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Sabrang
Religion Freedom

Maulvi and a feminist

Sabrangindia 23 Jun 2021

First published on: October 2009

muslim women

Though religion per se was never on our agenda, what does concern us is how people of faith promote or militate against the principles of freedom, dignity and rights for all human beings enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Even as we continue to interrogate the prevalent male-centric interpretations of most religions, we applaud  the growing tribe of men and women of different faiths who in recent years have been challenging, as insiders, what they consider to be male-chauvinist understanding of their respective holy texts. So much the greater is our respect for that rare breed of men in robe who braved the wrath of co-believers and challenged the sexist interpretation of Scriptures long before the male products of European Enlightenment had spoken a word against women’s domination.

Maulvi Syed Mumtaz Ali Khan from Lahore (1860-1935) was one such exceptional male. He published a bold book, Huququn Niswan (Rights of Women), in Urdu in 1898 which even the ‘modernist’ Sir Syed Ahmed Khan of Aligarh (1817-1898) found hard to swallow. The very first chapter of his book titled ‘Myth of male supremacy’ said it all. Listing out the eight "logical" and "theological’ arguments that the ulema of the time offered (they still do) in support of their case, he proceeded to demolish them with both precision and passion. Huququn Niswan was penned at a time when Muslim women were not supposed to be seen outside the four walls of their homes and found within only in the confines of the zanankhana (women’s quarter). Still, for this maulvi with a mission, it was not enough to establish logically AND theologically that women are in no way inferior to men. Citing verses from the Quran, he argued that the female sex is, in fact, the better half of the finest of Allah’s creation: human beings.

Sir Syed was truly frightened with the mission that had become a passion for the maulvi, a man much younger than him. He advised Maulvi Mumtaz not to publish his book, fearing that this bold venture would create such a storm within the community that it would further jeopardize his own crusade for men from elite Muslim families to adopt Western-style education alongside Islamic learning. Though a staunch supporter of the idea, ‘Maulvi Syed’ was not to be deterred by the grim warning of ‘Sir Syed’. If modern education for Muslim men topped the agenda of the latter, gender parity was the former’s first priority. "If this humble effort of mine results in the protection of the rights of even a single old woman in the entire country I would consider my effort to have been worthwhile," he wrote in the preface to his book. In the chapter on women’s education he announced: "I have decided to launch a newspaper aimed at girls from June 1, 1898. The editor will be any educated girl from my family as no article penned by any male would be included in it. I will make girls from my family write for the newspaper, regardless of the quality of their articles… People can mock me if they want to… If there is no one with me at least my Allah is with me."

An exceptional maulvi though he was even by current standards, Mumtaz Ali inhabited the cultural landscape of his time. While arguing that "capacity and competence" should be the only two limits to women’s education, he added that "this doesn’t mean they should study subjects like algebra, mathematics or the history of England"! Why not? Because "they do not serve the purpose for which women should be imparted education." A problematic proposition for sure but then Shakespeare and Karl Marx too were not free of the constraints of their time and gender.

To Maulvi Syed our Sau Salaams! Let alone others, very few Indian or Pakistani Muslims today are aware of the man or his work. It is in the fitness of things that Shirkat Gah, a Lahore-based Muslim women’s group, has recently published English translations of four chapters from Huququn Niswan. We are happy to offer to our readers our own translation of its first chapter.

The companion piece in this issue is a paper, ‘Muslim women and sexual oppression’, presented in recent years by Asma Barlas at a prestigious international roundtable "to celebrate, and also critically evaluate, divergent perspectives on international feminisms". Interestingly, she too is of Lahore origin, the city that was home and "storm-centre" for Mumtaz Ali. Presently professor of politics and director, Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity, Ithaca College, New York, she is a product of the Kinnaird College for Women, Lahore, counted among the most prestigious educational institutions in Pakistan. We do not know if Ms Barlas knows of and if so what she thinks of Mumtaz Ali. But we believe that in her the good maulvi would have seen the realization of his dream.

