An English lady living in Turkey has described the sad plight of Muslim women. Without enough evidence in its support it is not easy to believe what she has written. It is more so because these women spend their lives in seclusion and any evidence in regard to them is very difficult to come by. But we can form an idea by comparing their condition with the condition of women of our own society.
According to this writer when she was talking with two women suddenly they hid themselves ' one under a cot and another behind an almirah. This was because a brother of their husbands had appeared at the door. This kind of thing happens also in our country when a married woman finds herself in presence of her bhasur or the elder brother of her husband. The Muslim gentlemen of our time usually defend this by saying that none keeps his valuable treasures exposed to public view on the open road. They need to be kept carefully hidden away from sunlight to preserve their shine.
In our country also similar things are said by those who are experts in debate. They quote from scriptures as well as poets to prove that what are cited as breach of human rights are examples to show how we treat our women as goddesses. But these are mere empty words and prove nothing. The unfortunate woman has been born with human cravings normal in a human being. Can her hunger and thirst be satisfied if she is fed only with dry scriptural paeans? She will soon choke on them unless she is given some solid food.
The writer has cited a horrible incident.
When Zenab was only 10 years old her father covered her with jewels and gems like a doll and married her away with an old man who happened to be very rich and of superior social status. Usually once married a girl is seldom granted permission to meet her parents. It becomes more difficult when her in-laws are more rich and of higher social status than her parents.
Zenab became a mother of two children yet she could not meet her father. Then one day after being oppressed too much she left her in-law's house in disguise of a maid servant and came to her father. She broke down in tears and told him, 'Father you better kill me rather than send me back'. Thereafter she fell sick and her condition became critical.
The grieving father sent a message to her son-in-law, 'I don't demand anything from you as my daughter's dues. On the contrary I am ready to pay you whatever you demand. I request you to divorce your wife according to the Muslim law'.
The son-in-law in reply said, 'By Allah, what audacity, the fellow is interfering in my zenana! If he is spared so easily a man of my status will forever become an object of public ridicule!'
There were messengers who reported to the father, 'From what we have come to know it appears that if your son-in-law gets your daughter in his power he will do great harm to her'. The father kept his daughter carefully hidden.
We are much grieved to say that that rascal of a husband killed both the small boys by strangling and forthwith sent their dead bodies to their mother as present. She cried out in shock only once and lost her senses. She never recovered and died shortly thereafter.
We are not sure if it has been proper for the writer to cite such an inhuman incident as an example of the general characteristic of a society, but it is certain that however much one may speak for equalization there must be a limit to the right of one human being over another human being. In oriental societies the limit of the right of husbands over their wives has surpassed so much that we have to cover our shame by saying a lot of meaningless things citing religious precepts.
The above was the gist of an article on the conditions of Muslim women written by an English lady in the Nineteenth Century.
Last September the Hon'ble Justice Ameer Ali has given a reply to that article. He has shown that the Christian religion cannot claim all the credits for the improvement of the conditions of women. It has been possible largely because of the gradual advances of knowledge and civilization.
In early Christian society the status of women was very inferior. Their natural impurity made the church fathers their malicious critics. According to St. Tertullian women are the Devil's gateway, the unsealer of the forbidden fruit, first deserter of the divine law and destroyer of God's image, man. And according to Saint Chrisostom she is the original sin, nature's snare, a fatal beauty, the root of all domestic disharmonies, a dangerous attraction and a sleek evil. At that time she could not participate in important religious ceremonies. She was forbidden to go out in the public, mix freely with others or join feasts or festivals. She led a secluded life at home, her duty was to silently obey the orders of her husband and spinning and cooking.
Even during the medieval period with the advent of chivalry when it became a fashion to worship women one of the chief characteristics of the time was the oppression of women. Not only among the upper classes but also among the common people polygamy and secret marriages were widely practiced. Breaking their vows of celibacy the Christian clergy also used to have many legal and illegal wives. According to antiquarian Hallam when one wife proved barren the German clergy held it legal for a man to have more than one wife simultaneously. It is common knowledge that king Charlemagne had many wives. During the time of Justinian, who was a great patron of Christianity, the streets of Constantinople witnessed many scenes of inhuman atrocities on women. For her 'sins' of being beautiful and learned a woman was torn to pieces on the street of Alexandria by the followers of a Christian saint. Justice Ali has cited Manu, the Hindu lawgiver, as saying that when a woman is disobedient to her husband wild dogs should be set upon her on a public thoroughfare. And if St. Cyril had written a treatise on women his views would not have been much different from those of Manu. In medieval Europe women were always oppressed, forcibly kidnapped, incarcerated in dungeons and whipped by the chieftains who claimed themselves to be model Christians. The Christians never felt any qualm of conscience to burn or drown their women.
