Scenario 1: March 2003
A young Muslim man, Ahmad, goes on a business trip to Africa, returns home to the US with hemorrhagic fever and dies from complications within a week. He had an MBA in marketing. His wife, Ayesha, hadn’t even finished high school. Her father had died when she was eight years old. Ayesha was looked after by an uncle when her uneducated mother was married off again by her brothers. The uncle had five children of his own so he married Ayesha to Ahmed when she was only 18 years old as Ahmed didn’t demand dowry. They had two children. He was a caring husband and a doting father. But after his death, his parents kept his children under their care and sent Ayesha back to India. She was a burden. Last I heard she was married off by her tired uncle to a man in his late sixties.
Scenario 2: June 2014
A Pakistani couple, Faheem and Fatima, had been married for 13 years. They lived in Dubai with their five children. Faheem had found a reasonably good job in Dubai after job hunting for 15 years. They were taking their newborn home from hospital when Faheem turned to look at his wife, collapsed at the steering wheel and died. He is remembered as the ‘most involved father, and an extremely caring husband.’ Fatima is shattered and finds herself absolutely helpless. She has a high school diploma but has never worked – she didn’t have to; she was Faheem’s queen. She had never gone outside the house without Faheem. Her male family members and Faheem’s arrive in Dubai quickly and take over the ‘important affairs.’ She is told that they will ensure her children get the best possible education back home. She would have to move in with some family member, but they will invest her husband’s savings in a way that she gets some cash every month. Fatima’s mother cries every day that her youngest grandson would never know his father. Faheem’s mother mourns the loss of a great son and that his daughters would get married without their father. Fatima’s worries are different. She’s worried about how she would now survive. She doesn’t even know Faheem’s bank account number.
These are two cases I know; you may know some too. These are not isolated cases. Millions of women, Muslim and non-Muslim, are never raised to become independent. The situation of Muslim women concerns me more because we are always highlighting the “status of women in Islam” and how women are “empowered” while we ignore how women are cripplingly dependent on men in Muslim cultures who assume the role of sole maintainers and providers.
Someone recently posted on the Muslim Feminists Facebook Page that “…all women deserve a good man who will support, protect, nurture … her” and later “real muslim men nurture and support his (sic) wives when she (sic) is weak and use (sic) his strength to protect the women and empower her (sic) to be a greater queen, In Sha Allah.” Few words can be more damaging than this. Women, we are told, are “precious pearls” and “queens” that have to be “nurtured.” We are weak and so men must use their strength, wealth and wisdom to protect us.
The problem is we are not. We are not Disney princesses who have the luxury of lounging on silky cushions and sipping virgin pina colada. Majority of Muslim women are very real and very *human.* We have children, we toil in garment factories and paddy fields, we serve our families, we work protecting, supporting and nurturing, we go through hours of labour (it’s not called ‘labour’ for nothing!). True that women, like men, need support and protection, but the most long-lasting support and protection anyone can offer to a woman is independence. Parents need to understand that marrying off young and immature girls will only trap them further into life-long dependence on their much older husbands who are more like father-figures and will naturally pass on before them. Husbands should realise that by keeping their wives emotionally, socially, financially and physically dependent on them makes women vulnerable to life-long misery when the husband is gone either through divorce or death.
I’m slightly disappointed that feminists within Islam spend a great deal of time and effort ‘proving’ how the Quran made “many changes to the status of women” while little is done to understand the real reason why women are not in conditions we want them to be in Muslim cultures. Muslim women are not suffering because a thousand years ago patriarchal men interpreted the Quran to give more power to men by giving fewer rights to women. We are suffering because all the laws that are derived from the Quran support women making them dependent “queens” rather than empowering them to become independent regular human beings.
Look at all the Sharia laws regarding women: 1) requiring two women witnesses; 2) unequal inheritance laws; 3) enforced hijab; 4) travel only with a Mahram; 5) inequality in divorce laws; 6) payment of Mahr; 7) lack of requiring consent for sex; 8) polygamy; 9) spousal discipline; 10) custody of children after divorce/death of the man – all of these laws support rather than empower a woman. Feminists who want equality claim that these laws are there to support women, and that’s exactly what they do. There is absolutely nothing wrong with any of these laws if a woman wants to be treated like a precious pearl, but these laws are not going to make her independent or empowered which is the first step towards equality. I also have trouble accepting the argument that these laws were alright for the 7th Century but not now and were “meant to become obsolete” because this way we are claiming that it was alright to make women dependent and vulnerable to abuse in the 7th Century but not today. This brings me to the question – were women really downtrodden and stripped of all rights before we created Sharia law to elevate their status?
There are over a billion Muslims today who follow a religion that was initially based solely on the belief in the witness of one woman who said “I testify that you are the awaited Prophet in this nation.” She didn’t require another woman to remind her that she wasn’t erring. Muslims have a popular saying that goes something like, “Islam did not rise except through Ali’s sword and Khadijah’s wealth” fully realizing the role she played in investing her wealth to benefit her husband’s mission. She inherited great wealth from her father, and two dead husbands then proposed to a young man much younger than her who was running her business. She kept all her children from her previous marriages making her oldest son a great supporter of the Prophet Muhammad – his step-father. Her third husband, the Prophet, moved in with her as he had “no means to marry.” There was no option of polygamy in the marriage as she was an independent and strong woman who was actually the maintainer, support and nurturer in the marriage. In her honour, the Prophet said, “She believed in me when all others disbelieved; she held me truthful when others called me a liar; she sheltered me when others abandoned me; she comforted me when others shunned me; and Allah granted me children by her while depriving me of children by other women.” Now imagine if Khadeejah had been made to live under Sharia law that are imposed on many Muslim women – What course would Islam have taken without the support, testimony and belief, wealth, intellect, wisdom, and independence that she was able to offer without Sharia Law?
How do we expect Muslim women to be empowered like Khadeejah when we clip their wings through laws that are arbitrarily imposed upon them in Muslim cultures like polygamy and ban on driving in KSA, child marriages and polygamy in Yemen, enforced temporary marriage and hijab in Iran and KSA, unfair Khula laws in Egypt, hudood law in Pakistan, stripping of citizenship rights if a woman marries a foreigner in the GCC countries etc? How can we gain inspiration from the “fierce independence” of Khadeejah while we are taught that the ten laws I highlighted above are for our support and protection and that we are sinning if we object?
Women like the ones whose examples I offered in the two scenarios in the beginning will survive with support from their families. But is mere survival our goal? If men really want to offer lifelong support and protection to their women they have to accept that it is through financial, social and intellectual independence that is achieved through education and trust in the equal human capabilities of women.