Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 February - 2 March 2005
Issue No. 731
Features
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The gender of Islam

Could progressive readings of Islam enhance women's rights? In India, Margot Badran talks to Muslims who see religion as a way to emancipation

Click to view caption
A scene from a traditional Indian Muslim wedding; Ali Asghar with Qutub Kidwai; Zeenat Shawkt Ali; Margot Badran and Shenaz Shaikh

In India recently, I talked to lawyers, activists, and religious studies scholars who are part of the lively and growing scene of progressive Islam and Islamic feminism within the world's largest Muslim minority. Numbering around 120,000, this minority community is second only to world's largest Muslim majority, in Indonesia.

India is at once a secular state and a nation of multiple religions. The lives of its citizens are enriched and challenged by a thick pluralism. Virtually everywhere in recent decades, right-wing movements of politicised religion have threatened liberal and progressive forces within and across religious communities. The extreme right-wing Hindutva movement has threatened and in some instances wrecked havoc among Muslims, who have also answered back. In response to the right-wing menace Muslims in India have either further entrenched themselves within their own community, especially around issues concerning women, or opened up in an effort to fortify the whole community (females and males alike), which remains impoverished with tools of self-empowerment, especially education and work. September 11 has also left its mark on Indian Muslims identifying with a larger Muslim umma, or nation, that is both under attack and on the move.

A discernible tension points to a divide in India today between new forces of progressive Islam with their transformative rethinking of the religion on the one hand, and long- entrenched clerical interests re-enforcing the counter-weight of popular conservative attitudes and practices on the other. Yet there are also growing signs of a sense of urgency on the part of the Muslim community at large to move forward.

Alleviation of poverty, elimination of illiteracy, instituting Muslim personal law and the creation of a standard Muslim marriage contract, interpretation of religious sources, especially the Quran, and inter-communal relations all vie for the attention of progressive Muslims. And cutting through them are questions of gender.

At the heart of much of contemporary dissension among Muslims in India is the question of authority -- which is institutionalised, preserved, reproduced though clerical lineages and organised in schools of thought called maslaks. Authority is also heavily internalised through habits of mind, routine behaviours and acts of deference associated with moral imperatives and social propriety. But who defines Islam, how, and for whom?

How do the Islamic principles of social justice and gender equality square with entrenched patterns of hegemonic authority? With the accelerated spread of education, including religious learning, among new segments of the population and especially women, people are asking new questions and expressing new expectations. This is especially evident among the rising generations of women.

Progressives are well aware that the first step towards empowerment is education, and especially for those who have been most deprived: women and the poorest members of the community. Madrasa s, which in India as in other parts of South Asia are religious schools, have traditionally served only males. Recently however, madrasas for girls have been opened, though they remain minuscule in number. (It is worth noting in passing that madrasas are not the "hotbeds of terrorism" they are made out to be in the global press.)

On madrasa education in India and related subjects I spoke with Waris Mazhari, a young Deobandi progressive -- something many would consider a contradiction in terms as Deobandis are generally seen as conservative. (Deobandis are those associated with the Deobandi order founded in the 19th century and who have been educated in their institutions). Mazhari took his fazilat, or high school baccalaureate, at a madrasa in western Andhra Pradesh and went on to study at the Nadwat Al-Uloom in Lucknow, both Deobandi-run institutions. He continued his education at the Islamic Aligarh University, where he earned an MA in Arabic. He is at present the editor of Tarjuman Darul Uloom, the official organ of the Deoband Madrasa Old Boys' Association in Delhi.

While a student at Deobandi institutions, Mazhari became dissatisfied with the curriculum that focussed heavily on mediaeval fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), which he found irrelevant to contemporary needs, and missed the lack of modern subjects. At Aligarh University he discovered the work of Mohamed Abduh, whose focus on tajdid, or renewal excited him, though this new thinking with its emphasis on ijtihad (independent investigation of religious sources) was not endorsed by his teachers, who favoured taqlid (imitation) and the strict preservation of tradition.

