One maulana when invited to speak in a workshop of this title refused to come as he considered feminism un-Islamic. Is the use of this term objectionable from an Islamic viewpoint? Not at all.
In fact, Islam is the first religion which systematically empowered women when women were considered totally subservient to men. There was no concept of a woman being an independent entity and enjoying equal rights with dignity. What is feminism? Nothing but women’s movement to empower women and to consider them full human beings. Thus we see in western countries until the early 20th century that women did not enjoy an independent status. It was only after the 1930s that women won equal status legally and various western countries passed laws to this effect. Yet patriarchy still looms large in many societies.
Though the Quran empowered women and gave them equal status with men, Muslims were far from ready to accept gender equality. The Arab culture was too patriarchal to accept such parity. Many hadiths were ‘readied’ to scale down the woman’s status, and she, in most Islamic societies, became a dependent entity; often Quranic formulations were interpreted so as to make her subordinate to men. One such hadith even said that if sajdah (prostration) were permitted before human beings, a woman would have been commanded to prostrate before her husband.
This is totally contradictory to the Quran, but no one cares. It is patriarchy which influences our laws, not the Quran. In fact, when it comes to patriarchy its jurists make it prevail over Quranic injunctions. Either Quranic formulations were disregarded or interpreted so as to have them conform to patriarchy. The time has come to understand the real spirit of the Quran. But the Islamic world still does not seem to be ready. What is worse, due to poverty and ignorance Muslim women themselves are not aware of their Quranic rights. A campaign has to be launched to make women aware of their rights.
Another important question is: what is the difference between Islamic and western feminism or is there any difference at all? If we go by the definition of feminism as an ideology to empower women, there is no difference.
However, historically speaking, Muslim women lost the rights they had due mainly to the tribalisation of Islam, which was dominated by patriarchal values.
In the West, on the other hand, women had no rights but won them through a great deal of struggle known as ‘feminism’.
But there are significant differences between Islamic and western feminism. Islamic feminism is based on certain non-negotiable values, i.e. equality with honour and dignity. Freedom has a certain Islamic responsibility whereas in the West freedom tends to degenerate into licentiousness, not in law but certainly in social and cultural practices. In western culture, sexual freedoms have become a matter of human right and sex has become a matter of enjoyment, losing its sanctity as an instrument of procreation.
Though the Quran does not prescribe hijab or niqab (covering the whole body with a loose garment, including the face), as generally thought, it lays down certain strict norms for sexual behaviour. Both men and women have right to gratification (a woman has as much right as a man) but within a marital framework. There is no concept of freedom for extramarital sex in any form. In a marital framework, it is an act of procreation and has much sanctity attached to it.
It is important to emphasise that in a patriarchal society men decided the norms of sexual behaviour. It was theorised that a man has greater urge for sex and hence needed multiple wives and that a woman tended to be passive and hence had to be content with one husband at a time.
The Quran’s approach is different. It is not a greater or lesser degree of urge which necessitates multiple or monogamous marriages.
There is emphatic emphasis placed on a monogamous marriage in the Quranic verses 4:3 and 4:129. Multiple marriages were permitted only to take care of widows and orphans and not to satisfy man’s greater urge. Verse 4:129 gives the norm of monogamy and not to leave the first wife in suspense or negligence.
Thus, as far as the Quran is concerned, sexual gratification is a non-negotiable right for both man and woman tied in wedlock. Hence a divorcee and a widow are also permitted to remarry and gratify their urge.
In western capitalist countries, woman’s dignity has been compromised and she has been reduced to a commodity to be exploited. Her semi-naked postures and her sexuality are exploited commercially and unabashedly. It is totally against the concept of woman’s honour and dignity. Unfortunately, many western feminists do not consider this objectionable but accept it as part of women’s freedom. Some (though not as many) even advocate prostitution as a woman’s right to earn a living.
This is against the concept of Islamic feminism, which while sanctioning sexual gratification to be as much of a woman’s basic right as a man’s prohibits extramarital sexual liaison. This, on one hand, upholds a woman’s honour and dignity, and on the other, exalts marital relations to the level of sanctity, restricting it for procreation. Islamic feminists have to observe certain norms which western feminists are not obliged to.
The writer, Asghar Ali Engineer, is an Islamic scholar who also heads the Centre for Study of Society & Secularism, Bombay.