Friday, January 2, 2015
Feminism In Faith: Zainah Anwar’s Quest To Reinterpret The Qur’an’s Most Controversial Verse
By one common reading of the Holy Qur’an, a Muslim woman must choose between rejecting her faith and rejecting the notion of equality. This Kuala Lumpur-based journalist and activist has been working to find a third option.
by Rafia Zakaria / Buzzfeed
If a Muslim woman opens up the text of the Holy Qur’an and leafs through its pages until she reaches chapter 4, which is titled “The Verse of Women,” and continues on until she reaches verse 34, she will find the following proclamation: “Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband’s] absence what Allah would have them guard. But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance — [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand.”
Growing up in Pakistan, I remember reading the verse myself, from a copy of the Holy Qur’an that belonged to my grandmother. I remember my twisted set of feelings that followed — confusion, betrayal, and disappointment. Almost a teenager then, I had believed that the male domination of the society around me was a only a product of our culture, of tribal and patriarchal mores that belonged particularly to Pakistan and that could, with education and enlightenment, be changed. The tiny letters of the translation, set against the large Arabic calligraphy, told me something different. Unschooled in exegesis and the intricacies of translation or the human influences that can constitute it, I took it to be divinely revealed, as I did the text of the Holy Qur’an itself. I could not articulate it then, but it was as if the door of empowerment, whose light had been visible to me before, seemed suddenly dimmer.
Not long before I first read that verse in the late ’80s, a young journalist in Malaysia named Zainah Anwar was sent into the rural country on assignment to cover upcoming elections. Born in an urban Muslim family in Johor Bahru, Anwar had always been taught Islam as the basis for mercy and justice, and not as the means for subjugating women and girls. As a student in cosmopolitan Kuala Lumpur’s multicultural milieu, she saw the country’s constitution as being part of a universal discourse of equality, applicable not only to the Muslim Malay majority, but also to Malaysian Hindus and Christians.
But, as she traveled to villages and spoke to the women inside small homes and farms, she began to question the relationship between Islam and feminism. She could see the toll that this male-centered interpretation of Islam, aptly summarized in verse 4:34, was having on ordinary Muslim women.
“In one case, a young girl came to me because her father had abandoned her mother and her siblings for nearly 20 years,” she says, still registering the shock she felt when she first heard the story. “Then one day, the man had shown up and demanded to be head of the family and to live in their house. When the mother had objected, the local religious scholar had told her that this was the man’s right and there was nothing that could be done to stop him.”
Even though we are chatting over Skype, her indignation at the helplessness of the women she met on that long-ago trip comes through. It was one of many stories she would hear about the necessity of women’s subjection to men being preached as a cornerstone of being Muslim. In the years to come I would also encounter the verse again and again, and discover it to be a lethal bullet in the arsenal of those who would paint patriarchy and male supremacy as essential to Islam.
And yet it was not simply a conservative interpretation of religion that had found adherents among Muslim villagers she encountered. Attached to the popularization of women’s subjection to men as a tenet of Islam was the political project of Malaysia’s Islamist party, PAS (Pan Malaysian Islamic Party). Staunchly anti-colonial, PAS sought to delegitimize feminism as an inauthentic idea stolen from the Western world. A good Islamic society, they preached, was one in which women did not seek equality, but willingly accepted submission to men. It was, after all, divinely ordained. In years since, PAS has won increased support in northern, predominantly Muslim Malaysian states. Among its promises to the population has been the establishment of Shariah, or Islamic law. In and around this time, other parts of the Muslim world were seeing similar legislation that sought to take rights back from women in the name of Islam.
At the same time, broadly speaking, a divide was growing between feminist and religious Muslim discourses. Some, especially in the West, have pursued the strategy of circumventing the obstacle proffered by 4:34 by trying to chart a route around it, focusing on speaking of gender equality in secular, human rights terms. At the furthest extreme, a figure like Ayaan Hirsi Ali renounced Islam entirely as a result of embracing feminism. On the other hand are positions held by conservative Muslim groups, which eschew any engagement with feminist ideas of equality or empowerment as contaminations in an Islamic life. Many Muslim women, those who are less activist and more devout or unable to access the often elite and urban discourse of empowerment, have remained under the shadow of the verse, believing per its literal translation that men are entitled to their complete obedience and are permitted to beat them if they do not provide it.
Read more here.