Ever since becoming conscious about Islam on one hand and the contemporary social reality on the other, I have often been disturbed by realizing that, in many aspects, there is a huge gap between what Islam stands for and what the social reality is. A vital area where this gap is so pronounced is gender issues. After tying the knot with my beloved wife and then joining the parents club through two most wonderful daughters, I was compelled to take a much closer look at gender issues.
I have remained keen over the years to learn more about these issues. However, I have been increasingly dissatisfied as I continued to discover directly from the Qur'an, Qur'anic literature, Hadith, Seerah and history that what we are generally adhering to, and traditionally defending and promoting in regard to gender issues stands in sharp contrast to the Qur'anic and Prophetic vision as well as the heritage.
There is a general notion among the religious establishment of Islam, and derived
there from, among the common Muslims, that Islam recognizes superiority of men over women. Even in Sayyid Abul Ala Maudoodi's well-known and highly respected
Urdu commentary, Tafhimul Qur'an, verse 4 of Surah an-Nisa erroneously got translated into English as following: "Men are superior to women ... not in the sense that they are above them in honor and excellence..." [Tr. by Ch. Muhammad Akbar, Islamic Publications, Lahore, 1997 ed.; Vol. 1, p. 121; note: a more recent
translation from Islamic Foundation, UK has a different rendering]. Even though some qualifier and clarifier have been added in the preceding rendering, the very expression, "men are superior to women" - in whatever sense it may be - is questionable, because if honor and excellence are excluded from the scope of "superiority," what exactly is the meaning and basis of superiority or excellence then?
Indeed, completely discounting birth-related distinctions, he commented on verse 13 of Surah al-Hujurat: "... In that (Islamic) society there is no distinction based on color, race, language, or nationality. ..." One should be impressed by Maulana Maudoodi's articulation as to the sweeping implication of the verse that destroyed the foundation of any other concept of superiority/excellence. However, is it not proper to include gender in that list, too? Once again, unless we are willing to accept the implication that this Qur'anic declaration (49:13) - Verily the most honored of you in the sight of God is (the person who is) the most God-conscious. - applies to males only, it is only Islamic that Maulana Maudoodi's comment should have read, inclusive of gender, as following: "... In that society there is no distinction based on color, race, language, nationality or gender. ..."
Muslims routinely take the position that Islam does not recognize any unfair distinction based on color, race, language, or nationality. Unfortunately, however, even in this age of gender consciousness, we are failing to uphold and present Islam in consonance with the full scope of the Qur'anic vision and the Prophetic heritage.
Not too long ago, a friend of mine from Los Angeles, California (teaching at a university there) called me and among other things, lamented the fact that his otherwise devoted Muslim family is finding a difficult time to have rooms assigned for them in Masjid with appropriate or adequate ventilation. Might a little bit of natural light and wind be hazardous to our women's as well as our spiritual health and well-being?
There are many Muslim countries where women going out for their regular needs find little or no facility for women to wash and pray. Several years ago I participated in the Shura (consultative) committee of one of the Islamic Centers in USA. By the vote of the community, the elected chairman of the Shura was joined by his wife (also elected as a member) in the Shura as well. At the very first meeting, one of the brothers - who must have felt that the presence of the sister, even with her husband present, was a violation of Islam - to protect his own piety and lodge his silent but otherwise conspicuous protest, stood up and left.
Several years ago, I visited a Masjid in one of the Midwestern states in USA, where I found the facilities for washing for men was not that good but survivable. However, due to neglect or poor maintenance, whatever might be, my young daughter, going around by herself into the women's section, later on, came out crying at what she experienced there. A non-Muslim woman in one of the places of America was refused the taxi-service by a Muslim driver because she had a dog with him. It did not matter that she was blind. The brother, feeling
duty bound (?), offered a prodigious lecture to this blind, non-Muslim lady. Although there are many examples to the contrary, there are some disturbing patterns that Muslims themselves should be confronting and scrutinizing in a self-critical and proactive manner.
The literacy rate is already poor in the Muslim countries and the rate for women is disproportionately lower. Let us not talk about the poor women in various countries who are without any protection and whose life, honor and property are anybody's game. Women were robbed of their professional and out-of-the home positions under strict public code in Taliban's "Islamic" Republic of Afghanistan. In contrast, Muslim women in Iran are doing relatively a lot better, but the top-tier religious hierarchy is still a drag on the society's overall progress. In the heartland of Islam with Makkah and Madina, controlled by a externally-installed dynasty and dominated by Wahhabism, women don't have the right to drive. It is so ironic and outrageous, because the sacred city of Makkah was founded through the valiant and exemplary struggle and sacrifice of a lone woman, Hajera, the wife of Ibrahim and the mother of Ismail (a). Yet, now a woman does not have the right to drive by herself.
