Alternative View of Women Raises Hackles in India

An American scholar's views on women roil Islamic groups in India.

Can no new ideas emerge from old religions and no new readings emerge from sacred texts? Must human beings always remain prisoners of the books of revelation and the consecrated interpretations thereof? Must God always be male, and even if so, does that then privilege men as his interpreters? Must religion so often serve the biases of secular power and patriarchy, rather than offering an alternative to their blind spots and excesses?

Well, it seems it must. At least, that would appear to be the argument of various conservative Islamic groups in the south Indian city of Chennai (formerly Madras), who managed to get Madras University to call off a lecture by the American scholar of Islam Amina Wadud on the subject "Islam, Gender and Reform."

Although there are conflicting reports, the agency enforcing this cancellation may have been -- this wouldn't be unusual in India, where the right to free speech almost always gives way to the right to take offense -- the Chennai police. An officer reportedly sent the vice-chancellor of the university a text message that said: "Police cannot allow this considering law and order. Please take action to suspend / cancel the programme." This was after several conservative Islamic groups in Chennai, which has a Muslim population of about 9 percent, had declared they would protest outside the venue of Wadud's lecture. A spokesman for one of the groups said, "She comes with the backing of the U.S. government and offers so-called progressive views that are against the basic tenets of Islam."

The hostility of Wadud's opponents comes as no surprise. After all, she has produced at least two major provocations to the religion she professes: one in the realm of text, the other in that of practice. In 2005, she made headlines when she led a mixed-gender Islamic prayer service in New York City, flouting the traditional Islamic custom of segregating the sexes. And in 2006, she drove a wedge between Islamic ideals and their patriarchal and traditionalist (I follow her in eschewing the word "fundamentalist") interpretations with her book "Inside the Gender Jihad: Women's Reform in Islam."

In that book, Wadud aligned herself with what one might call the progressive faction on the subject of the interpretation of Islamic scripture -- principally the Koran and the sunnah (the way of life prescribed for Muslims). Wadud made the argument that Islamic scripture grants women many rights and freedoms that have been obscured by hundreds of years of patriarchal readings of these texts. For such readings to be productively contested, she wrote, it was "imperative that Muslim women appropriate Islamic primary sources," particularly the Koran. She said she took the positions she did not so much in alignment with Western feminism or modern ideas about human rights but rather "on the basis of my faith," as one who wanted "to transform Islam through its own egalitarian tendencies."

It isn't hard to see, then, why Wadud's stance is so provoking. She is the kind of figure that religious conservatives find the most vexing of all: the believer who challenges their most cherished assumptions not by pitting another system of ideas against their own, but by quoting scripture back to them. (To leap for a moment into another tradition, the most controversial and unsettling figure in modern Hinduism is Mahatma Gandhi, who disagreed in his lifetime with religious orthodoxy on many gender and caste issues but won most of these battles by emphasizing the call of his conscience as a Hindu over received doctrine.)

Wadud's work draws upon a large modern canon of progressive readings of the Koran, a tradition that her opponents would rather see restricted to books and journals than percolating down to the laity. Many of these fairly radical ideas -- radical insofar as they criticize existing realities from a religious rather than a secular viewpoint -- are synthesized, for instance, in "Reconciliation," by Benazir Bhutto, the late prime minister of Pakistan, who as a female political leader in an extremely patriarchal Muslim society had a great investment in formulating a modern interpretation of Islam.

For Bhutto, as for Wadud, many of the backward-looking practices found across Islamic societies today have no sanction in the Koran, which, as a vision of social, political and gender relations, was well ahead of its time. Further, though rooted in a certain historical mindset, that of a seventh-century tribal world, the Koran isn't a collection of injunctions set in stone, as many literal-minded followers would have us believe. Rather, the prophet Mohammed himself stressed the power of reason and the search for knowledge, and an idea that is often ignored in discussions of the Koran is that of ijtihad, or interpretation of the text based on reason. "All Muslims are guaranteed the right to interpret the Quran," Bhutto wrote. "Thus, even the approach to interpretation of the Quran is embedded with democratic values."

Some support for Wadud came in the form of an excellent letter jointly drafted by a group of Chennai intellectuals and published in the city's major English newspaper, The Hindu. The letter said:

Anyone even superficially familiar with Dr. Amina Wadud's work will recognise the baseless nature of these allegations, and register the utter cynicism and ignorance with which they have been made....

At a time when Muslim women across India — as elsewhere in the world — are mobilising and organising as Muslims and staking claims to equality and justice, which they insist are guaranteed to them as believers and by the traditions of Islamic piety and jurisprudence, it is tragic that fringe groups that purport to represent Muslim opinion in Tamil Nadu seek to overlook their existence. Worse, they seem to not want such views to be broadcast or heard....

It seems to us that while those who think differently from Dr. Wadud are welcome to challenge her, this cannot be done by denying her the right to speak, and by tarring her with the all-too familiar "American agent" brush.

Having given lectures in recent weeks in several other Indian cities, Wadud deserves to be thought of as a friend of both Islam and India. Indeed, were some of Wadud's opponents in India to peruse "Inside the Gender Jihad," they would find it dedicated, movingly, to an anonymous figure presumably seen on a construction site: "the brave Indian woman, small of structure, great of will, whom I saw carrying bricks although quite advanced in years."

Unfortunately, challenges to religious power in India usually culminate in victory for those who are small of mind, great of will, whose pre-emptive attacks are underwritten by a larger, societal status quo deeply suspicious of nonconformism and persistently patronizing toward women.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter @Hashestweets.)

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