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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 September, 2003, 15:02 GMT 16:02 UK
Women and Islam: Ask the experts
We discussed women and Islam with our two guests: Meryl Win Davies, author of the book, Why do People Hate America, and Basma El Shayyal, head of religious education at the Islamia girls school in London.



Muslim women are often perceived in the West as victims of oppressive societies.

But what do Muslim women think about their faith and the way it is interpreted?

Does Islam - and Islamic society - respect women's rights? Is there anything inherently Islamic about forced marriages, genital mutilation and honour killings?

What do women's rights mean in an Islamic context? What is the Islamic perspective on divorce, adultery, polygamy and women's role in society?

Reporting Religion on BBC World Service radio discussed women and Islam on Sunday 14 September.


Transcript:

Zeinab Badawi:
Hello, I'm Zeinab Badawi, welcome to our interactive forum on Women and Islam. On Sunday the BBC World Service broadcast a lively and at times heated discussion on this topic on Reporting Religion. Now it's your chance to take part in the debate. Today we're discussing whether Islam and Muslim society respect women's rights. There is perhaps no issue to do with Islam that inflames passions more than the religion's treatment of its women - it's become a kind of barometer used to judge and at times discredit an entire religion. So are these just prejudices with no factual basis or are they fair comment?

To find out I'm joined in the studio by two guests, both Muslim women, Meryl Win Davies who's author of the book - Why do people hate America? And Basma El Shayyal is head of religious education at the Islamia girls school in London. Meryl Win Davies a lot of people might say you a Western woman why on earth did you want to convert to Islam? Let me just say to you in fact one e-mail asks that: Lynn from Newark in the USA says: "Why should I, a woman, want to be a Muslim? It seems to me that a Muslim man has all the advantages." So why did you convert?

Meryl Win Davies:
First of all,one becomes a Muslim to sort out your relationship with God. Secondly, to discover who you are, it's about discovering one's self. Thirdly, you do not become a Muslim because of the Muslim world and Muslims. I can understand how people looking at it without knowing enough about the religion or enough about Muslim society would say why would any woman want to. I get asked that question all the time. It's basically because people don't know enough about - for me Islam is a framework in which to ask questions, to seek answers. I find for my own position that it is not to become an Arab or to become a Pakistani or to become an Indonesian, it is to become the best person I can be within the framework of beliefs and ideas that are Islam.

Zeinab Badawi:
But why become a Muslim - the e-mail says - when you may have suffered a loss in rights and adhere to a religion which is created by men?

Meryl Win Davies:
Precisely because that is wrong, absolutely wrong. I find reading the Koran and reading the example of the prophet I have nothing to answer, I have no problems. Women in Islam have status, they have a role and rights that are perfectly acceptable - in fact far in advance of what other religions have granted to women in history.

Zeinab Badawi:
Well let me ask that because in fact somebody does ask that in an e-mail. Ethan Klien in England says: "What rights are women given by Islam that would not be provided for them otherwise via other religions?" Basma El Shayyal perhaps you would like to give us a specific example.

Basma El Shayyal:
Yes I'd like to do that, just before that I'd like to backtrack just a slight tiny bit regarding this whole issue of Islam and created by men and so on. Islam, in my perception, in all Muslims perception, is actually a divine framework, that's divinely given by God, by Allah, and revealed and so on. So in as much as we have that framework, the framework isn't actually a manmade creation .

Zeinab Badawi:
I think the e-mail said that a Muslim man has all the advantages.

Basma El Shayyal:
Right, okay, so perhaps that's one point. But specific advantages: we're talking to you about socially, emotionally, financially - all the other categories. To give one very simple example: finance, which I think a lot of ladies perhaps are suffering from at the moment now in terms of structure and so on. I think that's a very important area where Islam actually gives the lady autonomy in dealing with her own finances, in dealing - and up till quite recently, I think, even in British law you could even point to things like the married woman's property act and such things. Autonomy in dealing with their own finances and complete independence away from any male relative or any [indistinct word] society. So I think that's one important point.

