The Role and Rights of Muslim Women from the Beginning to Now

2 years agoANALYSIS

By Dr. Sumaiya A. Hamdani

KCCRC: How do you see the role and rights of women in Islamic history? In this regard, what are the differences between before and after the coming of Islam and also the early Islam period and the next centuries?
Dr. Hamdani: Historians of Islam have generally described the coming of Islam as a positive development for women of the time. Islam is unique among the world’s major religions (and even in its own club of monotheistic religions) in that God speaks directly to women in the Quran, and thus acknowledges their humanity and individualism.  It is for that reason that Islam grants women spiritual equality with men, and grants women the rights that your readers are familiar with (in law, property, inheritance, marriage and divorce). Your readers are therefore also familiar with the careers and achievements of women in the early history of Islam, which ranged from the religious (Aisha, Fatima, Zaynab, Rabi`a), to the political (Aisha, Arwa, Razia Sultan) to social and economic (Khadija, Zubaida, and numerous wealthy women property owners and patrons whose wealth was used for “awqaf” that helped the poor, widow, orphans and contributed to the economic life of Muslim societies).
Nevertheless, like all religions, Islam seeks to uphold the social order, and thus it envisions patriarchy (in short, men have more rights and privileges). 
Three things happen after the early period, which increasingly made Islam not just patriarchal but misogynistic.The first were the conquests of the Muslims, which brought them in contact with misogynistic traditions in the societies they conquered, where veiling, seclusion and female slavery were prevalent.They absorbed these customs. Secondly was the increasing professionalization of religion; the rise of formal training for ulama and official appointments, led to the exclusion of women from religious authority and thus only male privilege was upheld in the law. And lastly, there was the rise of military states that relied on the ulama for legitimacy. Thus male privilege called for by the ulama becomes enforced by the state.
By the 19th century, this decline in the fortunes of women was compounded by colonization.  Western colonialists argued that Islam was backward in order to justify conquering Muslim lands, and Muslims ultimately reacted defensively to this critique by supporting that which was criticized. A prime example of that is the defense of colonial era laws about marriage and divorce throughout the Muslim world, including most tragically in India today where the debate over “triple talaq” continues and is supported by the Muslim clerics there. 

KCCRC: What are the problems of Muslim women now? In relation to women’s rights, how do you see the changes in the Muslim societies especially in Middle East?
Dr. Hamdani:I think Muslim women face many problems, but it all depends on which community of Muslim women one is talking about. We are a global community after all, and are represented in all social classes and many different cultures.  So it is hard to talk about Muslim women as a monolithic group. But to put it into very simple terms, I think there are two basic problems. For those Muslim women in minority Muslim communities in the West for example, I think the problem is one of identity. For Muslim women in Muslim majority societies, it is about opportunity.
Western Muslims are generally responding to Islamophobia or attacks on Islam, and I think for them the challenge is how to construct a Muslim identity that fits into the non-Muslim mainstream. Unfortunately, Muslims in the west have internalized Islamophobia – they react to what they hear by defending it.So for example, the veil.  It is not a religious obligation (fard), it is not exclusive to Islam (it pre-dates Islam among ancient Greeks, Romans, Persians, and it exists as a custom in Hindu communities to date as well), and yet because the west associated it with Islam in the 19th century, it has become adopted as fundamentally Islamic by Muslims!  Muslims in the west in this way are overly concerned with defending what the non-Muslim audience associates with Islam.This is a shame, in my opinion, because what makes us Muslim is not what we wear, it is what we believe (shahada), it is our morality and ethics (silat al-rahim), and it is our desire for knowledge (ilm), which is after all how God has spoken to us (“iqra bi ism rabbika … alladhiallamab’il-qalam…”). We need to break out of the need to react to the criticism of the west, to allow our faith to function as a faith rather than as a separate culture, in the way that non-Muslims in the Islamic world historically have done (whether Jewish or Christian or Zoroastrian, Yazidi, Alawi, etc., they are linguistically, socially and economically indistinguishable from the Muslim majority).  In other words, just as Jews, Christians and others in the Islamic world became culturally Muslim without disappearing, Muslims in the west can perhaps strive to be culturally western without fear of disappearing.
As for the challenges facing Muslim women in the Islamic world or Muslim majority societies, they are many, because of the state of the Muslim world! In every corner of it,there is a disaster due to war, tyranny, poverty, natural disaster and economic underdevelopment. Given the lack of stable social, economic and political conditions, there is fear, and it drives everything. Better to veil, rather than be harassed, better to stay at home, rather than pursue employment, better to marry than get an education, better to be silent, rather than resist. Fear determines the constant and innumerable calculations women make. It is exhausting. It is suffocating. It is oppressive. It is understandable but tragic.
One learns regarding women’s history in the west, that profound economic changes brought on by industrialization in the 19th century, eventually led to women leveraging their economic roles into pushing for political, social and cultural changes. One also learns that to assist in fundamental economic transformations, change was often imposed from above in the form of state feminism (the passing of laws affecting women and mandating employment of women) in other parts of the world including the former Soviet Union and many Middle Eastern countries.  Given the absence of transformative economic development, and given the corruption of the state (whose feminism therefore is suspect)in much of the Islamic world, the options for women to challenge the status quo remain few. One can only hope that the forces of globalization, which are beyond individual states and communities to control, will result indirectly in opportunities for women. As we have seen, globalization benefits the few, and results in gross inequality for the rest. The only way to combat that inequality is to enfranchise women economically, as well as politically and socially, thereby enlisting them in the uplift of the community as a whole.

