‘If Muslim societies are not able to do justice to women, they will be wiped out of history’

Image: riffathassan.info

Archived from Communalism Combat, October 1996, Issue No 26.

A private and personal inquiry into Islam, driven by her life’s experiences as a Muslim woman from a Muslim country, Pakistan, for a decade since 1973, Dr. Riffat Hassan got suddenly catapulted into a political mission when Pakistan’s drive towards Islamisation brought in its wake a spate of anti-women laws, including the notorious Hadood Ordinance. All enacted in the name of Islam.
Currently a professor in Religious Studies at the University of Louisville, Kentucky and a visiting lecturer at the Divinity School, Harvard University, USA, Dr. Hassan, has for the last 23 years been closely scrutinising the Quranic text and other Islamic sources like the Sunnah and the Hadiths.
Urging all Muslims, especially women, to go back to reading the Holy Book, as the primary and normative source of Islam, Dr. Hassan argues that the Quran grants women equal status in both the public and the private sphere. Along with Fatima Mernissi and Laila Ahmed, she is part of a small but courageous coterie of feminist theologians in Islam.
As a plenary speaker at the UN Conference on Population and Development at Cairo in September 1994, representing the Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics, Hassan brought the audience (largely consisting of Muslim women) to its feet with her exhortation, “Muslim sisters, you have rights given to you by God. Don’t let men interpret them for you.”
Invited to Bombay (Now Mumbai) by Communalism Combat and the Women’s Research and Action Group in 1996, Dr. Hassan gave a public lecture on the subject, “A Feminist View of the Quran”. We reproduce below excerpts from her talk:
A major factor underlying the Islamisation process in many Muslim countries today is that in traditional societies – Muslim and non-Muslim – there is a tendency to divide the world into two kinds of spaces. There is what is called private space which is where women belong, which is the home, and there is what it is public space which belongs to men. These two are very unequal divisions, very unequal spaces.
In traditional society, there is this belief that if men and women remain in their respective spaces then everything would be fine with the world. This is segregation, this is what is keeping men and women apart, there is this invisible boundary between the two kinds of spaces.
Should it become necessary for some reason of dire emergency for a woman to enter the public space, then in that case she should make herself invisible: she should be covered, cloistered, veiled, so that even when she is in public space it should be as if she were not there.
The question arises: Why should the presence of women in public spaces be such a threat to traditional societies? The answer to that question which you get from all the religious traditions is, to quote St. Augustine, the famous Christian Catholic saint who had a tremendous impact of the status of a woman in the Christian tradition: Women must not intrude into men’s space because “women cause erections even in holy men”. There is a tremendous amount of literature with similar content in all other traditions.
So, this is the problem, it’s the problem of sexuality, it’s the problem of women making men lose control. It’s very interesting that in our traditions the emphasis is not on teaching men how to control themselves but on keeping women out of their sight because poor men cannot be made morally responsible.
“It is regarded as self-evident in all Muslim societies that men are superior to women and women are inferior to men. Men believe this and women believe this.”

