If Islam is the perfect religious and social model of life with high emphasis on fairness for all, where does it go when it comes to the women? To an outsider and thinking insiders, Islam today dictates a patriarchal society where women take a back seat in every regard while being reminded that it is for their own good. Women are easily objectified and are without hesitation compared with walking piece of meat if not properly dressed and termed as the reason for Man’s temptation. She cannot travel without permission and custodian, but worse of all does not have equal access to legal system as in case of Rape which unfortunately even to this date is not defined in religious jurisprudence and falls in the category of adultery.
It is easy for anyone to be repulsed by these things and it is even rightly so what should be expected out of any sane person, because this does hint at a very serious problem in Muslim world – the disappearance of women from Religious life.
To understand what has happened let us take it from the start. Islam comes in the time when women did not have any rights, access to inheritance, even other two Abrahamic religion were not in favour of divorce and especially in region around Makkah girls were literally buried alive being considered an unnecessary and disposable burden. With all this Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.w) marries a Businesswoman many years older than himself – breaking a taboo, gives women legal rights by making divorce possible for them and access to alimony – empowering them, raises the status of women in every rank and especially mother – thus restoring the respect, along with many other unprecedented steps. In Prophet’s life time we are talking about a society where women were safe to travel openly in the city, participate in wars as combatants (Nusayba who Prophet praised for her skills as she stood among the few who stayed back to save Prophet), they could get divorced for any reason (for example case of a woman who sought divorce and was granted because she didn’t like her husband’s smile and another woman on unsatisfactory sexual performance by her husband) and a society which was open enough to allow women to approach Prophet and publicly discuss matters related to anything and everything including sex.
Even after the death of Prophet we find powerful female figures still towering above. Ayesha bint-e-Abu Bakr, Prophet’s last wife becomes a source of information for new converts and old religious scholars as they approach her everyday to confirm traditions and saying of Prophet, or check meaning of something from Quran. Later in her life she becomes a political activist and even takes part in a war. On other hand we had from the House of Ali women like Sukaynah bint Husayn who not only known for her beauty but also being so confident that in one of her many marriages she asks for a pre-nuptial agreement of complete freedom of action. She was also the first woman in Islamic history to have a Salon of her own and had great musical artists like Ibn-Surayj and even at a time maestro of erotic poetry Umar ibn-abi Rabiah (often called Ovid of Arabia) in her patronage in Madinah. This only rivalled by Ayesha bint-e-Talha, whose mother was sister of Prophet’s favourite wife Ayesha bint-e-Abu Bakr. She is famous for replying to her second husband Musab ibn al Zybayr (who also was once also married to Sukaynah bint Husayn and paid dowry of a millions dirhams to each) when he tried to make her veil her face, “Since God, may He remain blessed and exalted, hath put upon me the stamp of beauty, it is my wish that the public should view that beauty and thereby recognise His grace unto them. Under no conditions, therefore, I will veil myself”.
Putting women back in their place!
This all started to change when soon after death of Prophet, men started to feel threatened by this freedom and started putting curbs on women. One of the widows of Caliph Umar ibn Khitab got married again after his death. She would go pray five times a day at mosque (the first prayer is early morning before the dawn and last one is after sunset in night) which was objected by her new husband. Every time she would chide him strongly and tell him that even the Umar who was known for his anger and strictness never objected to this, who is he to do so? One day this man decided to take matters in his own hands and hid by a dark corner in disguise. As she passed by, he attacked her and probably sexually assaulted her before running away. She came home clearly distressed, running and crying that ‘times of Prophet and Umar were better'; never to set foot outside her home until she died. Hence a chapter of women participation in Religious activities was closed with Sexual violence on women.
This literally marks a downward spiral from there on where women simply start withdrawing from public life and are put behind “protection” after a reinterpretation of Religious texts. Perhaps further sealed for doom by people like Umar II, who is often wrongly confused with Caliph Umar ibn Khitab and gets accused for alot of things he never did. To better understand narrow mindset of Ummayad Caliph Umar II it would be interesting to know that he ordered burning of then world’s biggest library in Alexandria because it had books on love, also this was the man behind the now loathed dhimmi charter inflicted on Jews and Christians of Jerusalem among many other things; perhaps his actions were a way of redemption to what his ancestors have been doing by swimming in giant pools of wine and women.
