Women and Islam – The Gender Struggle in South Africa: The Ideological Struggle

This was transcribed from Shamima Shaikh's presentation at the Muslim Youth Movement's Islamic Tarbiyyah Programme held from 19 to 23 December 1997. Her presentation was made 17 days before her death on the 8 January 1998. Most of the talk was prepared while she lay in hospital having her lungs drained. During that time as well as when she presented the talk she was drugged with morphine and cortisone.


17 Days before her death delivering a paper on women and Quraan


Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim

Alhamdulillah al-ladhi hadana li hadha wa ma kunna li nahtadiyya lawla an hadhanallah

In the Name of God, Most Gracious, the Dispenser of Grace

All praise is to Allah, Who has Guided us to this. Were it not for His Guidance we would surely have been lost.



We will be discussing an important arena of the Struggle in upholding the dignity of Muslim women in Islam and the Muslim community. That is the Ideological struggle – the struggle to grasp the existing controversial and conflicting perception of the status, position, worth and constitution of women – a perception used to control women’s actions and status. For Muslims, this perception is supposed to be derived primarily from the Qur'an and Sunnah.

We will look into verses in the Qur’an that deal with principles and practices or law to ascertain the Qur’anic concept of Women and Gender Identity. For Muslims the Qur’an is the basis. I was also going to look at Hadith, but unfortunately this already looks like it will take all the time available.

A good book for you to look at on the Prophetic Community is Leila Ahmed’s Women, Gender and Islam.

But now I’m going to look only at Qur’an. The reason I want to look at it is in order to grasp the existing controversy and conflicting perceptions on the status, position, worth and constitution of women, perceptions used to control women’s actions and status. The perception is that Islam has placed a low status on women and a higher one for men. We will look at the verses that deal with principles and practices or law to ascertain the Qur’anic concept of women’s gender identity.


An intellectual Exercise?

The question one could ask is: Is it just an intellectual exercise.

Some activists regard an ideological investigation as an "intellectual exercise" undertaken by people not involved in the real issues.

When I informed the ITP co-ordinator about the focus of this paper, this is how she responded in her email message to me:

> Regarding the brief itself, I have only to indicate that when this
> topic was suggested in the first place, I expressed that we have to
> look at new ways of tackling the issue because we always cover the
> same ground and get nowhere due to the stubbornness and even
> arrogance sometimes on the part of ourselves to accept what is
> actually a very black and white issue. That is why I suggested
> initially that, instead of trying to "emancipate" a group of
> middle-class, somewhat pampered women who really have no affinity to
> the REAL issues facing the struggle for gender equality in this
> country, we devote our precious time to looking at ways for bringing
> the Gender Desk closer to reality, like the W.Cape has done. It is
> fine by me if you want to look at Qur'anic perspectives and all
> that, but I think that the idea that we are actually going to GET
> somewhere, or make known some things that were not known before,
> needs to be read with caution

I think I agree with the co-ordinator, the liberal class does do that. But in Islam the Qur’an applies to all, whether it’s post-middle, pre-middle or working class. The same laws apply to the couple, the same laws apply to the man. And all classes need to know that because that forms the basis of their identity. So it’s slightly different, and also I thought it was important that we deal with that, because in my experience – and I’ve been working with women since I’ve been the Gender Desk Co-ordinator more focussed on gender issues. And in Johannesburg they’re working with women in divorce cases, women that have been beaten and a whole host of women. And the only advice that I could give them was one that the Qur’an says this about you, gives you a status. Because I find it very difficult to tell somebody something that they don’t believe in. I can’t tell them, "Yes, get divorced." But I can tell them, "You have a right to get divorced. The choice is now yours." I suggest that they go for some social welfare service. So I think there’s a need for both kinds of things: like the one Cape Town (MYM) has and the kind of thing… What Cape Town does is integrate both. The more people know these issues, the more people will integrate them or deal with one only before the problem arises. So that’s how it should go.

We cannot altogether dismiss the need for support and other social welfare services, and as long as the problems exist, it is essential that we have social welfare and other institutions that can provide necessary relief for victims. And these problems will continue for as long as there is confusion regarding the correct and liberatory Qur’anic position on women. We must tackle the problem itself and for Muslim women, Islam and the Qur’an can be both a force of empowerment and undermining and disempowerment. It is the source Muslims accept unflinchingly.