Frustrated because he had wanted to study modern secular subjects alongside traditional religious sciences, Mazhari recalled an earlier Deobandi scholar and progressive, Munazir Ihsan Ghilani, who, in the middle of the 20th century, decried the growing duality between modern secular education and Islamic education. He warned that the gap between the education offered by the maulana s (religious leaders) and that offered by secular teachers, if it was not eliminated in good time, would widen -- to the detriment of Islam and Muslims alike, including the ulemah (religious scholars) who would bear responsibility for perpetuating this dichotomy instigated by the British.

When I asked Mazhari about recent moves to provide more madrasa education for girls he told me that progressive Deobandis who took the initiative on this, not surprisingly, have elicited the criticism of conservatives. The curriculum in the girls' madrasas is innovative as it includes subjects from the standard government syllabus -- maths, sciences, English, etc -- alongside the study of the Quran, fiqh, Arabic grammar and other subjects that form part of the standard religious curriculum. Mazhari insists that the madrasas for boys should follow a similar practice of incorporating both religious and secular subjects in the curriculum. When I asked why there is such a difference between the girls' and the boys' madrasas, he explained that since the duration of girls' education is shorter as they tend to marry early, it is considered advisable to expose girls to modern subjects they will not have an opportunity to encounter later. It is also held that males need to be taught religious subjects in greater detail because it is they who will take up positions as muftis (those who issue religious readings or fatwas ) and religious leadership roles. Madrasa education for girls is intended mainly to modernise women's roles as wives and mothers. Some graduates, however, go on to teach in the girls' madrasas and a few become active in their local communities.

Claiming increasing attention at the moment in India, as in other parts of the Muslim world, is the campaign to gain acceptance for a new model marriage contract, or nikanama as it is called in India, protecting the interests of both parties and especially women whose rights are frequently violated. It is important that written contracts should be signed (as is evident in the recent, much publicised debate about a young woman in Egypt filing a paternity case) and that the contracts should protect the rights of children.

Easy divorce at the hands of the husband is a big scourge in India. Triple talaq, whereby a man divorces his wife by uttering a pronouncement of repudiation three times at one go, and thus making the divorce irrevocable, remains the most common way Muslim marriages are ended in India. Muslim activists feel the urgency to protect women's interests in marriage and divorce through stipulations in a marriage contract, as, unlike other religious communities in India, Muslims do not have recourse to their own comprehensive personal law governing marriage, divorce, and inheritance. Debates over instituting Muslim personal law in India are complicated and intense and likely to continue dragging on for some time. Meanwhile, a marriage contract can protect women and children. The marriage contract campaign brings together different kinds of activist women.

Uzma Naheed has been working for a standard marriage contract for ten years. When she insists, "I am a reformist but I am working strictly within the framework of the Shariaa (Islamic law)," she speaks for the vast majority of woman activists I met. However, they may not all agree on what constitutes Shariaa and they differ in their reformist strategies.

Naheed is the grand daughter of the founder of the Deoband order and one of the handful of women on the Muslim Personal Law Board charged with taking legal-reform action. She wants to keep the ulemah on her side and is adamant that this is the only way to go. Like Mazhari, Naheed also earned a fazilat but unlike him she did not attend a madrasa (as there were no madrasas for girls at the time), rather she studied with her father (the current chancellor of Dar Al-Uloom Deoband), finishing her degree through a correspondence course. Rather than challenging the authority of the ulemah, she wishes to harness it in the battle to protect the Islamic rights of women in marriage and in the event of divorce. Naheed says that the ulemah are the authorities, "we [women] are not the authorities". While others see it differently and are beginning to challenge conventional notions of authority, she proceeds on her own track.

Naheed showed me the draft (translated into English from the original Urdu) of the nikanama she is promoting. The first section, called Explanations, speaks of "Islamic teaching about nikah (marriage)". Other woman activists find moral exhortation inappropriate to a legal contract. The major breakthrough in this draft version of the nikanama is the stipulation saying that a husband will not declare a triple talaq nor enact talaq in absentia. However, noticeable for its absence is place in the proposed standard form for a wife to stipulate that she will not accept a polygamous marriage and that the marriage would be dissolved in the event of the husband taking another wife.

