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Islam, Women and Feminism

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

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

 
Day against Homophobia
Robert W Gibson

Great steps have been taken worldwide towards empowering women, promoting freedom of religion, and banning discrimination based on the colour of skin. The economic and social benefits have been huge. Yet some people are uncomfortable applying this to same-sex relations, and treat this issue as an irrelevant diversion. To do so undermines the principle of the universality of human rights…

 

 It is very late at night in early 2001. Fifteen year old Mitali lies writhing in pain in the corner of a dingy room deep within one of Dhaka's overcrowded slums. She is several hours into labour. Her adolescent body, emaciated from chronic malnourishment, is not the optimal environment to sufficiently host or deliver a baby. As we edge closer to the year 2015, with Bangladesh within reach of the 4th and 5th Millennium Development Goals regarding health, it is important not to become complacent. Perhaps the ultimate tragedy lies in the fact that Mitali considers her ability to give birth an obligation, and producing living children a luxury. This is our greatest challenge. Only when our mothers realise their worth and own their power to give birth will we as a society realise the full benefits of safe motherhood.-- Christy Turlington Burns and Kaosar Afsana

 

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

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

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