Islam in India

Position of Women

Since the fatwas discussed above give an indication of the mind of the clergy, who control the behavior of Muslims so totally, we shall start with Shouri’s findings on fatwas issued in India on women. For example, Maulana Ahmad Riza Khan warns, ‘when excited a woman is a hundred times more passionate than man…a woman is mom ki naak (the white hot tip of the candle), baalki raal ki pudiya (a tight little packet of inflammable resin), balki barood ki dibiya (a packet of explosives). If she is ever brought near a spark (of temptation), it will cause an explosion. She is defective in reason as well as in faith. And by nature she is crooked. And in lust a hundred times more passionate than man. When the effect of bad company ruins men permanently, what is one to say of these delicate bottles which with the slightest knock break into smithereens. This nature (of theirs) is proved from several hadis.’

Warraq writes that when Egyptian women demanded representation in their parliament, the ulema from within Egypt’s al-Azar university promulgated a fatwa in 1952 condemning this attempt. They pointed out that (1) women did not possess enough intellectual force, (2) women, because of their femininity, are exposed to dangers that could lead them to abandon reason and propriety, (3) according to Abu Bakr, when the Prophet heard that the Persians had made the daughter of Chosroes their queen he exclaimed, “never will a people who trust their affairs to a woman succeed”, (4) failure inevitably follows on the appointment of a woman to a public post, (5) Islamic law accords to a woman’s testimony only half the weight of a man’s, (6) according to the Koran, ‘men decide for women in view of the fact that God has given preference to the former over latter’, (7) God obliges men to be present in the mosque on Fridays and to conduct the holy war, but not women, and (8) public posts were attributed by Islamic law only to men fulfilling certain conditions.

The above two fatwas largely summarise Islam’s legal position on women irrespective of what the apologists claim - that no other religion has given as high a place to women as Islam, and that no body of law has given them as many rights as the Sharia. Yes, at the time of marriage, a woman is given mehr which in theory is her own: in fact, it is customary to have the bride renounce it on the nuptial night itself and for this there is sanction from Allah Himself (Koran 4.34); and there is something repulsive about the word - ujoor - itself, for it signifies hire paid for the use of the woman. Yes, a daughter is entitled to a share, but it is half that of a son. A woman’s evidence is to count for one-half of that of man. And more than the legal position it is the attitude towards women that is reprehensible. But why blame the ulema alone? Both the Koran (see Appendix A) and the Hadis have looked down upon women as mere sex-objects. The antifeminist sayings of Ali, the Prophet’s first cousin, son-in-law and the fourth caliph are worth noting:

· ‘The entire woman is an evil, and what is worse is that it is a necessary evil’

· ‘You should never ask a woman for her advice because her advice is worthless. Hide them so that they cannot see other men….do not spend too much time in their company for they will lead you to your downfall’

· ‘Men, never obey your women…When alone, they forget religion and think only of themselves…Even the most virtuous among them is of easy virtue’

· And to a man teaching a woman to write: ‘do not add evil to unhappiness.’

And how can you blame Ali when the Prophet himself has declared that upon touring  Heaven and Hell he saw that women are the ones who constitute the majority in Hell, and,

· ‘After me I have not left any affliction more harmful to men than women’

· Explaining why the evidence as well as inheritance of women is worth only half of men, ‘is because of the deficiency of a woman’s mind’

· ‘Whenever a man is alone with a woman, the devil makes a third’, for, ‘a woman advances in the form of a devil and retires in the form of a devil’

· ‘They are your fields of cultivation, if you wish to irrigate them do so, or if you desire otherwise, keep them dry.’

· ‘A man will not be asked as to why he beat his wife.’

Muslim leaders and intellectuals may even acknowledge some inequities in Muslim law but will also claim that the position of women was considerably humanised when compared to ‘pre-Islamic institutions’. Is this strictly true? In this context it should be remembered that Muhammad’s first wife, Khadija, although a widow, was a prosperous trader before the advent of Islam. Muhammad, in fact, began his career as her employee and later married her. This would not have been possible unless women in general enjoyed considerable freedom. The Bedouin women worked and fought alongside their husbands. They were neither cloistered nor veiled. Segregation was totally impractical. In fact the Prophet’s aunt, Hind, reproached him for having imposed obligations on women that he had not imposed on men. Muslim writers have simply exaggerated the old practice of burying unwanted girl babies.

