Reflections On Women Issues
George Orwell, in his brilliant novel, “1984”, defines doublespeak as “ the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them… To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed..”
When related to Islam, nothing illustrates the concept of doublespeak more than Islam’s position on women and freedoms of speech and thought. It is nearly impossible to talk about women in Islam, from a Muslim’s point of view, without making use of some from of doublespeak. Muslims claim that women in Islam are free and that Islam has elevated and liberated women. But facts speak for themselves. Women in Islam are relegated to second-class status. This position of second-class citizenship is sanctioned by the core teachings of Islam, and men, to this date, use Islam’s official position on women to justify their continued oppression and subjugation. To argue that Islam has liberated women is indeed an act of defending the indefensible.
Women worldwide are subject to varying degrees of sexism and social oppression. Women liberation movements and other sociopolitical revolutions have improved the social and political standing of women. Western countries have been leaders in legislating equal protection under the law for all citizens regardless of gender. While these laws did not completely eradicate all forms of social bias against women, they did provide the means to remedy and redress blatant cases of injustice. In that aspect, Western legal systems are fairly transparent as far as gender issues, and Western women enjoy legal protection unparalleled in the rest of the world.
Those who defend Islam’s position on women’s rights and gender equality often refer to the hardships that women in the west had to endure under their newly gained freedoms. They say, for instance, that women in the West have to go out and earn a living or that they have to fend for themselves. They also point out that the freedoms that women in the West enjoy came at a cost. They contend that as a result of these freedoms western women became sex objects and have lost their dignity. They may also state that women in Asia suffer from all forms of abuse and that Asian cultures are inherently chauvinist. We can make a multitude of arguments, claims and counterclaims. We can compare ourselves to the best and the worst, but is that relevant at all?
We have our own distinct culture, and should we choose to do so, we can institute laws that not only protect women and elevate them to the position they deserve as sacred beings, but we can extend the same protection to all life forms. We can make laws that exceed and surpass any earthly or heavenly laws. It is a decision that we can make, and it is independent of what Gods may decide or how other cultures or human beings may choose to lead their lives. We can set examples to the rest of humanity on the true meaning of human dignity and the sanctity of life. There is nothing that we can’t do should we decide to elevate our lives and give women among us the best protection that life could offer. But can we do so and still survive the fury of political Islam!
Political Islam that derives its philosophy from the core beliefs of Islam is a major wall of resistance to any advancement on women issues and freedoms of thought. Political Islam opposes the freedom of women and all other forms of free expression. Currently, and in spite of varying shades of freedoms or oppressions, women throughout the Arab world are treated as second-class citizens. They are denied their full rights as citizens by being excluded from many rights and privileges that male citizens of a given Arab country enjoy. Women are facing discriminatory laws and biased archaic mentalities that don’t recognize women as full citizens or even as free and complete human beings. At worst they are victims of outright discrimination. At best, they are treated in a patronizing and demeaning fashion. In an extremely paradoxical way, Arab military dictators have contributed to the improvement of women political and social status more than democratically elected Islamic parties or the traditional family-run kingdoms and emirates. It is also interesting that the brief period of socialism and other leftist ideologies in parts of the Arab world in the early 60s to late 70s coincided with the most progressive laws concerning women.
Muslim men support the exclusion of women on several grounds. Some may go back to the Quran’s position on women and use it as the only frame of reference. Those who take this position usually assert that they are being fair in that they are using God’s laws as guiding principles; they could not be fairer than God himself. Others are inherently cultural chauvinists and find justification for their actions in the Quran and the Hadeeth. Some may actually see the injustice inflicted on women but look the other way for self-serving reasons.
The actions of Muslim men that perpetuate the oppression of Muslim women are understandable. These are the actions of men who are served well by this religion and are given a position of superiority. This position of superiority is not only over women, but it extends to minors and those of other belief systems. So Muslim men are faced with an understandable dilemma. Why would they change laws that serve their own kind and their personal self-interest? This is not a simple dilemma. But what about Muslim women! How do they justify their own oppression! Men’s position can be justified or even understood, but what makes Muslim women accept and even defend this kind of self-oppression?
In an ideal world, any self-respecting woman could not possibly identify herself as a devout Muslim and not be at least bothered by how the core teachings of this religion demean her. How do self-respecting modern Muslim women reconcile the fact that God allowed their husbands to beat them as a way to correct their behaviour? The most often used explanation is that God allowed beating women “lightly”. But lightly is a relative term. A slap on the wrist might be light for one man and a bloody face might be light for another. This is a judgment issue, and if allowed, the door is wide-open for abuse. And if a self-respecting Muslim woman is to say that this permission from God for beating has a historic context, and is no longer applicable, then how about all other contradictions? Are they still applicable? Some forms of doublespeak and doublethink are essential here in order to reconcile these contradictory positions.
We need to make two central distinctions at this point in order for us to resolve this dilemma.
Women worldwide are not treated fairly and they have suffered under broad cultural, religious or political ideologies. Achieving equal status came as a result of painful struggle against males that wanted to keep women “in their place”. It was also a fight against cultural taboos and many forms of superstition and backwardness. While this struggle was difficult and painful, it was always clear that eventual liberation was a matter of education, evolution and time. It was also clear that all these forms of oppression are man-made and that once man is changed oppression would also change. There was always hope here.
Heavenly laws are different. Heavenly laws concerning women are stamped in concrete in the Quran and the Hadeeth and all other interpretations and references. These laws are simply unchangeable. Muslim apologists, both men and women, torture logic, language and common sense in order to justify the unjustifiable. They dance around words and stretch reason to its illogical limits. They are simply unable to stand tall and tell the truth, the simple truth, and let the chips fall wherever they may fall. If we need to place laws concerning women in Islam in their proper historical context, then let us do so and move on. But using doublespeak and doublethink only serves to prolong the injustice, perpetuate subjugation and delay the progress of an entire culture.
All love begins with self-love and all freedoms begin with inner personal freedoms. When faced with oppression, political, cultural, religious or otherwise, we should not surrender. We simply “can’t” wait for laws to change and for the world to become perfect. We don’t have enough time. We have a choice. We can lead our lives as if laws have already changed. This is a personal decision that all of us can make. We can treat women among us with the highest degree of respect and dignity. This is a new law that we can draft and approve today. That is the best legacy that we can leave behind.