The mere proposal of an All-Africa Muslim Women formation nearly caused brouhaha at a conference I recently attended.
Some righteous males started pontificating about women wanting to dethrone them from their God-given seat of being the centre around which the life of a woman should revolve. They accused women of wanting to beat them in the marvelous game of smoking cigarettes, wearing trousers and sleeping around. If this was aimed at intimidation and muting and mutilating the women's voice, I must say, this is a strategy that seems to be working very well for the blessed man. The most enthusiastic and articulate woman activist started giving men assurances that they are by no means feminists. She stressed that they want to organize themselves precisely to preach to the women who are not dressed properly, that women can police the behavior of deviant women who wear trousers or don't put on scarves better than men can ever do. The males who defended such a forum did this on the basis of enabling women to impart religious education to children and other, with emphasis on the usual message we hear from the pulpit: Islam provides rights to women, but it is men who dispense these rights.
My support for the idea was informed by an expectation that it will serve as a platform for women to challenge male-centric expressions of Islam, push for a fiqh that allows the voices and experiences of women to be articulated and to unapologetically confront the inequities and injustices that women face in society. I had thought that such a platform would raise issues such as women leadership and women scholarship in Islam, access to education, decent and adequate space for women in places of worship, women representation in Mosque committees and on the board of Muslim schools and other Islamic institutions. Thanks to the all-powerful protestation and rave of the male voice, this was shrinking into a place for women at a table laid out by men, with strict instructions not to forget that this is a men's world.
As the vigorous debate went on the voices of the women were getting muter and muter. This vindicated my observation that patriarchal, chauvinist and sexist men deliberately make generalizations and equate the feminist and gender equity movement with women smoking cigarette, drinking beer, tearing off their bras, discarding motherhood in order to intimidate and bully women away from the struggle against gender-based inequities and injustices. The same Muslim men who rile against the Islamophobic painting of Muslims with one brush find it so easy and comfortable to stereotype the feminist and gender equity movement as a lobby of immodest, anti-men, wild women. They deliberately ignore the diversity of the strands and perspectives within the feminist movement.
The reality of the matter is that as a political, cultural and/or economic movement aimed at establishing equal rights and legal protection for women, and concerned with issues of gender difference, women rights and interests, feminism addresses a range of issues and causes most of which are compatible with the Islamic call towards justice for all. These issues and causes include campaigns for women's legal rights (rights of contract, property rights, voting rights); for women's right to bodily integrity and autonomy, and for reproductive rights (including access to contraception and quality prenatal care); for protection of women and girls from domestic violence, sexual harassment and rape; or workplace rights, including maternity leave and equal pay; against misogyny; and against other forms of gender-specific discrimination against women.
In addition to ignoring the validity and legitimacy of the many issues and causes addressed by the feminist and gender equity movement, those who bash women's rights and gender equity also deliberately or ignorantly don't recognize the diverse theories, philosophies and currents within this movement. In their zeal to portray feminists as all being frustrated, estranged, elite white and black women, the 'haters' lump liberal feminism, radical feminism, socialist feminism, environmentalist feminism, anarchist feminism, individual feminism, post colonial feminism and Black feminism or Womanism together. What seem to be lost to the gender equity bashers is that at its very birth Islam transformed the gender dynamics in society by recognizing the full personhood of women, placing a prohibition on female infanticide, recognizing inheritance, turning marriage into a social contract rather than a status, making dowry to be a nuptial gift to the women rather than a bridal-price paid to the father, and providing inheritance and property rights to women at the time such rights were unknown of.
The patriarchal and sexist brigade within the Muslim community thrives on political apathy, low culture of reading, decline in popular education and lack of access to material by classical and contemporary Muslim scholars who tackle these issues outside the framework of literalist and a-contextual fiqh. According to the catalogue of the list of books in our libraries and bookstores, and our curriculum in Muslim institutions, Qasim Amin's Women's Liberation (Tahrir al-Mar'a) (1899) was never written and the feminist undertones in the works of the first woman to undertake Quran exegesis - Aisha Abdal Rahman - aka Bint al Shati (Daughter of the Riverbank) - are just a figment in the imagination of modernist scholars.
How many Madressa and Dar-ulooom graduates know that women's assertion of their right to be acknowledged, listened to and heard starts with the female companions of the prophet Mohammed (s) demanding to know from the prophet (s) why Allah does not address women directly in Quran - to which the Almighty responded by henceforth using the phrase 'believing men and believing women' when addressing the believers? And that this woman activism gender equity tradition continues in the medieval period and the eighteen century with Ibn Arabi arguing that women could achieve spiritual stations as equally high as men and Nana Asma'u - the daughter of the prominent and eminent reformer Uthman Don Fodio - pushing for literacy and education of Muslim women. How many Madressa teachers tell their students of the founding of the University of Al Karauine by Fatima al-Fihri in 859 CE? How many of our children know that 26 of the 160 Mosques built in the 12 and 13th century during the Ayyubid dynasty were funded by a women's charitable trust (Waqf) and that half of all the royal patrons for these institutions were women?
Needless to mention the obvious example and inspiration behind women's active participation and leadership in public political, economic, social and cultural affairs women were the mothers of the believers, Khadijah (RA), Aisha (renowned scholar of hadith and military leader), Fatima (RA) (the beloved daughter of the prophet).
And the prophet's (s) words of praise to the women of Medina: 'How splendid were the women of the ansaar; shame did not prevent them from becoming learned in the faith.' The prophet's (s) words clearly articulate that guarding one's chastity, spirituality and righteousness does not dictate invisibility in public affairs. This is a sufficient rebuttal of the myth that women scholarship, leadership and activism are equal to the loss of shame and decency. What about stressing in the rules of modesty the language and tone we use when talking to our employees and house-helpers most of whom are old enough to be our parents, irritating cat-calls, suggestive looks and gestures towards women in the streets or passes at our house-helpers? How many men who rap about modesty talk down to their wives and treat them like they are dolls?
How many of the men who rant about modesty use vulgar, derogatory and degrading language, are rude to people, and give shabby treatment to their aged parents and grandparents? How many of these men are equally enraged when they witness girl-children below the age of eighteen being handed over in arranged/forced marriages to adults, and how many speak out in outrage against honor-killings and the disowning of children by their parents for marrying outside the village, race, tribe, and sect. How often do we rebuke men for strolling around the beach with bare chests and walking the streets in Bermudas? It seems like for many of us males, modesty and chastity has little to do with God and the integrity of the individual but a lot to do with controlling women's body, voice and movement to ensure that our wives and our daughters remain our property.
Mphutlane wa Bofelo is a South African cultural worker and social critic.
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