In my judgement, the major impetus underlying the Islamisation process is that in all modern societies, including Muslim societies, women are very much present in public space. If you go to any major Muslim city in the world, Cairo, Teheran, Karachi etc., you will see hundreds and thousands of Muslim women on the streets doing all sorts of things. They are bankers, they are professors, they are doctors, they are nurses; they are working in every field.
This is a tremendous threat to traditional Muslims because women have crossed the invisible barrier. This is wrong because this puts, according to them, Islam in danger. So, in order to preserve the integrity of Islam and Muslim societies, women must be put back in their space, which also means “in their place”, which is secondary and subordinate.
During the two years that I spend in Pakistan in 1983, 1984 on leave from my university in the USA, I tried to understand the Islamisation process in progress there. In 1979, a law had been promulgated called the Hudood Ordinance. This is a complicated legal document but one provision in this document excited a lot of controversy related to the evidence of women. Hadd crimes are the most serious crimes in Islam, including the crime of murder, rape and so on.
According to the Quranic law of testimony in Hadd crimes, the evidence that is required is of four believers, it’s not gender specific. But according to the Hudood law of 1979 in Pakistan, the evidence that is admissible in Hudood crimes is of four male believers only. This means that if a women were raped, her own evidence is not admissible. This was not only a matter of something on the statute books; this was something with serious practical implications for women.
The very first case that came up under the Hudood laws was that of a blind girl named Saphia Bibi, a domestic servant. She was raped by the man who had employed her and his son; as a result of which she became pregnant. Her father instituted a case in the Shariat court regarding this matter.
When the case came up for hearing, the judge said that the evidence of this girl was not admissible because, first, being almost blind, she could not identify her assailants, and, second, being a woman, her evidence was not admissible.
But since she had herself admitted that she was pregnant though not married, it meant that she was guilty of extra-marital relations and therefore she should be stoned to death as a punishment, as per the Hudood laws. But the judge said that because she is blind, poor and so on, she would be sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment and hundred lashes.
This case was so outrageous that it led to the first women’s movement, first women’s group in Pakistan – the Women’s Action Forum (WAF). WAF started to protest against this 1979 law. This was the first law. More anti-women laws followed. In 1984, another law was promulgated, called the law of evidence, Kanoon-e-Shahadat. According to the new law, a woman was not able to sign any documents; she could not even open a bank account etc. All this was based on a certain reading of Quranic words which was, in my judgement, a totally wrong reading. It was understood to mean that two women are equal to one man and a woman is equal to half a man.
Women in Pakistan became aware that this process of Islamisation was aimed at reducing women systematically, virtually mathematically, to less than full human status, to being reduced to half of a man. So they did whatever they could. They played a historic role. The country was under marital law and no kind of political activity was permitted. Nevertheless, they held rallies, they organised processions, held press conferences.

“Unless women know the point at which they got derailed in history, and in theology, they can never get back on track.”
But they were not effective, not able to reverse the tide of what was going on. They had some limited success. For instance, they were able to free Saphi Bibi and few other women through political action. But they were not able to stem the tide of this kind of anti-women legislation which continued along with growing crimes against women.
Women were being brutalised, they were having acid thrown on their face, they were being murdered, being subjected to all kind of violence. Besides, a lot of anti-women literature was simply flooding the markets. It was almost like an epidemic against women that was going on in Pakistan in the name of the Islamization process.
If you look at the Islamisation process you will find that it is concerned mainly with two things: first, putting women in their places and, second, instituting Islamic punishment. It seemed not to be concerned at all with the question of social justice or dealing with the issue of massive corruption with exists in this society. So, there is something very strange about this process.
Women activists who were making these efforts and suffering punishments – lathi-charged, beaten, put in jails, losing their jobs – felt after several years that they were not getting anywhere. That’s when some of them who happened to know me and my work, came to me and asked me to provide them “with an ideology for the women’s movement in Pakistan”. They said, “You have been working in this area for many years. So, we would like you to give us some help”.
One thing was clear to the women who came to me, and also to me: that in any any contemporary Muslim community today laws which are being implemented in the name of Islam cannot be reversed in the name of political action. There is not a single incident where this has been possible. So, the only way that you can challenge a law that has been made in the name of Islam is by reference to better Islamic arguments. There is no other way. I stand very strongly by this position.
Now, in terms of strategy the easiest thing that I could do, and which these women actually wanted me to do, was to use the work which I had already done to provide alternate interpretations. For instance, the moment you talk about gender equality, you say men and women are equal in Islam, immediately you are going to be confronted with the eight or ten verses of the Quran starting with chapter 4 of Surah an-nisa, Verse 34: al-rajal qawwamun al an-nisa. This is mistranslated to mean that men are appointed to rule over women. That’s the end of the story.
If you continue the argument, you are going to be given eight or ten verses which are cited to show that men are superior to women. If you provide alternate interpretation to get past these verses, than there are other verses and if you get past those verses, too, you come into the area of Hadith. And, I cannot begin to tell you how many Hadith there are; there are millions of them.
The question that began to arise in my mind at that time was a fundamental question: how is it possible that in the year 1984, in a country like Pakistan, which considers itself a progressive Muslim country – and Pakistan is, in my view, a progressive Muslim country – how is it that in this country you can have such laws which are so unjust, so archaic, and so unjustifiable in terms of Islam?
As I reflected on this question, the answer came very quickly. It’s a very simple answer: it is regarded as self-evident in all Muslim societies that men are superior to women and women are inferior to men. Men believe this and women believe this. Therefore, there is no difficulty in institutionalising this belief.
But that was not the end of the story because then the question arises: why do Muslims believe this? By the way, although this evening I talk only about Islam, because that is the subject of my talk, let me say, that it is exactly the same position in all other religions. All the five major religions of the world – Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism – all are patriarchal religions.

