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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 1

Re-imagining Women in Islam

Tuesday 25 December 2007, by Syeda Hameed



The following is the Second Sumitra Chishti Memorial Lecture delivered in New Delhi (March 2, 2007).)]

It is an honour to stand here before you today to deliver the Sumitra Chishti Memorial Lecture.

Tribute to the memory of Sumitraji

‘We learn from history how many a deadly lion has emerged from the harem and how many hennaed hands have held the reigns of kingdoms…
And how many daughters, educated by wealth and cultured by poverty, have become heads of the harem and directed its affairs.
And how many women were noted for intelligence and perfection, whose learning was not dependent on that of men.’

These lines were written in 1892 by Hind Nawfel, the first woman in Egypt to start an Arabic feminist journal Al-Fatat, whose foray into women’s publishing was followed by a string of such feminist journals in the next two decades. Indeed, by World War I, more than 25 Arab feminist journals were owned, edited and/or published by women all over the Middle East— in Cairo, Damascus, Beirut and Baghdad. Hind Nawfel spoke of strong and independent Muslim women whose confidence and assertiveness was not shrouded in their veils. There have been many such women, such great ancestors, ‘Forgotten Queens of Islam’ as Fatima Mernissi puts it, who have always been an integral part of Islamic tradition but whose names have been obscured by the sands of time, whose achievements and glories have been forgotten and replaced by a different image of Muslim women, by a world view that stereotypes Muslim women as powerless, oppressed, meek and voiceless. Today I would like to discuss that image—acknowledge its existence—but also travel across centuries and spaces of Islam to show you that what we have been seeing has never been the complete picture. Both spiritual and political Islam are replete with the stories and struggles of strong women who would not be subjugated and stifled, whose legacies demand of us, today, to re-imagine women in Islam.

I would like to begin with Surah Al Ahzab, the Quranic injunction often quoted these days to assert the equality between men and women.

- Annal Muslimeena wal Muslimaat
- Wal Mumineena wal mominaat
- Wal Qaniteena wal Qanitaat
- Was Sadiqeena was Sadiqaat
- Was Sabireena was Saabiraat
- Wal Khashieena wal Khashiaath
- Wal Musaddaqueena wal Musaddiqaat
- Was Saeemeena was Saaemaat
Wal hafizeena farujahum wal hafizate was
- Zakirina Allaha Kaseerav Waz
- Zakiraate aa adda allahu lahum maghfiratein
- wa ajaran azeeman.
- (For Muslim men and Muslim women
- For believing men and women
- For obedient men and women
- For true men and women
- For patient men and women
- For humble men and women
- For charitable men and women
- For self-denying men and women
- For chaste men and women
- For men and women who engage much in Zikr of Allah
- For them Allah has forgiveness and a great reward.)

This Surah posits equality for men and women. And yet around us, we see daily proof of how this equality, dignity and izzat, which was ordained the right of each and every one of us, continues to be violated. The condition of the 75 million Muslim women and girl children in India hurts me. As a Muslim I know that Islamic law, as extrapolated by the most distinguished Fuqaha or jurists, has never ordained the injustices which are committed against women in the name of religion. As an Indian, I affirm that all discriminations suffered by Muslims today— discriminations which have once again been highlighted by the Sachar report—are antithetical to the letter and spirit of our Constitution.

BEFORE my present assignment, I was a member of the National Commission for Women. In the quest of documenting the status of Muslim women, I travelled across the length and breadth of the country—from metro cities like Chennai, Trivandrum, Bangalore and Mumbai to small cities like Ahmedabad, Tezpur, Kozhikode, Bhopal, to small talukas like Reshampura in Gwalior, Hariya ki Ghari in Mathura, Sudaka in Mewat and Nehtaur in Bijnore—conducting public hearings on problems of Muslim women. At these hearings I heard harrowing tales about early marriage, triple talaaq, polygamy, mehr and maintenance. I heard stories of teenage sisters who made suicide pacts because they were pulled out of school for early marriages. Women recounted how they had been separated from their children or given talaaq through the post or email after decades of being married. No one came forward to help them— neither family, nor society nor Darul Qaza nor Waqf. Problems kept mounting and gradually what was private became public. My report ‘Voice of the Voiceless’ was published in 2000. The words of Ayesha Khatoon from Assam who came to the public hearing with her mother Shabbiran still ring in my ears: ‘I am Ayesha from Dulabari gaon. My husband gave me talaq when I was three months pregnant. No mehr, no maintenance was ever given.’ There are hundreds of thousands of Ayeshas and Shabbirans not just in India, but across the world today.

