KARACHI, Pakistan — Junaid Jamshed, Pakistani pop singer turned Muslim preacher, landed in hot water recently when he made misogynistic remarks on television. Trying to prove that Islam does not allow women independent status, he said, “Hazrat Maryam’s [venerable Mary’s] name has only been mentioned in the holy Quran because of Hazrat Isa [venerable Jesus]. Other than that, no other woman’s name has been quoted in the holy book. Also, Allah doesn’t like it when a woman’s name is mentioned in the Quran.”
A “Ban Junaid Jamshed” movement sprang into life on social media within hours of his remarks. Irate Pakistani women urged people to boycott Jamshed’s commercial ventures, which include a butcher shop and a clothing line.
Sadly, many people in the Muslim world share Jamshed’s attitudes to a greater or lesser degree; literalists and the orthodox everywhere use the Quran and the hadiths, or sayings of the prophet, to justify their misogyny, interpreting allegorical scripture with malicious literalism. They twist and distort the scripture’s meanings, intent and context until the true meaning of the verses has been obliterated. In particular, they disregard verses that were meant to introduce a balance between the sexes in a pagan Arab society that had had no concept of harmony and cooperation between men and women.
Muslim societies have long been a battleground between pre-Islamic patriarchy and the revolutionary spirit of early Islam. The pre-Islamic environment of 7th century Mecca, with its tribalism, constant warfare and lack of law and order, was strongly male-dominated. The advent of Islam challenged that status quo and introduced a new social order that limited the excesses of Meccan society, which had often directly harmed women and girls. For example, Islam forbade the practice of burying unwanted baby girls at birth. Early Islam sought to elevate women and define them as independent agents possessed of free will, responsible for their own actions and imbued with certain rights over men (just as men are imbued with complementary rights and privileges over women).
“Early Islam sought to elevate women and define them as independent agents possessed of free will.”
We can count 24 women who appear in the Quran in various forms and for various purposes. According to Seyyedeh Sahar Kianfar, who writes about women in the Quran for the International Association of Sufism, 18 of those women appear as minor characters in Quranic stories for historical context. The major five — Mary, mother of Jesus; Bilquis, the queen of Sheba; Mary’s mother Hannah; Hawa (Eve); and Umm Musa, the mother of Moses — “serve as examples of good character from which the seeker can learn and model oneself.”
There is an entire chapter in the Quran entitled “Mary,” which tells the story of Mary’s life and Jesus’ birth. Another chapter, called “Women,” outlines in great detail the rights and responsibilities of women and the rights and responsibilities of men toward them. This does not sound like a holy book in which the appearance of women is offensive to God!
Many detractors of Islam point to inheritance laws, polygamy and certain verses in the Quran that they have interpreted as condoning domestic violence, sex slavery and other travesties of justice and human rights. But there are many Muslim feminists, such as Amina Wadud, Kecia Ali, Riffat Hassan and Laleh Bakhtiar, who are actively working to retranslate and reinterpret many of these verses. They place them, as well as many sayings of the prophet, within a correct historical context, adding the feminist perspective, which classical male jurists, translators and interpreters have ignored. The result is a scripture that looks very different from the book that Islam’s detractors fault for “inherent” chauvinism and that misogynists within Islam, like Junaid Jamshed, use to justify the perpetuation of patriarchal traditions.
“The advent of Islam introduced a new social order that limited the excesses of Meccan society, which had often directly harmed women and girls.”
Misogyny does not appeal to all Muslim men, but Muslim men who live in traditional societies have been raised within a cultural context of patriarchy, which operates on strong principles of female exclusion and male privilege. Monarchy, colonialism and violent dictatorship, which have affected most Muslim countries at some point in their histories, have served to ingrain those patriarchal principles deep within the psyche of men and, sadly, often of women as well. It could be said that men have internalized the principles of authoritarianism under which they have lived, ruling Muslim women the way Muslim countries were ruled by local autocrats and then colonized by Western powers. Patriarchy serves to bolster a man’s sense of personal power when his own political power has been robbed from him.
Lately, thanks to a steady increase in women’s education and literacy, Muslim women have been claiming more of their rights within Islam. They are further empowered by the growing need for more women in the workforce to strengthen their countries’ economies. Unfortunately, human rights and democratic movements coming from Western countries sometimes focus too one-sidedly on the status of women in Muslim societies as a yardstick for how “oppressed” or “free” those societies are. NPR’s Senior European correspondent Sylvia Poggioli identified this trend as follows: “In the heated debate on Islam in the West, Muslim women are often the flashpoint — their dress codes, their rights, their roles in society.”
The result: some Muslim men grow deeply resentful and view “women’s rights” as a corrupting foreign influence — a continuation of the colonialism that humiliated and alienated their parents’ generation. When the push to upset traditions that suit men comes both from the Western world and from Muslim women (and their Muslim male allies), Muslim misogynists react with a destructive kind of competitiveness with women. A clampdown on the advances of women and the use of physical and mental violence to restrict women’s growing autonomy is the backlash for those men who cannot handle the powerful changes in their societies.
“There are many Muslim feminists who are actively working to retranslate and reinterpret certain Quran verses.”
No analysis of misogyny in Muslim societies would be complete without understanding the powerful role of the mother in the Muslim family. Most Muslims can recall growing up in a family where the home was the jurisdiction of the mother, supported by equally strong female figures — aunts, elder sisters, grandmothers. The mother’s authority over a child is complete (and Islam supports this by ensuring a young child stays with its mother even if a divorce takes place). And yet this domestic empowerment runs contrary to the deep-seated patriarchy children observe outside the home.
Societies all across the Muslim world can develop and flourish enormously when women begin to enjoy the same freedom outside the home that they traditionally enjoy within it, and there is nothing in Islamic scripture that contradicts this idea. But misogyny in the Muslim world must be addressed so that we are not constantly playing a game of Snakes and Ladders, making gains and then sliding back down again, when it comes to enshrining women’s rights in our rapidly-transitioning societies.