Women and Islam

October 30, 2004

SANA’A, YEMEN   You’ve heard of the “What Would Jesus Do?” movement? Maybe you’ve seen one of the millions of “WWJD?” bracelets worn by North American youth asking this question during their daily decisions? It seems a decent-enough question.

Here’s another. “What Would Mohammed Do?” What would Mohammed do to, say, bring Islam’s gender relations into the 21st century, and into a place that satisfies the deeper longings of the human heart?

Certainly some Muslim men, like my landlord, treat their wives fine. (He has one wife. In three years, I’ve yet to see her face.) Many Islamic ideals also advocate respect for others, including women. But when people won’t easily open-up their religious and cultural traditions, moving ideals to reality is another matter.

So while the constitution in thoroughly-Islamic Yemen states “Women are equal to men; they have as many duties and rights granted by Islamic law,” that doesn’t stop their murder if they have children out of wedlock. It doesn’t give women a political voice. It doesn’t mean men will pick up a vacuum cleaner within 50 years.

No, in my experience, Muslim women get a raw deal in the best of times. I’ve seen it in the sad eyes peering from behind weathered veils, asking me for a handout. And how ironic it is that now, in Ramadan, the holy month when Islam’s finer points are reflected on, women here have it harder than usual.

Why? Think of a season like Christmas and all the social activities that revolve around home and family. Imagine a full month of such intensity. You’re responsible to pull it off. Now make it happen while night becomes day and vice versa.

This is the case here, because to perform Ramadan’s sunrise-to-sunset fast, folks prefer easy days, then stay up all night to, for one, eat. Then, say you live in the countryside, which in Yemen is a rather barren and harsh place. Completely covered, fasting women work all day in the heat of the fields, before working to prepare night-time and pre-dawn meals. Rural families are larger than Yemen’s average of seven kids. Oh, and the men always eat first. You get what’s left.

So, now, what about Mohammed, the 7th century Arab who founded one of the world’s great monotheistic faiths? (Christianity and Judaism being the others.) Muslim historians say he married up to 12 women, and he was in his 50s when he married his six-year-old niece Aisha. This marriage, considered his favourite, was consummated when Aisha was nine.

To be fair to Mohammed, polygamy was then rampant in Arabia. He limited his followers to four wives. Also, to his credit, when writing the Koran, Mohammed strictly banned the murder of newborn girls, an infanticide formerly practiced in this region. So to see Mohammed’s possible gender relations today, this gives some framework.

And Jesus, who lived in Israel 600 years earlier? Single, he interacted with women when that was culturally taboo, befriending and inviting them into his inner circle. He once asked a crowd ready to kill a woman caught in adultery, what about the offending man? The gospels claim women, not men, first saw Jesus’ resurrected body. In short, Jesus radically levelled the playing field between men and women.

Does any of this matter? Why ask what these two figures might do with contemporary issues? Because Jesus and Mohammed, and the texts following them, are considered holy by much of the planet. And current affairs are partly shaped by the fact that Christianity and Islam, the world’s two largest faiths, come from different historic streams. Religion is intrinsically linked with culture and politics.

To its shame, the post-Christian west hasn’t always modelled great gender relations. Still, it seems to me that its core values come from a stream that began with grace and transparency. Women’s rights, and other societal liberties, resulted. No wonder so many folks from Muslim countries want to emigrate to western nations.

Meanwhile, it seems women in the Islamic world are twice hidden: once within their culture, a second time from the world. That may be slowly changing. But we should keep asking more good questions to uncover why it’s taking so long.

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October 30, 2004 • Posted in ,
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