This issue of gender roles in Islam has been on the forefront of every attack on the religion. Human rights activist in the east and the west are especially preoccupied with the dress code that Islam dictates and has become the pinnacle of anti-Islam propaganda that unites and dictates world view.
The level of hostility that exists against Muslim women who choose to don the Islamic garb is amazing. It seems that these Muslim women are being held responsible for all the evil perpetrated against them by every corrupt and morally bankrupt government of the Muslim world. Seemingly these critics believe that if Muslim women abandon this modest form of dress, it will save millions from poverty, sexual exploitation, domestic abuse and social tyranny.
It is true that the situation of women all over the Muslim world is far from the standards demanded by Islam, but to dismiss it merely as a consequence of male dominance is an over simplification.
It is true that the situation of women all over the Muslim world is far from the standards demanded by Islam, but to dismiss it merely as a consequence of male dominance is an over simplification. Leema Faruqi in her book, The Status of Muslim Women, traces the decline in the status of Muslim women to the latter part of the 19th century, which interestingly coincides with the colonization of the Muslim world and the beginning of the end of the Ottoman Empire and the Khilafat.
The stratagems of subjugation used by the European colonial lords in the rest of the world were not successful in the Muslim world since the Bible and alcohol were both shunned by the Muslim masses. The belief in one God was a formidable force that the colonizers could not penetrate. The strategy thus adopted to colonize the Muslims was to attack their educational and social institutions. The Mosque madrasahs (schools) were abolished in favor of European-style schools where the curriculum was designed to promote Christian and Western values. The Arabic language was replaced by English, Italian and French as medium of instruction in schools and in government offices.
It was long term planning to produce generations of Islamically illiterate and intellectually enslaved Muslims. While the mosque schools were free and accessible to all, the European schools were expensive and catered to the rich and the powerful. The legacy of this still haunts the Muslim countries that have the lowest literacy rate in the world. The objective of such educational institutions was to produce European clones that would ensure the economic and political interest of their colonial lords long after the so-called independence of the Muslim countries.
Canadian natives were also subjected to such policies as we see in the residential schools, where native children were forced to reside in an effort to Europeanize them.
The effects of intellectual subjugation was most acutely felt when the Muslim political leaders -- the graduates of said institutions started to reject Shariah as the law of the land in favor of secular values- values that just sixty years ago did not recognize women as persons under the law.
The Quran states:
"O humankind be careful of your duty to your Lord, who created you from a single soul...be careful of your duty to your Creator in whom you claim your mutual rights"( Q 4:1)
This verse effectively established women as equal to men in their creation. Meanwhile, the Christian version of the woman, personified by Eve, was the cause of mankind's fall from grace. In the Christian tradition, Adam's fall from grace was blamed on the woman and was made popular through missionary schools and propagated through social policies.
These policies claimed to be based on Islamic family law, but were in actuality an abrogation of Shariah designed by Orientalist scholars. In order to convince the Muslim women that Islam was oppressive towards them, the abuse of Islamic law was encouraged in favor of men. This in turn bred resentment among Muslim women who retaliated by adopting an apologetic attitude towards their faith.
Muslim women started to view this abrogation as sanctioned by Islam and reacted in two distinct ways. First, by rejecting Shariah in favor of, and in their view a more progressive ideology, the Western secularism, and became vocal advocates of blaming Islam for their woes. Secondly by withdrawing all together from public forum and discourse, thus giving up on their duty to participate as stated in the Quran:
"And the believers, men and women, are protecting friends and helpers of one another; they enjoin the right and forbid the wrong, they establish worship and pay the poor due and they obey Allah and His Messenger. As for those Allah will have Mercy. Lo Allah is Mighty, Wise" (Q 9:71).
Muslim women became as removed from decision-making process as their Christian counterparts. For example, my maternal grandmother who was a scholar of tafseer could not educate her own daughters formally because of the fear of her husband that they will be influenced by secular values. The tragedy is that they were also denied access to in- depth Islamic education as well and were merely given the most elementary instructions including reading the Quran. My mother's response was to send her daughters to English medium schools and to abandon the Islamic garb.
Now I am living in a western society devoutly observing my faith, much to the dismay of my counterparts in my country of birth.
So intense were the fears of the colonial pundits concerning the Islamic tenets of social justice and the accountability of leaders as mere servants of Allah, that they considered it a threat to their economic interests. Europe's economy was based on interest and usury, while Islam forbade both as social evils.
Islam forbade the husband from having any claims on his wife's income whether earned or inherited, while in Europe women themselves were considered as property of their husbands and fathers.
The rights and duties accorded to women under Shariah are divinely decreed and not subject to man-made legislation.
An all out war was thus declared on the Islamic social system. This was subtle in some cases and overt in others. In order to crush the source of accurate information about Islamic law, the colonial authorities started a campaign of oppression and tyranny against the scholars of Islam who were the only source of knowledge and defense against the anti-Islam Orientalist literature that was flooding the markets. In Libya, the Italians tortured, maimed and killed the scholars by the hundreds. Egypt, Algeria and Morocco also experienced similar persecution at the hands of their respective colonizers. The British in India used more subtle approach by removing Islamic scholars from positions of authority and replacing them with Mullahs with rudimentary knowledge of Islam and added them to the government's payroll, thereby ensuring their loyalty to the British Raj.
This unfortunate policy continues to this day in the post-Second World War Muslim world. The campaign of terror unleashed against the scholars and social activists under the regime of Nasser in Egypt, Ben Bella of Algeria, and the regimes of Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia and Pakistan have all used the same stratagems as their colonial teachers and masters to oppress and persecute their opponents and to keep the populace ignorant, destitute and suppressed.
The fact that there was a vote in the parliament of Kuwait on woman's right to vote regardless of its outcome is an encouraging indicator of the women's movement in this country. Similarly the movement to bring an end to the un-Islamic penal code in Jordan, which allows the defense of so-called "honor killing" is clearly a step in the right direction.
The rights and duties accorded to women under Shariah are divinely decreed and not subject to man-made legislation. This fact empowers Muslim women to struggle and fight against the injustices of these corrupt regimes. Their efforts will be successful so long as they do not allow the so-called feminist movements, whose only concern is to mould Muslim women as Western clones, to hijack their movement.
The rise of Islamic social activism by Canadian Muslim women who observe the Islamic garb is the wave of the future. These are highly educated women who have understood and accepted Islam as a way of life. To label them as mindless creatures who are subjugated by their men and in need of rescue is a typical response of a colonial mentality among some Muslims and an ethnocentric arrogance on part of Western society.
A wise native elder has said that no nation can be conquered till the hearts of its women are on the ground. The Islamic world will only recognize its true potential as a leader among nations, when the Muslim women reclaim their rightful place in their respective societies as the champions of what is good and just, and to forbid what is unjust. The challenge is to establish Islamic, social and economic justice as a prerequisite to an Islamic society governed by Shariah.
To concentrate on the punitive aspects of the Shariah and to ignore the social ills that are a contributing factor is to put the cart before the horse. As a counselor who deals exclusively with Muslims and relies on the Quran and Hadith as my guide, the irrefutable conclusion that I have drawn is that Islam's approach to social and family issues is balanced, holistic and based on common sense.
The aim of any civilized society is to establish harmony, equity and fair access to services. For this to be achieved exploitation, persecution and oppression must be eradicated whether it is based on race, ethnicity or gender. The Islamic faith and way of life is the only comprehensive system that offers such a just society and history attests to this fact that when Islam flourished, humanity prospered.
Shahina Siddiqui is a free-lance writer and lives in Winnipeg.