Women & Islam The Gender
in South Africa: The Ideological Struggle
MYM Islamic Tarbiyyah Programme '97
19 23 Dec, As-Salaam, KZN
This was transcribed from
the talk that Shamima presented at the above programme 17 days before her
death on the 8 January 1998. Most of the talk was prepared while she lay in
hospital having her lungs drained. During that time as well as when she
presented the talk she was drugged with morphine and cortisone. Hence her
Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim
Alhamdulillah al-ladhi hadana li hadha wa ma kunna li nahtadiyya
lawla an hadhanallah
In the Name of God, Most Gracious, the Dispenser of Grace
All praise is to Allah, Who has Guided us to this. Were it not for
His Guidance we would surely have been lost.
We will be discussing an important arena of the Struggle in
upholding the dignity of Muslim women in Islam and the Muslim community. That is the
Ideological struggle the struggle to grasp the existing controversial and
conflicting perception of the status, position, worth and constitution of women a
perception used to control womens actions and status. For Muslims, this perception
is supposed to be derived primarily from the Qur'an and Sunnah.
We will look into verses in the Quran that deal with
principles and practices or law to ascertain the Quranic concept of Women and Gender
Identity. For Muslims the Quran is the basis. I was also going to look at Hadith,
but unfortunately this already looks like it will take all the time available.
A good book for you to look at on the Prophetic Community is Leila
Ahmeds Women, Gender and Islam.
But now Im going to look only at Quran. The reason I
want to look at it is in order to grasp the existing controversy and conflicting
perceptions on the status, position, worth and constitution of women, perceptions used to
control womens actions and status. The perception is that Islam has placed a low
status on women and a higher one for men. We will look at the verses that deal with
principles and practices or law to ascertain the Quranic concept of womens
An intellectual Exercise?
The question one could ask is: Is it just an intellectual exercise.
Some activists regard an ideological investigation as an
"intellectual exercise" undertaken by people not involved in the real issues.
When I informed the ITP co-ordinator about the focus of this paper,
this is how she responded in her email message to me:
> Regarding the brief itself, I have only to indicate that when
> topic was suggested in the first place, I expressed that we have to
> look at new ways of tackling the issue because we always cover the
> same ground and get nowhere due to the stubbornness and even
> arrogance sometimes on the part of ourselves to accept what is
> actually a very black and white issue. That is why I suggested
> initially that, instead of trying to "emancipate" a group of
> middle-class, somewhat pampered women who really have no affinity to
> the REAL issues facing the struggle for gender equality in this
> country, we devote our precious time to looking at ways for bringing
> the Gender Desk closer to reality, like the W.Cape has done. It is
> fine by me if you want to look at Qur'anic perspectives and all
> that, but I think that the idea that we are actually going to GET
> somewhere, or make known some things that were not known before,
> needs to be read with caution
I think I agree with the co-ordinator, the liberal class does do
that. But in Islam the Quran applies to all, whether its post-middle,
pre-middle or working class. The same laws apply to the couple, the same laws apply to the
man. And all classes need to know that because that forms the basis of their identity. So
its slightly different, and also I thought it was important that we deal with that,
because in my experience and Ive been working with women since Ive been
the Gender Desk Co-ordinator more focussed on gender issues. And in Johannesburg
theyre working with women in divorce cases, women that have been beaten and a whole
host of women. And the only advice that I could give them was one that the Quran
says this about you, gives you a status. Because I find it very difficult to tell somebody
something that they dont believe in. I cant tell them, "Yes, get
divorced." But I can tell them, "You have a right to get divorced. The choice is
now yours." I suggest that they go for some social welfare service. So I think
theres a need for both kinds of things: like the one Cape Town (MYM) has and the
kind of thing
What Cape Town does is integrate both. The more people know these
issues, the more people will integrate them or deal with one only before the problem
arises. So thats how it should go.
We cannot altogether dismiss the need for support and other social
welfare services, and as long as the problems exist, it is essential that we have social
welfare and other institutions that can provide necessary relief for victims. And these
problems will continue for as long as there is confusion regarding the correct and
liberatory Quranic position on women. We must tackle the problem itself and for
Muslim women, Islam and the Quran can be both a force of empowerment and undermining
and disempowerment. It is the source Muslims accept unflinchingly.
