IT is that time of the year (month of Rabiul Awwal) when the remembrance of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) intensifies more and the search light of history shines a bit more bright to shed light on the most remarkable life lived. Unfortunately with the passage of time there has been a spike in gender based violence the world over with Pakistan having its fair share. Not only have crimes increased against women the past year saw battle lines drawn between the sexes on several issues whether it be the controversies surrounding international women’s day, Aurat march or adverse dialogues and scripts of dramas. The deep seated patriarchal notions entrenched in customary practices surfaced again and again.
But the biggest tragedy in this entire scenario is that somehow the entrenched customary notions and practices gain currency as being rooted in religion. It is this misconception which gives the traditional notions of gender roles and gender ideologies the power they wield on the lives of Muslim women. It is therefore the need of the hour to go back to that great, all important critical source of Islamic law, that is the life of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and investigate the Prophetic vision of the role of women in society. The complex set of ideas related to beliefs about, roles related to and behaviours associated with women is referred to as gender ideology. All societies come with their unique type of gender ideology. It is this gender ideology, then that plays a vital role in determining the status relegated to different genders in society.
In many cultures, males believe they are spiritually superior to women and that females are dangerous, polluting, weak and untrustworthy. (Harris, 1991) Consequently these ideas then facilitate the oppression of females in all aspects of life and cause a serious impediment in the growth and prosperity of an entire gender. These ideas manifest themselves in real cultural practices like expressing grief and shame at the birth of a female child, the constant reminder that the female child is a guest and soon will marry and leave her family/tribe/Baradari and is basically living on borrowed time, in her nuclear family, preference given to males during the distribution of resources, denying the female’s right of inheritance, blaming females for any misfortune that may befall them and scapegoating them to carry the honour of the male members.
In Pakistan 96% of the population is Muslim and Islam is the state religion. Yet most of the above mentioned cultural aspects as well as others dominating the lives and relationships between genders are coloured with the recalcitrant and stubborn notions stemming from the local sub continental practices. In order to deconstruct these many faceted cultural practices and deeply entrenched norms recourse to the correct interpretation of religions especially of Islam is imperative. A cursory look at the life of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) shows the Prophet held women in extremely high esteem. Far from considering them weak or untrustworthy, examples form his life show time and again how much the Prophet trusted the advice, help and support coming from the women in his life.
If one makes a serious analysis of the Seerah one finds that during some of the major most critical turning points in the Prophet’s life it was a woman that stood by him, lending support and encouragement. One such critical moment is on the night of the first revelation when the Prophet experienced the most astounding experience of his life, bewildered at the strange occurrence and shivering with the impact of the great spiritual experience he hastened home to tell his wife Khadija of what had happened, it has been pointed out that he did not go to an assembly of men or to a male companion but to his wife and confidante who took him to meet her cousin Warqah-ibn-Naufal who had converted to Christianity and who was then able share his insight on the incident.
Who can forget the role played by Asma bint Abu Bakr in the Holy Prophet (PBUH) journey (Hijrat) to Yusrab (Madina) which is a water shed moment in Islamic history and which impacted in changing the history of the world. At a juncture when the Prophet was searched for by the enemy his taking refuge in the cave of Saur was a top secret, only three people in the community were entrusted with keeping this top secret amongst them was the 27 year old Asma bint Abu Bakr who served as the Prophet’s supply line. It is said that Abu Jahl went to interrogate her to find out the whereabouts of the Prophet and even slapped her but this heroine of Hijra stood her ground. She risked her life to climb up to the cave of Saur where the Prophet and Abu Bakr had hid in order to bring them food. In this way the Seerah sends a powerful message that all members of a community men and women must contribute to important events in the life of the community.
Whether in the mosque or whether in the battlefield the Holy Prophet (PBUH) conduct regarding gender roles has always been revolutionary. Nusaiba bint e Kaab also known as Umm-i-Ammarah is one of those privileged to have gone down in History as part of a small band which defended the Prophet in the battle of Uhad. The words of the Prophet saying that on the day of the battle of Uhad wherever he looked he saw Umm-i-Ammarah, should serve as a beacon of light and a shining example of the vital role women can and should play in society.
One can see the Prophet PBUH was not influenced by the gender roles and gender ideologies of his time, his prophetic vision was fixed on the human element of those around him, one of his wives Hazrat Aisha (RA) became one of the most famous and famed teachers of this Ummah, she has narrated 2210 sayings of the Prophet. The great affection the Prophet had for all his daughters specially Hazrat Fatimah has gone down in the annals of history. It is through her the descendants of the Prophet lay claim. The muffling of such historical traditions in the formal and informal enculturation of generations of Muslims has side-lined the role and function of religion in empowering women. It is about time we take our Seerah Lessons seriously.
— The writer is contributing columnist, based in Islamabad.