The last few days in India have seen Muslim divorce practices furiously dominate media space. In India many of the rules governing women are "sanctioned by scripture" and therefore cannot be changed. Many women disagree and say these laws are outdated and harmful and antithetical to the precepts of the Quran. They feel corrupted cultural practices dominated by male chauvinists have distorted the true spirt of the Quran, which accords a very dignified position to women. One such rule is the talaq law, which allows a Muslim man to divorce his wife immediately after saying the word "talaq" three times. Instant divorce is currently allowed under Islamic law. In India, Muslim men have sent triple talaq by text, email, Facebook, Skype and WhatsApp. But last month women working against the talaq law received good news when a government committee set up in 2013 to look into women's status recommended that the government should outlaw it.
Muslim women across South Asia are slowly getting empowered to stand up to patriarchal practices that undermine their dignity. In literate societies, Muslim women like their counterparts of other creeds are an empowered community. First, they challenge cultural norms within their communities that deny Muslim women rights and visible roles. They believe that rights have been accorded to them in foundational Islamic texts, but that cultural interpretations of these same texts disallow what is rightfully theirs. They do not call this a feminist struggle, but describe this as reclamation of their faith. Muslim women's activism around education and equal opportunities are often underpinned by their emancipatory readings of foundational Islamic texts. Muslim women are also challenging patriarchy that all women experience around unequal power hierarchies in society and the objectification of women's bodies in some sections of the media.
Islam anticipates the demands of Western feminists by more than a thousand years. A stay-at-home wife can specify that she expects to receive a regular stipend, which is not that far from the goals of the Wages for Housework campaign of the 1970s. Elsewhere, a fully empowered Muslim woman sounds like a self-assured, post-feminist type - a woman who draws her inspiration from the example of Sukayna, the brilliant, beautiful great-granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad. She was married several times, and at least once stipulated in writing that her husband was forbidden to disagree with her about anything. All these conditions are based on the canons of Islam and on early Muslim practice. A Muslim woman cannot be forced to enter into marriage without her agreement, indeed she has the right to revoke a marriage to which she did not agree in the first place. We now have an inquisitive and empowered generation that will not easily accept rules and codes without reasoning them out and arguing on every strand before embracing it.
However, few Muslim women outside urban areas may want to behave like Western women. The sexually exploitative element remains high in the West however strident the rhetoric of sexual equality. Perhaps this is best illustrated by the well-known cigarette ad depicting a woman smoking: "You've come a long way, baby." The message is clear: You too may now die of cancer through smoking. The high rate of divorce and sexual disease are common consequences of the reckless drive to equate the sexes and "free" sexual relationships.
Comparison may mean little outside the cultural context, but it is important to point out that until 100 years ago Western women had virtually no rights in law or practice. Over 1,000 years before the first European suffragette, Islam gave far reaching rights and a defined status to women. But these Western attitudes have undoubtedly helped to stimulate discussions of the problem in Muslim urban society thereby revealing the gap between the talk of the Islamic ideal and the actual situation of women.
Muslim women certainly do not share the Western notion of feminism. These women do not accept that being feminist means being Western and believe that Western women should be respectful of other paths to social change. First, there are multiple causes of discrimination against women, and religion is but one. Second, gender relations structure women's options in all societies. Third, it is futile to focus on misery elsewhere as an escape from the realities of our own lives. And fourth, the issue of power remains crucial for understanding gender inequality in any society.
Western thinkers and practitioners must reconsider their assumptions about the role of Islam in women's rights and approach this topic with a more nuanced lens. They must understand the necessity of recognizing and consciously accepting the broad cultural differences between Western and non-Western conceptions of autonomy as well as respecting social standards that reflect non-Western values. They should pay heed to what U.S. first lady Michelle Obama said to headscarf-wearing students: "You wonder if anyone ever sees beyond your headscarf to see who you really are, instead of being blinded by the fears and misperceptions in their own minds. And I know how painful and how frustrating all of that can be."It is clear that Muslim women's empowerment, like many things, cannot be imposed on a country or a culture from the outside. Men and women within these conservative communities must first find their own reasons and their own justifications to allow women a fuller role in society. Increasingly, they are finding those reasons within Islam. Like men, women deserve to be free. It is only a matter of time until the day comes when women test their chains and break free. As Rumi says in "The Mathnawi:" "Woman is a ray of God. She is not just the earthly beloved; she is creative, not created."
* Based in Napur, Ph.D., Economics, author of several books on Islam including bestselling biographies of Prophet Muhammad and Caliph Umar