In Christianity the anti-woman sentiments have been traced to the first woman, Eve, succumbing to Satan’s temptations and causing humanity’s downfall. In the Koran, however, her name is not even mentioned, no account is given of how she was created (from Adam’s ribs as per the Biblical account) and she is not accused of being the first to succumb to Satan’s temptation in eating the fruit of the forbidden tree. The hadiths fill in all the details and give her the name, Hawwa. Scholars suspect this to be a typical example of ‘israiliyyat’ i.e. Bibilical Jewish and Christian traditions on which early Islam depended so much.

Nevertheless, there are sentiments degrading to and insulting of women in all the Muslim scriptures, including the Koran. Women are considered inferior to men even in Creation because they were created as an afterthought, for the pleasure and repose of man. Although the Koran does not speak of Eve as harshly and in as condemnatory a tone as the ‘Old Testament’, that the basic nature of the woman is guile, treachery and deceit is illustrated in the Koranic version of Joseph’s seduction by his employer’s wife. The female sex is further maligned and made the object of repudiation by Allah’s attack on the female deities of the polytheists. The rules promulgated by Allah in the Koran for women on marriage, divorce, evidence giving and inheritance are blatantly man-centric and even anti-woman. The hadith and sharia add further fuel to the fire. We shall see below more such instances of inequity.

The very conception of marriage in Islam is a break from the formerly held beliefs about this institution - it is merely a contract, and a pretty one-sided contract at that. The Arabic word for marriage is ‘nikah’ or coition. There is a complete absence of the feeling of association, partnership (saha-dharma-charini) or companionship which characterize the Hindu’s conception of marriage. As a Muslim jurist put it, marriage for a Muslim male is ‘the contract by which he acquires the reproductive organs of a woman, with the express purpose of enjoying it.’ The converse, of course, is not the case; the reproductive organ of the husband is not exclusively reserved for his wife. The Koran decrees that a man can have up to four wives at a time along with female slaves his right hand possesses. A wife cannot legitimately ask her husband to satisfy her sexually - she can only demand that she be fed, clothed and housed. Once the marriage is consummated the woman has no rights whatsoever for divorce. Obedience to him is a must.

The inequality between men and women in matters of giving testimony or evidence is obvious from ‘…….and call to witness, among your men, two witnesses. And if two men be not (at hand) then a man and two women….. (2.282)’.  This injunction states expressly that if a man is available to offer witness, then women should be dispensed with, totally; and that if it becomes necessary to call upon women to offer evidence, then a woman’s worth is only half of that of man.  And again, the Prophet did not accept the testimony of women in matters of marriage, divorce and hudud (serious crimes). It follows then that were a man to enter an all-women’s abode and were to assault or physically abuse them, he would risk nothing since there would be no male witnesses to testify against him.

In a case where a man suspects his wife of adultery or denies the legitimacy of the offspring, his testimony is worth that of four men. Sura 24.6 says, ‘If a man accuses his wife but has no witnesses except himself, he shall swear four times by God that his charge is true, calling down upon himself the curse of God if he be lying. But if his wife swears four times by God that his charge is false and calls down His curse upon herself if her husband’s charge be true, she shall receive no punishment’. Appearances to the contrary, this is not an example of Koranic justice or equality between the sexes. The woman indeed escapes being stoned to death but she remains rejected and loses her right to the dowry and maintenance, whatever the outcome of the trial. Also, a woman does not have the right to charge her husband in a similar manner. For a Muslim marriage to be valid there must be a multiplicity of witnesses. For Muslim jurists two men form a multiplicity but not two or two hundred or two thousand women.

When a man dies, his sons will get twice the share of his daughters, and the wife only one-fourth. If he has more than one wife, they will all share the same one quarter that one wife is entitled to. For maintenance after divorce, she is eligible to be maintained by the husband who has rejected her, for only three months, as is well known from the now infamous Shah Bano case. Not just life on earth, but even Koranic paradise is male-centered.

The two most obnoxious practices in Islam which have invoked criticism even from the secularists quoted in another chapter are triple talaq and purdha. The latter has become a symbol for servitude in the struggle of Muslim women for liberation. Jurists have declared

1. Her dress must cover the entire body except the face and hands.

2. The robe must not be too fine or elaborate.

3. It must be of thick material and not transparent.

4. It must not cling tightly to her body; it must be loose.

5. It must not be perfumed.

6. It must not resemble any kind of man’s wear.

7. It must not resemble the clothes of unbelievers.

8. It must not be ‘luxurious’ or glamorous or of too great a value.

And of course this entire only if she comes out of the house. Although sura 33.33 orders only the wives of the Prophet to stay at home, the conservatives have applied it to all women. There are very stringent rules regarding circumstances under which alone a woman can venture out.

