The question of the rights and role of Muslim women has been raised again by a controversy in Kuwait, over whether or not women should be permitted to vote. ANISA ABD EL-FATTAH discusses this question and the problems posed by the persistence of pre-Islamic customs regarding women.
The controversy surrounding Kuwaiti women’s struggle to obtain the right to vote yet again raises serious questions for Muslims everywhere. The question of the fundamental rights of Muslim women being raised by the women of Kuwait lies at the very foundation of our social, religious and economic progress and development as Muslim peoples. The resistance of those who oppose the right of Muslim women to vote generally appears to be rooted in negative and non-Islamic images and stereotypes of women prevalent in the Muslim world. These ideas shape the experiences and destinies of women in a most negative fashion, while simultaneously obstructing the growth and development of the Muslim world by almost completely confining the contributions of Muslim women to their societies to childbearing and looking after their families. Women have numerous abilities and attributes that can be used by Muslim society; during times of crisis a Muslim woman who has expertise in a certain area may be required to set aside familial duties and to serve the community by the provision of other necessary services. We must also bear in mind that some women will never bear children, and that others may never marry. Moreover familial relationships should not be dictated by governments or groups, but should be decided by families and couples in consultation with one another, while also considering the needs of society.
Muslims must be made aware of, and be on guard against, negative stereotypes of women and their effects on our communities. We must approach this issue objectively and without prejudice, recognizing that the same ignorance that has resulted in the repression and oppression of Muslim women, and the denial of women’s rights in the Muslim world, is being imported into Western Muslim society through the proliferation of so-called Islamic publications that degrade women. Some men and women, who claim to be scholars, frequent mosques and study-circles, where they spread vicious and false hadith that degrade women. Some even encourage the physical and psychological abuse of women. These false and non-Islamic teachings and the culture they promote threaten the rights of all Muslims, men and women. We are obligated by Islam to fight these negative ideas as they seek to penetrate the Islamic discourse in America. For the most part Muslim Americans are committed to the continuation of the movement of the prophet Muhammad (saw), who struggled to remove the shackles of ignorance, tradition, self-worship and self-aggrandizement that had corrupted pre-Islamic Arab society, and that continue to threaten our modern societies and communities. Western Muslims must now consider this important question of Muslim women’s rights, and develop responses that reflect the sound principles of justice and equity in society that comprise Islam.
The women’s suffrage movement was the first women’s movement in America. Because of this movement American society was forced to ask itself upon what grounds it denied women the right to political participation and expression through the ballot-box. Unlike the Muslim women’s debate, American women’s suffrage was debated in a secular society, where God was recognized in principle, yet issues of state were regarded as outside this domain; so the issue wrongly became an issue of constitutional interpretations and definitions of civil rights, rather than an ethical issue of justice and the inalienable rights of human beings (men and women alike). Muslims on the other hand must answer this question within the light of the Qur’an and Sunnah, which will not yield to the desires of men, nor to tricky language and political ploys. The history of Islam is clear on this issue: Allah’s Messenger (saw) recognized the common rights of men and women, at the same time acknowledging and allowing for their differences. The Qur’an recognizes the common qualities and rights of men and women in respect to social status, defining the best of us as the most righteous, and assuring us that Allah does not distinguish between man and woman with respect to the value and acceptability of our deeds. Women’s rights to education, to work or to vote never found their way onto the regrettably ever-growing lists of Islamic prohibitions, as they were not prohibited and no man can prohibit what Allah ta’ala has allowed; also, what is not prohibited by Allah or His Prophet (saw) is permissible.
“It is not fitting for a believer, man or woman, when a matter is decided by Allah and His prophet, to have any option about their decision: if any one disobeys Allah and His prophet, he is indeed on a clearly wrong path” (al-Qur’an 33:36).
What is commonly paraded in the Muslim world as “Islam” is sometimes only the pre-Islamic ignorance and culture that enabled men to justify the burying of girls alive. The Qur’an not only prohibits the action of physically burying them alive, but also dispels the myths that demonize and vilify the female gender so that burying girls alive seems a reasonable thing to do. The people of Arabia buried them because they believed that women are promiscuous and that this promiscuity would bring shame to the family. This practice was prohibited during the lifetime of the Prophet (saw), yet killing women was later resumed by the Arabs as “honor killing.” Today in “honor killings”, physical abuse and psychological torture we also see other forms of “killing” women in more subtle, culturally accepted and ‘legal’ ways. The objective in every case is to prevent society from being affected by the feminine qualities of womanhood, cast as evil by Arabs in much the same way and perhaps for the same reasons as the Christians and Jews blamed women for the sin of Adam, thereby condemning us to a history of shame and humiliation as punishment for the sin that Allah ta’ala forgave. The Qur’an informs us that both Adam and his companion disobeyed Allah, and that both shared the penalty and the mercy of Allah, through which they both found forgiveness. Despite this, Arab societies and many that have been “Arabicized” have perpetuated the ignorance and woman-hatred of pre-Islamic Arabia by various means, including the denial of women’s right to share in the establishment and development of Islamic society. Other ways have included denying women equivalent opportunities in education, unbiased opportunities in the workplace, and reasonable and religiously permissible access to other human beings and other resources.
