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Women: Towards Reconciliation and Liberation

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We must clearly refuse to accept that a woman with the same training and skills as a man should experience job discrimination or be paid only 70 per cent of a man’s salary.

By Tariq Ramadan

What sometimes favoured open and flexible interpretations in Islam related to people’s common good and interest (Al Maslaha) may, in the case of women, have had exactly opposite consequences: when taking into account the often static customary practices of the societies for which law scholars issued rulings “” and by which they naturally were often influenced “” it became natural to issue restrictive, sometimes partial and biased interpretations of the Texts. This was because of the influence of cultural context on the reading itself. The Texts’ higher, universal ends were then restricted by the closed prospects of cultural singularity, which drew on the latitudes offered by constant awareness of customs and of the Al Maslaha in support of its own legitimacy. Access to the power of knowledge, to intellectual and financial autonomy, to the job market, and to political choice and commitment, was often restricted and denied, not in the light of the Texts alone, but through the decisive refraction of cultural contexts.
Male and female fuqaha’ (experts in Islamic jurisprudence) as well as anthropologists, historians, sociologists, and ethnologists (again, both women and men) must work together in an extensive process of critical studies, reinterpretations, and analyses of the societies for which, and in which, the Texts are to be understood and implemented. A corpus of higher objectives (and the corresponding applied ethics) must be established before any circumstantial analysis of Texts and environments to avoid running the risk of being misled by the letter of some texts or the cultural shackles of past or contemporary societies. Only in this way can the deductive work of implementing injunctions become meaningful: being faithful to the message without fearing to disturb social frameworks, power relationships, and the traditional roles placed on women as a result of partial understanding of the message.
One should begin by clearly defining the fundamentals and order of discourse about women. The approach through objectives does not allow us to overlook speaking about women’s being, their spirituality, autonomy and responsibility, and the essential and social meaning of womanhood. Men, fuqaha’, can sometimes touch on those dimensions, but it is women who must, from within, refuse to accept that religious discourse about them should be merely legal and, in effect, curtailed, since it deals with interpersonal relations without elaborating anything about womanhood. Therefore, the first liberation that should be worked out, and that can lead the whole community of believers the world over to evolve, consists of producing a discourse on womanhood that restores the link with meaning rather than single-mindedly focusing on norms. The spiritual awakening and revival that run through Muslim majority societies and elsewhere, and in which women are particularly active agents, require new discourse about the meaning of faith, worship, freedom and social commitment.
This is why the discourse must rely on in-depth studies of all the dimensions of women’s being. This means, beyond norms, raising such issues as the acquisition of knowledge (about Texts and all the other sciences) for women; the meaning of their dignity and welfare in all that has to do with their minds, hearts and bodies; their inalienable autonomy and the essence of their freedom in the mindscape of social representations as well as in group structures, without overlooking the question of the essence of womanhood and related factors. The initial liberation process is demanding.
Even before turning to the issues of social discrimination and power structures in human groups, earlier reflection about faith, spirituality, and the quest for meaning is required. Nothing, or very little, is said and worked about the issue of the meaning of the quest and of the encounter with a spirituality that should be a promise of liberation and autonomy. The higher objectives of ethics, about the inner being, require educating the conscience, respecting the being’s dignity, and seeking inner balance, love, sincerity, humility and contemplation. This is an invitation to elaborate a fundamental, feminine philosophy of being, of autonomy and of freedom likely to deal with both the most rigid traditional representations and the most modern subjective projections.
Reflection about women as subjects must be combined with fundamental reflection about women’s being itself. The latter determines the essence of womanhood in its dignity, while the former grants women the means to be free. The point is not only to fight discrimination, although this struggle is imperative, but also to make society change in the light of the questions today’s women ask about themselves and ask societies about the quest for meaning, their welfare and the freedom of their being.
Much has been said in the West about Muslim women’s dress, intended by the latter as an expression of modesty and by some, in modern societies, as a sign of discriminatory submission. Often in reaction, Muslim institutions or scholars have been seen to offer dress as the ultimate expression of faith or as an act of resistance against western cultural imperialism. In all cases, the debates have reduced the meaning of modesty itself in the order of means and ends. In the spiritual order, in reflection about being and freedom, understanding the meaning of modesty (whether for men or for women) cannot be limited to the issue of visible modesty in dress. The latter must be part of a much more fundamental approach integrating the meaning of spiritual, psychological and intellectual modesty along with modesty in dress. At a time when women are too often confined to either strictly normative or mainly aesthetic representations, this reflection about the essence and meaning of modesty smacks of protest and liberation. Resistance begins in such depths.
This does not prevent fundamental reflection about social questions; quite the opposite. For reasons that have to do with being, conscience, but also simply physiology, women relate quite specifically to life, commitment, children and education. Never have our societies been in such urgent need of this feminine input in approaching some issues that are indeed broader than the “mere” question of women. Yet one of women’s major contributions to their cause may well lie, not merely in resisting the discriminations and alienations that directly affect them, but in their specific way of approaching the social crises that involve all of us. Here again, the issue should be approached from the source, which may result in a new way of defining the priorities of social and political commitments. This means starting by refusing to enter men’s political universe by approaching politics in the same way as men do.
From the point of view of the fuqaha’, of men and of women themselves, the priority is to get rid of social and media representations about the “West”, which restrict debates to the issues of models or forms. Thus, the western cultural model is seen to require resistance through emphasis on an “Islamic answer” essentially relying on the formalism of social roles or of dress. The answer is insufficient; it can be observed every day. Far from any formalism, then, or rather in opposition to all formalisms, commitment for the recognition of women’s being and involvement must start by questioning goals and not only perceptions. Prior to any collective, social or political commitment process, women must, along with men, determine the outline of a religious and humanist understanding and discourse reconciling women with their function as free, autonomous and responsible spiritual agents. By relying on this approach, which rereads the Texts in the light of higher goals, it becomes possible to think about women’s presence and major contributions to the development of contemporary societies while undertaking reforms of the discriminations they continue to suffer. We must clearly refuse to accept that a woman with the same training and skills as a man should experience job discrimination or be paid only 70 per cent of a man’s salary, that she should be barred from responsible posts because of being a woman, that pregnancy should be considered a handicap or that she should be compelled to submit to the male imagery that still dominates the job market. Fuqaha’ legal councils including women scholars, specialising in Texts as well as in the study of social logistics, must speak out on those questions of rights, justice and equality. Women must struggle against all formalist dictatorships: both those that impose the headscarf without belief in the practice coming from the heart and those that imagine all objectified female bodies fit into a size six dress; those that compel women to stay at home for religious reasons and those that send them back home after the age of 45 for aesthetic reasons.
(Tariq Ramadan is Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University)