Zeinab Badawi:
But then these are rights that they enjoy under other religions surely?

Meryl Win Davies:
The rights that the Koran grants to Muslim women are in fact the agenda that drove the feminist movement in Western society because none of these rights - the rights to be an independent civic person, to have the vote, to have your own money and use of your own money - not as a dependent of your husband - this is what drove the feminist movement and the rights of women's movement in Western society. All of those rights were actually given to women in the Koran. The problem is not the abstract rights and endowments that women - and duties and responsibilities that women have - it is the practice of them.

Zeinab Badawi:
Alright well then there is somebody actually who asks that. Darrell McMurray from Cambridge in the United Kingdom says: "From the perspective of Muslim women is there any present day Islamic state that can truly be said to represent the ideals of Islam in practice?" You're saying that Islam accords women these rights but do they have them in practice in a place you could point to?

Basma El Shayyal:
Unfortunately not no, I have to be frank, unfortunately not. But then I again I really agree with what Meryl was just saying now here, is that isn't the problem, I think the underlying and the most serious issue that needs to be tackled here is that you do have this framework that is extremely precious and provides a huge amount of potential for fulfilment of both genders - male and female - because it's a divinely inspired way of life for humanity, not just for men and not just for ladies. But at the same time, unfortunately due to a lot of factors, you have problems such as interpretation of sharia, for example, implementation of it, understanding and a very, very narrow, if you like, a narrow application of it due to certain political problems such as, for example, colonialism, such as, for example, straying away from an appropriate study, an in depth look at how dynamically it can actually be applied to society. So I think those are the problems that maybe we need to be looking at, rather than the actual framework of Islam itself.

Meryl Win Davies:
The problem is it's all in the real world .

Zeinab Badawi:
In the application.

Meryl Win Davies:
In the application. If one has lived through culture as the pressures on cultures around the world, of change, of colonialism - so it is not an outside problem - and of modernity have arrived, so how rules that in a rural village would not necessarily have been oppressive upon a woman by just doing what you've always done, as things change, so women can lose out. But at every way you're absolutely right - women have become the icon of rectitude, they are the virtue of the community. If we keep our women strong in traditional outlook then the community is safe. This is completely the antithesis actually of a pure Islamic .

Zeinab Badawi:
Alright, you say - you both say that actually the Koran gives women, accords women certain rights and they just fail in the application. I mean is that the case - look at this e-mail I got from somebody called Bonnie Shullenberger in New York in the United States who says: "I've a friend who works in the legal system in Cairo in Egypt and she tells me that while women are supposed to be able to obtain a divorce in Islam in fact it's very difficult and that in Islam a woman who does obtain a divorce risks losing not only custody of her children but even access to them." I mean that is the case isn't it .

Meryl Win Davies:
In practice - in practice .

Zeinab Badawi:
What does Islam say about divorce?

Meryl Win Davies:
It's not designed to be that way. First of all, ideally a woman certainly can initiate divorce. Secondly, there is certainly sound precedent that a woman should have custody of young children until they're old enough to decide where .

Zeinab Badawi:
So the Koran does actually say that as the children grow up .

Meryl Win Davies:
. decisions made by the prophet .

Zeinab Badawi:
That children can be taken away from the mother?

Meryl Win Davies:
No the children can decide where they want to live. I mean it's not a question - you see the language you use to describe rulings and what they mean can actually colour people's understanding of these things, so one has to be very careful. Certainly women have the right to divorce - and the other thing to remember is in Islam marriage is a civil contract between two parties - so a woman can contract the right to divorce in her marriage statement, in the marriage contract itself, she can contract that she doesn't want to do housework. There, in fact, in the classical annals women who contracted in their marriage contract to demand sexual satisfaction and took their husbands to court over the subject and were upheld. So if you look at narrow and restrictive contemporary interpretations, which are actually reducing the whole range and gambit of debate that there has been in 1400 years of Muslim history, you end up with the Taleban who in practice decide the very essence of Islam itself.

