My struggle to help Muslim women regain their God-given rights

Dr. Riffat Hasan

Courtesy to “DAWN, Nov. 7, 2002

To understand the strong impetus to "Islamize" Muslim societies, especially with regard to women-related norms and values, it is necessary to know that of all the challenges confronting the Muslim world, perhaps the greatest is that of modernity. In this exclusive two-part essay, renowned Islamic theologian Dr Riffat Hasan presents a critical analysis of three contemporary women in Islam: herself, Dr Farhat Hashmi of Al-Huda and human rights lawyer Asma Jahangir.

While my work and writings are known to many persons in many countries, this statement may be read by some who are not aware of my background and what I have focused on as a student, as a researcher, as a teacher, as a philosopher as a writer, or as an activist. I consider it important therefore to begin by mentioning some facts of my personal and professional history that might be helpful to the reader in understanding my ideas and the larger framework within which they have developed. Like many other contemporary women thinkers l see a profound linkage between what is intellectual and what is existential and experiential. Consequently this statement reflects the jihad (struggle) l have engaged in both as a theologian and as a Pakistani Muslim woman.

I come from an old Saiyyad family from Muslim Town, Lahore. Faiz Road, on which my ancestral home is situated, is named after my grandfather Saiyyad Faizul Hassan whose progenitors "founded" Muslim Town. My maternal grandfather Hakim Ahmad Shuja came from Bazaar-e-Hakiman, which was named after his family, in the old city of Lahore. The Hakims (and their cousins the Faqirs) were known for their patronage of art and literature and nurtured many gifted artists, thinkers and writers, including the young Iqbal when he first came from Sialkot to study at the Government College, Lahore. Hakim Sahib was not only a well-known poet and playwright, but also a Qur'anic scholar who collaborated with Iqbal in some of his early works.

Upholding the "honor" of his Saiyyad heritage and being "noble" Muslims was very important to my father. Being educated, creative, and independent was what mattered greatly to my mother. My parents differed greatly in their life-perspectives, and had strongly conflicting views regarding how girls were to be brought up. Growing up in the midst of so much discord, trying to figure out with the mind of a young child who I was and what was the purpose of my life, was a very difficult thing. What sustained me during the troubled years of my childhood were two things: my faith in God who was to me the source of light, of justice and compassion, and my love of reading and writing which enabled me to create an inner universe in which my mind and spirit could grow.

I left home at 17 to study in England and returned seven years later with a BA Honours degree in English Literature and Philosophy, and a PhD for my thesis on the philosophy of Allama Iqbal. There is no question that the single most important intellectual influence on my mental development has been that of Iqbal. From him I learnt more than I can say -- his philosophy of Khudi (selfhood) became the foundation of my evolving philosophical vision, and his insistence on going back to the Qur'an and going forward with ijtihad (independent reasoning, which he called "the principle of movement in Islam") was something that became pivotal in my own study of Islam.

I have been involved in the teaching of Islam since 1973, and have been engaged in research on issues relating to women in Islam since the fall of 1974. Recalling how I embarked on the most important journey of any life, I wrote in one of my articles, "I do not know exactly at what time my 'academic' study of women in Islam became a passionate quest for truth and justice on behalf of Muslim women -- perhaps it was when I realized the impact on my own life of the so-called Islamic ideas and attitudes regarding women. What began as a scholarly exercise became simultaneously an Odyssean venture in self-understanding. But 'enlightenment' does not always lead to 'endless bliss' (as the Buddhists say). The more I saw the justice and compassion of God reflected in the Qur'anic teachings regarding women, the more anguished and angry I became, seeing the injustice and inhumanity to which Muslim women, in general, are subjected to in actual life. I began to feel strongly that it was my duty -- as a part of the microscopic minority of educated Muslim women -- to do as much consciousness-raising regarding the situation of Muslim women as I could.

Very early in my study I realized that Islam, like the other major religions of the world (namely, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism) had developed in patriarchal culture in which its mayor sources, i.e., the Qur'an, the Sunnah, the Hadith literature, and Fiqh, had been interpreted almost exclusively by men -- who had assigned to themselves the right to define the ontological, theological, sociological, and eschatological status of Muslim women. I spent the first decade of my research on women in Islam (1974-1984) in reinterpreting the Qur'anic texts relating to women from a non-patriarchal perspective, and came to the conclusion that the Qur'an does not discriminate against women in any way. In fact if one can see the Qur'anic text without the lens of patriarchal biases, one discovers how strongly it affirms the rights of women -- and of other socially disadvantaged groups.

Since the 1970s the process of "Islamization" which was initiated in some Muslim countries, including Pakistan, led to the promulgation of laws whose primary objective was to put women "in their place". Women were also a major target of the so-called Islamic punishments that were instituted by General Ziaul Haq in Pakistan, who enacted the Hudood Ordinance (1979), the Qanun-e-Shahadat (1984), and the Qisas and Diyat Ordinance (1990). These laws -- which aimed at reducing the value and status of women systematically, and virtually mathematically, to less than that of men -- are manifestly unjust and un-Islamic, as pointed out repeatedly by advocates of women's rights in Pakistan. No government, however, has had the moral or political will to amend or repeal these laws which have caused great suffering to a large number of girls and women in Pakistan.

