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Women in the Middle: challenging hyper-liberalism, challenging ultra-conservatism

In Uncategorized on November 30, 2011 at 2:18 pm

Presented at IPSA Spring Symposium.

Published at Voice of the Cape.

I would like to begin by stating from the outset, that I approach this topic, not as an Islamic scholar or expert of any kind, but rather, as a student, a gender activist, and quite simply, as a woman who is trying to walk the middle way. There is, I believe, no better spokespeople for Muslim women as Muslim women ourselves, and therefore, I thank IPSA for extending this invitation to me, although I am quite humbled and hesitant to express my opinions on the same platform as such accomplished scholars, especially my esteemed teacher, Shaykh Seraj Hendricks, with whom, not surprisingly I have discussed this topic, time and time again.

It would be very easy and painstakingly clichéd to approach a topic such as “women in the middle” with the usual bout of “Islam has given women so many rights”. This is both simplistic and does not meet the challenge of answering exactly why and how so many things have gone awry with women and Islam. Instead, I wish to provide an overview of the new gender discourses in the tradition, a middle way approach by way of ‘fiqh al-Nisa’ and reference to some examples of South African women treading the middle way.

The past two decades have seen a great amount of work and research completed in the area of women and Islam, from hermeneutical reinterpretation, to legal reform and cultural critiques. Never before has the issue of Muslim women been at the forefront of nearly all discussion about the tradition, especially in a post 9/11 world.  Islamic discourse around gender has taken many forms, from the traditionalist insistence on ‘equity’ between the sexes rather than equality, to Islamic feminist and reform movements which view Islam and modernity as compatible and not opposed.

It would be impossible to speak about all the work done by the many contemporary scholars – so I very briefly focus on three feminist scholars who have worked on Qur’an, ahadith and fiqh, respectively. In doing so, I wish to highlight that Islamic feminism provides useful tools and methodologies for looking at and studying Islamic scriptural and textual sources in the contemporary society. It is not to suggest that only Islamic feminism is the solution to women’s problems, but that, in seeking a way forward, the experiences and scholarship of all women, from all walks of life, must be studied and engaged with.

Islamic feminist scholars like Amina Wadud, have focused on developing new methodologies for interpretation and contextualization of the sacred Quranic message. Whilst their deliberations have led them to divergent conclusions about the way women are represented in the scripture, with Wadud, having in recent times openly stated that she ‘disagrees with the Quran’ and has decided to ‘walk away from it’ with regard to some difficult passages, it is not, in my view, suitable to out rightly reject the painstaking and meticulous research undertaken by these women, simply because they arrived at a conclusion which challenges the core of orthodox Islam. Rather, their hermeneutical methodologies should be studied and appreciated, for if employed by other scholars, could very well lead to radically different ends. Wadud in particular provides beneficial ways of looking at the Quran, by studying the ‘Quranic worldview’. She contextualizes the Quranic messages dealing with women and gender, and delves into linguistic analysis of words which are controversial or difficult. This is not to deny inherent contradictions in her work, particularly regarding her distancing herself from the Quran mentioned earlier, misappropriation of Hadith, particularly in the case of the Imamate of women. It is not so much the issue of women leading prayers that is skewed, as this is an old issue, having been discussed by classical scholars in depth, but rather her selective usage of hadith, when in most of her works, hadith does not feature or is not given it’s due. The important point to note is that, by approaching the Qur’an from this three-pronged approach, the interpretive possibilities is opened up for newer interpretations. An example is the theory set forth by another American scholar, Azizah al-Hibri. She provides, in my view, one the best readings of the contentious 4:34 (daraba verse), by using the very same tools as Wadud, arriving not at the conclusion that the Quran is inherently unjust in this case, but that in responding to the context of its revelation, 4:34 was the best way, at the time, to curtail the practice of domestic violence. The more women who approach the Qur’an with sincerity, the greater chance we have of moving towards the Quranic worldview of justice. The woman of the middle way approaches the Quran with absolute belief, but also with the understanding that new readings arise with the passage of time.