More seriously, quite often we hear about women being meted out capital punishment for illicit sexual relations. Usually, women bear the brunt of the orthodox Shariah codes, even though we all know that even when raped, women, for a multitude of reasons, can't be so easily expected to step up and claim to have been raped. In many countries, women are routinely deprived of their property and inheritance. As personal and family matters, women rarely can secure their rights even from their relatives. In many Muslim countries, women are routinely subjected to physical violence, often lethally, which is condoned or tolerated by the broader society as personal or family matter. Vulnerable women are routinely married to be added to a husband's collection and also divorced at random as it pleases the husbands. The existing laws, values, customs and power structures - in combination - make and keep women weak, vulnerable, marginalized, and even oppressed.
Of course, women are completely absent from the pertinent discourse to shape and reshape the Islamic laws and codes. Islamic movements in various parts of the world are chanting about the progress they have made in promoting the cause of the women in accordance with Islam and vainly arguing how Islam is rightfully superior in dealing with women's rights. As they are still groping with the issues whether women should veil themselves (i.e., use niqab, face-covering), they have no problem with men playing games, such as soccer, with albeit "longer" shorts! In some Muslim countries, leading Islamic parties still stubbornly insist that women must cover their face as well. They might be super-lenient in regard to interpreting Islam in matters of political expediency, but regarding women's issues they have to be most extremely conservative. Many such organizations are also promoting separate women's educational institutions as well as separate women's organizations for Islamic causes. At the same time, Islamic parties in many Muslim countries remain at bay without broad support, especially from women, while they have to contend with challenges from many home-grown, viciously anti-Islamic feminists. Indeed, a whole new generation of men and women is growing up with the entrenched impression - and even conviction - that Islam is seriously biased in terms of gender issues. These are Islamic MOVEments that seem rather unable to MOVE in a contemporary context.
I should clarify that my arguments and opinions herein are to be applicable within the context of Islam. For example, when I am referring to the insistence by Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh on veiling of women, it is because I consider this veiling (face-covering) Islamically unwarranted and the insistence unacceptable. Such position is based on extreme conservatism, especially when it comes to gender issues. Let me raise some further questions now. Are men really superior to women according to Islam? Why don't we have women Islamic scholars, experts, and Mujtahids (jurisprudents)? To solve the problems of women, do we need, or is it Islamic, to have separate Islamic schools/colleges/mosques? Is it alright for women to give lectures to a mixed gathering of Muslim men and women? How about doing so at Islamic Centers/mosques?
I hope that I have not already rung too many alarm bells. Based on my study of the Qur'an, Hadith, Seerah and history, I have concluded quite a while ago that what we are promoting, both by saying and doing, today are mostly opposite to what Islam teaches. Then, several years ago it was by chance I came across a book Struggling to Surrender by a new American Muslim, Dr. Jeffrey Lang. The book was captivating. But apart from its richness in terms of the experience he frankly shared and thoughts he provoked, it was an important eye-opening experience for me in regard to gender issues. We are generally aware that Muslim women, such as Hadhrat Aishah, Fatima, Khadija (r), and others, have played distinguished role during and immediately after the Prophet (s). In that book, there were some brief references to a forgotten, but very distinctive role Muslim women have played in Islamic history.
My interest was deeply aroused. I followed up by reading the original reference, Hadith Literature: Its Origin, Development, Special Features & Criticism by Dr. Muhammad Zubayr Siddiqi, a late scholar from Calcutta University
[Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1993]. This book had a chapter titled "Women Scholars of Hadith,"
[pp. 117-123] which was an eye-opener for me.
For the first time I realized one of the most basic defects in our contemporary Muslim attitude and thinking in regard to gender issues. We all know that beyond the few towering women personalities in the earliest part of the Prophetic era, we can hardly name any woman scholar. It is well-known that in our contemporary century, Islamic scholars, Imams, experts, as well as leaders of Islamic movements,
have not been educated by men and women. Going back further, even noted scholars such as Shah Waliullah Dehlavi and Shaikh Ahmad of Sarhind, popularly known as Mujaddid Alf Sani did not (correct me, if I am wrong) have any woman among their educators. It was simply not possible, because "women scholars" of Islam - teaching men and women, in public context, where many of them were, overall the best of the best of their time, not just among women - have become an extinct species.
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