To understand the strong impetus to "Islamize" Muslim societies, especially with regard to women-related norms and values, it is necessary to know that of all the challenges confronting the Muslim world, perhaps the greatest is that of modernity. Unable to come to grips with modernity as a whole, many Muslim societies make a sharp distinction between two aspects of it. The first -- generally referred to as "modernization" and largely approved -- is identified with science, technology, and a better standard of life. The second -- generally referred to as "Westernization" and largely disapproved -- is identified with emblems of "mass" Western culture such, as promiscuity, break-up of family and community, latch-key kids, and drug and alcohol abuse.

What is of importance to note here, is that an emancipated Muslim woman is seen by many Muslims as a symbol not of "modernization" but of "Westernization". (These days Muslim girls, as well as boys, go to Western institutions for higher education. However, often when a young man returns from the West he is considered "modernized", but when a young woman returns she is considered "Westemized".) This is so because she appears to be in violation of what traditional societies consider to be a necessary barrier between "private space" (i.e. the home) where women belong and "public space" (i.e. the rest of the world) which belongs to men. This invisible barrier between these two unequal spaces is called hijab (literally meaning "curtain"). Traditionally, Muslims have developed the belief that it is best to keep men and women segregated, i.e., in their separate, designated spaces, because the intrusion of women into men's space is seen as leading to the disruption, if not the destruction, of the fundamental order of things. According to a popular hadith, whenever a man and woman are alone, "ash-Shaitan" (the Satan) is bound to be there.

The self-styled caretakers of Muslim traditions are aware of the fact that viability in the modern technological age requires the adoption of the scientific or rational outlook that inevitably brings about major changes in modes of thinking and behaviour. Women, both educated and uneducated, who are participating in the national work force, and contributing towards national development, think and behave differently from women who have no sense of their individual identity or autonomy as active agents in a history-making process and regard themselves merely as instruments designed to minister to and reinforce a patriarch system that they believe to be divinely instituted.

Though I emigrated to the US in 1972, I have always maintained strong ties with Pakistan and spent every summer in Lahore. I, therefore, knew from close quarters what was happening in the country. In 1983-84, I was able to spend two years in Pakistan, since I had a year's sabbatical leave and a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship for a one-year research project. This was the time when the victimization of women by the new laws (particularly the Zina ordinance, which was part of the Hudood ordinance) had started. Though most of the victims were poor and illiterate, many affluent and educated women in Pakistan began to realize that the discriminatory laws were threatening to erode the fundamental rights not only of disadvantaged females but of all females.

In addition to the increase in violence being perpetrated upon women through legislation, there was a deluge of anti-women literature produced by religious extremists which flooded the popular market. The purpose of the multi-faceted onslaught unleashed against women by the "Islamization" process was to push women out of "public space" into the chadur and chardivari [staying within 'four walls'] where they would perform the traditional roles of wives and mothers as defined by a patriarchal society that regards the inferiority and subservience of women to men as part of God's eternal system. These roles are promoted as bringing not respect but respectability to the women in the name of Islam.

As I reflected upon the scene I witnessed, and asked myself how it was possible for laws that were archaic if not absurd to be implemented in a society that professed a passionate commitment to modernity, the importance of something that I had always known dawned on me with stunning clarity.

Pakistani society (or any other Muslim society for that matter) could enact or accept laws that specified that women were less than men in fundamental ways because Muslims, in general, consider it a self-evident truth that women are not equal to men.

Anyone who states that in the present-day world it is accepted in many religious as well as secular communities that men and women are equal, or that evidence can be found in the Qur'an and the islamic tradition for affirming man-woman equality, is likely to be confronted, immediately and with force, by a mass of what is described as "irrefutable evidence" taken from the Qur'an, Hadith, and Sunnah to "prove" that men are "above" women.

Among the arguments used to overwhelm any proponent of man-woman equality, the following are perhaps the most popular: that according to the Qur'an, men are qawwamun (generally translated as hakim or "rulers") in relation to women; that according to the Qur'an, a man's share in inheritance is twice that of a woman; that according to the Qur'an, the witness of one man is equal to that of two women; that according to the Prophet (p.b.u.h.), women are deficient both in prayer (due to menstruation) and in intellect (due to their witness counting for less than a man's). In my theological work I have presented compelling evidence to show that a correct reading of the Qur'an or the Prophetic tradition does not support such arguments, and that the normative teachings of Islam strongly uphold the equality of men and women both in relation to God and to each other.