Other scholars have focused on hadith literature, Sa’diyya Shaikh prominent amongst them. She has proposed a critical rethinking of the study of hadith, to ‘un’ interpret the patriarchal readings which has since dominated the science. It would be counter-productive to brush certain narrations which are, on the surface, not in harmony with the notion of gender equality, particularly the famous ‘naqisatul aql’/deficient in intelligence narration. How do we deal with these narrations without undermining the authority of ahadith as one of the twin bedrocks of Shar’iah? The answer, in my opinion, lies not only with an exclusively feminist undertaking, for in the history of hadith – the sciences of textual criticism and ‘ilm al-rijal’ or biographical scrutiny for authenticity are as old as the subject of hadith itself, and a more scrupulous return to these endeavours, as called for by Shaykh Taha Jabir Alwani, would inevitably lead to what Shaikh calls for, i.e. ‘a radically different construction of religious anthropology which will not merely fit women into a male paradigm, but rather transform the entire framework, so as to reflect the fullness of human experience.”

Islamic legal thinking about women is certainly the field that suffered most from the two phenomena of literalist reduction and cultural projection. Of the few works which has delved into the fiqh literature, Kecia Ali’s “Sexual Ethics and Islam” is perhaps the most useful in discerning a way to go about critiquing fiqh. She asks the important question, “If I do not accept the sole interpretive authority of the juristic and exegetical heritage – which is strongly patriarchal and sometimes misogynist – why not bypass it entirely and turn to the Qur’an alone as a guide?” This is indeed what many feminists have done, and in doing so, have established yet another intellectual elitism.

As Ali asserts, the legal methodology offers legitimacy for a flexible approach to the Qur’an and the Sunnah, by demonstrating the ways in which authorities have, from the earliest years of Islam, used their own judgement and the customs of their societies to adapt Qur’anic and Prophetic dictates to changed circumstances. The contemporary world would have much to gain by employing the same strategies for the promotion of equality between the sexes.

Having said this – it is important to note the dramatic shift of authority, in both majority Muslim and non-Muslim countries, regarding law and legal matters. Muslims, who are now living in post-traditional contexts, are under no coercion to follow any particular school of thought or legal opinion – and so any discussion on fiqh and gender, must take into account the diverse contexts and circumstances, whether social, economic or political, that Muslims live in today. Muslims living in the secular West for example, where gender equality is theoretically at least, generally an accepted norm could have a far easier time advocating a gender-sensitive fiqh than Muslims living in Saudi Arabia, where fiqh, as articulated by Wahhabi interpretations, is embedded in the national law itself. Promoting gender-sensitive fiqh in such a context would necessarily also involve challenging political and economic hierarchies.

It may seem that I am sitting on the fence, not denouncing, nor identifying with Muslim feminists. I feel critical engagement with new scholarship is vital for progress.

Whilst I agree that the classical fiqh, as male-centric and a product of its time, has ‘othered’ the female, it would be an injustice to the rich and varied tradition to out-rightly dismiss it – people lose touch with whole realms of experience and meaning which been nourished for generations, but which are now slipping out of reach, through this attitude. The classical jurists displayed in many instances, despite themselves, an objectivity towards women – there are sufficient examples which can form a point of departure for a gender-sensitive fiqh, especially in methodology – examples of this can be found in their treatment of ‘ibadat, where concerted effort was made to include women, as far possible, in ritual life.

I propose therefore, an idea born in conversation with Shaykh Seraj – a fiqh al-Nisa, fiqh here meant to refer to broader understanding, which would include the best of what the classical legacy has to offer women – without entering into apologetics for the views of the classical fuqaha. Fiqh al-Nisa would move away from this trend completely, whilst not severing ties with the classical tradition. It is possible to be both critical and loyal to the past, without contradictions.

A Fiqh al-Nisa could be placed directly in the category of  reconciling Islam and modernity – however, this is not without two critiques, the first being that it would not adopt a “condescension of posterity” attitude, in judging past movements and ideas according to current value systems, and secondly it would not simply accept the notion of Islam and modernity being compatible, or modernity as inevitable, without questioning its structural weaknesses – especially a different kind of objectification of women, for example, through over-sexualisation in the media. The state, economy and the rise of a hegemonic mono-culture pose an even greater threat to modern life than tradition – entire populations turn spiritually and morally decayed, progressively hollow and vacuous, unable to distinguish what is valuable from what it valueless.

A fiqh al-Nisa, whilst grounding itself squarely in the 21st century, would “embrace modernity critically”, by returning to tradition, not in order to stay there, but to bring tradition onward in such a way as to interrupt, not sustain, the clichés and complacencies of the contemporary. It is true that the once prevailing traditions hold biases and partialities we would not consider acceptable, but tradition has been essential to human life for millennia – its key purpose has been to deliver the values, beliefs and guidelines for conduct that have helped shape communities into organic totals. It has also been the crucial force providing linkage from one generation to the next.  Fiqh al-Nisa would take into consideration the immense heritage of the classical legacy, in linking the Islam of the earliest Muslims, to us now, without romanticizing tradition –to do so often does violence to past suffering by holding up as exemplary much that should be deplored – but acknowledging and exploiting the best of what it has to offer.

