Dialogic study of Muslim women

Print edition : October 23, 2020

Offering prayers at Istiqlal mosque in Jakarta, Indonesia, on the occasion of Eid al-Adha on August 22, 2018. The issue of women offering prayers in mosques has been controversial and the practice continues to be disallowed in several countries. Photo: REUTERS

This anthology of articles combines analytical sensibility with academic rigour to provide fresh insight into the historical and current status of women in Islam.

Notwithstanding a premise of equality they promise and widespread reverence they carry, many religious books are now being read through the lens of feminist sensibility. Attempts are afoot to make out revealed texts as the story of women. The widely held view that ‘the scriptures never entail inequality and supremacy of one over the other’ hardly goes well with the radical feminist thinkers, who find these orations a hindrance to efforts for gender parity. For them, some of the venerated tracts seem to act like “texts of terror”. The emotionally resurgent but culturally fragmented world seeks solace from the institutionalised religions; hence, their centrality has come in for scrutiny.

Now the digitally-driven and sex-positive fourth-wave feminism questions the scriptures that reportedly strengthen patriarchy and caste hierarchy and target women with impunity. According to it, the major religions of the world unwittingly idolise gender discrimination, and cultural customs and social convictions make it more oppressive.

The new way of feminist reading hardly recognises the view that men and women are created in the image of God, and the assumption of superiority has no divine sanction. They seem to be unmindful of the biblical declaration: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:2)

Islam, too, has come in for a scathing attack for its alleged insistence on gender-segregated veiling and for not granting women economic, political, social, cultural, educational and spiritual parity with men. The practice of not providing women with an absolute right to offer prayers beside their male counterparts in mosques has added fuel to the fire. Muslim women are perceived as victims of all possible forms of suppression, and people tend to believe that women have an inferior place in Islam.

Undoubtedly, equality is a cherished ideal, but it does not stand for equivalence and sameness as it embraces biological, cultural, social and political diversity. Many commentaries on scriptures do discuss how we celebrate diversity in various domains of life without dividing men and women on the basis of gender. Similar attempts have been made to turn attention to egalitarian Islamic laws enshrined in the Quran. For Tarif Khalidi (who was the Sir Thomas Adams’ Professor of Arabic, Cambridge University, from 1996 to 2002), it is one of the most gender-conscious sacred texts. Contemporary interpretive theology zeroes in on Quranic injunctions, the practice, and the sayings of Prophet Muhammad while discussing the question whether Islam grants equal rights to women.

Women’s rights under Islam

There has been a growing realisation that the basic teachings of Islam do not discriminate much between men and women. However, one feels that the cultural and social ethos of Muslims betrays a slew of apparent and latent multiple inequalities. The status of women continues to generate polemical debate, and a dispassionate and a fine-grained reading grounded in a profound understanding of Islam is still awaited.

Twenty scholars—including eight women belonging to fields such as English, Islamic Studies, Arabic, Wildlife, Women’s Studies, and Clinical Psychology—from Aligarh Muslim University, Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad, Islamic University of Science and Technology, Awantipora, Kashmir, Delhi University, and Amity University, Gurgaon, have now tried to supplement what has been missing for long. Their collective analytical sensibility combined with academic rigour has produced an anthology titled Muslim Women: What Everyone Needs to Know, which is astutely edited by Dr A.R. Kidwai and Dr Juhi Gupta and published by Viva Books, New Delhi.

The book, running into 233 pages, carries six sections: Muslim Women in the Primary Sources, Muslim Women’s Rights and Laws, Muslim Women and Education, Socio-Economic Status of Muslim Women, Muslim Women vis-a-vis Feminism, and Interviews of Contemporary Women’s Studies Scholars and Creative Writers.

The elaboration and interpretation of rights of women granted by Islam look weirdly repetitive and inexplicably conflicting and inconsistent as the recent uproarious debate on triple talaq and maintenance money for the divorcee laid bare. Barbed tongues and a marked sense of silliness runs through the enormous literature produced on the topic. Here, one desperately looks for the authentic narration of primary sources and the rational mediation on how they were implemented when the first Islamic state came into being. Does one come across non-discriminatory and forthright polices right from the start? Are the primary texts even-handed and righteous? The first section looks into these questions thoroughly. The seminal texts, shorn of their widely accepted interpretations, are vivid and expressive and unfailingly create a congenial and sprawling space for women.

Noted Islamic scholar Professor Akhtarul Wasey, in his foreword, rightly remarks: “Women do not get their due in Muslim society. They are denied what Allah and His Messenger have granted them. In the blessed era of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the rightly guided caliphs, Muslim women enjoyed an equal standing in society and were entrusted with public duties. They had their say in policymaking, market trends and ensured the supply of provisions to the battlefield, apart from taking care of the wounded soldiers.” Wasey has a point here, but again it is a widely uttered assertion that the clergymen and religiosity-centred society made the divine commandments harsher and stringent.