The conflict and, yes, sometimes confusion in our understanding of
Islam and gender status arises from the complex way in which a society works.
Forces within the Muslim community that cause
conflict and confusion
in understanding Women, Gender & Islam
After 1400 years it appears that there is still confusion and
conflict as to the status of women in Islam, and the role that gender plays in an
individuals worth in terms of status, position, potential and constitution.
Despite the overwhelming and strong position of Muslims that Islam
liberated women 1400 years ago, you still find theres a problem. Some thought and
practice within Muslim society does not reflect this conviction, giving rise to the
accusation that Islam oppresses women, to which the Muslim community reacts emotionally
with denial and animosity, without reflecting inwardly and addressing the existing
And I think the reason for this is the way the Muslim community
works. What makes Islam work in a Muslim community is a mixture of Islam, the context, an
interpretation of Islamic text Quran and Hadith, culture, tradition, customs
and the interests of those who are dominant in the community those who hold the
reigns of power.
These elements are not necessarily negative. The objective is not to
apply some "purist" understanding of Islam based exclusively on the Quran.
In fact, the Quranic and Prophetic method is to consider the other elements in order
to provide a viable and practical solution to an event or problem. The Quran
consists of Divine responses to particular questions within a particular context.
Therefore it is essential that Islam and the Quran are contextualised.
However, these elements that work within the Muslim community often
do so at cross-purposes with conflicting agendas and motives. As a result we have
conflicting messages. If somebody wants to subjugate women they will come with a different
interpretation, they will do a whole host of things. So youll find conflict: in
interpretation, in understanding who women are. And people tend to interpret for their
convenience. However, I dont think these elements are necessarily negative. In order
for Islam to work it needs to be contextualised and not taking all these elements into
consideration means you have not listened to one category or class of people. In fact the
Quran and the Prophet did exactly that. They took into consideration the customs;
they took into consideration a whole host of things in order to understand the laws
within the context. It thus is often difficult to distinguish between these various
elements. It is therefore not surprising that we are confused on the issues of women,
gender and Islam and articulate and send conflicting messages.
Were seeing a lot of Muslim feminists. Their books have been
translated into English and even in small communities like in South Africa (Im sure
all of us are being accused of being feminists). Muslim feminists face criticism from
other feminists for insisting on maintaining the link to Islam in the gender struggle. The
Muslim feminist looks to the Quran and the Prophet as a force for liberation, but in
this ideological struggle faces tremendous opposition and criticism for
"reinterpreting", "changing the Quran", "following western
feminists", etc. from the clergy, the community as well as other women.
These feminists insist that they are inspired by Islam and the women
heroes of Islam who stood up for justice and human rights. And that Islam is a force of
empowerment rather than of disempowerment.
Lets live as we Believe
There is a hadith which states a profound truth about human life:
"If you dont live as you believe then you begin to believe as you live."
In order to live as we believe, and to understand what the Islamic
and Quranic identity of the Woman is, it is essential that we do an enquiry and
investigation of the Islamic sources the Quran (in particular) and the
practice of the Prophets community. Because of the short time available, I will
focus here only on the Quran.
The Quran: Principles, Practices and Law
The Quran is the first source of guidance, so well start
by looking at what the Quran says about the position and place of women and what
role, if any, gender plays in status of the individual.
Perhaps an important point to make before we begin discussing verses
of the Quran, however, is that all such discussion is based on contextual
interpretation. No person can honestly claim to understand any part of the Quran
without any interpretation.
During the Battle of Siffin, the followers of Muawiyah once
called for a cessation of hostilities between Muawiyahs and Alis
parties. They should, they said, accept the Quran as the arbitrator between them.
Imam Alis response is very instructive. He said:
"When Muawiyah invited me to the Quran for a
decision, I could not turn my face away from the Book of Allah. The Mighty and Glorious
Allah declared that If you dispute about anything, refer it to Allah and His
Apostle. (However,) this is the Quran, written in straight lines, between two
boards (of binding); it does not speak with a tongue; it needs interpreters and
interpreters are people."
