Islamic feminism and traditionalist ulema's stances on women - Interview with Waris Mazhari of India

In this interview with Yoginder Sikand, Waris Mazhari critically reflects on the phenomenon of 'Islamic feminism' and on the stance of traditionalist ulema on women's issues.

YS: You have written extensively on gender justice in Islam. How do you look at the phenomenon of what is today called ‘Islamic feminism’? How does it differ from the way in which you perceive the issue of women’s status and rights in Islam?

WM: In recent years, scores of books, mainly in English, have been published on what is termed by its proponents as ‘Islamic feminism’. A number of NGOs, almost wholly funded by Western organisations, have also cropped up in various countries that see themselves as engaged in promoting ‘Islamic feminism’. I would be the last to deny the reality that vast numbers of Muslim women continue to be denied their rights, and I readily admit to the fact that patriarchy, which I deem as un-Islamic, is deeply entrenched in most Muslim societies. Yet, as a Muslim, and as someone who is concerned about Muslim women’s access to justice, I have serious reservations about some basic aspects of the ‘Islamic feminism’ project.

Based on my limited reading on the subject of ‘Islamic feminism’, I think that many—though I cannot say all—advocates of this project lack an independent world-view of their own, and simply follow the dominant Western feminist discourse, which they seek to propagate in an ‘Islamic’ guise. They appear to want Muslim women to go the way of Western women, and, for this, seek to interpret Islam in a particular way so as to promote this agenda. The Western feminist model, rather than Islam per se, is their criterion to decide what is ‘just’ and ‘proper’, and this guides the way in which they read and interpret Islamic texts. This is the model that they want Muslim women to emulate, seeing, as the dominant West itself does, Muslim women as ‘backward’ and, consequently, as in desperate need of ‘liberation’.

Q: But, given the reality of women’s marginalization, which is sought to be legitimized by appeals to Islam, what is the way out?

WS:  I believe that Muslim scholars, including the male ulema, must today recognize the reality of deep-rooted gender biases in Muslim societies. We have to accept that Muslims have handicapped half our population—Muslim women—by all sorts of unwarranted restrictions. We have to admit the urgent need to enable Muslim women to develop their suppressed potentials. The solution to this must be evolved from within the broad paradigm provided by the Quran and authentic Hadith, rather than on the basis of feminism, even if it is in a so-called ‘Islamic’ guise.

Q: Muslim critics of ‘Islamic feminism’ (or any form of feminism, for that matter) argue that the project aims at dividing and subverting Muslim families, setting men against women and thus destroying the very basis of Muslim society. They project this as a ‘Western conspiracy’. How do you relate to this argument?

A: In a sense, some issues that ‘Islamic Feminists’, particularly those who are heavily funded by Western organisations, take up are geared to set Muslim women and men against each other. I have no idea if this is intentional or otherwise.  For instance, you have huge funds being poured in for such purposes as setting up women’s mosques or enormous Western media hype about a woman imam leading a mixed congregation. Personally, I am against such sensationalism, but I also recognize that it is our own weakness that has caused or led some Muslim women to take to this path. If Muslim women had been allowed by Muslim men their Islamic right to worship in mosques, there would have been simply no grounds for such unnecessary controversies. In this regard, I think a major share of the blame lies on the shoulders of the traditionalist ulema. They will not utter a word about women roaming in markets and shopping malls but, at the same time, will readily claim that if women were allowed to pray in mosques, which they did at the time of the Prophet, society would be corrupted! This unfortunate attitude of theirs has definitely led to considerable alienation among many Muslim women from the ulema, because they regard these ulema as complicit in their marginalisation.

In this regard, the traditionalist Hanafi ulema, who are dominant among the Muslims of India, argue that although in the Prophet’s time women did pray in mosques, this practice was later abrogated by the Caliph Umar. Hence, they argue, we must stick to the Caliph’s decision. It is strange that even as they cite this as an argument to justify banning women from praying in mosques they do not advocate that thieves’ hands should not be cut off, which is what the Caliph Umar once ordered, against the Quranic commandment to the contrary, during a severe drought. The point, then, is that several prescriptions of Islamic jurisprudence, including some dealing with women, are related to their spatio-temporal contexts, and that, as the contexts change, these rules must, too, if need be. In other words, in seeking to apply the rules of the shariah one also has to take into account what the demands of the situation or context are. This applies to women’s issues as much as to other such matters.

YS: If this, as you seem to suggest, is a basic and well-recognised shariah principle, why is it that the traditionalist ulema do not recognize it, or, even if they do, do not act on it when it comes to issues to do with women?

