Situating Muslim Women
The question of women and Islam has attracted a lot of interest in academics. Concerns like how one understands the situation of women in a patriarchal religion like Islam have taken centre place in many debates. But sadly the experience of Muslim women is often seen the same as with Muslim men or other women. Either gender over determines or community over determines the Muslim women’s question. Whatever work is done on Muslim women, religion is seen as dominating every aspect. While studying Muslim women, undue emphasis is given to Muslim personal law. There is also a tendency to homogenise the category of Muslim women. This tends to lead to cultural reductionism. What complicates a study of Muslim women is also the absence of disaggregated community based data. The need to talk about Muslim women when one talks of marginalised communities, rises from the fact that Muslim women is a doubly marginalised community—being women and being Muslims. I divided this article in two parts: in the first part I talk about the condition of Muslim women in contemporary times with the help of the findings of a field survey and in the second part I look at debates and contentions regarding position of women as understood in the popular discourse and discussions on the religion of Islam. The paper concludes with a comment on the current situation of Muslim women in Assam.
The situation of Muslim Women
A survey undertaken by scholars Zoya Hasan and Ritu Menon for their book Unequal Citizens is the first of its kind and tried to fill up the gap regarding data on Muslim women. This survey took a comparative look at the socio-economic condition of Muslim women with their Hindu counterparts.
Muslims in India have often felt to be structurally and systemically alienated from the mainstream. The Sachar Committee Report brings forth the hard hitting fact about the situation of Muslims in India. The Report goes on to say that Muslims are doing worse than Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. And the absence of any affirmative action to redress this has worsened the scenario. The survey mentioned above tries to take in a complete scenario of various aspects of a Muslim woman’s life. Muslims are conspicuously absent from formal jobs. Muslim women are unlikely to finish minimum eight years of schooling. It seems financial constraint of Muslims works mainly against education of girls than boys. The case of early marriage of Muslim girls also leads to higher drop outs.
The socio-economic status of a family is closely linked with the level of education. Although gender disprivilege is there even when there is a level of socio-economic upliftment, in case of constraint it is always the women who bear the brunt. Muslims, who also insist on maintaining some kind of segregation amongst the sexes, take their girl child out of school in case of unavailability of sex segregated schools. While Muslims are working more in informal sector, Muslim women opt for home based jobs which will let them carry on housekeeping alongside. Demands of the private domain restrict their mobility. Marriage, motherhood and housework are perceived as women’s primary occupation pointing to the entrenched presence of a sexual division of labour.
To understand the situation of Muslim women, one has to take into consideration the intersection of gender, class and community. This intersectionality perpetuates a structural disempowerment of Muslim women. And this disempowerment is mediated by poverty, communal politics, patriarchy and personal law. There is also a tendency to find out a direct co-relation between Islam and Muslim women. This renders the differences within the category of Muslim women invisible.
Such homogenisation has often led to very problematic portrayal of women belonging to Muslim world. They were often thought of as subjects without agency. In western perception they are “women who are victims of a supposedly exploitative religion needing to be saved”. The veil which is a part of attire and which has more to do with culture than religion, came to be seen as a marker of Islam and hence denigrated in many places. Hijab was seen as completely exploitative and assumed to be imposed. Time and again in western countries this led to taking contentious stand on the issue of visibility of Hijab in public sphere. Turkey banning headscarf in school and France banning veils in public spaces are sad instances in the history of secularism. Lila Abu Lughod in an article talks about how Afghan women were portrayed as the ideal victim of Patriarchy waiting to be saved by American army men. And this aimed to justify one of USA’s most brutal military interventions in Afghanistan whose collateral damage, in terms of civilian casualties, should cause shame to humankind. Such homogenisation renders historical contingency to the margins. While describing a woman, overemphasis is on religio-cultural explanation. As pointed out by Gayatri Spivak, the discourse is still colonial: white men saving brown women from brown men.
