What is the role of the Muslim woman?
WHEN Imam Zuhri, a famous Muslim scholar of
(words and actions of Prophet Muhammad) told Qasim ibn
a scholar of Qur'an, that he intended to seek knowledge, Qasim
advised him to join the assembly of a well-known female jurist
called amra bint al rahman. Amra instructed many other scholars
of fame including Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Hazm and Yahya ibn al Said.
And she was not an exception. Early Islamic history is filled with
famous female jurists and and scholars, beginning with Aisha(RA),
the Prophet's wife, Rubaiy bint Muawidh, Aisha bint Saad
ibn Waqqas who taught Imam Malik and Sayyida Nafeesa, granddaughter
of Imam Hassan (RA) who instructed Imam al Shafi.
Today, it is difficult to name a single female jutist, philosopher
or scholar of international renown and women generally are almost
totally absent from the intellectual and public life of the Muslim
How different it was in the past. Call to mind the unknown
woman is said to have challenged Khalif Umar in the mosque when he
annonced his intention to put a ceiling on mahr
(dowry, given by the husband). He was forced to accept that his
proposal breached Qur'anic law because of this woman's vociferous
intervention. Then there is Fatima bint Qais who argued tenaciously
with Umar and Aisha(RA) over a legal point and refused to be
convinced by their arguments and Urn Yaqub, who is recorded as
having said to Abdullah ibn Masud, "I have read the entire
Qur'an but have not found your explanation (of a legal point
he was making) anywhere in it".
WOMEN'S PARTICIPATION IN THE PAST
The famous Greco-Roman civilisation which preceded Islam
did not produce a single woman jurist or philosopher and Western
Europe did not produce a female author until the 17th century;
even in the 18th century many female writers had to assume
a male identity to be considered for publication.
Conversely, the Islamic civilisation produced many female
scholars and activists of note, although it is a strange anomaly
that not many documents have remained from the intellectual
output of these women. Amongst the many examples of women holding
positions of authority in Islamic society are Shaffa bint Abdullah,
who was entrusted by Umar (RA) with the job of inspector of the
souk(market) in Madina or Fatima bint Saad, a Chinese Muslim
Professor who issued ijaza(licences) to men graduating from her
assembly. Rufayda achieved renown by tending the sick during the early battles of
the 7th century; Nusayba fought to defend the Prophet Muhammad and Fatima symbolised
the struggle against injustice and dynastic rule(RA).
MUSLIM WOMEN'S PARTICIPATION TODAY
In contrast, women activinsts today appear scarce; rare, perhaps, not because
they do not exist but because their often unsupported and small-scale efforts go
largely unrecognised. This explains, no doubt, the fact that it is extremely rare to find
women on the governing boards or committees of Islamic centres, organisations or in other
prominent positions in our society.
Furthermore, unlike in the past, few Muslim men today are willing to be taught by
Muslim women. Often, women are not welcome at conferences, meetings, gatherings and are even
excluded from many mosques. Where they do have access to a mosque, often they are sheltered
or imprisoned by a screen or curtain, not to be seen or heard. Whereas many men will quite
insolently insist on instructing women on everything from how to raise their children to what garments
to wear, if she were to point to the latent and perceptible discomfiture and even hostility to any form
of assertiveness in Islamic women as a confirmation of an in-built derogatory attitude towards them, it is
considered blasphemy. All these old cliches about the positive role, rights and identity Muslim woman enjoys are
regurgitated. It is surely a sign of the confusion which has affected the Muslim male psyche that whereas the wondrful examples
of Khadijah, Aisha, Fatima and Amra(RA) are rehearsed with pride to assert the point that Islam grants women the right to a
dynamic role in society, often these very same men refuse to mind their children for even two hours if their wives want to attend
a study circle or get involved in some voluntary work.
IS THE SITUATION ISLAMIC?
The crux of the present situation seems to turn on the question of whether Islam limits women to the private sphere, and gives
men absolute superiority over both private and public spheres. During the flourishing Islamic civilisation from the C7th to C16th, it seems
that this was not an issue. Women fulfilled the role for which they were biologically specialised, but nevertheless played a full and an
active role in intellectual and public life, if they wished to do so. Since then, however, there has been a retreat from this approach and the
woman's role in society has diminished.
Though much sociological support is used now to reinforce the religious importance of the woman as a good wife and mother, which no
Muslim disputes, it is nevertheless the case that the Muslim community as a whole has been detrimental affected by the shared male drive to physically and/or
psychologically push society into accepting that it is the Muslim man who has sole responisibility for building and leading the Islamic movement and that a woman's
role is subservient. Our Muslim society has forgotten, it seems, that if you educate a man, you educate one person; educate a woman, you educate a whole generation.
Female activists are not interested in power by enlargement - the issue here is one of lack of recognition, absence of consultation and marginalisation.
MEN NEED HELP
But how can a women participate in the Islamic movement, educate herself(academically or spiritually) and actively work in the community if she is discouraged, or
worse, encouraged, but not supported? Most modern scholars, says American Muslim writer Khaled Abu el Fadl(whose insightful observations form the basis of this piece), do not have the probity to suggest that it is recommended
and even required in certain circumstances for men to lend a helping hand at home. Most men are content to ignore this sunnah(practice of the Prophet Muhammad pbuh) as they selectively emphasise whatever is self-serving in thesunnah. The
Prophet(pbuh), after all, helped with household chores, mended hiw own clothes and cooked meals. Many mothers, wives and single women have talents, skills, experiences and expertise which could be usefully employed in the service of the Islamic movement, but left single-handedly to cope
with children and all the household responsibilities (even in situations where they have to be the breadwinner for the family), it is little wonder that many Muslim women do not have either the mental or the physical energy left to make a contribution.
TAKING THE MUSLIM WOMAN INTO THE 21ST CENTURY
At the root of the problem of mobilising Muslim women is the need for research into the principles of Islam as they relate to male-female relations. Could it be, as feminist author, Fatima Mernissi claims, that well-established, but perhaps doubtful Hadith - which states that a
man's prayer is spoilt if a woman or a donkey crosses in front of him - are at the root of this reluctance many male activists display when the problems of the involvement of women in the affairs of the community and consultation with them is raised . The Qur'an is irreproachable. Other
elements or our heritage perhaps are not so clear and have to be re-examined so that clear principles are distilled, disseminated and adopted. We should no longer live the deen(way of life) of Islam as if we were living in the Asian/Arab east four or five centuries ago, but
should collectively find our way to look forward to the 21st century building towards Allah's definition of the relationship which should exist amongst Muslims. As the Qur'an states:
The true believers, men and women, are friends to each other. They enjoin what is just and forbid what is evil.(9:71).
At this point, perhaps, it will not be so rare for the community to have read something from a Muslim woman which is not about male/female roles. Women would be exemplifying the dynamic role that they have the right to play within Islamic societiesand we would all be the better for it.