Celebration of International
Women's Day and Muslim Societies
Dr. Mozammel Haque
The world was celebrating International Women's Day on 8th of March throughout the world to remember the social and political rights of women, their long struggle to obtain those rights, and their strength. The history of 8th of March becoming International Women’s Day dates back to the 1800s. According to some sources, a group of women working in factories staged a protest against poor working conditions and pay on 8 March, 1857, in New York. Follow-up demonstrations seeking fair conditions for female workers and equal rights for women took place in different parts of the world. So every year on 8 March, women worldwide commemorate those who started this valuable struggle.
On the occasion of International Women’s Day, there were many conferences, seminars, meetings on women in London. There was a meeting on the Future for Women in Saudi Arabia at Chatham House, London on 20th of February, 2017. Then there was another seminar on Islam & Women, organised by the Islamic Cultural Centre, London, on 23rd of February, 2017. There was a Lecture event in the London School of Economics (LSE) on Rights for Women in the Islamic World at the Sheikh Zayed Institute, LSE, on 25th of February, 2017. Another meeting took place at Chatham House, on the Future for Women in the Gulf Countries on 7th of March 2017. A conference on the International Women’s Day was held at the Committee Room in the British Parliament on 22nd of March, 2017.
In order to understand the present situation of Muslim women in the Muslim countries, I think it is better to start with the Status of Women in Islam before I discuss, narrate and elaborate about the position of Muslim women in the Muslim societies.
Status of Women in Islam
With Islam, the status of women improved considerably. There is no iota of doubt how women were treated in Islam, how their status were raised and how they were given equal rights in Islam as early as 1400 years ago. “The Qur'an and the Sunnah emphasized the spiritual equality of all Muslims. Islamic law recognized a woman's right to choose her own marriage partner, and it set limits on the practice of polygyny. A man could have as many as four wives, if he could provide for and treat them equally. Islamic regulations also defined marriage as a contract between a man and a woman or a man and a woman's legal guardian (wali). They also required the groom to pay the dowry directly to the bride. In addition, the Qur'an and Sunnah specified that women are entitled to inherit wealth and that married women should be able to control their own money and property. These sources further stated that husbands must support their wives financially during marriage and for a certain period after a divorce.” (Women, Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies (OXCIS), Oxford University)
Islam honours women as daughters, and encourages raising them well and educating them. Islam states that raising daughters will bring a great reward. For example, the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said: “Whoever takes care of two girls until they reach adulthood, he and I will come like this on the Day of Resurrection,” and he held his fingers together. (Muslim)
Dr. M. I. H. Farooqi said, “Islam brought about liberation of women from bondage and gave her equal rights and recognized her individuality as a human being. Islam improved the status of women by instituting rights of property ownership, inheritance, education, marriage (as a contract) and divorce.” (Dr. M. I.H. Farooqi, Status of Muslim Women in Islamic Societies: Past and Present, 2011)
Women in Muslim Societies
during the golden era
Criticism was directed at the status of women in Islam on the basis of how women are treated in the Muslim countries or in the Muslim world. Again, they were seen in the light of modern days, in the light of 19th and 20th centuries. Muslim women in the Islamic world played greater role and contributed to the societies during the glorious period of Islam, from the 7th to the 12th and 13th centuries. During those periods, Muslim women were very active in every field, whether in education, charities and governance. In this respect, it may be mentioned about the role of Ummehatul Mumenin (Mother of the Believers) Khadija and A'ishah during the life time of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him).
“It is said and recorded in history that Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him)’s first wife, Khadija, was his chief adviser as well as his first and foremost supporter. His third and youngest wife, A'ishah, was a well-known authority in medicine, history, and rhetoric. At Muhammad's (pbuh) death, the distinguished women of the community were consulted about the choice of his successor. Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab (ruled 634 – 644 ) appointed women to serve as officials in the market of Medina.”
Dr. Farooqi mentioned, “The women of the Prophet's time enjoyed the full range of rights and freedoms that Allah and the Prophet allowed them. There were many prominent Muslim women in that generation who were outspoken and contributed to building the Islamic society. Their names have been recorded. Quran is insistent on the full participation of women in society and in the religious practices.”
