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Books and Documents

Islam, Women and Feminism

The Arab society, like other societies, was fiercely patriarchal society and one cannot expect patriarchal societies to empower women. In fact for women empowerment patriarchal societies are main obstacles. In Mecca women’s situation was very precarious and in initial stages women responded to Islamic mission quite enthusiastically and one of the first respondents was Prophet’s (PBUH) wives and subsequently also many women responded before their husbands or sons did. -- Asghar Ali Engineer

At a recent book reading in Oregon, for example, a male audience member asked me, “How does that even work?” These questions demonstrate some of the rigid misconceptions individuals have about Islam and feminism; many people think that they’re mutually exclusive categories. In fact, as a Muslim feminist, I have found them to have more in common than people realise, especially when it comes to social justice. Some assume that feminism is concerned only with the protection and advancement of women. But as a bi-racial Muslim woman, I can’t ignore the ways that different socially constructed categories, such as gender and race, interact and interrelate. My feminism is concerned with the dignity and rights of every person. -- Fatemeh Fakhraie

A woman can be targeted by (individuals within) her family for a variety of reasons, including: refusing to enter into an arranged marriage, being the victim of a sexual assault, seeking a divorce – even from an abusive husband – or (allegedly) committing adultery. The mere perception that a woman has behaved in a way that ‘dishonour’s her family is sufficient to trigger an attack on her life.’ The tradition of honour killings are locally known as karo kari. Recently, a Pakistani family living in Belgium went on trial for killing one of their female family members. Refusing to accept an arranged marriage and living with a Belgian, Sadia Sheikh was shot dead with three bullets allegedly fired by her brother, Mudusar Sheikh. “That if anyone slays a human being – unless it be (in punishment) for murder or for spreading corruption on earth – it shall be as though he had slain all mankind; whereas, if anyone saves a life, it shall be as though he had saved the lives of all mankind” (5:32).--  Aneka Chohan

Some Muslim scholars in Saudi Arabia exhort that 'allowing women to drive in Saudi Arabia would provoke a surge in prostitution, pornography, homosexuality and divorce. The Saudi government, however, is considering lifting the ban of women's driving in a matter of 10 years. Hearing this decision of the government some conservative mullahs even claimed that from the day Saudi women would start driving there would be "no more virgins" in the Islamic kingdom. -- Maswood Alam Khan

 

Secular republicans saw, and some still see, the woman's headscarf -- interpreted by pious Muslims as a religious obligation -- as the wedge by which Islamic law will enter the Turkish republic. One practice, its secular critics worry, will lead to another. Mustafa Akyol, a young modernist Muslim thinker, disagrees. "The headscarf is expected from Muslims," he tells my students who have come here from New York University-Abu Dhabi, "but it is up to rational choice, like fasting for Ramadan. Forcing someone to wear it would be a sin. -- Roger Friedland

 

The viciousness of their attack took me aback. Yes, I confess, this feminist thought they wouldn't beat a woman so hard. But I wasn't just a woman. My body had become Tahrir Square, and it was time for revenge against the revolution that had broken and humiliated Hosni Mubarak's police. And it continues. We've all seen that painfully iconic photograph of the woman who was beaten and stripped to her underwear by soldiers in Tahrir Square. “The women of Egypt are a red line.” My body, and mind, belongs to me. That's the gem at the heart of the revolution. -- Mona Eltahawy

The condition of women in Iran in the wake of Khomeini’s revolution in 1979 bears living testimony to the fate of Arab women, if they make similar mistakes and fail to rebel early on and in a comprehensive fashion. For one thing, Arab women today would represent an extraordinary instrument of change, if they were to organize themselves with the aim of causing political, economic and social change, so as to form a clear response to the attempts of Islamists to hijack the idea of the secular state. Resisting subjection may force women to resort to violence, and this would require courage, boldness and initiative. Women have played significant roles within political organizations, liberationist or Islamist, yet they have most of the time been excluded as soon as the revolutionaries or the Islamists came to power. The United Nations has a role it must now boldly play through its Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who spoke boldly against Gaddafi, and must now speak with the same boldness for the rights of Libyan women, from the perspective of human rights as well as that of political participation. -- Raghida Dergham

 

“Mulk ko badnaam kiya hai!” (She has tarnished the country’s name!) Really? As if Veena Malik’s naked body is really the most controversial aspect of Pakistan’s image abroad. Last I checked it was the corrupt government, the oversized military and oh, bin Laden’s hideout that made Pakistan look bad, not Veena Malik’s curves. She is not an ambassador of Pakistan, despite the philosophy that every Pakistani is an ambassador of Pakistan. While she is clearly a Pakistani woman in Indian Territory, she is not the only one who has caused a stir there within the past year. India, and the rest of the world, knows that she is not representative of all Pakistani women. In fact, the West will experience this first-hand soon enough, with Sherry Rehman as Pakistan’s new ambassador to the US. And then Islam comes in. “She can’t be Muslim! She’s naked!” Maybe she is, maybe she isn’t. But the fact of the matter remains that her religion is her personal concern, not ours. If she is to be eternally damned to hell for baring all, then it is she that must pay for her actions. Not you, not I. Perhaps we should forget about her religious transgressions and focus on our own – tall order for a country with a blasphemy law, I know. -- Hafsa Ahmad

