On Friday March 18, Dr. Amina Wadud will lead a Friday Prayer service in New York City. Whether one agrees or not, it is likely to be a major event in the history of American Islam. Yet, looking at the larger picture, this first-of-its-kind Friday Prayer really speaks to the horrific position in which Muslim women have been placed in Muslim society today. If one asks the average Westerner about Islam, he or she will likely associate our faith with two things: terrorism and the oppression of women.
Obviously, this is a gross oversimplification and distortion of the true nature of Islam, goaded on by the ugly actions of Muslims and the selective reporting of Islam and Muslims by the Western media. Nevertheless, there is much truth to the seemingly intractable association of Islam with violence and misogyny. There are Muslims who commit horrific acts of violence in the name of Islam, and there are scores of Muslim women who are subjected to the worst kind of violence eand oppression, also in the name of Islam. To deny such is doing an enormous disservice to Islam today, and as a physician, I have seen countless instances when denial can be deadly to the individual.
Yet, it still a damn shame that we in the West are lecturing to the Muslim world about women’s rights. The opposite should have been the case: the Muslim world should have lectured to the West about their horrific treatment of women. Take, for instance, English Common Law and its treatment of women. Caroline S. Norton was a popular poet, novelist, and English socialite in 19th Century England who attempted to separate from her husband in 1836. She became utterly destitute because of English Common Law, and in 1855, Norton published a pamphlet entitled, “A Letter to the Queen on Lord Chancellor Cranworth’s Marriage and Divorce Bill,” which outlined how married women were treated under English Law:
1. a married woman has no legal existence whether or not she is living with her husband;
2. her property is his property;
3. she cannot make a will, the law gives what she has to her husband despite her wishes or his behavior;
4. she may not keep her earnings;
5. he may sue for restitution of conjugal rights and thus force her, as if a slave to return to his home;
6. she is not allowed to defend herself in divorce;
7. she cannot divorce him since the House of Lords in effect will not grant a divorce to her;
8. she cannot sue for libel;
9. she cannot sign a lease or transact business;
10. she cannot claim support from her husband, his only obligation is to make sure she doesn’t land in the parish poorhouse if he has means;
11. she cannot bind her husband to any agreement.
This was the law in England during the 19th Century. In America – the bastion of freedom and democracy – women only got the right to vote in 1920 and only after amending the Constitution. What a damn shame. Islam gave women the right to inherit property, the right to own and run their own businesses, the right to initiate a divorce, and the right to vote over fourteen centuries ago.
As far as I know, Islam is the only faith that mandates the man pay the woman a dowry before marriage. In every other society, if I am not mistaken, the woman’s family pays the man a dowry. Why, when it comes to marriage, the man gets the short end of the stick. All the woman has to do is show up. Even if the woman is a billionaire like Theresa Heinz Kerry, the man still has to pay her the dowry of her choosing. If that is a $1 million, then so be it. That is within her right. On top of that, the husband has to financially support the wife, even if she owns a multi-million dollar corporation, and she has no Islamic obligation to spend one penny of her own money on her husband and family. Paradise lies under the feet of the…mother, not the father. When the Prophet (pbuh) was asked about which parent should have the greates allegiance, it was only after three times did the Prophet (pbuh) then say, “your father.”
Now, take the place of your wife and mother of your children for one day – and do what she does for one day – you will understand why paradise lies under her feet. Nevertheless, look at how Islam has given so much to women, and when? At a time when young girls were buried alive for no reason: “When the female (infant), buried alive, is questioned for what crime she was killed” (81:8-9). So, what has happened? How did it come to pass that the West has already abandoned such harsh laws and is now pontificating to the Muslim World – which should have known better- and saying, “Y’all have a problem with women’s rights.”
