By Shelina Zahra Janmohamed
It is without doubt that Islamic ideology was pioneering in its re-assessment of women’s role and status in society and in its restructuring of social relations between men and women.
It broke away from two distinct heritages which immediately surrounded it. The first was Arabian pagan culture where women were considered chattel. They were items of property that belonged to their fathers and then their husbands, reminiscent of Europe till the 19th and even 20th centuries where women had no right to vote, nor to own property in their own name. In Arabia, in the 7th century, it was worse still.
If a woman’s husband died, she would then be inherited by her son to be his wife instead of his mother.
Aside from the economic and material situation of women, there was a social stigma attached to being a woman. The birth of a female child was considered shameful for a man. He could only be honoured by a male heir. In fact, so horrifying was her birth, that female infants were customarily buried alive, to spare the father’s shame. Even a supposedly more compassionate view of this action suggests that female babies were buried alive to protect them from the life of misery that a woman would suffer if she grew up.
Within this time and place, Islam’s very simple and clear views on women, and the roles and interaction of men and women must have felt liberating and refreshing.
The changes that Islam brought fell into two related areas – principles to act as the foundation for the philosophy of gender relations, and real laws which changed social reality itself.
Like all ideologies, the reality of the implementation of Islamic principles today is quite a different matter from the ideas and principles themselves. Social reality is quite a different thing to abstract concepts and in any context there is likely to be a difference between the two. Islamic principles and the reality of Muslim life are no exceptions. It is quite important therefore to create a distinction between the abstract and real life when looking at the subjects of Islam, women and feminisms.
Second, Islamic principles need to be interpreted and the idea that this interpretation is monolithic and set in stone is false. Both feminists and Muslims are guilty of this fallacy. Qur’anic text is considered sacred by Muslims, and the actions and sayings of the Prophet of Islam are also of extremely high value. The wording of these texts will not be argued over by Muslims, but their interpretation is quite a different matter. What this means Muslims need to understand is that any discussion over interpretation and implementation is not an attack on the sacred but rather it is in pursuit of illumination.
One of the great challenges to the Muslim community is to see the debate over women and their rights and roles as a means to improve and develop society rather than a subversive action against scripture and Divine teaching.
There are two key principles which will enable us to lay the foundations for gender relations within the Islamic framework.
The first is that male and female are from the same spiritual origin, and that it is the spirit that is the essence of the human being, as the Qur’an describes “created from one soul”.
The development and refinement of the spirit is the purpose of human existence. Therefore, male and female are from the same essence and have the same cosmological purpose.
The second principle is that male and female are two inextricably linked halves of each other, one cannot exist without the other, one will not be fulfilled without the other. Material and social completion are based on both male and female together, and these feed into spiritual completion at an individual and a social level. The Qur’an describes this as “finding peace and tranquillity in each other”.
By defining two separate entities – men and women – we do not make create a successful functioning whole. Rather, it is two halves – each of which is defined in relation to the other – that make a whole.
Using these principles as a basis, it is clear to see that a fundamental paradigm shift is required in the way that men, women and social relations between them are discussed. The focus of the gender relations debate should move away from women only to look at society as a whole, and the relationship between its two key components – men and women.
The challenge is, how do we build a model of inter-gender dialogue? What will be the key factors in shaping an environment which will be successful in creating a balanced whole with productive participation from both genders? How do we create a society of two equal and balanced halves that are garments for each other and which produce a climate of contentment, love and mercy?
Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf, a humorous and irreverent view of growing up as a Muslim woman. Her award-winning blog can be found at www.spirit21.co.uk
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