Some years ago, a young married girl was hounded by her family which tracked her down in Lahore and killed her husband who was from another tribe. The girl was shot and left for dead. She was taken to a hospital and finally ended up at Panah, a private shelter for women in Karachi. According to statistics compiled by the Aurat Foundation, in its annual report for 2010, Sindh province, with 266 honour killings, reported the highest number for any province. As many as 1,652 cases of violence against women were registered, including 246 cases of abduction and 308 murders. The killing of a youth who allegedly had an affair with a girl (who was later reported to be missing) sparked off violence in the Shikharpur area of Sindh, leading to the death of three Hindu doctors last month. There were protests in Hyderabad and other areas after the attack and no one really knows if the incident was related to the “honour” of the girl in question. Honour killings mostly occur in the tribal belts bordering Balochistan. Tribal traditions and the word of the archaic “jirga” (a tribal council) and panchayat systems hold sway. There is a practice of declaring any women a “kari” and the man involved “karo” meaning those who have brought disrepute to the family and this provides a “culturally condoned reason” for killing them, according to the report. -- Meena Menon 

I’ll tell you what it was like. It was sickening. It was dangerous and disgusting. Trash was piled and rotting in the open, distilled sewerage clogged the pathways, and buildings were crumbling from decay. The police don’t bother with regulating the area and if you report that you got mugged or harassed there, they’ll turn on you and question why you even went there to begin with. As we walked along the street, my husband pointed to a young man and told me he was a pimp. My jaw dropped. He could have passed for anyone; he looked like he had walked out of Eid Namaz. He had a clean complexion, full black hair, wore a black Topee and was dressed in pressed white Shalwar Quameez with a forest green Dupatta draped evenly around his neck. He looked so fresh, yet so unassuming. He had one arm resting behind his back and was discreetly scanning those passing by, most likely for potential customers or girls to employ. We walked further along and from a distance I could see a group of women gathered on a rooftop. One of the girls saw me and started waving. “Assume any girl that’s lingering on a balcony, doorway, or on a rooftop is a prostitute,” my husband instructed. -- Alina D

The Women of Karbala
Asghar Ali Engineer

Islam’s was not only a spiritual but also a social revolution. It empowered women and gave them equal rights which was unthinkable at that time. Women played at best a secondary role in any civilisation in the seventh century CE. However, Islam raised their status and assigned them an equal role in all worldly affairs along with men. Many women, like Umm-i-Ammara, even took part in various battles which the Prophet had to fight. In the Battle of Uhud, Umm-i-Ammara took the attack of a sword on her arm and saved the life of the Prophet. Hazrat Fatima, as all Muslims agree, was indeed very close to her father, and thus Muslims highly revere her. She too was brought up by the Prophet enshrining the highest values of Islam. Her sons, Imam Hasan and Husain, were equally loved. Her daughter, Hazrat Zainab, played a pivotal role in the aftermath of the battle of Karbala. Bibi Shehar Banu was the daughter of Kisra, the King of Persia who was defeated by the Muslims, and Hazrat Ali married her to his son, Husain. -- Asghar Ali Engineer

There is a line in William Shakespeare's play Hamlet: "Frailty thy name is woman." It hints at the fact that women are feeble creatures. There is a famous saying in Pushto about the status of women in society: "There are two places for women -- one is in her house and the other in her grave." Girls have no say in their marriage. Marriage between cousins is preferred so that family property stays intact. A refusal to do so is considered disobedience and against the family honour. Maternal Mortality Rate (MMR) is very high in Pakistan and higher in Pashtoon society. To address the issue of the status of women in this part of the world is an uphill task. The root causes being a patriarchal society, poverty, illiteracy, cultural and religious constraints. -- Farzana Ali khan

Notions of Male Superiority, Domination and Beating of Wife Stand un-Islamic Today
Muhammad Yunus, New Age Islam

The caption may shock most Muslim men who believe that God has raised their ranks over women and given them the right to beat up a ‘rebellious’ or ‘disobedient’ wife. Any Qur’anic translation in Urdu, Hindi, English or any other language for that matter, of the verses 4:34 and 2:229 will support such notions. “Men are the supporters (qawwamah) of (their) wives because God has favored each of them in different measures (ba'dahum ‘ala ba'din), and because of what they spend (for them) of their wealth. The righteous women are devout (qanitatun) and guard the unseen that God would have them guard. As for those (women), of whom you fear adulterous behavior (nushuz), counsel them, leave them (alone) in their beds and assert (wadribu) on them; but if they listen to you, do not seek a way against them. (Remember,) God is Sublime, Great” (4:34). -- Muhammad Yunus

