There are so many misconceptions about Muslim women, even though the Quran charts out laws that are fair to both men and women in everyday life.
George Orwell said, ‘Ignorance is Power.’ This was said in reference to how the ignorance of people is converted into the power by the government. However, nothing defines the conflict theories surrounding the status of Muslim woman in India and all over the world, better than the above quoted words.
The ignorance of the majority and sadly the woman herself is being used as the power tool to define and control a Muslim woman’s image, although Quran, the holy book of Islam, says in words of transparent clarity:
“As for women are rights over men, similar to those of men over women.” (2:226)
In the world of misogyny being a woman is no less than a slur. And if you are a Muslim then being a woman is your slur doubled up. If you choose to wear the Muslin scarf – Hijab then your manner of dressing, speech, beliefs come under the scanner, and you feel like a pinned specimen under the microscope at the best of times.
That I have deliberately written the word “choose” while describing the attire must have been lost on many. And that is the problem. A Muslim woman is stereotyped enough in her lifetime to turn up in many clichés around the daily conversations.
The conflict theories surrounding the status of Muslim women in India and all over the world, are based on prejudice, which more often than not turns quickly into propaganda .
Contrary to its antiquated image, Islam is just a 1400 years old religion and has many laws that are in fact in favour of Muslim women, provided the doctrines are adhered to with honesty and transparency.
But the status of Muslim women has been placed under a magnifying glass, and it has happened since the height of feminist movement in the late 70s.
That the magnifying glass is rather selective in its focus is also an irrefutable fact. Due to the current atmosphere of cultural hegemony, Muslim women are widely discussed in a speculative manner, scorned, and are continuously subjected to misinterpretation regarding their status in society. Their clothes, their demeanour, and their rights or lack of them is constantly perpetuated unfairly to make them stand out as the most victimized and abused gender in Islam, despite the fact that the chronicles of the Prophet Mohammed’s lifetime very clearly indicate that Muslim women were not the orthodox, subjugated, downtrodden species subject to oppression during his times.
Recently we have been reading about, and are concurrently force fed on television debates, the over enthusiastic interest in Triple Talaq by the current government. Though it is not hard to guess- for anyone with even a tiny quotient of intelligence, what the motive behind the sudden interest in a Muslim woman’s right is. The Muslim woman becomes the soft target of a vicious agenda due to the bad press Islam suffers all over the world, ignoring the fact that Islam gives a much higher status to women in matters of Inheritance, Property, Marriage and Divorce; than any other religion.
Like in Muslim marriages a girl is not given away in “Kanyadaan” (the bride given as alms to the groom’s family) unlike the practice carried in some other religions. Like she is treated as an individual in her own right and has full freedom to come to her parent’s home and continue to be their daughter despite being married, because she is not given away in alms to her groom’s family.
Like a Muslim marriage is healthy a contract between two people who can have the contract broken by law anytime they feel that they are not ready to continue with the marital bond, rather than burn the woman to get rid of the bond.
Like a Muslim woman is not bound by the mythical seven births to continue with the same (shudders) husband.
Like she has a rightful share in her parent’s property, despite being married, and that it is a special provision for her as a woman, in order to save her from abandonment, poverty and destitution.
The right of Muslim women to have a share in the family inheritance is sanctified by the Quran and Islamic laws. Wives, mothers, grandmothers, sisters, daughters, granddaughters have rights of inheritance under the Sharia law of Islam, and the details of the exact share to which they are entitled are laid down in the Islamic book of Fiqha (jurisprudence).
The right of the bride to get Mehr (Dower) from the bridegroom at the time of contracting the marriage is specifically mentioned in the Quran. This dower remains in the Muslim woman’s possession, even if she is divorced from her husband.
Says the Quran: “And give women their dower as a free gift.” (4:4)
In what form the dower should be, in cash or in kind, is subject to mutual agreement.
The payment of Mehr (Dower) by a Muslim man to his Christian or Jewish wife is also essential in the context of this Quranic injunction: “And the Chaste from among the believing women and the Chaste from among those who have been given the book before you, when you have given them their dower, take them in marriage”. (5:5)
The Quran is addressed to all Muslims, and there is no differentiation between man and woman rights. It says, “Man and women are created of a single soul.”
Islam has most humane laws unlike any other religions, and there are certain rules and regulations. In the Quran, the holy book of Islam, this law has many conditions and legalities attached to it, which the so-called Islamic scholars have conveniently glossed over to assert their patriarchal autonomy.
Just like a man says: “I accept you as my lawful wife.’ during the time marriage or Nikah, as a Muslim marriage ceremony is called; he can utter, ‘I divorce you’ when they decide to get divorced, or when living in the marriage together becomes difficult for both the parties.
But, after the utterance, which must be done in the presence of a witness, a period of three months follows, in which the woman waits for three menstrual cycles to assure herself that she is not pregnant. This period is also used to think over if the decision is right or wrong.
There is no lawyer to pressurize them or pull them into any kind of legal arguments. During the waiting period the man has to provide food and shelter to the woman and her children, whether the woman is pregnant or not. If the divorce proceedings are carried through to the birth of the child, the man is obliged to provide for his ex-wife and the child as long as he/she suckles. After weaning, the child will be provided for, until the woman marries again, or no longer needs the support.
So you see, there is no instant Talaq in Islam, like Maggi noodles or coffee. Please spare your sympathies. A Muslim woman is not left hapless, homeless, or banished to some remote village like an outcast when she is divorced or becomes a widow. She remains a human being, with dignity; she is free to marry again without suffering disgrace or being ostracized in society. Islam gives her that right.
