Rights of Our Women (1)
Dr. Aliyu Tilde
The recent permission granted women to vote and represent their constituencies in the Kuwaiti parliament has regenerated my interest to probe into the position of women in our society. For the next three weeks, I will be highlighting my views and understanding on the subject in this column. I am aware that some of these views may appear contentious to some readers. However, I would urge them to read the whole series before passing any judgment.
To start with, I would like to remind us today about the happiness that God, the Most High, has offered women in Islam. This is supposed to serve as a yardstick with which the present deviations should be measured. Next week, we shall examine how society has tampered with these rights, making the life of women less happy than ours. In the last part of the series, we shall focus such violations and restoration of such rights. I pray that our sisters would equally share with us the happiness of living, no matter how little that happiness could be.
Woman in History
At different times, depending on the governing philosophy of his society, man has given women different statuses, most of the time less deserving than his. She was once considered evil, as in some ancient Christian doctrines, not fit for any association beyond the biological role of propagation and recreation.
She was considered a property devoid of personality and feelings. She was therefore buried whenever the husband died along with his wealth as in ancient Egypt and some Asiatic civilizations. She was also buried alive as a little girl in pre-Islamic Arabia because she was considered a source of disgrace, humiliation and agony for her parents. At the same time, her sons and grandsons inherited her like any property after the death of their father.
Her beauty did not save her from these travails. In fact, it exacerbated it by demoting her to the status of an object. She was worshipped for her beauty when it was exceptional as in ancient Greece. In Egypt, the most beautiful girl, “the Bride of the Nile” as she was called, was annually drowned in the river as a necessary sacrifice to the River for a bumper harvest. In recent times, these practices might have ceased, but the woman has remained a subject of obsession. During the period of conflict an invading gang or army may rape her repeatedly or carry her away as a slave. At peace, she can hardly be a bride of a humble and hardworking husband. The licentious rich who have perfected the art of deceit will lure her. She is also be exploited as an object of advertisement, violence and public obsession particularly in the “civilized” West. This will eventually deprive her of her right to privacy leading to tragic consequences as we recently witnessed in the life and death of Diana, the “People’s Princess.”
I will not hesitate for a moment to blame man for most of these atrocities. At the same time, the woman should be humble enough to accept that an elaborate conspiracy of biology, physics, sociology and religion has made it difficult for her to live in peace and happiness.
Women Rights in Islam
Amidst this chaos in her status and exploitation of her personality, Islam came forward, declared and implemented over fourteen hundred years ago, a catalogue of rights in what is considered the most significant stride on her path to emancipation. First, it asserted that she is as much human as man is. They share the same organic origin (15:26) and human stock (4:1); both were created by God (55:1-3); went through the same embryonic development (23:12-14); each of them is responsible for his or her actions (74:38) for which they will be rewarded accordingly (17:97).
Islam declared that she is not a property to be buried for any reason (18:31) or inherited (4:19) but has the right, as does man, to generate wealth (4:32), manage it wisely (25:67) and inherit it (4:7).
In Islam she is no longer a devil but a human being that could attain the highest spiritual positions with endeavor and God’s guidance. God cited with all pleasure the exemplary cases of women who have attained such heights. He is most pleased with Asiya who stood against the insurmountable tyranny of Pharoah (66:11), and with Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary worshipped God with all dedication and guarded her chastity so impeccably that she earned the fortune of the virgin birth (66:12).
To guard against her biological exploitation, Islam prohibited certain marital combinations like a son marrying his mother (4:22). It accorded her the right to seek for a divorce once she believes that the marital relationship is unbearable though the husband is given a degree of right in divorce above the wife (2:228). Yet, he has been warned to exercise the greatest emotional restraint and fear of God in reaching such a decision. He is obliged to treat her with all kindness and affection (4:19), even after divorce (2:236-237). The list of women rights as described in the Quran is legend. I consider this a sufficient glimpse for the purpose of our discussion.
The Quran, however, does not look at women in isolation of their society. As the primary purpose of the Quran is to serve as a guide in spiritual and secular matters of the society, the woman is expected to claim and assert her rights in relation to the rights of other people with whom she associates in the society. Others like her children, parents, relations and the society in general have rights over her as well. Such rights are referred to as responsibilities, duties or obligations.
The rule in any responsible society is to attain a social equilibrium through striking a balance between rights and responsibilities. Failure to do so is what results in the exploitation of one section by another. In Islam such a balance is achieved through the principle of “from each according to his ability” or in the words of God, “no soul should be burdened beyond its capacity (2:233).” With this, God has assured people that these responsibilities are not unbearable burdens.
All legislation regarding women and their rights in the Quran were done with this motive. Given their vulnerability to injustice for various reasons, God addressed these rights and responsibilities elaborately beyond any ambiguity. The closest social issue to preoccupy God in the Quran is wealth, another source of contention in all societies. None of the rituals like prayers, zakat, fasting and hajj got the attention given to women affairs.
In all matters of worship, Islam has prescribed for the woman what it has prescribed for men. In the society, Islam accords her the right to keep her child in order to develop the necessary parental emotions of mutual benefit to both of them. While doing so, she is expected to carry out all biological functions of a mother, nurse and protector.
She is required, as is man, to participate actively in developing all sectors of her society including even military combat where necessary. In matrimonial relations, Islam has categorically demanded that she remains faithful, obedient and to guard their mutual integrity. The same applies to the husband. Obedience here is however restricted to only what is permissible and what is seen to be promoting the welfare of the family. Even so, she is not required to be subservient, or give up any of her fundamental rights under pressure from the husband or from the society.
The woman, as does the man, enjoys the cardinal principle of blanket permission (ibahah) to do anything in social matters except the prohibited. The woman, like the man, also stands to account for all cognitive abilities endowed on her by God (18:36). She is expected to strive hard, using all legal means possible, to excel in any vocation she chooses to undertake. Nothing should stand her way of becoming a saint, as did the famous Rabi'ah. Nothing also stands on her way to accumulate wealth if she is interested in doing so legally. Let her be an astronaut to discover heavenly secrets; a scientist fighting against diseases; or a teacher educating the society in various fields.
It goes without saying that she must be allowed to exploit all channels towards the realization of these ambitions. They include the right to a profession of her choice, the right of movement even when she is a wife, the right of association, the right to save and expend earnings, etc.
If she fails to give the society the maximum of her contribution, she could be punished for the dearth in the Hereafter.
These are rights and responsibilities that no one is allowed to violate, suppress or even suspend, regardless of his position, whether he is a father, a husband or a scholar. Let those doing so know that they are usurping God’s legislative powers similar to what some scholars of Judaism and Christianity are accused of in the Quran (9:31).
These rights, as liberating as they are, must be exercised along with obligations, the duties that could be categorized as fundamental. Certainly, they do not include house keeping or cooking. These and other similar ones shall remain voluntary until the end of time.
In its effort to create a society distinguished by peaceful coexistence and mutual respect, Islam attempted to uplift people above the level of animals. God introduced some restrictions that will guarantee a social environment favorable to the realization of the rights and duties of his servants.
First, there is a category of restrictions that are regarded permanent prohibitions. The laws of cohabitation and marriage, for example, are strongly defined in irrevocable terms. God has streamlined this human behavior because of the intense control that sexual impulse has on people, as reiterated by Freudian psychology. Indiscriminate intercourse is prohibited and classified among major sins (18:32). People are also prohibited from marrying their parents, blood sisters, in-laws, etc. (4:23). Also to guard against bloodshed and genetic confusion, women married to others are also forbidden (4:24).
Less restrictive prohibitions include those that could lead to indecent conduct. Knowing that evil start from the eye, both men and women are requested to lower their gaze and control their lust (24:30-31). For their peculiar physique, women are requested not to deliberately display their beauty in anyway provocative to public (24:31). This includes dresses and motions intended to reveal her inner beauty apart from what is apparent. Some of such restrictions do not apply when she is among her parents, husband, children or other men prohibited from marrying her. She is further allowed to dress lightly at advanced age when she is no longer an object of attraction (24: 60). The society is also instructed to respect the privacy of all adults and their families (24:27-28) especially during hours of relaxation (24:58).
