The Condition of Muslim Women: What Can We do?
By: Dr. Muqtedar Khan
The changes and challenges of the twentieth century have indeed been rough for
Muslim women. They have been caught in the crossfire at many levels. Whether it
is the culture wars between Islam and the West, or the civil wars between
secularists and Islamists, Muslim women have to bear the brunt of travails
associated with these conflicts. Either they loose their husbands and sons to
the battlefield, or they loose their freedoms and dignity in the social arena.
Tragedy and irony are the two dominant themes of their existence. At times, they
are victims of those who seek to protect them and at other times, those who seek
to emancipate them oppress them.
Even when it comes to historical processes, Muslim women are caught in the
struggle between the imperialism of modernity and the intransigence of
In Afghanistan, the Talibanization of Islam has had many consequences. Some good
like restoring a modicum of stability to a region devastated by war. Some
terribly, particularly the assault on the civil liberties of women. In the name
of Islam, a religion which began when God asked Man to "Read" -- the first word
of the Quran revealed to Muhammad was "Iqra" (read) -- the Taliban have
systematically sought to deprive women of education, the essence of
emancipation. In Turkey, to protect civil society from the so-called evils of
religion, secular-democrats are using batons to keep Muslim women out of
schools, and universities. In France, the land where the modern project of
freedom began with a glorious revolution, where also the new standards of
fashion are set, politicians are keeping Muslim women out of schools for
sartorial reasons. East or West, secular or religious, all forces seem
determined to preclude the emancipation of Muslim women. WWe live in a highly
interdependent world. What happens in the economic or the political arena has
critical impact on the social stage. Changes in the East and moods in the West
influence each other profoundly. As Muslims struggle to recover from the effects
of colonialism, their societies cry out for political and social change. Because
change in the East endangers Western hegemony, any attempts at change become a
political threat. The West opposes political initiatives in the East, whether
Islamism or Socialism. Social initiatives from the West, feminism or liberalism,
threaten the politics of the East and are in turn rejected. The site for these
battles, cultural and political, invariably ends up on the Muslim woman's head,
So far, most of the rescue attempts have come from the West. But the
humanitarian concern for the plight of Muslim Women is often accompanied by an
attendant discourse that demonizes Islam. It confuses issues and makes most
Muslims suspicious. They imagine these projects as another attempt to demonize
Islam and ridicule Muslim beliefs. Western double standards also hurt the
prospects for change.
Muslims who are willing to work with Western agencies to improve the conditions
of Muslim women are forced to retreat in the face of these double standards. For
example, when the Taliban use ideological rhetoric to deprive Muslim women
access to basic education, Western media and agencies condemn them (justifiably)
and also attack Islam (unnecessarily). But when the French and Turks do the
same, use ideology to deprive Muslim women access to education, the media does
little to remedy the situation.
Recently, the "secular state" of Turkey actually took away the citizenship of
one of its nationally elected representatives because she dared to cover her
head! And most of the Western world, otherwise quick to rush to the aid of the
Muslim Woman, did not do much to prevent it.
Unfortunately, Muslim feminists do not help their cause either. Muslim feminists
are broadly of two types, extremely westernized or too traditional. The
Westernized Muslim feminists generate a discourse that mimics their Western
counterparts. Their extreme Westernization, in worldview as well as life-style,
not only scares the traditional Muslim male but also most Muslim women.
As a result the projects and goals they advocate are delegitimized purely
because of their manifest disregard and disrespect for Islam and traditional
Muslim values. Of course they do win many supporters and admirers among Western
feminist and liberal establishment, but this does little to ameliorate the
plight of the Muslim Woman.
The so called Islamic feminists, occupy the other extreme pole. They seem to be
reacting to the absence of "Islam" in the Westernized feminists, whom they
perceive as a threat to Islamic heritage and the institutions of family,
marriage and modesty. They expire their resources and energies in defending
traditional practices and martyr the project of woman's emancipation in the
defense of an Islam, articulated by Muslim orthodoxy.
Thus, while the Western Muslim feminists are busy learning the "lingo" and
admiring Simone de Bouvoir, the Islamic feminists are busy confirming the
stereotypes. The regular Muslim woman meanwhile continues to suffer. Muslim men
at the moment are engrossed in preparing for civilizational clashes or
civilizational dialogues. They cannot pay any attention to the condition of the
Muslim women, while the Muslim Man is still enslaved and Muslim lands still
Is there anything that we can do? Yes. I think American Muslims can launch
several initiatives. First we must launch an educational campaign among American
Muslims to impress upon them that to recognizing that women in some parts of the
Muslim world do not have access to their Islamic rights does not mean that we
are saying Islam is inferior to the West.
We should not be reactionary to anybody's critique of the condition of Muslim
women. Second, we must try to increase awareness among Muslims everywhere about
women's rights to education, equality, dignity, and freedom of choice and
action. The language of rights may engender negative reactions and therefore
appropriate Quranic and Hadith literature should be made available. American and
European Muslims must provide the intellectual and financial resources necessary
for this global project since no one else may contribute.
Finally American and European Muslims must help initiate an awakening among
Muslims to the overwhelming domination of men in Islamic legal studies. There is
no doubt in my mind that when men alone interpret the Quran and Hadith and
Islamic juristic traditions, they do it from a masculine perspective. It is
important that we produce more and more women scholars of Islam who can
eventually understand and advance their own understanding of Islamic sources.
If there can be so many differences between the understanding of men that we
have at least five different legal traditions (madhahib) and so many
methodologies (tarikas) from Salafi to Sufi, from Wahabi to Barelvi, from
Tablighi Jamaat to Jamaate-Islami, then surely women too will have a different
understanding of Muslim sources.
Islamic thinkers (men) themselves have acknowledged that men and women have
fundamentally different natures. While men tend to be absolutist, women tend
towards infinity, when men emphasize justice, women encourage mercy and
tolerance, when men pursue knowledge, women seek understanding. Remember both
these characteristics, masculine and feminine are human manifestations of divine
And just as justice without mercy can be cruel, masculine understanding without
feminine input can also become harsh. It is time we encouraged more women
scholars of Islam and explicitly seek their understanding of Islam. This will
only strengthen the Ummah and enrich us.