Although the Prophet has declared that ‘Allah did not make anything lawful more abominable to Him than divorce… Of all the lawful acts, the most detestable to Allah is divorce’, in practice the position is just the opposite. The jurists have repeated this counsel but at the same time they have given unlimited power to the husband over his wife. Should he decide to use it, no one, and no consideration can save the wife. He can irrevocably throw her out,

1. If he utters talaq once in each of three periods of purity, i.e. the periods between three menstruation.

2. If he utters it thrice in one breath.

3. If he utters it with some adjuncts even once.

The talaq can be pronounced to the wife directly to her, or through others, in front of witnesses or with no witness present, orally or in writing. So complete is the power of the husband that even if he pronounces it in rage or in an inebriated condition, it is enough to reject the wife and separate her from her family. Even then the rule is so rigorously enforced that even if the husband wants to withdraw from his action he cannot do so for according to another rule spelt out by the Koran, they cannot remarry unless the poor wife marries another man, consummates the second marriage, and gets the second husband too to divorce her! Maulana Ahmad Riza Khan has compared nikah to a mirror and talaq to a rock that breaks it. Whether the rock is thrown at the mirror willingly, or under compulsion, or even if it accidentally falls out of the hand, the mirror is broken.

The lesson being that though a thing is undesirable, even detestable, if done thoughtlessly, or with deliberation, it takes effect and has far-reaching consequences. Many reformers have suggested that one way to dilute the power of the triple talaq is to have the bridegroom agree to forego this power by making it a part of the marriage agreement itself. The ulema disagree; the power is Allah-given and cannot be subject to any such agreement. Thus if a husband who has so agreed yet gives talaq, it shall be fully effective although the action is reprehensible.

There is another nuance to talaq - conditional divorce. Four aspects of this category of talaq are particularly noteworthy

1. With a pronouncement of conditional divorce the husband can reduce the wife to a condition of absolute and craven submission; she must either do what the husband has ordered or she is automatically and instantly thrown out.

2.  The husband can make the divorce contingent upon events over which the wife has absolutely no control at all.

3.  In determining the outcome, far from being consequential, the wife has next to no locus standi.

4.  The jurists go to unimaginable lengths to cater to the interests of the husband so that he may escape from the consequences of the conditions he had specified.

Shourie has illustrated this category of talaq by citing a number of fatwas from various authorities. As an example: ‘Zaid says to his wife, ‘If you go to your father’s house, you will stand divorced’, and she goes there after her father dies. She stands divorced, because the father’s house remains her father’s house even after his death. And a husband tells his wife, ‘if you do such and thus, all my wives are divorced’. The wife does what the husband has forbidden. Not only she but all the other wives who had nothing to do with this are also divorced!

In this connection it should be remembered that what were expedients have become law, what was clearly and unambiguously law eternal - in that it was specified by the Koran itself - has been circumvented throughout by expedients. The Sharia as we know it today is less a genuine compilation of laws from the Koran, and more an accumulation of expedients. Let us set aside for the moment the question of Uniform Civil Code let the sharia be so codified that there is no ambiguity. And yet whenever there is a call to take a second look at some of the provisions in the sharia with regard to women, the ulema resists it fiercely. And everyone is put on the defensive by the ulema which declares that the sharia is Allah-given, and therefore eternal and unalterable. That the rules have changed over time is evident from the question of talaq. Even the Koran and the Prophet have, on occasion, disapproved of the triple talaq being pronounced in one breath (Koran 2.228-232). Yet over time, this is the manner in which it is most frequently pronounced for casting away unwanted wives. So much hairsplitting has gone into this such as - are three THREE, or, is three ONE?

Considering the first question, is the wife out when the husband has pronounced the word ‘talaq’ thrice in one go? Is she out if he has pronounced it, not all at the same time but on different occasions during the ‘same period of purity’ i.e. in the same interval between the wife’s menstrual courses? What if he has had intercourse with her during this period? Is the talaq to take effect if it has been pronounced during the time she is in her menstrual course? Each school has its own interpretation and each can cite a hadis or an ayat in support of their respective positions. The debate rages on. The second question can be illustrated by, ‘If a husband pronounces talaq once but says that he intended three, shall it count for one pronouncement and thus be a revocable divorce, or three pronouncements and thus be irrevocable?’, and, ‘if the talaq is pronounced thrice in one go, or during one period of purity, does it count for one pronouncement and thereby remain revocable, or does it count for three and thereby become irrevocable?’ Again the same Koranic verses are quoted along with different hadises with different interpretations. An inconvenient hadis can always be rejected as unreliable or weak!

The measure of a society’s civilisation is the position it accords to its women. If this indeed be the criterion, Islamic societies have far to go.

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