Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat- In conservative societies, especially in women’s circles, symptoms of a new disease have manifested. It takes on the form of raised voices that question the justice of Islamic legislation towards women when applied through the rules of Sunnah and Shariah, in addition to questioning the truth behind the superiority of men over women.
The repetition of some of the Hadith [the Prophetic traditions] without a sound understanding of their meaning and the distortion of others from their original purpose has contributed to the wave of ‘non-religiosity’ that has snaked its way into society to afflict a number of Arab Muslim women. The view that women are inferior is no longer reserved to Middle Eastern men only since it has started to affect the women’s perception of themselves so that they can no longer regard themselves except through a phallocentric lens. It has reached the point where they have started to repeat these misconceptions themselves. Recently, a lecture on divorce was entitled, ‘women are entrusted to men’, in the sense that they are ‘slaves’, which disfigures the original concept of women being valuable members of society.
However, those analyzing the reasons behind this ‘non-religious’ trend are divided, some attest the responsibility of the judiciary system for issuing verdicts that favor men, while others uphold that the religious dialogue is comprised of biased fatwas that side with the men at the women’s expense. There are a host of other causes that can be summed up as reinforcing the social heritage and lending it a religious legitimacy. When asked what her opinion was, one woman said that the time had come to ‘shake the tree’ and bring down all that contaminates Islam and its legislation, which has suffered under a masculine perspective that has warped it.
According to Islamic advocate Suhaila Zein al Abideen, social heritage, a number of judicial endeavors and ascribing Islamic legitimacy to various social customs and traditions are the main reasons to have contributed to shaking some of the religious convictions of Saudi girls who took them to be Islamic teachings.
Zein al Abideen said that the Islamic courts refuse to allow any sources other than the Quran and Sunnah when issuing Islamic verdicts at a time when some of these courts issue rulings that do not adhere to the Sunnah and Quran. She cites as an example the act of separating between husbands and wives based on ‘irreconcilable differences’, while disregarding the woman’s opinion and relying on one side of the story and Fatma Bint Qais’s faulty interpretation of Khul’ divorce [whereby a couple can divorce against the husband’s will if all the wife’s financial rights are relinquished],
have resulted in women demanding Khul’ for the wrong reasons. Every woman discontent with her husband physically assaulting her, or being addicted to drugs or alcohol, and other similar complaints demands Khul’ to rid herself of him without having to go through the divorce channels and the thorough examination into the matter of child custody that it entails.
Zein al Abideen pointed out that the decision to separate married couples for reasons of incompatibility in the manner that it is being practiced has shaken Saudi women to the core and made them wonder if such a practice stems from the same teachings of Islam that prohibited tribal fanaticism. Thus, Zein al Abideen calls for the necessity of rectifying the misconceptions regarding women in the male circles, which has resulted in women being perceived in a derogatory manner and treated with a superior attitude, such as women being treated as minors all their life. This entails imposing a guardian on a woman so that he would always accompany her, while Islam considers her to be legally and financially independent with the right to be her own guardian.
Zein al Abideen affirmed that the men in society cling to these conceptions and that it will remain to be the case, adding that those who consider saying anything to the contrary are ridiculed and viewed as departing from the ‘rightful’ Islam. She believes that the time has come to remedy the situation and rectify these misconceptions so as to avoid making it worse or deepening the chasm between women and Islamic teachings. She added that the responsibility falls upon the shoulders of the female preachers, religious scholars and the moderate thinkers who adopt reasonable approaches to amend these views through mass media and educational institutions.
Regarding the role of judicial rulings, which a group of women have blamed for favoring men, whether regarding Khul’ divorce, child custody other matters relating to women, Judge Ziad as-Saadun, the chief justice of the courts in Saudi’s al Jawf province defended the Islamic courts and the role they play. He said, “No woman should imagine that the Islamic legislation has been unfair to her because that would reflect unfairly on God.” The senior judge pointed out that there were cases of women going thorough marital lawsuits, divorce and custody alike, wherein “they did not gain rights as a result of their inability to prove their cases, or by virtue of the existence of another party who had evidence of their incompetence as mothers,” which leads the women into believing that they are demanding what is rightfully theirs and that the law treated her inequitably. As-Saadun pointed out that a big portion of the responsibility falls upon the woman herself, to be educated and knowledgeable about the court rulings, in addition to being aware of her religious rights so that she may be able to demand these rights from the courts. He stressed the importance of knowing how to prove her entitlement to these rights before the courts, or to hire an experienced attorney.
As-Saadoun urged women to be patient and not give up if they do not attain their rights for their lack of ability to plead their cases, and added that they will be compensated in the hereafter. He stressed that the teachings inherent in Islamic law are fair and befit all circumstances and that the legislation has been just to both men and women and that there is nothing within that legislation or in any Islamic judicial principle that can harm a woman’s right, whether related to Khul’ divorce or custody. He added that some non-Muslim women favor Islamic justice when seeking divorce by virtue of its “conspicuous fairness towards women in this regard,” he said.
