This paper outlines some of the challenges that prevent Muslim women from becoming full members of the Ummah. Although we often hear of the rights of “women in Islam” in the abstract,1 we must know the specifics to improve the lives of Muslim women in reality. This paper tries to provide those specifics. It does not analyze the items, since the issues covered are many and disparate; rather, it simply highlights some concerns so that qualified practitioners can discuss and debate remedies. The bulk of this paper’s main concern is to address some of the obstacles that hamper efforts to alleviate these challenges. The first sction presents the list of challenges, while the second section discusses these obstacles. The paper concludes with a series of proposals intended to assuage the listed problems. Therefore, its focus is on more broad-based remedies rather than a specific remedy for a specific problem. The paper’s underlying assumptions are that women should be fully included in the Ummah and that this is not the case now. To make this clear, a definition of “full inclusion in the Ummah” is given before the paper proceeds to listing the challenges.
Defining Full Inclusion in the Ummah: Equity in Enjoining Good and Forbidding Evil
The three main criteria for a person to be fully included in a community are:
- Being an equal partner (have equal access to power) in dialogue and decisions that shape the community (e.g., political, social, economic, and spiritual decisions);
- Being a respected partner in dialogue and decision-making, and;
- Having a private life free of extraordinary difficulties (e.g., illiteracy, poverty, and domestic violence) that hamper his or her ability to be involved in community life.
These three criteria are part of living an Islamic life in all of its dimensions. God created human beings to worship Him (Qur’an 51:56) and has given male and female believers the duty of enjoining good and forbidding evil (Qur’an 9:71). Enjoining good and forbidding evil has private and public dimensions. This paper is concerned with the public dimensions of Islamic guidance – the sociocultural aspect, the aspect of living in society. The presupposition is that as far as Muslim women are concerned, these three criteria are not met on all three counts.
Challenges Facing Muslim Women
Generalizations about women’s lives in contemporary Muslim societies need to be made with extreme caution, for each woman has a unique set of living circumstances. An upper-class woman in Egypt, a rural village woman in Bangladesh, and a middle-class Muslim woman in suburban America all live in different environments. Nevertheless, since no contemporary society currently embodies an ideal Islamic society, Muslim women face some of the challenges faced by men in their communities (e.g., poverty and disease), while others are specific to them as women (e.g., discouraged attendance at the mosque, illiteracy and insufficient education, and domestic violence).
Globally, Muslims face huge difficulties: oppression, occupation, slaughter, famine, floods, extreme poverty, and others. Even in these extreme situations, Muslim women have to deal with such unique problems as rape as a tool of war. This paper does not address these severely life-threatening challenges, which have been taken up by numerous non-governmental organizations. Rather, this paper addresses the kinds of challenges confronting Muslim women in societies that are at peace (or relatively so) and not facing extreme conditions.
Working for concrete change means knowing the specific issues that Muslim women are facing, and those that block them from living fulfilling lives. Specific challenges are enumerated in the following list. Of course, these challenges assume different manifestations and priorities in different communities. Sometimes the same event adversely affects Muslim women in different ways: the recent lashing of a poor girl, Bariya Magzu, in Nigeria increased racism against Muslim women in the West. Consequently, this list of challenges must be thought of as a starting point, one to be augmented by those with other experiences and insights.
I have divided these issues into “public” and “private,” but in reality the line between the two is blurred. For example, disease, drugs, and domestic violence are public health and private issues. Public issues include those policies that result in excluding women from the mosque, from decision making in the community’s affairs, and from leadership roles; suppressing their roles outside the home; and confronting sexual harassment in the workplace. Private issues consist of such practices as isolating women in the home, illiteracy, lack of Islamic knowledge, marriage and divorce issues (the worst ones being seclusion, abandonment, forced marriage, or abusive spouses [sexual or emotional], rape, and harassment), inheritance, economic dependency, drugs, poverty (that can lead to prostitution), diseases, excessive control by men of the household and control of young women by older men and women, and violence.
Women living as minorities in western countries also face poor language skills, legal status issues (e.g., dependency on spouse’s visa), and racism within and without the community. Women living in secular Muslim countries also face harassment from the state for wearing hijab, attending study circles, going to the mosque, and other Islamic activities.