Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Women are equal - Prophetic questions of gender apartheid

Gender apartheid at the Big Mac.
THE other day it was announced that a ‘women’s only’ telecoms mall in Saudi Arabia would be opening. But what surprised me was that it was posted on a local WhatsApp chat forum as a triumph for Islamic values, that it was a wonderful thing the sexes had been legally separated.

It was in reality a clumsy attempt at Saudi-isation – the encouragement of local employment – and the website, www.arabianbusiness.com, reported that the mall’s 40 shops in Riyadh had opened tenant-less due to high costs.   

I could not help myself, and my response was that if this was a triumph for ‘Islamic values’, then we were supporting gender apartheid. Much to my surprise, I was countered by someone called F******, who quoted kilometres of Qur’anic verses in an effort to prove me wrong.  

I don’t remember all the references (just too many) but it did make me wonder: what would the Prophet [SAW] have said about it all?

Okay, I know that the Prophet [SAW] would not have been as sarcastic as me. Although I did think he might have raised an eyebrow on Saudi-style gender jihad. As a young man he’d been employed by Sayyidah Khadijah, a businesswoman – who impressed by his character – had proposed to him. 

And as a prophet, he’d taken the Arabian Peninsula out of the misogynistic dark ages. From female infanticide being practiced in one generation, the Prophet [SAW] had empowered women in the next to have their dowry, to inherit from an estate, to have a say who they marry, own property and to have the rights to divorce.

If we bear in mind, for instance, that women in the United Kingdom were only allowed to own property in 1870 (over 1,000 years later), and that in France women only got voting suffrage in 1945, the idea of Islam being fundamentally chauvinist becomes a non-argument.

Also, the Qur’an is totally devoid of passages – unlike other religious texts – that denigrate women. The words in the Prophet’s last sermon ‘you have certain rights over women, but they have rights over you’ convey a message of mutual respect, certainly not gender discrimination. 

But sadly, the status of Muslim women today has become the focus of Islamophobes drawing on stereotypes fostered by the chauvinism of patriarchal extremists, who have mistaken gender discrimination for custom and custom for the Sacred Law. They have polluted the mainstream with their sexist phobias.

The most obvious example is the notion that women do not enjoy religious equality and consequently, are banned from the mosque. History shows that the women of Madinah used to stand side-by-side with the men in prayer. The Prophet [SAW] only ordered them to line-up at the back after one of his wives, Safiyyah, had complained about a Bedouin winking at her.

The gist of the Hadith concerning mosque attendance is clear that women should not be prevented from going to mosques, but there is a rider that there is special benefit for prayers at home. However, the one view does not cancel the other one out.

We do know that the second Caliph, Sayyidina ‘Umar, was uncomfortable about women in mosque. But in obedience to the Prophet [SAW] he did not prevent his wife, ‘Atika bint Zayd, from going. We know that Sayyidah A’ishah also expressed misgivings, but that Ibn Hazm argued eloquently against her.

In fact, it was Sayyidina ‘Umar who created separate entrances to makes things easier for women in Madinah. And in another account Sayyidina ‘Umar’s son, ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Umar, disowned his son after he’d declared he would chase female worshippers from the mosque.

A look at the Qur’an makes it baffling to understand why anybody would want to denigrate women. In so many verses the male-female nexus is celebrated. A much misunderstood verse (4: 34), which is used by the misinformed to claim female inferiority in relationships, actually strengthens the bonds. It says:

“Men are the protectors and maintainers of women...because God has given the one more graces (in terms of income) than the other…”

The word so often translated as ‘protectors and maintainers’ is ‘quwwamuna’. Scholars say the meaning of the word, difficult to distil from classical Arabic into English, has the complex import of ‘standing firm’ or ‘taking care’ in the legal sense.  

The great 12th century scholar, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, writes that ‘quwwamuna’ is khass, or specific in application, referring only to the issue of maintenance, and not general conduct. In other words, ‘quwwamuna’ does not denote male dominance, but deals with an issue of a woman’s right to safety and security.

So when we move to the line, which talks about ‘beating’ a disobedient spouse (after three previous steps have been followed), there is a context of compassion as opposed to brutal patriarchalism.

The Prophet [SAW] explicitly abhorred spousal violence of any kind, and classical jurists say that the word ‘beat’ here indicates a symbolic – and not literal – last resort to signify how troubled a relationship has become.   

Firstly, the Prophet [SAW] specified the word ‘lightly’ with respect to ‘wadribunna’, and secondly, scholars have said the ‘beating’ – if ever executed –  should be performed with a feather, a piece of grass or as in the case of Imam Shafi’i, a silk scarf. Some have even stipulated that to ensure no harm, the ‘beating’ should be done with a Qur’an under each armpit.

This is not an apologetic discourse as so many hostile to Islam like to claim. The Qur’an in 2: 228 – another verse used to claim the inferiority of women – reinforces what we have said above. Discussing the topic of talaq, or divorce, the verse mentions an equality of rights gender-wise, and then talks about men enjoying a ‘station’, or ‘darajah’, over women.

However, Qur’anic exegetes explain that ‘darajah’ is an economic marker, and not one of power. Another de-contextualised verse is found in 3: 36 where the Qur’an says:

“And God knows best what she brought forth – and no-wise is the male like the female…”

Here the context of the verse, the sabab un-nuzul, betrays the real meaning as it is Allah himself commenting on Hanna giving birth to Maryam – the mother of Jesus – and the fact that women (as opposed to the son that Hanna had prayed for) could not go into Jewish temple service. Yet again, we have a specific meaning confined to a specific incident. In other words, no ruling on women can be derived from the verse.

In conclusion, it is a pity that there are those who have such aggressive attitudes towards gender parity in Islam, seeing that women do enjoy religious and legal equality. The differences of opinion between Sayyidah A’ishah, Sayyidina ‘Umar, Abu Hanifah and others, for instance, were dealt with the utmost decorum, always allowing the Muslim to rest on an opinion that would not disrespect others.

Indeed, Islamic feminism has so many layered subtleties compared to its western model that we do it a great disservice by fighting like elephants in the grass over already established issues.