Educated, Ignorant, and Feminist

Title: Feminism and Islam, Legal and Literary Perspectives
Editor: Mai Yamani
Publisher: School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
Year: 1996
385 pages.

Remember when Soviet Union was a Super Power, and reading Lenin and Marx (or at least pretending to have read them) was a sign of intellectual achievement? In those "glorious" days claims that Islam also espoused its own brand of Socialism, and that Islamic Socialism was the need of the hour had gripped the intellectual landscape of the Muslim world. As Soviet Union turned into Soviet Onion, to disappear peal by peal, the apologists and their arguments also found their way to the trash heap of history.

However, real apologists do not die. They just reappear in another guise, always submitting to whatever seems to be the dominant ideology of the time. Enter Feminism: Women of the world unite. And sure there are already a lot of "experts" on Islamic Feminism. Fifteen of them have contributed chapters to this book, which is an intellectual attempt to serve the cause of this fancy new ism. It differs from the previous ism only in the chutzpah of its proponents. For note that the book is titled "Feminism and Islam" and not "Islam and Feminism." For these pundits feminism (whatever it means) is the self-evident and absolute Truth. Islam, on the other hand, is a "man-made" religion, to be examined and reformed according to the dictates of the former! After all, the great Islamic jurists were all men, "moved by thirst for power" who, acting like "privileged oppressors," gave their gender more and more privileges, usurping the rights of women [p 331]. Those who wrote the tafsir (exegeses) of Qur'an were men, as were the people like Bukhari and Muslim who compiled quotes "allegedly said by the Prophet [Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam]." [p 35].

Things get a lot more sinister. The early Islamic scholars, muhadditheen, mufassireen, as well as historians, were not only men bent upon usurping the rights of women, they were also liars who deliberately distorted history to throw a bad light on everything which preceded Islam [p 77]. It is because of their distortion that people generally believe that Islam had significantly improved the lives of women. Despite the elaborate "cover up," a dedicated researcher Ghada Karmi, Senior Research Fellow, Center for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, Durham University, through her sheer brilliance has found that actually women were better off before Islam! The existence of goddesses like al-Uzza, Manat, and al-Lat is proof that "society was originally organized on a matriarchal and/or matrilineal basis." In addition in the Jahilya society a woman could have many husbands just like the man could have many wives, thus producing balance, which was destroyed by Islam! Moreover, when she bore a child, she would call all the "husbands" and decide who she thought was the father. "And her word was law." What a position of power!

To respond to any of the above arguments is to dignify unadulterated nonsense, but it is important to note that in this "scholarly" book, she has as much claim to the crown of ijtihad-dom as the next expert. Her ijtihad holds that the Qur'an should be striped of those verses dealing with legislation, as they are the variable part. We should leave other verses that deal with the spiritual content, for that is the constant part.

Afraid that this "bold" suggestion may not be accepted, other "experts" offer new interpretations of the Qur'anic verses toward the same goal. One suggestion that occurs repeatedly is that Islam does not require Muslim women to observe hijab or veil. There is nothing new about the argument that the injunction about veil applies only to the wives of the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam. But it is interesting and instructive to look at their treatment of the subject. Their argument is based on this verse: "O Wives of the Prophet! You are not like any of the other women: If you do fear Allah, be not too complaisant of speech, lest one in whose heart is a disease should be moved with desire: but speak a speech that is just. And stay quietly in your houses, and make not a dazzling display, like that of the former times of Ignorance; and establish regular prayer, and give Zakat and obey Allah and His Messenger." [al-Ahzab, 33:32-33]. The interpretation given by all the scholars has been that these commands apply to all the believing women and that the reference to the Prophet's wives is only aimed at emphasizing their greater responsibility as they are the role models for all other believers. But the feminists cannot resist the temptation for a strictly literal interpretation as a way out of the first two commands. The problem is that here five commands are given in the same tone, and it is obvious that the last three apply to all the believing women. If there is a basis for selectively restricting the first two to the Prophet's wives no one has shown that. In fact the reasoning given a few verses later demolishes the feminist's argument completely. "And when you ask (his ladies) for anything you want, ask them from behind a curtain: that makes for greater purity for your hearts and for theirs."[Al-Ahzab, 33:53]. To say that veil was required only of the wives of the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, is to claim that either the rest of the believing women have purer hearts that do not need the protection of veil or that for them purity of heart is not required!

