Beyond the veil

FAR too frequently, Muslim women are victims of injustice and discrimination. Apart from the suffering this causes, such primitive attitudes have tarnished the image of Islam. Take the recent Guardian story reporting the efforts of the British High Commission in Islamabad to rescue citizens of Kashmiri and Punjabi origin forced into marriage and virtually kidnapped.

By Irfan Husain

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Published: Thu 22 Dec 2005, 9:52 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 3:11 PM

According to this report, hundreds of such girls are brought to their ancestral homes in Pakistan on the pretext of a vacation. Once here, their passports are taken away, and they are forcibly married to cousins they have never met before.

After being born and brought up in the UK, and suddenly thrust into a primitive environment with a total stranger for a husband, many of the victims try and escape back to Britain. In their desperation, some of them manage to smuggle a message to the British High Commission which, with the help of the local police, organise carefully planned rescue missions.

Once the victim has been freed, she is kept at a shelter run by a local NGO until her travel documents are ready, and she can fly back to Britain. But her ordeal doesn’t end there: she will have to face parents and brothers who connived in her kidnapping in the first place.

The issue of forced marriages and honour killings have been the subject of much discussion and debate in UK and the rest of Europe for some years now. Earlier ignored under the notion of ‘political correctness’ which accepted such behaviour in the name of cultural diversity, these practises are now coming under fire.

From another part of the world comes yet another threat to women: extreme Islamic groups in Bangladesh have vowed to kill women who do not cover themselves completely in public. The warning extends equally to Muslims and non-Muslims. This Talibanesque edict has sent a wave of fear though millions of Bangladeshi women, particularly in the wake of extremist violence there.

In Pakistan, Musharraf’s government has delighted its Islamist allies in Parliament by torpedoing a bill to amend the Hudood ordinance. This absurd law requires that if a woman is raped, she must produce four male witnesses to the crime before the rapist can be convicted. If she can’t, and intercourse is established, she can be punished for fornication.

Imposed by General Zia in the Eighties, this single piece of arbitrary legislation has done more to weaken the position of women in society, and to tarnish Pakistan’s image, than any other law. And although its amendment was proposed by the MQM, a coalition partner in the government, it was resisted tooth and nail by both the religious parties of the MMA as well as the ruling party.

In terms of personal freedoms and access to education and health, Muslim women in the subcontinent lag far behind their non-Muslim sisters despite the many cultural similarities that obviously exist. It is glib to dismiss these inequalities by citing Islamic traditions or law. After all, women in countries like Turkey, Malaysia and so many others in Muslim world are not subjected to such repressive laws and customs.

Even in a secular country like India, despite the Supreme Court decision in the famous Shah Bano case, the Congress government passed a constitutional amendment decreeing that Muslim family law would govern issues like divorce, child custody and so on. This opportunistic act has put Indian Muslim women at a huge disadvantage. In the Canadian province of Ontario, a similar attempt was made by a section of the Muslim community, but mercifully, better sense prevailed among lawmakers, and this initiative was rejected.

Why do so many Muslim men, especially in this part of the world, insist on treating women as chattel whose destiny they control? Why can’t they accept women as equals? While religion is used as an explanation and an excuse, the truth is that more often than not, gender inequalities stem from tribal and feudal customs, many of them pre-Islamic.

Other societies have struggled with these inequalities for centuries, and in many of them, women have gradually cast aside their inferior status, and now play an increasingly important role. Muslim countries, partly due to their general backwardness, have been slower to free their women. But many among them have enforced liberal laws that have transformed their societies, and the position of women, within the space of a couple of generations.

Clearly then, the subjugation of women is not an Islamic injunction. For instance, while the Holy Quran calls for women to dress modestly, it certainly does not require them to be covered from head to foot in heavy fabric. And yet, for many Muslims, the sum total of their beliefs seems to be reduced to a list of things women should and should not do. Most of these repressive edicts have nothing to do with the teachings of Islam.

And if a woman does indeed transgress, surely that is a matter between her and her Maker, and not one to be adjudged by a family member or a mullah. In any society based on justice, the laws must be uniformly applicable to all citizens. However, our repressive Hudood ordinance targets women, and allows rapists to get away scot-free due to the requirement of getting four male witnesses to establish that the crime was indeed committed. Many Islamic scholars have argued that this interpretation is not based on the scriptures, and yet, successive governments have allowed this law to stand for two decades.

Ultimately, the struggle to release women from bondage is a political one. Liberation is seldom handed over; it has to be fought for. We are fortunate to have a number of brave women who have waged a lonely and often silent battle for gender justice. But increasingly, this struggle is coming under the spotlight of international scrutiny.

Unfortunately, Pakistani leadership, and particularly this one, is more receptive to outside pressure than internal criticism. As the Mukhtaran Mai saga showed us, the struggle for human rights is now often a global one. Repression is no longer a sovereign right of despotic rulers and societies. The foot soldiers in the gender wars are no longer alone.

Irfan Husain is an eminent Pakistani commentator based in London. He can be reached at

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