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The predominance of male-dominated interpretations of canonical texts has often caused analysts and others to proclaim the inherently dangerous relationship between religion and women.
For example, the abundance of stories (some factual and others fictional) that focus on the unequal status of Muslim women’s experiences tends to reaffirm such assessments about the dangers inherent in women identifying with or practicing Islam. “Honor”-based violence against numerous Muslim women, denial of their basic human rights in the name of religious authenticity, and the extreme cases of threats to the lives of Muslim women (as so horrifically exemplified in the attack on Malala Yusufzai) validate the negative assessments of Islam’s meaning for Muslim women. But such assessments focus on Muslim women as the victims of religion and often fail to appreciate the empowerment a number of these women experience precisely as a result of their faith in the unity of God (Tawhid), and the belief in Prophet Mohammad as the last messenger of God. The agency of women by virtue of their faith is often overlooked.
Muslim history is replete with examples of women who have left their mark in religious, political or social spheres of their respective societies. They managed to do so not despite their Muslim identities but precisely because of their belief in Islam. My lovely mother, Begum Sarfraz Iqbal (1939-2003) is one of those women. Born on March 8— the International Women’s Day— she manifested all the essential characteristics of a woman determined to lead, be the agent for change, and question practices of which she did not approve. While patronizing Urdu literature in Pakistan, writing columns and books and appreciating the finer points of art and culture, she retained a hold over all those who came in contact with her. Hauntingly beautiful, with a melodious laughter and beaming honesty, she would candidly let politicians, generals and religious leaders know if and when she disagreed with their ideas and policies. Often dressed in the latest fashion outfits, it was hard to imagine that she had a strong relationship with her faith— Islam. But she did.
Born in a practicing Muslim family, she learned about Islam from her father, Hameed Ahmed, who introduced her to the writings of Abul Kalam Azad. Later, though married at an early age to my father, Malik Mohammad Iqbal khan, she continued to learn about the faith. Her library at our family home included books on Islam ranging from very orthodox to very progressive interpretations. The knowledge gave her the confidence to own Islam as a significant part of her life, celebrate it, and use it to question unacceptable interpretations. It endowed her with an independence that I am only now beginning to appreciate: she could joke with Qazi Hussain Ahmed, the former leader of Jamaat-e-Islami, that she would be willing to join the party provided it accepted her without attempting to change her! She would inform Maulana Fazlur Rehman — who lived in our neighborhood— that he needed to discuss Pakistani politics with me. And she would comfortably share her opinions against the impending religious fanaticism with some very orthodox Muslim leaders.
But what I remember more than anything else is her early morning rituals: she would wake up, say her prayers and then spend a few hours that, in her words, were for her and Allah. She would not compromise on those hours. Even when we would visit her from overseas, she would ask us to leave her alone until she had completed her prayers. She wanted to find God. So strong was her search for that close relationship with God that a few months before she passed away, she met a Sufi teacher. All other women were busy asking the Sufi master to pray for them so that they could be successful in different ways. “What do you want?”, he asked my mother who sat in a corner of the room. “ My Rubb (Allah),” she responded. “It is a difficult task,” the Sufi teacher commented. “But I will find him,” she said with love and devotion in her voice.
And now that she is no longer with us, I realize how her search and love for God within the framework of Islam imbued her with the strength to cope with all that life brought her way. It enabled her to voice her ideas with a clarity and conviction that others could not ignore even if they did not agree with her. It enabled her to carve out a space in Pakistan — a country not always known for the positive aspects of Islam— and leave her mark.
Professor Samina Yasmeen is Director of Centre for Muslim States and Societies and lectures in Political Science and International Relations in the School of Social and Cultural Studies, the University of Western Australia (UWA), Perth. Professor Yasmeen is a specialist in political, and strategic developments in South Asia (particularly Pakistan), the role of Islam in world politics, and citizenship among immigrant women.