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.