Zeinab Badawi:
Let's carry on with this question of what sort of rights women have. Basma El Shayyal let me ask you, Gerald Schafer from Thailand says: "Is it true that in Islamic law the testimony of a woman carries less weight than that of a man?" Give us a clear answer on that.

Basma El Shayyal:
Most certainly not. Absolutely .

Zeinab Badawi:
There's nothing in the Koran that says, in court a female witness, her testimony counts for as much as a man?

Basma El Shayyal:
There is one verse in the Koran, only one verse, that applies to this whole issue of testimony and it refers to any specific context, one instance of testimony regarding financial matters and the verse runs as follows: that should one of them forget, i.e. should a lady forget, then the other will remind her. And it's talking about a specific instance. So I think it's extremely narrow minded to take it totally out of context and say right, therefore, that means a lady's or a female's judgement in all matters is inferior to a man's. Should that have been the case then surely in the Koran God would have said - well don't even bother having women [indistinct word] because they're not worth it, they're unreliable.

Zeinab Badawi:
Alright, what about this one, similar issue, an e-mail from somebody called Graeme Phillips in Germany: "If Islam really is a religion that supports gender equality why is it that the testimony of four witnesses is required by sharia law," - i.e. Islamic law - "for the conviction of a man but only one for the conviction of a woman?" Is that true.

Meryl Win Davies:
That is not true. The four witnesses actually relate to accusations of adultery. And what are required in order to prove a case or a charge of adultery made against a woman are four witnesses - direct eye witnesses to the act.

Zeinab Badawi:
Which is often pretty impossible in practice.

Meryl Win Davies:
Basically most people who are about to commit adultery don't . Secondly, the rules of evidence mean that if a man denies it, his denial is almost of less worth than a woman's denial in the same .

Basma El Shayyal:
Protection of her own honour and dignity.

Meryl Win Davies:
So that it is not a case of women's and men's evidence. And secondly, on the financial, the whole point is if you take a woman's reading of that verse, a woman's interpretation of that verse, it is actually there to encourage women to come forward and fulfil civic duties, rather than keep back.

Zeinab Badawi:
Let me ask Basma El Shayyal, we didn't get an e-mail about this actually surprisingly, but I want to ask you - a man can marry four women. Now indisputably the prophet Muhammad said go forth and marry one, two, three or four - if you feel you can treat them equally.

Basma El Shayyal:
It is actually written, that's really important, because one, two, three or four, if you feel you can deal with them justly and the Koranic verse says - and you will never be able to deal with them justly, you will never be able .

Zeinab Badawi:
Well then why?

Basma El Shayyal:
So therefore one's better for you. There are certain exceptions, and again every rule does have exceptions, so the reason why men would get married to more than one wife there has to be certain criteria fulfilled, it's not just because they like it. For example certain situations like now we have a lot of war torn areas and there will be a lot ladies who will be needing support, either widows or orphans and so on and so forth.

Zeinab Badawi:
Okay you've dealt with that, so it says it but there are an awful lot of caveats is what you're saying.

Basma El Shayyal:
Absolutely, yes.

Zeinab Badawi:
But one e-mail we got - a rather long one - from Denise Ferron in Montreal in Canada says: "Westerners take for granted that women and men should have the right to vote for instance, to hold a driver's licence and to attend universities. Do women and men from Islamic communities perceive this as arrogance on our part? What form would Muslims like equality to take in their own communities?" That's what she asks, an awful lot there but maybe what it amounts to really and I want to ask you this - can women achieve complete equality with men in Islam?

Meryl Win Davies:
My answer is what do we mean by equality? I would say it is not equality so that there is no distinction, so that your personality as a female being is the same as a man and gender matters not.

Zeinab Badawi:
When anybody says that - be different is fine, everybody agrees that men and women are different, I mean that's pretty basic but can you, as Muslim women, achieve complete equality with men?

