Is there anything like Islamic feminism? Most of the Islamists maintain such a term is contradiction in terms. For them feminism is against teachings of Islam. It is a western phenomenon and those women who are westernised and want to stick to Islam in name only. They dismiss this phenomenon with contempt. However, this attitude is more because of strong influence on their minds of conservative Islam. The conservative ulama insist on assigning women position subservient to men. Wives, according to them, should accept authority of their husbands.
A deeper examination of Qur'anic verses makes it clear that it firmly upholds dignity of women as that of men. It does not discriminate between two sexes. In fact it was social environment in which Shari'ah formulations were made that affected Islamists' viewpoint about women rather than the Qur'anic teachings. Today's social environment is radically different and women awareness of their rights has increased phenomenally.
There is nothing wrong in revisiting Shari'ah formulations regarding women today and attempt to reformulate issues in the light of contemporary social milieu. After all the great Imams themselves had formulated issues in respect of women's legal and moral status in medieval milieu. Only condition is such reformulation or re-thinking should be in the light of the Qur'an.
One should not be scared of the word 'feminism' as our 'ulama tend to be. After all feminism is all about women's rights. The Qur'an is so much concerned about women's rights that it will not be wrong to say the Qur'an preached feminism for the first time in the world and the Prophet was the first feminist. One should not shy away from the new terms. Obviously 'feminism' is not an old Shari 'ah term. But new terms can always be adopted. After all the term human rights does not exist in shari'ah but today the term like 'Islamic human rights' is freely being used. Why then not 'Islamic feminism'?
What is feminism?
Feminism is nothing but a discourse on women's rights in modern context. For all these centuries women were treated as subordinate to men. And this was thought to be quite natural. Women were confined to home and hearth and were not allowed any public role in general though there might have been some exceptions. Generally they did not even acquire education. A woman who could perform domestic chores with expertise was considered excellent in marriage market. She could become an ideal wife.
So her maximum achievement was limited to domestic field. She had no independent personality of her own. She was extension either of her father, brother or husband. She could be consulted but could not take decision herself. Decision was ultimately taken by father, brother or husband. Even if she did, she could be overruled. She had no right to earn her own living. It was thought against family pride that wife earns. This was interpreted as husband's inability to maintain his wife. Even if a wife could earn she was prevented from doing so. Even today many husbands to be stipulate condition that their prospective wives will give up the job after marriage.
All this is slowly changing in the modern society. Literacy has become universal. Even most orthodox families now send their daughters to schools and colleges. In fact certain statistics clearly show that more girls are graduating than boys even among backward Muslim communities in India. Recently on my visit to Kolhapur in Maharashtra I discovered that among very poor and backward caste Muslims (mostly baghbans ? a backward caste among Muslims in Maharashtra) there are girls who have done post-graduation in science subjects and humanities whereas there is not a single boy who has achieved so much in the field of education.
Earlier primary education was considered more than enough. And coeducation was considered 'sin'. Today Muslim girls are going for coeducation without any hesitation. We have to remember that society is not static. Unfortunately our 'ulama, dyed in the wool orthodox, think society is static and any change is unacceptable. They have frozen society to early Islamic period i.e. 8th and 9th centuries A.D.
Ulama's attitude may be frozen Muslims' attitude is not. Most of them are accepting changes and adjusting themselves keeping their Islamic conscience in tact. All changes are not bad or un-Islamic, those un-Islamic could be surely rejected. Feminist discourse, as we will show, is not unacceptable to one who cares for ones Islamic conscience. Every knowledgeable Muslim has right to decide, there being no priesthood or church in Islam. Even a fatwa by most learned 'alim could be rejected by a Muslim who does not agree with his opinion. Of course there are less informed Muslims who might consider these fatwas as binding.
However, with increased awareness and sources of knowledge available such less informed Muslims are also decreasing in number. It is also important to note that the 'ulama are accepting modern technology when it suits them. For example today Internet and e-mail networks are being used by the 'ulama to spread orthodoxy. But it is not going to consolidate orthodox positions in the long run. As Marshal McLuhan, an American sociologist put it in seventies 'media is the message'. The modern media being used by orthodox 'ulama cannot but be influenced by the modernity of the medium which will impact their minds for change in attitudes.
The 'Ulama are also accepting divorce through SMS, which, Islamically speaking, is most unjust and un-Islamic but in keeping with the orthodoxy and medieval ethos. Any modern technology, which can perpetuate orthodoxy, is acceptable but not those values, which uphold the real Qur'anic spirit of justice.
The modern feminist discourse is based on justice. Suppression of women's rights is gross injustice and hence feminism rejects it. All serious students of Qur'an very well know that justice forms core value of Qur'an. Anything unjust is zulm (oppression, wrong doing) in the Qur'anic terminology. How then the feminist discourse in this respect can be construed as 'un-Islamic'?