The history of Muslims is rich with women of great achievements in all walks of life from as early as the seventh century. Since the beginning of Islam, Muslim women have made strong contributions in the development of Islamic Societies.
During the Abbasid period, the wife of Harun al-Rashid, Queen Zubaida bint Jafar al-Mansur, built the great canal from Baghdad to Makkah for the service of pilgrims which is still in existence. Similarly, there were devoted and dedicated Muslim women in India who contributed to the educational development of women in India, such as Rokeya Begum, Begum Shakhawat and others. In the governance, who will forget the reign of Razia Sultana, the first Muslim female ruler of Delhi during 1236-1240.
"There are authentic reports that during the Rise of Islam, (7th Century to 15th Century AD) Muslim women were active patrons and sponsors of public works. Rich women supported many public fountains, gardens, hospitals, and inns through their own assets and property.,” said Dr. Farooqi and added, “All through the period of Islamic rise of Medieval Period it was impossible for anyone to justify any mistreatment of woman by any ruling embodied in the Islamic Law, nor could anyone dare to cancel, reduce, or distort the clear-cut legal rights of women given in Shariah. As a matter of fact the reputation, purity and maternal role of Muslim women were objects of admiration by observers from the West. Female religious scholars were relatively common in Muslim Societies. Mohammad Akram Nadwi has compiled biographies of 8,000 female jurists during Islamic Rise. and Orientalist Ignaz Goldziher estimated that 15 percent of medieval Hadith scholars were women. Women were important Transmitters of Hadith compiled by Sahih Sitthah (Six Collections of Prophetic Traditions)”.
The decline of the Muslims started after the fall of the Ottoman rule when education went at the backseat.
Muslim women in modern Muslim countries
Several factors limited the progress of Muslim women in some Muslim countries in the present era. More traditional Muslims regarded social and political changes as anti-Islamic and a threat to the cultural value of male superiority. Concerns about a lack of employment opportunities among men fuelled arguments that women should stay at home in their traditional roles of wives and mothers. Islamic states tried to balance the conflicting demands of women and traditional Muslims by making cautious reforms.
Dr. Farooqi wrote, “After fifteenth century AD things started changing against the interest of women. Harsh restrictions on women and general violation of human rights began. Culture and patriarchal constraints played instrumental roles in restricting Muslim women's educational and economic participation. This was the period of Decline (Fall) of the Islamic World. The situation has gone so bad that many people believe that Muslim women are oppressed in Islamic Societies. They are denied education and other basic rights. These are not baseless accusations. But one must understand that these oppressive practices do not come from Islam. These are part of local cultural traditions in various countries. Western observers portray Islam as uniquely patriarchal and incompatible with women's equality.”
Some other Muslim Intellectuals, in recent past, have condemned attitude of Muslim societies for their anti-Islamic treatment of womenfolk. Few examples are stated below:
Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, said, “No nation can rise to the height of glory unless your women are side by side with you. We are victims of evil customs. It is a crime against humanity that our women are shut up within the four walls of the houses as prisoners. There is no sanction anywhere for the deplorable condition in which our women have to live”. (March 10, 1944, AMU, Aligarh), “I have always maintained that no nation can ever be worthy of its existence that cannot take its women along with the men. No struggle can ever succeed without women participating side by side with men.” (March 25, 1940).
Dr. Hassan Abdullah Al Turabi, the Islamic scholar and influential political leader of Sudan, said: “Present Muslim Society has become unduly conservative for fear that freedom of thought would lead astray and divide the community; and that freedom of women would degenerate into licentious promiscuity - so much that the basic religious rights and duties of women have been forsaken and the fundamentals of equality and fairness in the structure of Muslim Society, as enshrined in the Sharia, have been completely overlooked. In the fallen society of Muslims, women have little freedom. All sorts of subterfuges are employed to deny her inheritance. In the domain of public life, she is not allowed to make any original contribution to the promotion of the quality of life. A revolution against the condition of women in the traditional Muslim societies is inevitable. The teachings of their own religion call upon Islamists to be the right-guided leaders for the salvation of men and women.”
