How does one broach the subject of “womanhood” in the Islamic environment when there are two immoderations at loggerheads with each other? Each one drapes itself with self-righteous quotations and an inability to see some merit in the line of reasoning on the opposite side.
Talking or writing about women is taboo to some Muslims and way overdue for others. Both are inexact and reinforce each other’s position without intending to do so. Knowing how delicate this topic is to some Muslims and how intense it is to others, it will not be a surprise if both sides pelt us with their displeasure.
As time drags on, the issue of women’s rights keeps developing. There are many moral concerns and social problems that unfold when speaking of women’s rights. Many times the question of women’s rights has more to do with individuals who have money and power or with establishments that manipulate money and deploy power.
Take as an example what happened a few months ago when a section of the Saudi ruling family made it legal for women to drive cars. Muhammad bin Salman and his father the king at long last reconciled a ma‘ruf (a self-evident good quality) with shar‘ (divine legality). But what we saw accompany this seemingly positive development was the Saudi ceremonial rulers give a free rein to their security agents to viciously embark on a campaign to silence or send to prison the very Saudi women who stood up for justice and equality throughout the past years. You would think that these women would have been applauded or even promoted. But no, that wasn’t the case. As the malevolent monarchy always behaves, it viciously went after fair-minded females and unbiased women! And when Canada, even though it has no problems with the Saudi regime killing tens of thousands of Muslims up and down the Holy Land from Yemen to the Levant, expressed some empathy for human rights advocates in the medieval Kingdom, the Saudi regime was incensed and immediately expelled the Canadian ambassador from Riyadh. Little did Canada know that it had touched a Saudi raw nerve — the Kingdom is rife with internal contradictions and the human rights issue is a very serious one indeed. That’s how fragile that clan-run Kingdom has become.
Moving away from the chauvinistic shaykhs and misogynist freaks in that state of Saudi sin, we refocus our attention on Muslim women in many societies in Euro-America throughout the past couple of decades at least. And what do we find? We find a type of fixation with the issue of niqab and hijab. Some of these “freedom loving” countries have passed laws that would make wearing the niqab in public places illegal. A ban on the burqa in public places went into effect in Denmark recently. France’s cultural colonialism no longer has its Legionnaires killing Muslims across Africa and Asia but it has its security forces and legal institutions eradicating the freedoms that, on paper, are the right of all citizens and legal residents living in France, except if one is a Muslim — and particularly an observant Muslim woman. Recently, the ex-foreign minister of a lapsed Great Britain poked fun at Muslim women wearing the hijab.
In a column in the UK’s the Telegraph, on Sunday (August 12), Boris Johnson wrote that while he doesn’t support a burqa ban, he does think they’re “ridiculous” because they make women look like “letter boxes” and “bank robbers.”
“If you say that it is weird and bullying to expect women to cover their faces, then I totally agree,” Johnson wrote. “I would go further and say that it is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes.”
He also said that if “a female student turned up at school or at a university lecture looking like a bank robber,” he would ask her to remove her face covering in order to speak to him. He added that humans “must be able to see each other’s faces.” Mr. Johnson, the political animal that he is, it turns out, made those statements to garner support of the political right-wing factions and the conservative votes in his indisposed kingdom — a kingdom that injected itself with a lethal dose of Brexit and thus is on its way to becoming the sick man of Europe. Britain still suffers from a colonial hangover — which would explain why Mr. Johnson could not bring himself to apologize for his anti-Muslim rant.
How many Muslim women are there in Britain who wear the niqab? An educated guess would be less than one-tenth of 1%. But that miniscule number is huge in a political atmosphere that is systematically charged with Islamophobia and the post-9/11 war on terror.
Then we have in Tunisia ongoing public campaigns and legal procedures that would give a female beneficiary the same share as the male beneficiary, which would mean goodbye to the ayah, “…for the male [beneficiary] the equivalent of two female [beneficiaries]” (4:11). And now that the matriarchy versus patriarchy door is open, the Tunisians are showing their penchant for more “equality” by motioning the right for Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men. This was presented by the Tunisian president al-Baji Qa’id al-Sabsi to parliament! In the context of Arabian governments, Tunisia has always prided itself on being the most liberal and liberated society when it comes to women’s rights. But a more careful consideration of Tunisian politics reveals that there is a fierce electioneering competition going on between the two major Tunisian parties — the secular Nida’ Tunis (The Sound of Tunis) and the Islamic oriented al-Nahdah (The Arising). In these election campaigns winning women’s votes is critical — so critical that al-Nahdah had women without the Islamic dress code nominated on their behalf. And lo and behold one un-Islamically dressed Tunisian woman who joined al-Nahdah — Su‘ad ‘Abd al-Rahim — was elected as mayor of Tunis, the capital of Tunisia. This major Islamic party in Tunisia had its members expressing themselves in what you would say is the lingo of modernity and the vocabulary of enlightenment, so much so that the female mayor is being presented by al-Nahdah as the next potential prime minister or president. It is reported that al-Nahdah inclines to favor equal inheritance rights for male and female. Quixotically, this pro-feminine position of the Islamic al-Nahdah caused members of its rival Nida’ Tunis to adopt a more traditional and “Islamic” position on women in society: women are not qualified to hold the highest offices in the government! It has become so schizophrenic that during the vote on equal inheritance rights for men and women in which the secular president al-Sabsi voted in favor, the male and female attendees were segregated!
In this intense and irregular election atmosphere al-Azhar, the renowned Islamic institution in Cairo, Egypt, weighed in on an internal Tunisian affair and took the side of the secular Tunisian party. It doesn’t take a scholar to figure out that al-Azhar is doing the bidding of its governmental bosses — the Egyptian military brass that undid a democratic election and, so far, has gotten away with it.
As Divinity would have it, al-Azhar took a vocal position on the “women’s rights” issue, which amounts to supporting the seculars of Tunisia within the same week in which the fifth anniversary of the Egyptian military’s mass slaughter of thousands of Egyptians in what is called the Massacre of Rabi‘ah — women, men, and children — occurred.
Whether it is an Islamic party, an Islamic institution, or an Islamic individual, the merits and demerits of women’s rights are, regrettably speaking, a function of power politics. The language that has cavities in its words will have chasms in its policies. We, the Muslims, have some Qur’anic words that are not well defined and, thus, are not well understood. These words are: hijab, khumur (plural of khimar), jalabib (plural of jilbab), and sitr. Then there are cultural words and variations: niqab, chador, burqa. If we were serious-minded, we would define these words, place them in our down-to-earth everyday life and move ahead with our common and shared responsibilities — men and women. “O People! Be ever on guard relevant to your Sustainer who has created you from one nafs, and He created from it, its matching part” (4:1).