‘We Sinful Women’ Will Not Be Silenced

by Humera Afridi

Islamic_adam_-_eveI want to hear her: bold; questioning; insistent, refusing to compromise her ideals. I want to understand; to see, her: this woman of deep faith, with a distinctive laugh, who “had no equal among either the women or the men of her century.” Possessed of a brilliant mind and exceptional memory, she was controversial—beloved, reviled, envied, not averse to taking risks in the service of truth and justice. Falsely accused of adultery, she was publicly defended by her husband, Seal of the Prophets and a political leader, who took to the minbar and challenged the men bent on sullying her name and that of his household. At 42, she led an army against the fourth Caliph—the infamous Battle of the Camel in the mid-seventh century—in which she suffered devastating losses. Mother of the Believers, yet herself childless. Youngest wife of Prophet Muhammad. Transmitter of two thirds of his sayings, the Hadith or traditions, that are treasured keys to a deeper understanding of the Quran and the commentaries written on its divinely revealed verses.

But: where is Aisha today?

When we speak of Muslim women, or the status of women in Islam, harking back always to that distant past—seventh century Arabia—which through a prismatic lens continues to determine our present, why are the Mothers of the Believers silent, invisible, absent? Asked whom he loved the most, Prophet Muhammad, magnificent warrior against misogyny in egregiously patriarchal Arabia, unhesitatingly declared, “Aisha!” Aisha in whose lap he breathed his last breath before he passed into the Realm of Beauty.

All this to say, Aisha was far from flat. She was refreshingly complex, multi-dimensional, a “round character”—to borrow a literary term from E. M. Forster—filled with the breath of God. And she wasn't the only one. Well before her, there was Khadijah, the Prophet's first wife—with whom he had monogamous relationship for twenty-five years until her death—savvy business woman, older than him by over a decade, a former widow, who on discerning his gentle and upright character, qualities she deemed attractive in a man, proposed marriage to him when he was a lad of 25 and in her employ.

Yusuf-and-zulaykha-holding-hanThere was Umm Salama, a wife with whom he enjoyed a vibrant intellectual relationship, and who offered him strategic advice when he was faced with a challenge during a battle to which she'd accompanied him. Around Umm Salama the women of the newly Muslim community in the Hejaz gathered to candidly question, and even protest, the gendered revelations of the sacred Book that addressed men and, with the exception of some references to the wives of the Prophet, excluded women. But what about us? Why are we not included? they demanded. Where's our place in this new religion? Is there then nothing about us that merits mention?

I envision Umm Salama playing a role similar to that of a present-day community organizer and advocate. Captivatingly intelligent as she was beautiful, she broached the issue with the Holy Prophet.

“Beloved of Allah, tell me,” she asked, “Why are men mentioned in the Quran and why are we not?”

I imagine her husband, founder of the newly forming religion, receiving her question quietly with unwavering gaze; his light-filled aura, the atmosphere of gentle sobriety that always surrounded him, filling the space between them in her modest quarter. Perhaps, his eyes fluttered closed and he took a breath, full and deep and murmurous as the ocean's floor, then sent up a prayer for guidance. It would be some days before Umm Salama received an answer. But one afternoon, as she was combing her hair, she overheard the Prophet's voice coming from the minbar, reciting in the mosque the latest verse that had been revealed to him.

“O people! Allah has said in his book: ‘Men who surrender unto Allah, and women who surrender, and men who believe and women who believe, and men who obey and women who obey, and men who speak the truth and women who speak the truth and men who persevere (in righteousness) and women who persevere, and men who are humble and women who are humble, and men who give alms and women who give alms, and men who fast and women who fast, and men who guard their modesty and women who guard (their modesty) and men who remember Allah and women who remember—Allah hath prepared for them forgiveness and a vast reward.'” (Surah 33, verse 35; italics mine)

With absolute clarity, and repetitive force, a verse addressing Umm Salama's question had been revealed, removing any doubt of the place and status of women in a community of believers. Women, indeed, had a stake in the topography of the sacred text. There is no refuting that. What strikes me as marvelously refreshing is that the newly converted women of the Hejaz were far from diffident—they protested, asked questions, and expected an answer. And they were heard.

