Of Muslim Women:
A Historic Review
By S.Ehtisham MD
24 March, 2007
of Muslim women under a) pristine Islam b) Umayyad period immediately
following the Prophet and the first four caliphs c) Abbasid period following
the Umayyad d) Turkish period e) Muslim rule in India f) Colonial rule
g) current crop of Wahabi regimes h) secular regimes like Turkey, Algeria
and a few others h) religiously anomalous regimes like Pakistan, Indonesia,
Morocco, Tunisia, Nigeria.i) Western Governments in Europe and North
America is based on such criteria as education, exposure to other cultures,
social/economic/political development of society, symbiosis between
religion and establishment and individual financial status.
The subject with its manifold aspects is not amenable to instant or
easy definition and analysis as Muslims do not constitute a homogenous
society, and Islam, as Edward Said very aptly put it in his book “covering
Islam”, in popular western perception seems to mean one simple
thing, but in fact, is part fiction, part ideological label, part minimal
designation of a religion. Following discussion paints the picture with
a broad brush and of necessity contains broad generalizations.
Followers of Islam are broadly divided into a) Sunnis (overwhelmingly
adherents of the teachings of Imam Abu Hanifa) and b) Shias (predominantly
mainline Twelve Imamites). They are roughly 5:1 in proportion.
Hanafis, so called moderate
Sunnis venerate the period of the first four Caliphs as pious, vilify
the Umayyad as: usurpers, have chauvinistic respect for Abbasids, Turkish
Caliphs, and other Muslim rulers, put saints and holy men on pedestals
of different heights, and by and large subscribe to Sufi thought.
Shias, on the other hand
believe that Imam Ali was the designated successor of the Prophet, and
caliphate should have passed to the progeny of Imam Ali and Bibi Fatima,
the Prophets favorite daughter. Since the disappearance of the last
Imam a legitimate Muslim ruler can only act as deputy to the Imam as
Ayatollah Khomeini did.
Sunnis and Shias, though
accord the same status to their women folk. Women are clearly subservient
to men, but not commodified as they are in Wahabi households.
To analyze the impact of
Islam on the status of women we have to look at the immediate pre-Islam
Meccan society. It was tribal but had an active mercantile class. Mecca
was at the crossroads of caravan routes and its denizens were exposed
to diverse cultures. It was, of course, male dominated, but there were
note- worthy women too. The prophet’s first wife was a businesswoman;
the prophet had actually been her employee. The first Umayyad ruler’s
(Muaviya) mother Hinda actually controlled her clan and incited them
to fight against Muslims. Women used to openly propose to men. Infact
when the prophet accompanied by his uncle, was going to visit his future
wife Bibi Khatija to propose to her, a woman stopped him on the way
and offered him a hundred camels if he would marry her.
A male issue, specially
the first one, was preferred to a female one and occasionally a father
on the lunatic fringe would bury a female first born alive. Women did
not have well-defined property rights, were given away to cement tribal
deals or friendship between families or to compensate for damage done
by one family to another . They were regarded as property. Education
rare in any event, and was not deemed very useful. (The prophet had
no formal education) so it is not surprising that girls would not get
it. Remarriages and divorces were, however, not stigmatized . The contention
of Muslim publicists that women were totally downtrodden in pre Islam
Arab society is thus not entirely true. They, in fact, enjoyed a better
position than their contemporaries did in Europe.
The prophet wrought great
changes in the status of women, though they were never quite given parity
with men. Newborn female murders were prohibited and women were given
inheritance rights; girls getting half of what boys would get, if there
was no male issue, the boy’s share would go to a paternal cousin
etc The given wisdom was that girls would be the beneficiaries of what
their husband would inherit from their families. In actual fact the
logic was entirely with in feudal norms; system kept the larger part
of the property in the family. If a girl was given equal share, she
would take a greater part to her husband’s house. Giving two third
share of the property to a paternal cousin makes a lot of feudal sense
. Women continued to be regarded as property, they continued to be given
away to influential/wealthy families regardless of disparity in the
age between bride and groom Female consent was made a requirement but
was usually taken for granted. They continued to be regarded as emotionally
unstable and rather feeble minded and unclean during the menstrual period
and were not entitled to head an organization or the state , had only
half a vote in evidence and were not allowed to enter a mosque during
their monthly periods.