In my report, I documented that for Muslim women, little had changed in almost a hundred years. And in some cases, this change has been for the worse. I come from a place called Panipat in Haryana. There was a time when houses in Panipat were known by the name of the women who lived there—“falane biwi ka ghar”—such was the level of women’s empowerment. Today the same State—Haryana—and the same town—Panipat—are famous for crimes against women. The place, where Muslim women were at one time respected and empowered, does not even allow women to be born today—their horrifying sex ratios (Panipat has a child sex ratio of 807) are testimony to this. And it always pains me when I think of Panipat as it was and Panipat as it is today.

YES, Muslim women today are oppressed and that too in the name of a religion which sought to give them their rights, but this disempowerment and infringement of rights has not been accepted as meekly as is generally believed. There has been a constant struggle within the community to address this grievous injustice. More than a century ago, in 1905, my great grandfather Maulana Altaf Hussain Hali, wrote his famous poem Chup ki Daad (In Praise of the Silent) where he spoke not only of Muslim women, but women of all communities:

- Jab tak jiyo tum, ilm-o-daanish se
- raho mehroom yan
- Aiyee ho jaisi bekhabar, vaisi hi
- jao bekhabar
- Jo ilm mardon ke liye samjha gaya
- aab-e-hayaat
- Thehra tumhare haq mein voh
- zeher-e-halahal sar basar
- Aata hai vaqt insaaf ka, nazdeek
- hai yaum ul hisaab
- Duniya ko dena hoga in haq talefiyon
- ka van jawaab.
- (Until you live you are deprived
- Of education, learning,
- Ignorant you came here, went ignorant from hence
- Learning, which for men is the elixir of life
For you it is poison, bitter, lethal and rife
- Time for justice draws near
- Day of judgement is nigh
- The world will have to atone for
- Dispossessing you of rights.)

At the time when I was trying to understand the struggles and multiple battles faced by Indian Muslim women, I came across feminist interpretations of Quran. My discovery began with the writings of Fatima Mernissi. Other feminist scholars followed—Amina Wudood, Riffat Hasan and more recently Farida Shaheed. These scholars from Islamic and other countries had looked at Islam through a gender lens and found a different world from the patriarchal Islam that has always been taught and propagated.

In her book, Women in Islam, Fatima Mernissi writes about the revelation of Surah Al Ahzab. “Why,” asked Umm Salama, wife of the Prophet, “are men mentioned in the Quran and why are we not? Is the Quran only for men?” It was then that the lines from Surah Al Ahzab which I quoted earlier—lines which spoke of equality of women and men—were revealed. Umm Salama’s question was the beginning of a veritable protest movement by the women. According to the historian Tabari, some believing women came to the wives of the Prophet and said: “Allah has spoken of you by name in the Quran, but He has said nothing about us. Is there then nothing about us which merits mention?”

The answer that came from Allah in the Surah called into question the customs that ruled the inter-personal relations between the two sexes. So successful were the women in their quest that an entire Surah was revealed which bears their name, Surah IV, Al Nisa contains new provisions which were interpreted by jurists and codified as Muslim Personal Law. Many of them deal with the status of women. For example, laws on inheritance are specified which give detailed instructions about women and property. In fact if one was to put it bluntly, Surah Al Nisa deprived men of their age-old and traditional privileges. Not only was a woman no longer seen as goods or chattel, no longer could she be inherited as a piece of real estate, but for the first time in human history she herself could inherit. In fact, this small verse of Surah Al Ahzab as well as Surah Al Nisa had the effect of a bombshell in Medina, shaking the foundations of patriarchy. The men found themselves for the first time in direct personal conflict with the Muslim God who was equally there for Muslim women.

FEMINISM in Islam, therefore, is nothing new. From the very start, women in Islam have contributed to all walks of life, from poetry to warfare. Their contribution was immense and while it is impossible to list all these women and their achievements, it would be interesting to explore some of their stories that span continents and centuries. First among them is the Prophet’s wife Hazrat Khadija. Next his daughter, Hazrat Fatima Zehra. Then his granddaughters, Hazrat Zainab and Hazrat Kulsum, and the women who accompanied Imam Husain, the Prophet’s grandson, to the battle of Karbala.

History has many other examples. Queen Amina of Zazzau born in 1533 who learnt the arts of governance and warfare as a child, defied all expectations of marriage, and single and independent, she became the queen in 1576; of Nana Asma’u who started the movement for women’s education—yan-taru—in the 1840s in Nigeria; of Fatima Aliyeh Hanim—the first woman novelist in modern Turkey who in the 19th century itself denounced how Islam was misinterpreted to suppress women and, in her work, urged women to become educated and participate in society; of Huda Sharaawi who was a pioneer of the Egyptian women’s movement in the early 20th century— born to a consort and brought up in a harem, she was one of the first women to take to the streets in support for the nationalist cause against the British and was deeply committed to political activism and women’s suffrage. As President of the Egyptian Feminist Union, she declared their aim to restore the lost rights of Egyptian women and to reclaim their own heritage rather than merely emulating European feminist models. Across centuries, from the very birth of Islam, Muslim women have thus led the way and broken new ground.

