Archive for the ‘Women in Islam’ Category

Teaching as a profession has some definite perks. Meeting new people being one of them. Last week, a group of young German tourists visited the our Azam Campus. They were unique tourists; they didn’t just want the Taj and all. They wanted to see the real India as much. Grassroot level. With the poor and the rural. And of course to study other spheres of the Indian experience: the education system, the status of women and the status of Muslim women. It was a group of around fifteen, mostly women, one Irish lady amongst them. They struck me as bright, well informed, articulate and affable. They wanted to meet some educated Muslim women I presume, and that is why Azam Campus for perhaps chosen.

A meeting was thus scheduled. And over tea and snacks we talked for about an hour and an a half on a million and a half issues. Here is a rough excerpt of what went between. The ‘questions’ were mostly from our guests and the answers from our group- lecturers of Abeda Inamdar Senior College.ย  I am not quoting anything verbatim of course, just an impressionistic account of what my memory delivers:

Question: How is it like being a Muslim woman in India?

Answer: Nothing particularly different. I wear the head scarf, I interact with non Muslims and they interact with us in just the way two normal human beings would perhaps interact! In short, it’s pretty nice and cordial, at least in urban India (and particularly in Azam Campus ๐Ÿ™‚ )

Question: Why do some of you don the Hijab and some of you don’t? Do you represent different ‘sects’?

Answer: Not really. The headscarf is more like a choice, no one forces you to wear it, you don it as and when you are ready for it, and we have Muslim women wearing all sorts of dresses and still being very much Muslim. (Personally, I differ on this issue a bit. Of course, there is no “compulsion in religion”. i.e. no one should really forcibly ‘impose’ a hijab, but that still does not mean that it is optional per se. The Quran states that women need to be modestly covered up, in something very much like the modern hijab)

Question: I see some women with even their faces covered up. I am sorry, but isn’t it insulting to the women’s body- to ask her to cover up only because there maybe some vulgar, hungry male passions evoked somewhere?

Answer: Islam has firm principles of modesty and chastity. The covering of the face is mostly viewed as optional by many jurists, meaning, you can decide if you want that to be covered or not, but if some one wants to willingly adopt that lifestyle, we cannot and should not come in their way. It’s difficult to understand this way of life, yes; it may even sound severely austere to you, but this is not your culture and it is understandable if you are baffled by it. However, you need to understand that we are comfortable in this culture, this is what we identify with. You may be offended if someone asks you to cover up, I would be deeply offended if someone asked me to ‘uncover’ up! You need to appreciate the other person’s perspective too.

Question: In Germany, the headscarf would be viewed with suspicion. Maybe not in India, but there it almost represents a fanatic attitude and there is a lot of debate whether it should be allowed in universities there.

Answer: My headscarf is like second skin to me. Telling me to take it off before going to college is akin to asking you to take off your clothes in the same situation! (Of course there might always be a human failing in each of us when we are lax or negligent at times about the covering of the head and all, but that’s another matter altogether!)

Question: What does the Quran say about the Hijab? Is it not compulsory? And do all girls take it voluntarily?

Answer: The Quran clearly states that the Hijab is compulsory. Not necessarily in the traditional Arab abaya form. It can be any loose outer covering. A Muslim woman in the West perhaps would wear just a loose shirt, or a coat; it can also be of varied subtle hues, not just black. And no, not all girls take it voluntarily. In some families it is highly recommended, in some there is emotional pressure and some are downright firm on it being worn by the women of the house. Sometimes there is a backfire. Girls leave their homes wearing the hijab and take it off when they come to college. But you have to remember-these parents who take such an autocratic attitude, would do so in just about any other matter as well-whether it is on the choice of career chosen by their children, the choice of person that marry, etc. It’s not simply religious enforcement.

Question: In Germany, women are paid far lesser than their male counterparts for the same job/career. It’s worse for women with young children and they have to make a choice between career or kids. How is it in India?

Answer: (Kind of surprised) We always thought you guys are way ahead of us in women’s liberation. In India, thankfully, no such discrimination exists. Not on paper at least! ๐Ÿ™‚ As for that choice, it’s quite similar even here. However, the easy availability of domestic help takes off an immense pressure off working moms’ shoulders.

Question: How do the male students respond to having a female Muslim teacher? (How do they react to this hierarchy of roles?)

Answer: Quite positively in fact. There are scores of male lectures working under our female vice principal and the equation has been nothing short of respect. Additionally, there are often instances of male students choosing a Muslim woman Professor as their research guide. The criteria is seldom of gender or religion but of the quality of work produced by the individual.

