Women in Islam: veiled oppression or stigmatised misconception? - Part 3 Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Women in Islam: veiled oppression or stigmatised misconception? - Part 3

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Now that we have looked at the state of women's rights in Muslim countries and at what the Qur'an and Hadith have to say about them (see Parts 1 & 2 above), it is time to look at the final issues - at what has happened in Muslim countries and what the causes are for any mistreatment of women. We shall also have a short look at the attitude to women throughout history.

What Went Wrong?

This is a question many people ask in and outside of Muslim circles, but there is no short answer. Some say that the situation for women started to deteriorate after Islam reached its peak and broke up, though there is no evidence either way to say truthfully if this is the case. If we take a look at the regimes in most of these 'Islamic' countries we find that they were never actually voted in, but forcibly took control. An example of this would be the Taliban. This regime came into power after the Afghan and Soviet War, using weapons they had received from the USA in order to aid their battle with the invading Soviet forces.

The Taliban was initially supported because they united and stopped the civil war that had engulfed the country after the Afghans' victory over the Russians. This support ended after the war, with each side forgetting the role played by the other. The Taliban had taken control of Afghanistan shortly after the war and then had started to mistreat the civil population.

Arguably, most examples of women being mistreated come from Afghanistan though, to be fair, the Taliban actually took over from an even worse regime, which was what is now the Northern Alliance. After the war with Russia, the warlords of the tribes and villages in Afghanistan fought for control of the country. Nobody was safe from them, including women and children. Many women where dragged off, gang-raped and never seen again. This led to the support of the Taliban, who in Afghans' eyes were the freedom fighters who saved them from Russia. Unfortunately, due to the demise of the Taliban and lack of security outside of Kabul (the capital of Afghanistan), the warlords that the Taliban removed from power are back in control and rape crimes have risen at an alarming rate in recent years.

  • These have been reported by several human rights groups. See these articles from Amnesty International and BBC News.
  • Another example is provided by Iran. When the population protested and overthrew its leader, the American government gave him support in order that he be restored to power. (Its view was that this would stop the formation of an Islamic government and therefore ensure stability in the area.) One of the many things he did was to force women at bayonet-point to remove their hijabs. For Muslims choosing to wear a hijab, this would be the equivalent of a US Congressman usurping his country and forcing all American women to remove their bikinis on the beach. Because of this, outrage against the Shah in Iran led to the backing of extremist groups which eventually found influential places in the governmental system, resulting in the extreme laws used in Iran today.

    In other countries such as Pakistan1 and Bangladesh, popular support resulted in their governments coming into power - yet they are alleged to be as corrupt and un-Islamic as those who took control by force. In particular, Pakistan was taken over in a victory coup by the army because the public lost faith in the government. The military rule is supported by most Pakistanis simply because of the fear of war with India and the wanting to defend oneself.

    Even though the people living in these countries may want a Shar'ria law-based2 country the government will not allow it as it will mean less power and money for the government. To keep the people happy they will say that their aim is to impose Shar'ria law at some stated time in the future, but when the moment arrives, the government changes its mind.

    Pakistan's government is always saying that it is working towards a Shar'ria law-driven country yet never gets around to it. However, to be fair, in the case of Pakistan women's rights it is not that bad in the cities: it usually only degrades in the village communities. Of course, this does not excuse it from happening, but one has to remember that although it has a central military-run government, most of the country has its own laws and the government has no real control over small village areas - especially in militant parts like the region called Bhutan3. Another thing to bear in mind is that Pakistan tends to get bad press; good things about the country seem to rarely be reported by the media. In its cities, Pakistan is a country that has almost equal rights for women in education and employment. As is the case in western countries, there is still some room for improvement concerning jobs, and many a Pakistani will point out that from a city perspective it is up there with any other modern country, and that at least they have had a female President.

