This is an intelligently argued article sent to us by Miss Kiran Rizvi. She rightly argues that laws are eventually an outcome of the peculiar circumstances of the prevalent time period. Therefore laws have to be judged in the context of those circumstances. This way of looking at the laws also makes it essential to rethink the current interpretation which is rooted in those times. Miss Kiran’s argument is that the spirit of Islam itself provides justification for reinterpretation of the laws, particularly those which pertain to women.
by Kiran Rizvi
Contrary to the popular belief Islam neither favors nor victimizes women. What I mean by this is that Islam doesn’t go out of its way to hurt or protect women because of their special status in the society. The current interpretation of Islamic laws is more consistent with the circumstances and laws prevalent in the 7th century Arabia. Therefore it affords the same treatment of compassion to ALL members of the society which are disadvantaged, such as slaves, orphans, women and seniors. However no special treatment is given to women outside the general category of the ‘disadvantaged’.
Feminists believe that Islamic laws are barbaric and demeaning to women. They site divorce laws, rape laws, bearing witness, wife-beating, unfair distribution of property and lack of autonomy to make decisions etc. to make their case. They are correct and incorrect at the same time. Islamic laws are a combination of tribal laws as they existed (and were well accepted in the society at the time) and some modifications brought out by Islam to steer these laws in favor of those who ended up holding the short end of the stick. It is not the “Islamic” portion of the tribal laws that is barbaric, but the “tribal” portion of the Islamic law! And yes, it is very hard to distinguish one from the other.
Islamists, on the other hand try to prove that Islam is partial to women. They argue that Islam mandates men to earn, relieving women of this burden; lets women keep their wealth but use their husband’s wealth at will; gives exalted status to mothers; discourages divorces; prohibits female infanticide; gives right to own property and other such concessions as afforded by women in an ideal Islamic society. These examples are of Islamic ‘guidelines’ and not the ‘laws’, and therefore up for interpretation. The problem we have is that because Islam appears to “endorse” the tribal laws, Islamists feel they have to defend the tribal laws in the name of Islam.
So why does Islam ‘endorse’ tribal laws? Well it doesn’t really endorse or reject these laws, it inherits them. Islam was not born in a cultural vacuum. Everything about Islam reflects the culture, beliefs and practices of 7th century Arabia. Back when humans were a commodity, slavery was common, and survival of the fittest was the word on the dunes (as there were no streets in towns.) Laws that were created to regulate such a society will, of course, appear harsh, barbaric and demeaning to societies that have evolved (for better or for worse) and are quite different from the tribal societies of 7th century Arabia.
Take the example of slavery. Just because Islam did not outright prohibit slavery in all shapes and forms, doesn’t mean it endorses it either! Had Islam banned slavery outright, there would be a civil war among tribes (as in America, a thousand years later) because the society built on the concept of slavery would cease to function. What Islam realizes is that WHATEVER laws society has to keep it functional, should be IMPROVED so that they are as humane as possible without dismantling the fabric of society. If slaves are needed to keep the plantations, well, at least they should be treated humanely, fed well and given a fair chance to freedom by paying for themselves etc.
Similarly just because Islam asks men to take care of women, make their decisions for them and keep them under strict surveillance (the grounds for wife-beating), may not mean that Islam endorses total control of men over women. It can be argued that such guidelines were to ensure the well-being of women in the society they lived in. In a tribal society, women needed men and men needed the tribe to protect them. This hierarchy of protection ensured the safety of every member of the society. A man without a tribe was as unprotected as a woman without a man. The tribal council, judiciary and financial matters were settled by men, if women didn’t have a male representative they were cheated out of their rights. Women existed in the society in association with a male figure. Therefore women who had no male family members had to marry to keep their protection.
Widows, therefore, were encouraged to re-marry and young girls were married off in a hurry to powerful males, to guarantee their future protection. However, in today’s society the concept of protection has changed from that of 7th century Arabia. Governments are required to protect all citizens regardless of their gender or age. There are no grounds for men controlling the will and property of women. The argument would be that Islam did not mean to subdue women; it only meant to protect them. And all these changes can be brought without labeling them as ‘un-Islamic’. Women should be able to make their own decisions, travel alone, live alone and should be able to exist in the society without having any male associations. If a woman does not feel safe travelling without a man, then the debate should be on how to make it safer for her, rather than how to find a suitable man to accompany her on her journey!
Arguing for literal interpretation and practice of Islam is as flawed as arguing that keeping slaves is required by Islam. Can one argue that one needs to keep slaves, so they can be freed to atone for one’s sins? Obviously no one will buy this reverse logic in this day and age. Why do we, then, buy the reverse logic that women need to be controlled by men because they are incapable of taking care of themselves? Obviously it is not the lack of faith in their capability but the makeup of the society that lead Islam to set the guidelines that it did, back in the 7thcentury. Quran explicitly says that two women constitute as one witness in the matters of financial agreements. Is it to give women at least SOME say, who otherwise wouldn’t have ANY right to bear witness in such matters, or to demean the female intellect? The decision is ours. By upholding the literal laws of Quran, we would be confirming that the level of awareness, education, morality, sense of justice and rational decision making of the entire Muslim Ummah has not improved in 1500 years. All of these being the very goal of Islam!!!!
By giving us examples on how to slowly introduce the concept of justice and fair dealing in the tribal laws of Arabia, Islam has not given us rigid laws, but a golden principle. The true spirit of Islam, therefore, is not to follow the ISLAMIC LAWS written by the letter, but to improve the existing laws of each society along the ISLAMIC PRINCIPLES of justice.