Question: Why aren’t Muslim women allowed to visit mosques?

Answer: That’s a misnomer actually. It’s basically only in India and Pakistan that such a sad reality exists. Even in the US (or in the Arab world) there is generally a separate provision made for female prayer areas. Maybe it is because of the large population and limited space allotted to mosques that the preference has been given to building male prayer areas. (Muslims have segregated praying areas) However, that is changing with mosques around the nation trying to make accommodation for women too. Besides, in the Holy mosques of Makkah and Madinah, both males and females pray in congregation.

Hmmmmm. The discussion went on and on and on and no one was really tiring of it. It was interesting,ย  intellectually stimulating and was a wonderful instance of culture exchange. Our guests were very sensitive (to the point of being even a little embarassed in asking their questions sometimes :)) Obviosly, the head scarf issue is quite a taboo subject there. They were glad there were people to talk things out and we on part were glad there were so many willing ears who would listen. (A sign of building inter-religious tolerance?)

They talked of a range of other issues too. Like gender equations in general, the way the education system worked and University procedures amongst others.ย  It all ended on a very satisfying (not to mention jovial note) and a little exchange of gifts. One of our guests was kind enough to give us picturesque hand made calendars withย  pictures of the German town Wursberg that he had clicked himself. And of course, the quintessential German motif- a CD of Beethoven. On our part, we gifted them hampers of copies of three Islamic books- ‘Understanding Islam’, ‘Fundamentals of Islam’ and the ‘Sweetness of Hijab’- all of which were recieved with enthusiasm. Alhamdulilah. I thank Allah for such an enriching experience. I hope to hear from our German guests again soon, Inshalah. ๐Ÿ™‚


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Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “One who treats

badly those under his authority will not enter Paradise.”

Al-Tirmidhi Hadith 3358 Narrated by AbuBakr as-Siddiq

There is a lot of talk about Islam and the way it treats its women. If I began on the unprecedented rights that Islam gave to women, I would need a lot more than just a post to do that justice. However, the focus here and in a lot of other places these days is on the declaration of a German judge who recently acquitted a Muslim man for beating his wife, citing verses of the Quran in his defense. Expectedly, there has been quite a furore about this.

Does the Quran really condone wife beating? It has become more of a norm to judge things without their context. “Lame” you may say. But I say, context is everything. Having been a student of Pragmatics, I know.

I would like to quote a very revealing email I received from a member from a google group that I subscribe to. A debate was struck in the group and Brother Mubeen more than quelled it with a very accurate, very logical and authentic explanation to the whole issue.

Here’s an excerpt:

…”Beat your wife” is a phrase that doesn’t go down too well with me either (and you can check with my wife on that).

But then, yes, there is (only) a (single) reference to beating one’s wife in the Qur’an, and males have conveniently abused it by twisting it out of context to justify their actions that have no place in Islam.

Let us read the ayat where it appears. The translation is by Yusuf Ali, and I quote…

“Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in (the husband’s) absence what Allah would have them guard. As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (Next), refuse to share their beds, (And last) beat them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them Means (of annoyance): For Allah is Most High, great (above you all).” Surah Nisa, Chapter 4, Verse 34.

Let us read it carefully. The only reference to beating your wife comes in this verse, and the reasons are clearly defined – disloyalty and ill-conduct. Not for half-cooked food, or for speaking her mind, or for falling prey to his incomprehensible suspicions. And certainly not for demanding a humane treatment in marriage for the rest of her life… Only for disloyalty and ill-conduct, period.

And the routes to use are also made absolutely clear – first, admonish them; then refuse to share a bed, and then if that does not help, then beat them lightly. Please dwell on a key word – lightly.

Many scholars have written a lot about this. And the clear instructions from them are –

1. A man has no liberty to hit his wife for any small reason.

2. Beating your wife is permissible only in the most extreme circumstances (disloyalty and ill-conduct), and only after all other possible means are exhausted. This could include staying away from them, explaining to them, getting one elder from each side of the family to intermediate, admonishing them etc.etc.

3. And even on beating, I refer back to the key word – lightly. Scholars have interpreted this to mean that a man cannot hit his wife on her face – no stinging slaps. He cannot hit her with any instrument that would cause her extreme pain, nor can he hit her so hard that it leaves marks behind. So there! It implies that all that a man can do – after all other means are exhausted – is a light beating that would cause embarrassment to make her change her ways. He is definitely not allowed to take out his frustrations on the human punching punching bag conveniently available to him, and then justify his actions by pointing to religion. By doing this, we men are just opening up the doors of Hell for ourselves.

