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In The Shadow Of Inequality

By Nighat Gandhi

The Hindu
19 October, 2003

There are over a billion Muslims in the world. Roughly half that number are women. When violence against women is viewed in a global context, startling facts emerge: the majority of the world's displaced persons and refugees, as a result of armed conflict and human rights violations, are women and children. A majority are Muslim women and children, increasingly subjected to the secondary horrors of war — rape, trafficking, hunger, homelessness, unemployment, malnutrition. More facts: the majority of the world's absolute poor are women, and the majority of the world's illiterate are also women. Of them, Muslim women make up a substantial percentage.

These facts should be enough for thinking (Muslim) men and women to demand reasons for these gross inequalities. Mehnaz Afkhami, an Iranian activist in exile in the United States, writes in Fatith and Freedom: "unless a substantial number of women in a community come to believe they have rights and demand to exercise them, rights remain an abstraction. Rights and empowerment are interconnected." It is obvious then that the debate on rights can't be raised by Muslim women in the absence of empowerment. Fortunately, for the first time in history, the sources of power no longer lie with a few in the form of wealth or force alone.

The empowerment tool in the 21st Century is knowledge. It is through knowledge that even marginalised Muslim women can become permanently empowered. Thus, Afkhami urges women's rights activists, especially those who can "communicate with others, influence events, and make a difference", to develop strategies for easy dissemination of knowledge among Muslim women. The new communication technologies can be employed cost-effectively to expedite this goal.

The significance of knowledge acquisition should not surprise Muslims. The very first word of the first verse of the Quran is: "read" (Iqra in Arabic), an injunction to acquire knowledge, reason, and reach conclusions through rational reasoning (Quran 96:1). Very few educated Muslim women have engaged in the process of ijtihaad or critical reasoning and rethinking of their religious texts. Women interpreters such as Lebanese Nazira Zin Al Din, writing in the 1920's on the controversial subject of veiling for Muslim women, said that since Islam is based on the freedom of thought, will and action, no Muslim has authority over another in matters of religion.

After a study of Islamic texts, she came to the conclusion that veiling for women is not a required practice. Men and women are advised to observe modesty of dress and behaviour, and if it were God's will to have women totally covered, there would be no need for the Quranic verse asking men to "lower their gaze and guard their modesty". (sura Al-Nur, verse 30). Not surprisingly, Al-Din's views have never been represented in the mainstream of Islamic legislation.

There is no ordained priesthood in Islam, so any ordinary Muslim, man or woman, who can read, is entitled to interpret Islamic laws, rights and responsibilities in the light of the Quran and hadith (the collected sayings of the prophet regarding the rights and duties of Muslims). The prophet is supposed to have urged travel as far as China (a formidable undertaking in Seventh Century A.D.) in search of knowledge. He didn't mean just religious knowledge, nor was he addressing Muslim men exclusively.

Historically, most Islamic scholars have been men, and it is safe to say that they can't be relied upon to produce interpretations that are favourable to women's rights. Even the meticulous al-Bukhari, Ninth Century Arab scholar, has cited as authentic the hadith (attributed to Al-Bakara) delegitimising a Muslim woman as the head of a Muslim state. Benazir Bhutto' s leadership was challenged by a maulvi in Pakistan on the basis of this hadith. Fatima Mernissi, a Moroccan sociologist, after extensive research, found that Al-Bakrah was someone who had been flogged for giving false testimony in a case of adultery. She insists that misogynistic hadith can't be accepted as truth and need to be traced to their original sources to check for reliability.

Muslim women might do well to remember that Islam was born in the arms of a woman — the first person to accept Islam was Khadija, an independent and wealthy business woman. She had been twice-widowed before she proposed marriage to prophet Mohammed. She was 40 at the time, and Mohammed, the manager of her business, 15 years younger. Compared to the courageous and outspoken women Mohammed respected, and whose opinions he valued throughout his life, the state of subjugation and seclusion from public life in which most contemporary Muslim women are forced to live, is sad indeed. When I find books like AIDS — Nature's Terrible Revenge, by Munir Ahmad Khadim, I begin to wonder when Muslim women are going to take charge of their life.

Another Indian scholar of hadith, Khalid Saifullah Rahmani, admits that though nowhere in the Quran are women required to veil their faces, it would be better if they did so, and preferably with thick cloth. Bowing to the unethical authority of such scholars is a denial of responsibility by Muslim women for their own fates.

Is a feminist reinterpretation of Islamic laws an impossible goal? No, according to Miriam Cooke, who, in Women Claim Islam, defines Islamic feminism as a juxtaposition of two epithets, not a "fixed identity" but rather a "contingent, contextually determined strategic self-positioning". Islamic feminists, she writes, have a "difficult double commitment: on the one hand, to a faith position, and on the other, to women's rights both inside the home and outside". Those who claim themselves to be Islamic feminists, are "political insubordinates. They are refusing the boundaries others try to draw around them so as to better police them. They are claiming their right to be strong women — without fear that they be accused of being Westernised and imitative".

For the half a billion Muslim women who are adversely affected by laws and customs which serve the interests of a male elite, it is imperative to take the subject of women's rights out of the hands of self-appointed male guardians of Islam. Muslim women have simultaneously to free themselves from the oppression of Muslim men, as well as claim their God-granted rights. As a first step, I suggest reading the Quran, not in Arabic, but in one's mother tongue, to discover what the Quran has to say about Muslim women.

I share Raja Bahlul's cautious optimism though. In Birzeits' University online journal, Our Voice, and on the topic of Islamic feminism, he writes: "— one need not think that Islam (or indeed any religion) is the best, or least objectionable intellectual framework — . But we live in an age where every school of thought, every intellectual orientation, from Marxist feminism to Post-modernist feminism — is subject to objections and criticisms. There's no reason why some people, raising the banner of Islamic feminism, should not join the fray." The struggle for the rights of Muslim women is also a search for ways and means to bring women from different cultures to work towards solutions to common problems. The global movement for human rights is not, and should not, remain exclusively a women's project. I agree with Edward Said when he defines identities like Indian, or woman, or Muslim as nothing more than "starting points". None of us can lay claim to a single identity any more. Islamic feminism, or the quest for Muslim women's rights within the framework of Islamic laws, should be seen as such a starting point. It may enable Muslim women to climb out of the black hole of ignorance, inequality, and indignity, to finally merge with the global effort for creating a socially just and equitable world.

Nighat Gandhi is a writer and women's rights activist. E-mail her at