Let us note here that the choice of dress is not restricted to a particular design. God knows that people vary in culture, taste and so on. Jurists have unanimously defined in two words what the dress should not be. It should not describe her figure or reveal her body. Fortunately the world of fashion has over the centuries developed a thousand and one dresses that could meet these requirements.
There are precautionary injunctions against indecency like those discouraging the imprudent seclusion of two marriageable adults of opposite sex.
Restriction on movements for all Muslim women does not seem to be supported by the Quran. Of course, some jurists have interpreted a verse (33:33) to mean exactly that. But traditions that are supposed to give us the historical application of this verse by the Prophet himself have in many cases suggested that this was a recommendation restricted to his wives (may God be pleased with them). Other women continued to carry out all their civil engagements in the society unrestricted. It was in pursuance of this right that a verse (33:33) was revealed that prescribes a mode of dressing for them that will guard them against molestation. If they were not allowed to move, this second verse could have been redundant. Exalted is God above that.
The Prophet’s wives might have never interpreted verse (33:33) in the isolating terms some people tried to do later. In a Tradition, Hafsah was reported in reply to Omar, that they were allowed to leave their homes whenever necessary. Also, Aisha was known to have even led a military expedition after the death of the Prophet in addition to her role as a teacher and specialist on Traditions.
That was how Islam intervened during that period of darkness to illuminate the life of women and emancipate them from centuries of male dominance. It is an irony to note that the women in the Western world started enjoying some of these rights only of recent.
Our intention was not to defend Islam. It has not committed a crime in the first place. However, looking at the poor status of women in our society today, we believe that a probe is necessary. Many women rights acclaimed by Islam are undoubtedly infringed upon. Such contradiction, according to my limited understanding, has nothing to do with Islam. Some of our behaviors that we vehemently attribute to Islam, I must confess, actually have been inherited from the rudimentary behaviors of the animal kingdom. We inherited others from our culture dating back to antiquities.
We shall continue next week if a pressing political issue does not distract us. You are most likely to find our biographic survey of the sufferings of women in our society a bit touching. I urge men to struggle hard to hold back their tears. As for women, whose life is full of denials and humiliation, tears are companions. Shedding them is at least one right we have never denied them.
13 July 1999
Rights of Our Women (2): The Life of My Daughter
My little girl, upon your request, I will describe for you what life looks like for the majority of your female colleagues in our society. Yours may or may not be exactly the same, but the difference is not likely to be significant even statistically.
A poet once described the dilemma in fathering a baby-girl in Arabia. He knew she would be a source of distress for both of them either through the poverty of a poor husband or the humiliating abuses of a rich one. Finally he prayed:
I ask God to take her (life) soon,
Even as she is the best I love.
The experiences of women about life vary considerably. It is not possible to describe it for you in a single instance. However, I will try to present the experience of the majority just to give you an overview of the likely problems ahead. Count yourself lucky if you turn out not to belong to this majority. I cannot assure you of anything because as a girl, your role in the society has already been predetermined and I alone cannot change it. Even to alter it a bit would require a lot of courage from both of us.
As a Baby
The lessons will start perhaps right now as soon as you cry in an effort to express your discomfort due to sickness, hunger or mere fatigue. If you are not fortunate enough and depending on the mood of your mother, she may beat you up or abandon you to go on with her domestic duties which she does not find amusing either. Undoubtedly, this will instill fear in your subconscious at this early stage. You will then be unwilling to share your feelings with us later in life.
You are entitled to a maximum of two years of breast-feeding as ordained by God. But you are most likely to be weaned within the first one year in order to give way to another baby that may come sooner than wished. What that means is that you are most likely to be impoverished and less immune against the numerous diseases in our surrounding. If the newborn would only be patient until you are three or four, you could have lived a healthier life, both physically and cognitively. I will not hide it from you. Most children give up at this early stage due to this fact. I pray you survive it. Also, your mother would not age prematurely once the new child decides to come a bit later. But just as you came unexpected, so would it.
After weaning you, it is not likely that you will continue to enjoy the attention of your mother. You know she will be busy with one thing or another: housekeeping, cleaning, gathering firewood and preparing our meals anytime we are blessed with one. She would trek long distances to sell the little milk we collect from the cattle we keep for others. She may go to the farm where she is paid a stipend after eight hours of hard labor daily. It is not my responsibility to attend to you. In fact, even when I am free, I would be at a roadside gossiping. You will be left at the mercy of other kids in the house who will then be free to maltreat you anyway they could imagine. May God save you, my little girl!
As a Girl
The difference between your fate and that of your brother will start as soon as you reach the age of six or so. There is a place called school where the wisdom of survival is taught. Your brothers will most likely attend it. You need to be very lucky to do so as a girl. Even if you do, their chances of success there would be better than your own. You will most likely forego schooling for marriage. We also think that you will be spoilt at a higher institution away from us, though your brothers may not be better behaved. After all, we expect your husband to meet all your basic needs of feeding, clothing, accommodation, if you are lucky to marry a generous one. Know that in our society women are hardly entitled to needs other than the basic. So your success in school, according to the view of the society, may not be crucial to us. Again you are not entitled to wealth. So even if we invest in your education and no matter our level of poverty, you will not be in a position to assist us. Then, you would look up to your husband for assistance. But you may not be his only wife, and he may not be well off or interested in the first instance.
Whether you go to school or not, as early as you are six or so, you will have to assist your mother in her petty trade (talla). Some people argue that this would hamper your education and expose you to bad habits. Well, how do we make ends meet, or where would we find the money to buy the provisions that you will need to use during marriage?
If you are fortunate to find us comfortable, talla could be waived for another duty. You will help your mother in all her domestic assignments. Such duties, I will be frank with you, are many. When they become overwhelming, as they often do, your mother becomes very quarrelsome. Do not bother. I understand her plight. However, it is a role that society expects her to play, as you will come to know and do later. You would then hardly have the time to revise your school lessons or do homework. If you are lucky that we are rich enough to have a domestic maid and both you and your mother have ample time, you may most likely waste it sleeping in the morning, especially on vacation days and weekends, or watching useless videos or satellite stations.
Though your brothers will grow to have a space of their own in the house, you will spend your childhood squatting in the house from one room to another. The lack of personal space will hamper your individuality even at that early age. When you want to read or contemplate on issues, you have to do so amidst the noise of a radio, the gossip of your mothers and sisters, or while attending to the young baby that is constantly left at your care.
Here also, I would not be of any help to you. Any attempt to find you a space will be interpreted as corrupting, a waste of money or become a source of gossip. After all, your stay with us will be brief, just up to your marriage. As you begin to mature, I am expected to cutoff all contacts with you and suppress all signs of affection. I am required to be harsh in voice when addressing you and stern in look whenever our eyes meet. And mind you, they will do so only occasionally. All your affairs will be vested in your mother who will start to prepare you for the role of an obedient housewife and motherhood.
You will one day begin to attract the attention of men who will approach you for different reasons that would vary only on legal terms. To win your heart, each of them will shower you with gifts. He will sing your beauty describing you as the first and the last. He will promise you that his house would be an Eden for you.
It sounds interesting. Does not it? If you are very lucky, the choice of a husband may be yours to make, otherwise it will be ours, depending on our living conditions. You have to sit down one day and make a choice of who among these singers will be your husband. Marriage, my little daughter, is the most important single event in your life. If you are not lucky, you may be forfeiting all your happiness and freedom by virtue of this single act.
It would not take long for the love songs to cease, once you are in his house. You will realize that you were neither the first nor the last. The person singing those praises may soon turn into the monster that may ruin your life forever. After all, you are not allowed to make any contingency in form of an independent life. It is taboo.
My daughter, I should not frighten you. I want you to be optimistic. So let us pray that you will make the right choice that, according to your judgment then, would guarantee your happiness. You will then experience some happiness especially in your early years of marriage. However, going by history, it is not likely that this happiness will last long. Your beauty will start to fade with age. If your husband does not exercise restraint, you will soon discover that he is singing the praises of another woman. Before your tears could dry, she will come to occupy your position, indeed a better one, in his heart and house.
