Do Muslim Women Get a Fair Deal?

This is an incisive article sent by Ms Taji M which raises several intelligent and debatable points. Right now we are witnessing a debate on need for reform in religion. This article provides a woman’s perspective and argues that due to orthodox and literal interpretation of religion women in our society are not getting a fair deal. We expect healthy debate on this article.

By Taji M

I have a friend, university educated, upper class, stylish and religious but not an extremist way. She is a on the whole a very sensible person. Over the years we have debated religion extensively; I have more reformist thoughts and she is more mainstream. She is of the firm belief that present orthodox version of Islam offers the best position for Muslim women; in one of our debates she said something like this “Look at me, I am much better off than the western women slaving away in offices and then scouting for boyfriends and eventual husbands. Before marriage my father took care of me, he treated me and my brothers equally. During his lifetime he divided the property between me and brothers and I ended up getting a larger share as I got a lot of gold in my jahez also. I got married without going through the humiliating boyfriend search, and now have a loving husband and two cute kids. I am a stay-at-home mom out of choice not due to my husband’s insistence. And the nice house we live in is in my name. I am protected under the safety of Islam which offers the best to all good women”.

She is not alone in coming to that conclusion, a large number of educated class Muslim women share this attitude. They have been convinced that they have gotten best deal possible. I have a problem with this belief though. And I have told her and other similar women, that their experience is not out of the fruits of orthodox version of religion, but of the good luck of being associated with decent men. In case of my friend, her father bypassed the law and divided his estate in his life time so that she won’t get half share later on. Her husband, a really nice guy, ensured her financial security by keeping the house in her name. Otherwise in case of widowhood, the wife gets one of the smallest shares, and if there is a divorce she gets nothing from the family wealth. Of course she gets the Meher, but how many women can survive for long on that amount.

 My sweet rightwing ladies at this point bring up the doctrine of Kifalat. A woman is not supposed to be earning her own living; it is the obligation on the male relatives to provide for her. If there is no husband, it has to be her father, or her paternal uncle, or elder brother. Woman is freed from the drudgery of doing job, unless she herself wishes to take up employment, provided of course she doesn’t mingle with men. OK, sounds good, so I ask how many of you will be delighted to see one of their husband’s nieces to land in their homes for life! What sort of treatment will be bestowed upon this woman by the household? Isn’t it sentencing the woman to be a charity case?

The reality is that present family laws have a tribal bent. Examine closely, and underlying theme is that wealth of the tribe or family should remain as much intact as possible. This is actually a very sound principle when people used to live in tribes. Take the example of a divorce of a woman earlier married to someone outside of her tribe. She will be returned to her tribe, who will now be responsible for her maintenance until she marries again. Her ex-husband would let her keep the Meher and other gifts what he has bestowed upon her. And if there are children, the woman’s tribe is not expected to give up their wealth for them, so the husband is required to provide for them, in fact after a certain age, the children are to be sent to live with their father. For its time, this was a good arrangement. Replace tribe with family and it still works as long as the women do not try to become independent of will. So it has been working until the modern times; the problem for orthodoxy emerges due to increasing number of independent minded women who challenge the inequality at the core.

The modern day pro conservative Islamist approach is to give a fresher and more women friendly spin to these orthodox laws. The most interesting readings are found in Islamic Websites that are mostly aimed at the Muslims living in the west. They use the social problems of Western society to forward their point, for example the over sexualized treatment of women in western media is contrasted with use of hijab as a statement of rejecting the media onslaught. Many young Muslims women have adopted a more orthodox version of Islam as an identity enhancer. Luckily for them they can have the best of both worlds; they can lay claims to all the benefits available to women in the west, right to education and work, alimony, child support, and freedom of speech. At the same time they can practice their religion according to their beliefs. In countries like Pakistan, women do not enjoy equal legal rights, and religion is used to justify this situation. It is however, difficult to understand why women living in Pakistan, like my friend, continue to buy the same spin, while they can actually observe the inequality even if they are lucky enough not to go through firsthand experience.