Arab Spring & Women
Asghar Ali Engineer

What is important to note is the role of women in the political mobilisation in these male-dominated societies and, secondly, the shattering of the myth that Muslim women merely sit at home and are worth nothing more than domestic workers. Muslim women have proved that they can mobilise the people far more efficiently and purposefully. It is interesting to note that many women in Tunisia and Egypt were quite active in trade unions. They put their experience gained in the union activities to proper use to bring about change in the political structures of their countries. But post-revolution, a shadow of doubt may hang over their heads now. The question is: what will this democratic revolution offer them in terms of social liberties? Will it scrap certain rights that they gained under dictatorships? I have always maintained that gender justice is very central to the Quran, provided the Quran is read in its proper context. Today, with a greater role being played by women in public life, it is all the more important that gender justice be made equally central in the Sharia laws through the contextual and normative understanding of the Quranic verses in their true spirit. -- Asghar Ali Engineer

With this far-reaching anti-abortion strategy, the proponents of what they call personhood amendments hope to reshape the national debate. “I view it as transformative,” said Brad Prewitt, a lawyer and executive director of the Yes on 26 campaigns, which is named for the Mississippi proposition. “Personhood is bigger than just shutting abortion clinics; it’s an opportunity for people to say that we’re made in the image of God.” Many doctors and women’s health advocates say the proposals would cause a dangerous intrusion of criminal law into medical care, jeopardizing women’s rights and even their lives. -- Erik Eckholm

 

Abortion is illegal in the Maldives except to save a mother’s life, or if a child suffers from a congenital defect such as thalassemia. Anecdotal evidence, however, points overwhelmingly to a high rate of abortion and unwanted pregnancy. Around the same time as Sharia’s arrest, a dead infant was found in a plastic bag in Male’s swimming track area. A medical examination later concluded that the baby had sustained cuts, bruises and other wounds, an indication of possible abortion practices. Although flogging is still a legal form of punishment in many Muslim countries worldwide, Amnesty officials claim that it specifically discriminates against women. Of the 184 people sentenced to lashing in 2006, 146 were female-- Eleanor Johnstone  (Photo: Aminath Shaira, age 30 of Finolhu/Noonu Mother of deceased premature Baby)

"When women thrive, all of society benefits and succeeding generations are given a better start in life."-----Kofi Annan, Former Secretary General of the United Nations. Tunisia, being the country that pioneered the Arab Spring movement, the first in the Arab world to lead in equality and protection of women and the first to hold democratic elections is thus a nation which is at the forefront of innovation and positive changes. It has been highly regarded and respected for largely non-violent transitions in the right direction, an attribute which hopefully will be preserved. -- Sabria Chowdhury

Sidrah Jamal of Patna’s Sultanganj area – a thickly Muslim-dominated pocket of the state capital – has earned honor and fame for not just her already well-off and well-educated family but for the community also – the community whose females are described as the most illiterate among the rest of the communities in the country. Using icons of Islam, a small group of Muslim women is creating a genre of art that seeks to address contemporary socio-political issues and concerns related to empowerment of women. A long-time journalist with international media awards to her name, Ms. Nekzad first received threats when she co-founded privately-owned news agency Pajhwok, in 2004 in Kabul. Her husband has also received written warnings saying he would be killed as punishment for his wife’s work. Ms. Nekzad’s new project increased the threat to the safety of both.  -- Muslim Women’s Newsletter

Are rewards such as martyrdom, pride, nationalism, spiritual duty, iconography, paradise and piety ever going to translate into any material terms of engagement and deliver any individual or collective rights for women at all? Is the Islamist woman’s agency only to be employed for sacrificial purposes and to facilitate holy war, or can she hope for some transformative possibilities for the future of women in her community? This female suicide attack has prompted anxiety amongst otherwise conservative male politicians and media commentators, over the potential of the veil as a tool for future breaches in security. A newspaper columnist suggested that the all-engulfing veil makes for “perfect… concealment of explosive devices and even suicide jackets.” The columnist goes on to predict; “There should be no doubt that militants would use females to launch suicide attacks, particularly in places difficult to penetrate.” -- Afia Shehrbano Zia

 

