Islam from patriarchy to feminism

copyright 1998 by Zeeshan Hasan. First published in Bangladesh in the Apr. 14, 1998 issue of Star Weekend Magazine.
Women's rights have become the single most contentious issue for Muslim societies in this century. The result has been quite a long and involved debate over "the place of women in Islam", but almost no real progress. One of the main reasons is that progressive Muslims' arguments have been restricted by traditional ideas of Islamic law, which necessarily reduces the underlying question of gender equality to piecemeal issues such as inheritance and divorce. While this kind of legalist approach is valuable in that it raises questions about some of the traditional laws governing women, it does not provide the fundamental shift of viewpoint which is really necessary for gender equality. This can only be achieved with a broader, historical understanding of the Qur'an and its position regarding women. In fact, an analysis of the revelatory context of the Qur'an, and the compromises which it makes to accommodate that context, may allow us to seriously reconsider whether there is any basis at all for the traditional body of Islamic laws relating to women.

To fully understand the issue of women's rights in a Qur'anic framework, we need to keep in mind both the religious and social context of early Islam. As to the former, there is no question that the Qur'an sees itself as the culmination of the Biblical tradition; hence Biblical attitudes towards women become important. With regards to the social context of the Qur'an, the fact of slavery and the patriarchal nature of pre-Islamic society also need to be explored.

To begin, we may look at the religious background. Biblical analysis yields interesting results; most Muslims do not know that in the early Israelite tradition, wives could be spoken of as the property of their husbands. An example can be drawn from the commandments revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai, which interestingly mention adultery twice. First comes the oft-quoted and well-known verse:

You shall not commit adultery. (Exodus 20:14).

Then, a few verses later, comes something quite interesting:

You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor."

(Exodus 20:17)

The apparent repetition of the same commandment against adultery has a simple explanation; the first verse speaks against adultery specifically as sexual immorality, while the second speaks in general against coveting one's neighbor's property; among which his wife is included. This is remarkable, because if even free women can be viewed as property, then we have to question whether the modern concept of "free woman" existed at all in the Biblical context. In ancient times, slavery and marriage were more similar in terms of gender relations than we tend to think; the obvious difference, of course, being that wives could not be sold outright. But we often forget just how patriarchal much of human history has been, and that patriarchy does tend to view women as property. This may be because earlier societies could not determine fatherhood, which could make it difficult to assign any parental responsibility to men. But lack of paternal responsibility would be wasteful; the economic output of males could not contribute to the important task of child-rearing. A popular solution seems to have been to restrict a woman to a singe male; hence the contract we have come to know as marriage. However, we should note that the exact nature of the marital bond remains flexible. Depending on the circumstances, marital power relations could be equal or lopsided. In the ancient Middle East at least, they seems to have historically developed along the lines of owner and owned.

From the above, it becomes obvious why patriarchy is so common a phenomenon. Simply put, it helped ensure resources for children from their fathers. Interestingly, the above also points out the condition for the end of patriarchy; it is no longer useful once fatherhood can be reliably determined or a family supported by a single mother becomes economically viable. Both of these do indeed become possible with industrialization.

Islam, like many traditional religions, was at the outset faced with patriarchy as a given. The question, then, is in which direction and to what extent it changes or reforms the surrounding system. First, though, we must look at the pre-Islamic period, where we find that women were again often reduced to property. This is most obvious in the case of slavery. In addition to being the object of their owner's sexual appetites through the custom of concubinage, slave girls could be forced to be prostitutes by their masters, who would use them in this way for profit. In the pre-Islamic context there is no stigma of immorality associated with sex with slave-girls, so this is quite a logical course of events. Slaves are property, and owners have the right to rent out their property if they wish. However, the Qur'an removes this particular right on moral grounds:

And constrain not your slavegirls to prostitution, if they desire to live in chastity, that you may seek the chance goods of the present life. {Surah 24 (Al-Nur), verse 33).

This is important, as it implies that even in the worst-case scenario of enslavement, there are limits on the extent to which a woman can be treated as property. This becomes more significant when we consider the Qur'an's overall discouragement of slavery.

