Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Women in Islam

The liberal democratic societies of the world have yet to come to terms with Islam’s perceived unwillingness to purge itself of the elements of its faith that lend themselves towards misogynistic language and behavior. People in the West have been profoundly disturbed and offended by the gender-based, socio-religious disparity that is the norm in many Islamic societies. Indeed, misogynistic partiality has historically found fertile ground throughout the vast expanse of Islamic law, philosophy, and culture.

But given its reputation in liberal democratic societies as a fundamentally misogynistic religion, is it fair to say that Islam is inherently sexist and gender-oppressive? Was Islam, from its original source in the words of the Prophet Muhammad, intended to stamp a sexist imprint on its faith? Or is it a sweeping generalization to say that Islam is essentially a religious dead end for women whose self-respect and human rights are fodder for male, orthodox Muslim believers?

The Islamic faithful and thinkers alike will find it worthwhile to consider the argument made by some Muslims that the reality of their faith is contrary to the misogynistic attitudes and practices that have been carried out in its name. These temperate defenders of the faith talk a lot about how Islam has been deliberately distorted to justify the domination of men over women in Islamic societies.

These defenders are in good company as scholars, intellectuals, and laypeople all over the world, both Muslim and non-Muslim, heed the words of the Qur'an, the holy book of Islam, which states “Surely the men who submit and women who submit, and the believing men and the believing women, and the obeying men and the obeying women, and the truthful men and the truthful women, and the patient men and the patient women, and the humble men and the humble women, and the charitable men and the charitable women, and the fasting men and the fasting women, and the men who guard their chastity and the women who guard, and the men who remember Allah and women who remember - Allah has prepared for them forgiveness and mighty reward.”

One needs to go back into the early history of Islam to find evidence of the considerable position that women once held, a position that historically nullifies Muslim males’ cultural and ostensibly religious prerogatives to treat women as second-class citizens. Starting from Abraham’s wife, Hajar, to the Prophet Muhammad’s wives, ‘Aisha and Khadija, women in Islam, in the course of its early millennia, played pivotal roles in the growth of the faith, roles that thrust them into higher historical and religious relief.

Women in Islam at this time were prominent figures in military and political decision-making. They were also considered equal peers of men, a principle that is emphasized in the Qur'an: “And thus does their Sustainer answer their prayer: "I shall not lose sight of the labour of any of you who labours [in My way], be it man or woman: each of you is an issue of the other.” (Chapter 3, Verse 195. Translation by Muhammad Asad).

While it appears clear to many Westerners that women and gender parity have nothing to do with Islam, we can find nevertheless, an analogical relation between women, equality, and how the Qur'an takes up the issue. Many Muslims argue that it is a myth that their religion morally or scripturally reinforces the comprehension that men are higher than women. They focus instead on the “Tawhid” doctrine of Oneness which is essential to the Islamic faith. According to Tawhid, any type of discrimination is prohibited.

It would represent an advance in Westerners’ understanding of Islam if they were to become enlightened to the credible claim that according to the Qur’an, marital equality between men and women is beyond reproach. Like Plato’s concept of the hermaphrodite origins of the human form, the Qu’ran views marriage as union of two inseparable and integrated beings, the male and female. Islamic marriage furthermore, based on this assertion of the holy book, will attain strength and stability by having both partners practice mutual love and respect for each other as well as by experiencing spiritual balance and emotional wellness.

And yet, why is Islam identified as intrinsically misogynistic and predominantly patriarchical? Muslims blame much of this perception on the Western media. The Western media has been accused of falsifying and sensationalizing how Muslim men and women coexist. Followers inevitably revert back to Qu’ranic teachings on the subject, teachings that make equality between the genders clearly understood.

There is another potent narrative that sponsors an opposing angle. This narrative responds by defining Islam by acts, laws, and screeds that debase women. Apart from cursory, media- and racist-influenced misrepresentations, it is dispassionately contended by some Islamologists that there are passages in the Qu’ran and in its complementary collection of scriptures, the Hadiths, that support this orthodox perspective.

In her book “Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate,” Leila Ahmed explains that what complicates that narrative is how Qu’ranic scriptures have been open to competing and conflicting interpretations, interpretations that have on plenty of occasions not been to the benefit of Muslim women. As Ahmed writes, “the Quran raises many problems as a legislative document; it by no means provides a simple and straightforward code of law.”

It is a conclusion that other scholars happen to agree with. She adds that orthodox Islam paid “little heed in elaborating laws regarding women to the religion’s ethical teachings, particularly its emphasis on the spiritual equality of women and men and its injunctions to treat women fairly.” Ahmed goes on to maintain that had “the ethical voice of Islam been heard…it would have significantly tempered the extreme andocentric bias of the law, and we might today have a far more humane and egalitarian law regarding women.”

Those who would believe Ahmed’s and other progressives’ contention that Islam’s reprehensible treatment of women is essentially the result of an expedient misinterpretation of the holy scriptures and the premeditated suppression of women in the Islamic societies that came after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, will find it harder to ignore the suffering and indignity that Muslim women around the world have experienced. This conclusion can serve as the mirror in which Muslim sexists and misogynists can look into in order to recognize the errors of their thinking and of their ways.


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