Unaware of this problem, but happy with her literal interpretation, A L Marsot gives away her real reason for opposing the veil at the end of her article. Veil to her implies an inferior role for the women [p 46]. Let's ignore whether this observation is justified or not but it is impossible to ignore the sentiments expressed here: Veil is a sign of inferiority, so let us restrict it to the Mothers of the Believers!

The article by Mona Siddiqui, Lecturer in Islamic Studies, Faculty of Divinity, University of Glasgow, examines the law of Kafa'a (compatibility) in Hanafi school to demonstrate the "tensions" between legal rights and social norms. The basic principle underlying Kafa'a is that a Muslim woman should not marry a Muslim man below her status and that of her family. Such a marriage would be allowed only if not only the woman but also her guardian approves of it. The law prevents a woman from contracting herself in an incompatible and therefore potentially disastrous marriage and it defines compatibility in precise detail. Thus there are two possible situations. A marriage within Kafa'a and one outside it. In the first case the woman can legally contract herself in marriage but it is still desirable for her to have a wali or guardian to marry her off so as not to be associated with shamelessness. In the second marriage is not valid if the wali disapproves of it. Mona Siddiqui sees problems with both: "The taint of shamelessness that is associated with a woman who acts within the legal parameters reflects a society reluctant to equate the observance of a legal right with approved behavior." The tension she sees is a result of a failure to understand the complementary relationship between law and moral teachings. For example, legally divorce is permissible, but it is the most abhorrent of all the permissible things. Is there a conflict? Not at all. Divorce is legally permissible because the safety valve has to be there for the rare situation when it may be needed. At the same time, moral teachings and societal norms aim at reducing as much as possible the need for this valve. Should we complain that the exercise of a legal right is being compromised under societal pressures? Similarly modesty and haya are the most important qualities of a believing woman and anyone who is not totally deprived of these attributes can see the need for a wali to marry her off. Why is there a conflict between this norm and the right to accept or reject a marriage proposal?

She also notes that "In Islamic law texts the abstractions of romantic love do not figure and thus, in the socio-structural patterns that are discussed, the potential importance of love as affecting mate choice is denied any juristic reckoning." The suggestion is that as intermixing of men and women in schools and places of employment increases, thereby leading to increasing episodes of "romantic love," the law should be changed to accommodate the new realities. Interesting. And you thought that she understood that the whole doctrine of Kafa'a and of rights of wali is aimed at making sure that romantic love does not run amuck!

World Bank adviser Lama Abu-Odeh also emphasizes the need for this kind of adjustment. She calls for an end to the crimes of honor for their obvious cruelty. If a woman commits fornication or adultery and her father, brother, or husband finds out about it and kills her in a fit of rage, the laws in many Muslim countries consider it a special situation, thereby reducing the sentence for murder. That is a crime of honor. The development of these laws, many of which came from European sources, is a result of three factors. 1) Abrogating Islamic hudood laws, 2) development of pressures that lead to illicit acts, and 3) the desire to keep the resulting mess under control. The article notes correctly that "[the new sexual practices] are the nationalist's nightmare: they are the product of the nationalists' own policies, yet ones that nationalist ideology consciously rejects." The sensible remedy would be to fix the problem at the root by relieving the pressures (Television, films, radio, magazines, newspapers features and ads that excite the senses) and removing the opportunities (Free mixing in schools and businesses, easy availability of contraceptives) for indecent acts that later lead to the crimes of honor. It would also include the introduction of hudood laws according to Shari'a to act as deterrent. What she suggests instead is simply to abrogate the provisions for the crimes of honor and let the chips fall where they may. The author is intelligent enough to recognize that this unilateral suggestion would face opposition on the grounds that it will promote promiscuity. For that she suggests several rhetorical responses, thus giving us a glimpse of the internal strategy session of the feminists: 1) Only poor women are the victims of crimes of honor. 2) Arab women will never become like western women. 3) It does not look good abroad 4) Proper sexual behavior should be promoted through ethical teachings rather than violence 5) There is nothing wrong with romance. Clever propaganda points!