Since I was (in all probability) the only Muslim woman in the country who was attempting to interpret the Qur'an systematically from a non-patriarchal perspective, I was approached numerous times by women leaders (including the members of the Pakistan Commission on the Status of Women, before whom I gave my testimony in May 1984) to state what my findings were and if they could be used to improve the situation of women in Pakistani society.

I was urged by those spirited women who were mobilizing and leading women's protests in the streets to help them by developing an ideology or strategy that they could use to counter the avalanche of negative laws, literature, and actions with which they were being confronted. Some of them wanted to use the work I had already done and use my interpretations of Qur'anic texts to refute the arguments that were being used to make them less than fully human on a case-by-case or point-by-point basis. I must admit that I was tempted to join the foray in support of my beleaguered sisters (amongst whom was Asma Jahangir) who were being deprived of their human rights in the name of Islam.

But I knew through my long and continuing struggle with the forces of Muslim traditionalism (which were now being gravely threatened by what they described as "the assault of Westernization under the guise of modernization") that the arguments that were being broadcast to "keep women in their place" of subordination and submissiveness were only the front line of attack. Behind these arguments were others, and no sooner would one line of attack be eliminated than another one would be set up in its place. What had to be done, first and foremost, in my opinion, was to examine the theological ground in which all the anti-women arguments were rooted to see if, indeed, a case could be made for asserting that from the point of view of normative Islam, men and women were essentially equal, despite biological and other differences.

As a result of my study and deliberation I came to perceive that not only in the Islamic, but also in the Jewish and Christian traditions, there are three theological assumptions on which the superstructure of men's alleged superiority to women (which implies the inequality of women and man) has been erected. These three assumptions are:

(1) that God's primary creation is man, not woman, since woman is believed to have been created from man's rib, hence is derivative and secondary ontologically.

(2) That woman, not man, was the primary agent of what is customarily described as the "Fall," or man's expulsion from the Garden of Eden, hence all "daughters of Eve" are to be regarded with hatred, suspicion, and contempt.

(3) That woman was created not only from man but also for man, which makes her existence merely instrumental and not of fundamental importance.

The three theological questions to which the above assumptions may appropriately be regarded as answers, are: How was woman created? Was woman responsible for the "Fall" of man? Why was woman created?

I have spent many years working on these questions, and have shown in my writings that none of the above-mentioned assumptions is warranted by a correct reading of the Qur'an -- which states categorically (in 30 passages) that God created all humanity at the same time, of the same substance, in the same manner; that both man and woman disobeyed God by going near the forbidden tree, but that they acknowledged their wrongdoing and were forgiven by God (hence there is no "Fall" in Islam); that God created both men and women "for a just purpose" and that the relationship between them is one of equality, mutuality, and cordiality.

It has been the major mission of my life, especially since I became involved in 1984 in helping women activists in Pakistan, to educate Muslim/Pakistani girls and women about the rights given to them by God in the Qur'an. These rights may be denied or dishonoured -- as they have been through much of our history -- but rights given by God cannot be abrogated by any human being or agency.

In pursuit of my passionate quest for justice on behalf of Muslim women I have travelled from one end of the Muslim world to the other conducting workshops, participating in conferences, meeting leaders and policy makers. I have had the privilege of being one of the main spokespersons for Islam at several United Nations Conferences, including those held at Cairo (1994), Copenhagen (1995), Beijing (1995) and Istanbul (1996). I have also been a featured speaker at several hundred conferences in the US, Canada, Europe, Asia, and Africa. The message I have delivered in each of my presentations is that Islam is a justice-and-compassion-centered religion which values the life of each person and holds before all human beings -- women as well as men -- the lofty vision embodied in the Qur'anic proclamation, "Towards God is your limit." (Surah 53: An-Najm: 42, translation by Iqbal, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, Lahore, 1971, p. 57).

In February 1999, ABC showed the BBC documentary entitled Murder in Purdah - a very graphic and powerful film about "honour" crimes in Pakistan - in their show Nightline, and I was one of the two commentators (the other one being Asma Jahangir) in this programme.

Following the airing of this programme, I was inundated with letters, faxes and e-mail from women and men around the United States. Most expressed a sense of outrage that vulnerable girls and women were being subjected to so much brutality and violence in Pakistan, and a keen desire to do something about it. Out of these initial contacts grew a loose network of concerned individuals which I formalized into The International Network for the Rights of Female Victims of Violence in Pakistan (INRFVVP) in February, 1999. The membership of the INRFVVP grew rapidly not only in the US and Pakistan, but throughout the world, and it soon became incorporated as a non-profit, non-governmental organization. In the three-and a-half-years since its inception, the INRFVVP has gone beyond being a mere organization. I see it as a movement for change which is committed to identifying those negative factors -- whether religious, cultural or any other -- which promote or permit violence against girls and women and any other socially marginalized group in Pakistan. Once these factors have been identified through field research, strategies and programmes will be developed to eliminate them and to create a culture in which the rights of all human beings are recognized, safeguarded and implemented.