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Lack of Women Empowerment Contradicts Quranic Vision

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"No nation can rise to the height of glory unless your women are side by side with you. We are victims of evil customs. It is a crime against humanity that our women are shut up within the four walls of the houses as prisoners. There is no sanction anywhere for the deplorable condition in which our women have to live" -- Muhammad Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan

Gender Equity Gap Across the Muslim World

Not much seemed to have changed since Jinnah uttered these words about six decades ago. The World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap 2013 Report shows wide disparity in Muslim majority countries between men and women across for key areas of health, education, economics and politics. No Muslim majority country cracks the top 10 in gender equity. At the bottom end, nine out of 10 countries are Muslim majority. According to a study by the World Bank, despite some progress in education and health, women across Middle East and North Africa are not empowered either economically or politically. Women account for only a quarter of the labor force and hold only 9 percent of seats in parliaments.

The anti-modern attitudes of hardline preachers and the less than egalitarian vision of the Islamists only exacerbate the problem of gender inequity. The fundamentalist Darul Uloom Deoband seminary in India issued a fatwa barring women from working as receptionists. While in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood, prior to its ouster, tried to undermine the work of the UN Commission on the Status of Women in stopping violence against women. This in a country where lack of women's rights is endemic, as evidenced by eight in 10 Egyptian women reporting being sexually harassed. In Pakistan, after a video surfaced showing a teenage girl being flogged by the Taliban, Jamaat-e-Islami dismissed such reports as being a "Western conspiracy" and the beating incident a "small thing."

Islam and Gender Equity

Normative Islam, taken holistically, supports gender equity despite the presence of isolated texts that are mistaken as relegating women to subservient roles. Chapter 4, Verse 1 from the Quran notes, "People, be mindful of your Lord, who created you from a single soul, and from it created its mate." This verse along with 7:189 and 42:11 assert without any ambiguity that men and women have the same spiritual nature and they are created out of a single soul (nafsin wahida) and as our mates (azwaja) they are a part of us (min anfusikum). Given that both men and women have the same spirit thus it is only natural that the Quran obligates them to the same religious and moral duties and responsibilities.

The Quranic message was transformative with respect to gender equity, at least among the first generation of Muslims. The first person to believe in the message of Prophet Muhammad was a woman, his first wife Khadija. Two of Prophet Muhammad's wives, Ayesha along with Umm Salama are among the greatest narrators of Prophetic traditions. Much of what Muslims practice today is transmitted via the scholarship of these two great women.

Another female companion, Nusayba bint Kaab, was celebrated for her military skills for taking part in many battles. As a combatant in Uhud, she is said to have sustained wounds on her body while defending the Prophet. Praising her valor, Prophet Muhammad said her position on the battlefield that day was unsurpassed by anyone else, man or woman.

The most sacred place on earth for Muslims, Makkah (Mecca), was founded by Hajar, the wife of Abraham. Her diligence and faith were as remarkable as that of her celebrated husband. The first martyr in Islam was also a woman, Sumayah. The world's first academic degree-granting institution of higher education, which is still in operation today, the University of Qarawiyyin in Morocco, was established by a woman, Fatima al-Fihri.

Contested Readings

Dr. Jamal Badawi, in his short book Gender Equity in Islam, makes the following observation, "Nowhere does the Qur'an state that one gender is superior to the other. Some mistakenly translate "qiwamah" in 4:34 as superiority, when in reality it implies a greater degree of responsibility." At-Tabari, who lived only two centuries after the Prophet, conceptualized the relationship of "qiwamah" as being conditional upon the man being able to take care of the socio-economic needs of his wife. This cannot be generalized as any inherent superiority of men over women. In the Quran, "qiwamah" is used three times and in all three occasions it is conjoined with the idea of justice and fairness.

Later in the same verse, 4:34, another word "waḍribuhunna" also has contested meanings. The verse reads, "And as for those women whose ill-will you have reason to fear, admonish them, then forsake them from physical intimacy, and then waḍribuhunna." The word waḍribuhunna is derived from the triliteral root ḍad ra ba, from which 55 verb forms result in the Quran. These verbs have wide variations in their meanings - from strike (idrib) to travel or put forth (darabu).

Literally and parochially translating waḍribuhunna as "beating" contradicts the central Quranic message of fairness and mercy. In addition, there is no report that Prophet Muhammad ever struck or beat of his wives, even though he like most mortals encountered marital challenges.

Classical scholars such as At-Tabari and Ar-Razi both viewed 4:34 as a staged way to reduce marital conflicts in a culture where violence against women was rampant. At-Tabari went on to note that waḍribuhunna means striking without hurting. But Ar-Razi did not even allow that in his exegesis. He quoted Prophet Muhammad as stating that men who hit their wives are not among the better men.

The Vision of Islam

Treating women with the inherent dignity that she was created with, ensuring that their rights are preserved and advocating that they are given equitable opportunities to succeed is necessary to uphold the Quranic vision, "O you who have attained to faith! Be ever steadfast in upholding justice," (4:135). The way forward requires leveling the playing field, by changing hearts and minds, if possible, or by instituting affirmative actions, when antiquated cultural norms prove too intransigent.

The World Economic Forum asserts a simple truth, "Countries and companies can be competitive only if they develop, attract and retain the best talent, both male and female." Not only governments need to do more, but so do businesses, civil society and media. Empowering women should be as much a man's responsibility, as it is a woman's aspiration.