Are Women’s Rights in Islam Compatible with Modern Society?
3 May 2017, European Parliament, Brussels – The International Organisation to Preserve Human Rights (IOPHR) organised the event “Are Women’s Rights in Islam Compatible with Modern Society?” in the European Parliament which was sponsored by MEP Esteban González Pons (EPP), MEP Julie Ward (S&D), MEP Anthea McIntyre (ECR) and MEP Beatriz Becerra Basterrechea (ALDE). Vice President of the European Parliament, MEP Mairead McGuinness, MEP’s from the Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM) and Human Rights (DROI) committees as well as numerous women’s rights organisations, policy makers and members of the Muslim community joined the event to listen and participate in this crucial debate, and exchange ideas on the position of women’s rights in Islam.
The event was organized with the aim of discussing the compatibility of women’s rights with Islam, and uncover common misconceptions within societies and media about the relationship between gender inequality and the religion of Islam.
Dr. Seyed Mostafa Azmayesh, a Jurist Scholar, a Human Rights activist, Founder of IOPHR, and an expert on Quranic misinterpretations, underlined the crux of the debate – we are dealing with two separate topics, one being the violence and inequality that claims to come from Islam, and on the other hand are the core teachings of the Quran. He pointed out the need to differentiate between the violence hidden behind the name of Islam, and the core teachings of the Quran. We need the historic and contextual knowledge, in order to fully understand and address gender inequality and gender based violence. Dr. Azmayesh stressed on the fact that religious violence does not exist. What exists is violence created by man, which has been hidden under the name of a religion, in order to give it legitimacy. Contrarily, the religion of Islam is based on gender-neutrality, peace and tolerance, as stressed by Dr. Azmayesh based on his years of research in the field. The issues we see today, are not a new problem; they are as old as the apparition of Islam itself. Dr. Azmayesh gave a historical account to explain these radical and extremist interpretations of the Quran.
During the life period of Prophet Mohammad, two different versions of Islam were born in the city of Medina, under the name of the same religion. When the Prophet tried to propagate teachings of the Quran, there was an outright rejection from the Bedouin, inhabitants of the Arabian peninsula, who strongly believed in tribal traditions rooted in patriarchy. With time, these tribes began accepting the Quran according to their own interpretations, which was in line with their tribalistic world-view. They rejected the true ideology of the Quran being propagated by Prophet Mohammad, and essentially created their own version of Islam, which they furthered by building mosques and preach this new version. The tribal traditions were preached under the name of Islam, which took root in the minds of audiences. The Quran refers to such people as hypocrites – those who talk of Islam with their tongue, but their hearts remain attached to a barbaric world-view. Consequently, we see issues of gender-inequality and gender-based violence of women in our society today. But what is worse is that these groups of perpetrators legitimize their illegal and immoral actions by relating it back to Islam, and claiming that their actions are dictated by Islamic teachings.
We therefore see the pretext of Islam being used by those who wish to legitimize their actions, and control a large group of people to infiltrate minds with tribal tendencies. Dr. Azmayesh stresses that there are several man-made practices we see today, which are completely absent in the Quran. Concurrently, we see majority of the Quran being ignored and never talked about. For instance, 92 percent of the Quran refers to developments in science, including the creation of cosmos, the stars, planets and the sun, as well as the development of the foetus, among many other scientific dimensions. The entirety of the remaining 8 percent of the Quran consists of a social framework that includes social laws, trading laws, individual laws, familial laws, penal laws, civil laws, contract law, etc. Dr. Azmayesh’s research indicates that the former portion is entirely ignored, and the remaining 8% is focused on, but these sets of social laws are extremely misunderstood and taken out of context as well. This 8%, referred to as Sharia law, has become the Islam we know today. The modern day conundrum, as per the Jurist-Scholar, is that the perceived religion of Islam is based on a very small and highly misunderstood portion of the Quran, which does not even come close to depicting the true picture of Islam. Dr. Azmayesh stresses in his speech, the need for modern society to talk about the place of social contracts inside the teachings of the Quran, as well as distinctly differentiating the peaceful core of Islam, from a version we see today that is used as a tool for power, control and violence.
Ms. Mattie Heaven, an active human rights activist and researcher in the field, gave a personal account of her journey as a Muslim woman, growing up in a Muslim household, who chose to question the patriarchy of Islam imposed on her from a young age. She explained how she was told that the Quran contains more rights for men, than women; that the value of a woman is half of that of a man. The social norms across the community dictated this world-view of inequality as being rooted in religion. The rationale given was that since one does not understand the Quran, he/she should accept the interpretations being given to them, and not ask too many questions. This religious imposition did not sit well with Mrs. Heaven, who began her journey of research into Quranic teachings. She came across several textual interpretations, each one varying in its message, based on an author’s personal opinions and translations. With thorough research, she found that there is absolutely no imbalance in teachings of the Quran, and that the core text itself is gender neutral, tolerant and peaceful. Her research shows that the imbalance stems from unpredictable interpretations floating around societies across the world, propagating false views that are far removed from the Quran.