Without clouding the issue any more, the well-known scholar of exegetical studies Professor A.R. Kidwai cites several Quranic verses verbatim in his article, “Is the Quran a male-centred text?” For Islam, women and men complement each other, and they are soul mates. However, the concept of gender parity never took firm roots in Islamic society. Kidwai, armed with verses, argues that the Quran discusses gender equality in absolute terms: “Whoever does good—man or woman and is a believer—Allah will grant him a good life. He will certainly reward them for their good actions.” (An-Nahl, 16:97) The author justifiably regrets that such explicit Quranic declarations did not quell the misconception that women have an inferior place in Islam. There must have been socio-political reasons and a static mindset for such iconoclasm.

Women in Quran

No Semitic religion explicitly mentions that prophethood was ever conferred upon women. However, the concept of the Goddess does exist in Hinduism. The Quran refers to many women who have had proximity to Allah. In this connection, the author produces a list of such women with the details mentioned in the Quran. Prophet Jesus’ mother Maryam (Mary) gets divine adulation, and Quranic description of her looks similar to that of the Messenger of God. Prof. Kidwai elaborates: “She (Maryam) has many outstanding merits: her piety, her chastity, and her single-minded devotion to Allah. Little wonder then that on several occasions angels are found addressing her directly, a distinction otherwise special to the Messenger of Allah. Moreover, the Quranic expression astafa (chosen) is used for her, which is usually employed for the Messengers. Prophet Muhammad’s title Al Mustafa is a derivative of the same, signifying that Allah chose him as his Messenger.”

Barring Maryam, not much is known about other women who find a mention in the Quran. One can find a vivid and authentic description of the Queen of Sheba (the queen of Yemen during the time of Prophet Sulaiman or Solomon), the Believing wife of Pharaoh (who was the ruler in Prophet Moses’ day), Prophet Moses’ mother, Prophet Shuyab’s daughters, and the Egyptian Aziz’s wife in the article. It also meticulously brings together the Quranic commands and Prophet Muhammad’s sayings that unfailingly restore gender parity.

There are no apparent traces of male chauvinism in the sacred text, and its clinching proof is provided in the Quran’s description of Adam and Eve. Prof. Kidwai makes a pertinent point here: “Unlike the Bible, it (the Quran) holds both Adam and Eve equally guilty of defying the divine command about not approaching the forbidden tree. The Quranic Eve is not some temptress or the source of all evil.”

The theoretical framework and interpretation of highly revered texts that shaped both the modern and the post-modern world owe a lot to women scholars, but seldom does any Muslim woman scholar feature here. A young scholar, Mohd Yunus Kumar, zeroes in on three prominent Muslim women academicians whose perceptive readings of Islamic thoughts make it clear that Isam is not averse to female aspirations and sensibilities. Their isolation is given a religious gloss by the self-righteous maulvis who sided with the rulers who were the voice of patriarchy. Yunus focusses on the writings of Asma Barlas, Amina Wadud and Asma Afsaruddin. They brilliantly explore the connotative and denotative implications of Islamic teachings in the backdrop of gender justice.

Asma Afsaruddin’s book, Islam, the State, and Political Authority: Medieval Issues and Modern Concerns, got wide acclaim in the academic world for its perceptive discussion on political thoughts of Islam. Asma Afsaruddin hardly sides with those Muslim ideologues who want to project political exigencies as a bunch of deadset rules, and she produces a detailed narrative interspersed with an objective analysis of the diverse system of governance and political principles pursued in the medieval and modern history of Islam.

Professor Sami Rafiq’s article, “Were there Muslim women scholars in the past?”, provides a much-needed historical continuity to what has been mentioned about contemporary Muslim women scholars. Marshalling historical pieces of evidence judiciously, he astutely showcases how Muslim women had intellectual brilliance and trade acumen and also a reasonable understanding of science and politics.

The co-editor of the volume, Dr Juhi Gupta, sets an engaging debate on a frequently asked question that is essentially a rhetorical question: Are women socially suppressed under Islam? She diligently deflates the myth that Muslim women are not provided with any religious protection, and that their religion affirms patriarchal practices.

The notable feature of the volume is that all the titles of articles begin with questions and Dr Faiza Abbasi, Dr Sajidul Islam, Sadaf Hussain, Huma Yaqoob, Haris Bin Mansoor, Javed Ahmad Bhat, Irfan Jalal, Waheed Khan, Gowhar Qadir Wani, Syed Ali Hur Kamoonpuri, Mustafa Nadeem Kirmani, Kishwar Zafir and Sherin Shervani have articulated the answers with a sense of ease and thoroughness.

The fourth section of the book carries interviews of four prominent women authors, namely Sylvia Vatuk, Miriam Cooke, Flavia Agnes and Qaisra Shahraz, who talk about all the issues having direct and indirect bearings on day-to-day life.

The anthology, carrying vivid, focused and expressive articles, provides insights to understand the status of women at a time when Muslims across the globe are being pilloried, not always for valid reasons.

Shafey Kidwai is professor and Chairman, Department of Mass Communication, Aligarh Muslim University.

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