Meryl Win Davies:
Equality in terms of society yes - that is not a problem. In terms of voting, working - my test question to people in the Muslim world is where do women doctors come from if women don't have the right to education, the right to a career?

Zeinab Badawi:
All things are allowed in Islam?

Meryl Win Davies:
Of course.

Zeinab Badawi:
Well funnily enough we've got one e-mail here from Muhammad Nayari [phon.] from Los Angeles and he says: "Who says Muslim women are second class citizens? Muslim women are at the forefront of the reform movement in Iran for example. To be sure it's a struggle but they're not lost in any sense, they're assertive of their unfulfilled rights because they're educated and cannot be lied to." Do you really think that women are at the forefront of their society around the Islamic world?

Meryl Win Davies:
I'd like that to be true unfortunately in practice it isn't. But it is not nearly as bad as the Western media and general misunderstandings in the West would suggest. I think that the Islamic movement is a problem. Many of them are wedded to reductive interpretations. I mean basically the women are there to make the tea and cook the food. They're part of the movement but they are not in the forefront.

Zeinab Badawi:
But you don't see them in public, I mean in very many places do you? I mean one e-mail talks about the fact that - K.F. Morgan in the United Kingdom says: "A minority of Muslim women have some freedom behind closed doors but outside the home, in the street, they're looked on as cattle. To save face they'll deny it and if they don't there's a good chance of being beaten or having acid thrown in their face." This is the truth, this person says, that they can't speak up because of all the above. Okay maybe don't go into all the business about acid but the fact of the matter is women's power is seen very much as being behind closed doors, not in public.

Meryl Win Davies:
No I would not agree with that.

Basma El Shayyal:
I agree, actually I don't agree with that and it's not the case at all. However, I'd like to go slightly deeper into this point. I don't think it's fair just to look at it in a cosmetic sort of framework. Simply because a woman is not always visible and always, if you like, in the public eye, that doesn't necessarily mean she has or she doesn't have influence. I think a woman's role is extremely dynamic both within and without, if you like, the home framework. So you have, for example, a woman - and it's not here to belittle the role of a mother, a sister, all the rest of it, in moulding generations, informing their thoughts and so on. However, also a Muslim woman does not have the right to participate outside her home, she has the duty to participate outside her home as a mother, as any of the professionals, for example, here we were mentioning doctors and lawyers and teachers and everything else, simply because that is her civic duty. And with regard to voting I'd really like to point that out actually - the Islamic system of voting, as modelled by the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, isn't one whereby default someone ends up ruling or ends up having power because they were not the person who had the least votes - as for example evidenced by recent voter apathy in the past few years, not just in Britain but elsewhere. But actually the system of voting is a proactive and a dynamic one, you actually need to give an oath of allegiance as it were, so you actually need to proactively choose whoever it is that you support. And women were at the forefront of that during the time of the prophet, peace be upon him, and other - the following generations, like, for example, the pledge of acava [phon.] and others in the Medina, Mecca. So I think that's something really important that we need to take a look at.

Zeinab Badawi:
I mean there is an anomaly isn't there, I mean somebody has talked about the fact that there are an awful lot of Muslim women who in fact can become leaders and Mike Allan from Malaysia asks this question: "Can Muslim women be leaders and can they become the supreme power holder of a country, e.g. prime minister?" He doesn't know his history, does he, we've had Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan.

Meryl Win Davies:
India is the most populous Muslim country on earth.

Zeinab Badawi:
So there's nothing in Islam that says a woman can't be a political leader?

Meryl Win Davies:
It's interesting, Megawati had - this was an issue that was attempted to be raised in the election before Megawati was elected. Both Abdurrahman Wahid and Amien Rais, two leaders of the largest Muslim parties, both came out and unequivocally stated that there was absolutely no reason.

Zeinab Badawi:
Alright. So there's nothing in Islam that says a woman can't be leader and has happened in Pakistan which has a - is an Islamic country and has Benazir Bhutto and has had people in Bangladesh .

