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Politics and the Muslim Woman

Benazir Bhutto
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Politics and the Muslim Woman

Benazir Bhutto


Benazir Bhutto (Pakistan, born 1953), twice prime minister of Pakistan (1988–1990 and 1993–1996), is known more for her political activities than for her religious scholarship. Following the overthrow and execution of her father, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto adopted the leadership of his Pakistani People's Party and opposed the Islamic regime of General Zia-ul-Haq. She spent years in jail, under house arrest, and in exile. As a political leader in an Islamic country, Bhutto has naturally been sensitive to charges that Islam prohibits women from holding such positions. 1 Benazir Bhutto, Daughter of Destiny (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989), pp. 368, 392. In the speech excerpted here, from her period of exile, she argues that Islamic law does not treat women as inferior to men or incapable of leadership. 2 See also Benazir Bhutto, “The Fight for the Liberation of Women” (Remarks at the Fourth United Nations Conference on Women, Beijing, China, September 4, 1995), Women's Studies Quarterly, volume 24, numbers 1–2, Spring-Summer 1996, pp. 91–97.

I think one of the first things that we must appreciate about the religion of Islam is that there is no one interpretation to it. Islam has certain religious aspects and has some aspects which relate to relations between man and man in society. Just as we have different religious sects in Islam, upholding different religious views—whether it is the Shi‘is, the Sunnis, the Malakis, the Hanafis, the Barelwis 3 [This list includes the two largest sects of Islam, Sunnism and Shi‘ism; two schools of thought within Sunnism, the Hanafis and the Malakis; and a revivalist sect founded in northern India in the late nineteenth century, the Barelwis.—Editor] —so, too, we have different interpretations with regard to the more secular aspects of the duties incumbent upon the Muslim.

I would describe Islam in two main categories: reactionary Islam and progressive Islam. We can have a reactionary interpretation of Islam which tries to uphold the status quo, or we can have a progressive interpretation of Islam which tries to move with a changing world, which believes in human dignity, which believes in consensus, and which believes in giving women their due right.

I know that some authors have speculated that women in Islamic countries can never achieve selfactualization or a degree of assertiveness unless they look at this from a non-Islamic point of view. I don’t agree with that at all. I believe that Islam within it provides justice and equality for women, and I think that those aspects of Islam which have been highlighted by the mullas [religious scholars] do not do a service to our religion. When I use the term mullas, please don’t try to think of them in the same terms as the clergy. Christianity has a clergy. Islam does not have a clergy. The relationship between a Muslim and God is direct. There is no need for somebody to intervene. The mullas try to intervene. The mullas give their own interpretation. But I think there are growing movements, as more and more people in Muslim countries, both men and women, achieve education and begin to examine the Qur'an in the light of their education, they are beginning not to agree with the mullas on their orthodox or reactionary version of Islam.

Let us start with the story of the Fall. Unlike Christianity, it is not Eve who tempts Adam into tasting the apple and being responsible for original sin. According to Islam—and I mention this because I believe that Islam is an egalitarian religion—both Adam and Eve are tempted, both are warned, both do not heed the warning, and therefore the Fall occurs.

As far as opportunity is concerned, in Islam there is equal opportunity for both men and women. I refer to the Sura Ya Sin [Sura 36, Verses 34–35], which says: “We produce orchids and date gardens and vines, and we cause springs to gush forth, that they may enjoy the fruits of it.” God does not give fruits, orchids, or the fruit of the soil just for men to enjoy or men to plow; he gives it for both men and women. What, in terms of income and opportunity, is available, is available to both man and woman. Sura an-Nisa [Sura 4, Verse 32]: “To men is allotted what they earn, and to women what they earn.”

As regards the law of inheritance, some scholars make a great degree of the fact that inheritance law gives twice the amount to a son, and half the amount to a daughter [Sura 4, Verse 11]. Well, maybe if you look at it in isolation, but not if you look at it in the whole aspect, because it is made abundantly clear that the woman's share is for the use of the woman alone. A man gets two-thirds. One-third—the equivalent of the woman's—is for his own use. The addition onethird that a man gets is to provide provision for his wife and children. This is the obligation on the man. He gets that extra share so that he can provide for the family, the wife and the children. The wife is not responsible for the welfare of the husband, nor is she responsible for the welfare of the children. The wife is not even responsible for suckling her own child. If she chooses not to suckle her child, she does not have to. If she chooses to suckle her child, it is for the husband to provide her with the provisions. . . .