OIC’s Plan to Empower Women
in Muslim Societies
“All over the Muslim world, women are taking up leadership roles, advancing in their careers and creating impact through initiatives in business, civil society and innovation. They have shattered the glass ceiling in politics and have taken on the role of presidents, prime ministers and parliamentary representatives. They have reached the highest echelons in finance, academia and science and have been recognized internationally in the arts, literature and media sectors,” said Maha Akeel, Director of the Public Information and Communication Department at the Jeddah-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) but also added, “Nevertheless, women in the Muslim world still have soaring illiteracy rates while poverty and maternal mortality remain a problem. They still suffer from discrimination, violence, marginalization, negative cultural traditions — such as forced marriage, honor killings and female genital mutilation (FGM) — and the denial of some of their basic rights.” (Maha Akeel, Arab News, 8 March, 2017)
“Recognizing this dichotomy in the status of women in its member states, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the second largest intergovernmental organization after the UN with 57 member states, has adopted resolutions and launched programs and projects to empower women and address their issues and concerns. Its various institutions — such as the Islamic Development Bank (IDB), the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO), the Islamic Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture (ICCIA) and others — have also launched their own programs for women,” Maha Akeel mentioned.
At the 11th OIC information ministers’ conference held in Jeddah in December 2016, ministers agreed to empower women in and through the media.
Maha Akeel also said, “The OIC’s Ten-Year Plan of Action (2005-2015), the new OIC 2025 Program of Action and the landmark OIC Plan of Action for the Advancement of Women (OPAAW) have set a number of important goals to be achieved for the benefit of families, women and children in the Muslim world.”
“Empowering women remains a key priority for the organization, not only to ensure their human rights but as an enabler and transformative force for sustainable development, peace and security,” Maha Akeel mentioned and said, “In order to promote the role of women in the media, they also need to be adequately represented across the media spectrum by taking on roles in different areas and in different capacities, including decision-making positions. Thus, the OIC has initiated steps to establish a Women Media Observatory within its Public Information Department, based on the information ministers’ resolution to monitor the progress of women in the media.”
Seminars and Conferences in London
As I mentioned earlier, there were meetings, seminars and conferences on role of women in different countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Gulf countries as well as in the Islamic world in general. I am going to report briefly on these events. First of all, there was a Seminar on Islam & Women at the Islamic Cultural Centre, London, on 23rd of February, 2017. I interviewed Dr. Ahmad al-Dubayan Director General of the Centre.
Islam & Women at the
Islamic Cultural Centre, London
This event entitled 'Women - Gender, Justice and Islam', organised by the Islamic Cultural Centre, London, in collaboration with the Home Office, was held at Conference Library Hall of the Islamic Cultural Centre (ICC), London, on Thursday, 23rd of February, 2017. It was a symposium on the role of women. The purpose of the Symposium was to have an informed discussion around the rights and roles of women in Islam, break down myths, consider differences and overlap between culture and religion, discuss cases of successful Muslim women in leadership roles and consider how Muslim women can become more active in society and influence the democratic process.
After the recitation from the verses of the Holy Qur’an, Dr. Ahmad al-Dubayan, the Director General of the Islamic Cultural Centre, welcomed the dignitaries, guests and other attendees.
An interview with Dr. Ahmad al-Dubayan
In an interview with me about his address, Dr. al-Dubayan said, “It was a symposium on the role of women. The purpose of that symposium was casting some light on the Muslim women in the UK first of all and also about some of the social changes around and the role of the women in Islam itself. And try to improve the knowledge about it and also thinking about the role of women.”
In the beginning of his speech, Dr. Al-Dubayan started with role of women during the Islamic civilization. He mentioned, “Actually in my speech I talked about the role of women in the Islamic civilizations and about the role of women in the early days of Islam. Ummehatul Mumeneen (the Mother of the Believers) Khadija played a major role in the faith in the history of Islam. Unfortunately, today in many cases in Islamic societies and communities it is seen that they do not realize the role of Khadija. Today, the role of women as well as the Muslim organizations, for example, are sometimes limited to education and also within the family itself.”
