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Status Of Muslim Women:
A Historic Review

By S.Ehtisham MD

24 March, 2007

Status 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 revolution.

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 direction.

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 blink.

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 argument.

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 discourse.

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 party.

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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