One cannot deny that during Taliban regime in Afghanistan the traditional dress of Pashtun women were imposed on non-Pashtuns also. And Americans portrayed their intervention in Afghanistan in the name of restoring democracy as liberation for women. But ironically during post-Taliban regime, women did not throw off their veils. Veils for many are liberating in public spaces. Burqa and different forms of veil evolved over a period of time as markers of modesty and emerged not merely as an imposition. The perspective of the other also needs to be accommodated. And respecting differences does not make one a cultural relativist. Missionary work and colonial feminism are things of the past. A foundational pillar of feminism is giving back women their voices and making space for their varied and unique experiences.
To understand the condition of Muslim women one has to see how the religion of Islam evolved. Within a larger context of patriarchy, religion is an end product of patriarchy and hence permeated by its values. The assertion of fundamental and reactionary elements undermined the beautiful tradition of Ijtihad or creative interpretation in Islam. Scholars like Asghar Ali Engineer lament the absence of interpretation of the Holy Book to fit into the present context. While core values and principles of a religion should not be changed, the laws based on these values have to undergo change over a period of time. There is a need to counter such innovations which have been aimed to fit conveniently to a patriarchal society and instead bring forth the strong notions of equality, justice, value of education, compassion etc. which are foundational values of Islam.
There is also a need to contextualise the rise of Islam in different parts of the world. Islam’s birth place may be the Arab world but Islam cannot be reduced to what is practised in Saudi Arab countries. Islam evolved differently in South Asia. Due to the presence of a number of religions in South Asia there was enriching cultural intermingling between these faiths. The history of Islam in South Asia brings forth interesting elements. Iltutmish, the Emperor from the Slave Dynasty found his daughter Razia Sultana more capable as a heir than his sons. She discarded veil and was an able administrator. During Akbar’s reign purdah was not used by working class women. It was only post partition that there was a resurgence in religiosity.
With the rise of communal politics, the right wing came to portray Muslim women as victims of polygamous males and extremely regressive legal code. Communal violence against Muslims during riots is not always perpetrated by men. Women have also worked alongside. Many Muslims who wanted reform in personal laws were overlooked. They were only criticised for not supporting Uniform Civil Code. But in a situation where majoritarian politics is in place, uniform civil code may fail to accommodate the concerns of minority communities completely. Government’s non intervention in personal law shows a lack of commitment to improve the condition of women.
Muslim Women and Islam
Coming to how Islam portrays women, due to the absence of women taking active part as interpreters in the discourse on religion, their views have been completely left out. Controversial verses like the one on polygamy which slowly came to be codified in Muslim personal law failed to point out the extreme difficulty of its practise and hence an expressed preference for monogamy.
There is a need for more women scholars to interpret Islam. Islamic Jurists while interpreting Hadith have often led social ethos supersede divine intent. While the Quran gave equal rights to both men and women unambiguously, in its practice women are made to be subservient to men. However women scholars like Fatima Mernissi from Morocco, Amina Wadud from USA, Laleh Bakhtiyar from Iran who gave a feminist perspective of Quran, talk of a very inclusive Islam.
Few contentious issues which raised questions about the relevance of Quran should be looked into to understand the limits of conservative interpretation. In case of family planning and use of contraceptives, Quran is claimed to be silent hence giving a free hand to Mullahs to decline their use. Rather by quoting selectively from Quran that one should not kill one’s children and Allah’s Ummah should be the biggest, they discourage the use of contraception, impacting adversely the health of Muslim women and the socio-economic status of the community. But Quran rightly speaks of not killing children who are already born. This should not include children who have not even been conceived. More important should be to give a just and fair life to one’s children by giving them proper education.
While in popular discourse, Muslim fundamentalists are always in the limelight, Muslim theologians who led movements for gender equity are not very much known. One can mention Maulvi Mumtaz Ali who was a contemporary of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and talked of equality between men and women in the late 19th century. His book Huquq un-Niswan talks of women’s rights in Islam.
Another issue of contention is the verse on polygamy. Why it is allowed in Islam needs to be seen within the right context. It was permitted after the Battle of Uhud to safeguard widows and orphans left alone because of the battle and look after their property. Underlining this is the compulsion to do justice to wives and treat then with parity, which when rendered difficult, monogamy should be preferred. Ulemas and Jurists while codifying this so called right of men to have four wives, ignored both the condition of war as well as justice. Ulemas said that polygamy was permitted to check prostitution but a reading of Quran does not indicate so. Such a problematic assumption would point to the belief that libido of men have social as well as religious sanction.