In the pre-Islamic context, slavery has a more profound relationship with women's status that can now be dealt with. The pre-Islamic tribal economy was dependent upon caravan-raiding: since the desert was poor in resources, its inhabitant tribes needed to scavenge what wealth they could from passing caravans. This gave society as a whole quite a martial character, since raids could not be restricted only to caravans; once any given tribe had successfully looted some wealth, it would naturally become the target of further raids by neighboring tribes. Hence wealth would enter the tribal economy and gradually be diffused among its members through a process of continuous raiding. But this is precisely the mechanism of enslavement; women captured from one tribe in a raid became the slaves of their captors. In this context, "freedom" is almost a misnomer for a woman; the dependence of the tribal economy on raiding makes her either property or potential property. The real power in tribe and family will always reside with the men, because women are always dependent upon them for protection. Thus slavery in tribal society takes away the independence of the free woman as well as that of the slave.

Now we are finally ready to deal with the advent of Islam. Moving from a pre-Islamic to a Muslim context, one very important change develops; the concept of woman as property begins to die. The Qur'anic reservations about slavery in general, as well as enslaved prostitution in particular, lead society eventually to the elimination of slavery and the end of explicit equation of women with property. Unfortunately, even though ownership has disappeared in law, it still survives in cultural attitudes; the common male view of women still tends to be largely proprietary. In Islamic law, the glaring example of this has been the opinion of most jurists that it was impermissible for a free man to marry another man's slave. This ruling has no support in the Qur'an, which on the contrary recommends marriage to slaves if one does not have the money to marry a free woman:

Any one of you who has not the affluence to be able to marry believing freewomen in wedlock, let him take believing handmaids that your right hands own; God knows very well your faith; the one of you is as the other.

So marry them, with their people's leave, and give their wages honorably as women in wedlock, not as in licence or taking lovers.

{Surah 4 (Al-Nisa'), verse 25}

The implicit reasoning for Muslim jurists in their ban on marriage between free men and slaves seems to stem from a conflict of property rights. Since marriage involves an implicit ownership of a woman, it puts the husband in conflict with the explicit property-right of the slave-owner. The difficulty in sorting out these conflicting claims of ownership to the same woman made early Muslim jurists oppose marriage between free men and slaves, in apparent disregard to the Qur'anic ruling.

A less technical example of the generally proprietary attitude to which men have become accustomed can be found in the gender-segregation of society and veiling of women outside their family circles. Although this is couched in a language of morality, it is clearly not. If it were, men could simply be charged to control themselves, and that would end the discussion. Instead, the combination of veiling and seclusion is used to restrict women within the "territory" of their menfolk in what is fundamentally an assertion of exclusive rights, though these are no longer spoken of in terms of property.

Having finally gotten through all the background material, we can begin to investigate the Qur'an's view of women's rights. The approach of traditional Muslim legalists would be to look at each of the specific Qur'anic verses relating to women, and this is the trap into which progressive arguments also fall. However, by definition this approach will never take into consideration the broader cultural context, as this influences the entire text rather than each individual verse. It makes more sense locate the Qur'an's own most general rationale behind all those individual verses about women and proceed from there. Fortunately, the Qur'an does explicitly state a general position regarding women in the following verse;

Men are managers of the affairs of women, for that God has preferred in bounty one of them over another, and for that they have expended of their property. {Surah 4 (Al-Nisa'), verse 34}

This is from Arberry's translation; Muslim conservatives have a fondness for quoting the first portion out of context, often in yet more authoritarian language than is used above. For example, Pickthall translates the same verse as:

Men are in charge of women, because God hath made the one of them to excel the other and because they spend of their property.