This additional wife, whether good or bad, will obviously complicate matters for you. I expect you naturally to love your husband and become imprisoned in his heart the longer you stay in his house. This will make you feel jealous. But do not prejudge her. It is likely that she may be as good as yourself. In that case, you have to contend with only one thing: pray that your husband will be fair enough to continue treating you with affection and love, no matter how small that could be. If he is not, you will be thrown into despair and frustration. You may never see his smiles nor hear his sweet words, no matter how you try to appease him. Amidst such life of intolerance, ingratitude, abuses and denials, the society requires you to remain submissive to his whims, showing forbearance and forfeiting all rights of redress.
Your husband will have the last say about your life, not myself, your father. As soon as you step into his house, you become his property. He is free to keep it at all cost, anyhow and for as long as he wishes. His destiny becomes yours. You have no right to independent thinking. He will think on your behalf, decide on your behalf and act on your behalf. You will have no profession except that which he permits. And that permission is hardly granted. Still, remaining in this state of agony in his house may be your best bet. You will be a nuisance if you return home. We never had a space for you. You will also stand a good chance of forfeiting your children. You have to stay at least for their sake as most women do. Life could be tough, but for members of your gender especially!
Let us remain optimistic still. Even if your husband tries to remain fair, caring and catering, that happiness may be brought to an end sometimes suddenly by economic or social factors. Do not expect everyday to be Friday. His business could collapse thereby pushing the whole family to the brink of poverty. That alone could turn him aggressive. He may even disappear to abandon you and the children, as is common these days.
During these hard times or whenever he chooses to be miserly, you will find yourself selling your possessions, one after another, to fend for your children until your room becomes empty. It is something you cannot help. Both you and your children would need to feed, clothe yourselves and maintain an appreciable level of hygiene. Finally, before he could recover through another employment or contract or raise another capital, it may be ten years or more. In most cases, such recovery may never come.
At Old Age
As you face these challenges, old age will be catching up with you, naturally. By then either your mother or myself, or both of us, have tasted the bitter experience of death. You may be left alone with other poor sisters or brothers who would also be burdened with similar difficulties. Your husband then inevitably becomes your father. You may not be lucky if he dies first.
With all daughters married facing their own hard times; with sons living on their own most likely in distant places; with the body daily growing weaker; and with no enterprise to maintain and keep you busy, life could be unbearable. You will start to recall life from its sweet beginning to how it gradually led to your sad loneliness.
As you recall the lives of all your loved ones including your mother, friends and myself; as you try to glance back at how each of us died, the imagination of your death becomes your closest companion. You sleep with it and wake up with it. Your brother may find delight in recalling his numerous lifetime achievements then. However, you are most likely to count only two: that you have propagated mankind, as did others before you; and that you have handed over the baton of suffering to your siblings as you received it from your mother.
I pray that by the end of all these travail, you may find solace in the life beyond when your soul will rest in peace. May it be! Amen.
My little daughter, you can now understand better the story of the poet with which I started this narration. These frustrations were the reasons why Arabs preferred to bury their daughters alive as described by God in the following verses:
“And if any of them receives the news of his newborn girl, his face becomes darkened, burning with fury. Hiding from his people due to the bad news he received (he will contemplate): does he keep her (alive) in humiliation or bury her in the soi?.” (16: 58-59)
15 July 1999
Rights of Our Women (3): Development
Fortunately, when talking about the right of women in a Muslim society we would only talk about restoration, not change per se. This is so because hardly do we find a society, even in the West that has accorded women the rights given by Islam centuries ago and which we described in the first part of this series.
Yet, while discussing the rights of women today people get divided easily into two exclusive camps: one advocating the retention of the status quo in the name of culture. No matter how oppressive that culture could be, they will always find one reason or another to defend it. They cry abomination to any effort that will reinstate her right as defined by God. They strongly emphasize duties, many of them ill defined, at the expense of rights. The second camp would look at the woman in the Western world with adoration and would advocate the grafting of her condition on our society with little or no alteration. They emphasize rights at the expense of duties.
For meaningful results to be achieved, rights and obligations of women have to be balanced on the egalitarian scale of nature that sees them one as individuals with the right to independent opinion and as a being that is in some way different, but not inferior, to man, and two as part of a society owing it obligations as do men..
Striking at this balance is the subject of our discussion today and the next three weeks. We will take an approach that will highlight the properties of its state and describing, as we go along, how each could be achieved.
Perhaps a better starting point would be to discuss the component of woman development. Muslim homes, which are the subject of our discussion in these series, in most cases tend to believe that a girl should be brought up essentially different in every respect from her boy counterpart. Sometimes this is informed by the wrong conception that she is both physically and emotionally weaker. Sometimes it is done in view of her future subservient role as a housewife under the dominance of a husband. Both assumptions are wrong, never supported by Islam.
Thus girls grow with this belief that daunts their ability to maximum discovery of their individual potentials and goal attainment. Consequently, the society comes to look at them as liabilities rather than assets.
The issue of development is a crucial one as it goes to define other aspects of life. What is wrong in adopting the dictum of equal opportunities preached by Islam? Why do we not simply start to believe that the girl is entitled to the same happiness as the boy; that she should also be prepared to confront difficulties in life as he; that God has placed her fate in her own hands, and when the chips are down, she, not anyone else, will account for her action before Him? We should therefore allow her access to all the skills required for maximum exploitation of her innate abilities.
I admire agrarian families in which no discrimination between boys and girls is condoned either on the field or at home. They would go to farms carrying implements, seeds and fertilizers on their heads; cultivate the soil; apply the fertilizer; weed the farm; harvest the yield and bring it home, all together. If they own a dairy, they will go to milk them early in the morning, set the animals free and look over them in the ranch, together without discrimination. When they are at home, why should not the boy be taught domestic activities just as the girl should be taught gardening or driving a pickup whenever possible? I wish she will have a flat-tire somewhere in the bush on her way back from the farm and no one would be around to spoil her with assistance. The afternoon is getting late. She will drop from the wheel amidst disappointment and fear. She will go to the boot and pick the jack and other tools. After loosing the wheel, she will return to the boot to pick the spare. And how I wish she finds it flat too! Yes. Let her know right now that life could be a mixture of disappointment, failure, frustration, hopelessness and, occasionally, fun. What to do? The nearest village is 2 km away. Let her decide, either to sit down crying or roll the tire all the way to and from the vulcanizer in the village. By the time she returns home, it will be late in the evening and she will be blessed with a story to tell and to remember. She would have learnt the lesson of making contingencies.
If she is not strong enough to undertake a task, let her be assisted by stronger boys or girls. But she must never be taught how to shy away from responsibility.
In undertaking these tasks early in life, a girl is allowed to develop subtle skills in craft, learning and judgment. She learns from the challenges in such a free atmosphere the pre-requisites of survival: hard work, honesty, ingenuity, independent thinking, etc. She also learns that life could be rough just as it could occasionally be blissful, that the world is what we make of it. From her participation in the livelihood of the family she comes to see boys as her natural equals. It is always interesting that sometimes such girls turn out to be stronger than the boys on the field.
If she was used to defending herself early in life, then her husband will not have an easy ride in molesting her. It will however be more pitiful if she excels intellectually in the classroom. I enjoy seeing bragging boys dwarfed to a cheering position on a prize giving day or convocation. May God forgive our late Egyptian friend Sheikh Ayyub of Sokoto! He had an exceptionally bright daughter who one day received prizes more than she could carry alone. Her elder brother had to come forward to assist her in the collection. Back at home later, their father humorously asked the boy in their typical Egyptian Arabic dialect: “Eiyt fa’izet heselt int, ya waladi’ (what prize did you get, my son?).” The boy replied the father with an equal sense of humor, saying: “Ana? Rabbina addeni hekmeh, ya abati (Myself? God had gifted me with wisdom, O father). Everybody present laughed profusely.
I must also recount the story of a very intelligent girl, the daughter of Sanusi Zayyad, the banker from Katsina. It happened at A.B.U. long time ago. Right from her first year she used to come first in virtually everything to the astonishment of the whole university community. Her classmates could not raise their heads on campus among their colleagues from other faculties. They were simply shouted down thus: “Shut up, jare. “You wey lady de beat for class.” They would often reply with every sign of defeat and hopelessness: “Ha, that one no be lady wo, na disaster.” But they did not know ‘disaster’ until the convocation day. It was certainly a witnessed one! ‘Disaster’ collected all the prizes for MBBS at the occasion, except that of physiology (which I supposed she conceded deliberately). You can imagine the cheers on part of the crowd, just as you can imagine the envy of her male classmates! Before you think that I was an exemption, let me confess that the best student in our undergraduate class has always been a girl, the smallest and youngest for that matter. You may wonder where men like Tilde were. Actually, we were far behind, separated from her in position by other girls still, claiming to be more gifted in ‘wisdom’.