KCCRC: In your opinion, where do the problems of Muslim women and social injustice against them in the Muslim societies emanate from? It is clear that at the beginning of emergence of Islam, there were changes in favor of women in the Arabia community of that time.But the changes stopped and the scope of women’s right and activity gradually became more limited. Why did it happen? For example, why, after centuries, some commonplace things, such as the women’s driving in some countries, have become important issuesto the Muslim clerics (Ulama)?
Dr. Hamdani:I think my answer to question no. 1 covers some of the question here. I would add though, that with regard to the resistance of the ulama to any change regarding women, it has as well to do with the fact that personal law is the only law that is left to them.  So they cling to this last jurisdiction with stubbornness, because otherwise they have to accept they are not needed.

KCCRC: According to your studies, have you seen a specific ideology to propose masculinity and violence among Muslims during history so that elders teach youth by it to conserve the authority of males in community?
Dr. Hamdani:Historians have noted that the rise of military states in the 1200s led to the veneration of virility and violence generally. Masculinity became associated with strength and defense, and therefore status.Militant jihad became the basis of state legitimacy.But the persistence of these arcane notions has to do with the conditions of political, social and economic instability that Muslim societies face today.Frustrations on all these levels have led to nihilism, which often victimizes women.

KCCRC: Concerning the rights of women, how do you see the effects of Fiqh and Fuqaha (Jurisprudence and jurists or clerics)? In this regard, are there any significant differences between the various Islamic sects?
Dr. Hamdani:[About the first part of the question,] please see the answer to question #3. As for differences among schools of law or madhahib, yes, there is a big difference between for example, most Sunni schools and the Jaafari or Twelver Shia school. Whereas for Sunnis, past precedent is all-important, for the Shia it is ijtihad. Even though ijtihad is limited to the mujtahids, there is not only one mujtahid, there is no obligation to follow any one in particular, and thus there is a degree of debate and dynamism in Shii law that is absent in Sunni law.  This can and has been to the advantage of Shii women, as they can seek more favorable laws in the marketplace of ijtihad, and in some cases they have been able to exercise it themselves to their benefit.

KCCRC:The egalitarian movement of Muslim women especially under the influence of Amina Wadud calls their actions as “Jihad” (holy war). Why are these activities regarded as Jihad?

Dr. Hamdani: As your readers know, jihad is a virtuous struggle, not just military struggle. And there is no more virtuous struggle that exercising the right to interpret God’s word, and determine His will through His law. God is just, and His laws should reflect that, and women have the right to struggle for this to be true.

KCCRC: Is the egalitarian movement of the Muslim women a part of the universal project of struggle againsta masculine domination and order,on the universal level,whichsees the male-dominated society as a repressive society for both all women and most of men (in Bourdieu’s view)? What is the difference between the two levels ofstruggle, Islamic and universal domains?
Dr. Hamdani: That is a big question, to which I have only a simple answer…. I do think male domination is increasingly being viewed as short-sighted and a false promise. Male domination is enabled by lack of opportunity; for men it enables them to feel agency, for women it promises security, but in either case it is deceptive. Domination takes violence to enforce, and perverts one’s nature, and the security promised to women through it is based on involuntary submission.  I think there has been an increasing awareness of that from the mid-20th century on, and it will hopefully continue to force change, both within and beyond the Muslim community.

KCCRC: What is your opinion on the idea of “Democratization of Islam”? How do you see its relationship with gender equality?
Dr. Hamdani:I am not entirely sure what that term is a reference to. If it is about reducing the influence and authority of the ulama as an elite, I think that they have always had to worry about that, as Islam is ultimately a populist religion (anyone can obtain religious authority). If it is about challenging male religious authority, again I think that change is afoot as women increasingly have through the formation of study circles, participation in religious ritual, and in online fora, already begun to challenge the monopoly of male religious authority indirectly if not directly.