Nilofer Akhtar, who calls herself a lawyer-activist, has also been engaged in the marriage contract campaign. Akhtar specialises in family law, and she is witness to problems relating to divorce and maintenance in the Mumbai courtroom where she practises. She sees close at hand the problems Muslim women routinely face because of the absence of an overall codification of Muslim personal law.

Akhtar, like other women activists, finds instituting a standard approved nikanama an important short-term solution. Having a contract with concrete stipulations concerning rights and expectations, she stresses, would give the lawyers an instrument to use in defending the rights of women in divorce. To be officially married in India it is necessary to have a marriage contract. "The common nikanama," Akhtar remarks, "is by default patriarchal. The key is to have a better understanding of Islam, a better understanding of social justice and equality. Then you will have a nikanama that protects a woman's rights. A wife would not simply be thrown out into the road..."

Akhtar, who is also a member of the Muslim Personal Law Board in India, drafted and circulated a model nikanama to replace the "patriarchal nikanama" now used. In her model contract, arbitration, with an arbitrator officially appointed by both sides, is called for prior to a resort to divorce. This draft contract also includes a provision stating that the husband should delegate to his wife the right to divorce, in Islamic law called talaq al- tafwid, delegated divorce, in the event of cruelty on his part, failure to pay maintenance for six months, desertion for more that six months, or marriage to another wife. There is no mention of a refusal of triple talaq in her draft contract, for in Mumbai, where Akhtar practises, triple talaq was banned in May 2002.

A third nikanama activist I met is Zeenat Shawkat Ali, a professor of Islamic Studies at Xavier University in Mumbai and author of Marriage and Divorce in Islam: An Appraisal (first edition 1987, second edition 1997). Reviving ijtihad, or creative inquiry into religious sources, in order to open up thinking about gender justice is central to the task she set herself in investigating marriage and divorce in Islam, and specific historical practice in India. She engaged in an extensive study of fiqh and examined the use of the nikanama over time to see what women did in the past to protect their interests.

Shawkat Ali is also concerned about the prevalence of triple talaq and the need for better legal protection. She is not impressed with the "bit by bit" or go-slow approach, impatient as she is for a more progressive reading of Islam. Although non- Islamic patriarchal thinking and practice crept into Islam long ago, Shawkat Ali points out that since the 1970s a deeper conservatism or fundamentalist thinking has been on the rise: "We are becoming narrower and narrower in our understanding of Islam." For her, a gradualist approach to combating injustices perpetrated in the name of Islam is not the answer.

Uzma Naheed, Nilofer Akhtar, and Zeenat Shawkat Ali are all well aware that the Quran gives women rights of which they are currently deprived. They also understand that gender equality is embedded in holy scripture. All three women agree on the need to spread an enlightened understanding of Islam. The question is how to achieve this.

Among Islamic feminists and other progressive Muslims the Quran is the central text and point of reference for rights, freedoms, justice and harmony within the Muslim community and for Muslims living in the world at large. In India today, as a result, there is a growing movement promoting Quranic literacy. More and more, people want to be able to read for themselves the Quran in Arabic. They do not want to be held in the thrall of an interpreting class. In India, as the Arabic language of the sacred text has been inaccessible to the majority of Muslims, including most of the Urdu-speaking literate population, the ulemah have claimed the role of mediators between believers and the sacred scripture. With increased secular education the move among Muslims to learn the Arabic of the Quran and to gain enhanced religious understanding is now gaining momentum.

Shenaz Shaikh, who trained as a medical doctor, has spearheaded the project of a word-to-word translation of the Quran from Arabic into English in order to help people read the holy book for themselves. Underway for the past few years, the project, which includes printing side by side, the Arabic original, an English translation, and a word-for-word breakdown, is in its final phase. A draft version is now completed and awaits final review. Parts, however, have already been posted on the web at emuslim.com and understandquran.com. Printed editions of the word-to-word translation will be made available to students in madrasas, including the more recent girls' madrasas, as well as in non-religious schools, and for the general population. During a recent visit to the United States, Shaikh saw how eager Indian Muslims abroad are for such a tool.

