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Have we received the message on Muslim women in Islam?

Have we received the message on Muslim women in Islam?
August 18, 2020
August 18, 2020 August 18, 2020

Following the circulation of a controversial video posted by Moulana Dawood Sampson last week, in which he announces his forthcoming second marriage, PROFESSOR NURAAN DAVIDS explores the ways in which Muslim women are continuously minimised, undermined and oppressed within Muslim societies.

EXTREMISM among Muslims adopts many forms and guises. We see it in brazen displays of terrorism, suicide-bombings and autocratic regimes.

At other times, it lives in the prohibition of education for girls, the violations of rights to vote, the prohibitions from attending the masjid and in the silences of homes where domestic violence resides alongside rituals of devout prayers.

Different but the same in its intention to oppress and subjugate.

At the centre are Muslim women. The theological centrality of the Muslim woman stems from her position and role as the custodian of the family. Her theological centrality has also meant that dominant debates on Islam have not been about Muslim men.

Instead, they continue to be about women in relation to veiling, marriage, inheritance, divorce, sexuality, chastity, modesty and education. In South African society, these debates are manifested through ongoing tensions in attempts to establish a Muslim Marriages Bill.

The intention of the bill is to provide a legal framework that will counter the entrenched inequality to which Muslim women continue to be subjected in the event of the dissolution of the marriage or if the husband dies intestate.

Other debates centre around the access of women to mosques – commonly referred to as the ‘women in mosques campaign’.

Different campaigns but the same in its intention to ensure justice and equality.

There are numerous complex and intersectional reasons for the continuing minimisation, undermining and oppression of Muslim women within Islam.

Firstly, despite the foundational (Quran and Sunnah) positioning of women as equal participants within, and recipients of Quranic exegeses and prophetic traditions, women and women’s experiences are mostly excluded from historical and current methods of interpretive discourse.

Secondly, applications of Quranic interpretations when constructing laws to govern personal and private Islamic affairs, as well as public policies and institutions, are based on male interpretive privilege. As such, the male interpretive privilege not only dominates over what the text actually states but it proclaims to be the only voice on Islam.

Thirdly, however, the far-reaching and marginalising effect of male interpretive privilege is sustained by the lack of female understanding of Quranic exegesis. So, even though Muslim women directly experience the consequences of oppressive mis-readings of religious texts, few question their legitimacy, and fewer still have explored the liberatory aspects of the Quran’s teachings (Barlas, 2002).

In the absence, however, of reading the Quran and exploring its content, Muslim women are neither in a position to question or challenge oppressive mis-readings, nor are they able to remedy their own oppression.

The effects of a disjuncture between what Islam says and what Muslims do, have profound effects not only on Muslims but on Islam itself.

Questions have to be asked, therefore, about the prevalence of spousal abuse – whether physical or emotional; questions have to be asked about the distorted portrayal of the sunnah of polygamy – which involves not only the treatment of women as disposable objects but as serving only the sexual pleasure of men.

Questions have to be asked about the general marginalising of Muslim women from participating in their own faith. Indeed, questions have to be asked about whether we as an ummah have done enough to adequately engage with the Quran as a revealed text.

An examination of the foundational emergence of Islam reveals that the Quran outlawed infanticide, stressed the woman’s right to a contract marriage, granted her rights to inherit, control over her dower and property, and provided for the protection of the widow and orphans, with a specific emphasis on the girl orphan (Surah An-Nisa).

Islamic religious scholars would argue that some of the most important and fundamental reforms of customary law introduced in the Quran were designed to improve the status of women and strengthen the family in Muslim society (Esposito & De Long-Bas 2001).

There are more passages in the Quran that address issues pertaining to women, as individuals, as part of a family and, as members of a community, than all the other issues combined.

The Quran, advocates equality between men and women:

For Muslim men and women – for believing men and women, for devout men and women, for true men and women, for men and women who are patient and constant, for men and women who humble themselves, for men and women who give in charity, for men and women who fast [and deny themselves] for men and women who guard their chastity and for men and women who engage much in Allah’s praise – for them has Allah prepared forgiveness and great reward. (Surah Al-Ahzab, verse 35)

Moreover, the Quran continuously reminds Muslims that the acquisition of goodness (taqwah) ought to be the foundational principle of their education, and hence their engagements with others.

It, therefore, would be irrational and disingenuous to attempt to substantiate any practices of unjust treatment – which includes any form of humiliation, marginalisation or exclusion – on the basis of Quranic exegeses (tafāsīr).

Quranic exegesis teaches Muslims that the first person in whom the Prophet (SAW) confided the revelations from the Archangel Gabriel was his wife, Khadijah bint-Khuwailid, who became monotheistic Islam’s first adherent after the Prophet in the polytheistic society of Makkah.

As Islam began to take shape via more and more revelations from Allah, the Prophet (SAW) repeated the revealed verses to both the men and women of the first cohort of Muslims, who became known as the sahabah.

Since the sahabah had direct contact with the Prophet, they were sources for the exact wording of the revelation itself, the day-to-day behaviour of the Prophet, as well as his deeds, sayings and even his silences.

The contributions shared by Aisha (RA) constitutes the largest contribution to the ahadith, which, alongside the Quran, forms the foundation of Islam.

The eminent personalities and roles of women, such as the Prophet’s wives, Khadijah and Aisha, his daughter, Fatimah, and his granddaughter, Zainab, show that learning as well as various other fields were open to those women who wished to pursue it.

Particular historical accounts describe women of the first Muslim community as attending the masjid, planning and taking part in religious services on feast days, and listening to the Prophet’s sermons (Ahmed 1992).

The impression created is that they were not passive and docile followers but were active interlocutors and participants in their faith and other social matters.

Women in medieval Islam are described as freely studying with men and other women – both in the halaqaat (study circles) and the madrasah. And after receiving their ijaazaat (certificates), they would continue to teach both men and women – bringing into contention the traditionally held view of segregated spaces (Afsaruddin 2005).

One of the first actions Muslims practice upon a new-born, is the recitation of the kalimah. The kalimah is the testimony of faith, which confirms not only an initiation into the covenant with Allah SWT but attests that we have received and will convey the message.

It is our collective responsibility to ensure that we have indeed received the message correctly, that we have conveyed the message correctly, and, in turn, that we have acted when that message has been distorted.

This is our role as khalīfatullāh fī al-ard. By virtue of the very first revelation made to our Nabi Muhammad (SAW) of Iqra! (Read!), we are obligated not only to seek knowledge but to internalise and practise it.

As Muslims, we have an ethical responsibility to both represent and preserve the socially just message of Islam. What this means is that when we encounter or witness any form of denigration or sordid speech in relation to the very women whom Allah SWT has elevated through the Quran and the Sunnah then we are obligated to speak out:

O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm in justice, witnesses for Allah, even if it be against yourselves or parents and relatives. Whether one is rich or poor, Allah is more worthy of both. So follow not [personal] inclination, lest you not be just. And if you distort [your testimony] or refuse [to give it] then indeed Allah is ever, with what you do, Acquainted. (Surah An-Nisa, verse 135)

FEATURED IMAGE: Nuraan Davids is Professor of Philosophy of Education at Stellenbosch University. Her research interests also include democratic citizenship education, values and ethics in education and educational leadership. (Photo Supplied)

  • The caption was amended to reflect the correct designation of Professor Nuraan Davids.

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