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Books and Documents

Islam, Women and Feminism

Fatima, a young woman from Mecca, sent me an email 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 (male guardian)."She went on, "And the mataw'a have been given the right to humiliate us in public." Indeed, the mutaw'a saw their wide powers enhanced even more by decrees issued by King Abdullah in March, after helping to suppress protests in the kingdom earlier in the month. Wahhabi clerics issued a fatwa that forbids women to access to the Internet without the supervision of a male guardian. "The system of confinement is justified neither by Islamic texts, nor by the nature of the diverse society that the Al Saud and their Wahhabi partners' rule," ... -- Mai Yamani

Rising above the vulgar arguments some commentators based on the rationale of “God forgive my people”, the beauty of Islamic Shariaa is that its rules are open to interpretation, which is why there is a distinction between Shariaa and jurisprudence. Second, as any scholar would tell you, human interpretation is fallible or can be influenced by motive and preference, and that there is enlightened and narrow-minded jurisprudence. In fact, the least knowledgeable are the quickest to judge. I believe that Arab Islamic culture, in terms of the overall goals of Islamic Sharia and enlightened jurisprudence, is not a major obstacle to a renaissance built on freedom, knowledge and lifting the stature of women. The main obstacle is the use of oppression and backwardness for narrow-minded interpretations in Arab Islamic cultures, to reproduce the hegemony of the few in control of tyrannical regimes. -- Nader Fergani

However, the religious group’s ant women utterances, made in the name of upholding Islamic principles, have unsettled not just liberal scholars but even traditional Ulema. “The protest against Roohi Khan’s appointment is completely un-Islamic. I am ready to debate with anyone who says Muslim women can’t work with men,” says senior cleric Maulana Shoeb Koti. A part of the relevant verse goes: “Tell believing women to avert their eyes, and safeguard their private parts, and not to expose their attractions except what is visible (24:31).” Noted London-based Islamic scholar Ziuddin Sardar, in his new book, Reading The Quran, explains this verse. “The objective of the verse is to achieve modesty and public chastity by concealing nakedness and not sexualizing one’s appearance,” writes Sardar, adding, “Modesty cannot be reduced to a piece of cloth, whatever form or fashion it might have, but rather consists of the sum total of behaviour and a distinctive moral outlook.” -- Mohammed Wajihuddin

Imagine the feelings of helplessness, utmost pain and anger of an 11-year-old boy who is forced to see his mother paraded naked along the streets of his village among the people of his community. No one is there to give chaadar (covering) to his naked mother. He is crying for help. He is pleading the armed brothers to let his mother go. He is running towards the spectators of this real life drama with tearful eyes and heart-wrenching cries for help. His naked mother, who is the only heavenly thing in this world of pain and injustice, is being dragged through the dusty streets. Dust, not clothes, covers up the shivering, naked body of his mother. One dreadful idea flashes in the boy’s mind and he utters these moving sentences “ammi, ammi tum bahot bahadur ho (mom, you’re very brave)” just to infuse a new spirit of bravery and life in the insulted, humiliated and crushed body of his mother. -- Faheem Amir

In deeply conservative Saudi Arabia, where King Abdullah's government moved this year to further open jobs and education for women and responded surprisingly leniently last week to the most significant protest in decades against the kingdom's ban on women driving, this summer is what amounts to hopeful times for supporters of greater freedom for Saudi women. Then Bakr, now a university professor, stops herself. She slaps her hand to her forehead. “Oh, my God, “she moans. “I can't believe its 20 years later and we're still talking about women driving. “--Ellen Knickmeyer

 

The young women's rights activist acknowledges that, particularly in the big urban centres such as Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat, there has been visible progress. Women are seen on the street again; girls are going to school; some are also attending colleges of further education and universities. There are currently four more female ministers sitting in the lower house of the Afghan parliament than prescribed by the quota.  However, Ameer Rasuli has little hope for the work of the High Peace Council under the leadership of ex-president Rabbani, who is to conduct talks with the Taliban movement on behalf of the Afghan government. Alongside powerful regional leaders, religious scholars and tribal elders, the 70-strong council also includes nine women, but they have "no clear role", and are again shrouded in silence. -- Sandra Petersmann (Photo: Humaira Ameer Rasuli)

