MUSLIM WOMEN ON
July 1-15, 2003
by Asghar Ali Engineer
There is widespread perception that Muslim women are among the most backward,
illiterate and oppressed in the world. In media they are always shown clad
in burqa or wrapped in hijab (veil). They are also perceived to be confined
to the four walls of their homes totally cut off from outside world. While
partly it is true but reality is much more complex and also not static. Generally
we tend to oversimplify and assume reality to be static. In a fast changing
world reality cannot taken to be static. We should always pay attention to
changing and emerging reality.
What happens in the Muslim world is usually blamed on Islam. The underlying
assumption is that Muslim behaviour is always determined by religious belief
and since Muslim women are backward and do not enjoy rights like other women
it is because of Islamic teachings. This impression is further reinforced
by the pronouncements of some orthodox 'ulama that want to see Muslim women
wrapped in hijab.
It has to be borne in mind that firstly all Muslims do not behave according
to what theologians or 'ulama say or even according to the teachings of Islam;
secondly, social customs, traditions and social milieu exert their own pressure.
It is difficult to ignore all this. Thirdly, there are multiple interpretations
of Qur'an. Fourthly, modern world-view also plays an important role in determining
one's point of view as well as behaviour.
The question of Muslim women, their social status and rights cannot be understood
without keeping these things in mind. First of all it must be kept in mind
that Qur'an makes clear pronouncement in favour of equal rights for both
sexes (2:228). However, this vision of Islam for sexual equality could not
find practical implementation for number of reasons. Those who embraced Islam,
however sincere they might have been, were product of a fiercely male-dominated
society. The Qura'nic pronouncement on the other hand, was an ideal which
required very different cultural milieu. From sociological viewpoint it was
not immediately implementable.
The scriptural understanding is always mediated through culture. The Arab
culture was patriarchal and had set its own understanding of women's position.
Thus the Qur'anic pronouncement of sexual equality was understood and implemented
through mediation of Arab culture. What is worse Islam spread through deeply
feudal societies like those of Iran, parts of Roman empire and India. The
'ulama certainly could not transcend cultural norms of these societies. Thus
shari'ah formulations came into existence mainly in Iraq, Egypt and of course
Madina. Iarq and Egypt were confluence of ancient cultures with age-old traditions
of their own. These milieux greatly influenced the Muslim theologians in
their understanding of Qur'anic pronouncement of sexual equality.
To meet the demands of their societies they selectively used Qur'anic verses
and certain sayings of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) to formulate shari'ah approach
to women problem, their status and rights. This became medieval religious
heritage, which no one could question. However, under pressure from modern
social norms these Qur'anic pronouncements are being rediscovered by modernists
and a debate is raging in the Muslim world today about rights of women in
Meanwhile the Muslim women are on the move in various Muslim countries. In
every Muslim country and countries with considerable Muslim population like
India education is spreading fast among Muslim women. This certainly brings
increased awareness among women themselves and they press for their rights
both Islamic as well as secular. There are both types of movements among
Muslim women in Islamic world. In some Muslim countries Muslim women theologians
have emerged with thorough knowledge of the Qur'an, Islamic theology and
shari'ah. There are women theologians like Fatima Mirsani from Morocco, Amina
Wadood and Riffat Hassam from USA and several others. Also there are women's
organisations like 'Sisters in Islam' from Malaysia.
These Muslim women theologians and organisations are questioning the traditional
interpretations of the Qur'an in respect of women's rights and developing
new feminine oriented theology ensuring equal rights for men and women. Sisters-in-Islam
from Malaysia is challenging the orthodox 'ulama from Malaysia. They are
even trying to get the concept of 'marital rape' accepted as a valid law.
As pointed out above reality is not static in Muslim women's world. The women
in as orthodox society as that of Kuwait are demanding right to vote which
is being denied to them by the Kuwait ruling elite. It is hoped they will
win this right sooner than later. In Pakistan the women agitated in early
fifties itself against the Pakistani Prime Minister when he married his secretary
and took her as second wife. The agitation continued until Ayub Khan who
had captured power in 1958 brought Muslim Family Ordinance in 1961, which
put certain restrictions on polygamy and oral divorce. This ordinance could
not be undone even during Zia-ul-Haq's period when the orthodox 'ulama were
closest to state power in Pakistan.
The Pakistani society, despite its ups and downs as far as project of 'Islamisation'
is concerned, is on the move in changing women's social status. Recently
seven Pakistani woman diplomats have been appointed ambassadors. An official
of Pakistani foreign ministry said that it is for the first time so many
women have been appointed ambassadors in important world capitals. They are
all career diplomats and have been posted to European capitals. One woman
Asma Aneesa, who was ambassador to one of the Central Asian countries, has
been appointed on directing staff of National Defence College. No mean achievement.
Bangladesh, though otherwise quite poor and backward, is not far behind.
There recently twenty female officers have completed two year gruelling military
training and passed out from Bangladesh Military Academy (BMA). This training
was for the post of second lieutenant and their passing out ceremony was
attended by Bangladesh Prime Minister Khaleda Zia.
The Saudi society too is by no means as static as we think of. The Saudi
women too are facing complex choices. There is no doubt compared to other
Muslim countries they are subjected to stricter traditions. But there is
no reason to assume that they are passive and inert to modern changes in
the society. The Saudi society as a whole is conceived as governed by purely
traditional Islam and totally shut out to modern world. The Saudi society
is undergoing pangs of modern change and this is causing social convulsions
and these social convulsions occasionally assume violent forms. This is subject
of another article and cannot be discussed here.
We will discuss here only other issues related to women in Saudi Arabia.
The women in Saudi Arabia are taking modern education. The princess called
Umm Abdul Aziz, for example, said (see www.amanjordan.org) "We have our own
traditions, but they do not prevent women seeking education." Though there
are obviously separate educational institutions for women and there is no
co-education in Saudi Arabia. They strictly follow the tradition of sexual
The News Letter of Pakistani women's organisation Shirkatgah of April 2003
says about changes among Saudi women, "Trying to balance the challenges of
modernity with the demands of traditional past has meant that change is cautious
and slow, but women insist that change is afoot." Mona Megalli says in her
article "Saudi women face complex choices" in the above news letter, "Saudi
women now outstrip men as graduates and other specialised colleges, making
up 58 per cent of a total of nearly 32000 students in 2000." The female students
listen to male instructors through closed circuit video an audio system.
There are many restrictions Saudi women have to grapple with. Women are not
taught engineering and law, for example. They have to compete in touch job
market in Saudi society. Similarly though women own 40 percent of private
wealth and thousands of businesses from retail to heavy industry, they face
frustrating legal and cultural restraints and they have to rely on male agents
to deal with government offices.
It is also encouraging news from Jordan that it has amended law to give women
equal rights. This was announced by Queen Rania. She made this announcement
on the opening day of Arab first ladies dedicated to improving the conditions
of women in the male dominated Arab world.
In Iran of course though women have to wear chador but chador has not been
a constraint for them as far as work is concerned. Iran has very active women's
movement in whole of Islamic world. They are active in practically every
field of work and are present in large numbers in Iranian parliament too.
In Indonesia too women have entered in educational field in a big way. There
are large number of women in Islamic universities too and there is strong
movement developing for women's rights.
Thus one must realise that reality is multi-layered and complex. Muslim women
too are undergoing through throes of change the world over. The orthodox
'ulama can hardly restrain this forward march. More and more Muslim women
are either challenging medieval theological formulations or simply ignoring
them. They are trying to carving out their own niche in this male dominated
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