The changes and challenges of the twentieth century have indeed been rough for Muslim women. They have been caught in the crossfire at many levels. Whether it is the culture wars between Islam and the West, or the civil wars between secularists and Islamists, Muslim women have to bear the brunt of travails associated with these conflicts. Either they loose their husbands and sons to the battlefield, or they loose their freedoms and dignity in the social arena. Tragedy and irony are the two dominant themes of their existence. At times, they are victims of those who seek to protect them and at other times, those who seek to emancipate them oppress them.
Even when it comes to historical processes, Muslim women are caught in the struggle between the imperialism of modernity and the intransigence of traditions.
In Afghanistan, the Talibanization of Islam has had many consequences. Some good like restoring a modicum of stability to a region devastated by war. Some terribly, particularly the assault on the civil liberties of women. In the name of Islam, a religion which began when God asked Man to "Read" -- the first word of the Quran revealed to Muhammad was "Iqra" (read) -- the Taliban have systematically sought to deprive women of education, the essence of emancipation. In Turkey, to protect civil society from the so-called evils of religion, secular-democrats are using batons to keep Muslim women out of schools, and universities. In France, the land where the modern project of freedom began with a glorious revolution, where also the new standards of fashion are set, politicians are keeping Muslim women out of schools for sartorial reasons. East or West, secular or religious, all forces seem determined to preclude the emancipation of Muslim women. WWe live in a highly interdependent world. What happens in the economic or the political arena has critical impact on the social stage. Changes in the East and moods in the West influence each other profoundly. As Muslims struggle to recover from the effects of colonialism, their societies cry out for political and social change. Because change in the East endangers Western hegemony, any attempts at change become a political threat. The West opposes political initiatives in the East, whether Islamism or Socialism. Social initiatives from the West, feminism or liberalism, threaten the politics of the East and are in turn rejected. The site for these battles, cultural and political, invariably ends up on the Muslim woman's head, literally!
So far, most of the rescue attempts have come from the West. But the humanitarian concern for the plight of Muslim Women is often accompanied by an attendant discourse that demonizes Islam. It confuses issues and makes most Muslims suspicious. They imagine these projects as another attempt to demonize Islam and ridicule Muslim beliefs. Western double standards also hurt the prospects for change.
Muslims who are willing to work with Western agencies to improve the conditions of Muslim women are forced to retreat in the face of these double standards. For example, when the Taliban use ideological rhetoric to deprive Muslim women access to basic education, Western media and agencies condemn them (justifiably) and also attack Islam (unnecessarily). But when the French and Turks do the same, use ideology to deprive Muslim women access to education, the media does little to remedy the situation.
Recently, the "secular state" of Turkey actually took away the citizenship of one of its nationally elected representatives because she dared to cover her head! And most of the Western world, otherwise quick to rush to the aid of the Muslim Woman, did not do much to prevent it.
Unfortunately, Muslim feminists do not help their cause either. Muslim feminists are broadly of two types, extremely westernized or too traditional. The Westernized Muslim feminists generate a discourse that mimics their Western counterparts. Their extreme Westernization, in worldview as well as life-style, not only scares the traditional Muslim male but also most Muslim women.
As a result the projects and goals they advocate are delegitimized purely because of their manifest disregard and disrespect for Islam and traditional Muslim values. Of course they do win many supporters and admirers among Western feminist and liberal establishment, but this does little to ameliorate the plight of the Muslim Woman.
The so called Islamic feminists, occupy the other extreme pole. They seem to be reacting to the absence of "Islam" in the Westernized feminists, whom they perceive as a threat to Islamic heritage and the institutions of family, marriage and modesty. They expire their resources and energies in defending traditional practices and martyr the project of woman's emancipation in the defense of an Islam, articulated by Muslim orthodoxy.
Thus, while the Western Muslim feminists are busy learning the "lingo" and admiring Simone de Bouvoir, the Islamic feminists are busy confirming the stereotypes. The regular Muslim woman meanwhile continues to suffer. Muslim men at the moment are engrossed in preparing for civilizational clashes or civilizational dialogues. They cannot pay any attention to the condition of the Muslim women, while the Muslim Man is still enslaved and Muslim lands still under attack.
Is there anything that we can do? Yes. I think American Muslims can launch several initiatives. First we must launch an educational campaign among American Muslims to impress upon them that to recognizing that women in some parts of the Muslim world do not have access to their Islamic rights does not mean that we are saying Islam is inferior to the West.
We should not be reactionary to anybody's critique of the condition of Muslim women. Second, we must try to increase awareness among Muslims everywhere about women's rights to education, equality, dignity, and freedom of choice and action. The language of rights may engender negative reactions and therefore appropriate Quranic and Hadith literature should be made available. American and European Muslims must provide the intellectual and financial resources necessary for this global project since no one else may contribute.
Finally American and European Muslims must help initiate an awakening among Muslims to the overwhelming domination of men in Islamic legal studies. There is no doubt in my mind that when men alone interpret the Quran and Hadith and Islamic juristic traditions, they do it from a masculine perspective. It is important that we produce more and more women scholars of Islam who can eventually understand and advance their own understanding of Islamic sources.
If there can be so many differences between the understanding of men that we have at least five different legal traditions (madhahib) and so many methodologies (tarikas) from Salafi to Sufi, from Wahabi to Barelvi, from Tablighi Jamaat to Jamaate-Islami, then surely women too will have a different understanding of Muslim sources.
Islamic thinkers (men) themselves have acknowledged that men and women have fundamentally different natures. While men tend to be absolutist, women tend towards infinity, when men emphasize justice, women encourage mercy and tolerance, when men pursue knowledge, women seek understanding. Remember both these characteristics, masculine and feminine are human manifestations of divine attributes.
And just as justice without mercy can be cruel, masculine understanding without feminine input can also become harsh. It is time we encouraged more women scholars of Islam and explicitly seek their understanding of Islam. This will only strengthen the Ummah and enrich us.