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Time Magazineís subtle and unsubtle innuendoes
By M. Zeyaul Haque

A story on women of Islam makes too many generalisations to the detriment of Islamís image

M. Zeyaul HaqueTime magazine (Asia edition) of December 3 carries a cover story, "Lifting the Veil" on Afghan women under the Taliban, with details of how they were brutalised by mullahcracy and how much better their lives would be under the new dispensation. It is a sad tale of women of a devastated country who deserved better. The issue carries another major story, "Women of Islam," which takes a panoramic view of women living under Islam from one corner of the Muslim world to another. This story gives us a few points to ponder, like whether we have been fair to our women and whether the Westís (and Timeís) assessment of how we treat our women is correct.

There are certain significant issues like does Islamic societiesí view (or views) of women coincide with the broader framework of the feminist perspective on life -- sexuality, motherhood, the dignity of women and their equality with men in law and practice? This particular story says that Islam, in some ways, is innately prejudiced against women: "Part of the problem dates to Muhammad. Even as he proclaimed new rights for women, he enshrined their inequality in immutable law, passed down as Godís commandments and eventually recorded in scripture. The Koran allots daughters half the inheritance of sons. It decrees that a womanís testimony in court, at least in financial matters, is worth half that of a manís. Under Sharia, or Muslim law, compensation for the murder of a woman is half the going rate for men. In many Muslim countries, these directives are incorporated into contemporary law. For a woman to prove rape in Pakistan, for example, four adult males of Ďimpeccableí character must witness the penetration, in accordance with the Sharia".

As is evident from the above quote, there are quite a few points here that are generally at odds with womenís view of themselves as manís "better half". What feminists would infer from the above is that they are not the "better half" of man but his "one-third", the "two-thirds" being men. Is it really so? Does it really happen in average Muslimsí lives that they treat their daughters, wives, mothers and others as sub-human, something only half human? Or, do they interpret it more creatively, fairly and justly? These are issues for Muslims themselves to think over instead of starting a polemical fight over them with others. Does this "half-human" image of women really coincide with Islamís larger scheme of things and insistence on fair play and equality of entire human kind? Does it square up with the Prophetís (PBUH) repeated directives to his companions (and his followers to come in following ages) to be fair with women, to be extremely considerate?

An indicator of how the Prophet (PBUH) really treated women is an event in his life when some women of his household were travelling on camels. He asked the cameleers to drive "very gently" so that the sensitive passengers were not unduly inconvenienced. Does this attitude to women reflect an idea of women as half-human? This is not the time of angry rebuttals, but one of looking into our own hearts. A civilisationís worth is gauged by how it treats its women. 

The story also talks about the alleged Muslim practice of wife beating. Here too, it is very difficult to agree that wife beating is an Islamic prerogative. There are no data to show that we have been beating our women more than others do. On a personal level, I have yet to have a friend, relative or acquaintance who is a wife-beater. I donít know anyone among my friends (Muslim or not) who even imagines that he would ever do such a thing. Rifat Hassan, professor of religious studies at the University of Louisville, has been quoted in the story as saying, "The way Islam has been practised in most Muslim societies for centuries has left millions of Muslim women with battered bodies, minds and souls." Is it really so? Has Islam been left so far behind?

The story quotes the Qur'an, sura 4:34 as giving men the authority to brutalise women: "The verse goes on to say that the husband of an insubordinate wife should first admonish her, then leave her to sleep alone and finally beat her. Wife beating is so prevalent in the Muslim world that social workers who assist battered women in Egypt, for example, spend much of their time trying to convince victims that their husbandís violent acts are unacceptable." How can Muslim women be convinced that wife beating is "unacceptable" if it is "acceptable" to God? But, is it really that God wants us to be wife-beaters? Is it really Godís intent? Is it so simple? Does it coincide with the Qur'anís larger message of compassion and human dignity? Again, instead of picking up a quarrel with Time magazine, it would be better if we look into our own hearts. How do we take this sura? Do we interpret it as making it obligatory (or mandatory?) for us to beat our "insubordinate" wives? Is it how we understand Godís intent? And let me be very clear here: every wife is an "insubordinate wife" in some moment or the other. Thus, if we read it as an obligation or mandate from God to beat the "insubordinate wife", then every married Muslim woman has to be beaten up periodically to keep her on the straight and narrow. But does it coincide with Islamís repeated insistence on being considerate and indulgent to women, to go on ignoring the inconveniences created by the different ways of thinking of men and women on the same subject?