Perhaps the most negative of all women’s movements was the Women’s Supremacy movement of the West, or the infamous “feminist” movement that was mounted by elitist American women who sought more than equality. Instead they sought supremacy above men and revenge against men for what they felt were the numerous injustices inflicted by men upon women throughout history. To accomplish their objectives they constructed absurd theories, such as the theory that the only differences between men and women are anatomical. Freedom for women was taken to mean freedom to have sexual relations without consequences.
Women’s sexuality became a primary focus of the movement, and liberation language was soon expanded to include women’s liberation from ethics and morality, and from any institution, including religion and tradition, that recommended either. This movement began as a social movement and quickly evolved first into a political movement and then into an economic movement. It was co-opted as such by the United Nations, which recognized that the human byproduct of the feminist movement would be an entity that was neither properly male nor properly female, and had no attachment to tradition, religion or the other so-called “barriers” to women’s “economic advancement,” that dictated specific social roles for women. The promotion of lesbianism, homosexuality and definitions of family that destroyed blood-lineage, such as same-sex ‘marriages’, were also adopted as feminist ideology after the United Nation’s Nairobi Conference, where the Forward Looking Strategies were first introduced to a naive and unsuspecting world. The United Nation’s primary interest in the advancement of women was the exploitation of women as human resources, primarily as cheap labor for transnational corporations who would be increasingly establishing their operations in the ‘underdeveloped world’, hoping to cut costs and increase profits. This attempt to exploit women through the United Nations initiative for the so-called advancement of women was simplified by the rhetoric of feminism, which promised women independence, wealth and power as a result of their liberation from the inconveniences of womanhood; the United Nations became the guarantor of these false promises.
Perhaps opposition to Muslim women’s right to vote emanates partly from fear that Muslim women’s suffrage will also become a Western-style feminist movement that will take objectives and ideology from its Western predecessor. While this fear is understandable, it is not reasonable: a woman’s right to vote cannot fairly be premised upon a woman’s promise to vote or not vote a certain way, or a pre-articulation of women’s political views and objectives, because a man’s right to vote is not.
In a Muslim society, where the basic tenets of the faith have already been accepted as the supreme law, it should not be feared that women would seek to violate the precepts and laws of Islam, any more than it should be suspected that men might do so.
Muslims’ fear of women in this regard is further evidence of our negative perceptions of women as ignorant and easily swayed, promiscuous, pleasure-oriented and self-seeking. It ignores the reality that Muslim women can be (and in many instances are) as knowledgeable and pious as men who are educated in Islam, and as submissive to the law. Muslim women, like Muslim men, can be trusted to uphold Islamic law and tradition. Denying Muslim women political participation will ultimately result in the further erosion of various freedoms, and the right of political participation for both men and women in the Muslim world. It will enable the “culture” of the masses to dictate the objectives of Muslim government and the rights of the people by opinion rather than Islamic law, and will reduce Islam in Muslim society from an authoritative resource to a relic of the past.
A Muslim woman’s right to vote must not be denied because of fear, or assumptions that women are more given to error or sin than men. Neither Allah nor His Prophet (saw) ever took such a position, and men should not attempt to ignore the rights of women under the pretence of protecting Islam or Muslim society from women. Allah ta’ala demands in the Qur’an and through the Sunnah of His Messenger (saw) that mankind abide by His law, and pursue justice at any cost, even when justice is against our own desires.
During the lifetime of Rasool-Allah (saw) Muslim women fought in wars, took care of families and worked alongside men in the development of the new Muslim society. After his death, the khulafa (ra) consulted prominent female companions on matters of state. Many of the great Islamic scholars of the past were women who trained many of our revered scholars, such as al-Shafi’i and Ibn Taymiyyah.
Muslim women do not participate equitably in state- and civilization-building in the Muslim world, and as a result the Muslim world is mired in intellectual stagnation, poverty and illiteracy. The pattern of Allah’s creation is that men and women should be companions and partners in the struggle to establish Islamic society through procreation and the perpetuation of Islamic cultures. Allah commands that we stick to this balanced pattern in our individual and collective pursuits as a matter of obligation, and not choice, since the Qur’an declares that we have no choice in matters that have been decided by Him or His Rasool (saw). Our covenant with Allah is that we will obey Him, and in return Allah has promised to turn mercifully to us:
“We did indeed offer the Trust to the heavens and the earth and the mountains, but they refused to undertake it, being afraid thereof: but man undertook it; he was indeed unjust and foolish. So Allah has to punish the hypocrites, men and women, and the unbelievers, men and women, and Allah turns to the believers, men and women: for Allah is oft Forgiving, Most Merciful.” (Al-Qur’an 33:72-3.).