“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.
The portrayal of Muslim women in the media is grim and sombre. The public perception of them is one of stubborn stereotypes: supposedly powerless and oppressed, bereft of even fundamental rights. This picture keeps reinforcing itself, largely because this is how the Western media caricatures women in Islam. Recurring images beamed into our homes and phones keep strengthening the belief that Muslim women are being denied access to education, social space, privacy and educational and development programmes for socio-economic uplift.
It has also reduced Muslim women to a stereotyped singularity, plastering a handy cultural icon over much more complicated historical and political dynamics. This powerfully flawed narrative dominates our newsfeeds. It overshadows the reality that nine Muslim women have led their countries in the last three decades, while the US couldn’t even elect its first real female presidential candidate in 2016. In many Arab countries and Iran, more women are in university than men.
In Egypt, women make up a larger percentage of engineering and medical faculties than women do in the US. 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. This distortion, however, should not deflect our focus from some path-breaking and stellar contributions of Muslim women not just to Islamic civilization but the secular society as well.
Muslim women, like their counterparts in other creeds, are an empowered community. They believe that rights have been accorded to them in foundational Islamic texts, but that interpretation of these same documents with the prevalent cultural lens disallows what is rightfully theirs. They do not call this a feminist struggle but describe it as a reclamation of their faith.
The tragic irony of Islam is that the Qur’an, is particularly solicitous of women’s well-being and development, yet Islamic traditions discriminate against girls. The Qur’anic description of marriage suggests closeness, mutuality, and equality, but tradition defines a husband as his wife’s god in earthly terms. The Qur’an provides rights that address the common complaints of women such as lack of freedom to make decisions for themselves and the inability to earn an income.
One example is a verse in the Qur’an (4:34) that is frequently interpreted as giving women complete control over their income and property. This article also explains how Islam has been used as a method of controlling women, particularly in the practices of veiling and purdah (seclusion). The Qur’an permits divorce without fault, but Muslim societies have made divorce both legally and socially very difficult for women.
The challenge for all women, and especially Muslim women, is to move from a reactive mindset, in which women must assert their autonomy over patriarchal opposition, to a proactive mindset, in which they can speak of themselves as full and independent human beings with minds and spirits as well as bodies. 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.
Although traditionally excluded from the male public domain, Muslim women have been privately involved in the study and oral transmission of Islamic source texts (the Quran and Hadith). In modern times, they have entered both secular and religious forms of education with enthusiasm, supporting their long-standing role as family educators and moral exemplars, as well as training for professional careers in the workplace outside the home.
Islamic scholar Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi’s epic work al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam, stands as a riposte to the notion, peddled from Jakarta to Morocco, that Islamic knowledge is men’s work and always has been. “I do not know of another religious tradition in which women were so central, so present, so active in its formative history,” Akram writes.
Women scholars taught judges and imams, issued fatwas, and travelled to distant cities. Some made lecture tours across the Middle East. The Quran’s messages of equality resonated in the teaching that women and men have been created from a single self and are each other’s guides who have the mutual obligation to enjoin what is right and to forbid what is wrong. None of the inspired women who were strong, vocal, and fighting for their rights during the era of the Prophet felt that their faith was at odds with their conviction that they, as women, should be equal citizens.
Muslim women’s activism around education and equal opportunities are often underpinned by their emancipatory readings of foundational Islamic texts. They are also 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. Feminism in Islam is grounded in Qur’anic values and not in notions of western sociology.
Women do not accept that being feminist means being western and believe that western women should be respectful of other paths to social change. 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 as well as respecting social standards that reflect non-western values. Muslim women must work in full partnership with Muslim men, rejecting Western models of liberation, but also, and more importantly,
asserting their own.
Women are now elbowing their way into political and civil society, and universities. Despite present cultural and political obstacles, they are finding opportunities to rise and to bring their societies up with them. They feel the key is to do so within Islamic paradigms. There is a need to engage in Islam from a position of knowing, and to ensure that Muslim women have access to this knowledge.
It is only through this knowledge that women can assert their rights and challenge patriarchal interpretations of slam. While giving priority to a literal, puritanical reading of the Qur’an, they want to discard the historical reality of the Muslim world in favour of the ideal society of Prophet Muhammad and his companions. Their unifying vision has made collective action possible.
There is no denying the fact that the Muslim world has a great amount of ground to cover to protect women’s rights and freedoms, and the quest for gender equality remains paramount. However, the idea that all Muslim women are oppressed because Muslim men are misogynists is wide off the mark, because women’s oppression manifests itself in several ways, and not all Muslim men are the oppressors.
The protagonists of the western brand of feminism should heed what the then First Lady Michelle Obama expressed to hijab-wearing students when she told them: “You wonder whether anyone ever sees beyond your headscarf to see who you are, instead of being blinded by the fears and misperceptions in their minds. And I know how painful and how frustrating all of that can be.”
(The writer is the author of Village Diary of a Heretic Banker. He can
be reached at [email protected])