In order to ascertain the status of men and women we will look at
verses that lay down certain principles and verses that are reactions to particular
O Humankind! Be conscious of your Sustainer, who
has created humanity out of one living entity, and out of it created its mate, and out of
the two spread abroad a multitude of men and women. And remain conscious of God, in whose
name you demand [your rights] from one another, and [reverence] the wombs
[that bore you]. Verily, God
is ever watchful over you! (4:1)
The points Id like to highlight here
The source of all human creation is one living entity, unlike the
biblical interpretation or understanding that men were created first and thereafter women,
and women were created from men. Even upto recently, I had the idea that women were
created second also, and that men were created first and that women were created out of
men. And here it is quite clear that No, there was this one "entity" and Allah
created men and women from it. So, women could have been created first or men could have
been created first; its difficult to say. What we know is that from one entity
multitudes of men and women were created. All individuals are born from one entity,
according to this verse, and have the same status and equal potential to do good and evil.
This is such a positive verse, and there are many like that. Why do
we choose to make more popular the "negative" ones like the one that can be
interpreted that men can beat women. Why not this verse and on the basis of this verse
interpret that. If one comes to this first you know that gender doesnt play a part
in spirituality or anything.
If you come with the idea that you are inferior in the first place,
your approach to a particular verse that applies to a particular context will have to be
negative, will have to see you as inferior. Whereas, if you have a positive one, it will
have to be positive, it will have to accept that there is some kind of equality here.
Youll need to interpret a verse on how you treat somebody according to what the
Quran says are basic principles or what basic essence of women or men is.
Verily, for all men and women who have
surrendered themselves unto God, and all believing men and believing women, and all truly
devout men and truly devout women, and all men and women who are true to their word, and
all men and women who are true to their word, and all men and women who are patient in
adversity, and all men and women who humble themselves [before God], and all men and women
who give in charity, and all self-denying men and self-denying women, and all men and
women who are mindful of their chastity, and all men and women who remember God
unceasingly, for [all of] them has God readied forgiveness of sins and a mighty reward. (33:35)
This verse shows clearly that all spiritual and moral obligations of
men and women are the same. And that the ones capacity is not inferior to the others.
It stresses the moral rights and moral obligations of men and women.
And if God has given men and women the same obligations it is only because they have the
same potential. God is Merciful. He wont apply greater responsibility than one can
bear. Many a time what we have is people claiming that women are morally inferior or
spiritually inferior. They menstruate, they are not capable, they cause fitnah. And the
Quran clearly states that The Merciful God can never place obligations greater than
one can bear. And if shes not spiritually whole or morally whole then you cant
expect her to be equally moral and equally spiritual. And this verse says that we are
Hence do not covet the bounties which Allah has
bestowed more abundantly on some of you than on others. Men shall have a benefit from what
they earn, and women shall have a benefit from what they earn. Ask, therefore, Allah (to
give you) out of His Bounty: behold, Allah has indeed full knowledge of everything.
This verse is very clear. That we shall all be rewarded according to
what we earn. And also that one will be rewarded for whatever good deeds one does.
Theres also the verse that men and women that do good deeds
will be rewarded according to their deeds and their work. Often times we hear the
"hadith" that when the Prophet (s) went to Hell he saw more women in Hell than
men. If women were more prone to evil, why would God give them equal obligations to do
These are few of the "positive" verses which lay down the
basic principle that gender is not a criterion for determining the status of the
I would be failing in completing the discussion if I left out the
more popular verses used to describe womens identity.
Often, to uphold the superiority of men, people say that the
Quran says that men are a degree above women. And yes, thats true. It does say
Women who are divorced shall wait, keeping
themselves apart, three (monthly) courses. And it is not lawful for them that they conceal
that which Allah has created in their wombs if they believe in Allah and the last day. And
their husbands would do better to take them back in that case if they desire a
reconciliation. And (the rights) due to the woman are similar to (the rights) against
them, (or responsibilities they owe) with regard to the good (maruf), and
men have a degree (darajah) above them. Allah is Mighty, Wise. (2:228)
This verse refers to a context of a couple getting divorced and
there is the possibility of a pregnancy. It calls on women not to conceal their pregnancy.