    While there is room for improvement where education for all children and teens is concerned, many people actually view the country's educational system as superior to that of the West. This is because children in schools are not placed and advanced through school life according to their age: instead they progress according to intellect. It is quite common in Pakistan to see a 14-year-old who is not very intelligent in a class of 12-year-olds, or a bright nine-year-old in a class of pupils who are six years older. Take the case of ten-year-old Arfa Karim Randhawa, who at the age of nine is believed to be the youngest Microsoft Certified Professional4in the world. This is due to her being granted further learning from the Applied Technologies Institute near her home.

    Are the Muslims Partly to Blame?

    Another cause of the lack of women's rights are from Muslims themselves. Whenever something un-Islamic happens, the scholars and other Muslims tend to put their heads in the sand and hope that attention will go away. For example, when a women is stoned to death in Pakistan or Afghanistan, people on the global Islamic scene do not tend to stand up and says that this is un-Islamic and that they condemn such action. There is a hadith that relates to this. It says:

    Whoever witnesses a sin, he must reject it with his hand. If he cannot, then with his tongue. If he cannot, then with his heart, and this is the least of Iman5.

    Many Muslims do not know what actually is right and wrong in Islam; they follow blindly what others say and never ask, 'Where does it say that?'

    The biggest cause of the lack of human rights comes down to the education of Muslims regarding their own faith and the pressure to conform to social norms based on culture. In many Muslim countries, it is frowned upon for people to read the Qur'an in anything other than the classical Arabic in which it was revealed. The problem with this is that it means there are Muslims reading the Qur'an in classical Arabic who do not understand a word of the language, so they have to rely on scholars and other people to translate it for them.

    An example of this can be taken from England. It is common practice there for religious families to send their children to Qur'an classes at their local Mosque. On its own, this is a great thing for Islamic children, but while they are being taught to read classical Arabic they do not understand what the words actually mean. The primary reason for reading the Qur'an in only classical Arabic translation causes it to lose some of its meaning, and so it can fall prey to misinterpretation - which can lead to people being led astray on certain issues. Unfortunately it has not yet sunk into people's minds that reading the Qur'an in a language you don't understand is more damaging in terms of keeping and following Islamic thought and laws than reading a translation. After all, a translation can have footnotes and a running commentary to help give the proper meaning.

    Given below are a few key ideas that this author believes should be strongly considered and put into practice if the oppression of women is to be brought to an end.

    • All Muslims should strive that their countries (ie, Islamic countries, not places like Britain and America) impose a proper Shar'ria-based system with a global delegation of prominent Muslim scholars (male and female), who are elcted by Muslims, to oversee it. This would require full backing from other countries to help enforce Shar'ria law if leaders start to abuse human rights.
    • In Muslim countries, there needs to be more awareness of women's rights in the Qur'an and also a education program to teach all Muslims exactly what it says and does not say about the rights of women - and everything else.
    • Muslim leaders and all Muslims in general should stand up and speak out against the oppression that occurs in Muslim countries instead of just hoping that it goes away. One very common reason given by people for not standing up and speaking out against such things is the fear of bringing attention to themselves and being on the sharp end of abuse for speaking out.
    • Muslims should start to read the Qur'an in languages that they understand. If they speak and read Urdu then the Qur'an should be translated into Urdu.
    • Children who attend Qur'an classes should be taught how to understand classical Arabic instead of just learning how to read it.
    • The Qur'an makes it clear that Muslims should not follow blindly. If someone says something is Islamic and you're not sure, then ask how they came to their conclusion and ask for references from the Qur'an and Hadith that can be checked out. No honest scholar will criticise this as not only are you doing as the Qur'an instructs, but you will increase your own knowledge about Islam in the process.

    There also needs to be more awareness and support by both Muslims and non-Muslims towards special Islamic charities set up to help women who are abused, or all those in ethnic groups who need help and advice. Every year, thousands of women around the world commit suicide due to feeling they have to deal with their abuse on their own as they have nobody to turn to. Support groups are so seldom mentioned in the media that few people have heard of them. Many more women are trapped in marriages where they are abused simply because they don't have the strength to walk out and get a divorce and so need the support and backing of organisations to help them.

