BY DR. MOHAMMAD MAROOF SHAH
There is a very profound observation by Iqbal; he is troubled by the problem of women’s oppression and sees hardly any neat solution. Today it should be contrasted with the confidence with which people comment on the question and assert that they have all the answers, that if we could enforce certain laws the problem will be over. They bring the sacred authority of Islam to clinch the case as if Islam is not an open enquiry and call for using reason to solve our problems. They think we can bank upon clear, concrete legal opinions that need simply to be implemented missing to note that neither Capitalism nor the State nor the violence that is peculiar to Modernity were there 1400 years before, so calling for far more nuanced understanding of gender discrimination and Islam’s position on it. The fact that our Prophet (SAW) was so anxious even at death bed about the problems women face, the fact that even Hazrat Umar(R.A) was not comfortable with suddenly found liberation by women in Medina (Fatima Merenessi has made her important study on this question and the issue of veil calling for revisiting history of patriarchy in Islam and distinguishing between sacred and patriarchal history), that women in Medina were active component of its productive activity or economy and we debate the question is salaried job for women unlawful in principle, the fact that there are so few women in the history of Islam that could compare with the likes of Ghazzali, Ibn Sina, Ibn Khaldoon and Iqbal implying failure to provide congenial environment to groom their intellectual selves, the fact that men have been so anxious about proper veiling of women despite no clear scriptural warrant for including face in purdah, all point out that there are issues to debate, interpretations to scrutinize, power games to contest and making heard loudly the voice of justice that Islam by definition is.
People talk about the pain of exile. But few note that it is a destiny for most women. Women are homeless. They have only houses. They have parental home that is not theirs really. Their new home is husband’s or his parents’ home and her house. It takes many years to have her own house if she succeeds in getting one. What a predicament it is to live in perpetual uncertainty. Her parents have thrown the burden away, in a way, the day they have married her off. Her new home can never be her home in the sense that she can never be sure if someday it pleases her husband to disown her, to tell her that she can’t stay with him.
Without confounding any rights movement for feminism and without commenting on feminism as such I want to note the key statements of certain important texts that state the case of gender discrimination so well.
Engels in his The Origins of Family, Private Property and the State connected gender violence to class. As women are physically and psychologically weaker (made of a stuff that is designed to realize finer, more beautiful things and nuances of life) men found it easy to oppress them, to convert them into virtual slaves. As might is right, women had no choice. This account has been deservedly criticized on many grounds but the fact that women suffer violence because men care only for their self interest and have hardly any scruples to see them as objects of libido, as objects that appease their instinct for domination. But here the problem arises: to what court can women appeal to get justice? To answer this we need to turn to value centric discourse that religion is. Muslim Feminists have found that in Islam.
Simon de Beauvoir in her classic The Second Sex observed “In truth, to go for a walk with one’s eyes open is enough to demonstrate that humanity is divided into two classes of individuals whose clothes, faces, bodies, smiles, gaits, interests, and occupations are manifestly different. Perhaps these differences are superficial, perhaps they are destined to disappear. What is certain is that they do most obviously exist.” And “humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being. … And she is simply what man decrees; thus she is called ‘the sex’, by which is meant that she appears essentially to the male as a sexual being. For him she is sex – absolute sex, no less. She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other.” She further complains: “They live dispersed among the males, attached through residence, housework, economic condition, and social standing to certain men – fathers or husbands – more firmly than they are to other women.” “Legislators, priests, philosophers, writers, and scientists have striven to show that the subordinate position of woman is willed in heaven and advantageous on earth.” “Since ancient times satirists and moralists have delighted in showing up the weaknesses of women. “In proving woman’s inferiority, the anti-feminists then began to draw not only upon religion, philosophy, and theology, as before, but also upon science – biology, experimental psychology, etc. At most they were willing to grant ‘equality in difference’ to the other sex. That profitable formula is most significant; it is precisely like the ‘equal but separate’ formula of the Jim Crow laws aimed at the North American Negroes.”
Another classic work is from Urdu literature Laila kae Khutoot that among other points makes a strong case against the argument commonly rehearsed that women need to be veiled because man can’t control desire. The Quran demanded modesty and lowering of gaze from both men and women. Veiling as done in the subcontinent can’t be elevated as a norm. The point has been well made by many traditional Muslim scholars including Albani, not to mention modernists such as Amir Ali and Fazlur Rahman.
Gender violence is logical implication of patriarchal system that has forgotten metaphysical meaning of symbolism of Adam and Eve and masculine pole of Logos and feminine pole, of women as soul, of individuation as proper integration of masculine and feminine principles that constitute every human being. Back home if we note it is painful record. Women are mostly denied property rights. Daughters –in-law are treated as objects. Seeking to live in a separate home that is her right recognized by Islam is covertly or overtly discouraged. She is not given the love – or somehow she doesn’t feel receiving it – in her new house. I hardly know any women who can resist tears if one has sympathetic ears to listen to her story. One can write a short story on every women I encounter who has stories to tell of her pain, exile, discrimination, mechanical labour, denial of opportunities. Kafka would have got perfect stories in Kashmir where the reigning philosophy is “phatwan waad” – a term coined by a brilliant teacher of philosophy from Kashmir who explained it in these words: family members and neighbours feeling the others as the Other yet who is there to stay leading to suffocation, a pathology of joint family system and pathological individualism struggling to be born in a transition economy.
Regarding domestic chores one remark may suffice: she is condemned to domestic chores that would kill a man if were to do it. Hell is repetition, mechanical repeating of any activity without involvement of our soul in it. How can soul be involved in domestic chores is a question that our scholars have to answer.
One can’t imagine the plight of Hardy’s Tess. Most of women I know in Kashmir are sisters of Tess in suffering. Condemned, exiled, mentally if not physically violated.
Imagine the Last Day and God asking men what they have made of the last requests that the dying Prophet made with regard to giving women their rights or respecting them. I, for myself, would pray for sparing examination as I know no defense or apology on my part will be adequate.
I once overheard a women being dragged for treatment to mental hospital as saying “I will be okay if my son once said me mummy. He has been told by husband’s family not to.” Women are, generally speaking, denied love they long for in a family atmosphere. It might be retorted that daand-i maar chuni kenh bozaan and thus women are to be blamed for many things. I don’t want to deny that sometimes miseducation and other prejudices or attitudes of them may partly explain tragedy women face but today I wanted to focus on the other face of the coin – our responsibility as qawamoon who are to provide for women and be truly guardians. Let us identify ideological complicity with any problematic ideology or discourse on gender from both the right and the left. Let us stand with those who fight against gender discrimination and violence against women.
Dr. Mohammad Maroof Shah is an author and Columnist, interested in the the interface of philos¬ophy, literature, religion and mysticism