When was the last time you read an article or heard a talk from a Muslim woman which was on a gender neutral topic? When Imam Zuhri a famous Muslim scholar of sunnah told Qasim ibn Muhammad, a scholar of Quran that he wished to seek knowledge, Qasim advised him to join the assembly of a well-known female jurist called Amra bint al Rahman. Amra instructed many other scholars of fame including Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Hazm and Yahya ibn Al Said. And she was not an exception. Early Islamic history is replete with famous female jurists and scholars, beginning with Aisha (RA) the Prophet's wife, Rubaiy bint Muawidh, Aisha bint Saad ibn Waqqas who taught Imam Malik and Sayyida Nafeesa, grand daughter of Imam Hassan (RA) who instructed Imam al Shafi.
That was then, but now, it is difficult to name a single female jurist, philosopher or scholar of international renown and women generally are almost totally absent from the intellectual and public life of the Muslim community.
How different it was in the past. Call to mind the unknown woman who is said to have challenged Khalif Umar, in the mosque when he announced his intention to put a ceiling on mahr. He was forced to accept that his proposal breached Qur'anic law because of this woman's vociferous intervention. Then there is Fatima bint Qais who argued tenaciously with Umar and Aisha (RA) over a legal point and refused to be convinced by their arguments and Um Yaqub, who is recorded as having confidently said to Abdullah ibn Masud, "I have read the entire Qur'an but have not found your explanation (of a legal point he was making) anywhere in it".
The famous Greco-Roman civilization which preceded Islam did not produce a single woman jurist or philosopher and Western Europe did not produce a female author until the C17th; even in the C18th many female writers had to assume a male identity to be considered for publication. In contrast, the Islamic civilization produced many female scholars and activists of note, and not just the odd one or two, (though it is a strange
anomaly that not many documents have remained from the intellectual output of these women). Amongst the many examples of women holding positions of authority in Islamic society, are Shaffa bint Abdullah, who was entrusted with the job of Inspector of the souk in Madina by Umar (RA) or Fatima bint Saad, a Chinese Muslim who was a Professor who issued Ijaza (licences) to men graduating from her assembly.
In complete contrast to Rufayda who achieved renown by tending the sick during the early battles (centuries before Florence Nightingale) and the likes of Nusayba who actually fought to defend the Prophet and Fatima symbol of the struggle against injustice and dynastic rule (RA), women activists appear a scarce commodity, rare, perhaps, not because they do not exist but because their often unsupported and small scale efforts go
largely unrecognized and unacknowledged. This explains, no doubt, the fact that it is extremely rare to find women on the governing boards or committees of Islamic centres, organizations or in other prominent positions in our society.
Furthermore, unlike in the past, very few Islamic men today are willing to be instructed or taught by Muslim women. Women are often not welcome at many conferences, meetings, gatherings and are even excluded from some mosques. Where they do have access to a mosque, often ...'they are sheltered or imprisoned by a screen or curtain, not to be seen or heard'. Whereas many men 'will quite insolently insist on instructing women on everything from how to raise their children to what garments to wear', if she were to point to the latent and perceptible discomfiture and even hostility to any form of assertiveness in Islamic women as a confirmation of an in-built derogatory attitude towards them, it is considered 'a blasphemy'. All the old, now time-worn, cliches about the positive role, rights and dignity a Muslim woman enjoys are regurgitated. It is surely a sign of the confusion which has affected the Muslim male psyche that whereas the wonderful examples of Khadijah, Aisha, Fatima and Amra (RA) are rehearsed with pride to assert the point that Islam grants women the right to a dynamic role in society, often, these very same men refuse to mind their children for even two hours if their wives want to attend a study circle or do some voluntary work: that is if they are allowed out of the home at all.
The crux of the present situation seems to turn on the question of whether Islam limits women to the private sphere and gives men absolute superiority over both private and public spheres. During the flourishing of Islamic civilization from the C7th to C16th, it seems that this was not an issue. Women fulfilled the role for which they were biologically specialized, but nevertheless played and full and active life in intellectual and public life, if they wished to do so. Since then, however, there has been a retreat from this enlightened approach and the woman's role in society has diminished. Though much sociological support is used now to re-enforce the religious importance of the woman as a good wife and mother, which no one, least of all frustrated Muslim women activists dispute, it is nevertheless the case that the Muslim community as a whole has been detrimentally affected by the fact that the metaphorical 'other half' has been physically and/or psychologically pushed into accepting that it is the Muslim man who has sole responsibility for building and leading the Islamic movement and everyone else's role is subservient. Forgotten it seems, are truths such as 'educate a man and you educate one person, educate (and mobilize) a woman, you educate (and mobilize) a whole generation. Female activists are not interested in power by enlarge so the issue here is one of lack of recognition, absence of consultation and marginalization.
But how can a woman participate in the Islamic movement, educate herself (in the academic as well as spiritual sciences) and actively work in the community, if she is discouraged, or worse, encouraged, but not supported? 'Most modern scholars', says American Muslim writer Khaled Abu el Fadl (whose insightful observations form the basis of this piece), 'do not have the probity to suggest that it is recommended and even required in certain circumstances for men to lend a helping-hand at home. Most men are content to ignore this sunnah as they selectively emphasize whatever is self-serving in the sunnah'. The Prophet (pbuh), after all, helped with household chores, mended his own clothes and cooked meals. Many mothers, wives and single woman have talents, skills, experiences and expertise which could be usefully employed in the service of the Islamic movement, but left single-handedly to cope with children and all the household responsibilities (even in situations where they have to be the bread-winner for the family), it is little wonder that many do not have any mental or physical energy left to make a contribution: not withstanding the question of whether such a contribution would be welcomed by the community.
At the root of the problem of mobilizing Muslim women is the need for research into the principles of Islam as they relate to male-female relations. Could it be that as feminist author, Fatima Mernissi claims, well-established, but perhaps doubtful hadith, (for instance, the one recorded in Bukhari which states that a man's prayer is spoilt if a woman or a donkey crosses in front of him) are at the root of that certain reluctance many male activists display when the problems of the involvement of women in the affairs of the community and consultation with them is raised. The Qur'an is irreproachable. Other elements of our heritage perhaps are not so clear and have to be re-examined so that clear principles are distilled, disseminated and adopted. We should no longer live the deen of Islam as if we were living in the Asian / Arab east four or five centuries ago, but should collectively find our way to look forward to the C21st building towards Allah's definition of the relationship which should exist amongst practising Muslims: 'The true believers, men and women are friends to each other.
They enjoin what is just and forbid what is evil...' (Ch.9 v.71)
At this point, perhaps, it will not be so rare for the community to have heard or read something from a Muslim woman which is on a gender-neutral topic for the defensiveness which underscores the written and spoken rehearsals of the idealistic role and rights of women in Islam will have been overcome. Women would be exemplifying the dynamic role that they have the right to play within Islamic societies and we would all be the better for it.
References 'In recognition of Muslim women', Khaled Abu el Fadl, 'The Minaret ' 'Muslim women and education: historical foundations and twentieth century Egypt', Aliah Schlief in 'Muslim Education Quarterly' 'Islamic Teachings' cassette series, Dr. Jamal Badawi 'Women and Islam', Fatima Mernissi.
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