The conflict and, yes, sometimes confusion in our understanding of Islam and gender status arises from the complex way in which a society works.


Forces within the Muslim community that cause conflict and confusion in understanding Women, Gender & Islam

After 1400 years it appears that there is still confusion and conflict as to the status of women in Islam, and the role that gender plays in an individual’s worth in terms of status, position, potential and constitution.

Despite the overwhelming and strong position of Muslims that Islam liberated women 1400 years ago, you still find there’s a problem. Some thought and practice within Muslim society does not reflect this conviction, giving rise to the accusation that Islam oppresses women, to which the Muslim community reacts emotionally with denial and animosity, without reflecting inwardly and addressing the existing problems.

And I think the reason for this is the way the Muslim community works. What makes Islam work in a Muslim community is a mixture of Islam, the context, an interpretation of Islamic text – Qur’an and Hadith, culture, tradition, customs and the interests of those who are dominant in the community – those who hold the reigns of power.

These elements are not necessarily negative. The objective is not to apply some "purist" understanding of Islam based exclusively on the Qur’an. In fact, the Qur’anic and Prophetic method is to consider the other elements in order to provide a viable and practical solution to an event or problem. The Qur’an consists of Divine responses to particular questions within a particular context. Therefore it is essential that Islam and the Qur’an are contextualised.

However, these elements that work within the Muslim community often do so at cross-purposes with conflicting agendas and motives. As a result we have conflicting messages. If somebody wants to subjugate women they will come with a different interpretation, they will do a whole host of things. So you’ll find conflict: in interpretation, in understanding who women are. And people tend to interpret for their convenience. However, I don’t think these elements are necessarily negative. In order for Islam to work it needs to be contextualised and not taking all these elements into consideration means you have not listened to one category or class of people. In fact the Qur’an and the Prophet did exactly that. They took into consideration the customs; they took into consideration a whole host of things in order to understand the laws within the context. It thus is often difficult to distinguish between these various elements. It is therefore not surprising that we are confused on the issues of women, gender and Islam and articulate and send conflicting messages.


Muslim Feminists

We’re seeing a lot of Muslim feminists. Their books have been translated into English and even in small communities like in South Africa. (I’m sure all of us are being accused of being feminists.) Muslim feminists face criticism from other feminists for insisting on maintaining the link to Islam in the gender struggle. The Muslim feminist looks to the Qur’an and the Prophet as a force for liberation, but in this ideological struggle faces tremendous opposition and criticism for "reinterpreting", "changing the Qur’an", "following western feminists", etc. from the clergy, the community as well as other women.

These feminists insist that they are inspired by Islam and the women heroes of Islam who stood up for justice and human rights. And that Islam is a force of empowerment rather than of disempowerment.


Let’s live as we Believe

There is a hadith which states a profound truth about human life: "If you don’t live as you believe, then you begin to believe as you live."

In order to live as we believe, and to understand what the Islamic and Qur’anic identity of the Woman is, it is essential that we do an enquiry and investigation of the Islamic sources – the Qur’an (in particular) and the practice of the Prophet’s community. Because of the short time available, I will focus here only on the Qur’an.


The Qur’an: Principles, Practices and Law

The Qur’an is the first source of guidance, so we’ll start by looking at what the Qur’an says about the position and place of women and what role, if any, gender plays in status of the individual.

Perhaps an important point to make before we begin discussing verses of the Qur’an, however, is that all such discussion is based on contextual interpretation. No person can honestly claim to understand any part of the Qur’an without any interpretation.

During the Battle of Siffin, the followers of Mu’awiyah once called for a cessation of hostilities between Mu’awiyah’s and ‘Ali’s parties. They should, they said, accept the Qur’an as the arbitrator between them. Imam ‘Ali’s response is very instructive. He said:

"When Mu’awiyah invited me to the Qur’an for a decision, I could not turn my face away from the Book of Allah. The Mighty and Glorious Allah declared that ‘If you dispute about anything, refer it to Allah and His Apostle’. (However,) this is the Qur’an, written in straight lines, between two boards (of binding); it does not speak with a tongue; it needs interpreters and interpreters are people."