Meryl Win Davies:
The leader of the government and the opposition are women in Bagladesh.

Zeinab Badawi:
But let me ask you this, Basma El Shayyal, I mean you're sitting here with your headscarf, I mean that is very much a totemic issue isn't it for a lot of people. I mean, for instance, Anurag in India says: "Why is it that in the 21st Century a majority of women in Muslim countries are nothing but mute spectators, imprisoned behind the veil?" Now he raises the veil and that's something which an awful lot of Western women, in particular, can't understand why Muslim women - why do you cover your head, why do you feel it's important?

Basma El Shayyal:
I think actually quite often when people do discuss that it's excusable for them to think to think that way because that's the vision they see. However, for me personally I don't see it as an imprisonment or as actually something that holds me back. I think it's an empowerment to me, I can be who I want to be dressed this way because in my opinion the way I'm seen is for, for example, my thoughts, for my feelings, for the way I express them, for the person I am, not, for example, what I look like or who I am externally, cosmetically. And that's really something very, very precious and is actually empowering rather than imprisoning and holding me back. And it enables me to go to various places and do certain things that I wouldn't otherwise be able to if, I think, if I was dressed differently. But again that's a personal .

Zeinab Badawi:
Well I'll mention a couple of e-mails here on this topic, agreeing with you in fact Basma El Shayyal, Armid Subaile [phon.] from Riyadh in Saudi Arabia says: "I'm often appalled at how the Western media portrays women in Islamic society wearing a burkah, a veil, is often portrayed as a sign of oppression. Why? My wife covers her face by her own choosing and belief." And indeed another e-mail Stacey Cheatham from Atlanta, Georgia in the US says: "I am a Muslim woman who wears the hijab and work for a major cosmetic company in the US. The hijab is very powerful and protective and there are usually very strong women underneath." You look like a very strong woman Basma El Shayyal, but I mean there is this - an e-mail in fact that we've just had come in live and I'd like to put it to you. Saskia Moore in London says: "Do Muslim women who wear the veil understand that when I see them covered up on the streets of Europe I consider it an insult. It's as if all those hard fought gains that we've made in the West have been thrown back in our faces." It really does make a lot of Western women very angry.

Meryl Win Davies:
And the logic of this is the situation of some friends of mine in Turkey who out of religious conviction choose to wear the veil and because of all this blether end up not being able to be recruited for jobs for which they are fully qualified. So they are being oppressed because they wear the hijab and the secular rulings, whereas the whole idea - look my basic feeling on this is I am not a piece of cloth, the ultimate ruling in Islam is about modesty, modesty is an ethical condition, an interior state, it is a state that is commended to both men and women. I will defend the right of any Muslim woman who chooses to wear the hijab, and do not translate it as the veil because that is so full of orientalist overtones. But I personally gave up wearing it, first of all because it is debatable, as it is not a uniform, it is debatable whether it is absolutely required and secondly, because I'm not a piece of cloth and I'm not prepared to be reduced to a piece of cloth by Muslims or non-Muslims.

Zeinab Badawi:
Basma El Shayyal, just give us an idea, I mean why women wear the veil, and is it to do with the fact that Islam has a different definition of sexuality than say Christianity? Muslim women's sexuality is seen as very active, isn't it, whereas Christian women's sexuality is much more passive. A man's honour is linked to a woman's sexuality in a sense.

Basma El Shayyal:
It would be but then I think that's generally speaking all over and not just within Islam and not just within the Eastern construct. One thing that I find fascinating is that looking at all the icons or all the, for example, miniature statues or drawings or paintings of the Lady Mary, I have not until this very day been able to find a single one with her head uncovered and that's something that I find really fascinating because I think that's such a potent symbol of Christianity and of the mother figure and of virtue and obviously you have things like, for example, the Virgin Birth and the immaculate conception and so on. So that is the pinnacle of, if you like, womanhood in Christianity. And again I really can't find a single image of her with her head uncovered.