“Women are the mothers and the most powerful persons who have influence on children. So we need to take advantage of this powerful woman to take their education. It is important also to remind the younger generation at home about the role and achievements of the Muslim women,” said Dr. Al-Dubayan.
Dr. Al-Dubayan also mentioned, “The contributions and role of the women scholars in the history of Islam in the field of Shari’ah, the Qur’an and the Hadiths, the Traditions of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). How much we have indebted to them and how much we have received from those scholars - really we are so proud of them.”
In this connection, the ICC Director General said about one Imam who mentioned about 18 of the Muslim women scholars. He also mentioned about Sheikh Imam ibn Taymiyyah who had mentioned about eight or nine female scholars; we also received Hadiths and other information from them.
Dr. al-Dubayan also said, “We should not forget the great mosques like Kairauine Mosque in Fes, Morocco; Al-Zaytuna Mosque in Tunisia, the Madrasah Sawlatiyya (Sawlatiyah Islamic School) in Makkah al-Mukarramah and the Shah Jahan Mosque, in Woking, UK, funded by Sultan Shah Jahan, Begum of Bhopal and others. All these endowments were made by female, by women.”
Elaborating about Sawlatiyyah School, Dr. al-Dubayan mentioned, “There was one woman, named Begum Sawlatunnisa, the descendants of the Muslim Ruler of Mysore, Tipu Sultan, who came from India. When she completed her Hajj in the 19th century she wanted to do Waqf Islamic endowment in Makkah. Somebody named Rahmatullah indeed told her that it is better to establish school and she founded the school from her own expenses and others and others have big history.”
“Especially the women in Islam made a major important role,” said Dr. Al-Dubayan and lamented, “Unfortunately, some young generation do not study this and we do really need to bring this back to light, to educate and to bring more to young female generations who do not know about all that.”
Speaking about the present time, the ICC chief said, “In the modern times also, now, of course, women have very important role as employees, as workers, as researchers, as academic, office staff and whatever; and it is important to give more power and more rights to them. Actually, the United Nations selected one day for international women. They wanted to highlight this some countries around the world.”
“In the Islamic communities in the UK, we have really different programmes, talking about the empowerment of women; talking about the role of women in the society, women education; how women really can play an influential role even in fighting terror, radicalisation. I think women can play a big role as teacher, as mother etc,” said Dr. Al-Dubayan.
In reply to my queries, Dr. Dubayan said, “Actually the human rights issue, the women rights issue we should not forget; the issue of extremism itself, or terror itself, sometimes I will say, used for political purposes. No one say actually women have hundred percent complete rights or the things what we want. If you go to the United States, for example, or in Europe, you will find women complaining about the media made women the like something to be consumed; like to be offered or to be on sale. At the same time they are always complaining about rape.”
“This is the case debates are always continuing. We don’t say that the status of women is ideal in Islam. They have problems in Muslim countries; but there are also exaggerations. I think in a country like Saudi Arabia which is on the way of advancing day by day rather better than before,” said Dr. Al-Dubayan and added, “We have to remember, in Asia and Africa, either they are too conservative you cannot come to them and one day they will shift the society and change.”
Dr. al-Dubayan thinks that things are changing; and it will change gradually little by little. He said, “We have to take little by little; people must be educated first; even about democracy, people must be educated about it first, then implement; it will be like a battle. I think there is a big progress going on; going on in all countries and they believe, in course of time, it will be better; but no one can say, it is the best situation - the status of women is perfect in any country.”
Future for Women in Saudi Arabia
At Chatham House
There was an event on The Future for Women in Saudi Arabia in the Chatham House, renowned International Think Tank, on 20th of February, 2017. There was an excellent panel of speakers, such as Najah Al-Osaimi, London-based Saudi researcher and journalist, covering the Gulf region. Ahad al-Kamel is an actress and filmmaker and Caroline Montagu, writer and journalist, Saudi Arabia, who has spent more than 30 years in Saudi Arabia. This event was chaired by Peter Salisbury, senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House. .