But when it is the case, for instance, of parents, then the Qur'an says, “For parents, a sixth share of the inheritance to each if the deceased left children.” [Sura 4, Verse 11] It does not say that the father must get double and the woman must get half. . . . It goes on again to make an equal application when it says, “If the man or woman, who has left neither ascendants nor descendants, but has left a brother and a sister, each one of the two gets a sixth. If more than two brothers and sisters, they shall share [one third of the estate after payment of legacies and debts].” [Sura 4, Verse 12] . . . On the whole, the Qur'an proves that it has a balanced outlook whether it refers to men or to women.

As far as forgiveness and reward are concerned, similar conditions are set down for both men and for women. I refer to Sura “The Clan” [Sura 33, Verse 35]: “Men who surrender unto God, and women who surrender, and men who believe, and women who believe, and men who speak the truth, and women who speak the truth, and men who persevere in righteousness, and women who persevere, and men who are humble, and women who are humble, and men who give alms, and women who give alms, and men who fast, and women who fast, and men who guard their modesty, and women who guard their modesty, and men who remember God much, and women who remember, God has prepared for them forgiveness and a vast reward.” There are no special considerations set out for the male sex to show that in the eyes of God they are deserving of special considerations.

In Sura “Repentance” [Sura 9, Verse 71], again emphasis is laid on equal advice to men and women: “The believing man and the believing woman, all loyalty to one another, they enjoin noble deeds and forbid dishonor. They perform prayer and say the alms, and obey God and His Messenger. On them will God have mercy.” If it is a matter of entering paradise, again Sura Luqman [Sura 31, Verse 8] says: “If any do righteousness”—be they male or female— “and have faith, they will enter paradise.” As regards theft, if you look at the Sura “Tablespread” [Sura 5, Verse 38]: “As for the thief, both male and female, cut off their hand.”

Now this doesn’t have to do with Muslim women, but I would like to add at this juncture that within Islam there are two kinds of interpretations: One is the rigid interpretation, and one is a conceptual interpretation. Thus, in the rigid or mulla-istic sense, “Cut off their hand” would mean “Cut off their hand” even today. But in the conceptual analysis of Islam, “Cut off their hand” would mean “Adopt those means which will prevent thievery occurring again.” And again, these means may change with the advance of society. It may involve psychiatric help, it may involve having them kept in a separate home, but the main idea is whether you look at it rigidly, “Cut off their hand,” or whether you look at it conceptually, “Do not provide the means for them to do that theft again.”

When it is adultery, again: “The adulterer and adulteress, give them a hundred stripes.” [Sura 24, Verse 2] That is Sura “Light.” Again I would say that there is the rigid interpretation and the conceptual interpretation, and I think that most progressive Muslims believe in the conceptual interpretation because they believe Islam is a dynamic religion for all times and ages.

In behavior toward parents, in the Sura “Israelites” [Sura 17, Verses 23–24]] it again says, “Be kind to parents [ . . . ] and out of kindness lower to them the wing of humility and say, ‘My Lord, bestow on them your mercy, even as they cherished me in childhood.’” The reference is both to men and women. And that is the predominant theme of the Qur'an. The references are to men and women. The references are not to men as being characteristic of certain qualities and separate qualities for women. It is not a reference to the male sex as being endowed with some superior attributes and to the woman as being endowed with inferior attributes. The attributes are the same. Both are the creatures of God. Both have certain rights. Both have certain duties. Both have certain obligations. If they want to go to Heaven, they have to behave in a special manner. If they want to do good in this earth, they have to give alms to the needy, they have to help orphans—the behavior is applicable to both men and women. It is not religion which makes the difference. The difference comes from man-made law. It comes from the fact that soon after the Prophet died, it was not the Islam of the Prophet that remained. What took place was the emergence or the reassertiveness of the patriarchal society, and religion was taken over to justify the norms of the tribal society, rather than the point that the Prophet had made in replacing the tribal society with a religion that aimed to cut across narrow loyalties and sought to create a new community, or umma, on the basis of Islam and the message of God.

Now there are certain interpretations within the Qur'an Sharif [the Holy Qur'an] which are extremely ambiguous. Some people interpret them in favor of the conservatives; some people interpret them in favor of the reactionaries. One of these occurs in Sura “The Romans” [Sura 30, Verse 21]: “He created from you help-mates from your self that you might find rest in them.” This is an interpretation that progressives will give: Because it says, “He created from you,” it does not say, “He created from men.” “He created from you” means He created from mankind, or the human race, help-mates. But then other interpretations are given which claim what it said is, God created out of you, out of man, mates that you might find rest in them. And the conservatives use this to say that women were created for men to find rest. Or rather, that they were created to be in the service of man rather than being equal to man.

