The Arab world saw great political turmoil in the beginning of 2011. The Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown before January 2011 ended. Then a similar turmoil began in Egypt and hundreds of thousands of people poured in Tahrir square to protest against Hosni Mubarak, another long serving dictator who was forced to go and then Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. Now all this has been much written about and need not be repeated, but what concerns us here is the role of women in these revolutionary changes.
In all these countries, women played a very significant role, right from Tunisia to Yemen. Both in Egypt and Yemen, women’s initiatives proved to be crucial. In fact, the Tahrir mobilisation was due mainly to a young girl’s appeal on Facebook. The role of women was so significant that it was being expected that the Nobel Prize for Peace this year would be given to three women from Arab countries i.e. Tunis, Egypt and Yemen, but instead it went to women from Africa and Yemen, the latter a Muslim woman who also played a crucial role in the protection of human rights and in the political mobilisation for the overthrow of President Saleh, though there still remains a stalemate in Yemen.
The myth that Muslim women merely sit at home and are worth nothing more than domestic workers and house makers has been shattered decisively. Muslim women have proved once again that they can mobilise people efficiently and purposefully. It is also interesting to note that many women in Tunisia and Egypt were quite active in trade unions and have used their experience to proper use and brought about change in the political sphere.
But post-revolution a shadow of doubt hangs over them. What will this democratic revolution give them? Will it take over the rights they had gained under dictators? It is possible that Islamic laws are re-imposed in these countries. In Tunisia, the Ennahda Party has won elections. Though it describes itself as a moderate Islamic party, Ennahda leader Ghanushi has fortunately declared that there will be no change in gender laws, which clearly means polygamy will not be re-imposed.
However, Libyan women are not so fortunate. The Libyan leader who is projected as the new Prime Minister after ousting Gaddafi has already announced that Islamic laws will be the only laws imposed and polygamy will be reintroduced. Gaddafi, undoubtedly a dictator who had to go, had also done lot of good in introducing and consolidating gender justice in Libya. He had given equal rights to women as provided for in the Qur’an. He abolished polyga-my and gave women an important role in public life. He even maintained that to confine women at home is an imperialist conspiracy to paralyse half the population of the Islamic world.
Gaddafi created a special force for women in the army and assigned them duties of body guards. It was a revolutionary step, which is now likely to be reversed.
To say that polygamy is permitted by the Qur’an and hence must be reintroduced is tantamount to injuring the spirit of the Qur’an. At best it is a half truth. Polygamy has been allowed in the Qur’an, but in a specific context and with rigorous conditions. Anyone who reads the two verses in Qur’an on polygamy i.e. 4:3 and 4:129 would see that for the Qur’an, justice is more central than multiple wives. And if justice is so important, can polygamy be made the rule?
In the early seventies, whenever a dictator declared his country to be an Islamic state, he would introduce Hudud laws (Islamic punishments for theft, adultery etc), in an effort to prove that these punishments were more central than the factors which motivated a person to commit the crime. Similarly today when dictatorial regimes end, a declaration is made that family laws will be introduced and polygamy will be permissible.
As this writer has always maintained that gender justice is very central to the Qur’an, provided that the it is read in its proper context, and today with a much greater role being played by women in public life, it is all the more important that gender justice be made equally central in the Shari’ah laws. The present Shari’ah laws will not be acceptable to women as education and awareness among them increases and pressure for change will continue to gather momentum. In fact the Qur’an unambiguously stands for gender justice and has equipped women with all the rights men were given. We are surprised by how male interpreters missed this and equally surprised by how Muslim women submitted to these interpretations.