Forced marriages are still taking place in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Forced marriages are a sin in the Islamic law, yet it takes place abundantly. However there is a provision for a Muslim woman in Islamic law to deem such a marriage illegal and take annulment from the Sharia Court.
So it is a myth is that in a Muslim marriage a Muslim woman is absolutely insecure. She will be given divorce within five seconds of utterance, with no one to care for her and her children. In fact there are many rights under the ‘Sharia’ (Muslim Law) that women enjoyed, until they were distorted out of proportions by many self-proclaimed keepers of law, like the local Mullahs.
“Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood.” George Orwell
Another misconception, which often turns into brutal sarcasm by many half educated non-Muslims, is the idea of polygamy and instant divorce in Islam.
Not many know the fact or rather choose to ignore it- to perpetuate their point of view- that in Sharia a Muslim woman has the right to choose her husband, divorce him if she doesn’t like him, and must not be forced into an arranged marriage even by her parents. Should she be forced into marriage, saying ‘no’ at the time of Nikah (Islamic marriage ceremony) is her birthright.
Polygamy is one of the many fallacies, for which Islamic law is often under a scanner and is presumably considered as a Muslim woman’s “subjugation and mental torture.” The misleading notion purveyed to society in general that Islam encourages polygamy and that every Muslim man must have four wives was in fact a legally controlled law, in which adultery is a severely punishable crime.
The controversy surrounding polygamy is warped, as happens with many laws of Islam. In fact the right to take up more than one wife has many clauses and conditions, to protect the rights of a married woman.
Islamic history reveals that polygamy was widely practiced in Arabia, and many other countries. In Arab tribes, a man had many wives and concubines. A number of prophets mentioned in the Jewish Torah and the Old Testament had more than one wife.
Islam had put polygamy into a straitjacket by allowing a man to take more than one wife, provided he is capable of loving all of them equally, with equal rights to his property and her children also sharing equal rights over the inheritance. If he is unable to do so, then he must opt for monogamy.
Polygamy, considered as oppression for a Muslim woman, is no longer common for various good reasons.
During older times it was the accepted norm because most wives were not taken for their sexual attraction or youth, but they were usually mothers of six children who were left with little or no support during wars.
During the battle of Uhud, in which quite many Muslims were martyred, leaving a number of women widows and small children orphans, the injunction to take them as wives was made in order to do justice to women who were left unescorted and could have fallen prey to male exploitation and poverty. It was believed that a man marrying such a woman even though he has a wife would give honor and security to the woman. These marriages were not based on lust or sexual needs, but due to the need of circumstances. Another condition where more than one marriage is allowed is a situation where a wife is unable to do her conjugal duties. In such cases, Islam permits a man to take another wife, as adultery and sex outside marriage in not permissible in Islam.
Under the Sharia Law, his wife and children can continue to have their rights on him, and a woman and her children would not be left high and dry.
By giving divorce rights to man and as well as woman, Islam provides the Muslim woman a safety valve of a legal divorce to disengage herself from what she may consider an unhappy union with an abusive husband. Islam’s divorce law, as detailed in the books of the school of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) is fair and equitable to both the estranged husband and wife.
If a Muslim husband, who has the plurality of wives defaults in dealing with them justly and neglects one of them, then a Muslim woman has a right to move the court to get maintenance from her husband.
The impression that every Muslim man in a Muslim country has many wives is a fallacy. In some Muslim countries, such as Tunisia and Turkey; the law has instituted monogamy for men. In quite a few Muslim countries, such as Pakistan, Syria, Iraq and Morocco, restrictions have been imposed on Muslim men for having more than one wife.
He is required to take the court’s permission to do it.
In pre-Independence India, although Muslims were allowed to have more than one wife, today this practice is as obsolete as polyandry, the practice where a woman marries more than one man.
As the reference in the ancient Hindu epic Mahabharata mentions, Draupadi marries the five brothers and at that time it was not considered polyandry but an accepted way of life for her.
However, in modern times such practices are no more prevalent.
The famous Muslim jurist, Late Syed Ameer Ali, in his book ‘The Spirit of Islam’ (1992), wrote that 95 out of every 100 Muslim men are practicing monogamy. In certain countries with a Muslim majority like Bangladesh and Indonesia, the incidence of polygamous marriages is not as large as some critics of Islam claim. The Sharia helps women in Islam enjoy many rights and benefits, and it is increasingly becoming obvious that Islamic laws which are in the favour of the Muslim woman are often glossed over or are spoken about ‘out of context’ so as to make them appear ambiguous.
The prevalent patriarchy in society overshadows the rights of a Muslim woman and presents a narrow tunnel view of the entire doctrines.
In Islam men and women have equal rights and it is considered a sin if a man tries to suppress a woman’s rights.
But in some cultures, many women are an under obligation of taking things lying down and look the other way, while their own rights are being tampered upon. Anyone who wishes to understand Islam must first separate the religion from the cultural norms. Islam being a universal religion has many ‘sub practices’ according to the cultural atmosphere of the country or society and thus makes it a controversial religion.
“It was not God who wronged them, but they wronged their own souls.” (Quran, 30:9)
On the other hand, one cannot deny the fact that there are certain countries where Islamic laws are twisted out of proportions and contrived to suit motives and agendas of the society. In certain parts of Africa and Egypt female genital mutilation is still practiced, but is observed as an incredible horror by a vast majority of Muslims.
Image source: a still from Gully Boy
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Nazia Mallick is the author of a literary novel, "Meshes of Smoke"- (2011)
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