Bahrain: Seeking Gender Equality in Quran

For the first time, feminists in Bahrain are seeking new Islamic perspectives on gender and women's empowerment, and asking for modern interpretations of the Quran.
Through a series of four workshops, launched in May, the Bahrain Women Association for Development intends to engage the public in serious debate over the "true meaning" of Quranic verses that are used to assert male supremacy. "We aren’t against Islam and don’t want to promote our perspective," explains Asma Rajab, an activist and member of its board of directors. "We want to make our society consider women as complete humans."
With the advances made by Muslim women in many countries including Bahrain, it is time to reinterpret the Quranic verses, she adds. "Islam is a renewable religion that fits all situations and periods, so its regulations should be re-interpreted to meet the advancements of Muslim women," she says.

Social practices that violate women's rights include the law of male guardianship, unequal inheritance, domestic violence and testimony in Shariah courts. Also, the widespread belief that Islam forbids women from becoming presidents, judges and parliamentarians.

These are against Islamic principals, the Association asserts, publicly throwing a challenge to religious scholars and others who insist that women are inferior to men.

The workshops on "Woman, a Renewable Perspective" have been organised to correct centuries of misunderstanding that gender discrimination has religious sanction. The second workshop in the series was held on Aug. 15. The third has been scheduled for December.

"To change the men-oriented societies, the Muslim world should accept the flexibility of the Quran and Islamic thoughts," advises Rajab.

Women are discriminated against in a number of ways. Lawyer Hassan Ismaeel told IPS that Shariah courts that considered two women's testimony equal to one man's were "not realistic and (were) demeaning to women and their achievements."

He also questioned the prevailing unequal male and female inheritance rights, which will be the focus of the last workshop in the series, sometime early next year. "Previously most women were housewives and dependent on men for financial support," he says. "Now things have changed, and both men and women share financial responsibility. So why should men get double the inheritance women get?" he asks.

Religious scholar Shaikh Ibrahim Al Jufairi, who backs Ismaeel's plea, says the Quran has been misquoted on the issue of testimony.

"The verses that say two women need to be counted as one is not for all testimonies but only (in cases) when a man borrows money from another," he says. "One woman is a witness, and the second woman helps the first to remember in case she forgets something."

"The verses have nothing to do with legal cases," he told IPS in an interview.

Al Jufairi is a member of the nearly 10-year-old Al Tajdeed Cultural Society whose members, all highly educated and in big government and private jobs, believe that Islamic thoughts need to be updated.

"Unfortunately most male scholars don’t even accept the testimony of females for the sighting of the moon at the beginning of Ramadan and on the Eids," he says. "It is unacceptable," he asserts. "Women are humans with eyes that can see the moon like men can."

What about male guardianship? Hiba Eizat, professor at the University of Cairo, said emphatically that as a believer she cannot accept that Islam would demean women and treat them as objects owned by men.

"Many Quran verses are misinterpreted and that is clear when militants use the holy book to justify their inhuman acts," Eizat told IPS. "Why should we (females) allow men to control us," she asks, "because some males are refusing to give the rights to women to be independent and have full control of their lives."

"Islam promotes development and that is why it permits new fatwas (edicts), but unfortunately those who issue fatwas are against development and positive change," she says.

And, if women cannot be decision makers like presidents and judges, "how come their fatwas and religious teaching were accepted in the early years of Islam, before the death of prophet Mohammed," Eizat says.

Bahraini researcher, Jalal Al Ghasab, thinks hadiths (the prophet's sayings) have been deliberately misinterpreted to control women and many scholars are aware of it. He cites the example of the different ways that Muslims pray. "Islamic parties have not been able to agree on one way to pray," he says, while appealing to "people with common sense to accept women as equals."

Instead of controlling women, "to protect the reputation of Islam, Muslims should challenge old fatwas by re-reviewing Islamic regulations and ensure full empowerment of women," he said.

But that is not the view of religious lecturer, Fatima Bosandal. She told IPS that the Quran and hadiths cannot be separated. "Islam is clear about inheritance, guardianship, and testimony because of the soft nature of women. Men are responsible for supporting them financially and emotionally," she says.

According to Bosandal, the new effort to seek modern interpretations of the Quran was part of western pressure on the Muslim world to stop following true Islamic principles.

25 August 2009

By Suad Hamada

Source: IPS