November 25th is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women as was kindly reminded to me again today by my bright and brave Saudi friend, Wafa. I don’t want to particularly talk about Muslim women and violence because violence is universal and is no way peculiar to the Muslim community. But I thought I’d draw your attention to a Muslim man who thinks that “violence against women may physically and legally be a woman’s problem, morally and religiously it is very much that of men.”
I have already Farid Esack’s essay, Islam and Gender Justice: Beyond Simplistic Apologia three times since I borrowed the volume, What Men Owe to Women: Men’s Voices from World Religions (Edited by J.C. Raines and D. C. Maguire) this morning. It was THAT different! The entire book is fascinating and the writers, all men, have each been accused by members of their faith for holding progressive ideas for women of their faith. Farid Esack’s faith was questioned by a Muslim reviewer (Riffat Hassan) because he writes in his essay that, “In general, one discerns … a discriminatory trend (in the Quran) when it deals with the social and legal obligations of women.”
Esack doesn’t apologise. He makes no excuses. He doesn’t sugar-coat. In fact, he accuses Amina Wadud for doing just that – “gender sensitive Muslims have struggled to “swallow” this text (Quran 4:34) after much sugar coating”!
Esack begins his essay by giving a brief history about himself, his place amongst theologians and talking about the questioner and respondent of the question ‘What men owe to women?’ He then begins to skin the gender sensitive Muslims and their “sugar-coated” exegesis of the Quran!
The author divides Quranic verses referring to women into two types:
a) General statements made which both affirm and deny gender equality and
b) specific injunctions, which are generally discriminatory towards women.
He explains them like this:
The following texts affirm the notion of equality in ethico religious responsibilities and recompense: (Q. 23:35) and (Q. 23:219)In the following four verses, frequently invoked by Muslims committed to some form of gender equality, we see how equality in a generalized manner is only seemingly affirmed. My own brief comment on the limited usefulness of invoking them for gender equality follows each verse:1) They (women) have rights similar to those against them (Q. 2:228)Here we note that ‘similar’ is left undefined and, as conservatives correctly argue, is not synonymous with ‘equal’.2) To men a share of what their parents and kinsmen leave and to women a share of what parents and relatives leave (Q. 4.7)“A share” is left undefined and, when another verse elsewhere does define it then it becomes clear that it is an unclear share.3) “To the adulteress and the adulterer, whip each one of them a hundred lashes […]” (Q.24.2)The fact of the inequality in the burden of proof in adultery is ignored. Pregnancy in the case of an unmarried woman is automatic proof of extra-marital relations while naming the male partner in the absence of witnesses to the act is tantamount to slander.4) “Say to the faithful men that they should cast down their eyes and guard their modesty; that is pure for them. And say to the faithful women that they cast down their eyes and guard their modesty.” (Q. 24:30-31)The succeeding verses, usually unmentioned in apologetic works, add an array of further specific injunctions regarding the social behaviour of women. While one may argue that men are not absolved from these, women are the ones singled out.
Esack then continues with:
In social and legal matters, it is very difficult to avoid the impression that the Qur’an provides a set of injunctions and exhortations where women, in general, are infantalized “to be protected, and economically provided for by men, but admonished and punished if they are disobedient”. The following are a few examples of this. a) Men marry their spouses while women are “given in marriage” by their fathers or eldest brother though they may have a say in the choice of a partner). b) The groom purchases her sexual favours though she may have a choice in the amount. Here we also observe the implicit notion of a one sided duty to fulfill the sexual needs of her husband. c) In the matter of divorce, the right of males is automatic while that of females is to be negotiated, contracted, and decided upon by male judges. d) The male may take up to four spouses though he may be compelled to treat them with equity and the first wife may leave him if the marriage contract proscribes him from taking additional wives. e) Muslim men may marry women from among the people of the Book but Muslim women may not. (Q. 2:220)
After discussing the verse on the “mono-gendered nature” of nushuz (4:34) in some depth, Esack asks, “If the excellence (of men over women) flows from God’s grace rather than from economic activity, then how does a shift in income patterns alter that excellence?” Indeed most feminist interpreters of Quran have tried to explain that the “excellence” of men over women as mentioned in 4:34 comes from economic superiority (AbulKalaam, Asad, Wadud, Hassan) which in Esack’s mind creates the problem that there is “the idea that a specific gender can acquire advantage as a group over another by virtue of some of its members possessing enjoying some grace or virtue (even if only economical).”
Explaining the same verse, Esack writes:
“While liberal readers insist that the second characteristic, “qanitat” (lit. “the obedient”) refers to obedience to God, most of the traditional interpreters have viewed this as obedience to the wishes of the husband and suggest that the obedience to one’s husband is, in fact, an extension – even a condition, of righteousness… it fairly obvious that the traditional exegetes are nearer to the truth in their fusion of duty to God and to husband… Sexual fidelity is thus portrayed as a combined duty to husband and God and while fidelity may also be a duty of the husband, the wife is singled out and her sexuality is joined to the husband’s property. In the process she and her sexuality are further objectified and notions of women as owned commodities underlined.”
I somewhat concur with this explanation as I mentioned once in a comment.
The problem, Farid Esack sees is that with the Quran, “there is no way that one can ascribe ‘discriminatory’ texts to a mysoginist Paul, or a well-meaning but time-bound David” since it is the word of God. But at the same time, “The Qur’an’s essential audience is male…(with women as) essentially subjects being dealt with – however kindly – rather than being directly addressed.”
Then he caught my attention with the rhetorical question, “How can one be content with a Transcendent who speaks about you and rarely to you?”
Esack’s answer can be found in the paradox of the sentence “while the Qur’an is far from the human rights or gender equality document that Muslim apologists make it out to be, that it, nevertheless, contains sufficient seeds for those committed to human rights and gender justice to live in fidelity to its underlying ethos.”
Esack believes that he owes women a call for forgiveness because he has realised that “God is even above Islam” and that Quran first “affirms the centrality of God in a believer’s life and not the law which is the contextual means of achieving the pleasure of God.” Despite Quran’s claims that it is a guide for humankind, Esack rightly points out that we can’t deny that the initial audience of the Book were the people of Hijaz in the 7th Century and so “those who place gender justice at the core of their concerns – rather than scripture – cannot but be cognisant of the severe limitations that such ahistorical notions place on them.”
Perhaps Esack’s message for all of us on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women would be to develop a theology that is positive for both genders – “Our view of what we owe to women, is really a view of what we owe to ourselves. The kind of theology that we develop in thinking through this is as much a statement of our deepest selves as it is about the God whose presence we seek in a broken world desperate for wholeness and justice.”
What do you think? I welcome your comments.
Note: A version of Farid Essack’s essay is available online here.