The last few days in India have seen Muslim divorce practices furiously dominate media space. In India, many of the rules governing women are “sanctioned by scripture” and therefore cannot be changed. Many women disagree and say that these laws are outdated and harmful and antithetical to the precepts of the Qur’an. They feel corrupted cultural practices dominated by male chauvinists have distorted the true spirt of the Qur’an which accords a very dignified position to women. One such rule is the talaq law, which allows a Muslim man to divorce his wife immediately after pronouncing the word “talaq” three times. Instant divorce is currently allowed under Islamic law. In India, Muslim men have sent triple talaq by text, email, Facebook, Skype and Whats App. But last week women working against the talaq law received good news: a government committee set up in 2013 to look into women’s status recommended that the government should outlaw it.
Muslim women across South Asia are slowly getting empowered to stand up to patriarchal practices that undermine their dignity. In literate societies, Muslim women, like their counterparts in other creeds, are an empowered community. First, they challenge cultural norms within their communities that deny Muslim women rights and visible roles. They believe that rights have been accorded to them in foundational Islamic texts, but that cultural interpretations of these same texts disallow what is rightfully theirs. They do not call this a feminist struggle, but describe this as a reclamation of their faith. Muslim women’s activism around education and equal opportunities is often underpinned by their emancipatory readings of foundational Islamic texts. Muslim women are also challenging patriarchy that all women experience around unequal power hierarchies in society and the objectification of women’s bodies in some sections of the media. In this regard they stand with their sisters of all backgrounds.
Muslim women’s traditional importance in Islamic society has always been and continues to be the foundation of the Islamic family. Social values strongly reinforce orientation towards marriage and children as the normative pattern based on Muhammad’s (PBUH) own example. Child rearing, early education, and socialization of children are among women’s most important tasks in Islamic societies worldwide. Although traditionally excluded from the public male domain, Muslim women have been privately involved in study and oral transmission of Islamic source texts (Qur’an and Hadith). In modern times, they have entered into both secular and religious forms of education with enthusiasm supporting their long-standing role as family educators and moral exemplars as well as training for professional careers in the workplace outside the home.
The Qur’an recognises the childbearing and childrearing roles of women, but does not present women as inferior to or unequal to men. On the contrary, central to Islamic belief is the importance and high value placed on education. From the true Islamic point of view, education should be freely and equally available to women as much as men.
A woman has right to have her husband support her financially, even if she has a job or is independently wealthy. She can keep her finances separate from his and invest them wherever she wishes. She can specify the sum of money she expects to receive should the marriage end in divorce or should she be widowed. She can negotiate the right to divorce her husband at will, should he, for example, take another wife. She can reserve the right not to cook, to clean, or to nurse her own children.
Islam anticipates the demands of Western feminists by more than a thousand years. A stay-at-home wife can specify that she expects to receive a regular stipend, which is not that far from the goals of the Wages for Housework campaign of the 1970’s. Elsewhere, the fully empowered Muslim woman sounds like a self-assured, post-feminist type—a woman who draws her inspiration from the example of Sukayna, the brilliant, beautiful great-granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). She was married several times, and, at least once, stipulated in writing that her husband was forbidden to disagree with her about anything. All these conditions are based on the canons of Islam and on early Muslim practice. A Muslim woman, cannot be forced to enter into marriage without her agreement; indeed she has the right to revoke a marriage to which she did not agree in the first place.
We now have an inquisitive and empowered generation that will not easily accept rules and codes without reasoning them out and arguing on every strand before embracing it. A very heartening development is that unlike earlier times when only those who had finally retired from all worldly responsibilities would make the hajj pilgrimage, the youth is very actively participating in this most potent Islamic exercise. A hajj is a revolutionary experience which radically transforms one’s mindset and provides a correct perspective of Islam. An exposure to a composite global culture gives an invigorating perspective to the pilgrim.
Few Muslim women outside the urban areas may want to behave like Western women. The sexually exploitative element remains high in the West, however strident the rhetoric of sexual equality. Perhaps this is best illustrated by the well-known cigarette ad depicting a woman smoking: “You’ve come a long way, baby.” The message is clear: you too may now die of cancer through smoking. The high rate of divorce and sexual disease are common consequences of the reckless drive to equate the sexes and ‘free’ sexual relationships. Comparison may mean little outside the cultural context, but it is important to point out that until a hundred years ago Western women had virtually no rights in law or practice. Over a thousand years before the first European suffragette, Islam gave far reaching rights and a defined status to women. But these Western attitudes have undoubtedly helped to stimulate discussions of the problem in Muslim urban society thereby revealing the gap between the talk of the Islamic ideal and the actual situation of women.
Women emerged as the centerpiece of the Western narrative of Islam in the nineteenth century, and in particular in the later nineteenth century, as Europeans established themselves as colonial powers in Muslim countries. Their narratives simultaneously and hypocritically perpetuated the Victorian English narrative that European men were superior to women while also denigrating Muslim culture for being oppressive to women. The veil, to Western eyes, then became the most visible marker of the differentness and inferiority of Islamic societies. The Muslim resistance to this colonialism, then, supported veiling, not necessarily as a symbol of female subordination, but as a reaction against colonization and assumptions of European supremacy.
There are other factors which oppress Muslim women, and these they have in common with women, and men too, all over the world. Poverty, illness, war, inequality, unemployment, and corrupt governments, just to name a few. One of the symbols most frequently pointed to by “Western” women is the veil. It is usually seen as confirmation that Islam oppresses women, although by no means do all Muslim women wear it. The typical Western belief is that it is worn to keep women subservient; they would not wear it if they had a choice. Yet many well-educated women working in hospitals and libraries, for example, wear it. It was one of the local forms of covering that traditional women wore when they went out. This practice was seen as liberating since women could move out of segregated living spaces with modesty and protection from harassment by strangers. It is also now seen as a part of a new Islamic modernity. These women do not accept that being feminist means being Western and believe that Western women should be respectful of other paths to social change. First, there are multiple causes of discrimination against women, and religion is but one. Second, gender relations structure women’s options in all societies. Third, it is futile to focus on misery elsewhere as an escape from the realities of our own lives. And fourth, the issue of power remains crucial for understanding gender inequality in any society.
Western thinkers and practitioners must reconsider their assumptions about the role of Islam in women’s rights, and approach this topic with a more nuanced lens. They must understand the necessity of recognizing and consciously accepting the broad cultural differences between Western and non-Western conceptions of autonomy, as well as respecting social standards that reflect non-Western values. They should pay heed to what First Lady Michelle Obama expressed to hijab wearing students: “You wonder if anyone ever sees beyond your headscarf to see who you really are, instead of being blinded by the fears and misperceptions in their own minds. And I know how painful and how frustrating all of that can be.”