In order to ascertain the status of men and women we will look at verses that lay down certain principles and verses that are reactions to particular contexts.


The Principles:

O Humankind! Be conscious of your Sustainer, who has created humanity out of one living entity, and out of it created its mate, and out of the two spread abroad a multitude of men and women. And remain conscious of God, in Whose name you demand [your rights] from one another, and [reverence] the wombs [that bore you]. Verily, God is ever watchful over you! (4:1)

The points I’d like to highlight here…

The source of all human creation is one living entity, unlike the biblical interpretation or understanding that men were created first and thereafter women, and women were created from men. Even upto recently, I had the idea that women were created second also, and that men were created first and that women were created out of men. And here it is quite clear that No, there was this one "entity" and Allah created men and women from it. So, women could have been created first or men could have been created first; it’s difficult to say. What we know is that from one entity multitudes of men and women were created. All individuals are born from one entity, according to this verse, and have the same status and equal potential to do good and evil.

This is such a positive verse, and there are many like that. Why do we choose to make more popular the "negative" ones like the one that can be interpreted that men can beat women. Why not this verse and on the basis of this verse interpret that. If one comes to this first you know that gender doesn’t play a part in spirituality or anything.

If you come with the idea that you are inferior in the first place, your approach to a particular verse that applies to a particular context will have to be negative, will have to see you as inferior. Whereas, if you have a positive one, it will have to be positive, it will have to accept that there is some kind of equality here. You’ll need to interpret a verse on how you treat somebody according to what the Qur’an says are basic principles or what basic essence of women or men is.

Verily, for all men and women who have surrendered themselves unto God, and all believing men and believing women, and all truly devout men and truly devout women, and all men and women who are true to their word, and all men and women who are true to their word, and all men and women who are patient in adversity, and all men and women who humble themselves [before God], and all men and women who give in charity, and all self-denying men and self-denying women, and all men and women who are mindful of their chastity, and all men and women who remember God unceasingly, for [all of] them has God readied forgiveness of sins and a mighty reward. (33:35)

This verse shows clearly that all spiritual and moral obligations of men and women are the same. And that the ones capacity is not inferior to the others.

It stresses the moral rights and moral obligations of men and women. And if God has given men and women the same obligations it is only because they have the same potential. God is Merciful. He won’t apply greater responsibility than one can bear. Many a time what we have is people claiming that women are morally inferior or spiritually inferior. They menstruate, they are not capable, they cause fitnah. And the Qur’an clearly states that The Merciful God can never place obligations greater than one can bear. And if she’s not spiritually whole or morally whole then you can’t expect her to be equally moral and equally spiritual. And this verse says that we are equally so.

Hence do not covet the bounties which Allah has bestowed more abundantly on some of you than on others. Men shall have a benefit from what they earn, and women shall have a benefit from what they earn. Ask, therefore, Allah (to give you) out of His Bounty: behold, Allah has indeed full knowledge of everything. (4:32)

This verse is very clear. That we shall all be rewarded according to what we earn. And also that one will be rewarded for whatever good deeds one does.

There’s also the verse that men and women that do good deeds will be rewarded according to their deeds and their work. Often times we hear the "hadith" that when the Prophet (s) went to Hell he saw more women in Hell than men. If women were more prone to evil, why would God give them equal obligations to do moral good.

These are few of the "positive" verses which lay down the basic principle that gender is not a criterion for determining the status of the individual.

I would be failing in completing the discussion if I left out the more popular verses used to describe women’s identity.

Degree above:

Often, to uphold the superiority of men, people say that the Qur’an says that men are a degree above women. And yes, that’s true. It does say it.

Women who are divorced shall wait, keeping themselves apart, three (monthly) courses. And it is not lawful for them that they conceal that which Allah has created in their wombs if they believe in Allah and the last day. And their husbands would do better to take them back in that case if they desire a reconciliation. And (the rights) due to the woman are similar to (the rights) against them, (or responsibilities they owe) with regard to the good (ma’ruf), and men have a degree (darajah) above them. Allah is Mighty, Wise. (2:228)

This verse refers to a context of a couple getting divorced and there is the possibility of a pregnancy. It calls on women not to conceal their pregnancy. And it is better for their husbands to take them back if reconciliation is possible. While women have similar rights to their responsibilities, men have a degree of rights and responsibility above them a degree above them.