And it is better for their husbands to take them back if reconciliation is possible. While
women have similar rights to their responsibilities, men have a degree of rights and
responsibility above them a degree above them.
This verse is often used to quote the "degree above them".
Its not applied to the context. Ive even heard our (MYM) members trying to
come to grips with men being a "degree above them"! Thats just accepted.
The problem is that it applies to a particular context, not to general law meaning that
men are a degree above women. This verse speaks about pregnancy when divorce is taking
place. If the wife is pregnant she has no right to conceal the pregnancy. Which is fine.
It should be so. Also the fact that the men do have a degree of advantage in taking the
child back. The verse speaks about the rights that women have and the rights above them
and then speaks about men having a degree above them. So the degree is with respect to
responsibilities (rights against them) as well as rights. We must also remember all the
time that what they have has been bestowed by Allah. Its not from themselves;
its from Allah. And they have a responsibility to give.
Maintenance & Beating, Marriage:
Men are qawwamun
(maintainers/protectors) of women, for Allah has preferred (faddala) some over
others, and (on the basis) of what they spend of their property. So good women are qanitat
(obedient), guarding in secret that which Allah has guarded. As from those whom you fear nushuz
(rebellion), admonish them, banish them to beds apart, and scourge/beat them. Then, if
they obey you, seek not a way against them. (4:34)
Men are maintainers of women because Allah has bestowed more on some
then others. Thats why they are supposed to be maintainers. The fact is they
generally have more money than women. Also, the situation of divorce. If youre
pregnant its more of a burden sometimes and you need assistance.
Then the verse says Allah has bestowed more on some than on others
because they have an extra responsibility.
So good women are "qanitat". Generally it seems
from the Quran that the one that contributes more, takes on more responsibility has
more rights. The less responsibilities they have, the less rights they have.
Then, if you fear rebellion from them, there are three stages of
correcting: admonish them, banish them to beds apart, and then beat them lightly. The one
that causes most grief in the community is that men are allowed to "beat" women
or one individual is allowed to beat another, especially in a marriage. This notion has
always bothered me. But if I look at the stages through which one goes, through the
process. First its "admonish them". (If it says "beat them lightly"
then admonishing would be, for example, just saying "stop it" or something like
that. Not yelling or shouting, but something light.) And then "banish them to beds
apart". I dont believe anybody, any rapist or abuser according to the
profiles for such people will get to the second stage. Rapists and abusers (that
are spouses), generally theyd sleep with her first. Generally they sleep with the
victim then beat them then sleep with them again. A normal, good Muslim will never reach
that stage, the stage of banishing them. An abusive husband will do things the other way
The word "nushuz" is quite a strong word. It means
rebellion. And only a "rebellion" allows a man to go through these stages.
People are defiant and disobedient everyday; but this "nushuz" is quite strong.
The issue with this verse is how we deal with it and how we are prepared to deal with it.
And among His wonders is this: He creates for you
mates out of your own kind, so that you might incline towards them, and He engenders Love
and Tenderness between you: in this, behold, there are messages indeed for people who
Here is portrayed a relationship that is tender and a relationship
thats based on tenderness and love. Heres another principle that one can draw
on for a marital relationship.
It is lawful for you to go in unto your wives
during the night preceding the (days) fast: they are as a garment for you, and you
are as a garment for them.
Seclusion & separation (Prophets wives):
O Prophet! say to your consorts: "If it be
that desire The life of this world, And its glitter, then come! I will provide for you
enjoyment and set you free in a handsome manner.
But if you seek Allah And his Apostle, and the
home of the hereafter, verily Allah has prepared for the well doers amongst you a great
O Consorts of the Prophet ! If any of you were
guilty of evident unseemly conduct, the punishment would be double to her, and that is
easy for Allah.
But any of you that is devoted in the service of
Allah and His apostle, And works righteousness, to her shall We grant her reward twice and
We have prepared for her a generous sustenance.