Most of the frustration we encounter with new marriages in our society has to do with the ill preparation of girls in management of resources and temper. It is natural that a girl that has all along been told someone will cater for her needs and left without knowing the challenges of acquiring and managing resources will come to mismanage not only the little resources of her husband but also her temper. Very soon, the whole marriage heads to waterloo. A stitch in time saves nine!
I have recently discovered that one of the most important contributors of the failure of our girls to develop intellectually is the absence of independent space. For any development to take place, time and space are required in addition to resources.
Most of our homes are yet to provide a space for our girls. The boy will enjoy a boys quarters, and the girl nothing. She has to ‘manage’ the room of her mother, if her father is not to pass the night there. When he is, then she has to shift to the room of her stepmother.
Traditionally, there could have been nothing bad with that since the girl is expected to get married as soon as she reaches puberty and was not required to learn anything more than cooking, talla and a bit of Islam, if she is lucky. Today, it is surprising that most of us treat our daughters the same way. There may not be much to afford it in many families particularly in the sub-urban areas. But in moderately rich families, I see a ‘girls quarters’, built within the ‘watchful’ eyes of parents, to be an investment that will yield dividends in terms of better cognitive development.
This aspect of life has to be singled out for special consideration. It is an irony that we have to do so despite the fact that our history is full of women that were luminaries in this field. We often recall the contributions of Aisha, the mother of the faithful and wife of the Prophet (S); of Nana Asma’u, the daughter of Shehu Usman Danfodio. I was recently impressed to note that in Yola this literary culture still exist among the descendants of the learned scholars of the 19th century. Women in their sixties and seventies still hold impressively attended sessions of tafsir, the commentary on the holy Quran. They do so with such impeccable authenticity that could match the performance of any malam. I wish the general population would take examples from these luminaries. They are products of our culture, indigenous to the core. Let us divorce this notion that women do not need education or they are not intelligent enough to comprehend it.
In doing so, whether as parents or husbands, we must not discriminate between one form of knowledge from another. Islam has never done that. Why should men claim a better authority to design for women their house or the garden that surrounds it, the bed they sleep on or that the cutlery in their kitchen?
And you know many times even great men, as human beings, do take wrong decisions. In history, educated women stood to correct them. The famous incident to recall here was when a woman decisively and correctly challenged the decision of Caliph Omar bin al-Khattab, the leading companion of the Prophet in sense of judgment. The great, fearless and no-nonsense looking Omar was humbled by the validity of her argument to the level of confession. He immediately declared: “Omar has erred, and a woman is correct.” In his deliberate choice of words, Omar was telling us that a personality as high as that of his could err in judgment while a woman could be correct.
Lastly education is the right of women as much as it is of men. The Prophets injunctions on the necessity for education specifically mentioned women to avoid ambiguity. He said, “seeking knowledge is compulsory on every Muslim man and Muslim woman”. Knowledge is also the gateway to piety. God has said that those who fear God most among his servants are the learned (22: 27-28). Some people will immediately stand up and claim that his verse applies to knowledge of religion. Foul! Read the verse in its context. It is not talking about religion per se but about how the knowledge of biology, geography and science generally lead to the discovery and fear of God.
Let me alert the reader to an important implication of discriminatory development between the sexes. No statistics has shown women to be inferior to men in IQ. So consider, just for the sake or argument, that if half (50%) the population are dull and half are bright, a quarter (25%) of women will be dull and a quarter will be bright, naturally. The same applies to men. Now a society dominated by men will be operating at only quarter capacity rather than the average (half) accorded by genetics. You can imagine what a loss would it have been if a girl like ‘disaster’ was not imbued with the values of hard work or was even not sent to school in the first place. Certainly the society would have been deprived of the role of treating the thousands of patients which she has been doing since graduation about twenty years ago.
Let our girls be given equal opportunity in development. If they have any innate shortcoming, let it be allowed to naturally manifest itself. Even then, let us work to circumvent it as soon as it is identified, not accentuate it. This is more so because experience has shown that the society always saddles them with tasking responsibilities later in life. Owing to the laziness of our men, wives today contribute to the economy of the house in no small measure; in many cases they represent its lifeline. In majority of houses she has to buy soap, children wear, and so on. When her daughter would get married, she buys virtually all the household and decoration items, both required and expected. The husband simply abandons his role at her doorstep. And as we have seen many times during periods of economic hardship especially in the past fifteen years, the husband simply defaults, he disappears leaving behind several children in the hands of an ill-prepared mother.
Let us even assume that the husband is rich, he could die ‘prematurely’, as it has happened many times. The hungry vultures among his relatives will quickly descend to assert or snatch the right of managing his estate. In most cases they devour it. God has warned against it in very strong terms (4: 9-10). Before long, what used to be an enviable family is reduced to begging and licentiousness. Had their mother been equipped with the skill, courage and wisdom of independence, they could not have suffered so much. She could have insisted on managing their estate efficiently. I would here recall the praiseworthy stand of a widow of our faithful friend. When people started to think of how to assist them, I learnt that she complained against the family being projected as an object of pity. She simply dusted her Masters degree and took up an appointment. Initially, I thought she was arrogant. Now, I understand that she took the right stand. I salute her courage and continue to pray for them. May God guide them!
Apart from economic benefits, a mother equipped with skills of survival would train her children better. She would be more alert and appreciating to their needs and problems because she is intellectually in tune with contemporary societal trends. The father may need little attention to the management of his children’s affairs, though it does not justify a total abdication.
We shall not close this discussion without pointing out that the cost of girl’s development squarely rests on her parents. Financing the education of a married woman beyond the basic teachings of Islam is not obligatory on her husband, though it would be highly appreciated if he could volunteer. However, if God has favored them in wealth it is highly commendable and rewarding if husbands and parents would support the development of their wives and daughters respectively. God and His messenger have enjoined that men, as husbands and parents, should show the understanding, affection, mercy and respect that are necessary to make life less cumbersome to their women. Finally, “no soul should be tasked beyond its capacity”. (2:233)
We shall apply brakes here. Next week we shall continue on the more contentious issue of economic empowerment. Peace!
5 September, 1999
Rights of Our Women (4): Economic Rights
It is not my intention to make these discussions longer than necessary. But given the importance of the issue of women in the society and the fact that I may not be opportune to discuss them in the future, I preferred to be a bit more elaborate than usual. I hope readers will forgive this indulgence. Today we intend to briefly discuss some issues regarding their economic rights.
“I Cater for Her, What Else?”
The issue of economic rights of women is a bone of contention in many homes. Husbands for example feel that they have the right, to unilaterally deny their wives the right to earn wealth. This tendency that is common among our neo-bourgeoisie is completely unfounded in Islam and to a good extent alien to our culture. The foolish question is asked: “why should the woman be employed outside for example if the husband can adequately cater for all her needs? Questions like these show how infantile our intellects are even if we claim to be educated adults.
How on earth, in our right senses, could we contemplate of meeting all the economic needs of another person? To say so means to reduce her entire horizon of ability, imagination and ambition to the tiny spaces that our slipper-looking pockets can afford. Her needs? Do we think they are just feeding and shelter? I think she was already enjoying that when we ‘whisked’ her away from her father. Our sisters deserve to live at a level higher than this animal and primitive one. More so when God Himself has accorded them that right.
Talking about the subject, the celebrated Egyptian scholar, Muhammad Qutb wrote in his book, Islam the Misunderstood Religion, said:
“Men and women are also equal in their right to realize their material needs in the world including similar rights to hold property, and dispose of it as they should wish. They are free to mortgage it, to give it in lease, or bequeath it, sell or by it or exploit it for his or her own benefit.. “Unto men a fortune from that which they have earned, and unto women a fortune from that which they have earned.” (4:32)
Women have ambitions, spiritual and secular, that have to be met with nothing other than wealth. Like men they are expected to practice zakat, charity, gifts, etc. Again, women, whether married or single, remain obliged to cater for their parents especially at advanced age. Even when parents are well off, daughters should not be denied the pleasure of awarding them gifts. Also, marriage does not necessarily guarantee a harmony in values between the husband and the wife. On any social project, it may be likely that they will differ on the question of value or its emphasis. How could women do this when they are denied the right to economic independence?