Today it is considered for women a fundamental right to acquire education. Is not acquisition of Islamic education an Islamic right? The Prophet (PBUH) made it obligatory both for men and women to acquire knowledge (talabul 'ilm faridatun 'ala kulli muslimin wa muslimatin ? acquisition of knowledge is obligatory on every Muslim man and Muslim woman). Still the orthodox Muslim society strongly resisted providing education to their womenfolk for several centuries. How 'Islamic' was their stand, which was perpetuated in the name of Islam?
Could not campaign for modern education for Muslim women become an issue of Islamic feminism? Today even in bastion of orthodoxy like Saudi Arabia women graduates are more than fifty per cent. And it is not only in religious education but in modern university education. Saudi society needs female teachers and doctors. But the Saudi women are no more confined to these fields alone. They are going now for aviation training, business management training and so on. Although the Saudi women are still far behind their sisters in other fields in other Muslim countries but change is more than perceptible. It is inevitable.
The Qur'an also does nowhere restrict knowledge to men alone. In fact 'ilm (knowledge) is most central to Qur'anic teachings. Allah is also repeatedly described in Qur'an as knower and urges upon all Muslim men and women to acquire knowledge. It was male dominated Muslim society, which restricted knowledge to men and deprived women of their fundamental right to acquire knowledge.
ISLAMIC AND WESTERN FEMINISM
One must of course make distinction between western and Islamic feminism. Western feminism today has been heavily influenced by its consumer culture. And in consumer culture instant gratification is central and values quite marginal. Islamic feminism, on the other hand, is based on values and these values are quite central. For example, women are not consumable commodities and their bodies cannot be commercialised.
In Western feminist discourse women are owners of their bodies implying that they are free to let their bodies be used for any purpose, including commercial purpose, if they so decide. Thus they are free to allow their semi-nude bodies for commercial ads, or even for free sex. Thus they have unrestricted rights over their bodies, not circumscribed by any values.
These women can even opt for what is called 'live-in' relationship without any formal marriage. They can also opt for adulterous relationship as owners of their bodies. This is just not acceptable as far as Islamic feminism is concerned. It does not mean they are not owners of their bodies. Of course they are but subject to certain fundamental values prescribed by the Qur'an.
These values are prioritised over ownership of the body. Freedom without values and sense of responsibility becomes licentiousness. Hence all human bodies including those of men are subject to fundamental values. One cannot, for example, use ones body freely for sex without marriage. Sex for mere pleasure cannot form part of Islamic feminism. Sex primarily is for perpetuating human species and this can best be done through marriage and family. For perpetuating human species institution of marriage plays very important role. In western feminism family has lost its relevance and a woman is entitled to sexual pleasure for pleasure's sake. Sexual pleasure is not the tool for raising family but an end in its self.
In Islamic feminism sexual pleasure is a tool, not an end. Islam, it is important to note, does not deny women right to sexual pleasure though it does not reduce it to an end itself. Some Muslims go for female circumcision to deprive her of sexual pleasure. It is more of tribal custom than any religious injunction. Most of the Muslims do not accept female circumcision. It is unjust to deprive her of that. Islamic shari'ah also clearly lays down that if a man hides his impotency from his bride at the time of marriage and she discovers it after marriage, she is fully entitled to divorce on that ground. This itself clearly shows that she is entitled to sexual pleasure along with raising family.
A woman is owner of her body subject to, as pointed out before, some value-based conditions. She, for example, cannot be compelled for sex, if she is unwilling. She fully controls her body. Sex in marriage also has to be with consent of both the partners. Islamic feminism, however, may not go as far as admitting of 'marital rape', as in western feminism. But that does not mean husband has absolute rights over his wife's body. Husband's rights are also subject to certain value-based conditions.
A woman, according to the Qur'an, posses full dignity, as much as a man has and forced sex will be obviously violation of this dignity. But since violation of dignity cannot be equated with marital rape it cannot be punished. A Muslim man has to desist from violation of his wife's dignity.
One can however, quote the Qur'anic verse 2:223 that women are like tilth and go to your tilth when you like and send (good) beforehand for yourselves.? Some feminists might maintain that this verse goes against her dignity as she is like her ploughing field and he can go to his field when he likes. Firstly, this verse should be read along with the preceding one i.e. verse 222 which prohibits man to go near her when she is undergoing her period and also instructs man to go near her as Allah has commanded and Allah has commanded to respect her dignity.
Secondly, woman being field for man only means she conceives after man's seed is implanted into her womb. It is she who conceives and rears children. In many religious traditions earth is likened to mother as earth grows food to sustain human beings. Similarly woman has been likened to field as she conceives and produces children to perpetuate human species. It in no way detracts from her dignity. On the other hand, it enhances her respect in our eyes. One has to properly understand the context in which it has been said.