Most of the spin can be unravelled with very little cross examination. Let us consider the most revered figure in the family, the mother. Muslims glorify their mothers to very high levels; she has an almost divine status. And admittedly most mothers are treated very well, at least a lot better than wives. But what is the reality in terms of family laws. In case of death of offspring, the mother gets lesser share of the wealth of deceased than the father. While Jannat is under the feet of mother, it is perfectly acceptable to keep children away from their mother in case she is divorced from the father. Notice that the main argument given against pursuing a career is that the children need a full time mother, but the same logic is thrown out of the window, if the father is no longer interested in keeping the marriage intact, then suddenly it is the father’s right over the children that takes precedence. The mother can only keep the children for a few years if they are very young. Over the years, thankfully our courts have shown mercy on mothers, and in practice most of the time women are granted the child custody, on the basis of what’s best for the child approach. But perhaps this is because child custody laws have not been properly shariah-ized like that of rape, and that is some relief.

I hope that our women and men start asking more questions about the laws and customs pertaining to women and their place in society. Even in religious discourse there is exclusion of women; it is completely a domain of men clerics, who interprets religion to the benefit of maintaining the patriarchal set up. While I do not agree with women preachers like Farhat Hashmi, at least she was a good competitor to male speakers. Yet in spite of her conservatism, and the fact she was not challenging scholars, she was highly criticized by mainstream ulema, for… flaws that mostly emerged from the fact that she was a woman and she was independent. I can’t think of any other Pakistani woman in that capacity. I have however attended religious gatherings at homes, where women mostly western educated try to give a more enlightened interpretation of Islam. Unfortunately these gatherings, at least the one I know of, belong to a very elite class of Muslims families, who have half of their family members living in USA/Canada. And I assume that the approach espoused by these families is a way to synthesize Islam with western influences, but only at very small mostly individual scale. What we need is questioners and analyzers who are more widespread.

The blogosphere has been abuzz by several articles on the need to reform religion to bring it closer to modern realities. While the arguments presented are logical, the basic problem is how to make the reformist approach appealing to mainstream Muslims. No matter how excellent the arguments of the reformist sitting in the fringe are, unless there is some momentum within the larger section of the society, not much can be achieved. For the time being I say to my friend and those like her; baby thank God every day for giving you a loving husband, because it is him, and not Law which is looking after your benefits.


Filed under human rights, Islam, Pakistan, Religion, Women

17 responses to “Do Muslim Women Get a Fair Deal?

  1. RH

    Excellent read and a very frank, bold attempt from the author. I personally feel that religion has often been used as a tool of oppression and for stifling voices of equal rights for the women.
    In addtion, the religious preaching reinforces passivity and even content in women. This is one of the main and imporetant points made by the author
    Since it is extraordinarily revered therefore it is extremely difficult to raise voice against inheritance laws or for that matter even a clearly oppressive ordinance such as hadood.
    The author is spot on when she points that unless the reformation battle is taken into mainstream, things are not likely to change.
    We sincerely hope that what is happening in the fringes extends and starts to affect the mainstream.
    Lets not forget that Pakistan is a large society and with severe divisions in cultural lifestyle. In the lower middle class and rurual areas, the women are oppressed even more and majority of them do not even construe it as oppression.
    The battle has to be taken there.

  2. Saladin

    A very well-written piece. It’s always disturbed me to read what is in the Koran only to see a variation, invariably unjust, practiced as the law of the land. Your friend sounds fortunate indeed but I agree with you. Islam does much for women, but only if it is followed. I would hope more men would want to see equitable justice for all–especially women.

  3. Pingback: Worth the time to take a look! « Reflections on the Straight Path

  4. Mnoor

    Good topic of choice and very effective writing.
    The broader problem is that women’s voices are missing in nearly all sorts of debates whether political or religious, and that allows for continued inequality of women in various walks of life.

