After 20 years of ceaseless war and famine, the women of Afghanistan must heal themselves, and ultimately their nation, by rediscovering their identity as empowered, dignified Muslim women.
To many, such an assertion seems like an exact reversal of the truth. After so much suffering, some think, the last thing these women need is more of what apparently caused it. However, a brief look at history and women's rights through a correct understanding of Islam paints quite a different picture.
It was Islam, in the 7th century, that established women's spiritual and intellectual equality with men. Muslim women were granted the right to vote, own property, inherit, receive a higher education and even run a business in which men were subordinates.
These teachings were immediately put into practice, where 1,400 years ago women played an active political role, not only voting for their leader, but also advising him. The Prophet Mohammed's wife, Khadijah, was one of the most successful businesswomen in Mecca, employing many men, including at one point the Prophet himself. Aisha, whom the Prophet married some years after the death of Khadijah, became a scholar of Islam. A man of the time described her by saying, "I have not seen a greater scholar than Aisha in the learning of the Koran, shares of inheritance, lawful and unlawful matters, poetry, literature, Arab history and genealogy." It was not surprising, then, when the world's first institution of higher education -- Al-Azhar Islamic University, founded in Cairo in 969 A.D. -- was named after a woman, Fatima al-Zahraa.
In fact, Islam gave women rights centuries ago not enjoyed by them in our country today. For example, a Muslim woman is a totally separate entity from her husband, not only keeping her family name as well as all property she owned before marriage, but also maintaining total ownership of any money or property she acquires after marriage. In contrast, the general law in most states considers any wealth a woman obtains during marriage as jointly owned by her and her husband.
Since Afghanis are predominantly Muslim, one would expect their customs to already reflect Islam's reverence of women. However, 20 years of war has created a culture of force, where the physically weaker sex is abused and seen as inferior, and where Islamic teachings are superseded by tribal traditions.
The suppression of women's rights in Muslim countries is, of course, not unique to Afghanistan, and neither are the reasons for it. Women's oppression in many parts of the Muslim world is actually just one symptom of a widespread decay of Islamic ideals and the subsequent regression to pre-Islamic tribal culture.
This spiritual cancer has also resulted in the rise of corrupt tyrannical rulers, the proliferation of usury in Muslim economies, the growing gap between rich and poor and the emergence of nationalism.
Due to this misrepresentation of Islam, some have dismissed it as a solution to the problems of women in Afghanistan. Instead, they argue that this country is a hundred years overdue for a healthy helping of Western feminism. Many are under the impression that women's liberation was a 20th-century Western development, and that gains in women's status in other parts of the world are primarily as a result of Western influence.
Certainly no one can deny the progress Western women have made since the days of the English Common Law, which regarded a woman as the legal property of her husband, barring her from owning property, entering into contracts or even keeping her name. After centuries of struggle, American women gained the right to vote in 1920 and British married women gained the right to own property in 1935. Laws for equal access to education and the workplace followed.
This relatively recent change in laws makes it quite clear that far from being the pioneer of women's liberation, the West was actually a thousand-years-late newcomer to this Islamic movement. What's more, when laws in the West were finally corrected to give women their equality, society was late to follow. It took generations to alter people's beliefs about the status of women and affect true social change.
In contrast, Islam changed society almost overnight through the power of deep belief in God and the resulting desire to submit to His will. Afghanistan needs such an immediate and radical cultural transformation.
Western feminism simply cannot bring this about because it lacks the ideological strength to quickly penetrate hearts and minds. Even with the help of the greatest propaganda machine, Western feminism fails to answer the most basic question: Why should women be regarded as equals now after being seen as inferior for years of civil war? "Because America said so" will not hold much weight with most people.
Islam, on the other hand, teaches women's equality as a divinely ordained principle. It elevates the status of women by revealing their God-given rights, which no one has the right to take away and which no devout believer dares question. If the Afghanis rediscover the true teachings of their faith, women's liberation will emerge naturally.
Fundamental societal change in Afghanistan requires the power of deep religious conviction. Only this will elevate women to their proper station -- servants to God alone whose rights are a sacred covenant.
Dalia Mogahed, a writer living in Mt. Lebanon, is a contributor to Al-Jumuah, an English-language Islamic magazine. She is an MBA student at the Katz Graduate School of Business, University of Pittsburgh.
Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
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