Tariq Ramadan- Islam’s John Stuart Mill?

An interesting blog special in The Washington Post where leading Muslim thinkers, politicians, and religious leaders were invited to blog about their opinion on the three most controversial and politicised issues in modern Islamic polities- apostasy, jihad and women’s rights.

From Egypt’s Grand Mufti to the ideologues of Hezbollah and the lofty towers of Cambridge and Georgetown- the blog special succeeded in representing the diversity of Islamic opinion, life and practice around the world.The variety of responses on the “muslim woman” question was very interesting.

The usual apologetics of Islam representing a “complementary” yet not equal role for the sexes was predictably yawn-inspiring.

However the interesting piece came from Tariq Ramadan. He seemed clued in to the problematics of the whole “woman question” being a source of study, dissection and debate by those qualified to pontificate on it- usually men- as itself questionable.

The “Muslim Woman” he argues is not some abstract figure whose “role and function” (for centuries meted out by male scholars, and now whose salvation the benevolent western media has taken up) is to be decided in a dispassionate way outside of the forces of politics, culture and society.

For centuries, Muslim scholars have talked about women in terms of their roles (daughter, wife, mother, sister) and the respective rights and responsibilities related to their family or social functions. It is high time to change our perspective and start talking about “women” as “women”, their being, not their roles or functions. This should be considered their first right: the right to be and to be autonomous ontologically, religiously, socially and economically. (my bold)

As women’s rights are re-framed not in relation to men, society or the family but as fundamental “human rights” then nothing short of a total revolution is necessary.

Approached from that angle, the perspectives of the whole debate changes and it becomes necessary to be quite critical as to the long Islamic legal tradition dealing with the woman issue. We are in dire need of a constructive critical reassessment of the Islamic discourse and understanding on women.

It is from here that the work can begin to ensure a life free from discrimination that the “complementary but equal” (Bantu speak for “back of the bus”) engenders:

To speak about Islam promoting “complementarity” between men and women as opposed to the West’s call for total “equality” is not only misleading but it is wrong. There is room for a deep reassessment of this issue from within the Islamic scriptural texts themselves and this is what, Muslim men and women, together should work on/for in the name of their religion to resist all discriminatory practices and views promoted by narrow literalist or cultural understanding. It is imperative for Muslim women to be more autonomous, to have equal access to knowledge as men (especially in religious matters), to receive equal pay for the same work and competence, to share social status and political power in their societies and to set the scene for the much needed debate around the role of men in the Islamic societies and communities.

Crucial to this is challenging the ways in which male authority figures- the lawmakers, interpreters and religious leaders have retained a vice-grip on authority and knowledge.

A new perspective that focuses on the woman as a psychological and spiritual being will read the sacred texts with fresh eyes (including those of female scholars) and liberates the Muslim women from within by challenging narrow religious interpretations and oppressive cultural practices and is propelled by faithfulness to Islam’s global message.

Sistas- i think we might have ourselves our Muslim John Stuart Mill.

(Some of you may object to the use of a male authority figure to support a Muslim feminist “revolution” however I think it is subversive thinkers from the heart of the establishment that are going to give credibility to the women’s rights movement within the Islamic paradigm. This legitimisation is necessary for popular support and to avert the consistent accusation of Muslim women’s rights advocates as ‘brainwashed victims of western feminism’.)

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