Over and above the legalistic
changes, women did acquire higher social status. Prophets last wife
Ayesha led an army against Ali and his grand daughter (Imam Husain’s
sister) held soirees at her home.
Women continued to hold
their own during the rule of the first four caliphs and the following
Umayyad period though segregation was introduced to keep family women
from being “contaminated” by the influence of female slaves
captured during wars. They lost ground (as did liberal, rational, analytical,
progressive thought) during the Abbasid period. To consolidate their
rule, they physically obliterated the leading Umayyads. They dare not
treat the prophets family the same way, so wrested spiritual leadership
from them by getting a collection of Islamic Scholars to ban for ever
all “Ijtihad” Imam Ghazali needs specific mention. He wielded
great influence on Muslim mind and did the greatest disservice to the
religion by proscribing rational thought.
What right did the rulers
or for that matter scholars had to prohibit rational application of
scholarship when the prophet had not done it has never been satisfactorily
explained. The only excuse offered was the patently lame and self-serving
explanation that what needed to be done had been done already, and further
analytical thought would only lead to dissention. Only the collected
work of eminent scholars (Imam Abu Hanifa, Imam Shafai, Imam Malik and
Imam Hambal) could be relied on for Law/Jurisprudence/interpretation
of Quran, the word of God, and Hadith, the prophet’s traditions,
which is a collection of his sayings and narratives of his acts of life
. The Abbasid are known to have coerced scholars to introduce several
self serving “Hadiths” into collections of The Prophet’s
sayings.) Only the adherents of the prophet’s family, the Shias
(Shia literally means adherent, Imam Ali’s (The Prophet’s
son in law, and the fourth caliph) supporters were called Shian Ali)
continued to (and still do) accept “Ijtihad”
Because of the obvious lack of authenticity of all the Hadiths, learned
scholars had to sift the“Sahih” ones from the doubtful ones
and produced such work as Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Tirmizi etc. Bukhari
accepted a few hundred out of tens of thousands as credible. Women,
as a result lost many rights including many including the right to consent
to marriage. A Wali ((father/guardian) could do it on her behalf.
During the transition between
early Islam, which chose Caliphs by some kind of consensus, and the
later period when the office became hereditary society had undergone
a sea change too. Abbasids saw the advent of feudal society with a caliph
at the head of the hierarchy. Turkish caliphate was also based on feudal
system. Historically women have had lesser status in feudal societies
than they did in tribal ones. Roots of commodification of women go back
to the advent of feudalism. Their status did not change through the
whole period of Turkish rule and the later satrapies.
Muslim period in India saw
the intermingling of Arab/Muslim and Hindu/Indian cultures. Sanctity
of motherhood was common to both. Successful invaders invariably impose
their mores and norms. But they cannot escape the influence of the subject
people. Muslims adopted the mores of sequestration of women, the stigma
of divorce and loss of property rights, and female consent to marriage
came to be taken even more for granted. . Motherhood, however, acquired
a higher status.
Things went along much the
same way during one thousand years of Muslim rule in India. Except for
building roads and palaces, the rulers didn’t do much; there was
no emphasis on education, research, science or industry. Indians lagged
behind, women even more so and were easily over whelmed by Europeans
who were hungry for resources and accidental beneficiaries of Industrial
British, French, Dutch, Italian,
German, Nothern Europeans and even lowly Portugese acquired colonies.
Turks had in the mean while
run out of steam. Though their Empire lasted till the after math of
W.W.1, they had already been dubbed sick man of Europe in the nineteenth
century. In later period of Turkish rule, Arabs tribal chiefs started
resenting foreign over lord ship. They initially undermined Turkish
rule covertly Eventually they rebelled and conspired with The British
and French colonial agents and became the beneficiaries of the dismemberment
of the Turkish Empire. Turkish rule was no longer dynamic; cracks appeared
in “ Fortress Islam”
. Arabs had never entirely
given up pagan customs. Islam had adapted some of them. The society
had been decaying for centuries. Clerics had given a fatwa that printing
press was a devilish invention and Quran could not be printed. By corollary
all printed material was unholy. That set the clock of learning among
Arabs by centuries. Together with ignorance and partially as a result
of a form of non-divine worship had crept in the belief system. People
would go to shrines and tombs not just to ask the saints ( long since
dead ) to intercede with God but actually to grant their wishes.