 

My internal turmoil increased. I could not give up my identity in Islam, because not only did I have a very strong belief in God and His final revelation, I also appreciated the many logical and beneficial aspects of the Islamic lifestyle. Nevertheless, I was very conflicted over my father’s view of women, which he claimed was preached in Islam. I highly respected my father and was not yet mature enough to admit that his understanding could be mistaken or imperfect; thus I was unable to merely reject his position. Instead, the conflict seemed to create a split personality inside me. I upheld and acted on one set of beliefs in line with my father’s teachings at home, fearing I would otherwise be turning my back on Islam or disappointing my father, while developing a much more analytical and questioning attitude when away at school. -- Hebah Ahmed

The honourable judges also held that “girls are as much entitled to fresh air as boys and that by permitting them to go unescorted and without purdah they are fostering in them a feeling of independence, confidence and self-reliance. A substantial number of incidents of harassment occur in schools, colleges, universities and academies, as well as on the Internet. Second, the amendment has failed to address the issue of procedure and its accessibility for women in relation to the offence. -- Hina Hafeezullah Ishaq

If the goal is survival in Pakistan’s rapidly changing ideological ecosystem, my burka-encased compatriot is the adaptable, hardy lizard destined to persevere and I the dinosaur condemned to extinction. This is the Pakistan of women paraded naked, where moral calculations regarding the covering of women’s bodies are available for all to see — in Meerwala, in Vehari and now in Haripur. Once you do away with the outrage, the condemnation rendered perfunctory when a village jirga orders yet another sexual assault on a woman, the logic of the calculation begins to emerge. The more you cover, the more moral you are — a direct correlation between piety and fabric, sanctity and the unseen. These magical few yards of cloth can deliver so much: moral elevation and personal space, an escape from budgetary wardrobe constraints and even the onerous demands of physical upkeep. -- Rafia Zakaria

While news of a minority of Muslim women in Burkas continues to spread Islamophobia in the West, a growing number of Arab women (veiled or otherwise) are shedding their typical conservative image and gaining more visibility in the pro-democracy protests around the region. … Berkeley-based Women’s Global Green Action Network, explains “women are inextricably linked to issues of environmental sustainability…as mothers, as caretakers, as food producers, as consumers and as nurturers.”-- Rola Tassabehji

 

The Trust Law website states that women in the five countries included in their list face a barrage of threats ranging from violence and rape to dismal healthcare and honour killings. It further mentions that those polled cited cultural, tribal and religious practices harmful to women, including acid attacks, child and forced marriage and punishment or retribution by stoning or other physical abuse. In Pakistan’s case, Trust Law cites one Pakistani NGO representative highlighting women’s lack of protection from violence and discrimination. It quotes another statement which goes beyond criticising Pakistani laws as being discriminatory, and also points out how the judicial system condones and exacerbates the problem by failing to view violence against women as a serious violation. These statements are hard to refute. -- Syed Mohammad Ali

 

Decades ago, the Urdu poet Majaz had called upon women to use aanchal or scarf as a banner or flag. In a couplet which later became a reference point for the progressives, he said: Tere sar pe yeh aanchal khub hai lekin/Tu ise parcham bana le to achcha hota (The scarf on your head looks good/But it will be better if you turn it into a banner). Perhaps no other groups need to follow the poet’s advice more sincerely than the Muslim women. By discarding scarf or burqa which anyway is not religion-mandated but custom-commanded, Muslim women will be asserting for a right Muslim men have denied them. Fortunately, there is an increasing group of liberated women who have raised a banner of rebellion. They're not burning bras, or burqas. But a bunch of non-conformist Muslim women activists are making an attempt to free their sisters from the clutches of a patriarchal clergy. -– From a paper presented to a seminar on Islamic feminist movement in India organised by The Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla by Adab Nawaz, NewAgeIslam.com

The Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, organized a three day seminar on ‘Muslim Women’s Struggles for Equality, Justice and Empowerment’ from the 21st to 23rd of May, 2011. It was attended by some twenty academics and social activists from across the country (and one from abroad) who are working on Muslim women’s issues. In his key-note address, the well-known scholar-activist Asghar Ali Engineer of the Centre for the Study of Secularism and Society and the Institute of Islamic Studies, Mumbai, spoke about alternate readings of the Islamic scriptural tradition that can be marshaled as a resource for Muslim women in their struggles for legal equality and empowerment within the home and in the public sphere. He contrasted such alternate readings with the deep-rooted patriarchal tradition of Islamic exegesis which remains dominant within many Muslim communities, in India and abroad. -- Yoginder Sikand, NewAgeIslam.com

 

Islam is the first religion which systematically empowered women when women were considered totally subservient to men. There was no concept of a woman being an independent entity and enjoying equal rights with dignity. Though the Quran empowered women and gave them equal status with men, Muslims were far from ready to accept gender equality. The Arab culture was too patriarchal to accept such parity. Many hadiths were ‘readied’ to scale down the woman’s status, and she, in most Islamic societies, became a dependent entity; often Quranic formulations were interpreted so as to make her subordinate to men. -- Asghar Ali Engineer

The debate over Burqa or face veil is every Islamic feminist’s favourite topic. It was debated at Shimla as well. The feminists concluded that the face veil, which is more a custom-commanded practice rather than a divine law, must not pull Muslim women out of the public arena. “Face veil is not Quran-commanded. Quran only wants women to dress modestly. So why should Muslim women conform to donning the Talibani top-totoe burqa?,” asks Sheeba Aslam Fehmi, a young researcher from Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. The combative assertion can easiy earn her a few fatwas, but she is undeterred. “Let there be fatwas on me,” dares Fehmi, who also opposes the continued “injustice” to Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen who has been unsuccessfully seeking Indian citizenship. -- Mohammed Wajihuddin

Photo: Writer Asma Gull Hasan, author of books on her view of Islam and feminism

Muslim women do not form a homogenous group and, therefore, the ways in which the processes of globalization impact upon them are very varied.  Even their religious identities which are undergoing redefinition and reinvention constantly also see great variations. For example, the way in which the issue of ‘burqa’ is being used by its defenders and its opponents to, among other things, emphasize their commitment to women’s rights when, in actual fact, their commitment is suspect and their real agenda far removed, has created a focus for women’s movements which they have to engage with whether or not it is in any way a priority for them.  It is imperative, therefore, to keep bringing the focus back to the issue of equal citizenship while displaying sensitivity and involvement with the myriad issues that revolve around Muslim women. -- Subhashini Ali

There were three allegations raised against the book. The first was that it departed from the teachings of Islam because it mentions that my protagonist is reading a novel titled "Christ Re-crucified" (whereas the Koran maintains that Jesus wasn't crucified in the first place, the editor). The second allegation is that I accuse anyone objecting to my "lecherous desires" of being joyless soldiers. And thirdly, it was claimed that I offended my mother in the novel, because they consider it an autobiography and think the mother mentioned in the book is identical with my real-life mother. -- Badriya Al-Bishrin, a Saudi writer in an interview with Christoph Dreyer

King, Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia was put forth this question by a TV commentator of a US network: “Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world in which women are not allowed to drive. It seems to be symbolic of a women’s lack of independence. Would you support allowing a woman to drive? ”The king’s response to the question at the time was: “I believe strongly in the rights of women… my mother is a woman, my sister is a woman, my daughter is a woman, and my wife is a woman. I believe the day will come when women drive. In fact, if you look at the areas in Saudi Arabia, the deserts and in the rural areas, you will find that women do drive. The issue will require patience. In time, I believe it will be possible. Yes, I believe we can. But it will require a little bit of time… Our people are just now beginning to open up to the world, and I believe that with the passing of days in the future everything is possible. -- Tariq A. Al Maeena

The fact remains that majority of the people did not even bother to learn the basic facts of the case, yet show strong emotional reactions when encountered with a counterargument. The writer of this article himself heard a prominent women rights activist declaring on Geo channel that she and Mukhtaran would be filing a rupee 10 crore suit each, against Duniya channel for airing a counter narrative. That is the level of tolerance of our liberal class which never misses an opportunity of criticizing religious intolerance. -- Waseem Altaf

