With the Anglo-American world once again rattled after the recent spate of bombings in London, questions about Islam and liberalism have once again become the frontispiece of world news. Whether to be in ever preparedness for battle, whether to undertake racial profiling to put a halt on further attacks, whether to pull out of the Iraq imbroglio before the mess worsens - these are questions preoccupying global political and security pundits.
In the midst of such disturbing developments there have also occurred certain other ‘events’ - events that have caused many of us to pause and reconsider the variegated character of the so-called Islamic world. I refer here to certain developments that have shaken the world of Muslim women - in particular the rapes of Imrana in India, Dr. Shazia Khalid in Pakistan, and most recently a television program called Corridors in Afghanistan.
The cases of Imrana and Khalid are quite well-known by now. Both have received a considerable amount of press in South Asia and have elicited responses from writers and commentators in different parts of the world. Salman Rushdie recently used these events to condemn a culture of rape that exists in South Asia, a culture whose origins he attributes "to the unchanging harshness of a moral code based on the concepts of honour and shame."
I do not wish to argue here with Rushdie’s characterization of entire cultures in this manner. Nor do I wish to debate the solution - the institution of a uniform civil code - that he proposes. For me, the Rushdie piece and various other op-ed items that have appeared especially on the Imrana and Khalid cases are a welcome sign because of the possibility they embody of a serious debate in the global public sphere about the status of Muslim women.
The conditions for such a debate however by definition demand that there are differing points of view in circulation. It won’t do to condemn certain events as "medieval" and hope that the institution of modern law will have a solution. At the same time we cannot possibly give up our right to talk about these events and the judgments passed on these women on the grounds that they happen to be matters internal to a particular faith. A brief look at the events in question will make it clear that adjudication of "honor and shame" is not all that goes on in the Islamic world.
Imrana has agreed to stomach the decision made by the Deoband seminary (Darul Uloom). She has accepted that she must forsake her husband’s home since getting raped by her father-in-law has made her "haram" - unclean, impure, contaminated, and tainted - to cohabit with her spouse.
Shazia Khalid was packed off to London by the state authorities in Pakistan. Openly threatened by the state and her family in her own country, she now lives in a tiny flat with her husband, having been forced to leave her adopted son Adnan behind. Her career as a doctor appears over for all practical purposes. Yet she tearfully dreams the dream of one day going back to Pakistan to start a hospital for battered women. Ironically Pakistan is too far off for her as is Canada, another country where she tried to get asylum. But Khalid continues her fight, a fight in which she has the solid support of her husband and certain sections of the global media.
Corridors, telecast by a private channel Tolo TV, reportedly featured a program recently where a young woman spoke out against her parents for forcibly getting her engaged. In many ways a typical story of the victory of ‘love’ over ‘arranged’ marriage, the young woman ran away to Kabul and married someone of her own choosing. What makes this tale exceptional is the locale where it took place - Afghanistan, a country where a woman can be imprisoned for breaking off a "genuine" engagement.
According to the BBC the program also featured the girl’s parents and her irate fiancé. The latter’s anger hits one, especially another woman reading it, like a body blow. "Everyone has sisters and mothers," he said, "and as a result of all these women's rights, a man might go to work during the day and come home to find his wife has run off with someone else or someone's taken her." It does not take a rocket scientist to understand why a young woman might not find the speaker of these lines a particularly appealing suitor.
The critical factor about all the three cases is that they have spurred a debate in the places where they took place. I know that for most of us saturated by news of abuses against women, and especially Muslim women in South Asia this does not sound like much. But I want to insist that we use these three episodes to think about how to start talking again about being Muslim in today’s world.
The presenter of the TV program, Corridors, Humayoon Daneshyar, intended his show as an agent of change. He hoped that this episode would caution families trying to push their daughters into forced marriages. They know now, he argued, that their daughters might speak out on television too and shame them. But not everyone is as welcoming of the prospect of change. Fazl Hadi Shinwari is Afghanistan's Chief Justice, head of the Supreme Court and an Islamic scholar. He wants Tolo TV banned, objecting in particular to women appearing unveiled. Yet, despite what the high and mighty may desire women in Afghanistan are enthused by the program. Shamsola Mazai of Afghanistan's Human Rights Commission has been reported as saying that they have seen a sudden increase in women seeking help, partly because of television coverage like this.
