Women’s Rights: the Perspective of a Parallel History

Misguided feminism justifies itself in the name of freedom. This borrowed culture has neither helped nor will it help the people who adopt it as their own. People who promote this alien trend are apologists, if not outright propagandists, in the cause of a less-than-benign cultural invasion, that has its own preconceived notions of modesty, writes AMATUL HAKEEM.

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It was a harsh Delhi winter’s night in mid-December 2012, when a young woman, 23 years of age, accompanied by her male friend, boarded a mini-bus. There were already six people onboard: all of them men intoxicated with alcohol, including the driver. Little did the lone woman know that this would be her last journey.

As the bus moved along, the young girl was gang-raped and brutally assaulted by the five strangers in the bus. In trying to defend her, the woman’s boyfriend, too, was violently beaten up. Later, both the girl and her friend were dumped on the highway, half-dead. The woman would die of her injuries a few weeks later.

As matters progressed, the perpetrators of this gruesome rape-and-murder case were caught and brought to trial months after the outrageous incident that generated nationwide street protests unprecedented since the time of Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement around a year ago.

While one of the four captured hung himself in his under-trials prison cell at Tihar jail, another – a juvenile – was sentenced to a three year imprisonment term when his involvement was conclusively ascertained. The remaining four have only recently been sentenced to death.

The Malaise

Although the death sentence delivered to these offenders is justified, it is certainly not sufficient to suitably address the crime itself, for merely treating a symptom is never the cure for defeating the illness. To be sure, every crime takes shape within the premises of a certain outlook, a philosophy of greed and selfishness, all of which prompts the criminal out of his inhibitions, and tenaciously grows on him, justifying itself in every possible way. Therefore, real change, or reform, must address the psychology, the thought-processes and attitudes of the people, as this has always been an important factor in the rise, or decline, of any society.

Indeed, for such correct attitudes to be in place among the masses, the prevailing system must be of a robust and time-honoured nature in itself. It must be a system that must necessarily abstain from the over indulgences of a consumerist culture that come off a purely materialistic outlook on life. For it is precisely such a consumerist ethos that generates social structures and systems that are bound to aggravate human wants well beyond the safe and sound requirements of a healthy, balanced society.

Patriarchy and feminism – by way of the dual and, oftentimes, contradicting traditionist and post-modernist positions vis-à-vis human progress – are powerful and important socio-cultural constructs that stimulate and direct the masses everywhere. Powerful, because they are found in the majority, and important, because they form the two opposite extremes of a balance which must ideally form the crux of man’s society. This is, indeed, a delicate balance, which – even when slightly altered in either direction – could tilt society into immediate decline and eventual annihilation.

Women as a Trust

One particular phase of human history – the seventh century after the disappearance of Christ – is remarkably instructive in this regard. It will be no exaggeration to state that it was during this period when, commencing from Arabia – the much ignored hinterland of the Byzantine and Sassanian powers of the time – a stunning transformation stole over the globe.

To be precise, it was during the time of the Prophet Muhammad, on whom be peace, and later, during the rule of his four immediate successor Caliphs, that this much sought after social equilibrium once again found its actualization and fulfillment. Not too surprisingly, it was a period when women played an important role in society. They participated in religious, social, educational, economic and political activities.

The Qur’an prescribed rights to women, as it did to men. The Prophet, in his last sermon, exhorted men to fear God in the matter of women because, as he said: “Women are a trust from God” to men. As a result, in early Muslim civilization, women were generally accorded special status: clearly a far cry from the bleak situation which women of other civilizations of the time wallowed in.

Muslim women played a complementary role with regards to men’s, in the betterment of the Muslim society. They even helped in the war-effort. Since the Prophet’s wives, daughters, aunts and other prominent ladies of the time demonstrated their potentials in various constructive activities, they are well-remembered in the books of history. For instance, in one biographical compilation on the Companions of Prophet Muhammad, there are over 1,200 female companions, i.e., about 10-15% of the total entries. Even later, too, during the Umayyad and early Abbasid periods, women continued to enjoy certain liberties which they had acquired during the Prophet’s time.

After reading the histories of thousands of women in forty bibliographical collections dating from the ninth century, Ruth Rode, lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, did not find any evidence to support the view that Muslim women were marginal, secluded and restricted by the religion of Islam. In fact, she actually concluded with the following words:

“The role of women in traditional Islamic society has often been portrayed in extremely negative terms that are not justified by historic reality.”