Arabic is a very complex language. It is a language that many Muslims don’t even understand, because Islam is not only in the Arab countries, but has spread far and beyond. These scholars and these mullas usually argue on these points. One mulla will say that God created women for rest and therefore women are to be used by men. Another one will say no, He created them from amongst yourself. So it depends very much on the matter of interpretation. But which way should interpretation go? Should it go against the basic grain of the entire message of the religion, or should it be in consonance with the basic message of that religion? When the basic message of Islam was for justice and for equality, when it came as a religion to liberate mankind from superstition and ignorance, to provide education and improvements, then I think it is quite clear for modern Islamic thinkers that it is a religion which did not provide for discrimination and ought to be interpreted in the light of its main thematic message, rather than to make ambiguous statements go against the basic theme of the message.

There are many other aspects of Islam which are taken up, again, to provide controversy on whether men and women are equal or not. One of these is the law of evidence. Now the law of evidence: in one specific part of the Qur'an, it is said that if you are going to take a loan or a debt, two men are needed or four women. Now this “two men are needed or four women” has been changed by certain societies, including Pakistan under the present military ruler [Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq, 1924–1988], to mean that the worth of a woman is half that of a man, and that if a woman is killed, compensation will be paid that is half that of a man; and if in a court of law there is evidence, then the woman's evidence will be worth half that of the man. There is no justification for this whatsoever because if the evidence of a woman is worth half that of a man, it would have been clearly stated in the Qur'an. It would not have been related to debts or loans, it would have said that in matters pertaining to legal affairs the evidence of a woman will be half that of a man, or it would have said that in the matter of murder the compensation will be half that of a man. Instead, in terms of compensation, the Qur'an Sharif goes on to say that if you can have retributions, a slave for a slave, a free man for a free man, a woman for a woman, or if the parties agree, they can come to an agreement on blood money or they can set a slave free [Sura 4, Verse 92]. Now the Qur'an says, “set a slave free.” It doesn’t say that if a woman is murdered set half a slave free. The Qur'an itself makes no distinction at all. It is man and it is the mullas who claim to be the clergy of Islam—and no clergy exist in Islam—who make these discriminations and who give the wrong impression of our religion not only to the outside world but to Muslims ourselves.

The law of evidence, which some Muslim countries following reactionary paths have adopted, conveniently forgets that the first witness to Islam was a woman, and that was the Prophet's wife, Khadija [died 619]. The only witness to the martyrdom of the third caliph ‘Uthman [reigned 644–656] was his wife, Nila. So when women themselves have been accepted in early Islam as sole witnesses, then what right do those people have, who come much later, to declare that women are worth only half a man's evidence and that if they are killed, their compensation should be half.

The other aspect that is pointed out that women are discriminated against is the question of inheritance, which I have already dealt with. I don’t think I’ll say more on that.

The third is the right of divorce and polygamy. It is often said that Islam provides for four wives for a man. But in my interpretation of this, and in the interpretation of many other Muslims, that is simply not true.

What the Qur'an does say, and I quote: “Marry as many women as you wish, wives two or three or four. If you fear not to treat them equally, marry only one. [ . . . ] I doubt you will be able to be just between your wives, even if you try.” [Sura 4, Verses 3 and 129] So if God Himself and His message says that He doubts that you can be equal, I don’t know how any man can turn around and say that “God has given me this right to get married more than once.”

. . . The Prophet Muhammad, throughout the life of his first wife, Khadija, never married again. The Prophet's son-in-law, and who was more or less like an adopted son, Hazrat ‘Ali [circa 596–661], during the lifetime of his first wife, Bibi [Madame] Fatima [circa 605–633], never married more than once. The marriages that took place later were more out of necessity of warfare, widows, or even of tribal connections. Thus to say that a man could be allowed to marry four times, at will, is not something that you can find a strong argument for in the Qur'an.

And if you look at Muslim society, it is not often that the vast Muslim population goes on marrying two, three, four [wives]. It is something that is related just to the privileged class. They can afford to do that. And they didn’t, as the caliphate ruled and the Muslim empire ruled, they didn’t just marry two, three, or four women, they went on to keep harems with hundreds of concubines. None of that had anything to do with Islam, either.