We would like to concentrate on our own improvement and the improvement in our relations with our women. Still I wonder, is there any readymade explanation for the epidemic of "domestic violence" in the West itself? How to explain wife beating in non-Muslim societies? And how far is it for Time to make wife beating look like a Muslim speciality, which in any case, it is not. Incidentally, many of our ill-educated, half-crazed mullahs have helped in creating the impression that wife beating is the central theme of Islam. 

The story reads like a chargesheet against Islam: the charges include honour killing, paedophilia and FGM (female genital mutilation), also known as female circumcision. The latter practice involves surgical removal of clitoris and labia of young girls ostensibly to curb their sexual desire, which sometimes leads to unstoppable bleeding and death. This is prevalent is North Africa and al Maghreb (Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Morocco) and in immigrant communities from these areas in France and other European countries. 

"The World Health Organisation estimates that 140 million girls and women have undergone the procedure. Some Muslims believe it is mandated by Islam, but the practice predates Muhammad and is also common among some Christian communities." One wonders if the practice predates the Prophet (PBUH) and is also resorted to by "some Christians", as the story says, how fair would it be to include it in the chargesheet against Islam. I donít think anybody in the subcontinent knows a circumcised woman, but the sad fact remains that it is a constant cause of misery, mutilation and death of women from such treatment. Immigrant communities in France protest if social workers advise them not to mutilate young girls saying that it is mandated by Islam and stopping it would amount to stopping a religious ritual.

Is it not important for ulema to look into it? The only "mandate" we lay persons know of is an incident in the Prophetís (PBUH) life when he saw a young girl being taken out for circumcision. On knowing it, he asked the older woman to "be very gentle". Does that amount to a mandate? Ask the ulema, please. 

So far as honour killing is concerned, it is an Afro-Asian malaise, not Islamic barbarity.

Now about paedophilia. The story says the Prophet (PBUH) married Hazrat Ayesha when she was 6 and consummated the marriage when she was 9. That makes some of our people believe that it is desirable for all of us to marry children. This "has occasionally been exploited by paedophiles, who marry poor young girls from the provinces (in Iran), use and then abandon them". In our own country, we have seen old people from Middle East descending on Hyderabad and Mumbai and marrying 10 year old girls (and forging documents to show them as 18) and taking them away to use as chattels. The sanction allegedly comes from Islam. 

Aside from all this, let us look at the actual facts: our grand mothers were married at 12, our mothers at 16, our sisters at 18 and our daughters are married at 21-25. It shows that Muslim attitude to gradual change in the universal age of consent has been positive over the decades. We have understood the nuances of consent the way the others have and paedophilia is no more prevalent among us than among others. Which means that the Time story is too generous with its generalisations, too ready with its stereotypes.

Interestingly, the Time story bites with its tale: it has a welcome, pleasant beginning, and the sting comes later: "For his day, the Prophet Muhammad was a feminist. The doctrine he laid out as the revealed word of God considerably improved the status of women in 7th century Arabia. In local pagan society, it was the custom to bury live unwanted female newborns; Islam prohibited the practice. Women had been treated as possessions of their husbands; Islamic law made the education of girls a sacred duty and gave women the right to own and inherit property. Muhammad even decreed that sexual satisfaction was a womanís entitlement. He was a liberal at home as well as in the pulpit." This is how the story begins. This is the spirit of Islam to which we should finally aspire.

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