From Free Life, Issue 20, August 1994
ISSN: 0260 5112
The Status of Women in Islam
Dr Jamal A. Badawi
Islamic Propagation Centre International (UK), Birmingham, no date, 28 pp, £1.05
I have among my books various works by Hewlett Johnson, the “Red Dean of Canterbury”, published in the 1940s. In their gushing, literal acceptance of every Soviet lie, they read oddly like one of Peter Simple’s parodies. Was this man a fool? Was he a villain? Was he something of both? I have never bothered checking. All I can say is that his works remain a good example of how a thoroughly evil system of thought and government can be portrayed with some persuasive force as its exact opposite.
Reading Dr Badawi’s pamphlet puts me strongly in mind of these works. Of course, I should never dream of calling its author a villain or exactly a fool. I have no doubt that he believes every word he has written, or that he has some understanding of the matters here discussed. Even so, he does put forward a point of view that is supported neither by a candid reading of the sacred texts to which he appeals, nor by the most fleeting glance at any of the societies, now or ever existent, that have taken these texts at all seriously.
Dr Badawi begins:
The accusation that Islam oppresses women is nothing new but a perpetuation of the centuries old deliberate distortion and misrepresentation of the Western world. (p.5)
He concludes, inter alia:
It is impossible for anyone to justify any mistreatment of women by any decree of rule embodied in the Islamic Law, nor could anyone dare to cancel, reduce, or distort the clear-cut legal rights of women given in Islamic Law. (p.23)
Taken in their ordinary, natural meaning, these claims are false, and are easily demonstrated to be false.
Let us first examine Dr Badawi’s use of the term “Islamic Law”. This is not, as some of his readers might suppose, a single, unambiguous body of law – such as can be found in the Code Napoleon, or even, if with considerable training, in the English common law. It is derived from many sources. First there is the Koran, which is a long and not always clear text allegedly dictated to Mohammed by the Archangel Gabriel. Second there are the hadith, which are the traditional stories of what Mohammed said and did on various occasions. Since there are nearly two million of these, and they often contradict one another, there has been much room for dispute as to their collective meaning. Third, there is the ijima, or the consensus of opinion among learned Moslems. Fourth, there is qiyas, this being a process of analogical reasoning by which, in the absence of any other rule, a case is to be decided in a manner consistent with the existing body of law.
This aside, Islam has over the centuries divided into many sects, each with its own doctrinal emphases and accretions. It is therefore quite impossible – except on the most obvious sectarian grounds – to claim the existence of any single Islamic Law, or any “clear-cut legal rights” held under it. This allows Dr Badawi to sweep aside many objections to his argument based on actual practice in Islamic societies. Or so it would were he only to admit the existence of these practices. He says nothing of female circumcision, or the selling of brides, or the power of life and death often possessed – and often exercised – by Moslem men over their womenfolk. He does, however, allude to them in the expected manner:
It is… a fact that during the downward cycle of Islamic Civilisation, [Islamic] teachings were not adhered to by many people who profess to be Muslims. (p.23)
Yet even if we follow Dr Badawi’s advice, to “make any original and unbiased study of the sources of these teachings”, we find much that falls short of what is normally meant by equality – and much that is at least inconsistent with his claims.
Take, for example, marriage. Here, Dr Badawi contradicts himself. He claims that husbands and wives “have equal rights and claims on one another”. (p.16) He immediately adds that husbands have the exclusive “responsibility” of leadership. His biological justification for this is irrelevant – and would remain so were it true. An equality of rights and claims, plus leadership! There is a twisting of words that Hewlett Johnson himself might not have dared make so crudely.
Turning to divorce, Dr Badawi makes no explicit claim, but uses a form of words that implies an equality of rights. This is not an equality recognised by any Islamic jurist uninfluenced by Western legal concepts. The general outline of Islamic divorce law – an outline more or less accepted by all jurists before this century – was summarised thus by the Privy Council in 1861:
It appears that by the Mohammedan law divorce may be made in either of two forms: Talak or Khoola.
A divorce by Talak is the mere arbitrary act of the husband, who may repudiate his wife at his own pleasure. But if he adopts that course he is liable to repay her dowry, or dyn-mohr, and, as it seems, to give up any jewels or paraphernalia belonging to her.
A divorce by Khoola is a divorce with the consent, and at the instance, of the wife, in which she gives or agrees to give a consideration to the husband for her release from the marriage tie. In such a case the terms of the bargain are a matter of arrangement between the husband and wife, and the wife may, as the consideration, release her dyn-mohr and other rights, or make any other agreement for the benefit of the husband.1
A man can divorce his wife at any time, without consent. A woman must negotiate and then often buy her way out of an unsuitable marriage. Again, some equality!2
But Dr Badawi goes further. He appeals to the Koran. This, he says, provides
clear cut evidence that woman is completely equated with man in the sight of God in terms of her rights and responsibilities. (p.13)
I have not space to quote his appeals to the Koran on this point: my readers may find them in chapters 74:38, 3:195, 4:124, 2:36, 7:24-24, and 20:121. Anyone who reads them will find nothing of any substance. I will instead make my own appeal, quoting chapter 24:31:
And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their women, or the slaves whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of any physical needs (ie, eunuchs), or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex; and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments.3
Let us ignore that if this is the direct Word of God, it sanctions slavery and involuntary castration. I will only say that it has been used, together with other verses of the same kind, to justify at least the economic oppression of women in traditional Islamic societies. It limits the range of employments open to them – partly by imposing a dress code incompatible with many occupations, and partly by forbidding contact with any man not related to them.