This verse is often used to quote the "degree above them". It’s not applied to the context. I’ve even heard our (MYM) members trying to come to grips with men being a "degree above them"! That’s just accepted. The problem is that it applies to a particular context, not to general law meaning that men are a degree above women. This verse speaks about pregnancy when divorce is taking place. If the wife is pregnant she has no right to conceal the pregnancy. Which is fine. It should be so. Also the fact that the men do have a degree of advantage in taking the child back. The verse speaks about the rights that women have and the rights above them and then speaks about men having a degree above them. So the degree is with respect to responsibilities (rights against them) as well as rights. We must also remember all the time that what they have has been bestowed by Allah. It’s not from themselves; it’s from Allah. And they have a responsibility to give.

Shamima with co-presenters of the session: Firdousa Waggie and A'isha Roberts

Maintenance, Beating and Marriage:

Men are qawwamun (maintainers/protectors) of women, for Allah has preferred (faddala) some over others, and (on the basis) of what they spend of their property. So good women are qanitat (obedient), guarding in secret that which Allah has guarded. As from those whom you fear nushuz (rebellion), admonish them, banish them to beds apart, and scourge/beat them. Then, if they obey you, seek not a way against them.(4:34)

Men are maintainers of women because Allah has bestowed more on some then others. That’s why they are supposed to be maintainers. The fact is they generally have more money than women. Also, the situation of divorce. If you’re pregnant it’s more of a burden sometimes and you need assistance.

Then the verse says Allah has bestowed more on some than on others because they have an extra responsibility.

So good women are "qanitat". Generally it seems from the Qur’an that the one that contributes more, takes on more responsibility has more rights. The less responsibilities they have, the less rights they have.

Then, if you fear rebellion from them, there are three stages of correcting: admonish them, banish them to beds apart, and then beat them lightly. The one that causes most grief in the community is that men are allowed to "beat" women or one individual is allowed to beat another, especially in a marriage. This notion has always bothered me. But if I look at the stages through which one goes, through the process. First it’s "admonish them". (If it says "beat them lightly" then admonishing would be, for example, just saying "stop it" or something like that. Not yelling or shouting, but something light.) And then "banish them to beds apart". I don’t believe anybody, any rapist or abuser – according to the profiles for such people – will get to the second stage. Rapists and abusers (that are spouses), generally they’d sleep with her first. Generally they sleep with the victim then beat them then sleep with them again. A normal, good Muslim will never reach that stage, the stage of banishing them. An abusive husband will do things the other way around.

The word "nushuz" is quite a strong word. It means rebellion. And only a "rebellion" allows a man to go through these stages. People are defiant and disobedient everyday; but this "nushuz" is quite strong. The issue with this verse is how we deal with it and how we are prepared to deal with it.

Marriage relationship:

And among His wonders is this: He creates for you mates out of your own kind, so that you might incline towards them, and He engenders Love and Tenderness between you: in this, behold, there are messages indeed for people who think. (30:21)

Here is portrayed a relationship that is tender and a relationship that’s based on tenderness and love. Here’s another principle that one can draw on for a marital relationship.

It is lawful for you to go in unto your wives during the night preceding the (day’s) fast: they are as a garment for you, and you are as a garment for them.

Seclusion & separation (Prophet’s wives):

O Prophet! say to your consorts: "If it be that desire The life of this world, and its glitter, then come! I will provide for you enjoyment and set you free in a handsome manner.

But if you seek Allah And his Apostle, and the home of the hereafter, verily Allah has prepared for the well doers amongst you a great reward.

O Consorts of the Prophet ! If any of you were guilty of evident unseemly conduct, the punishment would be double to her, and that is easy for Allah.

But any of you that is devoted in the service of Allah and His apostle, And works righteousness, to her shall We grant her reward twice and We have prepared for her a generous sustenance.

O consorts of the Prophet! You are not like any of the (other) women. If you are conscious of Allah, be not too complacent of speech, lest one in whose heart is a disease should be moved with desire. But speak you a speech that is just.

