By Smita Deshmukh
A professor of Islamic studies and a well-known global scholar on the subject of Islam, Dr Zeenat Shaukat Ali has authored several books explaining what the Quran says about Muslim women.
At the forefront of the campaign to allow Muslim women to enter the Haji Ali dargah in Mumbai, Ali believes that all traditions banning women in the heart of religious shrines and temples depicts our society’s deep-rooted women-phobia. Firstpost interviewed Ali, here are a few excerpts:
How do you look at the traditions that ban women to enter the sanctum sanctorum in all religious places?
The Shani Shingnapur temple and Haji Ali dargah issue reflects the misogynistic attitude and patriarchal assertions of male domination. It is surprising to see this in a secular democracy like India, where the Constitution gives equal rights to all.
Haji Ali dargah has recently barred women (from 2012) from entry, reverting its earlier stand. Perhaps visiting graves was not held permissible for men and women alike in early Islam as attachment and supplication to the dead were widespread and in Islam worship is meant only for God.
But once the teachings of Islam were well-established, visitation to the graveyards was recommended and encouraged by the Prophet. Women were not excluded from this approval.
This is because the concept and wisdom of visiting graveyards was said to be twofold – one, the reminder of the inevitability of the death and accountability for actions in the Hereafter; two to offer prayers for mercy and forgiveness for departed ones.
Men are, by no means, more in need of this reminder than women. There is no authentic prohibitory order forbidding women to enter graveyards. Many scholars like me hold it permissible for women to visit graves.
Is there enough evidence to show women clearly visited graveyards after it was permitted?
Yes. There are many incidents. Hazrat Ayesha lived in the Masjid-Un-Nabi wherein lies the grave of the Prophet and prayed to Allah. Fatima, the daughter of Prophet used to visit the grave of her grand uncle and would pray there.
Does that mean there is a systematic attempt to undo the social changes that took place in this century that altered the status of women in the society?
Of course! Just look at the way the Prophet treated women. The Quran clearly shows how the Prophet gave material, spiritual, marriage, divorce and above all – leadership rights to women.
It states that whoever – man or woman – is intelligent must rule. The Quran extols the leadership of Queen Bilques as “a woman ruling over them provided with every requisite.” Her qualities of leadership are not measured by her gender but by her capacity to fulfill the requirements of her office, her political acumen, the purity of her faith and her independent judgment.
The Quran does not uphold or assert conceptions of female inferiority nor can a woman be judged as less rational, more emotional or less competent than men on the basis of divine law. It is clear from many sunnah that the Prophet consulted women and weighted their opinions seriously.
My book Empowerment of Women in Islam which came 10 years ago specifies all steps taken by the Prophet to give women their rightful place. But today, there is a clear attempt to turn the clock in the name of traditions and superstitions. This needs to be challenged.
Even during the menstrual cycle days, the focus is on hygiene – not to stress and avoid fasting. But this is turned into superstition. Banning women into the sanctum sanctorum of a dargah goes against the spirit of equality granted to women in Islam.
The Haji Ali dargah matter is reaching the Supreme Court, what do you make of it?
Yes. Politicians are afraid to take stand on religious issues, they are too cautious when it comes to personal laws. I wish the SC listens to scholars than religious heads and activists. It is an important matter to women in India and here I’m giving all evidence. I’ve heard Sri Sri Ravi Shankar also intervening in the issue. It is a positive step. But the Constitution is supreme and clearly speaks of no discrimination on the basis of religion, caste or gender. And Islam endorses this Constitutional clause.
Don’t Muslim women in other parts of the world visit shrines?
The negative implication in the contemporary Muslim world where women are barred from entry to sanctum sanctorum is not witnessed in several Muslim countries.
In Turkey, Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, Iran and other countries, both men and women visit Sufi shrine and tombs alike. In India, without fuss, men and women of every faith visit the celebrated shrine of Sufi saint Khwaja Mohinuddin Chisti and several others.
I recently visited Afghanistan and saw so many women in their Parliament – they are modern and educated. Such a contrast in a country where there is Taliban. Out here, we are still unable to bring 33 per cent women reservation!
Coming to Section 377 debate, you have been emphatic that Islam does not endorse homosexuality, are you open to having a debate?
It says complete no to homosexuality. Islam looks at marriage as a pact between a man and woman and procreation (family) is an important aspect.
I agree whatever happens between two people in their private space is their personal matter. In the changing world, we need a healthy, open debate on the issue of decriminalising section 377. I’m for it. At the same time, we must discuss the issue of child abuse and trafficking also.
In the run up to the Presidential elections in the US, a lot has been said about Muslims by Donald Trump, how do you see those narratives?
In whatever he says, Donald Trump belittles the US. He is merely playing it to the gallery, taking advantage of the troubled times we live in. Daesh (I refuse to call them Islamic State because they do not represent anything that represents Islam) – a group of orthodox, violent, misinformed people are creating problems for the whole world.
They have created a climate of vengeance, though the Quran clearly states to win over your enemies with peace. In the vicious cycle, wars are fought everywhere, arms are supplied in abundance. It has nothing to do with religion. But it is projected as one. This confuses everyone and Donald Trump adds to that confusion.
Smita Deshmukh is a senior journalist and communications expert based in Mumbai. You can follow her on twitter @smitadeshmukh