Last month, Siti Zailah Mohd Yusoff, Malaysian deputy minister for women, family and community development, advised husbands to beat their “stubborn” wives “gently” to discipline them for “unruly” behavior. In 2021, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a decree to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, a European treaty protecting women against violence.
Erdogan’s government believes the treaty “encourages divorce and undermines the traditional family.” In 2016, Muhammad Khan Sherani, then chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology, said husbands can “lightly beat” their wives. And now Maulana Abdul Majeed Hazarvi, president of Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl’s (JUI-F) Islamabad chapter, has made it clear that they would use “baton” to stop Aurat March that is held across the country every year on International Women’s Day on March 8.
Why do Muslim men and women oppose women’s empowerment? Why is women’s agency denied by influential power-brokers in almost all Muslim-majority countries? Does Islam demand women to offer unconditional submission to men? Does Islam promote masculinity? More specifically, is any women’s rights movement in general, and Aurat March in particular, un-Islamic?
Women face challenges across the globe. The Muslim world presents a unique case, where religion plays an important role in the public sphere. The opposition to Aurat March is also largely on religious grounds. Therefore, we decided to look into the religious dimension of the question, to understand why many Muslim men and women consider the very idea of women empowerment as un-Islamic.
The above-outlined views prevalent in Muslim countries, including Pakistan, are often (dis)regarded as an expression of some mediaeval sensibilities of Muslim men that can be corrected through pro-women legislation. Scholars and commentators often ignore the deep and strong philosophical basis of such thinking that needs careful attention, not just some reactionary legislation.
Does Islam demand women to offer unconditional submission to men, as claimed by some men in Muslim societies, and does the faith actually promote masculinity?
Undeniably, women are bravely questioning the historically rooted and intellectually reinforced conventional wisdom that “women are less rational” and “lack agency.” This is not about what a group of women wants but, rather, this is a challenge to a particular worldview and, in the Muslim world, it also challenges a particular interpretation of Islam.
In other words, those who consider Aurat March un-Islamic and immoral are not just uneducated fundamentalists who should be ignored. These men and women are representatives of a particular ideological epoch that needs attention and careful examination to be countered and replaced with a modern idea of gender relations.
Though Islam, as a religion, offers freedom and recognizes women’s agency, in the early Islamic history, after the death of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) “dozens of new Hadiths appeared, defining women as cunning, insidious and immoral creatures,” writes Turkish author Mustafa Akyol in an article for Hurriyet Daily News in 2011. The initial feminist outlook and character of the religion was replaced with assertive patriarchy by offering gendered interpretations of morality by several early influential scholars.
Here, we argue that there are historical reasons why Islam is understood as patriarchal and it is high time to dissect history, philosophy and early centuries of Islam.
Definitions of being a perfect husband, a good and loyal wife, and obedient children, were determined by early Muslim thinkers and the same are reinforced in almost all Muslim-majority countries, to maintain social and moral order. Precisely, denying women their agency and right to freedom of expression is deeply rooted in the classical Muslim philosophy that needs to be discussed and re-examined.
In his Ihya’ Ulum al din (Etiquette of Marriage), 11th century philosopher Imam Ghazali (c. 1056-1111) tells the believers that “marriage is a form of enslavement; thus she [wife] is his slave.” He also declares a wife should obey her husband “absolutely in everything he demands of her, provided such demands do not constitute an act of disobedience.”
Al-Ghazali is a firm believer that men are superior and must focus on certain qualities in a woman before getting married. For men, during married life, he suggests focusing on “politeness at times of discord, intimate relations and producing children.” Al-Ghazali presumes women are both irrational and ill-mannered, so men should tolerate them.
Similarly, Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328), who lived single and never married, argued that women are the weaker creatures and “need guardianship as in males.” In Majmoo’ al-Fatawa, he also maintains that permission from the guardian is required for a woman to get married.
We focus on Al-Ghazali and Ibn Taymiyya not because of their intellectual depth but solely because of their ability to influence the imagination of millions of Muslims for the past several centuries. There were other scholars who talked about women’s rights and advocated for women’s presence in the public sphere. Unfortunately, those voices were not only silenced at that time, but also historically marginalized by the clergy, to claim monopoly over matters of interpretation.
Zahra Ayubi’s intriguing book Gendered Morality: Classical Islamic Ethics of the Self, Family and Society investigates the historical origins of masculinity and the “gender-biased position” taken by the majority of Muslim men and women. Despite the availability of “potentially radical notions of equality in early Islamic sources”, the early Muslim thinkers created “hierarchical, male-centered virtue ethics”, she writes.
Ayubi analyzes the works of three influential philosophers: Al-Ghazali, Nasir-ad Din Tusi (1201-1274) and Jalal ad-Din Davani (1426-1502). She argues that these men, who intended to provide ethical guidelines to men to achieve sa`adah (eudaimonia or ultimate happiness) and khilafah (vicegerency of God), did not believe in “ontological equality of all human beings.”
Ayubi not just examines the patterns and expressions of masculinity but also interrogates the question of class bias that dominated these texts. The elite men — in terms of education, wealth, and power — wrote about how a particular ethical attitude is attained and maintained through the subordination of others. They instrumentalized and subordinated their wives and children, along with male underlings such as enslaved men and servants, to achieve sa`adah.
She reiterates that these texts were thoroughly men-dominated. For example, apart from repeatedly saying that women’s rationality is lower, these texts focus on what is needed for men’s leadership in society.
Ayubi, as a scholar, is questioning the pre-modern Muslim scholarship and misogyny in an eloquent and powerful way. Aurat March, on the other hand, is a revolutionary attempt by some brave Pakistani women who represent millions of oppressed women across the Muslim world who lost their agency, chiefly as a result of historicised masculinity, to independently define the meanings of their existence.
They are inspiring the world the way Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire influenced French society before the French Revolution. Like them to salon hostess Sophie de Condorcet or political theorist Germaine de Staël, the Pakistani marchers are creating history as did these two powerful women of the French literary circles during the Revolution.
With their efforts and contributions, Pakistan, like 18th century France, may yet become a beacon of Islamic Enlightenment, where men’s monopoly over the interpretation of religion is effectively defied and women’s agency is recognised. Pakistani society can become the birthplace of Enlightenment in the 21st century, and spread these ideas to the rest of the Muslim world, where women are given freedoms at the discretion of men’s understanding of Islam and the world.
Lastly, it will be naïve to argue why these marchers don’t talk about these philosophical debates. The march is an attempt to create a space for such debates. At the moment, cultural discourse and male-dominated societal structures do not allow even men to question towering figures like Al-Ghazali, who are considered as repositories of infallible wisdom. In other words, these women are not only intellectually challenging the conventional wisdom (read as ignorance) but are dispelling it with a politically powerful narrative.
Finally, we also contend that the early Islamic scholars operated in a particular context with their own personal and political experiences. Their works must be discussed and debated
but unconditional reverence to their scholarship will lead to a social system that is no longer desirable.
Farah Adeed is Research Assistant at San Diego State University. I have tweeted @Farah_adeed.
Saleha Anwar is an independent researcher based in Lahore. she tweets @anwar_saleha.
Published in Dawn, EOS, March 6th, 2022