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Book Review

Fighting back against both western and Muslim misconceptions about ‘women in Islam’

BENT RIB: A JOURNEY THROUGH WOMEN'S ISSUES IN ISLAM By Huda al-Khattab. Pub: Ta-Ha Publishers, London, 1997. pp. 127. Pbk: £3.50.
Aisha Geissinger

The topic of women in Islam has long been a favourite with modern writers, many of whom have advanced their careers on the backs of the ‘oppressed’ Muslim women whose cause they claim to champion. Muslims have responded to this torrent of literature either by trying to ignore it, or by writing apologetic works (and then reprinting them long after they have become out- dated) which outline the ideal status of women in Islam. Reality is seldom allowed to intrude, so that the sanitised ideal can remain unsullied - and theoretical.

Who has made the west the guardian of Muslim women? The missionary Euro- centric perspective of the world which saw non-European, non-Christian peoples as backward, superstitious and needing to be rescued from darkness has been inherited in modified form by secular modernity, although it is now expressed in more politically correct terms. Liberal notions of equality, post-modern views of gender as relative, and utopian visions of heaven on earth also come into play.

Based on knowledge obtained from human senses and human logic, secular modernity sees the world through the veils of statistics and labels. No aspect of nature or human society is too subtle or sacred to be dissected by modern research tools, or put to political or economic use. As this world- view is implicitly taught by most modern educational institutions, it is not surprising that so many moderns, whether they are white westerners or, as Franz Fanon put it, blacks with white masks, cannot appreciate what divine revelation says about women.

Bent Rib is not just another book about women’s issues. Upon conversion to Islam, al-Khattab found herself under pressure to define her views on Muslim women from both Muslims and non-Muslims. Some Muslims gave her books on women in Islam which outlined ideals far removed from the realities she observed among British Muslims. Many non-Muslims were disapproving and occasionally aggressively hostile, such as a female anthropologist who demanded to know how she ‘could possibly have embraced a religion which did such terrible things to its women!’ (p. 87) This book, unlike most books of its type, goes beyond outlining ideals to discussing realities by narrating anecdotes - often all too familiar - about women whose Islamic rights were denied and explains why such treatment is unjustifiable in Islam.

The book has nine chapters. The first, which discusses Qur’anic interpretation, is unfortunately the weakest. It is intended to counter arguments of the ‘anti-fundamentalist camp’ who ‘pounce on certain [Qur’anic] references to use as ammunition against Islam and Muslims’ (p. 1). The author attempts to deal with the correct interpretation of five verses in only 12 pages, referring to Ibn Kathir and the Tafsir al-Jalalayn only once each. The rest of the references are to Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s commentary and some secondary sources.

To be convincing, the discussion should have been more solidly based on authoritative works of tafsir (Qur’an commentary). Issues such as authority in the family and purity/impurity are put in context, but attempts to downplay their significance and reword the discussion in softer terms give the chapter a defensive tone which further stimulates criticism rather than silencing it. A direct approach to the critics which uncovers and analyzes the root causes of such objections would be more effective. However, the distinction made between the actual teachings and the extremes to which culture can take them is informative.

In the other eight chapters the author is on firmer ground. She discusses marriage and divorce, polygamy, domestic violence, purdah, the social and familial roles of women, female circumcision, abuse of non-Muslim women and education. Most of these issues have been discussed in detail in other books, but few authors have frankly discussed female circumcision or domestic violence from an Islamic perspective. Moreover, this book is the first of this type to deal seriously with the issue of abuse of relationships with non- Muslim women.

Al-Khattab observes that Islamic teachings on marriage and the family have been combined with some pre-Islamic practices in many communities, and that western culture is also having a growing impact. The result is that Muslim women increasingly experience the worst of both worlds. Both husband and community may expect a high standard of housekeeping, including cooking from scratch every day and service to guests, coupled with a new baby every year or so. The women are supposed to do all this without much if any help from the relatives or servants which they might have had in their home countries, and in a context in which the domestic role of women is increasingly looked down upon.