In the verse (33:35) that explained duties that deserve His forgiveness and reward in the Hereafter, God specifically equated men with women in each case. This was necessary perhaps so that men do not claim monopoly over such duties. Nor should women think that all it requires entering paradise is leaning on their husbands.
We can illustrate our argument by going back to the history of Islam. One strong example will suffice. The first and most formidable financier of Islam at its embryonic state was our faithful mother Khadijah, the wife of the Prophet (May God be pleased with them). She used to be an international businesswoman even before the prophethood of Muhammad (S). A later wife of the Prophet, Aisha, was envious of the honor with which the Prophet used to remember Khadijah, long after she had died. She once asked him: “why do you bother about an old woman lying in the grave?” Promptly, the Prophet sounded a point of correction. He reasserted the exalted position of Khadijah by recounting her support during those days of dire need. Khadijah, like Abubakar, used to receive greetings from God through his Prophet.
Many scholars and husbands hide behind the disguise of motherhood to denounce the economic empowerment of women. Even celebrated and widely respected writers like Mohammad Qutb quickly regressed into this trap very early in their discourse on role of women in the society. However, it is such a trap that once they enter it, scholars find it difficult to argue comprehensively on the modus operandi for other rights of women.
I would like us not to confuse issues. Motherhood is different from the housekeeping roles assigned our wives. For example, for most part of the daytime, children are outside the home in schools learning western education in the morning and Islam in the afternoon, with a break of only an hour as we used to have it. Is not this an ample time for the mother to undertake in an economic activity? After all, not all earnings have to be made outside the house. A woman trader for example could have trusted assistants just as the Prophet was an assistant to Khadijah before their marriage. The home office and industry today is the fastest growing sector in the American economy.
Also if the economy of the husband could warrant a servant in the house as most rich homes were in past, she should be saved the agony of passing her entire time cooking for thirty or forty people, more so when it is not an obligation under such circumstances. To argue otherwise implies contradicting the legitimate rights God has given her. And exalted is God above any contradiction, no matter how slight!
One way of effectively making motherhood a strangulating instrument is to turn the woman into a perpetual reproductive machine. Though this is not good, medically and socially, it seems to be the norm. Without any apparent survival threat, many families today hardly display the discipline required in their private lives. This would lead me to a contentious and largely misunderstood issue that I am not ready to discuss in detail here.
But suffice it to say that this level of carelessness is unwarranted and not supported even by our tradition. I will talk about the Fulani culture with which I am more conversant. A wife delivering for the first time is kept away from her husband deliberately to avoid an undesired pregnancy, not for a month or two, but in most cases for two or three years until when the child is weaned. This is often repeated during the second time of delivery, sometimes even for the third time. After that, she is seriously warned of careless mating that will result in an annual birth like a rabbit. She is rebuked if anything close to that occurs. A person who has lost his tradition would call it family planning. I call it my tradition!
We seem to have lost our bearings since colonization started to shatter our institutions 100 years ago. We today misinterpret the indigenous as alien. Lest we forget, we should mention that there is an assortment of traditional herbs and methods used to avoid unwanted pregnancy. A popular one is breast-feeding though its success is not universal. No wonder our women today wither faster than ever. Before they are thirty-five, some of them have given birth to over ten children. If such happens in a polygamous house, the whole house will be littered with dozens of children with no sense of moral direction or education whatsoever. They become a nuisance and problematic to the society. Only the blind could fail to read this emboldened encryption on the wall. If their parents are in the civil service or in ‘business’, they have no option but to cheat and loot the treasury.
So much about tradition, let us talk about Islam. A famous (I did not say authentic) hadith is quickly quoted to defend our sexual carelessness. That the Prophet has ordered us to ‘marry and multiply’ so that he would be proud of the size of his umma on the Day of Judgment. A question that quickly counters this hadith is the undeniable fact that the Prophet was never an advocate of quantity at the expense of quality, nor is God, the Most High. God and His Prophet will definitely be pleased with a morally upright few than a swarm of decadent, illiterate sinners. This is especially true when we consider that wealth is not the only requirement to bring up children upright. Attention of an individual has a limit. With thirty children or so, one would wonder how each will enjoy the attention he requires from his father at various levels of his development during his first forty years. I hope that one day we shall return to discuss this issue in a greater detail.
Meanwhile, what raised the digression is how we allowed our lust to restrict motherhood to the parochially mechanistic role of propagation. This leads to the wrong impression created that motherhood is a full time job that should preoccupy all women irrespective of other functions they are required to serve in the society. In its present uncontrolled animalistic form, motherhood strangulates the right of women to participate meaningfully in intellectual, social and economic development of their society. One wonders what happens when the woman is infertile.
Those who deny women these rights for whatever reason are simply selfish, floating on the sacrifices of others. When they send their daughters to school, they would like only women to teach them. In the hospitals, they would like only female doctors and nurses to examine them. When they see an educated girl who is neat and speaking with an adorable politeness they start to salivate and soon ask for her hand in marriage. Now, if others had not made sacrifices to train their daughters and wives, how would have the desires of these selfish individuals been satisfied?
Whatever would be the validity or otherwise of our argument, the fact remains solidly undeniable. No one has the right to deny a woman the right to economic enterprise. I have seen many husbands do it unilaterally, some even claim that it is in the interest of religion. Let them fear God and immediately ask forgiveness for lying against Him. If hell is the abode of whoever lies to the Prophet, I do not know what should be the abode of anyone who lies against God.
I agree that rights should not be applied without discretion. We know that the wife and the husband must sit down and scrutinise the society to find out means by which these rights could be exercised with minimum affordable ‘collateral damage’ to marital relationship and parental responsibilities. The problem we are highlighting here is that we are refusing to do so and choose the easiest option of short-circuiting the whole issue and calling on God to witness the sincerity of our commitment.
I do not expect to see my wife or daughter in Abuja, chasing contracts imprudently amidst predatory males, breaking all rules of decency that Islam has set. At the same time, that does not cancel her chances of doing other economically gainful jobs. People will be surprised to know that there are dozens of ways to run businesses successfully without falling victims to male abuse. There are professions peculiar to women. Count also board membership, stock trade and small-scale industry. E-commerce for example will revolutionize business globally before the end of the first decade of the 21st century. Physical contacts in business would be reduced to the barest minimum. This is a bonanza which Muslim women in other parts of the world are earnestly waiting for. So why not our sisters, if they can afford to participate?
Let’s face it. Beyond the opulence of the GRAs, most husbands are financially indebted to their wives. So let our sisters never be denied the opportunity to earn, be it in the public or private sector. Let them seek for Heaven as we do, if at all. Let us save them the humiliation of asking for every penny that they may need to fulfil their personal needs and ambition, be they spiritual or secular. “Unto men a fortune of what they earned, and unto women a fortune from what they earned. (Envy not one another) but ask God of His bounty” (4:32)
I have come to realize that women are intrinsically endowed with discretion. They have to walk an extra mile to become loose. Recently, I visited a Christian girl in a female hostel of a university and found that she has written right on top of her bed that: “a beautiful woman that lacks discretion is like a gold ring on the nose of a pig.” I exclaimed, “Great! I hope this will guide you throughout your stay here.”
Since I have some space, let me chip in a comment that I could not do last week. It is about a segment of a verse (3: 36) saying: “..the male is not like the female..” Some authors opened their discussion on role of women in the society using this verse. It will be stating the obvious to say that a woman is physically different from a man, that she undergoes menstruation and conception, that she needs to nurse the baby and so on. Man does none of these. What I would disagree with however is for any commentator to use this as a basis for delineation of social responsibilities prima facie.
The woman herself knows better what task (I did not say profession) is awkward to her. Only exceptions among them drive passenger buses or caterpillars, do menial construction jobs and so on, even in ‘advanced’ countries. Yet many of them could be transport and building engineers, architects and so on. Let us dispel this notion that only medicine and education are for women. They may find them more in tune with their nature but they are not their exclusive preserves, just as other disciplines are not the exclusive preserves of men.