It is not my point that a few articles and television programs will suddenly change the world. But they do serve a purpose. And that is to force us to intellectually and socially engage with certain maladies of modern societies. Yes, I don’t think that it is accurate to describe the brutalisation of women in certain regions of the world as a throwback into some kind of medievalism. It is by no means the case that these are especially Muslim oddities whose roots go back unproblematically to the Quran.
Much like "jihad", a topic that has with good reason led to a surfeit of scholarship, the world of Muslim women too awaits serious attention from academics, policymakers, and feminists. Most writers on jihad disagree with one another on their understanding of the phenomenon. Yet, their disagreements are welcome because it lifts a veil of silence from matters theological and religious and places them in the open for debate in the public sphere.
I think the same kind of attention needs to be paid to Muslim women in South Asia. Saba Mahmood’s recent book Politics of Piety based on a religious-political movement of Muslim women in Egypt is a inspiring example in this regard. We need more scholars to step forward and speak about the everyday of Muslim women - not just the stories of their oppression but also accounts of their self assertion in the public realm, their place in the political economy of contemporary societies. India has just had its first female qazi, women in the ‘dawa’ movement in Egypt have publicly claimed the right to read the Quran and have entered the public sphere in an extremely visible manner as pious subjects.
These examples bring to light the multi-faceted nature of Islam. Indian history too is replete with examples that make it clear that the history of Islam on the subcontinent is richly polysemic. Some scholars, most notably Shahid Amin, Muzaffar Alam, C.M.Naim, and Richard Eaton have for long been exploring the intimate histories of Hindu-Muslim relations. Professor Naim’s contributions on this site [A 'Hyper-Masculinised' Islam? and The Hijab And I] beautifully illustrate another side of Muslim womanhood and force us to think sociologically about what went wrong and when. At the same time, there are also histories of personal intimacies - of inter community marriages and the emergence of faiths that are a merger of the Hinduism and Islam.
We all know of Akbar, and subsequent Muslim monarchs marrying into non-Muslim families. Yet, we have very little knowledge the actual discussions and negotiations that preceded such marriages. We know that Jodhabai continued to remain a practicing Hindu after her marriage to Akbar. What theological/ religious arguments were deployed on either side so that neither was considered to be defaming their respective faiths? The Muslim world in medieval India was not completely sealed off from their Hindu brethren and vice versa. What elements of personal law and faith did the two communities share and how did they discuss these interactions on theological grounds? It is only now that there has been a near complete sealing off of the ‘personal’ domain, an unshakeable resolve that such matters need not be discussed by a general public and should be the preserve of the cleric.
And what good has such sealing off done? In the Irfana case, the Chief Minister of the state Mulayam Singh Yadav supports the decision of the ulama without even making a pretense of engaging with the issue. The thinking apparently has been done by the ulama and the victim would do good to obey. Yet, there are other schools of Islamic thought that rule that a man who nurtures such lust, and goes to the extent of acting on his desires on the body of his daughter-in-law must also be severely punished. For Shazia Khalid who was reportedly asked to produce four witnesses of her rape because that was the "Islamic" rule, one wonders whether that is the only interpretation of what the book ordains. But where is the room for such discussions when we have given up our right to speak on such matters to the official gatekeepers of the faith?
This is why I welcome programs like Corridors. The fact that it gave a platform to people to speak their contradictory points of view before an anonymous public on a prime time current affairs program is a huge step. One of the most positive effects of globalization has been the proliferation of the media in India. Indian viewers are increasingly getting used to witnessing heated debates - debates that often pit politicians and public intellectuals of differing hues against each other within the confines of the studio - on socio-political issues on television in both English and the vernaculars. Even when the debates are inconclusive, or produce more heat than light, they remain valuable in nurturing a democratic ethos. Corridors represents a similar opening up, albeit on a small scale in Afghanistan. Perhaps a baby step, but it seems to remind us all that it is really important in today’s crazily anarchic world to not give up our commitment to discussion. A discussion that is fearless to broach issues ranging from questions of faith, to legality and rights, and proper social conduct.
Rochona Majumdar is an assistant professor in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago.