The question of Muslim women's rights continue to occupy centre stage throughout the world. This question will assume ever- greater importance in coming days also. The main reason for this is increasing education and awareness among Muslim women in all Muslim countries. Modernization is also having its impact. Also more and more women are getting drawn into job market thus becoming independent of their fathers and husbands.
No country is exception to this process. Even in Saudi Arabia where women are under strict control, this process is on and Saudi women too are debating issue of their rights and are demanding more and more freedom.
Recently there was a conference in Madina, in Saudi Arabia, the second holiest city of Islam wherein both men and women participated to debate women's rights. This was the third conference of its kind. Various issues including participation in work and representation in public institution came under discussion in this conference. But Saudi women were not satisfied even with such conference. They felt it is men who did most of the talking and women did not get opportunity and women were not properly represented.
The debate about women's rights and issues continue in the Saudi press as well as in the media in other Arab countries. Thus in an article in the leading English paper of Middle East The Arab News of 16th July, 2004, Mody al-Khalaf writes, "For some time now, there has been a lot of talk, nationally and even internationally, about women's rights in Saudi Arabia... Westerners often make the assumption that we are totally deprived of all rights. Saudis, mostly conservatives terrified of any change, think that Saudi women enjoy all the rights they are entitled to by Islamic law. Both groups, of course, are wrong."
This article discusses the trauma of a Saudi divorced wife Mona and her struggle to lead dignified life and to give best possible education to her three children. It is really an inspiring story as to how Mona successfully struggled for her rights and for her children's rights. And that too in the Saudi Kingdom. This clearly shows that the Saudi women who are thought to be mere prisoners in the hands of men is not true. They too fight for their rights and dignified existence.
An interesting survey was conducted in the Saudi Kingdom for the work participation of women. The study revealed that Saudi women can get involved in six major fields: worship, family duties, education, management in the private sector, as well as the public sector, and social services.
The study conducted by Khaled al-Baloush, deputy director of the Saudi management Association in Jeddah and in which 2,550 Saudi women had been surveyed, said that 47 per cent (1,181 of the sample) of Saudi women opined that they are just as capable at work as men, sometimes even better, while 53 percent of the respondents said they can be more efficient for many reasons other than physical ability, which was the only aspect covered in the study.
In June 2004 a conference "Challenging Limitations: The Redefinition of Roles for Women in the GCC" was organised by the London Middle East Institute (LMEI) at SOAS with support from the Saudi Embassy in London, the Kuwait-British Friendship Society and Abdul Salam Al-Awadi One of the keynote speakers Princess Lulwah al-Faisal, vice chairwoman and general supervisor of Dar Al- Hanan School and Effat College Board of Trustees, gave a comprehensive overview of the remarkable growth in female education in Saudi Arabia and said Saudi women, pioneers famous for their civic roles, are now standing to play an important consultative role.
She said that the basic challenges faced by Saudi women include the rapid rate of population growth of 3.1 percent a year, the mismatch between education and demands of job, and the social awareness of women's rights in Islam. Princess Lulwah noted that technology is an area that is particularly appropriate for Saudi women, and she expressed the hope that this will be adequately reflected in academic institutions.
The conference speakers included two dynamic Saudi women Dr. Fawziah Bakr Al-Bakr, associate professor at the college of education, King Saudi University, and Dr. Hayat Sindi who was the first female Saudi scientist to receive a doctorate in biotechnology from the University of Cambridge. Dr. Sindi, in her paper, entitled "A Life Sentence" described the many obstacles she had to overcome in her passage from being a girl growing up in Makkah to obtaining a masters degree from London University and a doctorate at Cambridge.
Dr. Sindi who is the holder of many awards, stressed the importance of self-belief. Dr. Al Bakr took the audience in a wide-raging tour of girls' education and the role of women in the labour force in a paper full of information and statistics. She ended by outing an eight- point plan to encourage women's role in business and economy and made number of recommendations.
All these developments among Saudi women are indicative of winds of change blowing in the Muslim world. It is no longer possible to deprive Muslim women of their Islamic and human rights. Even the Saudi society can no longer deal with women it used to deal in earlier times. Though the struggle ahead is by no means easy and smooth, yet signs of change are unmistakable. The patriarchal societies denied women their Qur'anic rights so far. The Qur'an unmistakably declared gender equality fourteen hundred years ago but Muslim men denied it to them even elementary rights until today.
There is serious misconception about finality of the Shariah law in the Islamic world. The evolution of the Shari'ah law has been a process and it kept on evolving for centuries after the death of the Holy Prophet. The early doctors of law who founded various schools of Shari'ah like Imam Hanbal, Imam Malik, Imam Abu Hanifa and Imam Shafi'i, never thought that their opinions are final and binding on coming generations of Muslims. Imam Malik did not allow the Abbasid Caliph to prescribe his Magnum Opus Muwatta to be prescribed for all Muslims. He maintained that he would not like it to be imposed on all Muslims. They can have their own opinion.
But later generations started following these doctors of law blindly and mechanically as if it was divine. Now ordinary Muslims following these doctors and the 'ulama belonging to these schools do consider opinions expressed by these doctors of law as final and consider it a sin to challenge the finality of their opinion. But all great Islamic thinkers have maintained that these opinions cannot be treated as final.
No one can doubt the scholarship and greatness of their learning. Still they were humans and product of their own time. The Qur'an, a divinely revealed text gives principles, values and guidelines. One has to develop detailed rules in the light of these principles, values and guidelines. Fundamental values are divine but instrumental values to implement them in given conditions, are not.
No law developed by learned men of one generation can be binding on people of subsequent generations. The Qur'anic verses were interpreted differently by different theologians of the same generation, then how can subsequent generations forfeit their rights to interpret Qur'anic verses according to their needs and requirements. May be throughout medieval ages no need was felt to reinterpret and develop Shari'ah law further after the learned men codified it as medieval society remained almost static for several centuries.
But since 19th century revolutionary changes in social and economic structure began to take place and new generations of Muslims began to feel great need for fresh thinking on issues of Shari'ah law. A great struggle began in almost all Muslim countries. The Napoleon's invasion on Egypt brought it under French influence and Egyptian society became the hub for intellectual debates on women's rights. Many books were written one of which Al-Mara't al-Muslimah (The Muslim Woman) was most stimulating.
In India too, after the British rule was consolidated in nineteenth century, many Muslims scholars like Sir Syed, Maulavi Mumtaz Ali Khan, Justice Amir Ali, Maulavi Chiragh Ali and others began to re-think on Shari'ah laws pertaining to women's rights. Sir Syed himself made insightful comments in his commentary of the Qur'an pertaining to verses on women and their rights.
Maulavi Mumtaz Ali Khan, a close colleague of Sir Syed wrote a book Huququn Niswan (Rights of Women) which boldly advocated equal rights for man and woman at a time when women were not even allowed to come out of their houses and in their houses they were confined to zanankhana i.e. women's compartment. Even Sir Syed was disturbed by such a bold venture and advised the Maulavi not to publish it as it would cause great stir among Muslims and opposition to his mission of spreading modern education would assume greater fury. However, Mumtaz Ali Khan did not accept Sir Syed's advice and published the book.
Maulavi Chiragh Ali also advocated changes in the Muslim law so that women could get their Islamic rights which have been denied them for centuries. Thus modernity and modern changes directly impinged on the Muslim thinking and some scholars began to advocate changes in the traditional Shari'ah law. But so far only enlightened men were advocating rights of Muslim women. Women were still deprived of modern education and confined to their homes and zanankhana in their homes.
It was only in later part of twentieth century that Muslim women began to go to schools and colleges. Also, the educational institutions were dominated by men who often thought that woman's right place was in their homes and this was repeatedly injected into their minds. Naturally the women also thought along these lines only. But it was post-independence situation which began to bring fundamental change in the attitudes of Muslim women.
The Indian Constitution gave all citizens of India the right to vote including women and politicians had to cultivate women voters as well. Thus the democratic discourse in the country created greater awareness among all women, including Muslim women. Also, from seventies onwards more and more NGOs advocating women's rights came into existence and suffering Muslim women also formed their own NGOs. The NGO culture certainly helped women's cause.
In Muslim countries too more and more women are getting educated and a new awareness is fast developing. Today even in Saudi Arabia there are more girl students than boy students, even at the university level. The oil revolution forced Arab governments to open more and more educational institutions. That is why the women in conservative kingdom like Saudi Arabia, as pointed out above are no longer content with their old situation and are demanding equality with men.
In Kuwait women were not allowed to take part in the political process and could not vote. But many university-educated women were demanding right to vote during eighties. However, it was denied to them. When Kuwait was invaded by Iraq in 1990 and resistance movement began the women participated in the resistance movement on condition that they will be enfranchised. The ruling dynasty of Kuwait promised enfranchisement of Kuwaiti women.
However, after Kuwait was liberated no such law was passed for a long time and only after great deal of agitation by educated Kuwaiti women the ruling Sheikh issued an ordinance giving women right to vote but it was voted out in the parliament dominated by conservative men. However, the Kuwaiti women did not give up and now at last a bill is being introduced to empower Kuwaiti women to vote. One hopes the bill will be passed. This again shows that educated women in Muslim countries are agitating for their rights and nothing will be gained without such struggles.
Needless to say there is long way to go. There are serious inequalities between the two sexes in Muslim societies. Though Malaysia is a highly developed country among Muslim countries yet highly conservative views prevail as far as women's rights are concerned. The Sisters in Islam is an NGO in Malaysia which is struggling for women's rights. It is pressing Malaysian Government for progressive legislation for women. They are aspiring, and rightly so, for equal rights. However, they have to face tough opposition from highly conservative 'ulama. In certain states like Kelantaon the conservative Muslim party is in power and it has introduced Hudud laws (Islamic laws for adultery etc.) which are highly loaded against women. The Malaysian women have long way to go.
In Indonesia too after democratisation of political regime and end of Suharto dictatorship, a movement for rights of women has gathered momentum. In Indonesia too the rate of literacy among women is quite high. There are several institutions catering to women's education, including Islamic universities and other Islamic institutions. These educated women are demanding better status. The books on rights of women are in great demand. Many women are working for PhD. degrees on rights of women.