If this was a forum for Qur’anic exegeses, we could have elaborately discussed the context of this verse to the contrary of that general supposition. But suffice it to say that in the first place, though this expression is found in the Quran, not all commentators ascribed it to God. Abu Bakr and Ibn ‘Amir have read this part of the verse to imply that its source was the mother of the Virgin Mary, and God was only reporting her words. She used this statement to express her near disappointment at having a baby girl; she thought that a boy would serve the Temple better since he is not restricted by things like menstruation and so on. As if to prove her wrong, God turned out Mary to be exceptionally better several billions of men. This is a lesson for us, not a pretext. “And we made the son of Mary and his mother a symbol..” (23: 50)
Mischief of Women
There is this belief in almost all societies that women know how to plan mischief better than do men. Many learned people fall into the following fallacy of ignorance: A verse is quoted from the story of Joseph that reads, “..your evil plan is great”. Now this is often contrasted with where God said, “the evil plan of Satan is certainly weak.” So it is quickly concluded that women are greater mischief-makers than even Satan. Another foul! The contents of the verse in chapter “Joseph” were the words of the wazir whose wife attempted to seduce Joseph. They were not words of God per se. In the second verse, God was assuring Muslims that with His support, the evil plans of Satan is “ certainly weak”.
The problem, as I see it, arises from two precepts. One, we assume that we are more intelligent than women. But like any creature that is cornered, a woman will naturally think wonders to our astonishment. Two, on the average, when it comes to relation with the opposite sex, for biological reasons of affection and protection that tilts heavily on the side of man, man is usually weak and so easily yields to the ‘trap’ of the woman. That is why the Prophet advised us to “become cautious of the world and become cautious of women.”
Rights are not Obligations
An educationally qualified woman has the right to remain idle if she willingly chooses to do so because rights are not obligations on people who possess them. But she should never think that she is serving God better than those who have chosen to exercise such rights. They are on the right track, perhaps gaining more reward than she does by serving others. I am only afraid if she is asked on the Day of Judgment what she used her “intellect” for, as warned in 17:36. Meanwhile, here on earth, she has wasted public funds which could have been used by others who have the community, not themselves only, at heart.
Or perhaps it is because the economy is not buoyant enough to employ all. If it were, the story could have been different. In rural areas our sisters manufactured a lot of textile materials and many items before modern textiles competed them out. It was unfortunate that whenever modern means of production are introduced, little thought is given to the political economy of the indigenous and its promoters. As of now, since there are few jobs around, people unconsciously feel that women could be coerced to stay at home. Still I would ask, which maxim ever said “men first?”
5 September, 1999
Rights of Our Women (5): Social Rights
Our society seems to be obsessed with isolation of women in an attempt to guard them against the ‘evil’ that men do. This part will focus on this practice because of its strangulating effect on other rights. But first, let’s lay a foundation by highlighting four characteristics of the social environment of Islam.
One, Islam is a religion that believes in social interaction to the extent of obligation. This is reflected in its choice of ‘community’ to represent the best medium for the social expression of its ideals. All individuals in the community owe one another one obligation or another. Even where functions could be carried out individually, like in rituals, congregational sessions are preferred. The Prophet was reported saying “togetherness is a blessing, separation a torment”; that “I advice you to remain together, for the wolf eats the strayed sheep.”
Two, there is no gender discrimination in the socialization. For reasons relevant to the prevalence of social harmony and maintaining a high moral standard, God imposed some restrictions and conditions on the behavior of both sexes. No one can therefore claim that he is free to do what he likes, because as he asserts his rights others would be asserting their rights on him. The two have to be compromised somehow.
Three, Islam expects its adherents to be guided by the fear of God in mind, speech and deed. The litmus test for piety is obedience to the commands of God and His messenger. There could be difference in interpretation of some of such commands, but the overall spirit remains the same, that everybody is ready to do as God enjoins.
Four, Islam does not seek to wipe out sin completely, for two reasons. One it is impossible. Cases of adultery for example did happen even in the ideal Medinite community under the leadership of the Prophet. Two, God is not interested in that either. Someone somewhere and somehow will have to sin before He could answer some of His names like Al-Ghaffar, the Most Forgiving. In fact this is why He made us people, not angels. What He is interested in is to reduce sins to the barest minimum that could be tolerated by a decent civilization.
These were the points that guided the sociology of the first Muslim community in Medina under the leadership of the Prophet. Under them women enjoyed all the social rights accorded them by God. They went to congregational prayers; visited the Prophet in the mosque amidst his companions to ask or complain about one problem or another; went to the market to purchase or sell an item; followed warriors to the battlefield for encouragement, nursing or even fighting when necessary.
Between that time and now, the conditions do not look pretty the same especially in our society. Let’s us briefly review how this came about.
Reasons for ‘Isolation’
Four reasons unformed the idea of restricting women to their houses. One is the restrictive interpretation of verse (33:33), which we discussed in part one of this series.
Secondly, there was a time when some scholars felt that the woman certainly needed to be protected from exploitation by the decadent. She was once equated with alcohol in Damascus and Baghdad. She was the most precious commodity in the slave market and a subject of abuse by the oppressive political establishment. Even here in Hausaland, we learnt from our grandparents an ancient exploitative practice of married women forcefully confiscated by district heads. No one therefore wanted the beauty of his wife or daughter to be known. When such district heads went on visit to any village, their conduct was decadent beyond description. So the learned in particular ‘domesticated’ their wives, and their followers naturally imitated them. It was not long before ‘taming’ women came to be regarded as something praiseworthy to this day.
The third reason has to do with our sad state of economic and social development. When people are not intellectually busy, either through scholarship or by economic activity, they simply regress to animalistic instincts and desires. Such societies in sociology are called traditional societies. Naturally, one of the major pre-occupations of such societies, as the experts have ascertained, is sex. The ‘Third World’ is largely a traditional society, indisputably. We have idle youths that cannot find any work that would engage their hands and intellect for most part of the day. They would sit by the road side, looking at every girl and woman that passes by, making all sorts of fantasies. If they were in factories or libraries or occupying hot managerial positions, perhaps they could not have enjoyed this ‘forbidden fruit’ of idleness.
Poverty and immorality are twin brothers. Under harsh economic conditions, survival makes people to sacrifice their values. This fact has been elucidated in the Quran many times. The Prophet was reported saying, “whenever poverty set to plaque a nation, unbelief will say ‘carry me along.” Among his constant prayers was, “My Lord, I seek thy refuge from poverty..” No tangible progress will therefore be made on the moral lane of a society without creating jobs and raising the productivity of its members.
The fourth aspect is that of biology. Many of us, including myself, are simply jealous. Some of us would quote the Prophet (?) that “Jealousy is part of faith.” They may be flattered by the comment of some European authors who would acclaim the relevance given to this behavior in our society. Leave them alone. Prince Charles would have loved to domesticate ‘our’ Princess while at the same time enjoy his mistress, Camilla. The fact remains clear to whoever had the opportunity to study biology that jealousy is a characteristic of all higher animals, the vertebrates. Thus dozens of books have been written on ‘territoriality’. However, Islam wishes to lift us above that primitive status through a system of checks and balances that will bring to equilibrium the contending forces of biology and sociology that tend to pull us in different direction.
Let us note that animal trends could be assets when applied judiciously. That is why God endowed us with them. For example, the human species could have disappeared had the desire of recreation not been paired with the biological act of procreation. But as God pointed our (47:12) such trends could also be retrogressive when misused, leading to moral decadence and exploitation.
So when I deny my wife the right of movement even in the form permitted by Islam, how am I sure that I am not so acting under the pressures of culture, economics, or simply biology?
Muslim scholars and virtually all contemporary Islamic movements who are up to date with developments in the world are earnestly interested in freeing woman from the excruciating clutches of these forces by emphasizing her relevance to nation building. They say ‘the woman is half the society’. Sheikh Yusuf al-Qardawi recently on a visit to Sudan said ‘No, she is more than half’, if you add her influence on children and husband to her undeniable demographic contributions.
