03/04/2010, 00.00
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Muslim women can move forwards wearing the veil

by Asghar Ali Engineer
A few days ago, Muslims in Karnataka took to the streets to protest the publication of an article against the Islamic veil by the ‘Kannada Prabha’ newspaper, ostensibly by well know writer Taslima Nasreen. Because of her liberal views on Islam, she has been living in exile for the past 16 years. The unrest left two people dead, and 50 injured; it also caused anger and fear among the State’s Hindu population. Asghar Ali Engineer, a Muslim and head of the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, tells Indians about the struggle Muslim women are engaged in for their rights. He accuses Indian newspapers of distorting reality, something that is preventing a real reform of Islam.

Mumbai (AsiaNews) – A recent protest by thousands of Muslims in Shimoga and Hassan (Karnataka) has resulted in the death of two people, and the injury of another 50. Scores of cars were damaged and many stores were set on fire. The violence broke out when a local daily, the Kannada Prabha , published an article attributed to dissident Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen in which she says that Muhammad was opposed to veil. In fact, Nasreen has denied ever making such a claim, insisting that she has had no dealings with the newspaper.

In response to violence, the authorities imposed dusk-to-dawn curfew to prevent possible retaliation against local Hindus. However, police said the situation was still tense.

In Mangalore, someone yesterday someone threw a Molotov cocktail against the offices of Kannada Prabha. Two other newspapers also had their offices stoned.

Despite condemnation of the violence by local Islamic organisations, Hindus are very concerned. In India, Muslims number 137 million or 12.1 per cent of the population. In some states, like Karnataka, the local Muslim community tends to be very conservative culturally and is at odds with Hindu nationalism (which governs the State through the Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP). The situation has often led to misunderstandings, causing violence and mutual recriminations.

We reprint here an article by Asghar Ali Engineer, head of the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, titled ‘Muslim Women and Change’.

“Most people think Muslim women are oppressed, forced to wear the veil and confined to the four walls of their houses. This is mainly because every day they read in newspapers that the Taliban force women to wear the veil and burn down schools for girls. They see women always wrapped in black garments from head to toe. The controversy over the burqa in France has reinforced this image of Muslim women.

This image would be justified if all Muslim women adhered to this strict dress code, which evolved in the Middle Ages, and which some Muslim theologians keep on justifying even today. However, there is a big difference between what is argued on theological grounds and what is grounded in reality. I could be wrong, but I dare say that Muslim women have been defying theological codes for more than a century now. Now a century later, they have gone even further in their public achievements.

Whilst it is true that even today, some Muslim theologians are arguing over whether women are naqisul aql (intellectually inferior) or not, the reality is that many Muslim women have gone further than many Muslim men in a number of fields. In Saudi Arabia, where women are not even permitted to drive cars, a woman has become a licensed pilot and has been flying planes.

Now, we get news from Malaysia that Farah al-Habshi, an engineer by profession, has become deputy weapons and electrical officer on the KD Perak, a Malaysian naval warship. Today she is wearing the white and blue uniform of the Royal Malaysian Navy; interestingly, she is also wearing a hijab to cover her head, though not her face. She feels her hijab in no way comes in the way of performing her duties.

Malaysia is an Islamic country and orthodox ulama exercise a great deal of control over people’s lives. Recently, even the Government of Malaysia has had to back down when the ulama took a stand against Christians using the word Allah in their religious literature or press. In this country, Muslim women also face other problems at the hands of conservative ulama with respect to family laws for example. However, this is in the same country in which a woman was commissioned as a naval officer on combat duty. Even in India, women have not won the right to be on combat duty in the Navy, or fly fighter planes, or serve in combat units. They are not even allowed to be on warships, whereas Ms Farah al-Habshi has recently participated in the MILAN naval exercise along with other women.

Ms Farah is highly articulate and answered all the questions put to her by journalists. Her example is not unique; there are several more. Many Muslim women have excelled even in the field of theology, quite independently of traditional theologians. They have shown courage to challenge orthodox ulama.

One example is Amina Wudud, who teaches Islamic Studies in Washington, United States. She believes that women can lead mixed congregations in prayer. A few years ago, she actually led a Friday prayer and delivered the khutba (sermon) before a group of about 100 people, men and women, something quite unthinkable in the traditional Muslim world. It raised a storm of protests and even Yusuf Qardawi, an otherwise moderate theologian from Qatar, wrote an article, opposing a woman leading a mixed congregational prayer.

After a great struggle, some Kuwaiti women were elected to the Kuwaiti parliament, eventually fighting for the right to sit in the house without having to wear the hijab. They took their case to the Supreme Court of Kuwait and won. Many more examples can be cited of Muslim women daring authorities for their rights.

However, the media, which is interested in sensationalising issues, has refused to highlight the achievements of Muslim women. They continue to portray them as submissive to traditional authorities, meekly accepting their situation. This image of Muslim women has to change; reality, which is much more complex, has to be understood.

This is not to deny that Muslim women face difficult problems in many countries. Their liberation is not a foregone conclusion. However, it is also true that many of them are fighting and refusing to submit meekly. What gives us hope is their continued struggle and defiance of traditional authorities.

It should also be mentioned that many ulama and jurists also have realised that medieval Shari’ah formulations about women cannot be easily enforced anymore. Some of them, like Muhammad Abduh of Egypt, Maulavi Mumtaz Ali Khan of India and Maulana Umar Ahmed Usmani of Pakistan, have expressed serious reservations about traditional theological formulations on women.

The determined struggle by Muslim women will force many more theologians to revise their position and use the Qur’an, not medieval theology, as the basis for the views on women’s issues.

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