In this context, let me also mention that while there is only one reference here about ‘beating your wife’, this ayat starts by saying “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women…”

And there are numerous other verses in various ayats about the rights of women in Islam, their ownership of property being their own, and the way they ought to be treated, the respect that men must give them et al. To quote just one ayat, again from the same chapter…

O ye who believe! Ye are forbidden to inherit women against their will. Nor should ye treat them with harshness, that ye may Take away part of the dower ye have given them,-except where they have been guilty of open lewdness; on the contrary live with them on a footing of kindness and equity. If ye take a dislike to them it may be that ye dislike a thing, and Allah brings about through it a great deal of good.” Surah Nisa, Chapter 4, Verse 34.

How many men read this line, and live it…“on the contrary live with them on a footing of kindness and equity”. Please note the “On the Contrary”.

The last line is also particularly of importance, If ye take a dislike to them it may be that ye dislike a thing, and Allah brings about through it a great deal of good.”, which tells a man that he is not at freedom to divorce his wife giving the excuse that he does not like her.

I would recommend reading Chapter 4 (Surah Nisa – meaning Woman in Arabic) in detail with translation to all who want to understand the rights and duties of women in Islam…”

And if that was not enough, spare a moment to what the Prophet (PBUH) told us in his hadeeth:**

  • “Among my followers the best of men are those who are best to their wives, and the best of women are those who are best to their husbands. To each of such women is set down a reward equivalent to the reward of a thousand martyrs. Among my followers, again, the best of women are those who assist their husbands in their work, and love them dearly for everything, save what is a transgression of Allah’s laws.”

  • “A Muslim must not hate his wife, and if he be displeased with one bad quality in her, let him be pleased with one that is good.”

  • “The more civil and kind a Muslim is to his wife, the more perfect in faith he is.”

What triggered this post was in fact a New York Times article that I read. It was about Ms. Laleh Bakhtiar, 68, an Iranian-American, who is a doctorate in educational psychology and is now working on the translation of the Quran “because she found the existing version inaccessible for Westerners.” Now this again could be a cause of much contention. The Quran is one holy scripture that stands true to the tests of time, in terms of untampered authenticity. ‘Not a single change since it was revealed’, you may argue, ‘what does she mean by “existing version”‘?

Well, I agree, divine scriptures cannot be changed or re-interpreted to suit their audience’s cultural schemas. They would no longer be divine then. But wait a bit- Ms. Bakhtiar spent months on the the word ‘daraba’ that comes in the aforementioned verse. The word, cites the NYT, has been interpreted in nearly 20 different ways, ranging from the moderate ‘ pet, tap, chastise’ to the more severe ‘ beat, hit, strike, flog’, etc. Ms. Bakhtiar, however, minutely (and repeatedly) pored over the Arabic-English Lexicon by Edward William Lane and found “among the six pages of definitions for “‘daraba” was “to go away”‘.

Ms. Bakhtiar was very pleased with her finding. While her interpretation of the “exact” meaning may still be debatable, it nevertheless encompasses the tone of the entire verse. And oh yes, like Ms. Bakhtiar, I haven’t come across any tradition that ever cites the Prophet ever beating any of his wives. Forgive me if I am mistaken on this count, however, the Prophet’s life has ben recorded to the most miniscule detail.

Ah yes, the debate never ends that easily. There are issues and some more issues, like what is Islam’s take on feminism and gender equality and then some more. I have battled these demons on a personal front too. And it would take more than just a post to do justice to that. But I have realized one thing: like it or not, it’s a man’s world out there; even in the most adamant face of feminism. And yes, “…because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other…” (Surah Nisa, Chapter 4, Verse 34.) And it would be vain to argue over who has more physical prowess. That is why perhaps Islam concentrates on “gender equity” rather than “gender equality”. One’s duty is to maintain. The other’s is to look after. Well, it might not be always as reductive as that. However, basically I guess it’s just a division of responsibilities rather than a ‘demeaning’ of them. ๐Ÿ™‚

For more on that I recommend this.

**Though I do believe in the authenticity of these hadeeth, having sourced them from the University of South California’s site on the Compendium of Muslim Texts, I do not have the reference right now. Would be very much obliged if someone could help me with that. Jazakallah.

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