And quite frequently, the West has just cause to tell the Muslim world: “Y’all have a problem with women’s rights.” In too many Muslim countries, Muslim women are treated worse than animals, in clear violation of the letter and spirit of Islamic law. The rights given to them by Islam are completely ignored by family, community, and country. All those “perks” for a married woman are denied the Muslim woman. Many times, marriage is a living hell for a Muslim woman intoday’s Muslim world. Muslim women have been killed on mere suspicion of committing indecency – while their brothers are free to “sow their wild oats” – because the woman has stained the “family honor.” “Shari’ah courts” have condemned Muslim women to death by stoning for adultery, while their “partner in crime” has been set free for “lack of evidence.” Muslim women have had their faces disfigured by acid or fire for refusing a marriage proposal – a right given to them by the Lord God Himself. Reading the Norton pamphlet, I would be forgiven for thinking it was taken from the law books of any number of Muslim countries. I was was speaking to a Muslim brother about my kids and I remarked, “It seems that I was destined to have only daughters.” He said to me, “No, no, no, brother, don’t say that!” As if being Abul-Banat (Father of Daughters) is a mark of shame! The Prophet (pbuh) was an Abul-Banat.
While the situation for Muslim women is better here in America, many of these misogynistic traditions have been transported to many American mosques and organizations. For many years, our sisters have been relegated to the filthy basements and dusty attics of our mosques, organizations, and institutions. And you should not take my word for it. Ask our sisters, and they will tell you more than you probably wanted to hear. And do you know what is the worst part of this? Many of these actions against Muslim women are clothed in the holy garbs of Islam.
So, I ask again, what has happened? How did it come to pass that Muslims have regressed to such an extent in the arena of women’s rights? Was it from the Crusades? The Mongol scourge? Was it from the destruction of the Ottoman Caliphate by the Western Powers? Did it occur as a result of the Colonial occupation of Muslim lands? Is it a Christiano-Hindo-Zionist conspiracy against the Muslims? No, no, no, no, no. Quite simply, jahiliyah (pre-Islamic ignorance) has crept back into our people.
Humanity has always lived in the darkness of ignorance and sin;humanity has always lived in the darkness of the estrangement from God. Religion comes to give humanity the light by which they can see in this world. Religion serves to eradicate the human tendency to live in ignorance. The ignorance of pre-Islamic Arabia should have been forever eradicated by Islam. Yet, as the Muslims drift farther and arther from the ideals of their faith, the more likely ignorance and darkness will creep back among their ranks. That is what has happened to the Muslims. That is how the West can stand on firm ground and tell the Muslim World, “Y’all have a problem with women’s rights.”
Now, it is not like the West in general, and America in particular, is the Utopia for the woman. For all the progress we in the West have made since the days of English Common Law, we still have a long way to go. Women are still paid only about 70% as much as men for the same job. The Equal Rights Amendment has yet to be ratified by the requisite number of states in our Union. Women are frequently used as sex objects to sell merchandise. Go to an auto show – where scantily clad women stand silently next to a shiny, brand new car – and you will know exactly what I am talking about. In fact, I once heard of an ad for an ambulance that had a picture of the ambulance shot through the legs of a woman in a bikini! An ad for an ambulance!
Only about 15% of the Congress is made up of women. Contrast this with Iran – card-carrying member of the “Axis of Evil” and considered by some to be the place where “Islamo-facism” runs rampant – where about 45% of the Parliament is made up of women. The new Iraqi National Assembly, in fact, has a higher proportion of women (20%) than our Congress. Throughout our 200+ year history, we have yet to elect a woman to be President. Contrast this with Indonesia and Pakistan, Muslim countries who have been in existence for less than 100 years, which both have elected women as heads of state.
That is where American Muslims should come in. Armed with the model for true equality between men and women, we Muslims should be at the forefront of the struggle for women’s rights, both here in America and around the world. Yet, before we can do this, we have to be honest to ourselves and credible in the eyes of the larger American society. That credibility will forever elude us if we continue to marginalize our sisters. This has to change. We cannot survive as an ummah if our sisters continue to be relegated to the filthy basements and dusty attics of our mosques, institutions, and organizations. God never called for such treatment; the Prophet never condoned such debasement; Islam never sanctioned such humiliation. When I think of where we came from and where we are today, all I can say is: what a damn shame, what a damn shame