Devout women contribute to public face of piety in contemporary Indonesia. Their search for spiritual knowledge, however, and the way they spread it in their families is quite different to the religious pattern of men. The search for spiritual knowledge of these women and the way they spread it in their families, is quite different to the religious pattern of men, who, partly because they have less time, think it enough to attend the mosque once a week. -- Susan Blackburn

 

The Arab Spring has proven an epochal period of activism and change for women, recalling the role of early feminists in the 1919 Egyptian movement for independence from Britain, or the important place of women in the Algerian Revolution. The sheer numbers of politically active women in this series of uprisings, however, dwarf their predecessors. That this female element in the Arab Spring has drawn so little comment in the West suggests that our own narratives of, and preoccupations with, the Arab world -- religion, fundamentalism, oil and Israel -- have blinded us to the big social forces that are altering the lives of 300 million people. -- Shahin and Juan Cole

If a non-Muslim woman is forced to wear a veil or abaya in a Muslim country, no violation of her religious injunctions is involved because nowhere is it said in a Hindu, Buddhist or Christian scripture that a woman should not wear veil or abaya. So Muslims are as justified in demanding that their women be allowed to wear burqa or purdah in a Western country as they are in enforcing Islamic dress code on non-Muslim women in a Muslim country. Should not one respect the laws of the land where he/she lives? Here again Muslims can and do demand exemption.-- James Paul

This so-called cultured western folk are growing exceedingly uncultured in relation to Islam - especially after they saw less impact on the importance of Islam in the West. Many European states have enacted fascist laws restricting Islamic faith. Safe sanctuary From burning of Holy Quran and fanatically filthy drawings on the Holy Prophet (PBUH) to removal of minarets, insulting women for wearing veil to attacking and injuring Muslims - the entire anti-Islamic world, especially the US and EU and their allies plus member states, have become a safe sanctuary of anti-Islamic fanatic leaders and fascist forces. -- Dr Abdul Ruff

Taking part in the raging debate over the ban on the Muslim veil that came into force in Nicolas Sarkozy’s France this week, a reader who identifies herself as “A Muslimah” writes: “Time and time again in ‘free, democratic’ societies women are manipulated and taught to believe that their freedom is directly linked to the removal of their clothing. Such emphasis has never been placed on men, though. It’s the removal of women’s clothing and not the choice to wear whatever they like that – women are brainwashed into believing – preserves their freedom, as is evident from this (French) ban on the veil.”  Her whole post deserves to be read by everyone, and widely shared. But I have to round it off with her closing lines: “Yet, those supporting the ban would have us believe Muslim women are the ones who are manipulated and suppressed. But it’s hardly surprising to see free societies ban women from covering their bodies. These are the nations in which women are used daily as mere commodities for buying and selling. The lands of the living Barbie dolls, where the daily objectification of women and young girls as sexual playthings has reached the mainstream. The female physique has become public property. Women must be on public display at all times.” -- Aijaz Zaka Syed

“The discrimination against women on a global basis is very often attributable to the declaration by religious leaders in Christianity, Islam, and other religions that women are inferior in the eyes of God,” former President Jimmy Carter said last week. Many traditions teach that while both men and women are equal in value, God has ordained specific roles for men and women. Those distinct duties often keep women out of leadership positions in their religious communities. What is religion’s role in gender discrimination?  “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” Here, in Ephesians 5, attributed to St Paul, we have in a nutshell the church’s attitude to the respective positions of man and woman. The man’s role is to be the head, the woman’s to submit to him. The meaning is crystal clear, unmistakable; and yet, despite the fundamentalists who firmly believe such Iron Age prejudices still apply today, there are many liberal Christians who have the decency to cringe at the primitiveness of such instructions and who therefore bend over backwards to pretend they’re not as bad as they quite patently are. “Ah yes,” they say, “but Paul goes on to say that husbands must love their wives. -- Paula Kirby



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