Turning to formal equality before the law, take chapter 4:15- 16:
If any of your women are guilty of lewdness, take the evidence of four (reliable) witnesses from amongst you against them; and if they do testify, confine them to houses until death do claim them, or God ordain for them some (other) way.
If two men among you are guilty of lewdness, punish them both. If they repent and amend, leave them alone; for God is Oft-returning, Most Merciful.
The commentary here leaves it open whether “lewdness” means simple fornication or homosexual intercourse. But the procedural meaning is plain. Men can get away with repentance: women are shut away for life unless God himself comes down to say otherwise.
There is much more that I could say. A reading of the Koran is most enlightening – though not in any sense that Dr Badawi might hope. But I have said enough. Under Islam, women are most emphatically not equal to men. Certainly, men are repeatedly encouraged to treat women with more consideration than seems to have been usual in Arabia before Mohammed became its ruler. But this consideration falls short of the equality that Dr Badawi insists is the case.
In passing, I will draw attention to Dr Badawi’s ignorance of Western history and culture. He claims. for example, that
In England over nine million women were burned alive in the 16th century. (p.5)
In reply, I quote from a letter to Dr Badawi written by my friend Judith Hatton:
The total population of Britain (not England alone) was 2.5 million in 1500, and about 5 million in 1650. Parish records show that there was an average annual mortality rate of 55,000, which of course includes men, women and children. To reach your figure 90 thousand women alone would have had to be executed annually, without consideration of any normal deaths.
That, I think, answers this claim. Let us move to another:
Even in modern times, and in the most developed countries, it is rare to find a woman in the position of a head of state acting as more than a figurehead…. (p.22)
What about Mary I and Elizabeth I of England? Catherine de Medici of France? Christina of Sweden? Maria Theresa of Austria? Anne and Catherine of Russia? What of all those other European women who enjoyed something like supreme power, though only informally? And, against this, how many Islamic countries have been ruled by a Queen, or have tolerated anything approaching “petticoat” government? The only Queen who immediately comes to mind as the ruler of an Islamic country was Queen Victoria, Empress of India!
Again, take this:
In the 17th century, the clergy in Rome decided that women had no soul and would therefore not enter paradise.
But this is a claim too laughable to merit reply. I only ask Dr Badawi to produce a source to justify it. I am in no hurry to receive it, though: let him first become better informed about his own religion before he starts investigating another.
Now, I suppose I should conclude with a general statement about Islam. If my tone in the above may sound contemptuous, it is not because I hold Islam in contempt or fear. I do not share the view of the remaining Cold War cranks in the Tory Party that it is the Next Great Enemy of Apple Pie that must be beaten down by the same means that kept so many people in agreeable jobs before 1989. It is not a necessarily barbaric religion. It enjoins many things that are of enduring value and prohibits or discourages many things that are bad. The Old Testament has texts quite as savage as those to be found in the Koran; and both Judaism and Christianity have their grim old men with beards who mutter these texts whenever there is someone else around trying to have fun or do something generous. Nevertheless, in Islam, the old men are still in charge. That is the problem.
I dislike Dr Badawi’s pamphlet and everything else that I have read produced by the IPCI. But I am glad that they are produced in English and made so freely available to non-believers. Here is an invitation to debate. By joining in that debate, and winning it, we can do far more than any number of Gulf War massacres to bring on the internal reformation that Islam so plainly needs before it can stand usefully beside the two other great monotheistic religions.
Marian Halcombe (Sean Gabb)
1. Moonshee Buzul-ul Raheem v Luteefut-oon-Nissa (1861), cited in Asaf A.A. Fyzee, Outlines of Muhammedan Law, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1974, p. 164. The practice of the authorities in British India was to let each group, so far as possible, live under its own customary or religious law. In deciding this case, the judges at first instance would have taken the advice of the most authoritative Islamic jurists available. That this summary is a good one is indicated by its having been cited by Mr Fyzee.
2. Divorce by Talak is still allowed in some Islamic jurisdictions, and there have been Moslem men settled in this country who have tried – of course, without success – to have it recognised in the English courts. I will not cite the many cases: my readers may find them discussed at some length in David Pearl, A Textbook of Muslim Law (2nd edition), Croom Helm, London, 1987.
3. I quote here and below from the translation with commentary by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, also published by the IPCI.
Though priced at £1.05, Dr Badawi’s pamphlet and many others like it are available free of charge from the Islamic Propagation Centre International (UK) at 481 Coventry Road, Birmingham, B10 0JS, Tel: 0121 773 0137, fax: 0121 766 8577.
The translation of the Koran used by Mrs Halcombe is available from the same address at the greatly subsidised price of £7.50, plus £3.50 p&p.
Any reply to Mrs Halcombe’s review will be seriously considered for publication. It should address her specific points and not be too long.
© 1994 – 2017, seangabb.
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