WOMEN IN ISLAM
Paul Jackson, S.J.
This is not meant to be a scholarly article. I do not intend to refer to any books, but simply to offer a few personal reflections, for what they are worth.
It is important to break down the title, “WOMEN IN ISLAM.” Briefly, I want to look at women as depicted in the Quran, and women in Muslim history. The first is clear, but some may ask why I used the adjective ‘Muslim’ instead of ‘Islamic.’ For me, history deals with people, and the followers of the Islamic faith are called ‘Muslims.’ The title of the article is meant to integrate what the foundational text of Islam, the Quran, says, with what we find in the actual lived history of Muslims. Strictly speaking, the Christian parallel would not be what we find in the New Testament as a whole – including some statements in Paul’s Letters, for example – but in the reality of the example found in how Jesus related to women. This is based on the fact that, for Muslims, the Word of God is a book – the Quran – whereas for Christians, it is The Word Made Flesh – Jesus Christ.
Muslims believe that the Quran was revealed to Muhammad, whom they revere as The Last Prophet, between the years 610 and 632, the year of his death. The position of women in Arab society at this time was characterised by its patriarchal and Bedouin character. This amalgam resulted in certain distinctive features. Since the Arabs were Bedouins, living in the harsh reality of the Sahara Desert, they were mainly nomadic herdsmen, supplementing their diet with a meagre agricultural output from oases. The reality of the situation meant that women depended on men. Some Arabs lived together in larger oases in settlements
commonly referred to as towns, such as Mecca and Medina. They were able to concentrate more on agriculture and trade. Mecca, for example, was on an important trade route, while agriculture was an important feature of life in Medina. Mecca also contained the Ka`ba, the cube-like structure which was regarded as sacred and was the main religious site of the Arabs. As such it was a pilgrimage centre. In this quasi-urban setting it was possible, but rare, for a woman to survive in an independent manner. For example Khadija, Muhammad’s first wife, ran the successful trading business left to her by her deceased husband. Another source of income for the Bedouins was raiding caravans. Although acquiring booty was the main aim of the attacks, inevitably some people were killed in the fighting and this led to blood feuds and more killing. Polygamy was the answer to the resulting imbalance between men and women.
It is very important to get some inkling of this social reality of early seventh century Arab society, lived in very harsh and uncompromising conditions, with special emphasis on the respective roles and resulting positions of men and women. In this context the Quran advances women’s rights. For example, the practice of female infanticide was roundly condemned. Polygamy was restricted to four wives. Women were free during this period to accompany their men folk and urge them on to fight bravely, but did not themselves fight. A special honour was bestowed on the Wives of the Prophet, but also a special type of seclusion broadly described as “The Purdah System.” The testimony of two women, however, was considered equal to that of only one man. In the specific sphere of religious identity women were equal to men. This fact augured well for a gradual advance in the social position of women in Islamic society.
Unfortunately, this did not happen. One reason for this was the influence of the Persian brand of polygamy. The hardy Arabs were far superior warriors to the Persians and quickly conquered them, but the Arabs, divided into tribal groups, had no experience of kingship. Persian society, however, had over a thousand years of experience in kingship. As the Caliphs had the role of political leadership as well as religious , they became increasingly influenced by the traditions of the Persian monarchy, including its specific form of polygamy. Briefly, Persian monarchs had a special section of their palace – known as the harem – reserved for women. They took a number of wives, as well as many concubines. The wives also had their maids. The monarchs very wisely used eunuchs to guard the harem and appointed eunuchs to interact, where necessary, with the women in the harem. These were essentially regarded as possessions, similar to owning so many horses, so many camels and so many elephants. Archaeological evidence indicates that the Caliphs had embraced this mode of polygamy within eighty years after the death of Muhammad.
The Caliphs, however, went one step further. They gave religious sanction to this form of polygamy. Verses in the Quran that were directed exclusively to the Wives of the Prophet were now applied to the wives of the Caliph. This meant that they conveniently buttressed the strict seclusion of the harem system. Moreover, nobles began to imitate the king and embraced this system, although on a smaller scale. In this way it slowly permeated Muslim society. It could be compared to taking the lifestyle of Enclosed Carmelite Sisters and saying that it applied to all Catholic women. How could a Khadija emerge in such a society? What encouragement and support could they offer to their men folk as they went into battle? In fact, only one verse in the Quran refers to a code of dress that applies to all Muslim women. It enjoins them to “draw their jilbab close around them, so that they can be recognized and not molested.” The obvious question to ask is what a jilbab is. It is not a veil, but an outer garment, much like a mantle, that can be pulled around the body over one’s normal clothing. Such extra covering in Muhammad’s time was meant to provide protection against the danger of dehydration when women emerged into the incredibly hot and dry atmosphere outside their dwellings. It also served to conceal a woman’s bodily curves. It could cover the head for protection, but not the face. It could be argued that this verse essentially enjoins Muslim women to dress sensibly and modestly.
This brings us to the question regarding the interpretation of the Quran: Are specific injunctions found in the Quran applicable to Muslims everywhere and at all times? Or are they applications of a general principle to a specific situation? If the first interpretation is accepted, then how would it apply to a dress code for Eskimo women and Native American women living in the Amazon jungles? A number of highly respected Muslim scholars affirm that we are meant to see beyond the details to the moral or religious principle involved. The common opinion, however, always espoused by groups such as the Taliban, will have none of this. They affirm that every detail is God-given and must be obeyed. In the matter of clothing, for example, it is not left to the individual Muslim woman, after taking into account what other women in her situation are wearing, to apply the general principle of dressing sensibly and modestly when she is deciding what she will wear. No, people like the Taliban dictate to her, according to their own interpretation, not only what she should wear, but how she should live her life as well.
The sad part of all this is that this type of interpretation completely ignores the fact of the equality in religious identity accorded to Muslim men and women in the Quran. Instead of this seed of religious identify being allowed to grow and blossom, its growth was stunted due to choking social factors, including an often extreme form of patriarchy, such as that of the Pashtuns in Southern Afghanistan. Interestingly, when the largely Pashtun Taliban captured Kabul in 1996 and enforced their prohibition of women’s education, 40% of the students in Balkh University, in Mazar-i Sharif, in Northern Afghanistan, inhabited largely by non-Pashtun ethnic groups, were girls! A number of Muslim women – and some men – who espouse the cause of the dignity of Muslim women, are trying to reclaim their religious identity.
It is in this context that the attempted assassination of Malala Yousafzai, an advocate of education for girls, by the Taliban, and their vow to finish her off if she returns to Pakistan, is of such symbolic importance. Muslims are no longer living in a world of their own. They are an integral part of the international community. This community fosters the education of women and their ever increasingly positive role in society as well as in family life. This is the cultural reality of today. Muslim women have the right to participate in this reality. They also have the duty of being shining examples of the principles inculcated in the Quran, such as the personal responsibility of dressing sensibly and modestly. They do not have to ape the examples of outlandish attire we find in the media today!
The stark alternative is that enjoined by the Taliban – obscurantism, death and the fear of death.