Abdul Wahab a minor cleric,
not by any measure a towering intellect, launched a campaign to rid
the society of “heathen” practices. But in conformity with
the mind set of all fanatics to throw the baby along with bath water,
he forsook the basic tenets of the religion’s respect and tolerance
for different views, non compulsion in adoption of a faith, sanctity
of the brothehood among the faithful, protection of minorities and substituted
it with a culture of hate, intolerance, bigotry, harsh restrictions
on women and general violation of human rights.
. Wahab did not make much
headway till he made a compact with tribal chieftains who were conspiring
with the British/French. Together they used the movement as a weapon
against the Turks. They not only sold their souls to the British and
French butundermined even early Islamic “Ijtihad” leaving
the faith with pretty much sterile- pray, eat and procreate- claiming
that the Quranic and Hadith injunction on acquiring knowledge meant
learning only Quran and Hadith and introduced the concept of division
of rights in Saudi Arabia. Progeny of Saud will look after the state.
The ruling clan is legitimized by the clerics who turn a blind eye to
the doings of the princes. Fahd when he was the crown prince lost six
million dollars in a casino in one night. On his return home his elder
brother King Faisal “grounded’ him to his country. Rulers
in their turn support the mullahs .
Wahabi influence remained
confined to Saudi Arabia for a long time. They did not amount to much
till oil money started flowing into the country and the rulers, in order
to keep fanatics at bay, and to divert their attention from the lavish
and ostentatiously un-Islamic life style of princes, persuaded the clerics
to export their creed to poor Muslim countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan,
Egypt, Sudan and several other such countries.
In the mean while with the
advent of British rule in India, Indians did become the beneficiaries
though peripheral, of industrial revolution. Britain had to develop
infrastructure in India for exporting raw material, train people for
low-level jobs and develop an army to fight other colonists. The much
vaunted railway system primarily served the purpose of transporting
cotton, jute, indigo and soldiers from the hinterland to ports and the
finished products manufactured by the British industry in the other
Women benefited too. Muslims
had to concede the rights Islamic jurisprudence had given them and which
the feudal/Mullah reactionary clique had usurped. A few even got educated.
Muslims in India practiced the mainstream (HANAFI) tolerant version
of Islam. They had good relations with Hindus and Christians. Shias
were regarded as wayward though very much in the pale of Islam. Shrines
and tombs of saints were frequented, the educated ones only asked the
saints to intercede with God on their behalf, while the illiterate asked
them for favors. They would fraternize with Hindus and attended their
festivities during Holi/Diwali etc. Their Moharram processions, though
separate from Shia processions were as solemnly attended. The British
were initially not very successful, even with the help of Wahabis, in
inciting Shia- Sunni riots .
Things went on pretty much
the same way even after independence. Muslims continued to be governed
under their personal law in India. Half hearted attempts were made in
Pakistan to enact “Pure” Islamic laws. But there was substantial
resistance to the move in urban centres of Pakistan especially in the
then East Pakistan.
World had been undergoing
rapid change since WWII. The pace accelerated during the fifties and
sixties. Muslims countries had essentially secular governments and were
making progress in Education and Industry. Standard of living was gradually
rising. Dogmatic, fundamentalist movements were on the fringes of the
society. People were optimistic. French had to leave Algeria, Egypt
had managed to stand up to British/French/Israeli aggression. Nasser
had gone toe to toe with Eisenhower/Dulles and forced the latter to
Then came the catastrophic
humiliation of the six-day Suez war in 1967. In historical terms Pakistan
Army surrender to Indian Army in 1971, Dacca was only a moment later.
Wahabi clerics had finally
come into their own. They preached that Muslims were humiliated not
because they lacked education, scientific and technological, but because
they were no longer good Muslims. They had immensely rich sponsors.
