Empowerment of Muslim women? Opportunities and challenges

22 February 2008

Irshad Manji, Senior Fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy, said Muslim women should have a bigger leadership role in bringing out Islam’s democratic potential.

She believed that democracy and Islam were “absolutely compatible”, and a study of the Koran showed that it kept a “deliberately divine silence” on what should be the proper form of governance and democracy for any country. However, the starting point for any worthwhile democracy must be the principle of equality for women.

Regrettably, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)’s Arab Human Development Report has consistently emphasised that Arab women lack power, education or freedom in their societies. Given that most countries in the Arab world are Muslim, does this mean that there is something within Islam which opposes women’s equality?

The answer is “no”, said Ms Manji, as the Koran and the history of Islam show how Mohammed encouraged women to be independent. For example, his first wife Khadijah, who was 15 years his senior, was a merchant in her own right and she had originally been his employer. Rabiah, Islam’s first female saint, when offered a choice of four husbands, decided to remain single as none of them was clever enough for her, and the Koran gives all women the right to remain single.

While there are many progressive passages about women within the Koran, the sad reality is that most women in Islam are mistreated, said Ms Manji. For example, there are an average of three ‘honour’ killings a day in Pakistan; in Saudi Arabia, women are property by law and can be passed from one male family member to another; while in Iran, a woman suspected of homosexuality is stoned to death

Some scholars believe the Koran advocates that those who spend money on their family have authority over them, and a recent Arabic human rights charter - the Cairo Declaration - declared that only husbands are eligible to provide for their families. However, insisted Ms Manji, the Koran is as “inconsistent and contradictory” as the Bible or the Torah, and contains both female-friendly and anti-feminist interpretations of a woman’s role in society.

Islam and the culture of ‘honour’

She believed it was not Islam which has relegated women to an inferior status in society, but the Arab tribal culture of ‘honour’, which has become overlaid on the Muslim faith. According to the honour culture, women do not have individual rights, but are the property of their families, tribes and nations.

This concept of ‘honour’ should not be intertwined with the Muslim faith, she insisted. Tribal customs are different from Islam but as Islam is practiced by cultures that live by this ‘honour’ culture, the two have become inextricably linked. Muslim women should question this “honour-bound” interpretation of Islam.

Ms Manji believed that the way to challenge the ‘honour’ culture without opposing Islam was to help women to become financially independent. The Koran says that a woman is allowed to keep all the money she earns, so starting a small business enterprise would give her the possibility of providing for her family and thus no longer being beholden to her husband.

Micro-credit and women’s independence

One way to do this is in Muslim countries is through the system of ‘micro-credit’, small loans to start a business which have to be paid back but under favourable terms. This has been tremendously successful in helping women to support themselves in the developing world, said Ms Manji.

It is also compatible with Islam, she said, citing the case of a Muslim woman in Afghanistan who had started a candle-making business through a micro-credit loan from an NGO. As her business flourished, she learnt to read, which enabled her to recite passages from the Koran to prove to her husband that her small enterprise was within the Muslim tradition. Activities such as these are transforming the concept of women, from being a burden to being role models for society.

One of the most successful examples of using micro-credit to emancipate women has been the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, started by Muhammad Yunus. Mr Yunus had been able to convince husbands and fathers to allow women to accept loans by using the example of Khadjiah, the prophet’s wife.

Ms Manji proposed establishing an international coalition of the rich countries, led by the EU, together with Japan, Australia and other countries, which would agree to contribute part of their annual defence budget to a fund to provide micro-loans for women in the Muslim world.

Explaining why she was suggesting that an alliance of rich countries to support micro-credit should be led by Europeans, Ms Manji said the EU had more credibility in the Muslim world than the US. Under a new American President, the US should be ready to work with Europe, but should understand that it cannot lead the world in everything - even in humanitarian projects.

She believed that this would enable Muslim women to take the lead in creating healthy democratic societies, using entrepreneurship to create “commercial spaces”, and give them back their hope and dignity.

Without this hope, young men and women in the Muslim world are being stifled, she said. Sixty percent of the population in the Arab Muslim world is under 25, a figure which is set to rise. In the current circumstances, these young people do not have any opportunity to express themselves as citizens or economic players, as they are qualified but have little chance of finding employment.

People are not by nature extremists, but it is easy to recruit those who have nothing in this world, with the promise that they will be successful in the next, said Ms Manji. This creates a fertile recruiting ground for the most conservative form of religiosity.

Micro-credit could play a role in stopping this, through emancipating young women and giving them hope. Over the last 30 years, the micro-credit movement has helped Muslim women to improve their lives, and its effects have spread to towns and neighbourhoods.

Otherwise, in a society where women are subservient to men, it is usually the case that these men are subservient to an elite tier of other men. Providing this opportunity for women is constructive, positive and bridge-building. We have an “urgent opportunity” to prove that it can work, she said.