In fact, women's voices and concerns were not merely heard by the Prophet, but, moreover, were sincerely acknowledged and addressed. Complementing Umm Salama's revolutionary verse, a verse on Women—Surah An-Nisa— was revealed, laying out laws on inheritance, rendering women inheritors like their brothers, protecting them from enslavement, and overturning their pre-Islamic status as chattel. Surah An-Nisa created a furor among the male members of the Prophet's community who could not comprehend how this new religion which promised conquests was simultaneously infringing on their material privileges.

***

Fast forward 1400 years. The pulse of celebration has all but faded. We have regressed to the Age of Jahiliyya, the pre-Islamic Era of Ignorance, a time of barbarism, with the murky passions of tribalism, and modern-day capitalism, blinding our sense of justice and truth and ethics, where misogyny is rampant, and the dense, dark aspects of what it means to be human prevail. The new-found gains of the pioneering women of Islam, the spirit of progress and equality introduced through the intercession of the visionary Prophet and political leader Muhammad, were short-lived. Certainly, the spirit of egalitarianism is hard to discern today in the so-called ‘Islamic republics' of the modern world, which function most efficiently as travesties of their self-described identities.

As a woman born into the Islamic tradition, I feel an urgency, am filled with a fury to get it right. If it means plunging into a revisionist journey, going back to the beginning, I say, Let's begin, What's the delay?

In The Veil and the Male Elite, Moroccon sociologist Fatima Mernissi writes:

“Delving into memory, slipping into the past, is an activity that these days is closely supervised, especially for Muslim women. A passport for such a journey is not always a right. The act of recollecting, like acts of black magic, really only has an effect on the present. And this works through a strict manipulation of its opposite—the time of the dead, of those who are absent, the silent time that could tell us everything. The sleeping past can animate the present. That is the virtue of memory. Magicians know it, and the imams know it too.

“To ride alone back into memory with no guardian or guide; to take the paths that are not forbidden, but simply pleasant, agreeable, not heavily traveled, still unexplored (perhaps because power doesn't take that route); to go poking around in the vast areas of the Muslim heritage that is mine—is this a sin for me?” Mernissi asks. (page 10)

To me, what counts as “sin” – a word wrought with Biblical overtones, but so fitting—is not the earnest exploration and reclamation of the hopeful past, but the litany of news headlines screaming out of the raw wound of Pakistan's immediate present:

Pakistani Woman Burned Alive by Mother for Eloping Outside Ethnic Group (Worland, Justin; Time, June 9, 2016)

Pakistani Woman Burned to Death for Refusing Marriage Proposal (Durando, Jessica; USA Today, June 1, 2016)

Pakistani Husbands Can ‘Lightly Beat' Their Wives, Islamic Council Says (Craig, Tim; The Washington Post, May 27, 2016)

'Rampant' Violence Against Women in Pakistan Revealed as Groups Fight ‘Un-Islamic' Law Against Domestic Abuse (Dearden, Lizzie; Independent, April 5, 2016)

One harrowing story after another, weeks apart from each other, all in the last three months. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reports that approximately 900 women were raped and sexually assaulted in Pakistan in 2015. 279 cases of domestic violence were reported while hundreds more remain invisible. There were 143 recorded cases of women being burnt and tortured, 833 reported incidents of kidnappings, 777 reported suicides and attempted suicides involving women. All in 2015. Perpetrators of violence against women remain largely unpunished and free. Fearful of repercussions, and of being socially stigmatized and ostracized, many women who've been assaulted choose to remain silent.

Rampant misogynistic violence unspooling with wild abandon. How can we as a society, as a people—how dare we—remain silent? What do these macabre happenings say about the state of women in Pakistan? About the heritage—and the inheritance—of a Pakistani woman's identity? What does it mean to be Pakistani today? And in the midst of this embattled mentality, all this violence unleashed with ease, what is the responsibility and role of the Pakistani male?

