Women On The Move
By Asghar Ali Engineer
09 July, 2003
There is widespread perception
that Muslim women are among the most backward, illiterate and oppressed
in the world. In media they are always shown clad in burqa or wrapped
in hijab (veil). They are also perceived to be confined to the four
walls of their homes totally cut off from outside world. While partly
it is true but reality is much more complex and also not static. Generally
we tend to oversimplify and assume reality to be static. In a fast changing
world reality cannot taken to be static. We should always pay attention
to changing and emerging reality.
What happens in the Muslim
world is usually blamed on Islam. The underlying assumption is that
Muslim behaviour is always determined by religious belief and since
Muslim women are backward and do not enjoy rights like other women it
is because of Islamic teachings. This impression is further reinforced
by the pronouncements of some orthodox ulama that want to see
Muslim women wrapped in hijab.
It has to be borne in mind
that firstly all Muslims do not behave according to what theologians
or ulama say or even according to the teachings of Islam; secondly,
social customs, traditions and social milieu exert their own pressure.
It is difficult to ignore all this. Thirdly, there are multiple interpretations
of Quran. Fourthly, modern world-view also plays an important
role in determining ones point of view as well as behavour.
The question of Muslim women,
their social status and rights cannot be understood without keeping
these things in mind. First of all it must be kept in mind that Quran
makes clear pronouncement in favour of equal rights for both sexes (2:228).
However, this vision of Islam for sexual equality could not find practical
implementation for number of reasons. Those who embraced Islam, however
sincere they might have been, were product of a fiercely male-dominated
society. The Quranic pronouncement on the other hand, was an ideal
which required very different cultural milieu. From sociological viewpoint
it was not immediately implementable.
The scriptural understanding
is always mediated through culture. The Arab culture was patriarchal
and had set its own understanding of womens position. Thus the
Quranic pronouncement of sexual equality was understood and implemented
through mediation of Arab culture. What is worse Islam spread through
deeply feudal societies like those of Iran, parts of Roman empire and
India. The ulama certainly could not transcend cultural norms
of these societies. Thus shariah formulations came into existence
mainly in Iraq, Egypt and of course Madina. Iarq and Egypt were confluence
of ancient cultures with age-old traditions of their own. These milieux
greatly influenced the Muslim theologians in their understanding of
Quranic pronouncement of sexual equality.
To meet the demands of their
societies they selectively used Quranic verses and certain sayings
of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) to formulate shariah approach to women
problem, their status and rights. This became medieval religious heritage,
which no one could question. However, under pressure from modern social
norms these Quranic pronouncements are being rediscovered by modernists
and a debate is raging in the Muslim world today about rights of women
Meanwhile the Muslim women
are on the move in various Muslim countries. In every Muslim country
and countries with considerable Muslim population like India education
is spreading fast among Muslim women. This certainly brings increased
awareness among women themselves and they press for their rights both
Islamic as well as secular. There are both types of movements among
Muslim women in Islamic world. In some Muslim countries Muslim women
theologians have emerged with thorough knowledge of the Quran,
Islamic theology and shariah. There are women theologians like
Fatima Mirsani from Morocco, Amina Wadood and Riffat Hassam from USA
and several others. Also there are womens organisations like 'Sisters
in Islam' from Malaysia.
These Muslim women theologians
and organisations are questioning the traditional interpretations of
the Quran in respect of womens rights and developing new
feminine oriented theology ensuring equal rights for men and women.
Sisters-in-Islam from Malaysia is challenging the orthodox `ulama from
Malaysia. They are even trying to get the concept of marital rape
accepted as a valid law.
As pointed out above reality
is not static in Muslim womens world. The women in as orthodox
society as that of Kuwait are demanding right to vote which is being
denied to them by the Kuwait ruling elite. It is hoped they will win
this right sooner than later. In Pakistan the women agitated in early
fifties itself against the Pakistani Prime Minister when he married
his secretary and took her as second wife. The agitation continued until
Ayub Khan who had captured power in 1958 brought Muslim Family Ordinance
in 1961, which put certain restrictions on polygamy and oral divorce.
This ordinance could not be undone even during Zia-ul-Haqs period
when the orthodox `ulama were closest to state power in Pakistan.
The Pakistani society, despite
its ups and downs as far as project of Islamisation is concerned,
is on the move in changing womens social status. Recently seven
Pakistani woman diplomats have been appointed ambassadors. An official
of Pakistani foreign ministry said that it is for the first time so
many women have been appointed ambassadors in important world capitals.
They are all career diplomats and have been posted to European capitals.
One woman Asma Aneesa, who was ambassador to one of the Central Asian
countries, has been appointed on directing staff of National Defence
College. No mean achievement.
Bangladesh, though otherwise
quite poor and backward, is not far behind. There recently twenty female
officers have completed two year gruelling military training and passed
out from Bangladesh Military Academy (BMA). This training was for the
post of second lieutenant and their passing out ceremony was attended
by Bangladesh Prime Minister Khaleda Zia.
The Saudi society too is
by no means as static as we think of. The Saudi women too are facing
complex choices. There is no doubt compared to other Muslim countries
they are subjected to stricter traditions. But there is no reason to
assume that they are passive and inert to modern changes in the society.
The Saudi society as a whole is conceived as governed by purely traditional
Islam and totally shut out to modern world. The Saudi society is undergoing
pangs of modern change and this is causing social convulsions and these
social convulsions occasionally assume violent forms. This is subject
of another article and cannot be discussed here.
We will discuss here only
other issues related to women in Saudi Arabia. The women in Saudi Arabia
are taking modern education. The princess called Umm Abdul Aziz, for
example, said (see www.amanjordan.org) We have our own traditions,
but they do not prevent women seeking education. Though there
are obviously separate educational institutions for women and there
is no co-education in Saudi Arabia. They strictly follow the tradition
of sexual segregation.
The News Letter of Pakistani
womens organisation Shirkatgah of April 2003 says about changes
among Saudi women, Trying to balance the challenges of modernity
with the demands of traditional past has meant that change is cautious
and slow, but women insist that change is afoot. Mona Megalli
says in her article Saudi women face complex choices in
the above news letter, Saudi women now outstrip men as graduates
and other specialised colleges, making up 58 per cent of a total of
nearly 32000 students in 2000. The female students listen to male
instructors through closed circuit video an audio system.
There are many restrictions
Saudi women have to grapple with. Women are not taught engineering and
law, for example. They have to compete in touch job market in Saudi
society. Similarly though women own 40 percent of private wealth and
thousands of businesses from retail to heavy industry, they face frustrating
legal and cultural restraints and they have to rely on male agents to
deal with government offices.
It is also encouraging news
from Jordan that it has amended law to give women equal rights. This
was announced by Queen Rania. She made this announcement on the opening
day of Arab first ladies dedicated to improving the conditions of women
in the male dominated Arab world.
In Iran of course though
women have to wear chador but chador has not been a constraint for them
as far as work is concerned. Iran has very active womens movement
in whole of Islamic world. They are active in practically every field
of work and are present in large numbers in Iranian parliament too.
In Indonesia too women have entered in educational field in a big way.
There are large number of women in Islamic universities too and there
is strong movement developing for womens rights.
Thus one must realise that
reality is multi-layered and complex. Muslim women too are undergoing
through throes of change the world over. The orthodox ulama can
hardly restrain this forward march. More and more Muslim women are either
challenging medieval theological formulations or simply ignoring them.
They are trying to carving out their own niche in this male dominated