There were some lone voices in between, but today we can just count them all on one hand. One among them is undoubtedly Rabya al-Basri the famous woman Sufi saint from Baghdad who would deliver lectures from pulpit of the mosques. There would be perhaps no simpler illustration of the irony that though majority of Muslims today follow the Abu Hanifa’s school of thought (called Hanafi) not many know that he was a student under her for a brief time. A literal whitewash on an important event in Islamic history or how Islam is practised today.
For over a thousand years Islam has been going through reformation within itself, where scholars indulge in exegesis and interpretations of religious text to keep up with the challenges of time but never in this we have had any representation from women. Therefore we are living with an Islam where all the modern exegesis on women are actually written by men. When was the last time a man became knowledgeable enough to write books on menstruation or women sexual well being?
Culture provides alternate to Islam when it comes to women
Lack of any religious sight for women has led to powerful cultures taking over and filling those voids. Today almost all of the Muslim world draws their attitude towards women not from Islam but from the very culture they are rooted in. A woman who has no responsibility to cook or provide to man is treated as a slave for the whole extended family in India and Pakistan. Right on the land where Ayesha bint-e-Abu Bakr rode a camel to war today does not allow her women to drive. Or woman who could once chose whom she wished to get married to, decline any proposal from anyone for any reason or get divorced to be wed again at any time today is killed under the name of “Honour Killing” around the world just for liking someone. The lack of women voice has led us to a point where even after a 1000 years of numerous important religious discourses no one has thought of defining a difference between adultery and rape, and they continue to be treated as same in most of the Muslim countries.
But why is women participation in religious discourse is not only necessary for them but also for men of Islam? To answer this lets turn to an incident where Rabya al-Basri confronted another prominent Sufi of her time for openly sexually kissing young kids on their lips and touching them inappropriately. He was of the view that since they have not reached the puberty his touching them does not go against any religious teaching, but al-Basri took him right on and led to public confrontation and later public condemnation for him making him at least stop doing things publicly. Note that time Baghdad was epicentre of Islamic learning and not even a single male Scholar or Religious authority confronted this man for his wrong. Even before her it was Ayesha bint-e-Abu Bakr who confronted a Companion of Prophet known for among many things being one person behind most of “women limiting” traditions, for attributing false sayings to Prophet which seemed to portray women as a lowly considered animal like Donkey.
Any interaction of women in Islam will reveal a very strong and profound impact where they beautified the religion, made it more Human and above all made it logical as Allah had made it.
There has been no society ever in the world which has reached any respectable status without a leading role for women. We have come a long way from the days when women were involved in paying allegiance to a Caliph thus cast their vote to today in Middle East where many countries do not allow them to vote (if they do have a model of democracy in anyway on any level). To over simplify, how do Muslims expect to have strong, educated, open minded and globally competing next generation when they have mothers who look good only when they act inferior to their fathers?
Recent rise of the female Muslim clerics, wind of change?
In last decade we have seen a resurgence of women in Islamic theological arena but unfortunately their views are as oppressive and enclosing to women as anyone else. A specific movement starting from Pakistan by a female Muslim scholar and now very much active in different parts of the world including Europe and America just further reinstate the supposed “women duties” and readies these young girls into “a good wife” and thus easily married. Parents actually take their daughters there so they can list it as a virtue to the potential suitors. Whereas recently another movement has just recently sprung in Malaysia and Indonesia making women already married, even better obedient wife. To an informed eye their charters look just like a magazine article of American Home Economics magazine in 1940s.
Onus of this change is not on men, because it goes against their very desires to keep a check on women. If there will ever be a change in this, it will have to be home grown not Western import and above all should be from women themselves.
(photo credit: Juni kriswanto)