Zeinab Badawi:
Is there a prejudice though and somebody does ask this about Muslim women as regards Western women. Joanne Poltron in France says: "If Western countries must show their tolerance and respect of Islamic women's right to wear what they want, why don't Islamic countries respect Western women's right to wear what they wear? I have a feeling we're always being asked to understand Islam but shouldn't this be a two-way street?" I mean it links in fact to another e-mail which is from Rakid Rashman [phon.] in Bangladesh who says: "The Western world treats women as sex objects. Men pressure the women to wear clothes which are quite revealing and if they don't they'll suffer abuse and might never get a husband. Muslim men get to know the real person before they see the woman's body." I mean there is a feeling that some Muslim women have towards Western women that they're somehow more promiscuous.

Basma El Shayyal:
Just to link on to that point of feminism surely the whole point of the struggle for, for example, equality and so on and so forth was so that women can be the way they want to be in any context. So surely dressing the way you want to dress is part of that. We're going and actually trying to fulfil your civic obligations in that. But to get back to that and I think Meryl's point is really important, there is a very, very rigid dress code for men as well as women in Islam and I think that's important to take into account, not just a dress code but in fact the conduct as well, which is more important - things like, for example, lowering your gaze and such like.

Zeinab Badawi: I want to ask you very, very quickly, we've had one e-mail, very quickly, live from Haifa [phon.] in Singapore: "Is female circumcision necessary in Islam?"

Meryl Win Davies:
Mercifully not.

Zeinab Badawi:
Good, I mean it's like honour killings and forced marriages which have no Koranic basis?

Meryl Win Davies:
No and they are all cultural practices which have nothing to do .

Basma El Shayyal:
It's Islamically abhorrent rather than to be encouraged because it causes harm both emotional and physical etc. etc.

Zeinab Badawi:
So do you agree with what Arif in Luton says which is: "Islam is a religion that brings together different cultures under the one banner of Islam, unfortunately some of these cultures also carry with them bad points, e.g. forced marriages, honour killings." And one could add female circumcision.

Meryl Win Davies:
All religions are dependent upon the followers. You are judging Islam as a religion and its teachings by the failed practice of Muslim communities. We are all imperfect and struggling to get better. It is the teachings of Islam that set the goalposts, the objectives, for us. But you are looking at failed humanity in all of its expressions.

Zeinab Badawi:
Alright, would you then both of you agree with what Siti Maktob from Richmond in Canada says: "As a Muslim woman I never feel that I'm oppressed by anyone or by my religion, arranged marriage, divorce, polygamy and the brutality of some men towards women has nothing to do with Islam. There are millions of successful Muslim women who achieve great things in the world."

Meryl Win Davies:
Except that it is our responsibility as Muslims not to passively sit by when there are blatant examples of reductive interpretations of Islam oppressing women. There are real problems in this world where women don't get the education, don't get the health treatment, don't get the inclusion in society, don't get the fulfilment of their rights. We cannot simply say in the abstract Islam says no, when our sisters out there in the real world are suffering for lack of fulfilment.

Basma El Shayyal:
Absolutely, and brothers and Muslims and non-Muslims. So as a Muslim my duty and my responsibility is to try and combat injustice or oppression or any other wrong that I see in the world, whether it be taking place to a Muslim or a non-Muslim, male or female, old or young. And I think that's regardless of gender, ethnicity or anything else. And I think that's really important because Islam actually takes on those cultures, incorporates them and enhances their human dimension, whether, for example, it's a Western culture, an Eastern culture, don't think you can differentiate that much anymore between either of them, and enhances them within a divine framework.

Zeinab Badawi:
In a sentence what would you say to Western non-Muslim women out there who are looking at you, pitying you for both being Muslims?

Meryl Win Davies:
I don't need your pity, I may strategically at times need your help to learn the facts.

Zeinab Badawi:
Alright Meryl Win Davies, Basma El Shayyal thank you very much. That's all we have time for today. My thanks of course to our two guests and to all of you for taking part, those of you who watched and sent e-mails.




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