For instance, a very common topic of social debate is the hijab and how, in several societies, it is mandatory for women to cover their heads. Ms. Heaven says that there is no evidence of any such rule or norm in the Quran, as per her research. The word hijab does exist, but it is in reference to a veil between this world and the next world. Due to the existing patriarchal society, certain words from the Quran were being taken out of context and used as a way of justifying oppression of women. Certain words, like the hijab, have had their meanings modified, to suit the needs of those propagating a certain message, or looking to impose a certain norm upon its followers. These misinterpretations get passed down over generations, and lead us to the present day riddled with social evils. Ms. Heaven found knowledge and research of the Quran as a form of empowerment. She advocated for the importance of distinguishing the Quranic texts from its misinterpretations, and being mindful of the context and historic nature of the text when reading it. She urged every individual to ask the key question of whether something is a part of true religious teachings, or is it a mere socio-cultural construct imposed by those looking for power and control.
Former Scotland Yard Detective, Chief Superintendent Gerry Campbell, gave an account of how gender inequality manifests itself in the form of violence on women, with social evils like Honour Killings, Forced Marriages, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and Hate Crime. In his years of public service and advocacy for community safety, he came across several cases of violence on women and girls being done in the name of Islam. As per his findings, gender-based violence is rooted in social and cultural practices, and not religion itself. It is derived from outdated cultural practices, lack of gender equality, backward mind-sets, and a false belief of one’s honour being under attack. He stresses on the fact that all the issues of violence we see are man-made; it is men exercising power and control over women, to control their day-to-day lives, sexuality and sexual autonomy. In his experience, such abuse continues to be perpetrated across communities, due to religious misinterpretations. He made a call to policy makers to recognize the reality and true cause of such violence. He also made a call to all men within the community, to recognize their responsibility and condemn such social evils, considering how statistics show that the principal perpetrators of such violence and abuse are men themselves. Mr. Campbell concluded with highlighting Education, Employment and Women’s Empowerment, as three pillars to the equality we aim to achieve.
Vice Chair of the sub-committee on Human Rights and member of the committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality, MEP Beatriz Becerra attributed the root of the issues on hand, to the lack of a unified vision of the Quran, and the various unpredictable interpretations creating different sects and practices within one religion. She advocated for a unified vision of the core of Islam, that would deactivate the multiple threats of violence, radicalism and gender-based abuse posed by misinterpretation of texts. Some of the most harmful threats from radical misinterpretations, like Wahhabism practiced in Saudi Arabia, has been repeatedly identified by the European Parliament as the main source of global terror, and as being incompatible with a modern society rooted in democracy, equality and the rule of law. She highlighted the Marakesh Declaration of 2016, which declared the Medina Charter (7th century) to be in harmony with the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and that the Medina Charter forms a basis for human and civil rights in modern Muslim countries, establishing principles of citizenship, justice and equality before the law. This, in itself, is proof of the Islamic core being compatible with women’s rights and human rights. Lack of knowledge generates hate, and MEP Becerra encouraged everyone, especially the youth, to equip themselves with tools to expand one’s knowledge and reiterated the need for a truthful and unified vision of the core of Quranic teachings.
MEP Julie Ward, a member of the committee on Culture and Education and Women’s Rights and Gender Equality, gave an account of several remarkable women across European communities, in Kashmir, Turkish Kurdistan and many Palestinian women, who work tirelessly and present a vision of societies that overcome violent extremism through continued dialogue, with women taking the lead. During her experiences in office, she found violent interpretations of Islam to be toxic. She campaigned for further investment in civic as well as academic education to raise awareness about the true core of Quranic teachings, and women’s voices being heard at the forefront of these issues. Only then can we create an effective global strategy to combat oppression and abuse against women.
Keynote speaker, MEP Pons concurred with the same line of argument, stressing on education being paramount, and women’s voices resonating loud and clear whenever we discuss these issues. He believed it to be imperative for honest and fair debates like these to continue, with expert opinions of academics and activists across the board.
It is crucial to remember that knowledge and communication are the way forward. Every individual should empower themselves with education, thus being able to critically differentiate the true texts from its misleading and radical misinterpretations. Furthermore, there needs to be a continued dialogue about the fight for gender-equality across communities, and how such inequality along with religious misconceptions, manifest themselves in the form of gender-based violence and abuse on women.