It’s been a while since I mused here. I’ve been up to my eyeballs in Islamic feminist literature these days and there is a lot I want to discuss with Muslim feminists starting with the terminology we use for feminisms within Muslim societies to what we can do to empower Muslim women.
Last week I finished re-reading Sexual Ethics & Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith and Jurisprudence by Kecia Ali which left me with questions that I hadn’t asked myself the first time I read the book when I wasn’t a graduate student. Then I watched Kecia Ali’s interview where she mentions how she, like me, started her research with “contemporary questions” about feministic interpretations within Islam. She mentions in the video that she read a lot of “history” at that point.
Once while going through my father’s old books I found a book on the history of Hinduism. I remember highlighting a particular passage from the book which discussed the role of women in Hinduism. Although I have lost the book and forgotten the name I researched on the passage that I could recall. It was about marriage in Hinduism. In the Baudhayana Prasna I, Adhyaya 8, Kandika 16, verses 1-2, it is written:
“There are four castes: Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas, and Sudras. Males belonging to them may take wives according to the order of the castes: Brahmana four, a Kshatriya three, a Vaisya two and a Sudra one.”
Some years later when I was reading this book on polygamy that left a deep and disturbing impression on me I would engage in long conversations on the topic of Muslim polygamy. During one such online dialogue with a woman in a polygynous marriage I confessed how the idea of polygyny disturbed me. This self-confessed feminist told me that had it not been for Islam, polygamy would have been unlimited. She told me she found peace with her husband’s second marriage after an imam explained to her that it was God’s mercy that she didn’t have to deal with an unlimited number of co-wives for no religion before Islam ever placed a limit on polygamy.
This I knew was not true. I had read that Hindu law had already placed a restriction on polygamy at least 700 years before Islam. What did this knowledge mean for me?
I see world religions as manifestations of socio-political scenarios of the ancient world. In the absence of the contemporary distinction between the ‘state’ and the ‘church/mosque’, in the ancient world religion equaled the state. It is common knowledge that Jesus’ trial was not motivated by religion but by politics. The pharaoh’s enmity with Moses was not due to religious beliefs but on the grounds of politics. The Prophet Muhammad was both the head of the religious body and the state.
It is therefore necessary for me to know both religion and ancient world history to make sense of why a religious edict was instated and why it was carried on.
This morning I was watching a video clip of Nawal El Saadawi speaking. Around 10.20 in the clip she mentions how “women became inferior in religion because of the political system.” She goes on to say, “in fact religion is a political ideology.” El Saadawi believes that “creativity is related to understanding and knowledge. And knowledge comes from connection. True knowledge come from connections and undoing the split between specialties.”
Coming back to what did that knowledge of Hindu law meant for me – it meant the opportunity for creativity. I made immediate connections with Islam. Restriction on polygamy not only set social order – one man producing six dozen children with unlimited women (and this is happening even now) – it also created class consciousness. The rich who could afford to be *fair* would have more. The poorest class that couldn’t afford three square meals logically couldn’t afford polygamy either. The elite were not only “serial grooms” (always keeping no more than four wives) they also kept many concubines to exhibit their elitism.
Restriction on polygamy or even the injunction to treat all wives fairly has not really protected women’s rights because as you can see from the video link I posted above men know ways to get around the limits laid down by religious/state law. If a man can’t be fair between two wives he divorces one. If he can’t have more than four he keeps divorcing and remarrying. This has always been a male practice for centuries even after Hindu and Muslim law limiting polygamy.
What we need is to make more connections and be creative. This opportunity arose once more for me when I read ‘The origin of mut’ah (temporary marriage) in early Islam’ by Paula I. Nielson. In her work Nielson traces the history of mutah marriage which in pre-Islamic times was not a temporary marriage but was a “matrilineal marriage.” A common stipulation in such a matrilineal marriage contract was the “female-oriented privilege” that the man would not remarry as long as she lived. Nielson points to several facts surrounding the marriage of the Prophet and Khadija and claims that their marriage was matrilineal which is why soon after her death he immediately remarried several times.
This is important knowledge for contemporary Muslim women who find polygamy troubling. Khadija is mentioned in every feminist discourse to show the independence Islam gives women (although her freedom and independence existed much before Islam). It should be empowering for a Muslim woman to know that even Khadija found polygamy troubling and then use that information to argue the point that there is nothing wrong with not wanting to share your husband. None of the Prophet Muhammad’s daughters shared their lives with a co-wife. They remained the only wives as long as they lived, but their husbands did practice polygamy after their death.
I can understand that most Muslim women neither have the interest nor the time to become scholars of history or religion. But I was wondering what feminists think about what I have written here and the examples I have offered – do you think that those Muslim women who have gender activist interests would benefit if they sought ‘knowledge’ of theological histories and made ‘connections’ to become ‘creative’ in their arguments like Kecia Ali does so well?
Since my research is based solely on online interaction of Muslim feminists I have been wondering about the genres of writing Muslim feminists produce/read and the discussions on it that ensue. How much empowerment would such knowledge give Muslim feminists if someone made these connections and Muslim feminists read it and used that information in their arguments?