— EDITORS

Maulvi and a feminist

First published on: October 2009

muslim women

Though religion per se was never on our agenda, what does concern us is how people of faith promote or militate against the principles of freedom, dignity and rights for all human beings enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Even as we continue to interrogate the prevalent male-centric interpretations of most religions, we applaud  the growing tribe of men and women of different faiths who in recent years have been challenging, as insiders, what they consider to be male-chauvinist understanding of their respective holy texts. So much the greater is our respect for that rare breed of men in robe who braved the wrath of co-believers and challenged the sexist interpretation of Scriptures long before the male products of European Enlightenment had spoken a word against women’s domination.

Maulvi Syed Mumtaz Ali Khan from Lahore (1860-1935) was one such exceptional male. He published a bold book, Huququn Niswan (Rights of Women), in Urdu in 1898 which even the ‘modernist’ Sir Syed Ahmed Khan of Aligarh (1817-1898) found hard to swallow. The very first chapter of his book titled ‘Myth of male supremacy’ said it all. Listing out the eight "logical" and "theological’ arguments that the ulema of the time offered (they still do) in support of their case, he proceeded to demolish them with both precision and passion. Huququn Niswan was penned at a time when Muslim women were not supposed to be seen outside the four walls of their homes and found within only in the confines of the zanankhana (women’s quarter). Still, for this maulvi with a mission, it was not enough to establish logically AND theologically that women are in no way inferior to men. Citing verses from the Quran, he argued that the female sex is, in fact, the better half of the finest of Allah’s creation: human beings.

Sir Syed was truly frightened with the mission that had become a passion for the maulvi, a man much younger than him. He advised Maulvi Mumtaz not to publish his book, fearing that this bold venture would create such a storm within the community that it would further jeopardize his own crusade for men from elite Muslim families to adopt Western-style education alongside Islamic learning. Though a staunch supporter of the idea, ‘Maulvi Syed’ was not to be deterred by the grim warning of ‘Sir Syed’. If modern education for Muslim men topped the agenda of the latter, gender parity was the former’s first priority. "If this humble effort of mine results in the protection of the rights of even a single old woman in the entire country I would consider my effort to have been worthwhile," he wrote in the preface to his book. In the chapter on women’s education he announced: "I have decided to launch a newspaper aimed at girls from June 1, 1898. The editor will be any educated girl from my family as no article penned by any male would be included in it. I will make girls from my family write for the newspaper, regardless of the quality of their articles… People can mock me if they want to… If there is no one with me at least my Allah is with me."

An exceptional maulvi though he was even by current standards, Mumtaz Ali inhabited the cultural landscape of his time. While arguing that "capacity and competence" should be the only two limits to women’s education, he added that "this doesn’t mean they should study subjects like algebra, mathematics or the history of England"! Why not? Because "they do not serve the purpose for which women should be imparted education." A problematic proposition for sure but then Shakespeare and Karl Marx too were not free of the constraints of their time and gender.

To Maulvi Syed our Sau Salaams! Let alone others, very few Indian or Pakistani Muslims today are aware of the man or his work. It is in the fitness of things that Shirkat Gah, a Lahore-based Muslim women’s group, has recently published English translations of four chapters from Huququn Niswan. We are happy to offer to our readers our own translation of its first chapter.

The companion piece in this issue is a paper, ‘Muslim women and sexual oppression’, presented in recent years by Asma Barlas at a prestigious international roundtable "to celebrate, and also critically evaluate, divergent perspectives on international feminisms". Interestingly, she too is of Lahore origin, the city that was home and "storm-centre" for Mumtaz Ali. Presently professor of politics and director, Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity, Ithaca College, New York, she is a product of the Kinnaird College for Women, Lahore, counted among the most prestigious educational institutions in Pakistan. We do not know if Ms Barlas knows of and if so what she thinks of Mumtaz Ali. But we believe that in her the good maulvi would have seen the realization of his dream.

— EDITORS

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