Saturday, July 04, 2009

This is an interesting article

Sunday July 5, 2009

Silence not the women


WHENEVER I give talks on Islam and women’s rights in any part of the world, I am often asked the familiar question from Islamists in the audience: “What right do you have to speak on Islam? You are not an expert. When you are sick, you go to a doctor. When you have questions about Islam, you go to the ulama. He is the expert,” they say triumphantly, as if to end the debate.

Depending on the audience and the mood, sometimes I answer the question flippantly, most times seriously.

My flippant answer is, well, if I don’t like that doctor’s opinion or treatment, I go to another doctor. And if the doctor prescribes me the wrong treatment, I could sue him for malpractice and get him deregistered.

But I can’t do that with an ulama. If I challenge him and his prescription to my complaints of injustice and ill-treatment, I could be accused of going against God, against Islam, against Syariah. I could even be declared an apostate, my name denounced in mosque sermons and have rabid-looking men gather after Friday prayers with placards demanding my detention under the ISA.

But my serious answer is this: When Islam is used as a source of law and public policy, then everyone has the right to talk about the subject. Public law, public policy must by necessity be opened to public debate, and pass the test of public reason.

If I am discriminated against, treated unjustly, fined, jailed, sentenced to death, or have my hands and feet cut off in the name of Islam, then of course I will speak out and protect my rights and my interests. Those who do not want anyone but the ulama to speak on Islam must realise that the only way to preserve the religion from public scrutiny is to take it out of the public sphere and keep it private between the believer and God.

But when you proclaim that Islam is a way of life, Islam is the solution, Islam has all the answers, you cannot then tell everyone who disagrees with you to shut up because only you will provide the answers. That is tantamount to totalitarian rule.

Women’s groups demanding for equality and justice in Islam are not questioning the religion as revealed by God, but questioning the decision by those in authority, be it religious, political, or social, who adopt a position that discriminates against women, and then proclaim that their position is the one true Islam.

This is so obviously not so. If there is only one true understanding of Islam, then why are there different schools of law and theology in the Islamic tradition? Why are there many different laws governing marriage, polygamy, divorce, custody, guardianship, inheritance, and financial rights in the Muslim world, sometimes even within one school of law, nay, even within one country?

In Malaysia alone, we have 14 separate jurisdictions governing Islamic matters, each state jealously guarding its power to interpret and legislate on these subjects.

In one renowned polygamy case, a man who was denied permission to marry a second wife by the Syariah Appeal Committee of Selangor, because he had not fulfilled all four conditions to justify his application, went to Terengganu to marry the woman because that state did not require him to fulfil any conditions under the law.

Was the Terengganu law less Islamic than the Selangor law? Was the Terengganu judge who granted permission going against God’s law, or the Selangor panel of three judges who refused permission?

Which is the right Islam? How is this to be decided? Is it really God’s law that we are talking about or the law of the state, constructed and enforced by human beings, marred by human imperfections?

In my talks, I sometimes share with the audience the story of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the fourth Rightly Guided Caliph. The Khawarij who were once Ali’s supporters rebelled against him when Ali decided to negotiate for peace with Mu’awiya who had waged civil war against Ali’s rule. The Khawarij believed that the Caliphate rightly belonged to Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law. They claimed this was a God-given law and there was nothing to negotiate. Ali’s action was denounced as a violation of God’s will as Ali had accepted human judgment, instead of God’s law. They called Ali a traitor to God and eventually assassinated him.

While this story is usually cited as an example of Muslim fanaticism, a more instructive lesson is on the role of human agency in interpreting the divine word. In dealing with the rebellion among the Khawarij, it was reported that Ali called for a gathering and brought out a large copy of the Quran. He touched the Quran, commanding it to speak and inform the people of God’s law. There was only silence, for the Quran indeed did not speak, could not speak unless of course there was human intervention.

It is human beings who read God’s revealed message and interpret its meaning.

Thus the product of that human engagement with the divine text is not divine law, but human-constructed law.

Within the context of a democratic nation state such as Malaysia, can this process of law-making be the sole preserve of the ulama? Within the context of the changing realities of our lives today from the time the classical texts were written, shouldn’t the law-making process be conducted in democratic engagement, especially with those who are affected by these laws and policies?

Just as the classical jurists were guided by the social and political realities of their age when they interpreted the Quran and Sunnah, so should our modern-day religious and political authorities.

In the 21st century, there cannot be justice without equality. It is as simple as that.

The reason women’s voices are the loudest in the demands for change is because we no longer find it tolerable to live a life defined and controlled by others who do not live our realities. We could use the same logic as that used by the Islamists, by saying that men have no business telling us how we should live our lives because they have never experienced life as a woman.

But that is of course not a constructive approach in our search for solutions to the injustices and discrimination against women committed in the name of Islam. We want a respectful and productive engagement so that the justice, mercy and compassion of Islam become core values in our process of law-making and law-enforcement and in our daily lives.

Why is that so difficult to understand?


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