“All the five major religions of the world – Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism – all are patriarchal”
Now, I asked myself this question: Where did this idea that men are superior to women come from? What’s the root of this idea? I spent that summer of 1984 studying two things very intensively: first, two Hadith collections which are considered to be the most important, authoritative for Sunni Muslims: Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih al-Muslim; these are both considered next in authority only to the Quran; second, restudying some of the efforts made by modern Christian scholars studying biblical texts.
At the end of that study, I formulated three assumptions which I consider to be fundamental and on which I believe the superstructure of the idea that men are superior to women rests, not only in Islam but also in Judaism and Christianity.
The three assumptions:
First, God’s primary creation was Adam, a male person. From the rib of this male person, God created a female person called Eve. So, Eve is a derivative of Adam and, therefore, secondary, and subordinate.
Second, though she is secondary in creation, she is primary in guilt, because Eve got Adam thrown out of paradise. Therefore, women, daughters of Eve, are not to be trusted.
Third, not only was Eve created from Adam, she was created for Adam. This means that he is fundamental and she is not, she is only instrumental.
Since that time, I have been working on what I call these three myths. Let’s take the first of these myths which will also illustrate to you my methodology. In the Bible there are two creation stories. There is one creation story in chapter I, verses 26 and 27. This says: And God created Adam, created He them, male and female, in his own image and gave them dominion over the earth, sea, land and so on.
There is the second creation story, chapter II, verses 18-24, which say: And God created Adam. Adam was lonely. So, God put Adam to sleep and while Adam slept, God took a rib from his body and when he awoke he saw this woman. He was overjoyed, broke into celebration with words like bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh thou art, and so on.
So, there are not one but two creation stories in the first two chapters of the Genesis. And the two stories are quite different from each other. According to modern scholars, these stories were written by two different people who lived five centuries apart and who said entirely different things. We don’t know the names of the authors of these stories so they are simply known by code words.
Now, it is the second story, which in time is the earlier story, which is the rib story. And it is this rib story that has caused incalculable damage to women. I will paraphrase for you what St. Paul said in this regard: In the letter to the Corinthians, Book I, chapter 11, verses 3-9, St Paul says: God is the head of Christ, Christ is the head of man, man is the head of woman. So, he set a clear hierarchy – God, Christ, man, woman. This hierarchy has stayed in place for the last 2,000 years in which the woman is always at the bottom.
You may ask, what does this have to do with Islam? I’ll tell you. I have done this quiz in hundreds of contexts in different Muslim countries, at many different gatherings. I ask a simple question: How was woman created? The answer comes back without the batting of an eyelid: from the rib of Adam. This is the answer coming from Muslims and I say to them, have you been reading Genesis?
Why do I say that? Because there is no mention of Eve anywhere in the Quran. In the creation passages in the Quran, reference is made to three generic terms, an-nas, al-insan and al-bashar. And it says, God created humanity, from different things: from water, from clay and so on. But there is absolutely on mention, no sense that God created woman from the rib of man. If fact, even the word Adam is not mentioned in the Quran in these passages at all.
The word adam does appear in the Quran 25 times. So, we need to know what it means. The root of the word adam is adama which means the earth and adam means from the earth or of the earth. It’s a Hebrew word, it’s not an Arabic word. The word adam in Hebrew means a human being. So, the first thing we have to understand is that the word adam does not mean a male person.
The Quran has borrowed the word adam from the Hebrew language and as I mentioned it has 25 references. Out of these 25 references, 21 times the word adam means a human being. Only four times in the Quran is it used as the name of one of the prophets.
So, there are 30 creation passages in the Quran which tell us without any ambiguity that men and women were created in exactly the same way by God. Then how and why is it that virtually all Muslims that I know, that I have talked with, believe that woman was created from the rib of man. What is the justification for this belief? There is none as far as the Quran is concerned.
