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Muslim women's rights

Print edition : Apr 11, 1998 T+T-

The Empowerment of Women in Islam: With Special Reference to Marriage and Divorce, by Zeenat Shaukat Ali; Vakils, Feffer and Simons Ltd., Bombay; pages 462, Rs. 650.

Women and Islam: An Historical and Theological Enquiry, by Fatima Mernissi; Kali for Women, New Delhi, pages 228, Rs. 225.

Women in the Quran, Traditions and Interpretation, by Barbara Freyer Stowasser; Oxford; pages 206, $29.95.

LAST year, P. K. K. Ahmed Kutty Moulavi, the head Imam of the Palayam Jumma Masjid in Thiruvananthapuram, created a stir by issuing a fatwa (ruling) permitting women to enter the mosque and offer prayers, including the late evening prayers during the month of Ramzan. Soon, a section of the Imam's Council in the city issued a counter fatwa denying women such entry: It speaks for the conservatism of the community and the moral bankruptcy of its so-called leaders that the example of the progressive Imam was ignored. He reacted to the Council's fatwa by pointing out that gender parity was central to the virtues of Islam. Prophet Muhammad, his foster son, Anas, and the Hadith (traditions and sayings of the Prophet) had all said in various contexts that women eager to pray in mosques should be allowed to do so. He said the Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih al-Muslim texts too had emphasised that women could pray in places of worship. These two are regarded as leading works of Hadith.

Dr. Zeenat Shaukat Ali, Professor of Islamic Studies at St. Xavier's College, Mumbai, cites that very collection of the Prophet's tradition (Hadith), Sahih al-Bukhari, on this point. "Some examples of women's participation in various activities, as the early history of Islam and the traditions of Prophet Muhammad point out, are the following: Women took part in national activities, acted as advisors and while they were efficient managers of the household, nonetheless joined in congregational prayers in the mosque (Bu. 10:162,164)"

There is ferment among Muslim women, especially the intellectuals, which has not been much noticed. Faezeh Hashemi is a member of Iran's Parliament, chairperson of the Islamic Women's Olympics Committee and, incidentally, daughter of former President Ali Akbar Hashemi. She had some sharp comments to make on the subject in a little noticed interview to a Western news agency (DPA). It will come as a surprise to many. She said that Islam had always been interpreted by men in a way that secured their own interests. "Men have always been the main Islamic scholars, those who interpreted the Islamic laws and implemented these interpretations." She added: "Men manipulated Islamic laws during the course of history and implemented them to secure their own interests. What we are doing in the Majlis (Parliament) right now is to separate this and get some advantages for women."

Terming Islam as a very progressive religion, she observed that traditions had become enmeshed with the Muslim religion. "That was the reason why the West considers our religion not as today's Islam but that of 1,400 years ago. We must make use of the positive things (in the West) and make them compatible with our own Islamic values." (The Times of India, February 11, 1997).

All these three books are written by women, the first two by particularly devout Muslims. All are scholars of impeccable credentials. Fatima Mernissi is Professor of Sociology at the University of Rabat, Morocco. Barbara Freyer Stowasser is Director of the Centre for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University and Professor of Arabic. The authors' concern is with Islam and the woman's place in it. They have studied the Koran, the Prophet's sayings and tradition (Hadith, the second source of law in Islam) and are familiar with modern literature on gender equality. Stowasser, unlike the other two, is not concerned in her book with advocacy of women's rights as much as with a deep analysis of women's issues in the Koran and the Hadith and the strands in modern Muslim thinking.

Fatima Mernissi may well shock many Muslims in India. An Arab intellectual, she has carefully but critically read through volumes of commentaries on the Koran and of the Hadith. She has not hesitated to challenge the most respected compiler of Hadith, Al-Bukhari himself. "This Hadith is the sledgehammer argument used by those who want to exclude women from politics." Zeenat Shaukat Ali is no less ardent in her advocacy of reform. But nothing in her work will offend the feelings of the devout. She draws on her erudition to compel them to reflect on cherished but wholly groundless and harmful beliefs about women's rights in Islam.

A powerful appeal to Indian Muslims was also made by Turan Jamshidian Ghaleh Sefidi, editor of the Iranian magazine Muhjubah. Seventy-eight per cent of Iranian women are literate, she noted. The national literacy rate was 80 per cent. She appealed to Muslim men to motivate their women to learn and to Muslim women to take more interest in education. Addressing a press conference in Kozhikode in Kerala on January 30, 1997, Sefidi said: " We attend all mosques in Iran and women form almost half of the congregations there". (The Hindu, January 31, 1997).

There is little interest in India about the reform of Muslim law even in avowedly Islamic countries like Iran. In 1986, the Muslim leadership collaborated with Rajiv Gandhi to nullify the Supreme Court's ruling in the Shah Bano case (on divorced Muslim women's right to maintenance). It was a sordid alliance. Having agreed with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in 1985 to unlock the gates of the Babri Mosque, he sought to mollify Muslims. They sought to legitimise their leadership. In 1996 the Bangaladesh High Court ruled on the same lines as did the Supreme Court of India. It has ruled also that Islam does not approve of polygamy.

