Friday, 11 March 2016

Ibn Rushd’s Muslim Feminism

Reading Muslim Philosophers on Women Question

Granting that the term feminism would be understood rather loosely as struggle to restore women’s legitimate dignity or rights as humans would not be objected, and rescuing it from loaded ideological content given to it in academic discourse by extremist secular and fundamentalist elements alike, one might note that there are Islamist feminists who defend what they see as rights of women given by Islam and interpreted by traditional scholars, especially medieval authorities or fuqaha (such women wear and ideally preach niqab/ hijab and believe in normativity of home or private vs. public binary as far as possible). There are secularist feminists who though may be culturally a Muslim or otherwise or even devout Muslim in their own view  say invoking historical Islam is part of a problem and struggle for women’s rights should be purely secular (they generally resist hijab) and Muslim feminists who say Islam is part of solution but has to be creatively understood in changing realities of modernity and we need restore lost spaces for women that Islam had penned but Muslims have snatched (they may or mayn’t choose hijab while insisting that it shouldn’t be used as a measure of piety or necessary  ID of good Muslimah and defend her own interpretation of modesty and wider public roles).  All Muslim women fall in these three groups and, generally speaking, hardly talk to one another despite the fact that there is hardly any anti-male, anti-family, anti-modesty feminist (Muslim or Secular) in the Muslim world – sectarianism everywhere asserts itself despite the fact that in a single family mothers and two daughters could belong to three respective camps). I refer readers to Azza Karam’s book on the issue Women, Islamisms and the State and engage with this third group that finds inspiration in Muslim philosophers like Ibn Rushd and Sufi metaphysicians like Ibn Arabi. Today Ibn Rushd only. (and hoping meanwhile Saud Hakim’s article  “Ibn Arabi’s Twofold Perception of Women” ( will be read by interested readers).
      If figures say anything regarding force of ideas, it seems Muslim feminism has won the case both in theory and practice for vast majority of both scholars and masses. Over 90% Muslim women seem in theory or practice to be in Muslim feminist camp. Around 50% Muslim women don’t wear prescribed strict hijab, over 50% of those who wear have some views that are more modern than medieval as they, for instance, accept some role in public spaces, don’t take muharram relative to accompany them to office or shopping, talk to/work with na-muharrams with little hiccups and live in families that don’t observe medieval seclusion ethic, watch tv or use social networking sites that are public spaces that medieval mind would abhor. Even many Islamist women too have little regard for medieval views as we see them debating on TV or radio for their views – thus not accepting that women’s voice too is purdah. They appropriate some modern ideas in their defence of Islamist position. They travel and participate in modern living experiences in a way that offend more strict Islamist scholars or contradicts recognized medieval practice. One text expounding the later view advises that women shouldn’t be taught writing as they would later misuse this to write love letters. It also bans reading currently read fiction for Muslim women and prescribes a burqa that should repel instead of attract as the best in contrast to attractive hijabs or abayas that Islamist women don.
      Now what I am interested in is not to offer a defence or critique of any of these three positions – I think all three positions, are, deep down, in theory, in agreement regarding the need to speak up for the women and her lost dignity  in capitalist modernity and they disagree only in reading or perception of certain inherited symbols or practices (if all the three refrain from name calling and work co collectively for the common cause (allowing Muslim woman to be truly herself) and against common enemy  (ideologies that reduce her to object and suppress expression of any of God-given faculties) – but in exploring how we better engage in dialogue with other positions within and outside Islam on women question in light of a great Muslim philosopher-jurist, Ibn Rushd. With little comment of my own I let this celebrated thinker speak.
      He says that women in his own times – considered as approximating culmination of the golden age of Islam – have been  so much mistreated that they were no longer humans:
  • “Our society allows no scope for the development of women’s talents. They seem to be destined exclusively to childbirth and the care of children, and this State of servility has destroyed their capacity for larger matters. It is thus that we see no women endowed with moral virtues; they live their lives like vegetables, devoting themselves to their husbands. From this stems the misery that pervades our cities, for women outnumber men by more than double and cannot procure the necessities of life by their own labors.” 
He says that ‘it is not impossible that there may be among them philosophers and rulers.’ She can conduct war and be a judge. While recommending modesty he does not stipulate that women cover their faces. Ibn Rushd endorses the opinion which requires that the bridegroom fulfill the demand imposed by the wife, such as not marrying another woman. (Faiz’s nikahnama stipulated this). He hits at those essentialist Islamists who overemphasize biological differences to argue the case for inequality at many levels and argues that “at the highest intellectual level there is nothing particular to distinguish humans, so there is nothing to distinguish between men and women, as they share the same intellect. The material [biological] element, which distinguishes women, has no influence at the highest intellectual level.” There do appear hints favouring women’s economic independence and the suggestion that “women should be trained to perform the same tasks as men” without disregarding her choice not to work in certain professions and her physical weakness that means certain limitations though it is compensated by better ability to do certain other tasks.
      Why Ibn Rushd is important on International Women’s Day is that a review of biological, psychological, sociological, anthropological and other researches or development in theology from diverse quarters that have a bearing on women’s role today shows Ibn Rushd’s position seems least vulnerable amongst all medieval Muslim scholars to criticism. His influence can be both inspiring and educating for women’s rights activists. Islamist, Muslim and secular feminists all have something to learn in him or engage with him. I think, along with Ibn Arabi who also wrote insightfully on legal questions and rights of women, we find two exemplary minds for modern Muslims, especially women, struggling to preserve their religious identity amidst secularizing drift of modernity. 
The question how far is Ibn Rushd Islamic is illegitimate as is the question how far are jurists from Abu Yusuf to Yusuf Qarzawi Islamic. Islam has no church and none can claim that so and so constitute official Islamic opposition of such issues as women’s rights. There have been differences amongst jurists on many important details from the earliest period and we have to analyse arguments that respectfully engage with scripture though reach conclusions that might differ from what is traditionally upheld. Ibn Rushd was also a trained jurist, a Qazi. And defended his views both philosophically (in his commentary on Plato’s Republic) and scripturally (in Bidayat al-mujtahid wa nihayat al-muqtasid or The Distinguished Jurist’s Primer)). His ijtihad on the question of women may be censured or debated but his credentials as Muslim jurist can’t be doubted. His philosophical opinions that have antagonized likes or followers of Ghazzali have no connection with his views on women which stand on their own.

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