This leads us to the question of the real agenda behind this book. Except for one article by Raga El-Nimr, which may have been included to maintain the fašade of objectivity, the contents of this book contains gems like the ones mentioned above. It is obvious that the book has nothing to do with the real problems facing Muslim women. Isn't it intriguing that it talks about the discrimination against women in Lebanon who are not allowed to undertake mining, foundry work, brewing and distilling, and driving heavy equipment [p 328] yet says not a word about the plight of Muslim women in Bosnia, Kashmir, or Palestine?

Actually, as in all feminists' works, the real issues of Muslim women are not touched here at all. The foremost issue for Muslim women is the protection of their dignity and prevention of their degrading and demeaning portrayal in the media, which in turn leads to all sorts of abuses. There needs to be a total ban on displaying the pictures of their bodies for commercial gain. They also need protection from un-Islamic practices forced by the husband. There are husbands who force their wives to unveil in public or attend to their friends or even discourage them from praying. A Muslim women must have legal recourse against such coercion. Similarly there are so-called Muslim regimes that force women to unveil in public. This is state-sponsored religious persecution and she needs her rights restored through a total stop to it. A Muslim woman also needs an educational system that caters to her needs, instead of forcing her to become a man in a blind quest for equality. She needs healthcare facilities that respect her dignity and her need for privacy. Today in many Muslim countries a women is totally helpless and a potential victim of all kinds of assaults once she enters a hospital. A Muslim woman also needs a legal and justice system that assures her that she can get her rights in case of disputes according to the shari'a. She needs an Economic system in which she is not forced to leave home to share the burden of earning a living. She needs an environment in which her natural instincts for motherhood and homemaking are respected not crushed. And yet on all of these issues there is a deafening silence in the feminists quarters.

Of course one should not expect any of that from a book that mentions the notorious Cairo Conference with respect and quotes such notables as Benazir Bhutto on the need for following the "correct form of Islam" or Suzanne Mubarak on the "importance of democracy." There is an additional problem here for the telltale signs are all over that this book may actually be a covert operation of the UN. Any doubts in this regard should be removed by reading chapter 16 by Jane Connor's about Women's Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. What lurks behind those unwieldy but innocent- sounding words, is a complete "shari'a" of the UN that aims at overriding Islamic shari'a. It calls for ending segregation in workplace, and ending Islam's laws of evidence, marriage, divorce, custody of children, paternity, and alimony payment. Further in case of any disputes, it gives jurisdiction to the International Court. The Convention went into force in 1981 while a non-binding Declaration was adopted in 1963. This has been going on quietly, without any debate or awareness in Muslim countries. What the Muslim countries have been doing, working individually instead of as a common block, has been to make reservations against some of the objectionable provisions. The UN to get its foot in the door ignored these reservations, a right of sovereign UN members. Now in the unipolar world, the UN is making the move to end those reservations. The article by Jane Connors, the "Islamic expert," assures us that most of the reservations were not based on Islamic Shari'a, which has nothing to do with these mundane matters. Sure.

Her report should be an eye-opener for the Muslim leaders who had briefly turned their attention to these matters during the Cairo Conference, and have since seemed to have gone back to slumber. The UN has been acting on this thing for several decades now and there is no let up in its efforts. At one time the Convention requested the UN "to promote or undertake studies on the status of women under Islamic laws and customs and in particular on the status and equality of women in the family… taking into consideration the principle of El Ijtihad in Islam." According to Connors that plan was shelved under protest by some Muslim countries including Bangladesh and Egypt. However "Feminism and Islam" fits the bill precisely. Its publication from University of London, instead of the UN press, gives it additional measure of objectivity and respectability. If only it can act as another wakeup call for the Muslim leaders.

By Khalid Baig