Restrictions and Conditions
We will now move further to state that owing to the emphasis that Islam lays on building a society with high level of moral standard and peaceful coexistence, God has prescribed some behavioral sacrifices to be made. Such sacrifices or responsibilities may appear infringing on the surface. They are however unavoidable necessities, affecting both men and women. Differences in the detail of the sacrifices arose from natural differences in morphological characteristics of the two sexes.
The most elaborately discussed among these responsibilities in the Quran is movement. According to the Quran (16:80), the home is the place where the kinetic energy of our soul, mind and body is at its lowest level; it is the most peaceful place. We are supposed to relax at home, enjoying the least of restrictions, interference or acrimony. So we are naturally expected not to leave our homes except for an important reason.
It is necessary however to go out in pursuit of one duty or another, secular or religious. What a pity! If the distance is a bit far, God Himself pities us, and alleviates part of our suffering, for example, by reducing the length of our prayer.
Once out of our homes, we will inevitably come into contact with other people with whom we mutually interact, influencing one another either positively or negatively. If the positive would overcome the negative, we must try to harmonize our social behavior; otherwise anarchy will ensue to the detriment of all. God hates anarchy. He wants his servants, men and women alike, to have the freedom of socialization for its obvious benefits. For this reason, He prescribed the restraints that have to be exercised to keep the society at the equilibrium that could accommodate both freedom of interaction and aversion of social anarchy.
Everybody for example is required to dress modestly, to guard against provocation. The requirements for men’s wear are less demanding for obvious reasons. But generally it could be said that God has provided us with dress for privacy (8:26); to beautify us (8:31); to protect us from harsh weather (16:81); and as an identity, guarding Muslim women specifically against molestation (33:59).
We should be careful not to give God’s injunctions a restrictive interpretation thereby erroneously zeroing our options to babbar-riga or jallabiya for the men and wrapper or the ‘hijab’ for women. Never! Islam is a universal religion (34:28) meant to accommodate our differences in culture and personal tastes. I see no difference between the hijab and a suite once it is neither revealing nor descriptive. I find the trouser (covered by a flowing gown to the knee at least) more protecting to the woman than the wrapper that could make her uncomfortable in both walking and sitting positions or under windy conditions. A respected Egyptian scholar recently aired a similar view in one of his fatwas. In environments where rape is rampant, I will strongly advocate the wearing of jeans by women (again covered by a comfortably flowing dress down to the knee) because last year an Italian court has ruled that it is extremely difficult to rape a woman wearing jeans trouser.
God has made concession to women on parts that he considers apparent, usually regarded as the face and the feet. Some contemporary scholars, including Maududi, have denied women this concession by obliquely arguing that the face is the center of their beauty. I disagree because such reasoning will deny her other rights. For example, how would a woman comfortably drive with her face covered? How would she clearly read a blackboard from a distance? That is why I always find solace in respecting the position of God, the Most Wise and Most Knowledgeable, not moving an inch beyond. The Prophet himself said, “when God makes a concession, take it.”
I would like to add here that the apparent must include the obvious in her figure, like her two legs and hands. Once a trouser is not tight (for example as we see in the traditional attire of Shuwa and Kanuri in the Northeast) why should someone walk an extra distance to differentiate her two legs and so qualify dress as ‘descriptive’? Does he expect her to be to be walking on a leg or three?
Going by the contents of verse (24:27), I do not also see any fault in a woman that enjoys a lighter dress in her house where she has the right to privacy or when she is old. If she is in her apartment during hours of relaxation where and when only her husband or small children have access, still further relaxing dresses are permitted. Then even her adult children should seek her permission before seeing her (24:28). The Prophet has enjoined that women should appear neat and attractive to their husbands in such houses.
The issue of dress is therefore one of choice, wisely dictated by modesty, environment and personal taste that may a times include fun. In this respect, modesty appeared as a common practice of all civilizations both in the East and the West. According to Cambridge Ancient History, Assyrian law, over twenty seven thousand years ago, demanded the veiling of married women for the same reason as that adduced in verse (33:59).
Also, if a society wants to exploit women, it insists on dressing them immodestly. It is a sign of decay when men enjoy seeing women move about virtually naked. That is why the habe rulers of the eighteenth century Hausaland queried Danfodio: why should he instruct women to cover their bodies? So one of the only four concessions he requested from Nafada was that the women of his group be allowed to dress modestly.
People have right to privacy. No one is allowed to pop into a house without permission from one of its adults. Even under permission, one should not start peeping into every corner or attending to every sound and movement (33:53). Within the walls of their house, people enjoy an undeniable right to privacy. Muslim houses should be designed to accommodate these principles. Architects, take note!
The faithful are also commanded by God to lower their gaze, the injunction on modest dress not withstanding. This is because the eye is the point at which the chain of physiological and behavioral reactions leading to adultery starts. That is the bud. If you are able of nib the devil there, you have won the battle. Otherwise, the succeeding steps would be difficult to control. A poet correctly put it as:
First is sight, then a smile, then a salute,
Then a word, then appointment, then a meeting.
Also added to this is the fear of God, taqwa. I believe this, more than isolation of women, has been responsible for the modest behavior of women in Muslim societies. Without it, no measure would work. I salute the courage of the men and women who exercise it. Whenever something goes wrong, it is this spiritual ingredient that is lacking or is at least in short supply at that very moment. May we be blessed with it in abundance!
Islam has accorded women rights that cannot be achieved without social interaction. Both men and women are enjoined to follow some specific instructions to create the amiable environment necessary for the realization of those rights. In my judgment, it is unfair to punish women because of the evil that men commit. “No soul will carry the burden (of sin) of another.” (35:18)
I will present my ‘closing arguments’ on the subject next week.
9 September, 1999
Rights of Our Women (6): Closing arguments
No, Father. I did not wish to bother you in the grave. I agree that what I have written in this series does not exactly reflect your practice when you were alive. You used to practice purdah, allowing my mother to leave the house only when necessary. It is still the correct and respected practice in our rural families and those who have limited contact with Western education. The life pattern of such people does not need to be changed, if it is even possible to do so, because they exist in equilibrium of training and practice of the gradually receding past. To disturb the equilibrium means putting them in a condition of cultural anarchy that is neither necessary nor desired. Fortunately, societies also do not change overnight.
What I have written is not intended for the consumption of such people. If the series were to be translated to Hausa for the benefit of all, it would be necessary for some paragraphs to be re-written to accommodate the cultural feelings of the majority. My target is those who have been trained in Western education but are willing to be guided by the teachings of Islam in their societal functions. Their number is increasing everyday, and it is they who will form the greater part of the society before the middle of the next century. Combine this with the frightening effects of globalization. You will then agree that our society will be completely different in the next fifty years from what you knew it to be fifty years ago. This poses new challenges to the society in cultural dynamics which we cannot control by applying methods of the past. A new fiqh, relevant to the situation, is needed to handle such developments; otherwise, they will take the wrong course.
Already, some friction exists, as is usual in societies that are in transition, between the traditional and the technological. In one instance, we may notice a husband professing this and the wife that. In another, we see some youth, boys and girls alike, who have already been cut off from our cultural values simply because their parents who first tasted the fruits of Western education were not in a position to teach them the art of felling two birds with one stone. The situation is ugly and it must not be allowed to continue.
Father, neither is it my intention to see Western civilization grafted on our soil. I am rather disturbed by its pervasive growth. If you can foresee danger approaching, prepare to avoid it. If you choose to simply sit down, you stand to lose everything. I cherish the ease modern technology and science offers like the rule of law and freedom of expression; the schools and hospitals; the mass transport and communications; the agricultural and civil engineering, etc. But I find the values in which they are embedded in the West to be inferior to mine. So I would prefer to drop their values and use mine while my society enjoys the facilities discovered by the West. In addition, I see the West as a competitor, who I must endeavor to match in skills and knowledge. I cannot afford to remain behind, allowing it to re-conquer me and dictate to me what brand of religion or culture to practice as it happened a hundred years ago.
Once a girl is versed in western education, her role changes in light of this challenge. She has to come forward and make her contribution using what she has learnt. It is a battle of survival, between the West and us. If we continue to live in poverty, ignorance and disease, it would be to their advantage. If we stand up to combat these evils using every calorie of energy we can generate, men and women alike, it will be a minus for them. Fortunately, jurisprudence (fiqh) in Islam is designed to be dynamic, continuously re-interpreted by scholars to meet the social demands of their times.
