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The holy writ

by Javed Anand, 2 January 2013

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Indian Express

January 02, 2013

Even as we hang our heads in shame over the heinous, murderous gangrape of a 23- year-old woman (not “girl”, please, no one refers to a male the same age as a “boy”), demands and suggestions keep pouring in from various quarters on how to check the growing violence against women. Many among the angry young women and men agitating against the police and political inaction are demanding a new law, nothing short of the death penalty, for rapists. Women’s organisations are warning that, if anything, this will seriously endanger the life of rape victims.

Beyond the what-punishment-for-rapists debate are voices pointing towards rape within homes. And the fact that rape is the most vicious, but by no means the only, form of violence that women experience in their daily lives. It is therefore rightly being suggested that a more comprehensive approach is needed to address the issue of rampant gender violence. Yes, the police, the politicians and even the judiciary must be held to account. But what about our own complicity, our own patriarchal mindsets?

Among the many “holistic” approaches being offered is one from former IPS officer and India Against Corruption activist, Kiran Bedi. Bedi suggests a crime prevention plan that addresses “6 Ps” simultaneously: police, people (society), prosecution, politician, prison and press (news media and film industry). To these, may I add a seventh P: priests, the upholders-in-chief of “tradition”. Our soaked-in-religion cultures teach us that women are inferior to men; male imagination and interpretation take care of the rest. If the root of women’s subordination and oppression lies in patriarchy, should not organised religions be interrogated as well? Name a religion whose high priests do not perpetuate patriarchy.

While this is a malady that afflicts all organised religion, this column is limited to the preachers of Islam since that’s familiar territory for this writer. Mention the words “marital rape” and most maulvis, maulanas and muftis will stare back at you in sheer disbelief. Verses from the Quran, the hadith (teachings of the Prophet) and the entire Shariah corpus will be lined up to establish that the husband is his wife’s “master”, whose “natural urges” must be taken care of.

In many parts of India, a book by the late Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi, Bahishti Zewar (Jewels of Paradise), is part of the baggage that a new bride must carry to her husband’s home. The book educates the bride on her duties towards the husband: “She must obey, respect, serve, love, console and play with her husband in everyday life and in all matters”.

There will be the citing of fatwas that command a wife to drop everything and place herself at her lord’s disposal as and when he desires sex. One such fatwa by the highly revered 13th century scholar, “Shaykh al-Islam” Ibn Taymiyyah: “a woman forfeits her right to maintenance and clothing if she does not let her husband be intimate with her. He has the right to hit her if she persists in being defiant.”

“When a man calls his wife to his bed, and she does not respond and he (the husband) spends the night angry with her, the angels curse her until morning,” reads an oft-quoted hadith. Even a Quranic verse might be recited to establish a husband’s right to sex-on-demand.

With so much of orthodox, traditional Islam heavily loaded in his favour, there are few places in the world where the Muslim man is as privileged as in India. Here, he has the right to divorce his wife in an instant (triple talaq), on a mere whim or in a momentary fit of anger, no explanations needed. An email, an SMS, fax, anything will do.

Is this Islam? It is certainly not my understanding of Islam. And I am not the only one. Across the globe, an ever-increasing number of Muslim men and women, clerics, scholars and well-informed activists are questioning the patriarchy that comes dressed as Islam. Among the challengers is Farid Esack, an imam from South Africa. He wrote a paper a few years ago, seeking “forgiveness” from all Muslim women: “For being part of the privileged gender and for my own role — even if only by identification — in a theological tradition that upholds an Islam which sanctions discrimination and according to most interpretations, also violence, against women and marital rape”.

In the ongoing debate — movement, hopefully — to end all forms of gender indignity, we must not forget the role of the protectors and promoters-in-chief of patriarchy and misogyny: the high priests of all organised religions.

The writer is general secretary, Muslims for Secular Democracy and co-editor, ‘Communalism Combat’

P.S.

The above article from Indian Express is reproduced here for educational nd non commercial use