Rereading “Status of Woman in Islam” (II)

(continuing from where we left off…)

“The paper starts with a brief survey of the status of women in the pre-Islamic era. It then focuses on these major questions:

What is the position of Islam regarding the status of woman in society? How similar or different is that position from “the spirit of the time,” which was dominant when Islam was revealed? How would this compare with the “rights” which were finally gained by woman in recent decades?”

————–

Early ’80’s ghost: So, the author is going to explain what Islam really teaches about what status women should have. Good. What little I have heard and read about this has me confused. I want a clear, simple explanation.

Commentator: It is said that all shall find what they truly seek, though they may not always like it.

Note the lack of specificity. What exactly is “the pre-Islamic era”? Why the attempt to broadly generalize about “the status of women” before Islam? Which women is he talking about: queens, peasants, slaves, priestesses, or…? Would their legal, social or economic statuses have really been the same?

Using expressions such as “the position of Islam” ignores Muslim debates throughout history, as well as in today’s world. By ignoring such differences of opinion, the author is trying to establish his authority for his two main intended audiences: curious but uninformed North American non-Muslims, and conservative immigrant Muslims.

 

His claim to be presenting “what Islam says” using the Qur’an and the Hadith will likely be taken at face value by the first. They do not know enough about either Muslim history or twentieth century Arab Islamist groups to recognize Salafi-influenced, Muslim Brotherhood-type rhetoric when they see it, nor are they likely to know that it is a very modern (though quite socially conservative) interpretation—on par in many ways with Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, or Bob Jones University.

As for the second audience—conservative immigrant Muslims—the views expressed in the booklet provide both ready, simple answers to issues that may be bothering them (or that they may have been asked about), and handy ways to deflect difficult questions. The author and the MSA, unlike some (or many) of the clerics they encountered “back home,” are evidently trying to address the needs of Muslims today rather than busying themselves with arcane legal questions that aren’t relevant to most people’s lives. So it is groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood that they should look to for direction, whether in North America or their homelands.

Super-commentator: What is a “woman”? The author has not defined this term. He assumes that its meaning is self-evident, and the same regardless of time and place. But this is an unwarranted assumption.

Notice that he puts the word “rights” in quotation marks. Hmmm.

——————————————————————————-

II. HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES

“One major objective of this paper is to provide a fair evaluation of what Islam contributed (or failed to contribute) toward the restoration of woman’s dignity and rights. In order to achieve this objective, it may be useful to review briefly how women were treated in general in previous civilizations and religions, especially those which preceded Islam (Pre-610 C.E.). Part of the information provided here, however, describes the status of woman as late as the nineteenth century, more than twelve centuries after Islam.”

Almost five pages (!) follow, which mostly contain quotations from several encyclopedias, a book called Marriage East and West, and E.A. Allen’s History of Civilization. These quotations provide general statements about Hindu scriptures, Athenian women in ancient Greece, women in ancient Roman law, women from “the Scandinavian races” up to the 17th century, English common law on married women’s property rights, the “Mosaic law” on marriage and divorce… and finally, a summary of the misogynistic statements made by some of the Church Fathers, including Tertullian’s words to women:

“Do you know that you are each an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that forbidden tree; you are the first deserters of the divine law; you are she who persuades him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man….”

—————–

Early ’80’s ghost: This is horrible, just horrible…. I don’t know what to think. It seems that all religions, all cultures everywhere have always oppressed women, denied us basic rights, and justified it by claiming that we aren’t quite as human as men are. And even Christians treated women like dirt. I never knew that the Church Fathers said such awful things about women. Why didn’t I ever hear about this before? What else haven’t I been told??

Commentator: The author promised us a “fair evaluation,” but gave us some very general statements culled mostly from reference books, about different places and times. There is no attempt made to place any of these snippets of information in their historical contexts, or to ask how representative such laws or opinions of religious leaders were, much less how they might have related to the lives of actual women, or whether laws/opinions changed over time. The examples given seem to have been intended to provide a very one-sidedly negative impression. Would the author have agreed with someone taking an approach like this to writing about “women in Islam”—not doing any actual research or reading Muslim sources, but just quoting shocking snippets from encyclopedias??

The author is just imitating an already well-worn Muslim apologetic tactic—start your book or pamphlet on “women in Islam” with a selection of grim examples of women’s oppression by Other religions or cultures. Maudoodi already did that way back in the 1930’s. Not at all original.

Super-commentator: Horrible, you say. Well yes—patriarchal religions and cultures have fostered many different kinds of horribleness. As might be expected when some are given power over others by reason of their genitalia. But beware—this section of the booklet is designed to manipulate your emotions.

Take a closer look at the examples that the author gives. So, Hindu women were apparently oppressed because according to the Laws of Manu they must be dependent on their (male) protectors, and only men inherited. He uses those examples because they contrast so unfavorably with what he will later argue that Islam gives women. In other words, because they make the interpretation of Islam that he is about to present look more enlightened. But he has nothing to say about, say, the famous Vedic woman philosopher Gargi Vachaknavi, or any sayings about women in Hindu writings that might possibly have been interpreted positively by Hindu women past or present.

This section of the booklet essentially argues that “they” (non-Muslims in the past) did patriarchy wrong–while laying the foundation for claiming that Muslims (at least, when they “properly” understand Islam) do patriarchy right. The possibility that there might be alternatives to the various patriarchal systems past and present is not acknowledged, because the purpose of the booklet is to steer the reader in the direction of a particular patriarchal Muslim vision.

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  1. #1 by Mohammad(Kuwait) on January 27, 2013 - 9:17 pm

    I really enjoyed reading your blog. your experiences reflect on many other Muslims. Sometimes, I wish I had to privilege of convert muslims who are able to look at their faith from an out-of-the-box perspective.

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