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Muslim Women — The Untold Story

How does an anthropologist view the debate over the increasingly complex role of women in Muslim countries?

March 7, 2003

How does an anthropologist view the debate over the increasingly complex role of women in Muslim countries?

The world is paying more attention than ever before to Muslim countries. However, the treatment of women in some of these countries has been cause for outright shock. In many ways, the present treatment of women in those countries reflects tribal — rather than Islamic — values. In this Globalist Interview, Professor Akbar Ahmed — Chair of Islamic Studies at American University — offers new perspectives.

Why are women essentially shut out from public life in many Islamic countries?

It may be counter-intuitive to note that, historically speaking, women in Islam are probably the most liberated. They also have more rights than in any other world civilization — except for perhaps modern Western civilization.

Compared to early Christian civilization, Hindu civilization or Chinese civilization — 7th century women in Islam were freer and had more rights. They could divorce, inherit property, were noted poetesses — and even led armies.

It is also important to recall that the first person ever to convert to Islam was Khadija, the Prophet's wife. She was a merchant, and had been a widow.

She actually proposed to the Prophet — and once he began to receive his revelations stood by him like a rock. She never doubted him — and inspired him through thick and thin. This one event establishes that women have a major role in Islam — in business as well as in society at large.

Any more evidence for an active role for Muslim women in history?

Take my part of the world, South Asia. There, the Mughals — who were the great Muslim rulers in South Asia — reached the apex, the high point of Muslim culture. With the creation of the Taj Mahal, one of the most impressive buildings in human history, they brought about one of the wonders of the world.

And it is worth remembering that the Taj is named for, and dedicated to, a woman: Mumtaz Mahal, the wife of Shah Jehan from 1612 until her death in 1630.

And at that time, Mughal women were writers, painters and archers — and they were with their men in battle. Read the memoirs of Babar, the Mughal dynasty's first emperor. Also read Gul Badan Begum who was the matriarch of the clan and what she writes about the men of the family — and the role women were playing at that time in society and politics.

Nur Jehan, Empress of India — ran the empire for all practical purposes in the early 17th century. These were extraordinary women — with great character, courage and compassion. But then, the role and position of women in society changed dramatically.

What caused the change in the role of women in Muslim society?

When European colonization arrived in the Middle East and South Asia, most of the Muslim women were put into seclusion. They were locked behind walls. They were put into shawls called burkhas. This occurred because men no longer felt secure.

The men were not confident. They were vulnerable — and the only response they thought they could have to this changed world was to lock up their women. Why did they do so? Because women symbolized their honor and dignity. It was a defensive response.

And this, in turn, created a kind of ignorance in society where men started to deny women the right to property, inheritance and education. A kind of perversion of Islam took place. And we are seeing some of the aftermath of that today.

Is the position of women in the Muslim world always sub-par today?

No. Let us not paint in black and white. Let us not forget that in Muslim lands today, we have a woman president in Indonesia — and we have had female prime ministers in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

In Central Asia, there are several female deputy prime ministers. In Iran, the vice president is a woman. So women are part of the democratic process. They are very much aware of their political rights — and aware of the need to assert themselves.

But this does not seem to reflect the position of women at, say, the village level.

That is true. Let's consider tribal or rural society. Let's look at village life in Pakistan. A while ago, the world press reported a story about a terrible incident. Absolutely barbaric men — supposedly representing the best of custom and supposedly defending their village's honor — ordered the raping of a woman.

The woman was said to belong to a lower caste tribe — and her brother had been seen talking to a woman from the upper caste tribe. The elders first sodomized the boy and then raped the woman. That woman, however, was their kids' teacher, instructing them in the Quran.

For me, all the paradoxes and the contradictions of globalization and post-modern life are captured dramatically in this one story.

What does this incident tell us?

First of all, we have a pious woman who is teaching the Quran to children — and who was raped on the orders of the parents. Then she was paraded naked. That, in turn, represents an incredible breakdown of Islam itself at that level of society.
Traditionally, Muslim elders view it as their task to defend the honor of the defenseless, especially women. In Islam, the first concern is always about justice and dignity. Every individual is entitled to justice and dignity.

There was no one protecting this woman. Even government appeared paralyzed. And remember, this was the time of president Pervez Musharraf's military rule when respect for law and order was taken for granted.

So, it's really a breakdown in tribal, not Muslim, logic?

Yes. Even on the very terms of the tribe itself, there is a terrible breakdown. The honor of a woman is very highly regarded in the tribe. So here we are seeing the very honor of a woman being dishonored by the tribe itself. It is a truly perverted interpretation of honor and dignity.

And what should men in Muslim countries do?

Muslim men should strive to do their part to overcome their strident sense of inferiority. They can no longer lock up women and deny them their rights — as they are wont to doing. After all, the original excuse for that dubious behavior was the onset of Western colonial rule in those societies.

But colonialism is long gone. These Muslim countries are all independent now. It's high time that men adjusted to that changed reality — and stopped denying women, or restricting them in realizing their potential. Muslim men do not have any legitimate excuses. As good Muslims, they should remember what the Prophet said about the best path to Paradise.

When a Muslim asked the Prophet which was the shortcut to Paradise he replied: "under the feet of the mother" (meaning you must serve her). He gave this reply three times. Only the fourth time did he mention the father.