When I was poor she shared her wealth with me. When I was rejected she believed in me. She declared I spoke the truth, when others called me a liar. And through her Allah granted me children, while withholding those of other women.
The Prophet Muhammad’s tribute to Khadija bint Khuwalid, his first wife and the first convert to Islam.
No issue is more calculated to raise everyone's hackles than that of the status of women in Islam. It is an issue most Muslims usually steer clear of, for fear of entering an intractable war zone from which there may be no return. Opponents of Islam on the other hand, seize on this very issue, arguing that an ideology that is detrimental to the wellbeing of 50% of the population has to be apposed. Hence the ‘benevolent’ colonialism in the shape of the new world order that is being thrust upon parts of the Muslim world today, is in part justified on the premise that it will bring liberation to Muslim women.
However the graphic images that have emerged of torture and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison, by American soldiers, have sent shockwaves of horror and anger throughout the world. In part, this is because we now see women soldiers sexually humiliating male prisoners and appearing to take pleasure in it. Sex and pornography are used as weapons in all wars to undermine the ‘enemy’, but generally it is women who bear the brunt of such abuse. However these pictures focus on men being sexually victimized and terrorize. The shame of sexual humiliation is expressed by the male survivors who speak of how they cannot face their families and the only option for them is to ‘disappear’.
The obscenity of these atrocities is compounded by those who suggest that the American women leering on camera at the abuse and humiliation of Iraqi men, are striking a blow for feminism and that such ‘rough justice’ can be interpreted as a protest against the maltreatment of women in Iraqi society. To expect Muslim women to read sisterly solidarity in these barbaric and sadistic acts, represents the height of colonial arrogance. In truth these images represent racial contempt for Arab and Muslim societies. They also do not augur well for our demands for equal rights. As it is, we are often accused of pandering to Western’ values when we make such demands. The sight of ‘liberated’ women appearing to take pleasure in the humiliation of Arab men can only make our quest for justice and equality harder.
However if justice and equality are inherently Muslim values, as the Qur’an stipulates, and if we the Ummah care about these values, then we must confront and challenge the idea that when any Muslim woman speaks out on issues relating to the status of women in Muslim societies, she is being a traitor. Speaking out does not and should not negate her credentials to comment on any aspect of Islam and neither should she have to face an inquisition of ‘true’ believers who often refuse outright to engage with the issues she raises. It is difficult if not impossible to hold any kind of meaningful dialogue under such circumstances. Few of us are up to the kind of sustained abuse that can arise from such encounters, particularly when no cogent arguments are offered as a rejoinder to our point of view, other than to shower us with accusations of blasphemy or ‘out’ us as ‘apostates’.
As members of the Ummah - the global community of Muslims, Islam is our spiritual home and we have no option but to seek it’s guidance and justice, even if at times we feel stunned and paralyzed by the tide of belligerent self-righteousness that seems endemic to so much that passes for debate and discussion, where the only acceptable view is the nauseatingly predictable, time-worn and tedious cliché, parroted, like a mantra, that Islam gave women equality in the 7th Century…. end of story.
Sadly it seems that Muslim women today can count on fewer rights than our 7th Century predecessors. The denial of equal rights for women in both the private and the public sphere is a serious setback to Islam because it infringes the central tenet of Islam - justice. The revelation that gave birth to Islam was aimed at establishing justice here on earth. Shari’a, which represents the moral and ethical values of Islam, from which Islamic law can be distilled, is aimed at establishing a just society.
But how can Islam be credible as a force for social justice, how can it proclaim itself as egalitarian, when Islamic law has come to enshrine gender injustice, which explicitly denies women real, tangible equality. How do we explain this seeming contradiction at the heart of Islam? Is this a reflection of divine will? Or could it be that masculinist ideology with it’s own interpretive slant has become institutionalized into the very heart of Islam and has found ways to subvert divine will, with it’s core message of justice, equality and compassion? The latter is certainly possible if we consider that over the centuries, distilling Islamic law from the Shari’a has become the exclusive preserve of men, to the point where many now appear to believe that only men, and then only a select group of men – the ulama, have the divine right to interpret our holy texts. Hence the balance that women’s contribution would have given to Islamic law was never achieved.
And most of our ulamas it seems are not prepared to give up this monopoly in order to redress this imbalance, even in the interest of justice. Instead they insist that Ijtihad must remain a closed avenue, as ‘no one is any longer qualified’ to do it. But we know that Ijtihad was abandoned in the 10th century by human (male) edict and not by divine will. And whilst those who today challenge the male hierarchy that dispenses Islamic law are often accused of challenging divine will, yet the men who discarded Ijtihad with so little concern for the future consequences of their action are not condemned for going a step too far against divine will. So who decides and on what basis do they decide, that Ijtihad must remain forever a no go zone?
These questions cut to the heart of another major pillar of Islam – knowledge. “Go in search of knowledge even to China” advised our Prophet Muhammad. We are encouraged to seek knowledge in the pursuit of justice and this is an obligation on Muslim men and on Muslim women. In the early history of Islam it seems there was no dearth of Muslim women scholars and jurists who devoted their lives to the pursuit of knowledge.
Some of these women achieved prominence and clearly Muslim men in those days did not feel it beneath their dignity to be instructed by women on matters of religion, for many renowned male jurists were tutored by women. In the 8th century aspiring male scholars beat a path to the doors of well known women jurists such as Amra bint Al-Rahman. Early Muslim history also speaks of women such as Fatima bint Qais who publicly challenged establishment figures such as Khalifa Umar on points of law and held their own.
Clearly then Islam does not insist on restricting women’s sphere of influence to the private, behind closed doors.
It is high time that women articulate their aspirations and vision for the revival of an authentic Muslim consciousness that puts justice back on the agenda and at the heart of Islamic thought. Shari’a – the right way and Islamic law which stems from it, undoubtedly contain the mechanism to confer gender equality. But to achieve this not only must women’s experience be taken into account but women must also become pro-active and ask new and daring questions.
* Najma Kazi – Freelance TV Journalist- London -UK
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