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Muslim women versus ‘women in Islam’

The problem is that you can’t begin to discuss the plight of Muslim women without someone throwing in the cliché ‘but Islam gives more rights to women than other religions’. Muslim women are worse off than the women of other religions. Should we not discuss them without getting religion thrown in? The painful truth is that Muslim women too start attacking you for bringing up their cause. Is there no solution to the problem of maltreatment of Muslim women?

Sindhis kill their women when they feel they don’t like them any more or want to lighten the household and make place for another woman. They call it the tribal tradition of karo-kari, which is a crude and shameless practice if accusing your wife or sister of having had sexual intercourse with another man, even your father or your brother, after which you kill the luckless creature and bury her in a pariah graveyard. Needless to say, the co-accused father or brother goes free.

The prouder the tribesman the more shameless is the practice of killing women. The Baloch bury their women alive if they dare express the wish to marry of their own accord. The proud Pashtun take the lowest rung of honour: they give away their women to satisfy the passion for revenge of a wronged party and call it swara. And when you try to legislate against these practices, brave sardars get up and claim all these shameless practices as rituals of tribal tradition.

You can encounter a situation where a women who has been deprived of her right to property and is beaten up for nashuz (disobedience) is ready to claw your eyes for insulting Islam after you have spoken of the issues facing other women like her. The book under review therefore handles the theme carefully, talking of all sorts of women in Islam, from Khadija, Ayesha, Fatima, Zainab to, yes, Hind, the wife of Abu Sufiyan and mother of Muawiya, who fought like a wildcat against the Prophet PBUH in the battle of Uhud.

The book finds the subject neglected although most Muslim scholars dealing with the normative rather than the real think otherwise. The norm is established by the Quran and the Prophet PBUH but the problem is that this norm is ‘interpreted’ in different places in different ways. Muslims get red around the collar discussing this subject and are not placated even by a reference to different sharias in different places. Talk of allowing female circumcision in Pakistan and you will get slapped in the face, but in Egypt it is the other way around. If you criticise female circumcision among the Shafeiites of Cairo you will get beaten up.

We all agree on the Islamic norm of rights of women but disagree on the details or how this norm is to be interpreted. How much is a nashiza wife to be beaten? The less civilised Muslim in Syria and Ghana can beat his wife to death without the neighbours challenging him. If the wife is your cabbage patch to be tilled (agreed), how roughly is the deed to be done or with or without the consent of the cabbage patch (disagreed)? So the book arrives at the conclusion that the equality bestowed by the Quran on Muslim men and women is spiritual and not social. Hadith is more problematic: what do you make of the saying that a people whose affairs are managed by a woman will not prosper?

The Salafiya movement under the Egyptian grand mufti Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) did something commendable by returning to the Quran and the Prophet PBUH to cut out the different cultural rites that had become accreted on the Islamic practice. His interpretation, based on praxis in early Islam, revealed the woman was treated better than in the 20th century. So the reform took us back to the period of the Prophet and his Companions. His Quranic extrapolations favoured monogamy but unfortunately later on the salafists that branched off from his school derived polygamy from the same source.

Hind is praised for her feats at the 7th century Battle of Yarmuk which resulted in Syria and Palestine falling under Muslim rule, but then the story reverts to her pre-conversion role against the Muslims at the Battle of Uhud that nearly killed the Prophet PBUH. The details are gory but the family of Abu Sufyan was forgiven by the Prophet PBUH for battling him, and she lived to be a brave and assertive Muslim woman. (Forgiveness was divine and perhaps came because her father, brother, uncle and oldest son were earlier killed by Muslims at the Battle of Badr.) Then Ayesha emerges as a woman of great authority revered by Muslims as a source of hadith and a model for women to follow.

The Shia respect for women is derived from their reverence for the family of the Prophet. Fatima emerges as the ideal of womanhood because she was the daughter of Muhammad PBUH; and Khadija emerged as the ideal woman who proposed to the Prophet PBUH and set the example for Muslim women who wish to choose their husbands. When scholars like Moroccan Fatima Mernissi write to remind the Muslims of these things her views don’t always meet with the approval of our contemporary fire-and-brimstone clergy. The harder you make it the better it looks. And you make it harder still for Muslim women!

There is also the woman of our times. Halide Edib Khanum, the Turkish women who welcomed the Kemalist revolution in Turkey and supported the Pakistan Movement. Born in 1884, she came from a highly placed Ottoman family, her father Edib Bey being secretary to Sultan Abdul Hamid the Second. Coming from this conservative background she entered the American College for Girls in Istanbul and was ready to accept the Young Turk Revolution when it came under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Pasha in 1908.

Our own Hamida Akhtar, in her beautifully written memoir, tells us how she got to meet Halide when she was in exile in Paris after having disagreed with Kemal over doing the Turkish ulema to death by sinking their ship in high seas. She was in pain because Kemal had retained her children as ‘suretyÂ’ against her conduct in Paris. It was in Paris that Chaudhry Rehmat Ali met her and set her up as an ideal woman for the Muslims of India.
Source: Daily Times
Date:11/30/2008

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