Another shining example, my favourite, is Bibi Zainab, a poor woman from Tabriz, whose women’s militia took Iran by storm during the 1880s strike against the British Tobacco monopoly. With the military forcing people to open shops, news spread of an armed women’s militia. When men gave up the fight, Bibi Zainab appeared with her women. Taking off her scarf, she threw it at the gathered men, and announced: “You can all go home. From now on, I and my women will fight the battles.” Even after the British monopoly was cancelled, her seven regiments monitored different parts of the city and dispensed law and justice to the people. The stores of shopkeepers hoarding food would be broken open and the grain distributed to the poor. These ordinary women broke many taboos—veiling, seclusion, engaging in warfare and mixing freely with the men in tea houses—taboos which had been created by patriarchal values and value systems to deny women what was rightfully theirs.

Even in India, Muslim women have time and again disproved the stereotype in both their work and their personal choices. Begum Jahanawara Shahnawaz was born in 1896 and was an adept politician. She was one of the only two Muslim women elected to the pre-independence Federal Assembly of India. She served in the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, and it is thanks to her that women were included in the Fundamental Rights clauses.

In pre-independence India, after the Mohameddan Educational Conference of India excluded women in 1924, Atiya Fyzee decided to gatecrash the 1925 jubilee meeting. Despite the chair’s protests, she got up on the dais unveiled, and delivered a strong speech demanding women’s equal rights with men.

Then in the 1930s North India was shaken by Rashid Jahan, a Marxist and social activist who joined the Communist Party in Lahore and was arrested for her politics in the forties. Rashid Jahan became a doctor in the thirties, but this was not the cause of the furore. It was her writing, in which women characters spoke out on subjects which were considered taboo. Attacked for being unIslamic and accused of obscenity, she stood her ground. In 1932, her stories in the collection, Angarey, incensed the community to such an extent that the book was banned within months. Rashid Jahan helped start the Progressive Writers’ Movement and inspired many others, including Ismat Chughtai—the iconic feminist of the mid-twentieth century—whose 1940s story of lesbian love, Lihaaf or The Quilt, was also banned for decades.

Around the same time, Begum Sharifa Hamid Ali formulated a model nikahnama, or marriage contract, in which—amongst other conditions— she inserted the delegated right of divorce which she said all women should have. She had this printed in 1937 and widely circulated. During World War II, one of her famous statements was: ‘We have suffered many Hitlers in the household of every generation.’

THIS is just a sampling of Muslim women, whose accomplishments and struggles have travelled across centuries. They have been strong, determined and engaging women—far from the commonly held impression of silent, acquiescent and cloistered Muslim women. They have disproved the myth that women’s struggle for rights is unheard of in Islamic societies. Like in any other society, community or religion, women in Islam have stood up and intervened for social justice, fought for women’s rights, challenged the patriarchal worldview attributed to Islam and lived life on their own terms. Even today there are many invisible, nameless Muslim women who wage daily battles and struggles against injustice, patriarchy and oppression, even though they do not make it into history books. The media does not cover their valiant efforts; their achievements and their interpretations of the Quran are obscured by stories of Imranas and Gudiyas who have been denied the right to make choices about their own lives. And all these have given Islam the tag of being anti-women. To counter this, it is important to go back and understand the origins of Islam. We must remember that Islam was born in a context. It was meant to address the ills of an era of jahiliyat, the pre-Islamic Arab society. At that point the words of the Prophet, his message, were indeed revolutionary. But we Muslims hung on to those words without understanding the profound spirit behind them and therein lies the problem. Ibn al-Arabi, in The Mystics of Islam, said:

All that is left to us by tradition is mere words. It is up to us to find out what they mean.

The Prophet showed us a way; we took it as the destination. We did not change; we did not progress, just took a few strides and then stood still. The doors of ijtehad (interpretation) were closed on us by vested interests. We stopped reading and understanding the spirit of the Quran. We stopped critically evaluating the Hadith. We stopped understanding Allah’s message and began to rely on its interpretations. We imbibed from other religions, but what we imbibed was not their best practices—we imbibed their patriarchal values and a culture of divisiveness. For example, Islam, by very definition propagates a casteless society. But according to NSSO figures, 41 per cent Muslims in 2004-05 have declared themselves as OBCs. Today we hear of honour killings of Muslim women all over South Asia thanks to these caste, class stratifications which are antithetical to the very spirit of Islam. I still remember 18-year-old Maimun from a small village called Sudaka in Haryana. She had come to the NCW with her husband Idris asking for help. Today, Maimun is no more. Despite interventions by the NCW she was killed. Her fault—she had refused to marry a forty something her uncle had chosen for her and married Idris—the man she loved. Idris, according to Maimun’s family, belonged to a different caste and so the marriage was null and void.

