By A Jalal
Womanhood is probably a state of permanent disadvantage, and today being a Muslim woman is not something better. However, Islam does not put woman’s life to disadvantage. In fact, Islam is credited with being champion of women’s rights and the liberator of womankind. When the human society was so ill-disposed to women that it killed girl child and buried them alive, Islam came to their rescue and returned them their rights and honour.
In fact, Islamic society allowed women to participate in all the spheres of life and society from scholarship to battlefield. For example, it is said that we received half of the faith in terms of how we practice it today from the scholarship of Hazrat Aisha. She was a scholar, poet, jurist, doctor, strategist, leader among other things
Another example of woman scholarship is Umm al-Darda, a prominent woman jurist in seventh-century Damascus. She used to sit with male scholars in the mosque which functioned as a centre of socio-political and intellectual activity. Darda wrote, ‘I have tried to worship Allah in every way but I have never found a better one than sitting around, debating other scholars.’ She taught hadith and law, at the mosque, and lectured in the men’s section; her students included the caliph of Damascus. She performed prayer shoulder to shoulder with men and issued fatwa allowing women to pray in the same position as men.
Similarly, Amra was recognized for her authority on traditions related by Hazrat Aisha and among her notable students was Abu Bakr ibn Hazm, the celebrated judge of Medina, who was ordered by the caliph Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz himself to write down all the traditions known on her authority. The list of such woman scholars and intellectuals is quite large. Mohammad Akram Nadwi, an Islamic research scholar at Oxford Centre of Islamic Studies in Britain, has listed as many as 8,000 Muslim woman religious scholar in the Islamic world since the time of the Prophet. These women taught the Quran, transmitted hadith and enacted laws as jurists.
To know what role Islam conceived for women we can take a glimpse of other areas also, for example, war, a stream for which women are considered not very fit even today. But as per the Islamic history, whenever the Prophet went on an expedition, his one of the wives accompanied him. The Ansari and Ghifari women took part in war as fighters, though Islam did not make war obligatory upon women. It is reported by Hadith that a woman of Banu Ghifar came to the Prophet for his permission to go out with him to treat and help the wounded Muslims. The Prophet responded to this: ‘With the blessing of Allah.’ Lady named Nusaybah bint Ka’b defended Prophet Muhammad in the battle Uhud. Umm Sulaim bint Milhan of Banu an Najjar used to carry a dagger tied to her waist and told the Prophet that she carried it to defend herself. It is different matter that we are not ready to allow our women even to learn how to defend themselves.
Islam also does not prohibit woman from entering into a profession and interaction with men for earning livelihood or contributing to nation building. It does not prohibit women from making use of the vast range of opportunities opened for them by the modern world. Religious scholarship and mosque are not the only area of engagement for them.
Religious scholarship signifies domain of knowledge and that implies all streams of knowledge are open to Muslims. And the mosque is the symbol of public sphere; in the Islamic society it used to be the centre of social, political, religious, intellectual life and related activities. It was not like what it is today- a place of worship merely. And thus the public sphere, dominated mainly by men today, is also the lawful place of our women.
All that Allah commands women is that they should wear modest dress and do not indulge in adultery. Modest dress, in the light of the Quran and the Islamic scholar, means dress covering women’s head and body. This is something which most of our women do. More specifically, the Quran says that believing women ‘…should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; …they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; … they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husband's fathers, their sons… (24:31)’
At another place the Quran instructs Muslim women to draw veils close round them when they go out. The purpose is that they are recognized by men as the women of believers and are not harassed. It says, ‘Prophet, enjoin your wives, your daughters, and the wives of true believers to draw their veils close round them. That is more proper, so that they may be recognized and not molested. (33:58-61)’
Thus, the Quran’s injunction is basically to observe restraint against the vulgar and indecent display of the female body. A shalwar kamiz with dupatta, or a shawl, for example, on the female body, by no means, violates the dress code of woman as approved by Islam. In the Islamic perspective, the violation of purdah may be jean and sleeveless shirt or even sari which leaves most part of woman’s body uncovered.
But all this, in course of time, has come to mean that men will go out to work and women will stay locked up inside the home bearing children and washing utensils. If they ever go outside, they will cover themselves from head to toe and thus exist as non-entity. The term which came to be used for this practice in India is Pardah implying depersonalization of women and their total exclusion from the public life. This makes Muslim women’s status far worse than the Muslim men.
Some of our respected men argue that women are the grace of home, they are the peace of men’s heart. They should stay safe at home and serve their husband and in-laws. They should not wander in the rough and tumbles of the outer world; they should not visit college, travel in bus, visit market or work in a field. They should not venture in the men’s world. That will put them at mortal risk and in some way defile their purity since they are not meant for the outer world. God did not programme women for such kind of role.
But today’s practice of barring women from education and religious institutions is not fundamentally different from the pre-Islamic custom of burying girls alive. Akram Nadwi says ‘God has given girls qualities and potential, if they aren't allowed to develop them, if they aren’t provided with opportunities to study and learn, it’s basically a live burial.’
The need of the hour is to claim the lost ground. And the starting point is to fight the existing practice of purdah and to adopt a decent dress code as approved by Islam. Once this is done, the next step is moving out of the closed confines to encounter the rough and tumbles of the world to conquer it. Education and hard work will the weapon for this purpose.
But what is observed today in most of the houses is that the girls take the family by storm if all their beauty box and make up set is not available. But they never fight for their right to have modern education, though education is for their freedom, power and future. This is because we don’t understand the importance of education and making a career for our life; many of us are afraid of book and consider reading as something outlandish. Kiran Bedi, the first woman IPS officer, says that whenever she traveled on train or bus, books occupied larger space in her bag than clothes and cosmetics. Wherever she got time whether it was bus stand or railway station, she opened a book and read it.
What the Muslim girls require today is to fight their parents for their educational rights, rather than living satisfied within the confines of the four-walls. Today it is much easier to get education and parents in most of the cases can be convinced of the importance and advantage of education. Lakhs of girls today visit the educational institutions and show their talents and abilities, there is no reason why you cannot be like one of them. If you do not study and claim your place in the system as an individual, you lose tremendously as an individual and as a community. The government spends lakhs on the education of every single candidate in an educational institution every year after taxing every body; if you do not go to a university, somebody else will acquire education, learn and grow and get a job at your place.
But dear sisters when you abandon the four walls, always be conscious of the responsibility that weighs your shoulders. Parents in our society are many times discouraged to impart modern education to their daughters simply because they fear that their daughters may resort to impure conduct when they are allowed the freedom to go to educational institutions. When parents send their daughters to the portals of learning, they depart them with the hopes that their daughters would excel in education and get employment and respect in society. But instead of concentrating on education, sometimes some girls start weaving love story on the campus, watering down the hopes and aspirations of their parents. Then such girls also become a hindrance to those other girls whom their parents could dare send to educational institutions.
The girls who get the opportunities to study in colleges and universities have the moral duty to conduct responsibly so that they become examples and other parents may also muster their courage to send their daughters to educational institutions.
In other words, when you are given freedom to study and excel don’t betray you parent’s trust in you by wearing jeans and entering into illicit relationship with somebody. Be an example that your parents may be proud of. While providing you freedom to grow as a person and make a mark in the public life, Islam explicitly prohibits vulgar exposure of woman’s body and adultery in strict terms (24:2). Just remember this, and then everything is fine.