Whilst Islamic feminism has focused on the Qur’an and Hadith as the primary means to establish equality of the sexes from within an Islamic worldview, the fiqh has remained relatively untouched, and hence, in the practical aspects of Muslim women’s lives – unchanged. A fiqh al-Nisa, whilst radically proposing equality, would do so from within the lens of classical fiqh methodology. A cautionary note is needed here, in that such a fiqh, if limited to the spheres of marriage, divorce and inheritance, for example, would only add to the problem of female marginalization in Islamic epistemology. It would therefore, be not a fiqh about women as such (although matters involving women directly would be a significant component), but by women – contributing to all the furu’. The voices of Muslim women are crucial in matters like extremism, economics and ‘ibadat – what do Muslim women, as lawmakers, think about Jihad, for example, or how do they relate to economic structures as participants and producers in the economy? There is a notable consistency in fiqh – the jurists displayed remarkable integrity in the way they formulated law, and a rewriting of fiqh from a gender-sensitive perspective would mean a reconceptualization of fiqh. At the heart of this proposed tajdid, is the issue of female leadership.

A prime example, of moving forward with this attitude, has been articulated by Dr Ingrid Mattison, who stresses the importance of female religious leadership. In other words, why does women’s religious leadership matter?  She argues that, in her experience, the main reason this is an issue of concern for many Muslim women is that they feel that religious authority has too often been used to suppress them. She says, rightfully,  ‘It is the rare Muslim woman who has not had some experience of being excluded from the mosque, having had to listen to demeaning sermons, or having been subjected to patronizing marriage counselling by religious leaders.’

This does not mean that this is the dominant experience of all Muslim women.  There are, of course, many competent male religious leaders who are sensitive to women’s experiences and listen to their counsel and their concerns.  When few or no women in a community have recognized spiritual authority or positions of leadership, however, there is a good chance that the women of that community will experience religious authority negatively.  This is a serious matter, because it defeats the very purpose of religious institutions, whose primary purpose is to bring people closer to God.  We need to be conscious of the unfortunate reality that institutions—including religious institutions–often develop in ways that lead them to defeat the very purposes they were created to serve. In many cases, Muslim women feel that restrictions placed upon them in the name of Islam are unjust, but they have neither the fluency in the Islamic legal discourse nor the religious authority to convincingly argue their objections.

There are those who are convinced that men are capable of guiding and leading the Muslim community in a just manner without female peers. She would argue that common sense tells us that even the most compassionate and insightful group of men will overlook some of the needs and concerns of the women of their community.  More compellingly, experience teaches us that when women are not in leadership positions in their communities, they are often assigned inadequate prayer spaces (if any), they are cut off from much vital religious education, and they have few means to access the rights they possess in theory.  There are many reasons why women’s leadership is important; the most important one for Muslim women is so they will not be prevented—by being blocked from sacred texts or houses of worship and study–from accessing the liberating message of obedience to God alone.

This brings me then, to the issue of Muslim women’s religious participation and leadership in the South African context. I am aware that I am speaking to a somewhat enlightened community in Cape Town, either by way of madhaib or culture, on the topic of women and sacred space (masaajid/eid musallah). However, for the most part, muslim women in South Africa are disadvantaged by not being included in these sacred spaces, through culturally and religiously unsound attitudes. How do we, wanting to move forward as a community navigate through issues such as these? The past few years have seen many fataawa being brandished back and forward from both camps, articles, radio interviews and smear campaigns. Are we to simplify the issue on the basis of madhaib and claim an end to the discussion? Or claim that women involved in these campaigns to educate are ‘western feminists, apologists or liberals’? A more dynamic approach is in order. Understanding that, in a specifically South African context, a mind-set where women are given every freedom but denied the right to enter and participate in sacred space, is inherently flawed. The need for women to feel part of a community and to identify as part of a religious tradition is strong, particularly in a minority context. It is my belief that in order to renew women’s, and by extension, society’s commitment to Islamic values of modesty moderation and spirituality, women’s re-entry into the realm of the masaajid and eid musallah is key. The insistence by many scholars that this is absolutely haram is not in line with the flexibility and dynamism of Islamic law.

