and the Taliban
by Azizah Y. al-Hibri
as an Op-Ed in The Philadelphia Inquirer
March 11, 2001
A couple of summers ago, I traveled to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to meet with Afghani women and men. One of the women was a former judge, religious and well-educated. She had sad eyes. She could not fathom the possibility that her daughter will be one day much worse off than her. Deprived of higher education, the daughter could not be a lawyer, let alone a judge.
The group briefed me on the situation in Afghanistan. They said that there had been some improvement in the education of women, but that it was far from adequate. They had lost many generations of progress in women’s rights. Members of the group also complained that while things in Afghanistan were terrible, the Western press had not reported the situation accurately. It has instead sensationalized it and used it as an opportunity to attack Islam. The Afghans were thus twice victimized, and placed in an impossible position. As victims of the Taliban, they wanted the world to help them, but as good Muslims they did not want to be used by Western media to defame Islam.
This attitude is widespread among Muslim men and women living under oppressive regimes. Some recent immigrants also experience it; they find themselves caught between the malaise in their old homeland and the pressures of rejection and prejudice in their new one. For centuries, Islam was presented to the United States through Orientalist eyes. Even in the days of Jefferson and Madison, our Prophet was called “the Imposter”; and Muslim slaves were forced to convert. Now that American Muslims have finally been brought under the constitutional umbrella, the time has come for us to state in our own voice what Islam, as a religion and not a political tool of corrupt leaders, is all about.
The Qur’an, which is the basic source of Islamic law, states that men and women were created from the same soul. Eve is not held responsible for the fall of Adam; they were equally responsible. The Qur’an assigns Muslim men and women the same spiritual rights and obligations. Khadijah, the first wife of the Prophet was a successful business woman who was many years his senior. A’ishah, the woman the Prophet married after the death of Khadijah became a major jurist and political leader. The Companions of the Prophet included hundreds of women, some of whom asked him one time to schedule special meetings with them because men tended to dominate discussions. As a result of the Prophet’s encouragement of women and their active participation in public life, much of the information about the Prophet came down to us through women. In later centuries, even as patriarchy and authoritarianism were on the rise, Muslim women - such as Arwa the Queen of Yemen, Shajarat al-Dur who ruled Egypt and various authors, scholars and jurists - were still able to achieve great successes. These successes would not have been possible without the Islamic vision of women’s rights, which inspired women in both the public and private arenas.
In the public arena, Islam made the pursuit of knowledge the duty of every male and female. For this reason, there were many highly educated Muslim women throughout history. In one recent immigration case, an Afghani woman demanded political asylum in the U.S. on the basis of religious persecution. She correctly argued that she could not possibly discharge her religious duty of educating her daughters if returned to Afghanistan.
The Qur’an also guarantees women their right to work and earn. Medieval jurists agreed that the Muslim woman had an independent financial standing. Furthermore, the Muslim woman kept her own name after marriage and was not required to do housework. Traditional medieval jurists noted that the marriage contract was contract not of service but of companionship. They argued that it was the husband’s duty to obtain prepared food for his wife if she did not volunteer to cook. The Qur’an itself defines the marital relation as one of tranquility, affection, and mercy. It enjoins Muslim couples to live together in kindness or separate charitably.
It is this majority view of Islam, which has attracted Muslim women over the centuries, even as patriarchy attempted to erode it. Today, in the United States, Muslim women are getting closer to this Islamic ideal of gender relations than most of their predecessors. The Taliban are fighting a losing battle.
*Dr. Azizah al-Hibri is an Islamic Scholar and professor at the University of Richmond, T.C. Williams School of Law.
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