Najah al-Osaimi said, “In the last ten years the Kingdom made a move to develop the situation of women. And the status of women in Saudi Arabia has been advanced by a number of policies and initiatives which aim at empowering women. As a result of such a move the gender gap has been reduced and the number of Saudi women participating in the workforce has been increased. Now Saudi women composed 20 per cent of the Saudi labour force; still very low but if you compare that number to the number of 2000 the participation of women in the labour force was only 7 per cent. So it is a remarkable achievement.”
Speaking about the Saudi women education, Najah mentioned, “young Saudi women in the Universities thousands of women in the national education. More than 70,000 women have completed their education and half of that number was educated in the United States. Additionally, the educational programme of Saudi Arabia has strengthened the capacity of Saudi women entrepreneurial opportunities.”
Talking about the Saudi female entrepreneur, Najah mentioned, “Now the number of female entrepreneur in Saudi Arabia is in thousands. In eastern province alone, there are 4,000 entrepreneurs.”
Speaking about political participation of Saudi women, Najah mentioned, Saudi women “have political representation. We have now 217 female councillors in our municipal councils. I can see Saudi women in Saudi Shoura Councils. The Shoura Council is just like parliament. So you can see there is a potential; there have been democratic environment; have been prepared for a big change.”
Speaking about educated Saudi women, Najah mentioned, “Saudi Arabia has now many highly educated women. A generation of highly educated women and they are aware of their human rights, they are exposed to equality, they are exposed to freedom and they think they are completely equal to men.”
Najah spoke about Vision 2030. She said, “We need the government to think about it as a potential; empowerment of women is for the social and economic development of the country.”
Talking about leadership, Najah praised Deputy Crown Prince. She said, “We have now new leadership. We have now especially Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. He is very powerful about change.”
Ahd Kamel Actress and Filmmaker
Ahd Kamel is a Saudi film actress and filmmaker. She talked about Vision 2030. She said it “is all amazing; and interesting; it is a great ideas; and that’s the spirit.”
“Let’s treat each other as human being and that’s the first teaching of Islam. It teaches equality; it does not matter where you come from. And that is something I think that to be addressed globally. It is not something which is specifically to Saudi Arabia; Saudi might be an extreme case. But globally women are still oppressed; still under shadows; lack of equal rights,” Ahd said.
She also talked about living together as human being in general. Ahd said, “it is about living together as one; men women, British, Saudi; I don’t know black white wherever it is we are all one and in fact, not just one but we are human being.”
Writer and Journalist
Caroline Montagu, writer and journalist think there is a sense of change in Saudi Arabia in the last 20 years at different atmosphere.
Speaking about Saudi women, Caroline said, “Saudi women are absolutely wonderful; they are witty; they are clever and they are very powerful in the private sphere.”
She also mentioned, “now women are absolutely developed under the economy and in the development of society I could have been said there are more women entrepreneurial than few years ago.”
She also mentioned about the achievement of Saudi women. She said, “Some Saudi women Somayya Jabarti, Editor in Chief of Saudi Gazette, Woman has become head of the stock exchange. She also said, “I think many Saudi women are much happier and more content than the message we get here lot of times because those who are content and happier.”
Celebration of International Women Day
In Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is scrutinized more than almost any other country in the world on issues of female empowerment. So it came as a shock to most media pundits and analysts when three young Saudi women took the most senior, competitive financial positions in both the private and public sectors within days of each other in February, 2017, with almost no controversy. It is reported in Arab News: “Three young Saudi women took the most senior, competitive financial positions in both the private and public sectors within days of each other in February, with almost no controversy. Reem Nashar became the first female CEO of a Saudi Bank, Samba; Sahar Al-Suhaimi became head of the Saudi Stock Exchange (Tadawul); and Latifa Al-Sabhan became CFO of the Arab National Bank (ANB). The world can now see what we have always known, that Saudi women can attain the leadership positions they deserve. (Arab News, 8 March, 2017)
It would be also shocking for many to learn that Saudi Arabia celebrated its own Women’s Day for the first time in its history, with a three-day gathering at King Fahd Cultural Centre in Riyadh.