With various news clippings and videos frequently coming up on television regarding Muslim women being denied of their basic rights in Muslim nations, I am intrigued to write on the issue Muslim women’s rights. The contemporary threat to the women and their rights in the Muslim world springs mainly from a resurgence of radical fundamentalists thought and politics in the last quarter of the twentieth century. The fundamentalist’s resurgence forces Muslim women to fight for their rights, openly when they can, subtly when they must. The struggle is multifaceted, at once political, economic, ethical, psychological, and intellectual. It resonates with the mix of values, mores, facts, ambitions, prejudices, ambivalence, uncertainties, and fears that are the stuff of human culture.
The case of pardanashin women is an important one to note. They are mostly uneducated and have no knowledge about the outside world. They are bad victims of domestic violence and almost all other malpractices done against women. The plight of these women has not improved with all the treaties, conventions and covenants.
To the extent that Islam, defined and interpreted by the traditionalist Muslim men, is allowed to determine the context and contour of the debate on women’s rights, women will be on the losing side of the debate because the conclusion is already contained in the premise and reflected in the process. This is the heart of the moral tragedy of Muslim societies in our time.
In Modern times, women have moved from the margins to the centre of history, playing increasingly important roles in families, communities and states across the world. As women became increasingly aware and assertive, their demands for equality, participation, and access elicited reactions that range from curtailing their right to the privacy of their bodies and minds to policies that deny them experiences that are essential to their ability to complete in society. The infringement of women’s rights is usually exercised in the name of tradition, religion, social cohesion, morality, or some complex of transcendent values. Always, its justified in the name of culture.
Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in Muslim societies, where over half a billion women live in vastly different lands, climates, cultures, societies, economics, and polities. Few of these women live in a purely traditional environment. For most of them modernity represents, above all, conflict among contradictory values and forces that compete for their allegiance and call them to contradictory ways of looking at themselves and at the world that surrounds them. The most taxing of these contradictions is the one between the everyday requirements of living in the contemporary world and the demands advanced by the fundamentalists’ worldview, which singles out women’s status and her relations to society as the supreme test of authenticity of the Islamic order.
It is important to note that the status of the women in the society- social, political, legal, and economic-has been fundamentally the same across history for a majority of the world’s population. Except for the surface differences in manner and style, the basic arrangements for division of labour and power between men and women have been the same across the world. Women’s rights concerning major decisions about her children’s future, place of residence, marriage, inheritance, employment and the like have been severely curtailed in most of the world during most of the human history.
There are many reasons for the recent resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism, ranging from failure of socio-political and economic structures at home to neo-colonial pressures. Devising appropriate strategies for improving women’s rights and status requires an understanding of the reasons in each case of Islamist resurgence. However, no justification of the causes of economic failure, religious revival maybe validly used to justify the subjugation of women. Gender apartheid is clearly defined in all laws and regulations pertaining to the role of women within the private and public spheres. Inheritance, dowry, professional boundaries etc. limit women’s spaces and movements are all worked out so that women’s dependent and separate sphere is justified, protected and perpetuated. Muslim societies, unlike others remain religiously authentic despite the West’s political hegemony and cultural onslaught. The non-Islamic traits in Muslims societies are aberrations resulting from colonial intrusion and need to be eradicated.
In India, the legal status of Muslim women within the family is a topic of considerable controversy and debate. It is a complex issue that has implications for matters of not only gender justice, but also religious freedom, minority rights, and state policy regarding the accommodation of difference. Whereas the Constitution of India guarantees equality rights to all women, irrespective of religious affiliation, Muslim personal law, explicitly discriminates on the basis of an individual's sex and religion.
An interrogation of the dominant religious ideology is necessary to prevent legislation from binding Muslim women to an essentialist notion of identity, thereby denying them the possibility of challenging Muslim tradition. But now, the 65 million Muslim women population in India, often called a minority within a minority for their double handicap of gender and faith are challenging the medieval religious laws which have oppressed them for centuries. The case of pardanashin women is an important one to note. They are mostly uneducated and have no knowledge about the outside world. They are bad victims of domestic violence and almost all other malpractices done against women. The plight of these women has not improved with all the treaties, conventions and covenants. The crass infringement of women’s rights we see in the Muslim world has more to do with power, patriarchy and misuse of religion as a political weapon than religion properly understood as individual faith. The Islamists draw on the discourse of relativity, now in vogue in the West, to deny or infringe women’s rights by introducing or perpetuating a system of gender segregation.
Image (c) Gettyimages.com