Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Ascent of Woman A book which straightens out mistaken assumptions of most Muslims about feminism.


THE idea of Muslim feminists in this book took its cue from the term “male feminist,” which is known in feminist studies. It refers to men who have a feminist perspective and actively struggle to bring about gender equality and justice in the social order. The term “Muslim feminist”will certainly sound very unusual for most of the Muslim community. This is because the term feminism already has a negative connotation and is usually not considered to be Islamic, and is thus not suitable to be combined with the word “Muslim.”

Many Muslims have a mistaken understanding of feminism. It is considered to be: a movement which was created to weaken the Muslim faith, women going against their natural disposition, enmity towards men, and the rebellion of women against their household obligations. It is even considered a rejection of Islamic law. All of these views are mistaken, and for that reason need to be straightened out. This is why the courage of Mohamad Guntur Ramli to choose the title Muslim Feminists is commendable. In addition to popularizing this unfamiliar term, he is also straightening out mistaken assumptions which have limited the thinking of most of the Muslim community.

So then, what is feminism? Over its history, the feminist movement has always defined itself as a movement which opposes the unfair treatment of women. In essence, it rejects any form of discrimination, exploitation, or gender-based violence against women, for whatever reason. In other words, feminism is
a social transformation effort which aims to bring about a social system and institutions which are more fair and egalitarian in terms of gender. The substance of the feminist movement is to struggle for a social order which is fair in terms of gender, a society which is free from all forms of discrimination, exploitation and violence. If this is the case, then it is very appropriate to call Prophet Muhammad a feminist. This is because the Prophet came to free mankind, women in particular, from the shackles of thagut (idolatry or tyranny) and khurafat (deviations in religious belief), by introducing the concept of tawheed (pure monotheism).

Tawheed is Islam’s core teaching, which teaches proper religious devotion and then guides mankind to proper human behavior. In daily life, tawheed is the central handhold which guides and directs the Muslim community to act properly, whether in the relationship with Allah, fellow human beings, or even with the natural world. The correct understanding of monotheism will carry mankind to a high level of awareness about humanity, so that people no longer exploit one another and do not damage the environment. The Prophet taught that the main duty of mankind—both men and women—is the same, namely to become khalifah fil ardh (managers of life on earth). Men and women must race to perform the best deeds (fastabiqul khairat). In this book, Guntur writes about three Muslim feminist figures from Egypt, covering the history of their struggles. First is Sheikh Rifaat al-Tahtawi (1801-1873), with the concept of equality. He brought up the need of the Muslim community to cease oppressing women, and to give them wide access to education. According to him, the level of refinement of a society can be seen by how far it respects the rights of women.

Second is Sheikh Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905), who was very vocal about the equality of men and women. This is because both were created from the same element. There were at least four gender issues that he focused on: marriage, polygamy, inheritance laws, and divorce. Abduh’s thinking had a liberal bent which utilized rationality in interpreting religious texts. In fact, the methodology of interpretation he developed became the progenitor of modern hermeneutics.

Third is Qasim Amin (1863-1908), who is known for his two books, Tahrir al-Mar’ah (The Liberation of Women) and Al-Mar’ah al-Jadidah (The New Woman). His famous statement is: the progress of a people is influenced by the condition of progress of its women. He rejected the use of hijab, the clothing which covers the entire body of women, making it difficult for them to freely conduct public activities. He also endeavored to advance education for women so they could take part in educating their people.

In short, these feminist figures challenged the traditions of patriarchal culture, such as polygamy, the obligation to wear hijab, and being forbidden to leave the home, all of which are detrimental to Egyptian women. In addition they criticized understandings of Islam which were enveloped in takhayul (superstition) and khurafat, understandings which did not free Muslims from the shackles of ignorance, resulting in their being continually trapped in unawareness, poverty, and obstinacy. They called on the Muslim community to think critically, rationally, and openly. Each idea and concept, wherever it comes from, East or West, North or South, must be responded to critically and proportionally. Only in this way will the Muslim community be able to advance and be successful, as it did during the previous “Golden Age” of Islam.

This means that each idea must be read critically so that its positive and constructive aspects can be discerned, as well as throwing out the negative and destructive aspects. Of course, the Muslim community must still hold firm to the essence of Islamic teachings which are recorded in the Qur’an and sunnah (of the Prophet). However, the reading of those sacred texts needs to rest on the universal Islamic principles of justice, freedom, equality, benefit, and humanitarianism. And God knows best.
-- Siti Musdah Mulia for Tempo Magazine Jakarta

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