B y Khurram Ali Shafique

Dawn, Friday Magazine, October 16, 1992

Author’s note: This was my rejoinder to an article by Viqarunnisa Hashmi in 1992. I have developed great respect for her subsequent work since then, and the criticism I offered here does not apply to her later work – e.g., where she writes, “Though Islam is most liberal and explicit on the rights of women particularly inheritance, its injunctions are interpreted in the most conservative manner that strengthens patriarchy rather than equity and justice.” This is what I was trying to say too.

The quote in the introductory part of the article is from Iqbal (“our duty is carefully to watch …”).

This was one of my earliest writings for the English press in Pakistan. If I remember correctly, my only published writing in English before this was a write-up for a teenage magazine in the 1980s. 

I have read the article “Women in Islam and the West” by Viqarunnisa Hashmi (Friday October 2, ’92). It is misleading to say the least. And confusing as well.

The author, while attempting to compare Islam and the West, starts with a comparison of the Islamic Law with the Judeo-Christian Law. The fact is that the Judeo-Christian Law does not have the same position in the lives of the Western people today which the Islamic Law has in our lives. They never demand its implementation from the state. Rather, the very idea would be incomprehensible to an average person in the West today. Hence the appropriate counterpart of the Islamic Law in the West would be their secular tradition of democratic legislation. True, there were a few rights for women even in that before the present century, but now there seem to be many. Whether they really help, or how do they stand as compared to the rights granted by the Islamic Law is a subject to be taken up by someone who is really interested. But more than religions fervour would be required. I recommended a holistic view of the social sciences.

Hashmi’s attack on the feminists of the West is quite superficial. Perhaps it is based on emotions, and not on a good understanding of facts and ideas about the feminist movement. A sad, but common mistake. Forgetting that “our duty is carefully to watch the progress of human thought, and to maintain an independent critical attitude towards it!”

Some, or many, ideas propounded by the movement may not be acceptable to us yet it has also given some digestible food for thought. Some of these ideas, which I consider to be positive, are following:

Bloomers:

The idea that women are not objects but people and therefore they should not be looked upon as playthings, is definitely not averse to Islam. During the First Wave Feminism era (starting late nineteenth century), many women made it a point to present themselves in modest and un-provoking fashions. They tailored special dresses, called “bloomers” which were loose fits. Though the fashion could not become popular, thanks to the chauvinists of the age still the idea that women should not be ‘objectified’ was laid deep and has prompted several efforts for social reforms in the West, eg, the movements against pornography, against prostitution, against beauty contests and against the objectification of female models in commercial ads.

Women’s Studies:

Many women have found that social sciences like sociology, psychology, history, geography, linguistics and even literary criticism, as we know them, tend to overlook the feminine part of life: the presence of women, the patterns of their feeling and their world views are either ignored or misinterpreted. An awareness of this has resulted in the development of Women’s Studies: many women are now bringing out their (or the feminine) understanding of knowledge. This has enriched the human knowledge and rectified many errors eg, women psychologists have shown us how Freud and some other males were terribly wrong about many aspects of the psychology of women. Women historians and literary critics have enriched the meaning of life by telling us how dies it appear to their sisters. Some of the blockbusters are:

Mary Daly: Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism

Gerda Lermer: The Majority Finds Its Past: Placement of Women in History

Andrienne Rich: On Lies, Secrets and Silence

Dale Spender: Man Made Language, Men’s Studies Modified : The Impact of Feminism on the Academic Disciplines, Women of Ideas and What Men Have Done To Them, For the Record: The Making and Meaning of Feminist Knowledge

Susan Brownmiller: Against our Will : Men, Women and Rape

A better awareness of the social security for women:

Laws alone don’t guarantee everything. A favourable system of social conditions is needed to back them. If that is missing in a society even its golden laws are sure to rust. The feminists bring out a rational analysis of societies and the attitudes of the people in it. Hence their work on how certain amenities can be provided for women, and what are the real barriers against these is worth considering for anyone who is serious about the rights of women – the amenities, by the way, include education, equal wages, safety from violence and facilities for family planning.

Attitudes towards other world views:
Women have also realized that their plight will not improve in isolation. It is tyranny, ignorance and the values of destruction that their struggle is really aimed against. Therefore, they generally support the cause of democracy, education and a better environment regardless of geographical or ethnic boundaries. Today the feminist are not only the opposers of sexism but also of political oppression, necrophily, racism, ageism and ableism. The discourses produced on these issues are a feast for all those who want to enrich their minds.

Sadly, the above facts are so often overlooked by those who speak about women. It could be partially due to the notion of ‘the liberated lady’. Actually ‘the liberated lady’ is a myth created by the chauvinists. It means a woman who has liberated herself from the moral and cultural values of her society and is now sexually available to any male for lust.

After getting familiar with the genuine concepts of feminism, one can see that ideas like ‘the liberated lady’ have got nothing to do with feminism or with the rights of women. They were not spread by the feminists. Their purpose was to obscure the genuine concepts about the equal rights of women. Feminists counter such ideas with their slogan: the personal is the political.

At the end one might wonder if there is anything about the feminist development in the West that would not be acceptable to us. Yes, perhaps there is. Abortion and lesbianism, for instance. But one must remember that these issues are the products of several other factors which were already existing in the Western society. To argue that they essentially come with the rights of women is illogical thinking.

Hashmi has emphasized that Islam sanctions perhaps all justifiable rights for women. I would passionately agree with this. But let us not deny, that, due to no fault of Islam itself, the social benefits which it has promised for women have seldom materialized during the past fourteen centuries — how could they be in a social environment which permitted men in authority to maintain a harem of thousand girls and still be proclaimed vicegerents.

May be we don’t need more laws since Islam has got them for us, but certainly we need to create a social environment where these Islamic laws about the rights of women could be materialized. For this we shall have to think, reflect and change. And it cannot be done better than by drawing upon all the intellectual resources which are available to us in this age of world communication and satellites.