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Unveiling Deoband’s Fatwas On Women

By Yoginder Sikand

14 May, 2010

Visibly embarrassed by the angry reaction of the media, women’s groups and noted Muslim critics to its fatwa delivered more than a month ago on working Muslim women, the Dar ul-Uloom, Deoband, India’s largest seminary, has hastened to announce that the fatwa in question does not forbid Muslim women working outside their homes, as some have alleged. Rather, Maulvi Adnan Munshi, spokesperson of the Deoband madrasa, has claimed, it only insists that working women be ‘properly covered’.

Maulvi Adnan is not entirely wrong, for the fatwa, issued on 4th April 2010, reads (the clumsy English may please be excused)

‘It is unlawful for Muslim women to do job in government or private institutions where men and women work together and women have to talk with men frankly and without veil.’

In other words, what the fatwa suggests is that Muslim women can work only in such places where they can fully veil themselves and where they cannot ‘frankly’ (whatever that might mean) talk with men. These would, presumably, be women’s-only jobs, which involve entirely women staff and clients and which hermetically seal off women from any contact with males that require ‘frank’ conversation with the latter.

Obviously, though without explicitly stating this, this fatwa effectively debars Muslim women from all jobs in the public sector in India today—where they cannot veil fully and where, in order to fulfil their duties, they would need to ‘frankly’ converse with males, including their male colleagues. It effectively disallows them from working as elected representatives at various levels, from the panchayat to the Lok Sabha. In the context of moves to reserve a third of all electoral bodies in India for women, the disastrous implications of this for the already marginalised and beleaguered Muslim minority can scarcely be imagined. The fatwa also effectively bans Muslim women from a whole range of jobs in the private sector as well. After all, how many jobs in the private sector are there (even in the small Muslim-controlled sector of the Indian economy) which require fully-veiled women who cannot speak ‘frankly’ with males? In practical terms, the fatwa thus reduces the opportunity for jobs for Muslim women to just few girls’ schools and maktabs, tailoring centres and the like, where they can work fully covered-up and where they need not interact with male colleagues or clients. Hence, although Maulvi Adnan is technically right that the fatwa does not explicitly ban women from working outside their homes, in effect it certainly does rule out most jobs, and certainly the most well-paying, to Muslim women.

The disastrous implications of the fatwa for Muslim women from desperately poor families can hardly be imagined. The maulvi sahebs might not require their women to work outside and might easily afford to have them stay cloistered within their homes, for they are usually fairly well-off or else survive on zakat, chanda, sadqa and other forms of donations of the pious. But what about the millions of Muslim families whose economic conditions are so pathetic that their womenfolk are compelled, by sheer economic necessity, to toil outside their homes—as agricultural workers, labourers, petty retailers and so on? Covering-up completely and remaining confined within their homes is no option for them at all. The fatwa-hurling maulvis, it would seem, simply do not know about them and the harsh realities of their economic conditions (such things are, of course, not taught in the madrasas) , or, if they do, they probably could not care less. The fatwa can have brutal implications for the self-esteem of such women (that is, supposing they know about the fatwa and take it seriously), at least some of whom are bound to be constantly haunted by the fear that the work outside the home that they are compelled, by the demands of sheer survival, to engage in might actually be haram or completely forbidden in Islam.

That restricting to the maximum possible extent Muslim women’s access to jobs outside the home is indeed what the Deobandi clerics intend, Maulvi Adnan’s pious posturing to the contrary notwithstanding, comes out clearly if the above-mentioned fatwa is seen in conjunction with a host of other fatwas related to women issued over the years by the Deoband madrasa. Taken together, they effectively reduce women’s access to the public sphere, including jobs, to an absolute minimum. One such fatwa, issued on 25th June 2008, completely belies the claim of Maulvi Adnan. It explicitly states (using rather clumsy English again, which may be pardoned):

‘It is not a good thing for women to do jobs in offices. They will have to face strange men (non-mahram), though in veil. She will have to talk and deal with each other which are the things of fitna (evils). A father is committed to provide maintenance to his daughter and a husband is asked to provide maintenance to his wife. So, there is no need for women to do jobs which always pose harms and mischief.’

This and other fatwas, all hosted on the Deoband madrasa’s fatwa website, insist that Muslim women must fully cover themselves, including even their faces, in front of all non-mahram males (males other than certain close relatives whom they cannot marry); that it is ‘better’ to cover even their eyes, if they can; that they cannot travel alone, other than in the vicinity of their homes, without a mahram accompanying them; that they cannot drive in a vehicle alone driven by a non-mahram male; that they cannot drive cars; that they must observe purdah even with fellow women, Muslim and non-Muslim; that they cannot ‘speak loudly, read out something in melody and talk softly’; that their voices should be considered satr or something that must be concealed from non-mahram males; and that they and their spouses are forbidden from practising family planning on the alleged grounds that it is ‘haram and unlawful in Islam.’ Taken together, these fatwas clearly deny almost every avenue for employment outside the domestic sphere to Muslim women.

