EMPOWERING MUSLIM WOMEN
Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail
President, People’s Justice Party, Malaysia
I would like to congratulate the organisers for their vision and hard work in conceiving and bringing to fruition this important conference. I am sure that during these three days much useful data will be compiled, covering multiple aspects of this complex topic. This is very valuable in itself, and also gives a truly comprehensive overview, which will help in coming up with effective planning for ongoing efforts to promote Islamic principles and practice in the contemporary world.
I would also like to humbly thank the organisers for inviting me to deliver this keynote address, which I consider a great honour.
Sisters and Brothers in Islam,
Let us begin with what has been stated many times in the past: that Islam – through the Qur’an and the Hadith – has given women a unique degree of independence and therefore dignity. This has been facilitated through granting various rights involving her happiness and fulfilment, her personal development, her control over her property, and her right to engage in activities both inside and outside her home. Since these are already common knowledge I will not go into the details. But what must concern us, especially in this important conference, is to assess to what extent these rights have been ensured and protected in Muslim societies, and where we have fallen short. We must then discuss and work out ways to enhance our adherence to the Islamic ideal.
There is an ayat in the Qur’an which expresses in a nutshell the essential partnership between men and women. It says: “Men and women are one another’s protecting friends.” (Surah Al-Tawbah  71). They form a mutually supportive and complementary team, with each contributing a vital ingredient in the overall effort to fulfil the imperatives of Islam and build a successful and just society. This ayat indeed has far-reaching implications for the way in which we Muslims should develop and harness the full potential of our valuable human resource. It could be discussed in much greater detail, but it suffices here to acknowledge the importance Islam gives to this principle, and recognise that it is our duty to ensure that it is put into practice.
We must, in all honesty, admit that things are not perfect in the Islamic world. In researching for this paper, I was saddened and deeply disturbed by certain practices going on in some Muslim communities – and even more shameful is the fact that they are apparently condoned by the community, including lawmakers, law enforcers, judges and ‘ulama’, namely those whom we count upon to uphold justice and people’s rights.
Among the practices I came across were:
– child brides as young as 4 or 5 years old
– child sex slaves
– young children, including girls, trapped in labour-bondage
– genital mutilation of girls
– savage punishment of women thought to have committed adultery (without any proper trial, and no effort made to trace, let alone apprehend, the men involved)
– regular and vicious wife-beating, resulting in serious injury
– honour killings – once again, only of women and based on mere suspicion
There are, in addition, other aspects of Islamic practice in the contemporary world which are unsatisfactory – laws which are unfair to women; failure to grant women their rights as enshrined in the Qur’an (such as the laws of inheritance and dowries, over both of which a woman is supposed to have sole and unobstructed control); failure in many Muslim countries to provide women with education commensurate with their personal potential, and the consequent waste of human talent which could contribute towards creating vibrant and prosperous Muslim states and communities.
These, too, must be addressed, as part of the overall situation, which tends to treat women as of lesser worth than men – an attitude which is clearly against the teachings of the Qur’an and the practice of Prophet Muhammad (SAW), a significant part of whose mission was to put an end to such injustices.
In the Qur’an itself, it is related that all the prophets (peace be upon them) faced the same arguments from their people, who, when asked to change to something better, protested: “We found our forefathers practicing this!” The Qur’an repeatedly condemns such blind adherence to unjust and even cruel cultural or religious practices, advising people to base their way of life instead on just Islamic principles. Islam and its civilization are enriched by the variety of ethnicity, language and culture which it embraces, but these must not entail beliefs or practices which are against Islam.
My dear conference participants,
Justice and human dignity are the cornerstones of Islam. It is not enough just to talk. Six further steps are critically important.
The situation requires that, after analysing the strengths, and especially weaknesses, of the contemporary Islamic world, we also:
Firstly, proceed to the next crucial step of working out plans for correcting the injustices. Because the situation is complex, this must involve committed people from various disciplines and professional fields – not only the academics, who will provide the critical analysis and religious theory and principles, but also those who work in fields which deal with the problems on the ground: these will include welfare officials as well as NGO activists, who will, in turn, provide much useful data on which the academicians can base their analysis. The debate on causes and possible ways to overcome the negative situation must also, very importantly, involve representatives of the victims, who have a unique, first-hand knowledge of the problems and the resultant suffering and negative impact.
Secondly, the victims – women and children – are very vulnerable (which is why they are so easily abused in the first place), and therefore need urgent protection and support. Islam, and the Prophet himself (PBUH) gave special attention to the vulnerable groups in society, and we must therefore do the same. This protection and support must be accessible and able to be legally enforced. This includes putting a stop to the shameful habit, in some Muslim communities and nations, of enforcing laws rigorously and without pity on the poor and vulnerable, while the rich and influential get away free.
