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#Bringbackourgirls and the politics of Islam and women

Haji Mohamed Dawjee

Following the kidnapping of schoolgirls by extremist Islamist group Boko Haram, Haji Mohamed Dawjee looks at the perception of women in Islam today.

People protest the kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls using 'Bring Back Our Girls' posters. (Reuters)

It takes a little more than watching the Passion of the Christ or reading Salman Rushie’s Satanic Verses to understand the inner workings of a religion. Trust me, I have come across a few people who believe that these references are adequate in equipping them with a sense of enlightenment on the histories and belief structures of religions other than their own.  

But in the same vein, it takes a little bit more than using age-old texts and their cherry-picked translations, which are housed in the laws and lores of times long gone to guide and even dictate social structures. I know it’s hard to believe, but it does not take extremists such as Boko Haram, or even an extremely religious person to find the lines between “back then” and “not applicable now” blurry.

Just the other day I found myself overcome with quiet anger in a mosque during the marital ceremony of my best friend. She had been introduced as the daughter of a man who was merely her guardian, when in fact she is the woman raised by another woman, her mother, who was in attendance, but not acknowledged. 

In the debate of Islam and the sexes, it has often been my experience (albeit limited) that these very debates hardly ever take place between actual sexes. It is often the males of a community who spew forth their abundant opinions, formulate them into rules, which are merely accepted as the norm. Such was the case of the aforementioned example. Just to be clear, no one in the Sufi-esque mosque was a member of Boko Haram or al-Qaeda. So no, it does not take a militant Islamist to evade questioning even the slightest injustices to women. (Because it does not matter?)

Once upon an interlude between races and cultures, I happened upon another male’s opinion. This time, a white man’s, that “Islam is always protected, no one is allowed to say anything about those Muslims”. True? Untrue? 

While his statement was loaded with discrimination, I have to say that as a woman who grew up in a predominantly Islamic society, there is some truth in that statement. Muslims themselves are taught from a very young age to not question texts and Islamic laws; as set forth by whom, I wonder. 

When it comes to the topic of oppressing women, this notion serves little constructive purpose. What hope is there of any sense of societal progression when even as an educated woman, I myself find my views opposed or ignored in these contexts? Perhaps the life and times in the Qur’an were applicable then. But even so, they may have been misinterpreted. Maybe Qur’anic verse needs to be separated from historical fact, and discrepancies need to be made clear between the two. I believe that the willingness to just accept spoon-fed versions of what the truth is and the role historical narratives play in these versions has limited the role of women in Islam more than any other.

Anyone with a vague understanding of the Qur’an will understand that Islam itself would have a questionable existence had it not been for the documented role the Prophet Muhammad’s first wife, Khadija, played in accepting it, or her confidence in him to lead his people at the time.

In her book After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam, author Lesley Hazelton highlights the role of women in Islam today as dictated by politics and circumstances, which occurred as a result of a post-Muhammad civil war, a fight that ensued as a result of one of the Prophet’s more “controversial” wives, Aisha, and his son-in-law Ali.

She rode horses and camels, she fought battles, she yielded a sword. For all intents and purposes, she was the Daenerys Targaryen of the Islamic world at the time. As an example, Hazelton makes reference to an encounter called the Battle of the Camel. Where Aisha (Sunni) rallies her troops against those of Ali (Shia) with hair-raising shrieks until the very last of her troops lay butchered at her feet. They lost the battle and she was captured by Ali’s troops; she was later pardoned.

Her role in the split, grounded in historical fact in Hazelton’s book, plays a pivotal role of women in Islam and politics. While Sunni Muslim’s recognise Aisha as one of the first women leaders in Islam and have respect for her status and involvement in the civil war, Shia’s naturally disapprove of her with scorn. Some scholars have even gone so far as to evade mentioning the story of the Battle of the Camel and have removed texts that reference it, so as to avoid instilling a warrior disposition in young women who carry the same name.

Women who are warriors, whether in the literal or metaphorical sense – who needs them, right?

Still, if you replace Aisha’s right to fight, with the over 200 kidnapped schoolgirls’ right to education, then it’s easy to see that in order to control them, you must oppress them. Because obviously, nothing is more scary than an educated woman.


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