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This was written by Shelina Zahra Janmohamed and originally published at Comment is free.
The last few weeks have been particularly eventful for Muslim women on Comment is Free. We would have felt extremely exhausted by all the excitement, were it not for the fact that – with the notable exception of Samia Rahman and Reefat Drabu – we were spared the ignominy of having to participate in the debate ourselves.
AC Grayling started us off by equating the headscarf with an iron shackle and stating that Muslim women are complicit in their own oppression. In the process of attacking the abhorrent denial of freedom that Muslim women can wrongly suffer, Grayling (in)advertently takes away the very same freedom of choice to decide to wear the hijab if we choose.
Julie Burchill bigged up Christianity, and in the process scathingly dismissed Islam and Muslim women. The only “Muslim” women she suggested as role models – Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Irshad Manji – were those she claimed had rejected Islam and were no longer Muslim.
Cath Elliott on the other hand says she’s not holding out for women to emerge empowered from religious communities. She asks some good questions, such as why does God always appear to be a “He”? Why are the decision makers in politics and economics still predominantly male? But let’s not be weasely as some pundits are: Muslim men often wriggle out of addressing these difficult questions by deflecting attention away from themselves; and it needs to stop.
Islamic theology has a strong framework for a blueprint of gender equality. I know that this is a deeply unfashionable thing for a Muslim woman to say, but let me explain.
In Islam, God is not gendered, not physically located, nor carnal. There is no original sin – the two genders were “created from a single soul” which is entirely pure and good. God is “like nothing else” we can imagine, and in that sense is neither male nor female. However, in order to know God, there are at least 99 qualities or names, that are characterised as masculine and feminine, and both are equally critical in learning about and approaching the divine.
Both genders have their own free will and have their own minds and must make their own contribution. Qur’anic and Islamic narrative has plenty of examples of such women: Mary’s immaculate conception is a strong vision of a woman raising a child as the head of the family without any men present. Hagar raises her son while her husband is away, Aasiya the wife of Pharaoh stands up to her dictatorial bloodthirsty husband. All of them are celebrated as role models for both men and women.
Neither is marriage supposed to be a subjugation for women, but a completion and partnership for both man and woman. Every man that is held up as an example has a woman by his side (or you could argue it is vice versa) who is exemplary in her own right: Adam with Eve, Rachael with Moses, Mohamed with his wife Khadijah.
With such a framework and strong and robust archetypes to inspire Muslims, what went wrong? How did we end up at a place where Muslim women are not fully empowered and find themselves at the unprotected and miserable end of cultural oppression endorsed in the name of Islam? There is no denying that Muslim women do suffer and have not been granted the freedoms, choices and opportunities that are the right all human beings, and guaranteed by Islam. But somewhere between the ideals of faith, and the pleasure of patriarchal power, that respect and those rights were lost.
Which brings me neatly to the latest set of discussions about the proposed Muslim marriage contract. The idea of having a contract between the two parties is embedded in the very notion of Islamic marriage. The goal is to allow both parties to be clear about each other’s expectations of the relationship. It would probably help most couples – Muslim or otherwise to have such an agreement.
The basic rights are guaranteed with or without the written document. These are that neither party can be forced to marry – they must do so of their own free will; that both parties may divorce should they choose, and that neither a woman nor a man can be prevented from marrying the person of their choice. As Reefat Drabu of the Muslim Council of Britain put it, the contract “is not a re-invention of the shariah.”
So why the hoo-ha about the document?
Ed Husain flags up the core of the real problem beautifully by recounting the tale of an imam who refused to conduct a nikah in the absence of the bride’s father’s permission. But he draws the wrong conclusion in thinking that the contract papers would have saved the day. Since the imam’s actions were clearly out of line with the principles of Islamic marriage it is unlikely that the document would have changed his mind.
Instead, what the document champions is the notion that the behaviour of the people who hold authority needs to be questioned, or as Drabu puts it, the need of a “change in behaviours”. No authority should ever be too humble to be challenged. What it also highlights is the extreme need for accessible and easy to understand information.
What is most important about the concept behind the marriage contract should be the reiteration to Muslim women – and to Muslim men – that knowledge is a powerful thing, and that empowerment and questioning are two fundamental components of the Islamic spirit.
Knowledge is about learning and about being brave enough to ask questions, and about getting your voice heard: education and courage. Laying down challenges for the status quo can be a transformative rather than antagonistic activity.
What that means for many commentators is that we may say, believe and do things which don’t fit in with the caricature of a Muslim woman who would be desperate to be “liberated” from Islam if only she knew it.
You may find our voices reverberating with the view that we like being Muslim women, we just want to make our lives better and in line with true Islamic principles. It would be nice if those who debate vociferously about Muslim women would therefore move over and give us the seat at the table that we’re demanding.