The best of you are those who are the kindest to their wives - Prophet Muhammad
The Allahabad High Court has finally got the clock of judicial activism ticking by saying that triple talaq is unconstitutional. It was no surprise and the liberal strands in Muslim thought had already stood out clear.
Indeed, one of the reasons triple talaq has remained legal so long is the fear, propounded by Muslim community leaders, that if the government is allowed to tamper with Islamic personal laws, it might one day scrap them completely, and the majority will swallow them up. But judicial verdicts apart, we are still missing the key issues in the reformist discourse on Muslim family laws and practices.
The survey of 4,500 Muslim women by the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (Muslim Women’s Welfare Movement or BMMA) earlier this year showed that 91 per cent of them were against polygamy. This was reported with great excitement in the media though actually it should not have surprised us, given that the data shows that over 90 per cent of Muslims are in monogamous marriages.
Incidentally, a statement by the same group on October 15, that “Muslim women want codification of Muslim family law and not uniform civil code”, was reported with less enthusiasm.
The solution to gender issues in Muslim society lies less in reformation of personal laws and more in addressing the entire spectrum of issues confronting women. Islamic feminists insist that Islam, at its core, is progressive for women and supports equal opportunities for men and women alike.
Deeply religious, profoundly determined and modern in every way, these women are challenging not only the unjust restrictions placed on them by their own societies, but also the tired stereotypes and empty generalisations placed on them by the West.
They are arguing for women’s rights within an Islamic discourse. Some of the leading proponents are actually men - distinguished scholars who contend that Islam was radically egalitarian for its time and remains so in many of its texts.
There is a long list of hadiths (Prophet’s sayings) and Quranic verses to support women's rights: the right to education; the right to work and their right to keep the money they earn.
Women are on the frontlines of our most critical human rights struggles today, particularly in war-torn countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan. Muslim women - and men - are driving social justice by promoting cultural change from within their own societies.
|Reform is an unruly horse that can go berserk unless it is properly saddled.|
Their advocacy for women’s rights based on more progressive interpretations of Islam are critical to bridging the conflict between those championing reform and those seeking to oppress women in the name of religious tradition.
Socially, culturally, economically, and politically, the future hinges on finding ways to accommodate human rights, and in particular women’s rights, with Islamic law. These reformers - and thousands of others - are the people leading the way forward.
The depressing condition of Muslim women is a phenomenon among the underprivileged. In the economically-improved strata of Muslims the sort of oppressive practices which are being talked about are a rarity.
Poverty is the root cause of obscurantism in Muslim families. Economic empowerment is one tide that lifts all the boats. It enables you to provide better education for kids, better healthcare for the household and better housing. It is a virtual cycle that transforms your worldview.
A common civil code is being oversold as a silver bullet for gender justice which it is not; it is in fact a magic bullet for maiming Muslim identity and culture. What is urgently required is draining the swamps of Muslim poverty that are breeding unrest and frustration leading to both physical and mental violence.
Unlike revenge, justice is not a dish best served cold. The more it is delayed, the greater the risk India runs of alienating further nearly a fifth of its population.
The Quranic institution of polygamy was a piece of social legislation. It was designed not to gratify the male sexual appetite, but to correct the injustices done to widows, orphans, and other female dependants, who were especially vulnerable.
Polygamy was designed to ensure that unprotected women would be decently married, and to abolish the old loose, irresponsible liaisons. Polygamy is not the rule, but an exception.
A New York Times review of the book in 1994 described the views of Robert Wright, the celebrated author of The Moral Animal, in this way: “Monogamy, Mr Wright says, does not favour the interests of most women, particularly lower-status women. Most human cultures throughout history have been mildly polygynous, with wealthier men attracting several wives. Though women in these cultures are often less than eager to share a man," he writes, ‘typically, they would rather do that than live in poverty with the undivided attention of a ne’er-do-well.’ Monogamy instead favours lower-status men who in a polygynous society would be frozen out of the marriage market by a wife-collecting elite. It is no coincidence that Christianity has advocated monogamy and pitched its message to poor and powerless men.”
It is much easier for the media to reduce the complex debate on the Uniform Civil Code to a series of clichés, slogans and sound-bites, rather than examining root causes; easier still to champion the most extreme and bigoted critics of Islam while ignoring the voices of mainstream Muslim scholars, academics and activists.
It is equally important for the Muslim theocracy to understand their proper role: call it religious policing, cultural policing, guardian policing, family policing and community policing. The many names share one vision: humane, compassionate, culturally refined with a mindset of respect and a demonstrable concern for improving the wellbeing of women, particularly when they have been assigned a very exalted position both by the Prophet and the Quran.
Treating women with the inherent dignity that they were created with, ensuring that they are given equitable opportunities to succeed is necessary to uphold the Quran's vision, "O you who have attained to faith! Be ever steadfast in upholding justice." (Q4:135).
Reform is an unruly horse that can go berserk unless it is properly saddled. The path ahead lies in importing some of the progressive reforms so that our personal laws regain vibrancy and are able to effectively respond to new realities. The Indian Muslim leadership should allow the winds of reforms in Islamosphere to blow in.
To those opposed to reformist ideals, let us remind them of legendary poet Muhammad Iqbal’s assertion: “[T]he teaching of the Quran that life is a process of progressive creation necessitates that each generation, guided but unhampered by the work of its predecessors, should be permitted to solve its own problems.”
Both the traditionalists and reformists should understand about the deep wisdom of Stephen Covey's teaching: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. No matter who you are, how experienced you are, and how knowledgeable you think you are, always delay judgment. Give others the privilege to explain themselves. What you see may not be the reality. Never conclude for others.