Colombo Telegraph

Sri Lankan Muslim Women’s Struggle For Freedom, Justice & Equality: Some Fundamental Issues

By Ameer Ali

Dr. Ameer Ali

The current focus on reforming the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act, which is long overdue, is only one of several gender discriminatory issues with which Muslim women not only in Sri Lanka but also in other parts of the world are grappling with. In this struggle, which women are destined to win eventually, there are some fundamental issues that should be understood by concerned public.

When the Quran introduced and the Prophet and after him his immediate successors implemented reforms regarding the status of women in seventh century Arabia the impact was nothing short of revolutionary. Given the context of the time when the female half of the Arab world, for that matter even in Christendom, was treated with contempt as no more than heaven-sent gadgets for males’ sexual pleasure and items of material assets, which could be disposed of in any way men wished, the permission granted by Islam for women to inherit, own and manage property, to demand respect from and be counted by men as worthy participants in societal affairs, and above all this the unprecedented responsibility bestowed upon them in the affairs of the family, were indeed unique and revolutionary.

If one were to engage in an intentional reading of the Quran and the sayings of the Prophet one cannot miss to delineate the progressive direction along which the Quranic spirit leads the reader regarding the status of women. The ultimate objectives of human freedom, justice and equality as enshrined in the Quran apply equally to men as well as women. Had that progressive path set by the Quran been followed by successive generations Muslim women within the restrictions that nature itself has imposed on them would have attained equal status with men long time ago. However, what happened in history was a betrayal and that progressive direction was halted and even reversed in the readings and interpretations of medieval theologians who were all males and products of patriarchal societies. With all their erudition and sharp minds these scholars remained prisoners of patriarchal values and norms. Patriarchal cultures essentially disfavour women. While the Muslim women were deliberately kept illiterate the theologians monopolised the task of interpreting the holy texts and dictating to the women what their rights were if any, how they should exercise those rights, what their duties were and what consequences would follow for failing in those duties. These theologically oriented norms were obviously gender biased and reversed the progressive direction of the Quran. This regression is now being checkmated by Muslim women themselves, thanks to modern secular education.

One of the positive legacies of European colonialism is secular education. While traditional religious teaching by the conservative ulema continued to indoctrinate Muslim children the art of reading and writing the so called holy language, Arabic, without understanding a word of it, state aided secular education not only taught the kids new sciences but also more importantly the art of reasoning, questioning and thinking. What the Quran itself demanded from its readers originally but subverted later by medieval theologians has now entered the Muslim world through the backdoor via secular education. Although it took a long time for Muslims to take advantage of this new development and even longer for Muslim women to get access to secular education, which explains why the Muslim world is still far behind the others in scientific advancement, this education has now thrown the gauntlet to centuries old received wisdom on women affairs.

It is true that female literacy is the lowest among Muslims. Yet, even the relatively small numbers of Muslim women who have benefitted from secular education are turning into a formidable force determined to halt the regression. These are the Muslim feminists who are reading and interpreting the very same texts which the male theologians monopolised for centuries. Laleh Bakhtiar’s The Sublime Quran published in 2007, in spite of its shortcomings and controversies, was the first translation of the Quran by a Muslim woman and before her scholars like the Moroccan Fatema Mernissi have done their own research and provided new meanings to the traditional interpretations of the holy texts. What is happening now is that Muslim women are entering the field of ijtihad (individual effort and endeavour) a highly laudable branch in Islamic epistemology in order to discover the objective truth in relation to the status of women that has not been told before. There are also dozens of eminent Muslim male scholars like Khalid Abu al-Fadl, the late Muhammad Arkoun and Basam Tibi who are also challenging some of the conservative thinking on the status of women in Islam.

In a country like Sri Lanka where religious conservatism has an iron grip over the Muslim community it is going to be a hard struggle for Muslim women to break their shackles. The marriage market where matrimony has become a matter of money, in the job market where employment providers are dominated by males, in the field of public recognition for female intellectual achievements, and in the social structure the odds are heavily stacked against Muslim women. Even the mosques are not prepared to open their doors for women to perform their daily prayers.

That some women are receiving physical threats for agitating for justice and equality is therefore not surprising. It is encouraging however to note that a group of progressive male Muslim intellectuals like those in the Kandy Forum, is openly supporting the current agitation for reforming the Marriage and Divorce Act. Revising this act should not be delayed but that alone is not going to elevate women’s status to the desirable level. Kandy forum should champion the women’s cause and lead a social reform movement within the Muslim community. That in turn will strengthen the Muslim women’s agitation for freedom, justice and equality. In the final analysis it is modern education that will be the catalyst to advance the status of Muslim women. Here again it is not the quantity of education but the quality that matters. In this context Muslim education in Sri Lanka requires serious review.


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