assertive of women's rights and, if read carefully, it accords equal dignity and equal rights to both the sexes. However, this spirit of the Qur'an could be appreciated either by women theologians or men committed to women's rights.
JUST Commentary, Volume 3, No.9, September 2003 pp.8-11
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