Saturday, April 23, 2011

Conservative Muslim Views on Women and Their Roles

Post 25—

Apology and Plan

I once again apologize for the time lapse between this and the last post. I was under such intense work pressure that I just had to let go for a while.I may as well tell you now that I expect to be in Nigeria the full month of May and am not sure I will have the facilities or the files I need to write new posts while there. So, perhaps one or two posts over the next week and then off to Nigeria. When the next one after that? We’ll see. Possibly early June.

The last post features an article about women in Islam by a modern Indian Muslim, Dr. Ashgar Engineer. This post features the views of a few Nigerian Muslims of more traditional stripe. This material can be found in vol. 6 of my series Studies in Christian-Muslim Relations, pp. 277-280. If you contrast the last post to this one, you will find that it is hard to identify the Muslim perspective on women. There is a wide range of perspectives, often conflicting, with the one side likely to berate the other as unIslamic. Once again, will the true Muslim please stand up?

Pattern of the Arguments

There is a pattern to the arguments and/or practices of these social conservatives.
They tend to begin with an emphasis on the equality of women with
men, with the high place of honour women occupy. Women are entitled
to all human rights. Then these writers move on to the primary
and most honoured and influential work of women, namely that of
education. The education referred to means almost exclusively the
training a mother gives to her child at home. And, of course, to protect
her honour, she needs to be shielded from the gaze of all men,
except husband and close relatives, either in purdah or in burqa. And
voila—that free, equal and highly honoured creature ends up after all
in her traditional role of housewife. Not by conscious choice, of
course; the situation is defined by the men in her family. Their traditional
status is so ingrained that most women hardly know anything
different. They all base themselves on sharia—as they see it, the popular
version. They would not think of demanding changes. This is the
world they know and makes them comfortable.

A Very Manly View

An article by Abdulkadir Orire, at the time Grand Khadi(Supreme Court Justice)of Nigeria's Kwara State, introduces you into the world of the fully obedient
woman. According to Orire, the husband relates to his wife
as a farmer does to the soil. He “has to take great care of the soil, after
he has chosen the fertile good and best one. He has to choose his own
time to plant and the mode of cultivation.” He makes sure he does
not exhaust the soil. “He should be wise and considerate and does not
run riot. That means he should require every kind of mutual consideration
from his wife.” The wife, in turn, must “obey her husband in
all matrimonial issues” as long as they do not harm her or violate the
commands of God. She must not leave the house without his permission.
He is a lucky man who is “pleased with her sight; who, if he
orders her to carry out a command, she willingly obeys him; who, if
he is away, she protects for him her person and his property.” She is
to keep him and home happy. “She should try to appear to him beautiful
as well as carry out his orders patiently and dutifully.”1

That’s a classic picture that many readers will expect. That’s the
picture the media paint over and over again. It is not false; such situations
exist, perhaps more often than it would be politically correct
to admit. Orire, of course, is a man.

Rabi Wali: A Moderate Woman’s Views and Protest

The rest of this post is taken up with the writings of Rabi Wali.
She seems a bit ambivalent about the place of
women and appears to want to eat from both sides of the fence.
Some might call her approach “middle of the road.” “Through the
sharia, we see that a nation is made up of groups of people living
together as free and equal citizens submitting to the Will of Allah.”
“In terms of social and economic development, the family is the
nucleus of a nation” and its “cornerstone.” For a nation to be
healthy, it needs a firm cornerstone. “The leaders of the family are
[thus] the source of any progress, development, prosperity and
strength of the community.” Wali then asks a number of questions
about the role of women in the above scheme. “Do they have
equality with men concerning all the activities of nation building
or not? Do they have the same rights? And must they do the same
duties in order to be equal? What is the relationship between man
and woman in the family structure?” There is a hadith in which
someone asked the Prophet about the “rights of our women on us.”
He replied, “Feed them and clothe them as well as you do yourself
and do not beat them and do not abuse them.”

The Qur’an and Hadith also tell us
that women are partners in building a family with mutual consultation.
The women are allowed and expected to do everything
that would raise their spiritual and material levels like
their male counterparts. The women of the early Islamic period
were participating very actively in political affairs to the extent
that they could demand their rights from the highest leader.
The wives of the Sahaba were going and coming freely
from their economic activities. Thus, Islam allows Muslim
women to strive and reach the highest levels within the confines
of sharia and the comfortable limits Allah provides for
her. Men are required to make everything easier for them.
On the other hand, the woman is encouraged by Islam to
appreciate the fact that she is also required to give her full
share to the all-round development of the marriage. She
should endeavour to make the house a paradise on earth for
all the members of the family. This is easier for her because of
her biological makeup. Her natural role as mother and comforter,
her character should be essentially gentle, beautiful,
loving, forgiving and merciful and should be recognised and
utilised to the best interest of the family. The husband and
wife should complement one another. Women are not deficient
mentally. They should be the best teachers during the most
important period of a human life, the formative years that is
before conception to five years.

Therefore, despite the fact that Islam allows women to take
the role they wish, it is in their best interest and the interest of the
society that their chief role should be that of building the miniature
nation peacefully, with as little tension and conflict as possible.
This is the stand of Islamic justice, love and tranquility from
individual families leading to a just, loving and strong nation.

The Reality

Unfortunately, that is not always how it is among Nigerian
Muslims, Wali laments. Women are the backbone of the economy. They farm, they
tend livestock, they process food, they fetch water, they trade,
they contribute in taking care of the family in every sense
through their commercial activities in arts and crafts.
Yet they are never fully recognised seriously in decision
making. Although things may be changing, formal education
is not considered as part of a woman’s right. She is on
the whole considered a commodity with marriage as her destiny
as far as she is young and beautiful at the end of which
she is discarded.

Conspiracy of Silence

Then there is also the fact that women have been denied
the proper Islamic knowledge of their role. So they just have
to accept whatever is dished out to them by their menfolk in
fear of being branded as “woman liberators,” a term which
has been imported from the Western world and which is
meant to confuse, rather than clarify the issue of woman’s
identity. The religious interpretation appears to be a conspiracy
of silence even on her lawful rights from the husband or
fabrications supported by misquoted and misinterpreted
verses and Hadith.

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