In a Friday sermon by Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, head of the judiciary at Teheran University, on November 18, 1994, he declared: "If a man wished to divorce his wife, the court can, or must, investigate the amount of wealth which they have accumulated during the period from the start of their joint life to the time of divorce, and at the discretion of the court, up to half of that wealth should be given unconditionally by the man to that woman, before being able to use his right to divorce her... the same court which deals with divorce and which issues the certificate of divorce should also deal with the issue of defining the amount of income and the amount that should be paid to the wife. The court should issue the verdict and should enforce it."

Islamic law is based on scripture. Arabic, the language of the Koran, is rich in nuances. Riffat Hassan, Professor of the Religious Studies programme at the University of Louisville in the U.S. and author of Woman and the Quran said: "A single word in Arabic can have many meanings. But as the translators have always been men, the Quranic translations have always made a male bias. Take Chapter 4, Verse 34, which is always quoted when the issue of equality crops up. In this verse, the Koran uses the word qawwamun to describe the man. This word has always been translated as ruler or master. But I believe that it means breadwinner - which immediately changes the meaning of the verse. There are scores of such examples."

For historical reasons, conservatism has held sway, in recent decades, among the Muslims of the sub-continent. Mohamed Heikal, one of the Arab world's most distinguished journalists, notes with dismay that far from learning from other Muslims, they "exported" their conservatism to Arab lands. "Islam was always a political as well as religious movement, and it also had its cultural and social side. By 1980 it was beginning to feel the influence of Muslims from Pakistan and India, where Islam had acquired a different flavour. Asian Muslims tended to take the Koran literally, while Arabs were more inclined to interpret it. Reading the texts in their own language enabled Arabs to set it in historical context, keeping in mind observations by Arab religious authorities, but Asians were less able to look beyond it - partly because other works had not been translated into their languages, but more importantly because the Arabic language was the tongue of Islam. Deprived of linguistic context the Koran inevitably takes on a slightly different character, forcing non-Arab readers to rely more on the texts than on the way the ideas are expressed." (Illusions of Triumph; HarperCollins; page 57, emphasis added, throughout).

Mernissi proceeds systematically to take each verse from the Koran which has been misinterpreted to deny the rights of Muslim women and describes its context, the situation it was concerned with. She deals not only with "occasions of revelation" but also "occasions for revelation." She, likewise, takes up major pronouncements on women's status in Hadith and shows how little credence some of them deserve.

Zeenat Shaukat Ali does not go so far. But in her own meticulous manner she also links Koranic verses to the context. The one on the hijab (veil), for instance: " O Prophet, tell thy wives and daughters that they should cast their outer garments over their persons when abroad, that is most convenient that they should be known as such and not molested.' (H.Q. 33:59). Two points seem to be made in the above verses: One, if the women did not go out where lay the necessity for prescribing a distinctive dress or occasion for their harassment? Second, it seems that this particular injunction was required by special circumstances which then prevailed in Medina, where the hypocrites would molest a woman and feign innocence by suggesting that they thought that the woman was a person of ill-repute. This is plainly hinted in the following verse: 'Truly if the hypocrites and those who stir up sedition in the city desist not, We shall make thee stand up against them' (H.Q. 33:60). Such a dress was therefore a kind of protection and not meant for suppression."

Zeenat Shaukat Ali blends history, theology and the law in one erudite whole in a work of enormous labour. She proves to the hilt that: (a) the Koran does not sanction polygamy, (b) the triple pronouncement of divorce in one sitting is un-Islamic. An English Judge of the Bombay High Court aptly described it as "good in law, though bad in theology" and (c) the wife is equally entitled to divorce the husband. This is known as khula.

It is not Islamic law, the Shariat, that is practised in India but Anglo-Muhammedan law as it evolved during British rule. The Privy Council ruled early in the day against reference to the Koran or original texts of Hadith. It preferred, instead, certain commentaries of dubious worth. Muslim personal law in Pakistan grew in a progressive direction because its Supreme Court abandoned that rule of interpretation and consulted the texts themselves.

Zeenat Shaukat Ali's work is of enormous practical value. She has appended texts of modern marriage contracts which fully protect the wife's rights in respect of divorce by her as well as by her husband, rule out his second marriage and guarantee her other rights. All these, the book establishes, are rooted in Islamic law.

In the lectures he delivered in Chennai nearly 70 years ago, the poet-philosopher Iqbal posed a pertinent question: "Did the founders of our schools ever claim finality for their reasonings and interpretations? Never." He upheld the claim of "the present generation of Muslim liberals to re-interpret the foundational legal principles in the light of their own experience." Iqbal's remarks, made 70 years ago, are relevant now: "In view of the intense conservatism of the Muslims of India, Indian judges cannot but stick to what are called standard works. The result is that while the peoples are moving, the law remains stationery." (The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam by Sir Muhammad Iqbal, page 168).

Muslims alone are responsible for the disgraceful and un-Islamic state of personal law in respect of marriage and divorce. As the Koran says: "Verily God does not change the state of a people until they change the state of their own lives." (13:11).