Burdening Islamic law with the notion that women are subjected to prejudice by the male community and that they are not granted their rights is a matter that lawyer and former judge, Abdulaziz al Qassim became aware of while performing his daily tasks in al Ahsa’s association for girls in Saudi Arabia. Al Qassim said that it is a shared responsibility between the preachers in their discourse and the fatwas that are issued, which are biased to the men’s advantage, exaggerating the women’s duties while neglecting the men’s obligations. He furthermore calls for the necessity of preparing preachers to have addresses that are geared towards the women rather than the present ones that are centered on males only.
Al Qassim demanded that a differentiation be made between the religious rulings that exist in the text and their further interpretations, which on many occasions have led to the oppression and degradation of women. He stressed the importance of establishing civil organizations to protect women against any harm that might befall them based on the consideration that the judicial system is an executive authority not a regulatory one. Al Qassim ruled out the requests to dispense with Shariah law as a result of some government authorities and institutions flouting some of the laws relating to women’s rights, stressing that such acts do not ‘denigrate Islam’ as they do not derive from it. Although Islam stresses, as al Qassim upheld, that women are not inferior to men and that their rights must be equated, he also pointed out that there were discrepancies in terms of responsibilities between the sexes, such as the issue of a male ‘guardian’ which has resulted in a change in these rights – a matter that he demands must be understood by women. He called for a synchronization between the rights that religion grants men and a religious supervision to be achieved through various executive authorities to guarantee that husbands, fathers and brothers are not oppressive to women.
Criticism has been raised by a group of women and specialists in the field against the Daawa discourse [Islamic propagation], which they believe is influenced by social heritage which in turn dominates the discourse. In an interview with Asharq Al Awsat Egyptian preacher, Amr Khaled, who enjoys a huge popularity amongst his female supporters, admitted to disregarding this discourse for numerous years. He added that this intellectual dialogue relating to women and their issues has led to the marginalization of their causes by a discourse that doesn’t get past prohibition and censure, while simultaneously omitting any discussion of the role of women and their place in Shariah and Islamic history. He called for a balance to be applied in the religious discourse in terms of citing the significance of women since the beginning of the call for Daawa and the establishment of the Ummah, the Islamic nation, moreover to present the directives and duties of Muslim women.
Khaled states that in addition to the lack of depth and strong evidence in the religious discourse directed at women, that the ‘Orientalist campaign’ plays a big role in scaring women of Islam and that some preachers further the propagation of false and negative images of the status of women in Islam. According to Khaled, it was a woman who was the first to prostrate herself following the Prophet’s (pbuh) example, as it was a woman who was the first to protect the Prophet Mohammed and also the first to be martyred. Khaled added that Umar Ibn al Khattab’s daughter, Hafssah, memorized the Quran and that Umar was the first caliph to grant a loan to a woman, Hind Bint Utaba, allocated for the establishment of a commercial project.
Amr Khaled called against the referencing of Hadith and Quranic verses without knowledge of their contexts or the occasions in which they were said. Regarding the problem of misunderstanding Islam and the impact that the cultural and social heritage and male dominance have had in reinforcing the stereotypes of women and their roles in society, Khaled acknowledged that women are oppressed in Middle Eastern and Arab societies. He called on the preachers and the religious figures to employ the same dialogue for men and women, one that heavily stresses the heroism of women throughout history and their good deeds in the propagation of Islam before starting to draw attention to slips and flaws suffered by women. He warns against slipping into the trap of oppressing women, which can only result in aggravating their anger and furthering their sense of injustice.
Although Khaled emphasized the development of the discourse directed at women over the past few years, still he said there remained a problem facing these Islamic advocates and preachers which is an apprehension to delve into the rights that Islam grants women because of the present circumstances and climate for fear of being labeled and accused of several allegations. However, Khaled stresses that it is the religious scholars and those specializing in hadith interpretation who must start to present society, and women especially, with clear explanations for all the ambiguous details relating to both genders with the purpose of clarifying the picture and also decreasing the discrepancy between hadith and the Quran, and by doing so, shed more light on the integral roles of men and women.
The absence of share’i (original) knowledge regarding what Muslim scholars have said about matters relating to custody, divorce and Khul’ divorce, among other issues pertaining to women formulates the main reason, according to the Islamic advocate, Dr. Nawal al Eid, behind the women’s sense of anger and resentment towards Islamic teachings. In her opinion, these teachings rely on a limited and superficial partial knowledge of the subject matter at hand. She called upon Saudi women to equip themselves with knowledge concerning the marital and custody matters which they seek via courts. Stressing the importance of that awareness, she pointed out that it can be presented to the judge with its supporting Shariah law, as “humans are not infallible,” she said.
Furthermore, Al Eid believes that a means to remedy the situation, which must be presently addressed, is to issue a document for ‘the rights of women in Islamic Shariah law’ to be approved and implemented by all courts that follow Shariah. She added that a ‘family’ curriculum must be endorsed in schools wherein the rights for both genders towards one another are explained and highlighted in a manner that is in accordance with Shariah law. Al Eid pointed out that the misconceptions that appear now are a result of old accumulations that have come to manifest in recent times. She rejects the contribution of social heritage in reinforcing a negative image of women in society, or that society played any role in lending religious legitimacy to customs and traditions that are inconsistent with Islam.