Deoband’s recent fatwa, as well as others that I have referred to above, can be critiqued on both Islamic as well as secular grounds. I am a Muslim myself, but although I cannot claim to be an Islamic scholar, I do know for a fact that a fatwa issued by the Deoband madrasa that claims that ‘The Quran and Hadith have commanded women to cover their faces due to fear of mischief’ is quite untenable. The fact of the matter is that nowhere does the Quran command Muslim women to veil their faces. In fact, during the Haj pilgrimage, women are not meant to cover their faces, and they pray together in Mecca with men. In his published collection of fatwas, the world-renowned and widely-respected Egyptian Islamic scholar, Allama Yusuf al-Qaradawi, has adduced numerous instances of women who appeared before the Prophet without covering their faces. Nor does Islam prohibit women from working outside their homes, provided, of course, they can maintain their modesty. At the time of the Prophet, numerous Muslim women did so. Some even participated in battles. Others tended to the wounded, as nurses. The third Sunni Caliph, Umar, appointed a woman, Shifa bint Abdullah, as overseer of the market of Medina. Obviously, her job entailed not just coming out of her home but also interacting in a male-dominated space. As for Deoband’s fatwa declaring a Muslim woman’s voice as satr, or something to be concealed, the less said the better. The Quran discusses in considerable detail the conversation between Moses and a daughter of Shoeb, and that between the Queen of Sheba and the prophet Solomon. How would these women have talked to these unrelated men if their voices were ‘veiled’, as the Deobandi Muftis insist they should be? Much of the corpus of Sunni hadith, reports attributed to, or purportedly about, the Prophet Muhammad, were transmitted by a woman—his youngest wife Ayesha—who is said to have narrated them to a whole host of almost wholly male listeners.

An accepted principle of Islamic jurisprudence (usul al-fiqh) is that rulings might need to change with change in time (zaman) and space (makan). In other words, fatwas must be related, and responsive, to the social and temporal context which they intend to address. Based on this principle, numerous Islamic scholars outside India have unambiguously allowed for women to work outside their homes and to leave their faces uncovered, while also stressing that they must preserve their modesty. It is because the Deobandis, being hardened followers of the Hanafi school of Sunni jurisprudence, insist on blind imitation (taqlid) of past juridical precedent that they seem totally unwilling to understand the need for contextually-relevant fatwas on women’s issues. The training that they receive in their traditional madrasas leaves them simply unaware of the complexities and demands of the outside world, including the changing conditions and concerns of women. As numerous Muslim scholars have pointed out, a basic requirement for one to be considered a Mufti—an Islamic scholar qualified to issue fatwas—is deep knowledge of the social context that his fatwas are meant to apply to. Sadly, this quality seems missing in the authors of Deoband’s many patently patriarchal fatwas.

The fatwas I have referred to above not only greatly restrict Indian Muslim women’s access to employment but also effectively debar them from quality higher education. Almost all good institutions of higher learning in India are co-educational, and they would most certainly balk at admitting fully veiled Muslim women who cannot freely interact on an intellectual level with their male teachers—which is what the fatwas issued by Deoband insist they should be. Higher education and access to jobs thus largely ruled out for them, the ulema of Deoband would, it seems from their fatwas, ideally like Muslim women to remain cloistered within the four walls of their homes. Denied the space to harness and develop their skills and minds and to contribute to the overall development of their community, their potentials totally wasted, these brutally incapacitated women can hardly expect to become mothers of bright, talented Muslim children who can help bring their community out from the terrible morass it finds itself in today.

That said, I must also stress that I do recognise the positive side of the work that sections of the ulema are engaged in. To paint them all as incorrigibly obscurantist and patriarchal is grossly unfair. I must confess that I can perfectly understand some of their serious concerns related to women and gender-relations. The global onslaught of crass Western consumerist culture (based on materialism, selfishness, competition, and self-aggrandisement) parading in the garb of ‘modernity’ and ‘progress’, the breakdown of traditional systems of morality (much of which is of great value and ought to be preserved and cherished) and the pathetic commodification of women that all of this entails should be a cause for grave concern for all of us—and not just for the ulema. It is but right that the ulema should seek to counter this, although I may not agree with some of their methods and most of their prescriptions, which are often as bad as the disease they intend to cure. While sharing their concern for the perceived crisis of values we are today faced with, I strongly believe that shackling women and even denying them some of the rights the Quran grants them in order to prevent them from falling prey to fitnah or ‘strife’, as the ulema term it, will only further compound the problem, rather than solve it. Not only is this not warranted in (my reading of) Islam, it is bound to lead many—Muslims and non-Muslims alike—to imagine Islam as a regressive force, vehemently and irretrievably patriarchal, an image that is completely at odds with the way I understand my faith. It is also likely to lead to increasing numbers of Muslims developing serious doubts about their religion and its ability to provide suitable answers to the complex questions that we are today faced with. Ultimately, it is also bound to lead to the maulvis as a class being increasingly viewed, even by Muslims themselves, as best as wholly irrelevant bulwark of reaction and obscurantism.

Finally, having spent years studying and writing about the ulema and their madrasas, I must also add how distressing it is when self-styled ‘modern’ educated ‘liberals’ and ‘progressives’ (and here I implicate myself, too) blame the ulema of the madrasas for all the many ills of Muslim society, including the patently absurd fatwas that they issue from time to time. It is lamentable how we Muslims have allowed the task of interpreting and defending Islam to be assumed almost solely by the traditionalist ulema (a responsibility that they jealously guard, being the basis of their claims to authority). Given the fact that the vast majority of the traditionalist ulema come from relatively economically modest backgrounds, with little or no access to ‘modern’ or ‘liberal’ education, they can hardly be blamed for the absurdities that they sometimes come up with. If we are seriously concerned about the need for more meaningful, humane, contextually-appropriate and gender-just understandings of Islam—and sensible fatwas as well—it is for middle-class, ‘modern’-educated Muslims with an interest in, and commitment to, their faith to seek to interpret it for themselves and for others as well, instead of leaving this responsibility to the maulvis of the madrasas to undertake and then bamboozling them for doing a bad job of it.

Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, Bangalore.