Saudi rulers bloated with oil wealth, had resources to spare and funded
twenty two thousand religious seminaries in Pakistan alone and many
more thousands all over the Muslim world. These schools offered food
and shelter and attracted essentially young boys from indigent families,
who were indoctrinated into flaming fanatics passionately ready to give
their lives for the lure of paradise with all the alluring visions of
a luxurious life forever afterwards.
Fate played further into
their hands. A few communist generals took over Afghanistan. Soviet
Union government undertook to rescue them from certain over throw and
American government jumped on the opportunity to avenge their defeat
in Vietnam, which they had attributed to Russian intervention. Neither
the Americans nor the Russian had the good sense to realize than you
cannot cow down a whole population and crush their will, even with your
technological superiority. U.S. poured in money and arms, trained seminary
students in guerilla warfare. They were aided and abetted by the Pakistan
Army/ Military Government.
Soviet Union collapsed due
to their internal contradictions, the process hastened by the drainage
of resources in Afghanistan and now have been reduced to the status
of a vassal to US Government They have all the evils of a capitalist
society with out the benefit of respect for law and order. Americans
are suffering at the hands of fanatics they nurtured – Bin-Laden,
Al Quad and Taliban.
Pakistan inherited Klashnikov/
Heroin culture with resultant turf, ethnic, linguistic and opportunistic
civil wars with near anarchy prevailing in the eighties and nineties
of the last century in its premier city- Karachi.
Wahabis have become dominant,
imposing their will on public and government alike ( even the army cannot
stand up to them). Discriminatory laws like Hudood ordinance, wholly
repugnant to the word and spirit of Islam cannot be abrogated as political
leadership belongs to feudals and religion is a key pillar of the system.
One leading cleric, a deputy chief of Jamaat Islami , going by the name
of Ghafur Ahmad publicly stated not too long ago that murder committed
under the umbrella of Honor killing was Islamic.
The upshot of the resurgence
of Wahabi creed is that women are fast losing ground. They are harassed,
made to wrap themselves up into a veritable sack like a bag potatoes,
have their movements restricted and generally life made intolerable
for them. The reverberations have reached Europe, Canada and USA as
well. Honor killings are committed in the UK, girls are forced into
marriage and incidents of abduction ( after being drugged) are on record
in Canada and USA. One can only conjecture upon the number of killings/abductions/forced
marriages not reported. In most Islamic centers in North America and
Europe, women are not allowed into the front door, have to pray in a
separate room and are otherwise relegated to a second-class status.
All hope is not lost at
least in the USA, the land of promise. A vibrant and courageous scholar
Irshad Manji has taken up the cause and has confronted fossilized religion.
Another valiant fighter Asra Nomani also took up the challenge and has
faced off male chauvinists among the Muslims. There was a huge commotion
but Professor Amina Wadood of Virginia was able to lead a male/female
group in prayers. Amna Buttar of Asian American Network Against Abuse
(ANAA) has made considerable gains in the field of Human rights.
Status of women, Muslim
or otherwise, is related more to diverse sociological, cultural educational
and economic factors than to theological doctrine European women lag
behind American women in empowerment, because Europe still retains vestiges
of feudal society . The vast majority of Muslim girls in western countries
are confident, independent and worthwhile members of society, very much
at par with men. Even the ones not born and brought up in America or
Europe catch up with the natives very quickly.
There is light at the end
of the tunnel and they can reach it if only Muslim women in the USA
stand up for their rights, use all the freedom offered by the American
Society to break the bonds of serfdom, which are patently unfair even
from the religious point of view.
1) The fact that in India
Muslims were the majority community in the North-West and the East with
a solid Hindu belt in between potentiates the contention that Islam
spread in Asia, Africa and else where through teachings and example
of the saints, though the substantial role played by Muslim conquests
and over lordship can not be entirely discounted
2) Popularly known as Imam
Ghaib, he was a child at the time, had hidden in a cave to escape persecution
at the hands of the Abbasids and has not been seen since. Shias believe
that he is still alive and will return as a redeemer.
3) It is the case even now
among the majority of world’s population. With the advent of ultra
sound it has become possible to determine the sex of the child white
it is still in the womb. In India and China female fetuses are frequently
are so frequently aborted that there is serious disbalance in male-female
population ratio. Unfortunately scarcity has not added value to females.