Father, you charged also that my call to empowerment of woman socio-economic rights would engender moral decadence in the society even if we undertake the task of matching the West in every aspect of life. Your reason was simple, that the West that has achieved so much materially did so at the expense of moral values. They presently lead an unenviable life of indulgence, crime and violence. I agree with the existence of the consequences that we observe today in the West. But let’s put them in their true perspectives. It was imperative for the West to free itself from the tyranny of the European church centuries ago in order to make progress to this extent. However, I will insist that such sacrifices are unnecessary in Muslim societies where no church or clergy existed that were an impediment to the growth of science or technology. We did it before without sacrificing our values. In the same vein, should we today choose to return to those periods of hard work, scholarship and freedom, we will succeed if we are firm in practicing the values of Islam.
I have always maintained that Islamic injunctions like those regarding the rights of women are not standing free in the atmosphere or in isolation of one another, ready to be picked and adopted in portions by any society, Muslim or non-Muslim. Islamic injunctions as expressed in the Quran are implanted in a medium of values and any attempt to extricate them from such a medium and apply them outside will only fail. They are like the fish in water. Remove it from the water and it will inevitably die, no matter the flesh you feed it with. That is why the Quran described itself as
“Guidance for the God-conscious: those who believe in the Unseen, are regular in prayer and spend as charity part of what We provided them. And those who believe in what has been revealed to you and what was revealed before and are certain about the Hereafter. Those are on (the track of) guidance and those will be the successful”. (2: 2-4)
It is thus by no coincidence that the Quran had this as its opening introduction that clearly defines its target audience. If a society does fulfill these conditions, there is no way any injunction of the Quran regarding economics or sociology would be useful to it. It is not a theory but an integrated system of beliefs, values and practices. On the other hand, if our entire society would be graduates of Cambridge or Harvard universities, we would hardly degenerate to the abyss that the West found itself once we adhere to the values contained in the Quran.
“The blind man is not equal with the seer; nor is darkness (tantamount to) light; nor is the shadow equal with the sun’s full heat; nor are the living equal with the dead..” (22: 19-22)
So father, the fear of moral decadence because women are given their Islamic rights is unfounded except if those rights are administered in absence of the environment in which the Quran insists they must be practiced for any tangible result to be achieved. We shall look, for the sake of example, the three principal values supporting the marital injunctions of the Quran. They are taqwa (fear of God or piety), ma’rouf (honor) and ihsan (kindness).
This is the spiritual state of the faithful that makes him respect and obey God’s injunction. It emanates from over ten sources that include belief (iman) that God is watching what he is doing wherever he does it; and he could be punished once he deviates. Wherever God discusses the relationship between men and women, He closes the discussion with an emphasis on taqwa. He did so on matters of courtship (2: 234), intercourse (2: 222); on divorce (2: 232); on maintenance of divorcee and her child (2: 233), etc.
Even the Prophet was not spared as we see when God addressed him on issues regarding his family. I am always covered by fear when I hear, on one of such occasions, the Prophet being warned together with his pious companions as “keep your duty to God; expel them not from their houses nor let them go forth unless they commit open immorality. Such are the limits of God; and who so transgresses God’s limits; he wrongs his soul..” (67: 1) And particularly when God concluded addressing the Prophet on his options in marriage, saying, “and Allah is ever Watcher over everything” (33:52).
We, who are nowhere near the station of the Holy Prophet and his honorable companions, should therefore be careful when issues borders on rights of others. Women, like men, also have need to redeem their taqwa, obeying the instructions of God in order to enjoy their rights without sacrificing their faith. God has promised that when this condition is fulfilled, life will be more bearable; He will open the gates of options and wealth for the family and the society (67: 4-7). On the other hand, any community that defied piety, “tasted the ill-effects of its conduct, and the consequence of its conduct was loss. God has prepared for them stern punishment; so keep your duty to Allah, O men of understanding! O you who believe! Now that God has sent down unto you a reminder..” (67: 8-10).
Taqwa demands that women be given their rights even against the wishes of their men. It is not an option but an obligation. Ma’rouf (honor) on the other hand refers to the state of honor she should be accorded as a wife. God said: “But live with them in kindness, for if you hate them, it may happen that you hate a thing wherein God has placed much good” (4:19). Needless to say that she is expected to reciprocate this gesture.
I find it difficult to imagine the abuse of rights in a home characterized by honor. If the woman is seen as a human being, with the right to independent opinion and feelings, God is saying that, whoever is associating with her, must respect the feelings, opinions and interest that makes her the individual she is. The right to consultation and consensus on family matters will naturally flow from that spring of honor. Her ambitions, once they do not fall within both inside and outside home, will naturally be respected and pursued with least acrimony or abhorrence. In short with this honor, she is herself.
In relating to their families, men and women are required to practice kindness (ihsan). It means going out of your way to do something that will please the other party, not as an obligation but as a personal choice. It could be in words or in deed.
The Prophet said, “the best of you is the most kind to his family.” If both husband and wife will add kindness to their conduct, after possessing the necessary values of taqwa and ma’rouf, hardly would they find life to be daunting. Kindness usually goes with love and affection. But even in their absence, the expectation of reward in the Hereafter would be enough a motivation.
God has emphasized kindness especially when a marital relationship is inevitably becoming gory (4: 129). In the extreme case of divorce, he emphasizes that men should be kind as much as possible. It could mean forfeiting the expenses they incurred in the marriage, however great is the sum. He said collecting it back after sleeping under the same roof and entering into the bond of marriage is shameful (4: 20-21).
God has witnessed the Prophet being very much concerned about this aspect of the sociology of Islam. Within twenty years, he gave the woman in seventh century Arabia the right to a voice, to earning, to property, to knowledge, etc. The treatment of women with kindness was among the final things he advised his ummah on, even in the final few seconds of his life.
The political rights granted Kuwaiti women instigated this review on the rights of our women. By ‘our’ I meant specifically Muslim women. Since Islam is our yardstick, we had to look at their situation in comparison with its standard provisions. As we have seen, the right to vote or to represent is only a small fish in the fry of Islamic provisions.
Our society must brace up to face the frightening threats and promises of the global trends of the twenty-first century. These are developments very much different from our contact with the Arab world eleven hundred years ago. They are also different from our colonization a hundred years ago. In both cases, we were able to retain the social structures and values of our society with some success.
The current trends of globalization are completely different. Browse the Internet and find what a woman from her bedroom could download. Virtually anything! She can have a pal in America, Japan or Germany. They can exchange pictures and print material of any nature. He can employ her from thousands of miles away and corrupt her if he wishes. Vision phones will also be abundant. They will provide pals living on different continents the opportunity to see one another, secretly, in any form. You can imagine what will happen if they live in the same neighborhood. These facilities will be available in villages, thanks to cellular phones, just as the ubiquitous transistor radio is. Distance will be conquered. Privacy will be a privilege. It is an inevitable hurricane of insurmountable momentum.
Happiness will come to be linked strongly to economy more than ever as affordable technologies reach every corner of the globe. Might will continue to be right more that how it was at the inception of colonialism. Fighter jets would not need anybody to fly them. Guided from their home base using satellite data from space, missile will hit their targets with unbelievable precision. And so on.
Let’s prepare for this inevitable development, with our faith, our hearts and our brains. We have to raise our productivity to match the level of others. No one will be exempted from making sacrifice, be he man or woman. Otherwise, what we fear of uncontrolled spread of decadence and global tyranny of the capital will take us unawares.
Finally, in as much as we believe that Islam is a religion of duties and accountability, we must emphasize that these duties are carried out within an atmosphere of freedom, ease and happiness. Happiness and ease are in fact promises that God has made to every Muslim that follows His path. He said, “We will guide you (O Muhammad) to the easier path”. He also assured Muslims generally that “He (God) has not imposed on you, in matters of religion, any hardship.” For women today specifically, this promise can only be realized through restoration of the rights that God has given them, not as a privilege subject to approval of someone, but as a divine obligation on men.
Father, may your gentle soul rest in peace! Amen.
11 September, 1999