At this juncture arrived Muhammad. It was not his intention to cause a great commotion by preaching the coming of the kingdom of heaven soon on earth. He set his mind to put as much restraints as was possible on the lawlessness that was prevalent in the Arab society of the time. Earlier there was no bar to polygamy, abuse of maidservants and divorcing of wives at will. By setting limits to these he uplifted the status of women to a considerable extent. He told again and again that abandoning a wife was an extremely unpleasant act in the eyes of God. But it was not possible for anybody to root out this evil practice. He therefore put a number of very difficult impediments instead of totally forbidding divorce.
According to Justice Ali the law relating to women is much more liberal among the Muslims than among the Christians. According to Hindu scriptures a woman has a right to leave her husband in certain circumstances, but in the Hindu society it is not practiced. Islam recognizes similar rights for women on grounds like oppression, husband's inability to maintain etc. To prove the superior status of women in our society as we often cite examples of Lilavati and Khana, Justice Ali has similarly cited as examples many learned women of ancient Arab society. Thus he has proved that in certain respects the social ideals in early Muslim society were nobler. And whatever reforms he had initiated Muhammad never regarded them as ultimate. As a moderator for the time being he had made compromises with the powerful society of his time. Bringing about certain changes he had shown the way. But the Muslim society chose to stop at that point. For this Islam cannot be blamed, what we have to blame is the lack of knowledge and civilization.
The study of Justice Ali's essay saddens our mind. Once our ideals were high, now we have degenerated. By the conscious exertions of our intellect we have not been able to go beyond what our great men had prescribed long ago as suitable for their time,' we both Hindus and Muslims admit this both in our glorification and lamentation. Among the Asiatics as if that vigor is dead, that vital power that makes the society ceaselessly grow reforming itself every moment shedding what is old and worn and accepting what is new.
The chief difference between Europe and Asia is this ' In Europe the dignity of man is a recognized fact which is lacking in Asia. Hence we do not regard our great men as human beings; we make them no less than deities. In Europe men love action and they are all the time showing their power in various ways through their activities. They therefore do not regard themselves as insignificant and worthless nor their life a mere dream. Under the influence of the oriental religion of Christianity at times they may think differently, but such thoughts are swept aside by their active nature. That is why they are able to dethrone their autocratic king, rebel against the divinity of the clergy and their free reason wins over the infallible revealed sayings of their gurus.
In the presence of mighty nature every man in the orient lives his life considering himself very insignificant. Whenever a great man is born he appears to be completely different from his class and he is ranked with the gods. And we live our life thereafter counting each alphabet of his sayings which were only suitable for his time. We consider it a great sin if we make an attempt to violate even an iota of what he had prescribed. We are unable to help ourselves in the meantime till another great man appears as a god in another millennium to introduce changes for the second time. As if we are born from one egg into another egg. The new reforms which a great man introduces breaking the shells of ancient customs and usages gradually harden into another shell and we again become imprisoned in that shell. We are unable with our own efforts to fend for ourselves what is suitable for our own sustenance. The Arabs have kept standing at the point upto which Muhammad had been able to move them forward by breaking to some extent their old bad customs and usages; they have not budged an inch beyond that. Our society lacks that fertility which new reforms need to sprout into a vigorous plant. In our human nature we lack the nature of life to grow. That is why fresh ideals do not gradually flourish among us, they degenerate and wither. Just like a bird's egg that rots when not incubated by its parents the stagnant societies gradually degenerate and rot as the warmth of the living influence of great men recedes further and further in time.
In fact pure things become impure and stale when kept in a closed container and impure things are refreshed when kept in an open and airy place. Small defects found in stagnant and closed societies where reason is not free are far more dangerous than great defects found in free and open societies, because they do not get fresh air and are deprived of the life giving touch of nature.
* Original essay Prachya samaj (The Oriental Society) written by Rabindranath Tagore and published more than one hundred years ago in 1298 BS (1891-92) in the journal Sadhana.
Translation by Kumud Biswas