WM: Unfortunately, our traditionalist ulema continue to rigidly adhere to medieval fiqh formulations, and uphold the doctrine of taqlid or blind imitation of past juridical precedent. They do not appreciate the inherent flexibility provided by the principles of Islamic jurisprudence to generate contextually relevant responses to new issues. One reason for this is that madrasas, where our ulema are trained, make no provision for their students to learn about new social contexts and developments. The ulema and students of the madrasas have very limited interaction with the general society, and so it is hardly surprising that they have little idea about new social issues, including those related to women. The entire focus of madrasa education is the teaching of certain texts, mainly of medieval fiqh, and even this is not properly done. The men who run the madrasas give little or no attention at all to the question of how the madrasa curriculum should respond to new challenges and realities. The madrasas were a product of a feudal society of the Middle Ages, whose concerns they continue to be obsessed with, as is reflected in their curriculum and their general approach to women’s issues. They still view the world through the prism of medieval Muslim society, and seek to provide medieval solutions to complex modern problems. Obviously, this approach will not work.

YS: If this approach will not work, as you say, including with regard to women’s issues, what will?

WM: Today, we are faced with a situation where we are confronted with two extremes. On the one hand is the dominant Western culture that has commodified women and seeks to destroy all differences between men and women on the specious grounds that difference automatically means inequality. It insists that just because a man does something or behaves in a certain way, a woman must do so, too. In other words, despite its protestations of radical equality between the sexes, this approach is based on the notion of the male as the criterion for deciding what is good for women and what is not. Lamentably, in India, too, we are fast falling prey to this mentality, blindly imitating the West.

On the other hand, are our traditionalist ulema. In a sense, some of their very conservative, even reactionary, positions on women are a response to what they see as the potent challenge of dominant Western views about women. They want to keep Muslim women locked up in their homes and fully veiled, quite in contrast, I must insist, to the position that they enjoyed at the time of the Prophet. Some of them even go so far as to insist that a woman’s very voice is awrah or something to be ‘veiled’ and hidden—in other words, that even her voice must not be heard by any ‘strange’ male, although there was nothing like this in the time of the Prophet. Given the traditionalist ulema’s attitude to women-related issues, it is hardly surprising that many educated Muslim women blame the ulema for their ills, some of them even locating the root of their problems in Islam itself. This is undoubtedly a very troubling and lamentable state of affairs. I think it is imperative that Muslim males, including the ulema, realize this enormous problem and encourage Muslim women to come forward and participate in all spheres of public life, especially through access to education, religious as well as secular, in which they continue to lag far behind.

YS: In this regard, how do you look at the insistence of Islamic feminists that Muslim women begin to study and interpret Islam for themselves for their emancipation?

WS: It is not only Islamic freminists who are saying this, and nor are they the first to do so. The Quran itself tells us that all Muslims, men and women, should study it. I think that it is crucial for Muslim women to start studying Islam for themselves, for, undoubtedly, they can better understand the Islamic notion of gender justice than many men. It was essentially due to Muslim women’s educational backwardness, particularly in the realm of religious scholarship, that it became easy for them to be exploited by Muslim men, including the male religious class, the reason being that if you do not know your rights, others will naturally exploit you. By becoming Islamic scholars, including muftis and faqihas, in their own right, Muslim women will be able to challenge the deeply-rooted notion that a husband is his wife’s lord and that he can treat his wife the way he wants, that a wife must be forever subservient to her husband, regard him as her lord or hakim, consider her the dust of her husband’s feet as the path to heaven for her and even treat him almost like a demi-god, or majazi khuda as it is said in Urdu—these being widely-held conceptions in Muslim society which, however, have no Islamic basis at all. Sad to say, this is the view also of some traditionalist ulema, who ought to know better.

Obviously, if Muslim women were themselves to study Islam and contemporary social demands and challenges it would be much more difficult for men to exploit them in the name of Islam. In this way, it is likely that the Quranic mandate of gender justice would be more prominently highlighted and promoted. This would not be a wrongful innovation at all. In fact, it would revive a lost precedent, for in the early Muslim period numerous Muslim women excelled in the field of Islamic scholarship, some even challenging well-known male scholars and exemplifying, through their own lives, the rights of women in Islam.

In other words, while I do not agree with many basic aspects of the approach, methodology and agenda of self-identified ‘Islamic feminists’, I readily admit that one basic demand and concern of theirs—gender justice—can no longer be ignored by the ulema and Muslim males. In my humble opinion, gender justice is something that is intrinsic to Islam itself. Denying it obviously leads to a denial of a basic Islamic mandate.