March 8 is celebrated as International Women's Day every year. It is a day when women's achievements are recognized around the world. Why does one need such a day? The answer lies in the checkered history of relations between men and women and the violence against women in modern times. It is impossible to think of human history without women, but their role in the making of that history has been a matter of controversy, subjugation and distortion by men.
Most religious traditions hold that the history of humanity begins with a man and a woman. The Quran refers to Adam and Eve as the first ancestors of human beings and addresses them as the first interlocutors of God's message to humanity. They both are God's "vicegerent" (khalifah) on earth. Both have been created in the "most beautiful form" (ahsan taqwim). The fact that they have different functions and responsibilities does not make one superior over the other.
The first Muslim community in Mecca and Medina was remarkably egalitarian in terms of gender relations. Muslim women were part and parcel of the political, economic, social, religious, cultural, scholarly and artistic life of the community. Islam's liberation of women was far more substantial than simply eliminating the old customs of Meccan polytheists that had defined women as property of men. The Prophet Muhammad treated the female members of his household and others as equal partners, thus setting an example for Muslims to follow. This tradition has been largely lost in later Islamic history.
Instead, cultural traditions and tribal customs have overshadowed the original vision of the Muslim community. Patriarchal tendencies have replaced the clearly established rules in the Quran and the sunnah, and the "goals of the religion" (maqasid al-shariah), a key rule of Islamic jurisprudence, have been subordinated to a confused and often unfair notion of gender relations.
I emphasize this point to draw attention to the ignorance of Muslims who mistake custom for religion and violate the rights of women in the name of piety. For instance, stripping girls of their right to education, confining them to home, forced marriage, genital mutilation, honor killings and the like have nothing to do with religion. Put bluntly, they are bad customs that must be discontinued.
But I underscore this also to expose the deliberate distortion of Islamophobia in the West that uses the issue of women to launch attacks on Islam and Muslims. For instance, they present headscarves as a symbol of the oppression of Muslim women when in fact those women themselves reject this charge with intelligence and free will. They cannot accept the fact that Muslim women are free agents and real humans that can make their own choices.
A key question for Muslims is then the following: How do customs and traditions take precedence over the Quran and the sunnah regarding women? What responsibility do Muslim scholars have in distinguishing between religion and custom? Needless to say, they have a major role to show people what religion says and what custom imposes.
While we celebrate achievements of women on a global scale, we have to admit and fight against violence directed at women. Rich or poor, Eastern or Western, liberal or conservative, no society is immune from the disease of violence against women. Millions of women in the U.S., Latin America, Europe, Middle East, Africa and Asia are subjected to various forms of violence every day.
It is important to apply strict rules to prevent violence against women. There should be no tolerance for inflicting physical and mental harm. But experience shows that legislation and punitive measures are not enough. Even the most severe measures, including the death penalty, do not guarantee success. Besides laws, this is a matter of culture and how society deals with violence against women.
Traditional societies, including Muslim countries, have a mixed record of protecting women against violence. Political leaders and religious scholars need to exert more effort to educate people about the dignity of every human, including women, and nurture an environment in which violence against women is prohibited by both legal and societal measures. Modern industrialized societies have not fared any better in preventing violence against women. Tens of thousands of women are subjected to violence, sexual harassment, rape and murder in the rich countries of the world.The commodification of the female body has been one of the greatest disservices to the dignity of women. The subliminal culture of treating women primarily as a sex object has degraded women's humanity. Despite claims to reason, science and enlightenment, the degradation of woman has not been prevented in the modern world. Furthermore, this issue has become part of political games and maneuvering in the current global system.
It is a moral duty to address the issue of violence against women and strive to protect women's honor and dignity. Violence against women is indeed a betrayal of humanity.
About the author
Presidential spokesperson for the Republic of Turkey