Women have been, and are participating in the creation and distribution of knowledge in South Africa. I need not cite the work done in Cape Town by so many committed Muslimahs, which I am sure you are all familiar with, but I do wish to highlight the work of three Muslimahs in other parts of the county. The first being women’s scholarship, as undertaken by Sister Quraysha Ismail Sooliman in Johannesburg. Her tireless efforts to educate women about their rights, from marriage to hijab and the masjid/eid prayers issue has seen so many women re-commit to their religious beliefs.

The second is a prime example of women’s leadership, displayed by sister Fatima Asmal, director of the ILM-SA institute in Durban, who organizes conferences and workshops which always include women as participants and speakers, runs social-welfare and da’wah programs and fundraising for the underprivileged in rural townships, as well as her bi-annual Eid prayer events, which invite families to participate in the special prayers. She has also produced a documentary which delves into changing Muslim identity in South Africa, promoting progressive and balanced views on Islam in the SA context.

My third example is political and civil society engagement by Khadija Patel, an up-and-coming journalist. Her participation in the public eye received much attention. Her commentary on the Arab-spring, sports reporting and political lobbying on the issue of Palestine has earned her place in the media-elite. Her article on hijab was recently a feature article in Elle magazine, a mainstream fashion publication. This feat alone is tremendous for the perceptions of Muslim women in broader society.

All these women, through their activities, have served to break down stereotypes, seek justice, end discrimination and promote reform. In the South African context, we are fortunate that our constitution affords us both freedom of religion and gender equality, and as Muslim women, we can use both of these to the best of their potential, we are free to wear the hijab, work, study and fight for our rights to sacred space without fear of persecution. The law is also in the process of instating the Muslim Marriages Bill, which although not without its flaws, will go a long way in protecting the rights of women.

The last issue I wish to comment on is that of the family. The family is Islam, and also in most cultures, is the foundation and bedrock of society. For the smooth functioning of the family – not only do we need women of the middle way, but men of the middle way as well. It was Shaykh Abdul Hakim Murad, a truly radical scholar of the middle way, who said, ‘Biology should be destiny, but a destiny that allows for multiple possibilities”. Yes, women are biologically created for childbirth and lactation; however, this does not and should not place them at a disadvantage to participate in society – as Muslim women have been, for centuries. Were it not for this balanced attitude toward family responsibilities, I certainly would not have been able to be here, sharing these thoughts with you, as my husband cares for our 5 month old twins. It is within the ambit of the prophetic sunnah to share the responsibilities of the household so that all members may thrive as active members of society and engage in the pursuit of higher education and financial independence and eternal salvation.

At the core of all of these issues, is the strong need for a return to spirituality. As mothers, wives, scholars, students, activists, professionals and the myriad of other roles women occupy, we cannot forget that our sole purpose on this earth, beyond raising children, making a living and seeking gender justice, is to serve Allah. The realm of tassawuf offers for women, a respite from the world of materialism and misogyny, where the the emphasis is on the un-gendered ego/nafs.

In conclusion, I draw upon a concept again learned from Shaykh Seraj, i.e The Sunnah of Allah. Allah’s Sunnah/Tradition is one in which the natural order of creation is a reflection of His own disposition, that He created human beings from His nature, as the Qur’an (30:30) states,

[Adhere to] the fitrah of Allah upon which He has created [all] people.

Fitrah is a concept which refers to “the natural constitution with which a child is created in the mother’s womb”, “natural, native, innate”.

The Qur’an (4:1) also states,

O mankind! Reverence your Guardian-Lord, who created you from a single person, created, of like nature, His mate, and from them twain scattered (like seeds) countless men and women; – reverence God, through whom ye demand your mutual (rights), and (reverence) the wombs (that bore you): for God ever watches over you.

Human beings in their fitraic nature are also created from the same essence. Reverencing “the womb” is equated with reverencing Allah – the Sunnah of Allah consequentially demands that the natural constitution of men and women are both normative and to be well-regarded.

Who is the woman in the middle? She is articulated perfectly, in my opinion, in the words of Professor Tariq Ramadan, ‘the women of the middle way is one who wishes to recapture the message’s coherence but also to find a way to face the challenges of modern times while remaining faithful to principles and founding objectives. Her aim is to seek justice, end discrimination and promote reform. She is faithful to the message without fearing to disturb social frameworks, power relationships and the traditional roles placed on women as a result of partial understanding of this beautiful message.’


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