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The Unpublicized Female Face of Islam
[Opinion] A response to 'Islamophobia and women's rights'
Fiza Fatima Asar (FizaPK)     Print Article 
Published 2007-02-16 11:12 (KST)   
There are more than a billion Muslims all over the world today. Fifty percent of them are women. About 6 million live in the U.S. alone. Muslims are spread all over the world and belong to varying cultural backgrounds. Many of their actions are based on cultural or national norms, and are thus a reflection of the region's cultural/social history and not the religion that they follow. In this respect, it is our responsibility and everyone's right to hear the truth based on facts -- facts and truth which are manipulated, ignored or often deliberately secluded from our knowledge.

Often critics of Islam express their disagreement with Muslim sympathizers and "media-usage" or rather "media-misusage" critics by basing their opinions on how Muslims treat women. Unfortunately however, unable to make a distinction between Muslims and Islam, their commonly used statement is that "Islam suppresses women." Little is it realized that perhaps that idea too is aided by images displayed in the popular media and their interpretations of it. More often than not, humans fall prey to exactly the kind of stereotypes and creation of "other" thinkers around the world have been fighting against.

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As a result of the chauvinistic image of Islam that has been created, most of us are unaware of the fact that one of the earliest caliphs of the Muslim world, Umar (also a close friend of the Prophet of Islam) appointed a woman as "auditor for market activities." This position today is parallel to Chief Justice for commercial activities or the Minister of Economy.

Also, only after consultation with women (headed by his daughter Hafsa, also a wife of Muhammad) Umar decided that it is a woman's right that her husband should not be away from her for longer than four months, even if he was a soldier. Thus, all men in military service used to return home after a certain period of time.

The wives and daughters of Muhammad have been set as examples for all Muslims irrespective of gender. They became leaders of the faith and important resources of information on the life of Muhammad. Prophet Muhammad's wife, Khadija -- in fact the first person to accept Islam, was a thriving businesswoman in Arabia. She was 15 years older than Prophet Muhammad. She continued with her business even after her marriage. At the time Muhammad received the message of Islam, his opponents jeered at him saying no one would remember him because he did not have a son to continue his lineage. Islam, therefore, propagates that lineage was not something to be connected only with sons. The most cherished being for Muhammad was his daughter Fatima.

Muhammad banned female infanticide deeming it unlawful according to Islam. For the pre-Islamic world and thereafter, Islam became a message of feminism. Muhammad said that a man who provided for and educated two or more daughters was sure to reach Paradise. The Qur'an does not single out the woman (Eve) for the cause of the Original Sin. Both Adam and Eve were equally responsible for listening to Satan and eating the fruit that had been labeled forbidden. Islamic law preaches that marriage is a contract to be negotiated; women have the right to divorce, the right to own property and to inherit money. She has the right to accept or reject a marriage proposal, receive child support in the event of a divorce, and to live free from spousal abuse. She even has the right to demand of her husband to provide her with someone to look after the house and the children.

The woman, as a mother, is highly honored in Islam. Muhammad claimed, "Paradise lies under the feet of your mothers." Once a man visited the Prophet Muhammad and asked him if one was to strive for Heaven, whom should he serve? The Prophet replied "God." The man asked "and then?" and the Prophet said "your mother." The man asked twice again, "and next?" and the Prophet replied each time "your mother." The man then asked who would the fourth person be and Muhammad then said "your father." Most interestingly according to Islamic belief, in the world hereafter a person would be identified by the name of their mother and not by the father's name!

The Muslim world today displays examples of these strong, liberal women leaders. The fact that the Muslim world considers them to be strong and takes pride in their qualities clearly breaks the stereotypes attached to Islam and the Islamic world by the media. Bangladesh has had more than one woman heading the nation -- Khalida Zia and Hasina Wajid. Megawati Sukarnoputri is the current president of Indonesia. The people of the Islamic republic of Pakistan twice elected a woman Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto. We have yet to see America choose a woman to lead the country. Shirin Ibadi has been given the Nobel Peace Prize -- she hails from the Islamic republic of Iran. Dr. Ingrid Mattson is a prominent Islamic scholar and lecturer.

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Like in other parts of the Muslim world, in Pakistan too, one of the most famous Islamic centres and institutions is Al-Huda international. This is an institution solely for women, where women run the management, are scholars, are educated to become scholars, and where lay worshipers can attend at any time for mere acquisition of some knowledge or prayer. Everyday the prayers here are led by the women scholars working in the institution. Every day several women pray behind the woman imam and can ask questions and interact in any way possible. The scholars from this institution are highly regarded by all Islamic circles of the country irrespective of their gender.

What is also worth pointing out here is that there are speakers in the parking lots and staircases of the building where Al-Huda lectures take place. Having hired drivers is extremely common in Pakistani society, and the women who attend the lectures usually have large numbers of cars parked in the parking lot with drivers. The men from nearby shops or guards from nearby buildings all collect here too. The women scholars from Al-Huda are revered so highly that the poor, assumedly uneducated men from society also listen to their lectures attentively. Interestingly enough, if an outside observer were to look at this spectacle, they could perhaps interpret this to mean that men are regarded as less equal to women since it is the women who are in direct contact with the scholars.

An important point Said raises on page 165 of his book Covering Islam is that "there is never interpretation, understanding, and then knowledge where there is no interest." So long as we do not realize that and try and rise above our own past prejudices before studying Muslims and Islam, we cannot gain much from our study. Before assuming that we are thinking "critically" there is a need to understand that the student must feel that he or she is answerable to the culture and the people being spoken about.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Fiza Fatima Asar

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