  5. Mackers

    What a brilliant article! It irks me to no end when hard-liners argue that all the inane requirements they make of women are because of the ‘respect’ that Islam gives to women. That women are treated ‘better’ than in the evil West. Like wearing burqas, limiting women to the house-hold, excluding them from the public-sphere is because of respect. A respect that some-how necessitates choice being taken away. If it is all about respect, then why don’t the fundamentalist males limit themselves to the same rules women are limited to. Wear burqas maybe, since it’s a ‘privelege’ – as i have heard it described. Maybe limit themselves to their households since it is the prying eye of males that is blamed for the limiting dress-codes. Maybe women can go outside to work and men can be dependent on them. This would most certainly eliminate all the societal ills that fundos attribute to ‘free-mixing’ – rape, adultery, and etc would disappear. Sadly, the order of things has been ‘decided’ and it is the men that can work, be part of the clergy, and generally pontificate as they see fit. A bit convenient isn’t it?

  6. Farukh Sarwar

    It’s true that reformation of the whole society will make the actual difference; presently there are not much people with reformist ideas, so change of thoughts and ideas is required on a much larger scale.

  7. Try India’s experiment – in 1993, one third of all village panchayat seats and one third of panchayat presidencies were reserved for women. To implement this in Pakistan may not involve any collision with religious beliefs.

    For a 2008 take on the results, click on my name. It seems that old patriarchal attitudes are dissolving. Eventually you may achieve the needed momentum to convince mainstream Muslims of the need to reform the laws.

  8. Kaalket

    AG3L, are you claiming the women are equal to men in intellect and capabilties? Why the need for subvertion of Shariat ? The example of India is irrelevant to modern , progressive, secular Islamic society like Pakistan. Like Iqbal said , you dont count the heads but weigh them. The place of woman is at home and with children not in office , politics, Mosque or any decision making institution.

  9. Mustafa Shaban

    Very good article. Would just like to mention that it is not Islam that oppresses women but corrupt and opportunist politicians and clerics who give a twisted version of Islam to satisfy thier interest. The West has gone to one extreme and the East has gone to another extreme. The key is moderation. Islam i its true progressive form gives women complete rights and addresses the concerns presented by the author.

  10. Moosa

    I can totally turn this article on its head. It’s only good because you’re all looking at it from a particular perspective.

  11. J.Krishnan

    to mustafa shaban

    you write: “Islam i(n) its true progressive form…”

    We have been presented this promise since x years. (0<x<1400)

    Can you give us some date when it will be realized?

    A promise without a pre-fixed time-plan is a false promise, actually a deceit.

  12. Mustafa Shaban

    @J. Krishnan: The real Islam as alwayz been there since it came into being. The date was 1400 years ago. And throughout history many progressive scholars especially today have been puttiing forth the real Islam in opposition to the clerics that preach extremism. Most muslims are just normal people like you and me. Extremism is only a fringe of society.

  13. J.Krishnan

    to mustafa

    The fringe can kill 100 humans in two seconds.

    My point is: Even god must give a time-plan for his promises. Otherwise they are fake, may be man-made fakes (or wishful thinking) in his name.

  14. Moosa

    A Woman’s Reflection on Leading Prayer
    by Yasmin Mogahed:

    On March 18, 2005, Amina Wadud led the first female-led jum`ah (Friday) prayer. On that day, women took a huge step towards being more like men. But did we come closer to actualizing our God-given liberation?
    I don’t think so.
    What we so often forget is that God has honored woman by giving her value in relation to God—not in relation to men. But as Western feminism erases God from the scene, there is no standard left—except men. As a result, the Western feminist is forced to find her value in relation to a man. And in so doing, she has accepted a faulty assumption. She has accepted that man is the standard, and thus a woman can never be a full human being until she becomes just like a man.

    When a man cut his hair short, she wanted to cut her hair short. When a man joined army, she wanted to join the army. She wanted these for no other reason than because the “standard” had it.