It is no coincidence that Pickthall's translation, and not Arberry's, had the editorial approval of an Egyptian mullah. However, Arberry's is just as correct, and arguably more faithful to the Qur'anic usage. The word Arberry translates as "manager" (qawwaam in Arabic) comes from a verbal root which basically means "to stand" (qama). It is often used with an object to mean "to stand over", in the sense of supervising or commanding (hence Pickthall's "in charge of"). However, when used in particular with dependents, it has the sense of "to stand with"; that is, "to maintain" or support financially. Likewise the verb which Pickthall translates as "to excel" (faddala) has a meaning of "to exceed" or "be in surplus", and is used here in a causative form, meaning "caused to exceed" (hence Arberry's "preferred"). But the question then arises as to what capacity God causes men to exceed in over women; Arberry uses the implicit answer, "bounty". This is justifiable as the same verbal root produces the word fadl, which the Qur'an uses frequently for "wealth". Altogether, the more economic translation of Arberry fits much better, particularly because the last part of the verse makes it clear that economics is precisely the issue here. Pickthall, by ignoring the economic context entirely until the last few words, where he is forced to acknowlege it, presents the more conservative case for unqualified and unquestionable male superiority.

When we look at the entire verse, then, we find that it is not prescribing unequal status for women at all. Rather, it is making a conditional statement about the particular circumstance specified in the last words: "because they expend of their property". This condition specifies that men's role as "managers" is only applicable as long as they have the dominant economic role. The unequal status of genders described then become simply a statement of fact for the historical surroundings of the revelation, and hardly a suprising one. In the patriarchal society in which the Qur'an found itself, it was often the case that men were the controllers of wealth, and so their dealings with women would be from a position of power. But most importantly, this verse is not saying that the patriarchal situation is necessary or desirable. Rather, this is simply one of the many instances where the Qur'an acknowledges its surroundings. But the link made between women's economic and social status is of incredible significance; its implication is that when women are independent financially, they become equal to men in other respects as well.

This single verse, then, is potentially the end of all "Islamic" laws which differentiate genders. The only question which remains is to ask why all those Qur'anic verses which actually do deal with divorce and inheritance are there at all. But the answer emerges immediately from the historical analysis above; since the Qur'an was revealed in the context of a long patriarchal tradition (which would in fact continue to be so until the changes brought about by industrialization only a century ago), it was forced to provide guidelines which would work in its immediate surroundings. These are the whole body of classical Islamic laws relating to women, which in the light of the above stand revealed as temporary measures which are no longer really useful with the advent of modern economy. If we accept the above interpretation, all the laws from inheritance to divorce which have been lopsided against women lose their applicability in a modern society in which women are capable of earning wages for themselves and being independent. In a real sense, then, the much debated "place of women in Islam" no longer exists, because in religious terms gender no longer exists.

The response of many Muslim intellectuals to industrialization, with its accompanying entry of women into the labour market and ultimately the prospect of eliminating gender roles, has been horror at the breakup of the traditional family structure. But in fact families are not broken up by the modern economy; only their patriarchal structures. Conservative elements in Western societies still criticize women for abandoning the ideal of mother/housewife, and blame the emergence of career-oriented women for rising levels of drug use and other problems among youth. However, the blame should really be assigned equally to both male and female parents, as the breakdown of traditional roles for men and women leaves them with equal responsibility for child-rearing. A real shift in the patriarchal family would involve breaking down both the traditional roles of father-as-breadwinner as well as mother-as-childrearer, which should really give children the benefit of having two people looking after them rather than one.

The above argument against the traditional Muslim laws regarding women seems very incomplete from the perspective of Islamic legalism, because it does not take up each of the separate legal issues of divorce, inheritance, etc. The reason I have refused to touch on any of these specifically is that to do so is frankly useless. There are many hair-splitting arguments one can make regarding the "real meaning" of any Qur'anic verse; but the fact is that whatever we argue, these very verses have been and continue to be used against women's rights. In the face of this fact there is only one argument that remains worthwhile; whether or not the Qur'an can accept the possibility of a paradigm shift in gender relations. If we accept that the Qur'anic position on women's rights involves a self-acknowledged compromise with its historical environment and the economic role of women in that environment, then the economic changes of industrialization and modernity legitimately bring to an end all the classical Islamic laws pertaining to women.