Books and Documents

Islam, Women and Feminism

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

t's never been easy to get Germaine Greer. Just when you think you agree with one of her ideas, she'll make a statement that goes entirely against it. And it was no different at the Hay Festival in Kerala, where hers was easily the most awaited session of the three-day literature and cultural event at the Kanakakunnu Palace in Thiruvananthapuram. And when you bring up freedom for women under Sharia law, she's quite honest about the fact that she doesn't have the answers. "You have to ask women who take the veil. There are English women converting to Islam. It's interesting that they say they feel free behind the veil because they are not being looked at, “she said. "Nowadays in England, little girls can't grow up to be women because they can't put on enough flesh to become a woman. They're terrified because they must have no body and a huge pair of breasts. If that commoditisation of women revolts you, you might think the strict rigour of Islam has to be better. It allows women some dignity providing they keep their modesty. You know, women are modest and diffident by nature unless societal pressures force them to be otherwise. "-- Shalini Umachandran (Photo: Germaine Greer)


In not too distant a past, women in the Western world were meted out most torturous punishments on the slightest suspicion of adultery. Caught in the bed with a stranger, her husband could lawfully kill her. Today, as the Qur’anic ideals of forgiveness, mercy and matrimonial tribulations [2] have permeated the global human society, the world has largely abjured its methods of torture and execution of women and adopted softer methods of punishment. Some centers of Islam, however, stick to the context specific exemplary punishment (flogging in public) that were far from harsh for its era but stand out excessive and barbaric in relation to today’s changed punishment protocols in the world. Cruelty and torture upon women has thus changed sides. With this we probe the Qur’an for a fresh insight. “O Prophet! When believing women come to you to swear allegiance to you, (let them declare that :) they will not associate anything with God, nor will they steal, nor commit adultery (la yaznina), nor kill their children, nor invent any slander deliberately, nor disobey you in anything fair. Then you accept their allegiance, and seek forgiveness for them from God. Indeed God is Most Forgiving and Merciful” (60:12). The Qur’an starts off with an interim punishment of house confinement until death (4:15), subject to witnessing by four persons (4:15): “Should any of your women commit sexual perversity (fahishah), collect evidence against them from four of you. If they (so) testify, confine them to their houses until death claims them or God makes a way for them (4:15). -- Muhammad Yunus, NewAgeIslam.com

There is an old saying: you cannot fool all the people all the time, and the time for the champions of antiquated Muslim Personal Law in the name of Islam is over. As a fearless and honest child can loudly proclaim the king naked, any honest and fearless seeker of truth can establish the gender prejudice of the champions of the restrictive alimony for Muslim women regardless of the attending circumstances. He can post his truthful remarks incognito from any corner of the world without any fear of bearing the wrath of the clergy or its blind supporters. With this, we turn to the Qur’an, the ultimate source of wisdom, to uncover the truth. The Qur’an commands men to give a reasonable maintenance (mata‘) to their divorced wives: “(There shall be) a reasonable (bi al- ma‘ruf) maintenance for divorced women - a duty (haqq) binding on the heedful (2:241). Thus does God clarify His messages to you that you may use your reason” (2:242). The injunction is in broad terms. It does not say whether a man is required to make a one off provision to his divorced wife, or give a recurring maintenance until she remarries or expires. The duration and value of such maintenance is not specified. This is left with the court or arbitrators to decide after taking account of attending circumstances and financial factors. Thus, a man of limited means divorcing a rich wife soon after his marriage cannot be expected to bear the same level of financial responsibility as a man of means divorcing a penniless wife after a long marriage. The Qur'an, however, asks men-folk to use reason, and provides the basis for his reasoning. -- Muhammad Yunus, NewAgeIslam.com

Record numbers of young, white British women are converting to Islam, yet many are reporting a lack of help as they get used to their new religion, according to several surveys. As Muslims celebrate the start of the religious holiday of Eid today and hundreds of thousands from around the world converge on Mecca for the Haj, it emerged that of the 5,200 Britons who converted to Islam last year, more than half are white and 75 per cent of them women. In the past 10 years some 100,000 British people have converted to Islam, of whom some three-quarters are women, according to the latest statistics. This is a significant increase on the 60,000 Britons in the previous decade, according to researchers based at Swansea University. While the number of UK converts accelerates, many of the British women who adopt Islam say they have a daily struggle to assimilate their new beliefs within a wider culture that both implicitly and explicitly positions them as outsiders, regardless of their Western upbringing. -- Richard Peppiatt (Photo: A converted Muslim woman)    

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


“There is a lot of brain drain here, that’s part of why I came back. I didn’t want to be a brain drainer. I wanted to fix it.” Halifa is a 25 year-old Maldivian woman, educated and living abroad, who returned to work in the Maldives for a one year contract in a highly specialised professional field. For many young people, Halifa says, Maldivian culture is an obstacle to growth and employment. “Many youth wish they weren’t even Maldivian, they don’t know why they had to get stuck here,” she says. “When I talk to one of my friends, she says she wants to get out and come back when it’s better. That attitude is actually quite common.” Although Maldivian law and society allow for equal rights between genders, speaking out is considered brash and unfeminine, and the cultural mindset of wearing the burqa means more girls are being married young without finishing their education. One woman called this shift in behavior “brain wastage: a deliberate refusal to apply the brains that one has – and this is the biggest problem that Maldivian women face today.” -- Eleanor Johnstone 


