THE question of women’s rights in Islam has become more pertinent in our time because literacy and higher education have significantly increased among women, as have urbanisation and the pressures exerted by it.
Women are no longer prepared to accept their position as ‘the second sex’, as the French feminist Simone de Beauvoir put it in the last century. Women today are very conscious of their rights and they rightfully demand gender parity in all fields.
Muslim women are far behind their counterparts in other world communities; they are more subjugated to men’s will than women in other faith-traditions. Muslim women arguably suffer more because of Sharia rules whose interpretation is projected as ‘divine’ and ‘immutable’ which it is not. This illusion persists among Muslims (men and women) perhaps only because Sharia is based on the Quran and hadith.
What few people realise is that Sharia, though based on the Quran and hadith, is in fact based on the interpretation of the Quran (and hadith), and interpretation is human while the Quranic text is divine. This human interpretation of the divine text has all along been done by men and hardly by any women. Even when some women attempted it, the overwhelming authority has been that of men. I meet many women educated in women’s madressahs today, who fully justify all such interpreted Sharia rules and accept their secondary position in society.
This situation can be balanced perhaps if more women scholars interpreted the Quran. The Quran indeed gives equal rights to women unambiguously (2:228). Thus, when women interpret the Quran from their perspective, they would benefit from the rights given to them by the Holy Book. In some cases problems also arise because Quranic verses have been interpreted in the light of certain ahadith; ahadith also need to be critically examined.
The science of hadith was developed by the muhaddessin (those who specialise in the science of hadith), which entirely depends on the narrator. The authenticity of a hadith depends on the character of narrator, not on his/her intellectual capacity or ideological position towards women. Also, in some cases even if a hadith apparently contradicts a Quranic formulation it may be accepted as long as it fulfils other criteria. Thus, it will be seen that riwayat (narration of text) is held as more important than dirayat (i.e. intellectual criteria) by traditional theologians.
This is precisely why the Quran was perhaps so interpreted in a male-dominated and feudal society to subject women to men’s overriding authority. The Quranic positions and unambiguous formulations for equality of men and women were considerably diluted in such formulations. One of the key values of the Quran, namely, adl (justice), became secondary when it came to women’s rights.
Quranic verses on polygamy or nushuz (rebellion by women, 4:34) were so interpreted, especially with the help of ahadith, that their real meaning and intent were lost and social ethos prevailed over divine intent. Even the verses on talaq (divorce) were interpreted by some to justify triple divorce in one sitting. Thus, the verses on polygamy and divorce were so interpreted to subject women to men’s overriding authority.
There is a great need for women theologians in Islam who can read and interpret the Quran. Some men like Maulavi Mumtaz Ali Khan, who was one of the colleagues of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, did excellent work in the 19th century to advocate gender equality, based on his interpretation of Islam. His book Huququn Niswan is an excellent work published in early 1890s. Another such theologian in the 20th century was Maulana Umar Ahmad Usmani, who was a graduate from Darul Uloom (before he migrated to Pakistan), and a great advocate of gender equality. He named his book — quite significantly — Fiqh al-Quran because his understanding of the Quran is not based on hadith literature; he depends for his formulations only on the Quran.
Recently some women scholars were making efforts to understand the Quran from their own perspective. Fatima Mernissi of Morocco and Amina Wudud and others have done excellent work interpreting the Quran from independent scholarly perspectives. Also, from the US, one scholar, Laleh Bakhtiar, has translated the Quran into English from a feminist perspective. She calls it ‘inclusive’ as against others’ ‘exclusive’ translations. But all this is not sufficient though quite important. More and more women theologians should come forward and interpret the Quran. It is not easy to challenge the corpus of literature on the Quran for the last 1,300-1,400 years. This is necessary to restore to women the rights they lost to men under a feudal social ethos.
The writer is an Islamic scholar and heads the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, Mumbai.