By Nigar Ataulla
14 May, 2010
Assalam Alaikum, my dear brothers.
I hope that by your rules a sister can write a letter to her brother, and that is why I am writing this letter to you.
I wish to start by stating that I do respect the ulema, and also admit that your knowledge of Islam is a thousand times better than mine. A major part of my zakat goes to the madrasas, where the ulema teach and where they train would-be scholars of Islam. Hence, please do not think that I am a radical feminist out to attack you out of blind prejudice.
My own interaction with the ulema, I must confess, has been very limited. It began with the Maulvi Saheb who used to come home to teach me to read the Quran when I was a child. Thereafter, I met with no other Maulvi Sahebs, till one day, as a trainee reporter, I met with a dreadful accident and landed in hospital. There, a Maulvi Sahib friend of my father came to visit me. This is what he had to say to me about my accident: “If you were sitting at home instead, this would not have happened to you.”
That was the starting point for me to wake up. I found the Maulvi Sahib’s advice utterly insensitive. But, as the saying goes, forgive and forget. And I have forgiven, although I have not forgotten.
A fatwa issued by a reputed seminary in India last month shook me quite a bit, I must confess. It argued that it was impermissible for Muslim women to work outside their homes if, in doing so, they would have to talk ‘frankly’ with men. It also insisted that if they had to work, they must be veiled while at the workplace. Other fatwas issued by this seminary in the past insist that Muslim women must veil even their faces.
I have been a working woman ever since I completed my college education. I certainly do not fall into your category of the “pious Muslim woman” because I do not wear the veil and have never covered-up my face, although I do dress modestly. While some of you have issued fatwas declaring watching television (including even Islamic programmes) as wholly haram, I do turn on the TV once in a while, but only to watch my favourite cartoon show ‘Tom and Jerry’ (It’s about a cat and a mouse chasing each other and having loads of fun. You can also watch it, its clean stuff!). For my job as a writer, I have to interact and interview people, and not just women. Given all this, perhaps I do not fit your description of what the ideal Muslimah is.
About what you might find my ‘nicer’ side, I don’t drive (a fatwa from the same madrasa that issued the fatwa on working women insists that women should not drive cars), and I work in a Muslim-run media organization, where every morning, all of us greet each other with loud-throated Assalam Alaikums. Our office has some non-Muslim staff, and they, too, generally use the same greeting. I hope this makes you happy!
What I wish to convey to you as a Muslim working woman is that your fatwa sends out wrong signals to not just us Muslims but to non-Muslims as well. Is it necessarily the case that, as some of you seem to imagine, a Muslim woman who works outside her home does so with bad intentions or is necessarily irreligious? Does she work, as some of you seem to think, only to pass her time? Does she work simply because she wants to interact with men? The answer to all this is a resounding NO! A Muslim woman—or any woman, for that matter—may work to support herself if she is single, to support her old parents, to support her children, to support her husband, to add some money to the family savings in these days of economic crises, and, quite simply, to evolve emotionally and intellectually. I can cite any number of cases of Muslim women who are married, divorced, widowed or just plain single, who work and are economically independent, and are still believing and practicing Muslims, like myself. They work because they do not want to be a burden on the men-folk in their families or communities.
You might claim that a father or a husband will provide maintenance to his daughter or wife, and so women need not work outside their homes. But doesn’t a Muslim woman have a mind of her own? Is she to remain forever dependent on the goodwill of others? Of course, I agree that her earnings (like that of men) should be halal and that her work (again, like that of men) should not violate the universal rules of honesty, integrity, dignity and modesty. But it is not just women but men, too, who ought to follow these basic rules.
I recall here my late mother’s wisdom when she used to question why all ‘moral rulings’ are showered on women and not men. She would ask, “Is the iman of men so weak that the mere sight or sound of a woman will dilute their faith?” I, too, want to ask you this same question. Why you do not issue such fatwas for Muslim men? Please be so kind as to let me know.
The first such fatwa that you should issue is to order men to lower their gaze when they pass by women. Just the other day, I was walking through the Muslim-dominated Jamia Nagar locality in Delhi, when a man who looked like a Maulvi Sahib, with a long beard and cap and dressed in white kurta-pajama, stopped and stared and stared and stared at me as if I were some strange creature. That, I assure you, is not the first time that I have experienced such horrendous behaviour.
I need not tell you, for you know it well, that God judges actions by their intentions. In this regard, what troubles me particularly about some of your fatwas on women’s issues is how you seem to presume (and, on the basis of that presumption, judge) that Muslim women who work out of their homes are so weak in faith that they can easily turn astray and immoral. I am beginning to believe that you seem to think that all of us Muslim working women go to work as if we are participants in some fashion parade!
My humble submission to you, as a sister-in-Islam, is that some of the absurd fatwas that you hurl from time to time only create fear and foreboding in the hearts and minds of Muslims and others. They can easily take Muslims far away from true spirituality and the fear and love of God. As Muslims, we are supposed to fear God and not anybody else. We are answerable to the Almighty alone for all our actions, intentions and deeds. If I fear a fatwa, then I am committing shirk, which is the biggest sin since I must fear Allah alone.
I sometimes wonder how religious scholars from other communities, such as Hindus Christians, Buddhists, and Sikhs, interact with the common folk among their co-religionists. Frankly, sometimes I really envy them. Non-Muslim women can freely ask questions to their priests, gurus and so on and discuss religious matters with them. I simply cannot, for the life of me, fathom why Muslim women cannot have a healthy and positive dialogue with the ulema. Is it because of some deep-rooted fear on both sides? Is it because of a totally unwarranted hierarchy that seems to prevail between the ulema and the common folk, paralleling that between medieval kings and their subjects? I don’t need to explain who the ‘kings’ and the ‘subjects’ here are, for surely you will understand.
During my travels, if I do happen to visit an Islamic seminary I would be delighted to meet you and discuss all these issues. I promise to come properly dressed, and along with my mahram (my husband) Inshallah. But, for heaven’s sake, don’t whisk me off into the women’s quarters or banish me to a corner. And please do not claim that my voice, too, must be ‘veiled’—which is what some of you insist in the fatwas you have issued. I have experienced that enough, and, quite frankly, am not willing to take it any longer. My dialogue is with you. I am your sister after all, and when I die I know that for my maghfirat duas will be held in your madrasas for the peace of my soul. Till I live, please allow me to let my soul to talk freely with yours.
May God be with you
With respects and regards