O consorts of the Prophet! You are not like any
of the (other) women. If you are conscious of Allah, be not too complacent of speech, lest
one in whose heart is a disease should be moved with desire. But speak you a speech that
And stay quietly in your houses, and make not a
dazzling display, like that of the former times of ignorance; and establish regular prayer
and give regular charity; and obey Allah and His Apostle. And Allah only wishes to remove
all abomination from you, you members of the family, and to make you pure and spotless. (33:28-33).
These verses the seclusion, the voice story, the staying at
home, etc what one needs to make quite clear is that these verses refer to the
Prophets wives. Firstly, they will get twice the reward than any other woman will
get. But also, there are greater responsibilities and restrictions for what they do. So
theyll get double for doing it, as well double sin.
The verse: "O consorts of the Prophet! You are not like any of
the (other) women. If you are conscious of Allah, be not too complacent of speech, lest
one in whose heart is a disease should be moved with desire. But speak you a speech that
is just." is the verse the Jamiat uses to support their no-womans voice
position. What is clear here is that firstly its speaking to the Prophets
wives only (which they didnt mention), and secondly not that they
shouldnt speak but that they should not speak in complacent but in just terms, that
their speech is just. What the Jamiat also didnt do is say the last bit: "But
speak you a speech that is just." All they quote is: "If you are conscious of
Allah, be not too complacent of speech, lest one in whose heart is a disease should be
moved with desire." That sentence is part of the verse, but the Jamiat chooses not to
quote it. For their convenience, they use the verse to support their position. This is
devious! We often do that.
"And stay quietly in your houses." Here again is the
Tabligh Jamaat position that women should be confined to their homes. People could do that
if they like, but the Quran is instructing the Prophets wives in this instance
and not saying it is a general rule.
I want to look finally at the challenges that we face and that we
need to deal with. The issues here we need to deal with practically.
We should now stop focussing on verses that are interpreted to imply
a lower status of women. We of often ignore the principles. We need to extract these to
apply to new practical contexts.
We should also make sure and challenge people who interpret and use
verses of selective & convenient text like the Jamiats use of verses to argue
that womens voices cant be heard. Theres the of pamphlet supporting
womens voice not being heard, where the supporters give weight to their position by
quoting only part of the verse only .
Another problem is that "religious authorities" cannot
deal with these issues and challenges. They are not qualified to do so; theres a
lack of education, experience and commitment to the reopening of the doors of ijtihad.
They are not thinking or reflecting but remain static. And we should ask these
"authorities" to also engage in ijtihad. They are also afraid of reform and of
challenges to their authority. We must keep challenging them.
Also they dont respond very well to challenges. Everytime we
challenge them, everytime we speak to them, they dont respond. Around two years ago,
when I was the Gender Desk Co-ordinator, I wrote to the Jamiat about the husbands
right to unilateral divorce. They argued that it is Quranic, it is Islamic. Then I
quoted them a whole lot of verses and told them that these verses showed that marital
relationships dont adhere to the kind of talaq with a complete lack of consultation.
I sent them a five-page letter quoting these verses. They sent me a reply asking Allah to
give me hidayah (guidance) and saying that I was very arrogant. This United Ulama
Council, this big organisation with hundreds of maulanas, tells me that Im arrogant
and may Allah give me hidayah and this was their last correspondence with us. I
Another problem is that men write women into their experiences, For
a long time men have been writing about women, men have been writing the interpretations.
Even if a progressive man writes about women, its from a male perspective. They
write us into their experiences. Ebrahim Moosa (a leading South African and international
progressive Muslim theologian and scholar) experiences life much differently than I do.
Hes progressive, fine! But Id rather Firdousa (the MYM Gender Desk
co-ordinator) wrote it. It would be more real. Our experiences are different because
were in an oppressive situation.
Even some of the women writers that are emerging are the more
conservative ones who write from tradition. They dont change things, they just focus
on whats there.
That leads us to the next point. That women generally retain and
accept traditional stereotypes. Women are more passionate about retaining tradition than
men. We find women often just want to keep the peace. Its in their family lives and
comes out in their wider lives. But they could change, and thats what we should
The last issue I want to raise is that Muslim Personal Law is being
developed. We need to find out whats happening, otherwise well get up with a
rude shock when things are already done. We need much reform in this field and a fresh
interpretation of MPL.