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Muslim women and modernity

By Asghar Ali Engineer

IN a poetic recital on TV in Saudi Arabia recently, a woman poet Hissas Hilal burst out against the strict control regime for women in her country. It was a voice of protest and a very bold protest at that, perhaps unthinkable in her regimented society.

The protest was, of course, in the form of a poem she recited. She said through a veiled face about Islamic preachers: “Who sit in the position of power”, but are “frightening” people with their fatwas who “prey like a wolf” on those seeking peace. She received loud cheers from her audience which won her a place in the competition’s final. But it also brought her death threats which were posted on several militant websites.

The Saudi regime, controlled by the Salafi ulema in religious matters, is adamant on retaining strict control over women’s activities in the name of Islamic traditions. Women are denied many of their rights, including that of exercising free choice according to their conscience. This may not be the condition in all Islamic countries but traditional Muslim societies impose several restrictions and still are not ready to relax these.

The kind of hijab many Muslim women wear covering their faces and looking at the world only through two eye-holes remains controversial among Muslim scholars, theologians and modern intellectuals. The question is: what is to be done?

No one can deny the fast pace of change in a globalised world and it is becoming increasingly challenging to retain present controls exercised on women in traditional societies. This controversy has been going on ever since modernity asserted itself in the 19th century. Many reforms took place in many Muslim societies which won women a degree of liberation, but it did not happen across the board.

The latter part of the 20th and the beginning of 21st century saw a resurgence of Islam, particularly of the Salafi tradition. No society registers linear progress and progressive measures without facing challenges. Reasons can be political and economic as well as social and cultural. This complex nature of tension between tradition and modernity presents both a challenge and an opportunity.

What is important but is often ignored is that what we practise in the name of Islam is more cultural than religious or scriptural, and also that we depend too much on tradition while defending or opposing the restrictions applied to women. A good example of this is a recent book published from Pakistan on Chehre ka parda: wajib ya ghair wajib (‘Face veil: compulsory or not’) compiled by Prof Khurshid Alam. It offers a very scholarly debate between two learned scholars, one defending and the other opposing the veiling of the face.

Yet, it should be noted that the book depends entirely on citing apparently contradictory traditions of the Prophet (PBUH), and his companions, as related by various medieval scholars. You find in abundance both kinds of traditions (ahadith) insisting on face veil or thinking it unnecessary, and both the scholars use these to argue their position. This approach only reinforces traditional cultural Islam.We should not ignore the fact that most of the traditions (except those on moral, ethical or pertaining to ibadat – matters of worship – matters) reflect Arab culture on the one hand and a medieval West Asian or Central Asian culture on the other. The jurists have also maintained that Arab adat (customary practice) could become part of the Sharia law, thus many laws are based on Arab adat.

In the book I am referring to there is very little direct approach to the Quran or fresh reflections on relevant Quranic verses. It is time Muslim jurists and scholars realised that Arab pre-Islamic or medieval adat is far from divine, and should not form the basic structure of the Sharia law today. We must change this cultural base through direct reflections and fresh understanding of Quranic verses relevant to women.

This attempt would establish individual dignity and freedom of choice for women. Freedom of conscience is an important doctrine of the Quran and so is individual dignity. The Quran is far more in harmony with human dignity and freedom than the traditional medieval cultural practices.

This approach will in no way injure the nature of the Sharia law. It would only liberate it from its traditional cultural basis, which incorporates patriarchal values of tribal Arab culture in many cases over the divine spirit of the Quran. This opportunity should not be lost as we tackle the challenges thrown up by modernity. The crucial point to remember is that causing agony to women and creating dilemmas of choice for them is not what Islam intended. Muslim scholars and jurists should seek to end this agony.

The writer is an Islamic scholar who heads the Centre for Study of Society & Secularism, Mumbai.

Source: Dawn