During the early Ottoman period, women established Waqf (charitable trusts) to support education and other social causes. While studying Ottoman history, Rode was astounded to discover that 41% of the charitable trusts were founded by women. During this period, women worked as farmers, merchants, artisans, land-ladies etc. Women owned property which her husband could not touch during her lifetime. Courts were actively defending women’s property rights. This, then, was progressive Muslim society at its best.

Deviations

With the advent of new dynasties, corrupt rulers came to power. They denied the people their very Islamic rights in standing up to their rulers when the latter went wayward, thus swaying away from the path of Islam, failing to follow the Qur’anic teachings and the traditions of the Prophet.

This denial of political rights led to the decline of Muslim society, the negative ripple effect of which was reflected in the status of women within later Muslim civilizations. Since no substantial sociological explanation has been offered so far regarding the deteriorating role of Muslim women in societal development, some scholars assume that the obvious insecurity of life and property that resulted from political upheavals, combined with weak law and order situations – which existed for many centuries during the reign of later generations of Abbasid rulers, down through the Buwayhids (334-447 AH/945-1055) and Saljuqids (447-590 AH/1055-1194 AD) – as legitimate reasons for the distancing of Muslim women from the fields of outer development.

However, it may be pointed out that this seclusion was mainly to protect Muslim women from being subjected to notorious external environments, where kidnapping of women, molestation and other horrific crimes had gained ascendancy. Though these restrictions were temporary, and as a precaution to ward off the law-less situation, it continued further when the situation aggravated, with the advent of Mongol (656-756 AH/ 1258-1355 CE) and Timurid rulers (786-807 AH/ 1336-1405 CE). These restrictions kept women away from schools and educational centers. It deprived them of the rights which Islam had given them.

While Islam does see the protection and well-being of women as a duty and obligation upon men, harsh historical conditions rendered women incapable of fending for their families even when their male members were non-existent or incapacitated in one way or the other. Muslim civilization at that later stage was then on a downward trajectory, what with a major chunk of its population – its women – being restricted by historical circumstances from participating in socio-cultural development excepting, perhaps, for the proper maintenance of the family atmosphere at home: in itself not a trivial achievement in periods of transition and crisis.

Influence of Globalization on Feminism

Today, even as the countries of the Third World stumble out of centuries of stagnation and servitude, they are nevertheless exposed to the challenges of globalization or modernization. To be sure, globalization or modernization may be seen as the adoption of modern technology – clearly a necessity in development. This technology, however, is quite often the sum of contributions made by several civilizations like the Chinese, Indian, Western and, of course, the Islamic.

With the process of globalization well in place, there is bound to be some influx of foreign norms and attitudes which have to be filtered out before they can be adopted, depending on how they benefit each receiving society. External values, thus accumulated during the course of modernization, can be beneficial only if they boost our existing morals and culture in a positive and non-contradictory way. Unfortunately, however, this concept has been misunderstood by the majority. According to many, globalization or modernization is simply ‘westernization’; they often tend to miss the thin margin between westernization and modernization. This is of concern, especially for women, because they are supposed to be the cradle on which every civilization is founded.

Misguided feminism justifies itself in the name of freedom. Free intermingling of men and women, late night partying, alcoholism, revealing outfits – all of which were once considered grave taboos in Indian tradition – are considered as representative of freedom now. This borrowed culture of the West has neither helped them nor will it help the people who adopt it as their own. People who promote this culture are Western apologists, if not outright propagandists. They have a preconceived notion of modesty. For instance, to them, all Muslim women in modest Muslim clothing (head scarf and long gowns) are ‘oppressed women,’ not on par with members of a modern society; whereas a Christian nun with similar attire is praised and honored for her outward appearance. So if this is not being prejudiced, even hypocritical, then what is?

Surely, it is tough to change these misconceptions, but it can certainly be done. Reform in public thought and attitude is a gradual process which requires as much patience as perseverance. The focus has to be on the future generation, so as to provide them with a proper upbringing and an effective education. In the final analysis, socio-economic and political reforms by the government, combined with the efforts of social-reform movements led by intellectuals from every cross-section of our society, should, hopefully, go a long way in preventing a worsening of the prevailing situation.