    At the moment there are several Islamic charities set up to help just Muslim women from the abuse seen in the media. For example:

    • The Muslim Women's Helpline can be reached on 020 8908 6715.
    • The Sisters' Haven can be contacted on 0800 052 8714. It has an open door policy for all women, meaning it will help non-Muslims too. In 2003 the charity dealt with over 7000 calls from distressed Muslim women in cases such as domestic violence, forced marriages, abuse and homelessness. Though it has been running since 1999, it is not as well-known as it should be in Muslim circles and is practically unheard of elsewhere.

    Thankfully, in some countries women are fighting for the rights granted to them in Islam. In Iran, there are groups of women who are getting un-Islamic laws changed by arguing with the scholars and elite class who rule the country. They simply show them what the Qur'an and Hadith say. While this may be slow, it is something that needs to be encouraged and supported by both Muslims and the global community instead of being ignored, as currently happens.

    Women: An Historical Perspective

    It would be invaluable to take a look at history and see how different civilisations have treated women through the ages.

    In India, for example, subjection was a cardinal principle. Day and night, women had to be held by their protectors in a state of dependence. The rule of inheritance was agnatic, ie, descent was traced through males to the exclusion of females. In Roman law a woman was, even in historic times, completely dependant. If married, she and her property passed on to the power of her husband, and, like a slave, acquired for his benefit. A woman could not exercise any civil or public office; could not be a witness, surety, tutor, or curator; she could not adopt or be adopted and she could not even make a will or contract. If we were to take a look at Athenian, Scandinavian, English and many more civilisations, we see that women were all oppressed in similar ways throughout the ages.

    Examining Mosaic Law we can see that even it has been influenced by these times. The right to divorce was exclusive to the husband: the woman was betrothed and the woman's consent for marriage was not required. The position of the church, until recent centuries, seems to have been influenced by both the Mosaic Law and the thought that was dominant at that time. In their book, Marriage East and West, the authors, David and Vera Mace, state:

    Let no-one suppose, either, that our Christian heritage is free of such slighting judgments. It would be hard to find anywhere a collection of more degrading references to the female sex than the early Church Fathers provide.

    The book goes on to explain that woman was represented as the door of hell, as the mother of all human ills. She should be ashamed at the very thought that she is a woman. She should live in continual penance on account of the curse she has bought upon the world. She should be especially ashamed of her beauty, for it is the most potent instrument of the devil.

    One of the worst of these attacks can be found in Tertullian which will not be printed here.

    All this being said though, that was then and not today, and what happened then does not excuse what happens now. The point being made here is that all religions believed that women were lesser people than men, but changed their views in the 20th Century. This raises the question: is Islam the same as the other religions back then, or is it different, and in either case how has it changed its attitude towards women? This also leads to the question of whether Islam just needs to catch up with modern times like other religions or has it back-tracked its human rights for women over the passing centuries?

    Cultural Practice, Not Islamic

    To complete this Entry we will now look at arguably the real culprit of the lack of rights in Muslim countries. As mentioned earlier, all 'Islamic countries' are actually a mix of Islamic law, cultural law and the rulers' own laws. In fact there is actually no real Islamic country as such: to be Islamic it has to be under a Shar'ria law-based system without cultural influence and rulers' own laws. As seen above, all of the preconceptions on Islam are not actually Islamic practices, so if that's the case, from where do they originate?

    The answer to that is in culture. The one thing that all Muslim countries and most of Asia have in common is a strong cultural influence dating back thousands of years. Take India, for example...


    Like Pakistan, India has honour killings taking place in remote villages, but India's laws against honour killings are better implemented and so such incidents are less known in its cities than those of Pakistan. India does have a prostitution system, with girls being stolen, enslaved, given or taken as payment for some debt and placed into brothels. Infanticide still takes place in India but is now done via scans and abortions. This is due to the fact that there is the dowry system: this ensures that when a girl gets married she brings gifts for her new family. Unfortunately, in some areas of India it has become common practice to beat and torture the girl so her family will give more items - failing that they will kill her. Due to this, the Indian goverment has banned the sonograph in India, though it can still be found in some shadier parts of the country.

    Here is a short question and answer section between this author and Fatima Banu, a girl living in South India:

    Q: What rights do you have as a women living in India?