It is indeed sad that we have forgotten all that the Prophet taught us and imbibed such practices and customs—customs like dowry which only— entrench patriarchal values. It is high time that we, as Muslims, now imbibe the spirit of Islam—the spirit which stood for women’s rights—for their empowerment and agency. We need to re-evaluate the patriarchal practices which seek to once again relegate women to their pre-Islamic position. We need to hear the voices of women like Rashid Jahan and Ismat Chughtai. In fact, not just us, even non-Muslims need to hear these voices, these stories of Biwi Zainab and Begum Sharifa Hamid so that they move beyond stereotypes and recognise Islam for what it really is. This will not only remedy baseless prejudices but will help to put an end to the various discriminations which Muslims continue to face even today. I was recently at a public hearing for the internally displaced people of Gujarat and the tales that I heard there—tales of economic boycott, social seclusion, denial of amenities—still give me sleepless nights. This has to stop. Gender cannot be an excuse for infringement of rights; neither can religion—and both Muslims and non-Muslims need to understand this. Further, we have to stop treating Muslims as a homogenous mass. They are not a monolith. Their condition and problems vary across countries, States and districts, just like the condition of other groups. The Muslims of Algeria, Saudi Arabia, France and India are all completely different. Even within India, Muslims in Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu—by and large—are economically much better off than the Muslims of UP, Bihar and Assam.

AND while the Muslims and non-Muslims embark on this journey of introspection and mutual understanding, the government has to fulfil its commitment for equitable and inclusive growth. The Sachar Committee Report shows that every second Muslim woman in the country is illiterate (that is, only 50 per cent Muslim women are literate). This is the lowest among all groups in the country. Just 68 per cent of Muslim girls go to school, compared to 72 per cent of Dalit girls and 80 per cent of girls from other groups. Similarly, the proportion of Muslims below the poverty line is much greater than the national average. Muslim colonies have far lesser access to amenities like water, health centres, schools and Anganwadis. All this I have seen myself in Benaras, in Malegaon, in Murshidabad. A democratically elected government is honour bound to remove such inequities and discriminations. Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh has time and again reiterated the government’s commitment to remove social imbalances and inequities. A revamped 15-Point Programme for the Welfare of Minorities has been prepared and circulated to all State governments. It reflects a new focus and has every potential of improving the quality of life of our Muslim population, especially the women, through better education and livelihoods. Our effort in the Eleventh Plan is to ensure that State governments and Central departments implement this programme. We are devising new ways of enabling Muslim women to claim a status that is rightfully theirs—through promotion of educational programmes, by using distance learning and setting up special women’s hostels, or through funding a new Leadership Scheme for Minority Women for their Training and Capacity Building. This will enable Muslim women to tap their potential and build their leadership skills, which will in turn create a ripple effect in the community.

We need to remember what Maulana Hali, a poet and a feminist of his times, said about women one hundred years ago. These famous lines speak simply and directly of the status of women in society, not just Muslim women but all women.

Ai maon, behnon, betiyon, duniya ki zeenat tumsay hai,
- Mulkon ki basti ho tumhin, qaumom ki izaat tumsay hai.
- (O sisters, mothers, daughters
- You are the ornament of the world
- You are the life of nations
- The dignity of civilisations.)

It is in this light that we must re-imagine Muslim women in India. In the light left by our great ancestors—these women who have challenged and defied unjust structures and norms, and paved the way for us since the very foundation of Islam—we should see our image. They have provided an opening for women, and even men, to follow in their footsteps or to create a new path that leads towards equality. Let their battles, their wisdom, their courage guide us and gift us the power to live up to their legacies and reconstruct the image of women in Islam—not as poster children for oppression and misery, splashed on magazines with veiled faces and troubled eyes—but as pillars of strength, women who exude confidence and vigour, and who walk in step with any man in any realm.

Before I end, I would like to quote from the great poet Iqbal:

Tundiye baade mukhalif se na ghabra uqaab,
- Yeh to chalti hain tujhe uncha udaane ke liye.
- (Do not fear the adverse wind, oh Falcon,
- It blows against you only to make you soar higher.)

Dr Syeda Hameed is a Member of the Planning Commission. She was previously a member of the National Commission for Women (NCW).

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