Arabs used hadith to mediate their patriarchal values. Many practices which belonged to a pre-Islamic period became a part of the Shariah. While consent of women was so central to marriage, the Ulemas said that even a woman’s silence during marriage should be taken as her consent. Hence while Quran and Islam as propagated by the Prophet gave a lot of rights to women, later interpretations have whittled down many of these.
Hijab which was mentioned in Quran eight times and that too in very different contexts from its present use, have been misused and misunderstood. Hijab meant separation or a means to provide privacy. It also asked women not to showcase their expensive clothes and jewellery in public. It was mainly to stop rich and neo-rich from showing their embellishments in a disparity ridden society. The verse which is most popularly associated to veil or Hijab i.e. verse 33:53, was used specifically for Prophet’s wives and not for all women. It is by virtue of the regressive elements that Hijab which has taken stricter forms like the Abaya in Saudi Arab, Chador in Iran, Burqa in Indian continent came to be used as instruments of control.
Thus one response of western governments, which saw Hijab as an imposed bondage, have banned its use in public. But this has the opposite effect. Such an act of othering the attire of Muslim women has culturally alienated them. As a response while some Muslim women wholeheartedly accepted western culture and assimilated to European society, others clung more to their traditions because they felt their identity was threatened. Media plays its own role by portraying Muslim women as submissive victims of patriarchy. Islam’s provision for women is understood solely in terms of Taliban’s version of modesty of women. Kuwaiti women elected to Parliament filed a case for their right to enter Parliament without using Hijab and won. Amina Wadud led a mixed prayer congregation and read the khutba for Friday prayer. Media is not so vocal on these. They always portray a very submissive image of Muslim women who needs western saviours.
Religion which is practised is more cultural than scriptural. Arab adat or customs were incorporated in Shariah. Hadith is interpretation of jurists based on social structure and social ethos. Jurists like Ibn Hazm from Spain who lived in the 14th century was very critical of taqlid or mechanical following and made a case of creative interpretation.
Muslim Women in Assam:
Religion must not lose its emancipatory potential. Muslims comprise around 30% of population in Assam. However their overall socio-political condition is pitiable. As a result Muslim women in Assam are also lagging behind. In case of Assam, the victimisation is at multiple levels. The hinterland of Assam or the Char areas are mostly inhabitated by Muslims. Being physically left out from the mainstream, it is the Muslim women who bear the brunt. Absence of schools and poor communication take its toll on the education of these women. Apart from this, identity related conflicts leading to displacement also jeopardise the lives of Muslim women and children. The absence of Muslim women from the socio-political scenario of the state has been conspicuous.
Although fundamentalist elements have time and again imposed fatwas like declaring women’s income from govt jobs as haram and demanding extreme seclusion of women, there is a shimmer of hope because day by day more and more Muslims are challenging such regressive fatwas. They no longer unquestionably accept whatever the Ulemas say. Ulemas demanding segregation between men and women clearly point out to an utter disregard to a woman’s character. Women are seen as essentially lustful beings incapable of restraining themselves. The responsibility of restrain is also essentially on women. But as the holy book says it should be on both men and women to interact in a dignified way. And the religion be practised in an egalitarian way which was envisaged by the Prophet when he propagated it. Hence a fight for an egalitarian society must be launched at two levels- within the boundary of religion as well as in the society outside where minorities have been at the receiving end of various injustice.
1. Hasan, Zoya and Menon, Ritu (2004), Unequal Citizens: A Study of Muslim Women in India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.
2. Sardar, Ziauddin (2011), Reading the Quran, Hachette India, India.
3. Engineer, Asghar Ali (2012), Islam: Restructuring Theology, Vitasta Publishing, New Delhi.
4. Lughod, Lila Abu (2002), “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and its Others”, American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol 104, No 3, pp 783-790.
5. Kazi, Seema (1999), Muslim Women in India, Minority Rights Group International Report.
6. Engineer, Asghar Ali (1994), “Status of Muslim Women”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 29, No 6.