KCCRC: In your opinion,which wayshould the Muslimstake: adjusting themselves to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the other international laws like Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, as universal laws, or, alternatively and separately, insisting on the Islamic Human Rights like what is happeningin Iran?
Dr. Hamdani:I think Iran’s position on human rights is that all human rights is Islamic and vice versa.That is, the effort is to argue both that human rights discourse is a western cultural product, as it is to argue for the inclusion or recognition of human rights discourse produced by other cultures. Human rights stem from the recognition of each individual’s humanity, and this is not the monopoly of the west, to be imposed on others with the assumption that there is no such ethical system in their cultures. Recognition of individual humanity is and should be universally accepted, but there is not just one idiom with which to express it. 

KCCRC: Concerning the relationship between the issue of justice for women and the political power, is there any possibility to perform a social justice system in the Islamic countries? Does it need some preconditions like the existence of a secular democratic government instead of a religious or religion-dominated government?
Dr. Hamdani:I think these are two separate issues: the issue of the need for women, and thus their perspective, to be included in political decision-making through their participation and enfranchisement in political institutions, and the issue of secular vs. religious politics. 
As to the first, this is necessary regardless of political system or the source of its legitimacy. Women are half the population,they are entitled to be represent themselves, and to determine the laws and policies that affect them.
As for the second, there is the danger of false dichotomies that associate secular with being progressive and religion with oppression. There are and have been many secular systems of government that have been extremely oppressive of individuals and women (obvious examples are fascist and totalitarian governments like Italy under Mussolini, Nazi Germany, etc.). As for religious governments, we can look at the examples of Saudi Arabia and Iran, where vast and important differences exist in women’s rights and opportunities. That said, I do think religious governments privilege dogma as the short-cut to demands for a just society. That is perhaps unavoidable, but it is worth distinguishing between religious dogma and ethics in policy and politics. In that sense, secular governments avoid the pitfall of dogma by avoiding engagement with religion altogether in the public sphere.But this often leaves the public without an acceptable language to demand justice… Hence the often confusing nature for example of American politics, where tension has always existed over the issue of religious freedom and privacy on the one hand, and anxiety that without God in public discourse, society will go astray.

KCCRC: How is the relationship between the emergence of some groups like ISIS and the masculine interpretation and power in society? How can the gender egalitarian movement help to prevent the reemergence of such groups? Does it result in more flexibility and better coexistence?
Dr. Hamdani:I don’t think ISIS emerged only as a result of misogyny. And I don’t think its project was primarily about male dominance.Obviously, there are many other reasons for why extremist groups have emerged recently. Their habit of subjugating women has more to do with an obsession to establish a distinctive order, which they think is “Islamic”, or in the case of for example the Taliban, with preventing the breakdown of the social order by re-domesticating women (lest it lead to a rise in trafficking and prostitution of women). 
Preventing the rise of such groups depends on the particular circumstances they exploited:such as the disenfranchisement of certain groups in Iraq and Syria, the breakdown of social order in Afghanistan and Somalia, the political fragmentation and frustrations of certain groups in Libya, Mali, etc.As we know, the extremists are successful only when local communities are complicit in their emergence. These local communities and their women have paid a hard price for that.Hopefully the lesson they have learned is that supporting extremist Islamist groups is not the best way to get revenge against their government… Moreover, what they do is not Islam.Islam is alive and well and already exists.Muslims do not need to be educated about what it is. And they certainly don’t need extremist groups to kill, torture, enslave, or oppress them in the name of Islam. 
I understand the temptation to believe that enforcing a dogma might resolve certain problems like corruption, but beheadings as a punishment for it is a horrific solution. Islam provides an ethical system, and it also preaches compassion (rahma) in all things, but it is not the answer for bad governance or corruption. There is a literature about that (kutubsiyasa), and it argues for government to be accountable to the people. That is the solution that is needed, not hudud for smoking or unveiling. 

KCCRC: How do you see the future of women’s situation in Muslim countries?
Dr. Hamdani: There are so many different Muslim countries it is hard to generalize. Historians like me are trained to take the long view. And I think that it is hard to do that at the moment since there has clearly been a struggle for the soul of Islam from the early twentieth century. It has led to experimenting with using religion as politics and trying to invent and enforce a “pure” Islam. We have arrived at the point of exhaustion with these experiments, and with tremendous burden it has put on women.
But I also think it has had the indirect consequence of involving women inreligion and religious debates. If their involvement can result in a rejection of misogyny in favor of Islam’s ethical message and its recognition of women’s humanity, that will be a positive thing. 
Ultimately, the future of women in Muslim countries will depend on their ability to pursue economic, social and political opportunities and enfranchisement. There are some hopeful signs there as well, as more women participate in political movements, run for political office, seek to reform laws, continue to enter the workforce and push for education, and resist customs of marriage and divorce that falsely promise security for themselves and their families. These different and sometimes slow efforts will inshallah create a brighter future for women in Muslim countries.  

This interview was conducted by Dr. Sabah Mofidi. 

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