Thirdly, women in general, and the vulnerable groups in particular, need a support network. Even the bravest of them will rarely be strong enough on her own to stand up for her rights. It must be recognised that what each individual faces is actually part of a well-established pattern, generally accepted by the community, and therefore the problems must be addressed as systemic and not merely isolated cases.
Fourthly, because some of these injustices are protected or condoned by the laws of the community, it is imperative that the lawmakers and others in positions of authority are engaged, and persuaded to play a determined role in changing unjust or inadequate legislation. We should keep in mind the Hadith which recounts: “The Messenger of Allah said, ‘The greatest form of jihad is to speak the truth in front of an unjust ruler.’” (Ahmad)
Fifthly, in all aspects of policy-making and planning, it is essential to involve both women and men in the preparatory analysis as well as the formulation of policies and laws, in order to get a balanced perspective and to ensure that the decisions arrived at are fair and just to everyone. Women as well as men are affected by overall policies and decisions of their governments, and therefore have a right to participate in their formulation.
Sixth, it is self-evident that all these tasks, involving women at all levels of society, require a good foundation in education. It is therefore imperative that women’s education is not neglected – it is necessary to mention this specifically because so many Muslim women around the world are still deprived of this basic right. Education is the cornerstone of human development, including for women, therefore women themselves should strive as hard as they can to obtain education in whatever ways are available to them, whether formal or informal, and no-one should stand in the way of this effort. Education is not just a means to gain employment or embark on a professional career, but is essential for a woman to be an effective educator of her children – as the saying goes: “When you educate a woman you educate a nation.”
Furthermore, it is notable that the nations which are most backward in present times are those in which women’s education is badly neglected, which clearly demonstrates that it is not only women who suffer the consequences but the entire community and the nation as a whole.
In these endeavours it is essential that we are fully honest and humble. By all means recognise the successes and build further on them. But at the same time, we must not be hypocritical – for are not hypocrites strongly and repeatedly condemned in the Qur’an? We must admit what is wrong in the contemporary Islamic world, and we must speak up against it and act to put things right.
We must put a stop to the habit of denial and secrecy, because this only prolongs the injustices. It will not weaken us to admit our failures: what will weaken us is to pretend they are not there, and to do nothing to overcome them.
By the same principle we must be willing to acknowledge the good in others, whether Muslims or adherents of other faiths. For instance, we should salute the UK authorities who have provided accessible support and protection mechanisms for victims of forced marriages (whether already perpetrated or threatened). This mechanism is even extended to UK citizens in countries where such abuse occurs. One might ask, why have the Muslim authorities themselves not provided such support?
In fact there are many laws in Western countries which are closer to the Islamic ideal than those in Muslim nations. There is much we can learn from others, and we should be ready to emulate whatever is good and in keeping with Islamic principles.
We should take care that our faith is firm enough to ensure that it shapes our every thought, word and deed, that it is not divorced from practice.
What are some of the things we have to work towards in order to empower women?
Firstly, what must women do to empower themselves? It will involve adopting correct and positive attitudes, as well as gaining relevant knowledge and skills.
They must know and appreciate the identity which Islam has forged for them; to do this, they must return to and re-examine the fundamental sources, the Qur’an and the Hadith, without being influenced unduly by the concepts and practices which have accumulated over the centuries, some of which were borrowed unthinkingly from other cultures, and some of which are – or have become – incompatible with Islamic principles.
Muslim women should be proud of this identity, for it gives them very broad opportunities for self-discovery, self-development, and for contribution to their society. They should not feel obliged, as many contemporary Western women apparently are, to ape men in order to be respected, but should rather make full use of the special qualities and opportunities Allah has given to them.
As an extension to this, they must know the rights and responsibilities accorded to them by Islam in general, and also by the society or nation in which they reside.
Women must develop confidence in themselves and in the mission Allah has placed on their shoulders. Education and financial independence – both rights specifically granted them by Islam – need to be demanded to this end. They will need to build solidarity by networking with other Muslim women, in their own communities and abroad, including organising themselves in groups, so that their voice will be stronger. It is important to organise women into groups, to pool ideas, resources, and thereby form effective pressure groups.
Muslim women need to gain men’s respect through sound learning, and smart, professional work. They must assert their rights with confidence, patience and persistence, and insist that women’s opinions and ideas are given due consideration. They should not be daunted by the challenges, and should avoid taking the easy path of simply abdicating all their powers and rights to men.
