By Raza Habib Raja
February 7, 2018
Jamida Beevi leading the Friday prayers in Malappuram. PHOTO: SCROLL.IN
A few days ago, I came across a headline
that piqued my interest. In the Indian state of Kerala, a Muslim woman named
Jamida Beevi led the weekly Friday prayers in the predominantly orthodox Muslim
town of Malappuram.
Her decision to do so is remarkable, given
the fact that she is in reality a religious and practicing Muslim who also
works for a religious organisation. This also marks the first time that an
Indian Muslim woman has led prayers and that too in an orthodox setting. In the
past, some women have done so in western countries where threats of violent
backlash are relatively minute.
In this case, Beevi has taken a huge risk,
as violent backlash is a real possibility in India. In fact, after leading the
prayer, she has constantly been receiving death threats from fundamentalists.
However, Beevi has remained undeterred by the backlash. In a subsequent
interview, she stated that she believes in the Holy Quran, which teaches equality
between men and women, and emphasised that discrimination against women is
manmade and imposed by the male clergy.
I could not help but marvel at her courage
and conviction. Here is a devout and a hijab-wearing Muslim woman, who is
challenging gender stereotypes and actually using religious justifications to
do so. Her actions are not based on some western ideal, but on her
interpretation of her religion, Islam.
Of course, there are many who disagree with
her. After reading the story, I came across some heated debate on social media
on whether this act by a woman is allowed in Islam or not. I also came across
some videos, where conservative clerics were heatedly arguing that this act is
not allowed in Islam, as it compromised her modesty!
Now, I am by no means a religious scholar,
but I would like to point out that there are many practices that leave
significant room for debate within the Islamic tradition, and what ultimately
really matters is the interpretation of the religion itself.
For instance, there has been some debate on
whether a woman can be the head of state in a Muslim country or not. According
to some conservative scholars, it is not allowed, whereas some relatively
liberal scholars think that it is permissible. Despite the opposition by some
hardline elements, we have seen several female heads of state in recent times,
including Benazir Bhutto (Pakistan), Sheikh Hasina Wajid (Bangladesh), Khaleda
Zia (Bangladesh) and Megawati Sukarnoputri (Indonesia). Eventually, what
transpires depends on which interpretation is more acceptable for mainstream
Until last year, Saudi clergymen had been
using religious arguments against women’s right to drive, but today, the
practice has become acceptable. The point I am trying to make is that religious
interpretations can vary and always have room to evolve. Since religion is an
extremely important aspect of Muslims’ lives and they want to follow the legal
code and customs it prescribes, it is thus extremely critical that liberal
interpretations become more pervasive amongst the followers.
If this happens, it will bode well for
improving human rights and the gender imbalance in Muslim countries. In one of
my previous articles, I wrote about gender imbalance being a systemic issue in
the Muslim world. One can take the example of the World Economic Forum’s annual
gender gap index, which ranks countries with respect to gender parity. In 2016,
a total of 144 countries were ranked and not a single Muslim-majority country
was in the top 50. Furthermore, the last 15 countries (130 to 144) were all
Muslim-majority countries, with Pakistan ranked at 143 and only the war-torn
Yemen below it at 144.
Things have hardly improved in 2017, as
apart from Bangladesh, which improved its position from 72 to 47 over the year,
all other Muslim countries remained ranked at the bottom, with Pakistan
retaining its second last position. In fact, the strongest predictor of a
country’s place in the aforementioned ranking is whether it is a Muslim country
or not. If we take two countries with similar socioeconomic characteristics,
but one is Muslim and the other is not, there is a strong probability the
former will have much greater gender imbalance. In other words, even if we
control other factors, the fact alone that a country is Muslim is seemingly the
most significant factor in predicting the prevalence of gender disparity.
What makes Muslim countries so gender
imbalanced? In my opinion, it is the prevalence of religious orthodoxy in the
legal code as well as the customs, which in turn have led to a situation that
is discordant with modern times. Gender balance cannot be improved without
fracturing the religious orthodoxy, and for that we need reforms from within
the religion. The most significant reformation would undoubtedly take place
when religious practices start to change by accommodating women in leading
roles, and only when religious practices change can everything else
subsequently change as well.
It is in this context that this recent
episode of a woman leading a prayer in India becomes important, as it has
generated some much needed debate about the role that women can play in Islamic
religious rituals. I am happy to see that in India, many women are coming to
her defence, passionately arguing that Islam does not forbid a woman from
leading the prayers. They are reiterating that Islam is a progressive religion,
as it challenged the patriarchal system prevalent in Arab lands by giving women
proper inheritance rights and improving their legal status. I fully agree with
them, as I believe that Islam has that progressive spirit within. We just need
to emphasise on it, so that we can come out of the current situation we are
I hope that this debate, which has been
kicked off by this act of bravery on Beevi’s part, sets a good precedent and
continues to take place. Only by debating these issues can we move forward in
the right direction. For now, good luck to Jamida Beevi, and all the other
valiant women who are supporting her!
Raza Habib Raja is a recent Cornell graduate and currently pursuing his
PhD in political science at Maxwell School, Syracuse University. He has also
worked for a leading development finance institution in Pakistan. He is a
freelance journalist whose works have been published at Huffington Post, Dawn
(Pakistan), Express Tribune (Pakistan) and Pak Tea House.