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Half veiled truths!

Half veiled truths!

Amidst dialogues on peace, human rights and dignity, freedom of choice and expression, it is important to remember, that all these will be rendered ineffectual until a large section of the world’s Population which has been subjugated for centuries under different false mantles is granted what it deserves. The veiling of Rights of women, with layers of patriarchal traditions and thought has suffocated them over the years. For a large number of Muslim women, and perhaps their counterparts in other religions, what is visible through this veil is the helpless look of dispossession and denial of rights.

Girls learning to do henna designs, a skill they can use to earn some money from.  Photo: Chintan

Girls learning to do henna designs, a skill they can use to earn some money from.
Photo: Chintan

Women, especially in the Asian context, have been victims to patriarchal systems whereby their subjugation has been falsely justified by religious texts, practices and societal traditions. Muslim women in India are no exception. The peace of any nation, any part of the world is also largely affected by adherence to principles of equality: equality of opportunities, participation, freedom of choice etc. To say that a country, a society, lives peacefully because it has not seen any violence or war, while the women in that society are subjugated and denied their rights and legitimate claims, is a false assertion.

The main issue concerning rights of an Indian Muslim woman, directly related to her empowerment, is not that rights in her favour are nonexistent; it however is the lack, in fact in some cases the absence of awareness of their existence and the lack of willingness to realize them. If Indian Muslim women were aware of the rights they have by law, and if these rights were practiced in their true sense, most of the problems they are having to deal with today would not have prevailed.

I once interviewed more than fifty Muslim women in India for a project, a mix of those who had completed their higher studies, and those who had not had an opportunity to, and what came out from these discussions was a common belief in ‘letting go’ of their rights for the sake of the family. Nearly all of the women interviewed believed it was not ‘correct’ to demand for the ‘rights’ that are in reality ‘gifted’ to them by Islam.

No religion in its essence can or does propagate inequality and disempowerment of a group, in this case women. It is a shame that those who interpret religion, mostly men, lay emphasis on a certain phrase or paragraph in the texts and completely forget and disregard the essence of the teachings.

An instance here is the much debated practice of polygamy, Tunisia was the first Arab state to abolish polygamy in the year 1956.

It needs to be stressed here that in accordance with the Quran, which is the source of all laws that flow from the Shariah, polygamy is permissible but conditional upon the man being fair in all ways to his wives.

Since humanly it is not possible to treat all with equality, it is said that a man should not marry more than one woman. This also makes it clear that justice is the central aspect and polygamy cannot be treated as a right or privilege as has unfortunately happened in a male dominated society, where in practice, Muslim men have practiced polygamy, and proclaimed it as their right with little regard for the attached condition most of the time, without any fear of conscience.

Empowerment also has to come from within. To ask for what is one’s own is not wrong and this internalization in women is extremely important. Why let go of something which is by right yours? Another instance here is Meher or dower, which most Muslim bride’s in India forgo, even though they are entitled to get is as a ‘free gift’ at the time of marriage. Many Indian Muslim families consider it a small issue not worthy of being raised during marriage while some others , in showing off their status, fix an amount so high that it is not possible for the groom to part with, both resulting in the bride-to-be being denied her right.

It is appalling to see sometimes that this transfer of ‘values’, as they are called, come from the elders in the family, specially mothers and elderly women who, having given up all their rights believe, the generation to come should also succumb to the ‘right ethos’ and do as they did. In most Muslim families, elders play a very important role in disseminating information about religion to the younger generations, and more often than not this dissemination takes a duties based approach and rights are relegated to the background. I am in no way implying here that the peace of the house should be disrupted by continued demand for rights, but yes, such a situation can certainly be avoided if members in the family duly receive what they deserve and at the correct time.

Legal equality is one among the fundamental rights of women, but this alone is inadequate and cannot ensure them a fair stake in economic and social development, nor can it lead to a major improvement in the lives of the majority unless the structures that generate disadvantage and discrimination are dismantled.

A hindrance in the betterment of the situation of Indian Muslim women and working towards their empowerment is the taboo associated with the term ‘progressive interpretations’, as if almost to imply that they mean ‘western interpretations’. The term progress is not synonymous to being western at all, in fact, to reinterpret texts and revisit historic instances which were interpreted by men at a time when women were considered inferior, forget equal, to men, keeping in mind the essence of the religion, is essential if one has to even begin to talk of women’s empowerment.

It remains no secret that over the years that Muslim women have lost out on social and political opportunities due to patriarchal family structures as well religious dogmas. These dogmas and biases have flourished over the years, few of them even assuming the status of informal codes of conduct for a large section of the population. The presence of these dogmas and misconceptions about roles and rights of women under Islam exists largely due to the socio-political estrangement of the Muslim woman from decision-making in family and political structures. The acute lack of representation owes itself to deeply patriarchal family structures as well as lack of education amongst the women in the community. This provides a fertile ground for perpetuating unexamined beliefs and images about Islam, imputing wrong meaning to provisions in Shariah law, thereby implicating women in a vicious cycle of under-representation and marginalization.

Like Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism and other religions of the world do not propagate disempowerment of women. The entire problem here lies with the patriarchal interpretations and the emphasis on the practices of some followers of the religion instead of the essence of the religion itself, hence veiling the truth.


- by Mariya Salim

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