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A dangerous view

Religious leaders’ reaction to the Women’s Protection law is surreal

A dangerous view

Dear All,

As you know, in a quite surreal unfolding of events a great number of the ‘religious leaders’ of Pakistan have joined forces to denounce new legislation which attempts to protect women from domestic violence. Apparently not beating up your wives, sisters and mothers is antithetical to our religion.

Also, apparently, such legislation is dangerous and offensive. After an ‘APC’ of religious groups at the Jamaat HQ at Mansoora earlier this month, a joint declaration stated that “The controversial law to protect women was promulgated to accomplish the West’s agenda to destroy the family system in Pakistan.”

Obviously these maulvis are anxious that such a sinister western conspiracy be thwarted. Ever since this bill was passed unanimously by the Punjab Assembly at the end of last month, religious ‘leaders’ have been making a lot of noise about it being anti-Islam. The leader of the erstwhile custodians-of-the-faith political party, the Jamaat-e-Islami has declared that the law is also against the Constitution of Pakistan. Never mind that one of the basic principles outlined in the original constitution is the equality of male and female citizens before the law.

It is at times like this that one wonders just how the regressive elements in Pakistan have been allowed to prevail. It seems so incredible that a century after the great reform movements of Muslim India began calling for the education and uplift of Muslim women, women’s right to education and women’s right to challenge domestic abuse and violence is now actively opposed by our (alleged) ulema.

It is interesting to consider the views of an Islamic scholar with a Deobandi background here. Sayyid Mumtaz Ali argues strongly for the need for women’s education, he argues against the custom of purdah and polygamy and for the consent of the woman in any marriage. On the question of purdah, he questions the practice of forcing women to remain hidden and out of sight by saying that the sin is in the eye of the beholder “Why punish half the population, he asks, because of a few lecherous characters? … If a thief wished to steal sweets, must the halvai close his shop, or the thief be reprimanded?” (as phrased in Gail Minault’s wonderfully thorough book Secluded Scholars).

But Mumtaz Ali argued for all this over a century ago, in his book Huqooq un Niswan (1898). The egalitarian approach he proposed was phrased within the context of Quranic injunction and Islamic scholarship. A century ago his book was not terribly well-received so he continued his reform efforts through his weekly Tazib-un-Niswan which was edited by his wife Muhammadi Begum, one of the earliest twentieth century, multitasking journalist-editors of the subcontinent.

A century ago male reformers like Sayyid Mumtaz Ali, Allama Rashidul Khairi and Shaikh Abdullah were all arguing for the emancipation and enlightenment of Muslim women. In whatever ways they were able to (essay, stories, campaigns), they highlighted the plight and suffering of women which was due to a combination of social custom, religious dogma and ignorance. Some pioneering women writers had the confidence and imagination to present narratives where men and women’s roles were reversed: in 1905 Rokeya Sakhavat Husain for example “wrote the Utopian Sultana’s Dream—of a world where women were in charge and men in purdah” (I’m referencing Minault again).

Yet a provocative piece ‘Mard Pardeh main Kyun naa Baithein’ was written as early as 1896 — by a man (Sayyid Mumtaz Ali).

Even today, there are some Islamic scholars who recognise that legislation to protect women from abuse and cruelty is a positive thing and not a conspiracy against Islam. The problem is that their voices are mostly drowned out by the hysteria and rabble-rousing rhetoric of clerics with political agendas.

Best wishes

Umber Khairi

The author is a former BBC broadcaster and producer, and one of the founding editors of Newsline.

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