Plight of Muslim women: Challenge the ill-educated theologians

A series of obnoxious edicts from various seats of Islamic learning and devotion in recent years have sought to deny the Muslim women social space that the Indian Constitution guarantees to its citizens regardless of their caste, colour, gender and faith.

While the latest revelation that Haji Ali Dargah has barred entry of women comes as a surprise, the Darul Uloom Deoband’s series of fatwas restricting women’s access to education, right to ride a bicycle and validation of triple talaq through sms, emails and over cellphone, have continued to embarrass the enlightened Muslims.

Haji Ali dargah management committee’s bar on entry of women is surprising because dargahs in the subcontinent have been centres of devotion for people from across the religious barriers, women being more numerous among them. Being syncretic in nature, dargahs were seen to be secular spaces within the cultural realm of Islam where people paid obeisance without distinction of their religious affiliation.

While whether Islam prescribed such practices is an academic discussion which can go on and on endlessly, the move to alienate the women is most deplorable and regrettable as it amounts to depriving people of a social space for interactions which is otherwise getting rarer in our communally volatile times. 

Muslim women today are caught between the misogynist interpretations of the Islamic law by ill-educated theologians and the misunderstood past that has been filtered through the eyes of the elite, resulting in their abuse in the family and the society at large. Family laws are stacked against them, cultural practices target them and political expediency subjugates them. In most cases, religion and the law play a major role in their continued exploitation and marginalisation inside and outside the fold of the community.

The conservative theologians, chiefly those who man the bodies like the All India Muslim Personal Law Board take some of the postulates by medieval jurists as settled precedents and consider them uncontestable. These precedents impede the integration of women into the larger society. These are in the form of legal rules and social practices. Most of these postulates evolved during the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties and were motivated by the contemporary politics rather than having anything to do with Islamic precepts.  

 The evidence from the time of the Prophet Muhammad suggests that women were treated differently not because of their gender, but because of their economic and social status.

The Prophet not only allowed them joining the congregational prayers in the mosque, but took opportunity to address them separately on special occasions in larger conclaves.

Not only this, he appointed one among the female companions Umme Waraqa as the imam (prayer leader) of a mosque in a village in the vicinity of Madinah. Waraqah led the mixed gender congregation for close to 17 years. The man who issued the azan (call for prayer) used to pray behind her.
Prominent role

Women continued to play prominent role in socio-political and economic sphere for the next two hundred years. Caliph Umar appointed Shifa Bint Abdullah as the Head Controller (office of Muhtasib) in charge of the markets in Madinah. Another woman Samra Bint Nahik Asadiyyah was appointed to the same post in Makkah. (It is reported that she went around whipping merchants, buyers, and sellers who violated the law). 

Women imams were not uncommon to be found in this period elsewhere too. Funeral prayer of Imam Shafii, the founder of the second most followed school of Islamic jurisprudence, was led by a woman, Nafeesah. Women participated in wars both as combatants and nurses. Women congregants have been reported to have challenged caliphs in mosques for several statements that they thought were not in sync with reason.

Religious sciences were influenced by women, and many of the architects of Islamic jurisprudence and theology were impacted by the contribution of Muslim women scholars.

Their role in transmitting narrations from the Prophet hardly needs evidence and their scholarly integrity was never questioned. A recent encyclopedia from the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies by Akram Nadvi has compiled 8,000 women who have been cited as narrators of Prophetic sayings.

In the early years of Islam, free thinking was the norm. Muslims negotiated their religion with their current situations and absorbed whatever wisdom they encountered. When the errors and abuse caught up with the ageing civilisation, it were the weak and the underprivileged that suffered first and most.

Emperors who replaced the caliphs, began to bank upon such sycophant clerics for religious opinion who mastered the art of progressively constricting the trajectory of religio-political authority.  Women were first to fall out of favour.

Then came the turn of those (for eviction from the charmed circle) who were not well-versed in Arabic in an Islamic empire which had by then grown multi-linguistic in the wake of conquests. Today, the entire secular-educated class is kept out of the process of interpretation of the theology for possessing no degree from madrassas.

It is this process of ossification of mindset within Islam that needs to be challenged. Only a narrow coterie, totally bereft of the knowledge of the issues and urges of the time, has come to monopolise the religious authority. No wonder then why such gender-unjust edicts are issued emerge from these centres with sickening regularity.   
It is time that political class stops pandering to these misogynist interpreters of Islam. Besides the contemporary fund of knowledge on gender, there is enough scope even within principal sources of Islam and the early history to restore or reassign a vibrant role for women in the social, political and economic life.

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