    What she didn’t recognize was that God dignifies both men and women in their distinctiveness – not their sameness. And on March 18, Muslim women made the very same mistake.
    For 1400 years there has been a consensus of the scholars that men are to lead prayer. As a Muslim woman, why does this matter? The one who leads prayer is not spiritually superior in any way. Something is not better just because a man does it. And leading prayer is not better, just because it’s leading. Had it been the role of women or more divine, why wouldn’t the Prophet(pbh) have asked Khadija, or Fatima—the greatest women of all time—to lead? These women were promised heaven—and yet they never led prayer.
    But now, for first time in 1400 years, we look at a man leading prayer and we think, “That’s not fair.”

    On the other hand, only a woman can be a mother. And God has given special privilege to a mother. The Prophet ﷺ taught us that heaven lies at the feet of mothers. But no matter what a man does he can never be a mother. So why is that not unfair?
    When asked, “Who is most deserving of our kind treatment?” the Prophet ﷺ replied, “Your mother” three times before saying “your father” only once. Is that sexist? No matter what a man does he will never be able to have the status of a mother.
    And yet, even when God honors us with something uniquely feminine, we are too busy trying to find our worth in reference to men to value it—or even notice. We, too, have accepted men as the standard; so anything uniquely feminine is, by definition, inferior. Being sensitive is an insult, becoming a mother—a degradation. In the battle between stoic rationality (considered masculine) and selfless compassion (considered feminine), rationality reigns supreme.
    As soon as we accept that everything a man has and does is better, all that follows is a knee-jerk reaction: if men have it, we want it too. If men pray in the front rows, we assume this is better, so we want to pray in the front rows too. If men lead prayer, we assume the imam is closer to God, so we want to lead prayer too. Somewhere along the line we’ve accepted the notion that having a position of worldly leadership is some indication of one’s position with God.
    A Muslim woman does not need to degrade herself in this way. She has God as a standard. She has God to give her value; she doesn’t need a man.
    In fact, in our crusade to follow men, we as women never even stopped to examine the possibility that what we have is better for us. In some cases we even gave up what was higher only to be like men.
    Fifty years ago, society told us men were superior because they left the home to work in factories.
    We were mothers. And yet, we were told that it was women’s liberation to abandon the raising of another human being in order to work on a machine. We accepted that working in a factory was superior to raising the foundation of society—just because a man did it.
    Then, after working, we were expected to be superhuman—the perfect mother, the perfect wife, the perfect homemaker—and have the perfect career. And while there is nothing wrong, by definition, with a woman having a career, we soon came to realize what we had sacrificed by blindly mimicking men. We watched as our children became strangers and soon recognized the privilege we’d given up.
    And only now—given the choice—women in West are choosing to stay home to raise their children. According to the U S Department of Agriculture, only 31% of mothers with babies, and 18% of mothers with two/more children, are working full-time. And of those working mothers, as per survey by Parenting Magazine in 2000, 93% say they would rather be at home with their kids, but are compelled to work due to ‘financial obligations.’ These ‘obligations’ are imposed on women by the gender sameness of the West, and removed from women by the gender distinctiveness of Islam.

    It took women in the West almost a century of experimentation to realize a privilege given to Muslim women 1400 years ago. Given my privilege as a woman, I only degrade myself by trying
    to be something I’m not – and in all honesty – don’t want to be: a man. As women, we will never reach true liberation until we stop trying to mimic men, and value the beauty in our own God-given distinctiveness.
    If given a choice between stoic justice and compassion, I choose compassion. And if given a choice between worldly leadership and heaven at my feet—I choose heaven.
    Fatemah Meghji

  15. Mustafa Shaban

    @Moosa: Awesome article thanks for shariing!

  16. J.Krishnan

    Unless muslim women revolt mankind is doomed.

  17. KR

    @Moosa: With ‘freedom’ comes responsibilities, aspirations, ambitions and yes they can lead to good and bad things. ‘Liberated’ women of the West, in my opinion, do not imitate men at all. They keep their identity. You may argue that they are not better off because they have to work outside the house and raise children and be a ‘super-woman’, however that will be your opinion. Given a choice, I would accept freedom with hard labor rather than a life of comfort with all choices made for me by someone else.