To this sordid matrix, add the draconian stewardship of the Council of Islamic Ideology, a shockingly powerful religious body that advises Pakistani lawmakers on the compatibility of legislations with Islam. This dubious but determined Council of twenty—with its sole female member who has sadly internalized misogynistic attitudes—denounced a landmark women's protection bill in February 2016—the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act—which aimed to criminalize violence against women and establish hotlines and shelters for those confronting domestic, psychological and sexual assault. The Council repudiated the bill on the grounds that the women's protection bill conflicted with the Quran and the teachings of Prophet Muhammad!

Time, indeed, for us all to go back to the very beginning—back to the seventh century— for a refresher course. Time for us to pause, to look deeply at just how distorted and warped Islam and the Prophet's message of justice and equality have become in our modern age.

Writing in the 90's, Mernissi sheds light on the dangerous and execrable state of affairs:

“Not only have the sacred texts always been manipulated, but manipulation of them is a structural characteristic of the practice of power in Muslim societies. Since all power, from the seventh century on, was only legitimized by religion, political forces and economic interests pushed for the fabrication of false traditions. A false Hadith is testimony that the Prophet is alleged to have done or said such and such, which would then legitimate such an act or such an attitude. In this conjuncture of political stakes and pressures, religious discourses swarmed with traditions that legitimated certain privileges and established their owners in possession of them.” (page 8)

Author Mohammed Hanif, writing about the Council of Islamic Ideology in an op-ed in the New York Times, (April 1, 2016) declared: “It's probably the most privileged dirty old men's club in the country.”

I think of these council members shunning the women's protection bill, steeped in their narrow, self-serving judgment of others, worshipping the idols they have made of their egos, utterly misaligned with the spirit and ethos of the spiritual tradition they purport to represent. I think: what if, perchance the Prophet, lustrous hair touching his shoulders, graceful yet imposing in an immaculate robe, by some feat of time and manifestation, were to walk in to their majlis? Would they recognize him? Would they blush in shame at their apostasy? Or would they shun this unlettered Messenger of the Book of Light?

Muhammad understood women better than most, neither fetishizing them nor dominating them, but seeing, recognizing and appreciating them as whole beings within a vast spectrum of endless potentialities—earthy, luminous, enquiring, wild-spirited, desirous, yearning, cosmic. As a lay person, and a woman, I find reading the stories of Muhammad in seventh century Arabia to be surprisingly liberating—freeing of the falsity of limited religion; of the manipulation and domination by convention, patriarchy and political interests.

“Memory and recollection are the dawn of pleasure; they speak the language of freedom and self-development…” writes Mernissi. “They tell us of a Prophet who spoke of absurd things: nonviolence and equality. He spoke to an aristocracy fierce with pride and drunk with the power of the bow.” (page 10)

As I mourn two young compatriot sisters, tragically and savagely murdered in separate incidents earlier this month because they chose to shape the course of their lives— 20-year old school teacher Maria Sadaqat and 18-year old Zeenat Rafique—I pray that we will raise our voices to demand justice, remain vigilant, and insist on laws that ensure women can live their lives free of fear and violence in the Era of Ignorance that has swooped upon us.

***

Pakistani poet Kishwar Naheed's “We Sinful Women,” translated into English by Rukhsana Ahmed in 1991, transmits a soulful and incendiary current which resonates more than ever today.

We Sinful Women

It is we sinful women
who are not awed by the grandeur of those who wear gowns

who don't sell our lives
who don't bow our heads
who don't fold our hands together.

It is we sinful women
while those who sell the harvests of our bodies
become exalted
become distinguished
become the just princes of the material world.

It is we sinful women
who come out raising the banner of truth
up against barricades of lies on the highways
who find stories of persecution piled on each threshold
who find that tongues which could speak have been severed.

It is we sinful women.
Now, even if the night gives chase
these eyes shall not be put out.
For the wall which has been razed
don't insist now on raising it again.

It is we sinful women
who are not awed by the grandeur of those who wear gowns

who don't sell our bodies
who don't bow our heads
who don't fold our hands together.

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