We need to say more than Islam is a religion of peace. We need to say, as Muslims, that we disassociate ourselves from violence.” This is an example of the attitudes reflected in the book, “I Speak for Myself”….. Their stories examine their faith, families, values, traditions and relationships with both non-Muslims and fellow Muslims, while they examine their searches for their own identities, as Muslim women in America. Compiled and co-edited by Maria Ebrahimji and Zahra Suratwala, the book contains first-person narratives of women that, as the editors’ point out, have been “negotiating a dichotomy of Islamic and Western values since birth.” “My religion was always polluted with politics, and by this I mean radical Islam. It’s up for Muslims to find a solution for this. They need to speak out against it. I understand that it is a byproduct of unfair politics and other things, but they still need to speak out.” “The best way is through dialogue and by not being afraid to say I’m a Muslim to those who say they are more pious. I think in 10 years time, we will see a growing and developing Islam.” -- Barbara Ferguson

It is as though life is imitating art and these terrorists are acting out the Danish cartoons that prompted violent, sometimes deadly riots in more than a dozen Islamic countries in 2006. At the heart of the violent fury was an offensive representation of the turban. Some of the 12 controversial cartoons conjoined the turban with the sword, or with its modern counterpart, the bomb. This was identified by Anders Fogh Rasmussen, then the Danish prime minister, as his country’s worst international crisis since World War II. The turban, like the veil, predates Islam. Never mentioned in the Koran, it appears more than 20 times in the Old Testament as a symbol of prophecy among the Israelites. “He set the turban on his head, and on the turban, in front, he set the golden plate, the holy crown, as Yahweh commanded Moses” (Leviticus 8:9). Putting on the turban, however, evolved into a synonym for conversion to Islam. For centuries, Muslims identified this headgear as a symbol of honor, dignity, piety and distinction. According to a number of authoritative Islamic narratives, all major religious figures, beginning with Adam, were turbaned. So were the angels. Islamic painting abounds in depictions of prophets, kings, and political dignitaries whose crowns of hair are fully covered. -- Farzaneh Milani

The war in Afghanistan costs US taxpayers two billion dollars a week. However, these phenomenal figures have not translated into anything tangible for Afghan women. Ten years ago on October 7, the NATO troops, captained by the USA, landed in Afghanistan. This UN-mandated invasion was coached in beautiful slogans like liberation of Afghan women from misogynist Taliban. Ten years on, the situation in our country, however, remains grim. Widespread violence, lack of health care and poverty make Afghanistan the worse country in the world for women, according to a study by the Thomson-Reuters Foundations. Such studies, by the way, have become common place. The Thomson-Reuters study was based on interviews with 213 experts world-wide. This study placed Afghanistan on top of five worst countries for women. -- Sahar Saba

 

Now we have women in government and prominent positions in civil society, with 69 female MPs in parliament, 27 percent of the total – some achievement when you consider that only 22 percent of UK MPs are women. Of the 7 million children who go to school, 40 percent are girls. But Afghanistan remains the worst place to live as a mother and as a woman, according to UN studies. Any Afghan will tell you that security is their primary concern. Without security you cannot implement an economic strategy, expand education and health or tackle deep-rooted problems such as corruption, drug trafficking and violence against women. -- Fawzia Koofi

Ten years ago the West closed down the debate on Afghanistan with stories of oppression. The reality is far more complex still. This isn't just history, the conflation of western aggression and women's rights has underpinned the last 10 years of conflict. Laura Bush has expanded on her 2001 themes at regular intervals ever since. In 2010, Time ran a cover photo of a girl, Bibi Aisha, whose nose had been cut off, and used the headline: “What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan.” As my colleague Jonathan Steele points out in his fascinating new book, Ghosts of Afghanistan, Bibi's story didn't quite fit the template of brutal Taliban. But it didn't much matter. The plight of Afghan women was a rallying cry that didn't allow for discussion or nuance. There was enough truth — such as the worst maternal mortality in the world — to silence any doubt. This simplistic morality tale of how American soldiers would advance the rights of Afghan women fits neatly into the thesis put forward by Susan Faludi in her book, The Terror Dream. Here she analysed how, after 9/11, Americans used historical myths, of cowboys rescuing and protecting weak women, for instance, in a bid to make larger sense of the attack. -- Madeleine Bunting

IF the US is the 800-pound gorilla that stamps on itself, Pakistan is like a python which thinks it’s crushing its prey but is really asphyxiating itself. Pressure will mount, pressure will subside, and there’ll be paroxysms at times of unhappiness, circumspection at times of measured success and the ungainly and clumsy contraption that is the American policymaking apparatus will continue to make life for itself even more difficult when it comes to Pakistan. As for the Pakistani side, expect more of the same, i.e. the same cockamamie nonsense that it has propounded for decades. Mullah Zaeef has memorably said: “Pakistan … is so famous for treachery that it is said they can get milk from a bull. They have two tongues in one mouth, and two faces on one head so they can speak everybody’s language; they use everybody, deceive everybody.” -- Cyril Almeida

 


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NEW COMMENTS

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  • Very true.
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