But the rib story does appear, in the Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih al-Muslim in six places. For example: “Treat women nicely for a woman is created from a rib and the most curved portion of the rib is the upper portion. If you should try to straighten it, it will break. But if you leave it as it is, it will remain crooked. So, treat women nicely” (Sahih al-Bukhari). The other five are similar.
So, we have 30 Quranic passages about creation in which the Quran says that God created man and woman absolutely equal. And then we have these ahadith (plural of hadith) which are saying something different. According to all canons of Islamic scholarship, the Quran can never be displaced by hadith. If you have one clear Quranic statement on any topic and you have one million hadith going against it, the Quranic passage stands. But here I am giving you a clear example where this has not happened because in terms of the belief system, the hadith has displaced the Quran.
To me this issue of creation is the foundational theological question because if we believe that God created man and woman equal and since God is the giver of ultimate value, then it was God’s intention that they should be equal. Then, gender inequality in all societies cannot be seen as the Will of God.
On the other hand, if God did not create them as the majority of the people believe, then if you try to make them equal it is a subversion of God’s plan. So, whether God did make the two genders equal or not is the foundational theological question.
My answer to this is that it is the clear testimony of the Quran that God did create man and woman as equal. A philosopher once said: Those who do not know their history are destined to repeat it. So women have to know what happened to us. Unless women know the point at which they got derailed in history, and in theology, they can never get back on track.
Let me say another thing here that every Quranic passage is capable of multiple interpretations given the very nature of Semetic languages. If you look at the early centuries of Islam when it was in its dynamic phase, it created not only the largest territorial empire the world has ever had (from Spain to India), but, more importantly, in the first three hundred years, Muslims created one of the greatest civilisations the world has ever had in terms of its arts, architecture, philosophy, science.
How were they able to create that? What were the features of that? It is because they felt that they had the ability to do ijtihaad, which is to interpret and reinterpret.
Let me try to put all of this in the context of today and what is happening now to the Muslims in general. There is a tremendous battle going on today in all Muslim societies and all Muslim communities. The debate is over the meaning of Islam; how is Islam to be interpreted? The basic question here is, how do we understand God?
Now, there are at least two very different ways of understanding this. One is to look at God as Rab-ul-Alimeen (God of all the peoples), Rahim, Rahman, God of compassion, God of Justice, a God who has created human beings in the highest mold, a God who has lifted human beings to the status of adam as khalifat-ul-fil-arth, a God who wants human beings to acquire knowledge. God is described in the Quran 158 times as al-Alim (one who has knowledge). Go to China for knowledge, is one of the most famous hadith.
Then, there is another concept of God. This is that of God as a super-policeman who has a list of do’s and don’ts – most of them are don’t’s – who is punitive; the main concern of God is to punish.
This, then, is the essential conflict that is going on in the world of Islam today, between these two concepts of God. One is a concept of God that is going to lead people out of prison, the other is one which is going to entrap people, limit people, which is going to make people ignorant, intolerant, fanatical.
These are two major options we have and this is a very serious battle. And the women’s question is the central question that is being debated. Women are half or more of the Islamic ummah. We are talking here of more than 500 million women the majority of whom have three characteristics: they are poor, they are illiterate and they live in a village. And this drama, this cosmic conflict almost, is being played out on the lives of women.
What happens to Muslim women is what is going to happen to the Islamic ummah. This is the central question. How we look at this question is going to determine the fate of Muslims in the world. If Muslims are not able as a society to do justice to women, they better forget it, they will be wiped out of history.
That is where we are today. Thank you very much.

(Dr. Riffat Hassan, is internationally acknowledged as being among the pioneers of Islamic feminist theology)




Related Articles