    A: We're given equal rights to everything in India, be it education, property dealings or employment. The constitution gives us all rights.

    Q: Do honour killings take place in India?

    A: Honour killings happen in remote villages. If a daughter wants to marry of her own free will and the egoist family members don't like it, they kill her. It does not happen in the cities as India has a very strict law against it. I know it happens in Pakistan and parts of Afghanistan as well.

    Q: According to Amnesty International there is a large child prostitution ring in India. Is this true?

    A: Yes, it does happen generally in the remote villages. The government is trying to crack down on it.

    Q: Why are girls put into slavery as prostitutes?

    A: You know people in the small villages have a lack of literacy and we have a big social cancer that's called the dowry system - the main root cause to all these evils. It's a practice that has been carried forward as a tradition from thousands of years and is now being aped by our own community in India. When a girl gets married she is expected to bring material stuff to her in-laws' place: things like gold, money, clothes. These days, pots and utensils made of brass, and modern era stuff like washers, fridges... all kinds of electronic gadgets, depending as how much the bride's father can afford to pay. If they don't meet the bridegroom's demands, they start torturing the girl for more and more and more and her father can't pay. He can't pay because he cannot afford to, and then this either drives the girl to commit suicide or they simply burn and kill her themselves. This is rampant in remote villages in northern India, and so to avoid this we have something that's called infanticide here. Parents don't want girl babies cause of this dowry thing, because in future their sons-in-law will do the same. So these days they have a scan when pregnant, and if it is a girl they have an abortion. The old system was that as soon as a girl is born they pay the midwife to bury the child alive. They put her in an earthen pot, sealed the mouth with kneaded dough and buried it. I read this article and got to know of it for the first time when I was about 14 - 15 years old and still in school. I never used to sleep at nights thinking of their cruelty and heartlessness. They even used to break the babies' spines to kill them as well. This is why girl children are also sold off in the markets.

    Q: That's terrible. Is there anything else that you know of?

    A: I was told by one of my friends, who reads prismatic history, that women used to be marched to the markets in groups like how you would take a herd of cows. Men would go and examine them from head to toe and purchase them. Also, men never trusted their women alone whenever they went away from home, so they used to stitch the women's private parts before leaving home.

    Q: Does that sort of thing still happen?

    A: Not anymore. Maybe in the old days, but the government is in better control at the moment and so would prevent such things.

    Q: Speaking of wives, do women still burn themselves on their husbands' funeral pyres?

    A: Maybe one in a thousand women do. Our country is very strict on that now.

    As this shows, India still has issues with women's rights just as Islamic countries do - and as is the case in Muslim countries, these problems do not stem from the country's religions like Hinduism and Sikhism. It is due to a shared culture that has dominated people's thoughts for a long period of time. The main difference between women's rights in Pakistan and India is that India has a far more active stance on stamping out the old cultural taints than Pakistan has at the moment.

    But it's not just in the east that women's rights are abused. For example, there is a major white slave trade in women as prostitutes in Europe, and domestic violence on women is increasing each year in most western countries. This highlights how the lack of women's rights can't be pinned on to one group, but rather that all groups need to work together in eliminating the abuse of women's rights in all countries. This must happen regardless of colour or belief - but more importantly, in respect of each person's unique colour and beliefs.

    1A country troubled by 'honour killings' within its borders.2A law system based on the Qur'an and Hadith. Though many Islamic countries boast about having Shar'ria law, all of them have mixed it with their own views and culture of that particular country regardless of whether it clashes with Islam or not.3This region is in the north-west of Pakistan and borders Afghanistan.4This being the designation given to outside experts who prove their ability to work with Microsoft technologies. This has been achieved by some teenagers before, but never - as far as is known - by a nine-year-old. It is far more common among adults seeking to advance their computer careers further. 5Iman means faith. This hadith mentions three levels of faith. The highest form of faith will be for someone to see an injustice and change it, the second highest would be to speak out against it as an injustice, while the lowest form of faith would be to just see that it is wrong and wish to change it.

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