Shaikh, who founded and runs an Islamic school for girls in Mumbai, is well aware of the project's important gender implications; it stands to help the process of giving females access to Quranic literacy, giving them the tools and confidence to read the holy text for themselves. The word-for-word translation is a step along the way to greater independent understanding of religion.

Among the many paths to a deeper understanding of religion, Qutub Jihan Kidwai's is one of the more unusual. I met her at the Centre for the Study of Society and Secularism (CSSS) in Mumbai, founded and run by the world-renowned scholar- activist and women's rights pioneer Asghar Ali Engineer, who sees this young woman as playing an important role in carrying on his work.

Kidwai, who came to work at CSSS as a research scholar, helps conduct seminars and workshops on Islam and women's rights as well as editing the centre's monthly publication, Islam in the Modern Age. She has also become director of programmes in charge of peace education training. Meanwhile, she is carrying on her own intensive study of religious subjects with Asghar Ali, including Quranic Arabic and tafsir.

Her present endeavours mark an important new direction for Kidwai who earned her BA in 1996 and went on to complete an MA in sociology. While an undergraduate she also began flight training after seeing an advertisement in the paper, encouraged by one of her professors and her mother. Out of some 300 applications for flight training Kidwai was among the 60 short-listed and the still shorter number chosen. After juggling flight training with university work and gaining her credentials, Kidwai became a pilot with Oman Airlines in 2001 and settled in Muscat. She was the only woman pilot in the company and worked as a co-pilot on chartered flights: "Most of the pilots were from Asian countries. They were very professional. There was no discrimination because I was a woman." In telling her story, it was evident that Kidwai was very happy with her job.

But her new career suddenly ended a year later after 11 September 2001 and the subsequent interrogations of pilots. "We had to go into the inquiry boards several times. They wanted to know where we had studied, why etc. They were scrutinising our work and informing our embassies. It was humiliating." Kidwai finally gave up her job. Her parents, who had fully supported her career as a pilot, now became apprehensive and urged her to quit. "Meanwhile," she said, "in India Muslims were targeted for no reason, especially the educated and particularly pilots, engineers, police. There was the stereotype of associating Muslims with terrorism." Bereft of her job Kidwai was distressed: "After all my studies and sacrifices I had nowhere to go. For six to seven months I was in a state of depression."

Then once again she responded to an announcement in the paper, this time for a research position at Asghar Ali Engineer's Centre for the Study of Society and Secularism; she landed the job. "I am doing something for society," she told me. "I had to contribute one way or another. I came to know about this rampant discrimination all over the world. Why are Muslims being targeted? Why are particular communities made to pay the price for all the problems?"

Kidwai is involved in both gender issues within Islam and peace work across religious communities, and she is enthusiastic about outreach. "I was invited by an organisation to give a talk as an example of how Muslim girls can excel in education and stand out in society. I was shocked to discover that parents say that the education of girls is un-Islamic and sinful. I told them that Islam does not distinguish between males and females concerning education. I said the first word of the Quran is iqra ' (read)... Though I am working I am not detached from the religion and culture that my parents taught me," she reassured mothers and fathers. "In the world today women can go anywhere and safeguard their rights." Facing such ignorance about Islam gave Kidwai a renewed impetus. "Use your own mind; use your own reason," she urges. "The Quran is clear. The Quran gives women equal rights."

These conversations made it patent that Muslim women are rushing towards religion, not away from it, but rushing towards a better understanding of their faith. They are the ones most adamant and determined to rid Islam of patriarchal attitudes and practices -- ones who have the most to gain and the least to loose. There are also some men, as we see, who are trying to push the cause of gender justice forward. Muslim feminists and progressives in India, I could see, are clearly on the move.

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