And stay quietly in your houses, and make not a dazzling display, like that of the former times of ignorance; and establish regular prayer and give regular charity; and obey Allah and His Apostle. And Allah only wishes to remove all abomination from you, you members of the family, and to make you pure and spotless. (33:28-33).

These verses – the seclusion, the voice story, the staying at home, etc – what one needs to make quite clear is that these verses refer to the Prophet’s wives. Firstly, they will get twice the reward than any other woman will get. But also, there are greater responsibilities and restrictions for what they do. So they’ll get double for doing it, as well double sin.

The verse: "O consorts of the Prophet! You are not like any of the (other) women. If you are conscious of Allah, be not too complacent of speech, lest one in whose heart is a disease should be moved with desire. But speak you a speech that is just." is the verse the Jamiat uses to support their no-woman’s voice position. What is clear here is that firstly it’s speaking to the Prophet’s wives only (which they didn’t mention), and secondly – not that they shouldn’t speak but that they should not speak in complacent but in just terms, that their speech is just. What the Jamiat also didn’t do is say the last bit: "But speak you a speech that is just." All they quote is: "If you are conscious of Allah, be not too complacent of speech, lest one in whose heart is a disease should be moved with desire." That sentence is part of the verse, but the Jamiat chooses not to quote it. For their convenience, they use the verse to support their position. This is devious! We often do that.

"And stay quietly in your houses." Here again is the Tabligh Jamaat position that women should be confined to their homes. People could do that if they like, but the Qur’an is instructing the Prophet’s wives in this instance and not saying it is a general rule.



I want to look finally at the challenges that we face and that we need to deal with. The issues here we need to deal with practically.

We should now stop focussing on verses that are interpreted to imply a lower status of women. We of often ignore the principles. We need to extract these to apply to new practical contexts.

We should also make sure and challenge people who interpret and use verses of selective & convenient text like the Jamiat’s use of verses to argue that women’s voices can’t be heard. There’s the of pamphlet supporting women’s voice not being heard, where the supporters give weight to their position by quoting only part of the verse only .

Another problem is that "religious authorities" cannot deal with these issues and challenges. They are not qualified to do so; there’s a lack of education, experience and commitment to the reopening of the doors of ijtihad. They are not thinking or reflecting but remain static. And we should ask these "authorities" to also engage in ijtihad. They are also afraid of reform and of challenges to their authority. We must keep challenging them.

Also they don’t respond very well to challenges. Everytime we challenge them, everytime we speak to them, they don’t respond. Around two years ago, when I was the Gender Desk Co-ordinator, I wrote to the Jamiat about the husband’s right to unilateral divorce. They argued that it is Qur’anic, it is Islamic. Then I quoted them a whole lot of verses and told them that these verses showed that marital relationships don’t adhere to the kind of talaq with a complete lack of consultation. I sent them a five-page letter quoting these verses. They sent me a reply asking Allah to give me hidayah (guidance) and saying that I was very arrogant. This United Ulama Council, this big organisation with hundreds of maulanas, tells me that I’m arrogant and may Allah give me hidayah and this was their last correspondence with us. I felt sick!

Another problem is that men write women into their experiences, For a long time men have been writing about women, men have been writing the interpretations. Even if a progressive man writes about women, it’s from a male perspective. They write us into their experiences. Ebrahim Moosa (a leading South African and international progressive Muslim theologian and scholar) experiences life much differently than I do. He’s progressive, fine! But I’d rather Firdousa (the MYM Gender Desk co-ordinator) wrote it. It would be more real. Our experiences are different because we’re in an oppressive situation.

Even some of the women writers that are emerging are the more conservative ones who write from tradition. They don’t change things, they just focus on what’s there.

That leads us to the next point. That women generally retain and accept traditional stereotypes. Women are more passionate about retaining tradition than men. We find women often just want to keep the peace. It’s in their family lives and comes out in their wider lives. But they could change, and that’s what we should attempt.

The last issue I want to raise is that Muslim Personal Law is being developed as we speak. We need to find out what is happening, otherwise we will wake up with a rude shock when things are already done. We need much reform in this field and a fresh interpretation of MPL.



Journey of Discovery:
A South African Hajj

by Shamima Shaikh and
Na'eem Jeenah


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