A woman in Islam, when she marries, does not take her husband's name. That is again something that has come about more as a matter of exposure to other customs or traditions. A woman in Islam is an identity in her own right. She is not an extension first of her father and then an extension of her husband. She asserts herself from the moment she is born; she is a person with the characteristics she develops, and she keeps her own name. The ideal of identity is just being appreciated in the West, where many people are beginning to keep their own name.

Aside from these provisions from the Qur'an Sharif, which I have been drawing your attention to, I would like to say that within Islamic history there are very strong roles for women. For instance, the Prophet's wife, Bibi Khadija, was a woman of independent means. She had her own business, she traded, she dealt with society at large, she employed the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, when he was a young boy, and subsequently, Bibi Khadija herself sent a proposal [of marriage] to the Prophet. So she is the very image of somebody who is independent, assertive, and does not conform to the passive description of women in Muslim societies that we have grown accustomed to hearing about. Bibi Khadija was fifteen years older than the Prophet, and she was also known, not only as the wife of the Prophet, but as the Mother of all believers.

Bibi Khadija is a symbol, one can say, for all the sects of Islam. Within the two major sects of Shi‘ism and Sunnism, both sects provide for [other] powerful role models for women. The Shi‘ite sect provides for Bibi Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet, who from a very small age saw the humiliation that her father faced in spreading his message. When he was taunted, when things were thrown at him, it was Bibi Fatima who was by his side. When they had to face confinement and exile, she, along with her mother, was with him. Hers is a figure of endurance. It is not only a figure of endurance, but after the death of the Prophet, hers is also a figure fighting politically for what she considers is her usurped right—usurpation in terms of the caliphate going to Abu Bakr [reigned 632–634] instead of going to Hazrat ‘Ali, and also usurpation in what she considers to be her property seized unlawfully by the caliphate. So she is a woman who does not accept what has happened to her after the death of the Prophet. She goes to the Helpers, she speaks to them of her plight, and she adopts a political role until her death.

Within the Sunni version there is Bibi ‘A’isha [wife of the Prophet, circa 614–678], who is also put forward as a politically astute woman, who, after the death of the Prophet, was responsible for many of the Traditions that have been handed down to us, who was the one who proposed the caliphate of Hazrat ‘Uthman, and held out the shirt of the Prophet Muhammad, and said that, “Even before this shirt has decayed, you have to ordain someone like Hazrat ‘Uthman.” She made her views known. She was an extremely bold person. Not only did she make her views known; when she opposed something, she went to the battlefield and fought against it.

So when we have such powerful role models of women—of the mother, Bibi Khadija; of the daughter, Bibi Fatima; of the wife, Bibi ‘A’isha—then one must ask, why is it that today in Muslim countries, one does not see that much of women? One does not hear that much of women. Why is it that women are secluded? Why is it that women are subject to social control? Why is that women are not given their due share of property? . . . It has got nothing to do with the religion, but it has got very much to do with material or man-made considerations. . . .

I have tried to show you Islam as being a very liberal religion toward women, as giving women their own identity, giving women the right to choose their husbands: If they are not happy with their spouse they don’t have to keep him. When the divorce law [the nuptial agreement between a man and woman] is written, it is a contract of how you live together; you can write in that contract that “I want the right to divorce you”; you can write in that contract that “in the event of divorce I want to be maintained according to the style that I am accustomed to.”

All these considerations are there, and yet women are backward, and they are backward not because Islam has made them backward, but because the societies that they live in are societies which have upheld the privileged class and which have subsisted on a policy of discrimination against a wide segment of the population. . . .

Before I conclude on this aspect of the powerful role within Islam of women, I would like to quote from the Qur'an, the Sura “The Ant” [Sura 27, Verse 23]: “I found a woman ruling over them, and she has been given abundance of all things, and hers is a mighty throne.” It is not Islam which is averse to women rulers, I think—it is men.

Bibliography references:

1. Benazir Bhutto, Daughter of Destiny (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989), pp. 368, 392.


2. See also Benazir Bhutto, “The Fight for the Liberation of Women” (Remarks at the Fourth United Nations Conference on Women, Beijing, China, September 4, 1995), Women's Studies Quarterly, volume 24, numbers 1–2, Spring-Summer 1996, pp. 91–97.

3. [This list includes the two largest sects of Islam, Sunnism and Shi‘ism; two schools of thought within Sunnism, the Hanafis and the Malakis; and a revivalist sect founded in northern India in the late nineteenth century, the Barelwis.—Editor]

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