Lest the men in our gathering are beginning to panic or grow angry at the thought of their women wantonly abandoning their duties at home, let us also emphasise that a woman’s first duty is to her family, and other activities will depend on her individual opportunities and personal capabilities. However, she herself should not use this as an excuse to avoid playing any role in her community, whether out of fear or laziness. Reaching out to others is an effective way to develop oneself, expand one’s knowledge and enhance one’s skills, and such a woman will then also be a better daughter, wife and mother, insha’Allah.
Secondly, how can society as a whole help in empowering women? This will encompass: creating an image of women which is truly in keeping with Islamic principles; provision of their needs; and organisation and solidarity.
Society must give due recognition to women’s qualities and characteristics, and not judge them against the “model” of men. The concept of women as weak, inferior and in need of protection must be corrected. This change of attitude must extend to the mass media, including avoiding prejudicial labels and stereotyped images.
Communal and national decision and policy-making at all levels must ensure proper gender balance. Men should not make all the decisions and then simply expect women to follow them in mute obedience.
Governments and communities must also provide adequate facilities and support systems to enable women to fully participate in public life according to their respective capabilities. This includes, importantly, access to quality education. Women’s health must also be nurtured and protected, not only through accessible health and medical care, but also through reasonable working hours and conditions for those who work. Let us remember that many women work outside the family home not by choice, but rather out of financial necessity, and measures must be taken so that women are not crushed beneath this burden.
Key professions such as teachers, the judiciary and legal profession, and healthcare workers, must ensure that there is proper gender balance in their workforce at all levels, to make sure that girls and women who use their services are not short-changed and are treated with respect.
Besides women, men, too, must be persuaded to change some of their traditional attitudes towards women and their roles. Apart from recognising the value of their special qualities, men must see issues which concern or affect women as a common responsibility, something to be taken seriously by all and worked out together, in keeping with the Qur’anic ayat quoted above.
This enhanced recognition must extend to practical support, beginning in the family home. Fathers and husbands should share some of the household chores and play an active part in child-rearing. I am confident that they will find it very fulfilling and family ties will be enhanced. In this way a new model, more in keeping with Islamic values, can be forged and provide a role model for the growing children. It is worth noting here the example of Luqman, who took it upon himself to educate his son in great detail. (Surah Luqman  12-19).
In the same spirit, men should also not wilfully and arbitrarily obstruct their women from activities beyond the family home, but instead show understanding and offer support. A balance should be found in each family so that no-one is overburdened and no-one totally denied their legitimate needs and rights.
Since the Hadith and sunnah of the Prophet (SAW) constitute a major guide for all Muslims, let us here remind ourselves of just a few relevant examples:
a) “Allah is gentle and likes gentleness.” (Muslim)
b) “Allah’s Messenger (SAW) never struck anyone with his hand, including women and servants, except in the case where he was fighting in the cause of Allah.” (Muslim)
c) “A’ishah reported that the Prophet (SAW) would mend his own shoes, darn his clothes and do household work like any ordinary person. He would milk his goat and himself do all his personal work.” (Tirmidhi)
d) There are also numerous Hadith which recount how the Prophet (SAW) showed great affection towards children, both male and female, joining in their games and educating them in gentle and creative ways.
e) There are many Hadiths, too, which show that the Prophet was kind and respectful towards women. He was ever willing to listen to their views and even actively sought their opinion not only regarding domestic matters, but on dealing with people, and even concerning strategies for his mission as a prophet.
Sisters and brothers in Islam,
It is my hope that this conference will thoroughly and honestly assess the situation in the Islamic world – which will of course have variations from community to community – and formulate concrete and do-able plans to ensure that Islam enjoys its rightful place as the ultimate arbiter in all matters.
This is not a selfish act of women trying to get more for themselves. It is rather about restoring the principles established by the Qur’an in order that the proper gender balance can be attained, justice and human dignity upheld. We urgently need an Islamic answer to contemporary requirements and problems. The fundamental principles of Islam are unchanging, but implementation must respond to the needs of time and place. Only in this way can it remain relevant, a dynamic and benevolent influence on human life and society, Muslim and non-Muslim, and become, as it should be, a powerful force for good on the contemporary world stage.
Because what is to be attempted is no less than overturning longstanding practices and indeed changing the mindset of entire communities, the task is daunting, the journey difficult and will take time to complete. But I am confident all of you here are committed to the cause of Islam, and if all of us work together we can achieve this critical mission, insha’Allah.
Thank you for your kind attention. Wa billahi tawfiq wal hidayah, wassalamu ‘alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh
6 January 2012