This was particularly striking at an “interfaith” discussion after the official panel, during which four women — three of them Muslims wearing the veil, and the fourth a Hindu — tussled with two businessmen, one from Pakistan and the second from South Africa, over the niqab, the veil for the face. “How do we want to create an interfaith dialogue if they ban the burqa, discuss the headscarves, don’t allow Muslims to build mosques and then even have a preacher who wanted to burn the Koran?” Ms. Karklina asked. “Don’t you think that it would create problems for Islam” for everyone to wear the niqab? “It is nowhere mentioned in Islam and does make our religion look bad.” “See, we would actually need an interfaith dialogue,” said Deepika Nagabhushan, a businesswoman from Bangalore, India. “We all talk about tolerance and common ground between different religions, but what’s with the tolerance inside your own religion?” “We have a tradition which says that you are not supposed to touch anyone when you have your periods,” she noted.Heeding that, or wearing the niqab, she suggested, is not just religion, but custom.-- Souad Mekhennet

Although Palestinian women are better educated than men, their job opportunities are poorer. The greatest obstacles women face in working life is cultural ones. Education paves the way for change and is held in high regard by Palestinians, so Palestinian women tend to be well educated. Development professionals like to emphasise the economic importance of women's education. In Palestine, this does not necessarily apply. Although Palestinian women perform better at school and university, men outnumber them in working life by more than four to one.-- Viola Raheb


Pakistan’s first military dictator Field Marshal Ayub Khan, passed a new constitution in 1961 and brought in the Muslim Family Law Ordinance which gave women more rights when it came to issues of divorce and child support. Right up till the 70’s there was a surge of women in universities and colleges and many held well paying jobs. Women were active members of society. How they chose to live, interact or dress was a matter of their own choice. You even saw women riding motorbikes and bicycles. We saw an increase in parliamentary participation by women and Bhutto’s 1973 constitution guaranteed gender equality. However, freedom was short-lived. What happened you ask? Well we were set on a path of “righteousness” through the “wahabization” of Pakistani society by General Zia ul Haq. After taking power, he enacted many discriminatory laws such as the Hudood Ordinances, Law of Evidence Order and Qisas and Diyat laws that still exist today. -- Meera Ghani

“The subject of ‘the oppression of women in Islam’ is no more than a rhetorical device inherited from imperial times,” says Leila Ahmed, the first women’s studies professor at Harvard Divinity School As a British journalist wrote at the time, the burqa became the “battle flag” and “shorthand moral justification” for the war in Afghanistan. In the ensuing months the media filled with images of burqa, images embedded in narratives that were about women’s oppression in Afghanistan, but narratives too that often also carried an implicit message as to Islam’s purportedly ageless oppression of women. Religiously committed Western women are reinterpreting old texts, including the Koran and coming up with interpretations that radically challenge old, male-centred interpretations, Ahmed writes As such scholars and critics point out, it’s an arresting fact that books by Muslim women recounting their personal oppressions under Islam soared in popularity in the very years that our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were in fact costing many mostly Muslim women their very lives. -- Leila Ahmed

Fatima, a young woman from Mecca, sent me an e-mail at the height of the Egyptian revolution: “Forget about the cries for freedom; I can’t even give birth without being accompanied to hospital by a mihrim,” or male guardian. She went on, “And the [religious police] have been given the right to humiliate us in public.” Yet globalization knows no limits, not even those set by the guardians of Islamic probity. Nine-year-old Saudi girls chat online, disregarding clerical fatwas that forbid them Internet access without male supervision. Many women remain secretly glued to satellite television, watching their peers in the public squares of Egypt or Yemen, beyond their reach but not their imagination. Last month, a brave woman named Manal al-Sharif broke the silence and apathy, daring to defy the ban on women’s driving. For the next week, she sat in a Saudi prison. But within two days of her detention, 500,000 people had watched the YouTube video of her excursion. Thousands of Saudi women, frustrated and humiliated by the ban, have vowed to stage a “driving day” today. -- Mai Yamani


When I was a student of Aalim, Faazil (religious degrees given by madrasas) I had lots of complaints from my God. I could not understand why He created us women with deficient intellect and poor religious understanding, Naquis ul Aqul wad deen? When I completed my Maulvi Degree, I had a book ‘Quran e Rejali Tafawwuq” which stated that in fact this world is created for the men and us women had a marginal role here. (Nauzo Billah). Litaskunu Alaiha. Had my education stopped there, for the rest of my life I would have taken Quran as a charter of patriarchal society.  …

When I made ‘Muslim Women’ my topic of research in Aligarh Muslim University in Ph. D, I got an opportunity of research and detailed study of all the Aayats (Quranic verses) and Rewayaats (traditions, Hadith) connected to women. I was surprised to note that the Quran which is interpreted by the traditional scholars as having called women as possessed of deficient intellect and poor religious understanding (Naquis ul Aqul wad Deen) has in fact made women as the role models in the form of Aasia and Maryam for all the Believing (Momin) men and women. If woman is created with distorted intellect by nature, what does Messrs Men following them mean? Let us take it in another way. If “Al Rejalu Alaihinna Darjah”   is taken as it is being taken commonly, my question to all the great scholars of Deen is: can a man consider himself being higher than Hazrat Aayesha (RA) or Hazrat Umme Salma (RA)? Do our scholars really think that being a woman Hazrat Aayesha (RA) is Naquis ul Aqul wad Deen? When Prophet (SAW) was taking advice of Hazrat Umme Salma (RA) in Hudaibiya, was he knowingly not paying attention to the fact that she is Naquis ul Aqul wad Deen? I was happily surprised to know that I was not the only person to take Quran as a patriarchal charter rather centuries before me Ummul Momineen Hazrat Umme Salma (RA) also had expressed some complaints like this in Sidr-e-Awwal. -- Dr. Kausar Fatima, Ph D in Islamic Studies from AMU. (Translated from Urdu by Arman Neyazi, NewAgeIslam.com)

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