In Pakistan and Bangla Desh women have succeeded in forcing authorities to bring about certain necessary changes like abolition of triple divorce and restricting polygamy. The then President Ayub Khan had promulgated an ordinance in 1961 known as Muslim Family Law Ordinance, which ushered in these measures. Bangla Desh retained them after cessation from Pakistan in 1971 and despite Zia-ul-Haq's attempts to abolish the ordinance during eighties when Islamisation of Pakistani state began, did not succeed. The women of Pakistan resisted abolition of the ordinance. It is thus in force even today.
However, the Hudood ordinance promulgated by Zia-ul-Haq is causing severe problems for Muslim women in Pakistan. There is some pressure on the Musharraf Government though there is fierce opposition to it from the 'ulama.
In India Muslim women are suffering because of lack of any reform in the Islamic law. Here the main obstacle is the minority status of Muslim community. Any move for change is strongly resisted both by the 'ulama as well the political leadership saying it amounts to interfering in religious freedom of minorities. The article 25 of the Constitution is quoted. This article allows all to profess, practice and propagate ones religion. The personal Law, it is maintained, is part of religion and cannot be interfered with. It is true that Shari'ah law is part of religion and government cannot interfere with it and this has stalled all reforms.
Even the Supreme Court judgement of 1985 in the famous Shah Bano case had to be reversed by the then Rajiv Gandhi Government under pressure from Muslims. It caused great setback for Muslim women's movement in India. The reversal of the Supreme Court judgement caused great resentment among non-Muslims and gave impetus to majority communalism. The secularists otherwise quite sympathetic to the Muslim cause, were also greatly upset.
The Shah Bano movement is an indicator of momentous difficulties in bringing about any change in favour of Muslim women. However, there is increasing pressure on the Muslim Personal Law Board to effect certain essential changes like abolition of triple divorce. There are some liberal 'ulama but they are greatly constrained by the conservative 'ulama who are in majority.
The Muslim personal Law Board consists of Muslims of different sects, Sunnis, Shi'as, Bohras, Deobandis, Ahl-e-Hadis and so on. Different sects take different positions and it becomes more complicated to bring about any change. For example, recently the MPLB announced that it was going to consider abolition of triple talaq in its Kanpur session in July 2004. The Barelvi 'ulama from Mumbai belonging to Raza Academy immediately threatened to launch an agitation if the MPLB touched the issue of triple talaq. The MPLB had to retrace its step and had to announce that it had no intention to abolish triple talaq. The whole issue was thus shelved once again.
Thus there are two main obstacles for any change in the Muslim Personal Law in respect of women: 1) conservatism of some 'ulama and 2) political competition for leadership of Muslims. If one set of 'ulama give in to progressive change, their leadership is immediately threatened by conservative 'ulama. Thus under pressure from conservatives the comparatively liberal ones retract. This happened on 13th September 2004 also. The vice president of MPLB Maulana Kalbe Sadiq announced in a press conference that the Board will promote family planning among Muslims in view of little higher rate of growth of Muslim population. He gave example of Iran where zero rate of growth has been achieved. If the Iranian Muslims can achieve zero rate of growth under the rule of 'ulama why can't Indian Muslims slow down their growth under a secular set up.
However, the President of MPLB Maulana Hasan Rabe' Nadwi immediately announced that this is not the stand of MPLB but only personal views of Maulana Kalbe Sadiq and he is entitled to his views. Thus any progressive reform suggested by one section of 'ulama is resisted by another section and reforms are thus stalled. It is only increasing pressure from Muslim women which will create climate for change.
The conception among common Muslims that the Shari'ah law is divine and immutable has to change for any reform. Thus progressive Muslim intellectuals committed to women's rights have to educate the Muslim masses that the every succeeding generation of Muslims, as pointed out above, has right to reinterpret Shari'ah law according to their needs. The Shari'ah law is not the body of static laws, but a corpus of dynamic laws creatively responding to changing times.
What was evolved by the Islamic jurists in early centuries was in response to the socio-political needs of the time. The Qur'an provided the ideal of equal rights of men and women but the society then could not cherish this ideal and the then doctors of law had to respond to their socio-political needs by watering down the Qur'anic ideal of equality of gender by invoking certain ahadith of the Holy Prophet or by resorting to the institutions ijma' and qiyas (i.e. consensus and analogical reasoning). Both ijma' and qiyas are human institutions and had to be developed to meet the needs of the time. These same institutions can be used for responding to the present needs.
This is the only way of keeping the Islamic law relevant and for upholding the Qur'anic ideals of justice and gender equality. It is from this point of view that we have stated positions and views of various authorities in this book like Mohammad 'Abduh of Egypt, Sir Syed and Maulavi Mumtaz Ali Khan of India, Maulana Umar Ahmed Usmani of Pakistan and others to support the case for reform and change. My appeal to Muslims in general, and Muslim 'ulama in particular, is to reflect dispassionately and try to implement the Qur'anic ideals and this is right time to do so.