4) This is still done in
Pakistan and other Muslim countries, though it is a norm only in the
tribal/feudal section of the population. Honor killing is the most ugly
face of the customs. If a girl wants to marry outside the clan she and
her friend would be accused of illicit relations and both would be killed
with consent of the tribe.
5) Widow marriage and remarriage
after divorce were not permitted in India. Hindus who converted to Islam
retained most of their customs. Muslims who immigrated adopted a lot
of customs prevalent in the country.
6) In Sindh girls are frequently
wedded to the Quran. The holy book does not demand a share in property.
The leader of Peoples Party in Pakistan, a leading feudal of Sindh has
married two of his sisters to the holy book.
7) Non-eligibility of a
female to office as head of the state is not that cut and dried. When
Miss Jinnah contested the election for the office of President of Pakistan,
no less a scholar than Maulana Maududi declared that in an emergency
a woman could become head of the state. He regarded usurpation of power
by Ayub Khan as an emergency. Considering that Western Style democracy
in not compatible with Islam, in the sense that in democracy as known
and defined in the west, the state may not give religion precedence
over all the others, Maulana Sahib was presenting a rather uncertain
In our corner of woods,
the twin tiers area of upstate New York, the Islamic center has broken
tradition and elected a woman President and vice-President too. At one
time the office of treasurer was also held by a lady as well. Instead
of subverting Islamic traditions this female regime is, if anything,
more conforming. (ISNA recently elected a woman as President. One of
my Indian friends gleefully said that India has had three Muslim Presidents
for all the good it did to the community.
8) For all its emphasis
on women’s rights it is curious that Islam allows Muslim men conjugal
relations with slave girls, but proscribes such relations between male
slaves and Muslim women. The prophet’s only son was a product
of such a liaison with a slave Mary. It is perhaps a reflection of class,
but points to retention of the relegation of women as commodity.
9) Interpretation in the light of analytic, rational and innovative
10) The prophet himself
gave explicit instructions that his sayings not be recorded, lest people
take them at par with the Quran.
11) A binding religious
edict. The most infamous in recent times was the death sentence issued
by the Ayatollah Khomeini against Salman Rushdi for denigrating the
prophet and the creed. Who can issue a fatwa, what education, qualifications
and rank should the person have is not codified. The credibility however
goes with the acknowledged prominence of the person.
12) The first verse of the
Quran is “Iqra” read. The prophet exhorted his followers
to go to China, a long and arduous journey in those days, to learn.
He must have known that the country was bereft of Islamic scholars.
Moulvis interpret it to mean that the greatest effort should be put
in learning about Islam.
13) There is a strong element
of hypocrisy in their behavior. Large number of wahabis live in the
west inevitably getting involved in interest based financial system,
being exposed to females in skimpy dresses etc They could easily live
in their countries if they were prepared to give up the affluent life
style they enjoy here.
14) The first track was laid
between Bombay and a town in cotton district.
15) Commemoration of the
Prophets grandson Imam Hussein’s martyrdom. The imagery and athletic
exhibitions are derived from Hindu celebration of the defeat of Rawan
who had abducted Sita wife of Hindu god-king Rama.
16) (Maulana Abdul Shakoor
of Frangi Mahal a well-known house of scholars in Lucknow UP, India
insisted on leading a highly inflammatory procession chanting the praise
of the first three caliphs whom Shias do not accept through localities
dominated by the latter. Maulana Ata Ullah Shah Bukhari of the Punjab
followed the Maulana on an elephant back. The government disclosed after
independence that the two Maulanas were financed by the secret services.
Pakistan’s ISI is following in the footsteps.
17) I know the person. He
is an accountant by profession, was a lecturer in Urdu college Karachi
and self-promoted to professorial status. Another self-styled professor
is N.D.Khan of PPP, but one would expect from a leader of a religious
18) A Brooklyn N.Y. nurse
of Greek ancestry, who worked with my father during the nineteen seventies,
went to visit Greece and stayed with her cousins. Her hosts demurred
at her desire to go shopping alone. She sputtered with rage, swore at
them in Brooklynese, called a cab and flew back to good old U.S.A.
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