The verse 4:34 is also controversial in this respect as this verse has been grossly misunderstood and implies that woman is subordinate to man and goes against feminist concept. We have discussed this verse and every word in it elsewhere and this is not the place to discuss it here again. This verse also should be read along with 33:35 and if read both together will not create any misunderstanding. The verse 33:35 clearly establishes Islamic feminist point of view that a woman is equal in every respect to man. She is not a wee bit inferior to him. There is no question of her being subordinate to man, much less, his property.
No Qur'anic verse should be read in isolation and this is precisely what the orthodox 'ulama do. They highlight one verse and suppress the other, in keeping with their prejudices against women. The prejudiced view regarding women ? they are inferior, they are created for serving men and it is their Islamic duty to obey their husbands ? are not on account of Islam but on account of the social ethos they are surrounded with.
NEED FOR ISLAMIC FEMINISM
Why use the term Islamic feminism? What is its need? Before we answer this question let us answer their question why feminist movement arose in the west? When women were educated and their awareness of equality with men found no response in the society and they found themselves subordinated to men, an aggressive feminist movement arose. Women found that they do not have even right to property and they have not been enfranchised in many western countries they reacted strongly. Women in Europe got right to property as late as 1930. Neither they could be elected to high political offices, nor could they become peers to men in higher corporate structures, they began to demand their rights.
Some extremist feminist even began to burn bras as they thought they were being reduced to sexual dolls. But later on feminists developed more balanced viewpoint. However, women continue to be object of lust and in all commercial ads their semi-nude images are used seriously violating their dignity. Though due to pressures of feminist movement, women's position has improved quite a bit, still it is far from being ideal. Still in most of the western countries women are not elected to high political offices. For the first time in British political history Mrs. Thatcher became Prime Minister and for the first time in German history a woman has been elected as Chancellor.
In USA still a woman has to become Vice-President, let alone President. Even in France a woman has yet to become President. But their situation is, however, fast improving thanks to the feminist movement. Now more and more women are getting elected as legislators in several European countries. In Sweden more than 40 per cent women are members of parliament.
In Muslim countries situation of women is really despicable. In Saudi Arabia they are not allowed to vote (municipal elections were held in some Saudi Arabian cities) and not allowed to even drive. In Kuwait women won right to vote recently after a prolonged struggle. In several Muslim countries like Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan etc. they are killed in the name of family honour if they try to marry a man of their choice or even found talking to some male friend. All major decisions are taken by men even in family matters and they cannot play any public role. In countries like they are even denied right to education and are forced to veil themselves.
There is, therefore an urgent need for Islamic feminist movement. Islam has given them rights like right to marry, right to divorce, right to own property, right to earn their own living, right to education and right to inherit. Unfortunately all these Islamic rights are being denied to them by the Muslim society. In the West there was no concept of these right until early twentieth century. In Islam these rights existed all along but women were not allowed to avail of them by the conservative male-dominated society.
Unfortunately Muslim women have to struggle hard to win the rights their religion has given them and denied by their men. Some time ago the leading Islamic seminary in Deoband issued a fatwa that Muslim women cannot contest elections but modified later by saying they have not observe veil while campaigning. It is also to be noted that there is no concept of veil in the Qur'an, there is only the concept of dignified dressing. However, men everywhere are forcing veil on women. The Qur'anic verse 24:31 makes it very clear that what should be displayed should be displayed.
The Islamic feminist discourse has to articulate all these rights given to women by the Qur'an and if there happens to be any grey area it has to be subjected to fresh interpretation in the light of contemporary developments. The Islamic feminist discourse does not deviate from the Qur'anic rights but does not, at the same time accept male point of view in interpreting the Qur'an. Women must not only acquire Qur'anic scholarship but should also display courage in reinterpreting Qur'anic verses relating to women and develop a Qur'anic feminist narrative.
Such Islamic feminist discourse is inevitable. But there are formidable obstacles on this way. Modern educated women have no knowledge of Qur'an and hadith and what is worse, no interest in acquiring such scholarship. Those who have been educated in Islamic madrasas are too conservative to ever attempt such a bold interpretation. They have been brought up in traditional Islamic discourse.
However, it is high time some Muslim women volunteer to acquire deeper Islamic scholarship, mastery over Qur'anic Arabic and launch Islamic feminist movement. Marriage in Islam is not subordinate relationship between men and women but an equal partnership. Both being party to mutual obligations. She cannot be divorced arbitrarily as is the practice today. Marriage has been described by the Qur'an as 'strong bond' (4:21) which one cannot break at husband's whim.
Also Islamic feminist discourse should empower women to make their choice whether they want a child or not on grounds of health, family size and economic capability. A man cannot force woman to go on bearing children, as she is much more than a child- bearing machine. An Islamic feminist discourse has to be pro-choice for women.
Thus it will be seen from above that Islamic feminist discourse is not only justified but is essential to empower her to achieve full human dignity accorded her by the Qur'an.