The advent of the nuclear family has also isolated women, leading to loneliness and increasing dependence on their husbands, who for their part have fewer pressures put on them to remain within culturally acceptable limits in the treatment of their families. Horrific abuse sometimes results, and some women may have nowhere to turn except government-run services for women in crisis, where they can face prejudice and pressure to remove their hijab. Al-Khattab takes a practical approach to closing the gap between ideals and realities. She advocates that Muslims compare custom with what Islam actually says about the duties and rights of women. For example, she notes that scholars differ about whether or not women are obliged to do the housework, and that in any case the Prophet (peace be upon him) helped his wives with domestic chores. It is custom which demands that women do such work and encourages men to demand service rather than be helpful. Al-Khattab also observes that breaking the cycle of domestic violence ‘requires adherence to the Qur’an and Sunnah; it means that the emulation of the Prophet, upon whom be peace, has to go beyond growing a beard, wearing a certain style of clothing and eating with only three fingers of the right hand; he never hit women, children or servants at a time when such violent acts were commonplace’ (p.63). Men have the responsibility to change their attitudes and actions, while women should teach sons as well as daughters to do household chores so that they do not grow up with the idea that women exist only to serve them.

In her discussion of education, the author does not content herself with generalizations about the importance of literacy for women, but includes a list of what a functionally literate person should be able to do, and a discussion of where and how girls can be educated. Moreover, she advocates that Muslims support women in developing greater initiative and exercising their rights. For instance, the author recommends that a woman or her guardian should do a thorough background check on the intended husband before marriage takes place, questioning him in detail about his attitudes and aspirations. A detailed list of questions which should be asked is included as an appendix. Al-Khattab’s practical approach to closing the gap between ideals and realities is a significant contribution to the debate among western Muslims on the status of women.

However, the author’s concern with responding to issues raised by ‘anti- fundamentalists’ detracts from her realistic approach in some cases. For example, when discussing why, in many Muslim countries, fewer girls than boys finish school, she writes: ‘There may even be a genuine, although misplaced, concern for the safety (moral and otherwise) of girls which compels parents to keep them home. But does Islam really demand of us that we lock up our daughters and keep them in ignorance?’ (p. 102).

In the rural areas of some ‘developing’ countries, the schools are sometimes a fair distance from the pupils’ homes, and due to the law and order situation girls walking to school can face real danger. Also, such schools may be so poorly equipped that they lack separate latrines for male and female students, if they have latrines at all. In such circumstances, concern for the safety of girls is hardly misplaced. Also, not sending girls to school is not necessarily the same thing as keeping them ignorant. Such hyperbole gives a very limited view of education by reducing knowledge to subjects taught in secular schools plus some Islamic studies. It also tends to alienate the reader.

In dealing with historical questions, the author’s reliance on secondary sources leads to inaccuracies. She seems to agree with the Orientalist claim that the origins of purdah probably lie in the custom of veiling and secluding women which was practised by the upper classes in Byzantium and Persia as a status symbol. She adds that the dramatic social changes following the expansion of Islam also could have led Muslims to impose greater restrictions on women out of concern for their safety, and to regain a sense of control. The latter point does not succeed in neutralizing the implicit thrust of the Orientalist claim, which is that hijab, avoidance of free mixing of the sexes, and purdah originated in the male view of women as property, and are therefore alien to Islam and incompatible with women’s dignity. Orientalists do not take revelation seriously, so they assume that these practices must have been copied from other peoples. Such assumptions are rooted in western racial and religious prejudices.

On the subject of education, al-Khattab states that during the ‘centuries of decline’ from 1250 to 1900 CE, women were not given any education beyond training in domestic tasks and a little religious knowledge. In fact, women had an intellectual influence in the early years of Islam which is unparalleled in any other religion, and the impact of women like ‘A’ishah was such that the tradition of educating women did not die, although it suffered a decline. Influential, educated women such as Asma’u Fodio, daughter of the 19th century West African leader Usman dan Fodio, continue to appear, though in much lesser number, after 1250. Again, Al-Khattab seems to be echoing Orientalist claims through her dependence on secondary sources. Despite such flaws, however, this book’s practical approach does break new ground, and many readers will find it thought-provoking. One hopes that it will help bring the on-going discussion on Muslim women down to earth and inspire some much-needed action to remedy the many problems faced in our communities.

Muslimedia: April 1-15, 1999

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 3

Dhu al-Hijjah 14, 14191999-04-01

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