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Monthly Archives: January 2015

Where Are Pakistan’s Female Muftis And Islamic Scholars?

Supporters of the Pakistani religious political party Jamaat-e-Islami attend a rally to condemn the French satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo for publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Friday, Jan. 30, 2015. (AP Photo/B.K. Bangash)

“I have a problem. My husband said ‘talaaq’ (divorce) to me thrice in one sitting. Everyone says the divorce is final now although he revoked his decision within hours. I have too much at stake here, and want to stay in this marriage. I have heard that the words uttered thrice in the same sitting count as one according to some Muslim jurists. What do you say?”

These were the words of a desperate woman aged 31, and the query was directed to a female Islamic preacher.

While the preacher explained basics to her, the disclaimer at the end was: “To have a legitimate version, I would suggest you ask a Mufti.”

The girl was puzzled. This female preacher had the required knowledge and had studied Islamic Sciences in depth. Why could she not confirm it?

“Because I am not a mufti. No woman in Pakistan is. I am not certified to give you this answer. You will have to consult a male scholar.”

And so it is. In a country that presently has close to 250,000 female students studying Islamic sciences across the country, not one female mufti (an expert expounder of Islamic jurisprudence) is to be found in Pakistan. With the exception of Dr. Farhat Hashmi, even a thorough internet search will prove exhausting and futile if you try and search for mainstream Islamic scholars from Pakistan. Neighbouring India, with one of the largest Muslim populations in the world, is stuck in the same lurch.

While women study, preach and uphold religious teachings and values, there is an unsaid line which they do not cross. Beyond that line is a man’s domain. In the hierarchy of serious religious scholarship and clergy, women remain submissive and at best supplementary in terms of Islamic intellectual thought. Thus, the narrative that has evolved over the centuries sorely lacks the female voice, not just in South Asia but world over. Islamic female scholars, both in the mainstream and esoteric circles, and both from a faith-based and a critical scholarship premise, have risen again. The mark has been made, but only in the upper tier of Muslim cultures. The change remains to trickle down.

“In our culture, the woman remains dependent on the man, even the educated and self-reliant ones. Traditional Islamic scholars do not want this to change. If women start learning and studying at the level of men, many existing ideological ideas will be questioned. Most traditional scholars want to stay in a state of permanent utopia. Two things are at play here: patriarchy and a monopoly over the corridors of the power that comes as an advantage of religious leadership,” says Ibrahim Qazi, a worker of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), one of Pakistan’s strongest right wing political parties.

JI, while seen as a hardliner group, has to its credit bringing the signature face-covered veiled women both into the political and evangelism arenas.

Though female voices have always been part of the Islamic Intellectual Tradition, they are not as audible as men’s voices. When asked the possible reason for this, Aurangzeb Haneef, scholar and teacher of Islamic Studies, feels that religion discouraging women is not one of them.

“In the formative and classical period, as well as going on into the medieval period, women’s contribution to the intellectual corpus is palpable. This is especially true for transmission of Hadith,” he says.

Haneef feels that in the modern period, the field has become increasingly dominated by men.

“While religious organizations such as JI have women representation, their organizational structures are not conducive to supporting women’s scholarship independent of men.”

Allowing women to enter this sphere could possibly alter gender-based power dynamics in Muslim societies. A case in point would be Laleh Bakhtiar, an Iranian-American author who is the first American woman to translate the Quran into English. The most debated in all of her translation is her interpretation of a verse of the Quran, where Bakhtiar translated the verse as “husbands should go away,” instead of the husband being allowed to hit the wife mildly if she crosses all limits (including committing infidelity in the opinion of many).

“I believe that it was because I was looking at the verses from a female perspective,” says Bakhtiar, in her answer to Al Jazeera.

While Dr Hashmi may not agree with some of the non-traditional interpretations of Bakhtiar and others, she has to her credit brought a surge of Pakistani women from all strata of society into the fold of deliberated Islamic study. The liberals in Pakistan often see Dr Hashmi as a strict hardliner. Yet, she has also had to face opposition from more strict and traditional schools of thought.

“It is sad that there is such a dearth of Islamic scholars who are women. It is very important that women come into this field and invest their time into research in Islamic Studies. In fact, there is nothing against a woman becoming a Muftiah,” says Dr Hashmi.

Her expertise is Hadith Sciences, and in this she is inspired by historical accounts of Muhaddithat (female hadith narrators and scholars). One of the recent literary works on the subject is by Akram Nadwi who has compiled a biographical dictionary called “Al-Muhaddithat: The women scholars in Islam.” As he began his research, he hoped to find 20 to 30, but ended up finding more than 8000 of them.

“It is easier to perpetuate male authority and to cite men (even on ‘women’s issues’) than to acknowledge women’s voices, particularly where women do not have the same easily recognizable credentials or public profiles as their male counterparts,” says Kecia Ali, Associate Professor of Religion at Boston University. “One way to begin to chip away at this disproportionate emphasis on male scholarship is to bring women’s voices and contributions to the fore on many issues, not just those concerning women.”

But Haneef says that women have a natural advantage when it comes to such issues.

“Women can think, understand, and deliberate better on issues pertaining to women and gender relations.”

The role of women as mothers and nurturers makes them safe choices, for teaching and preaching, seen as lighter ‘fluff’ work, but intensive research and redefining discourse is seen as too hardcore for the gentler sex. This is in sharp contrast with women at the time of the Prophet (pbuh), who were nurturers and home-makers, as well as scholars. One of the most prominent Islamic jurists of her time was his wife Umm Salama, known for her fatawa. Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, Chairman Pakistan Ulema Council, says that these examples must be followed.

“Muslims have inherited a big chunk of their knowledge of religion from these honoured women. Even today, women must play their role. But it is not necessarily patriarchy at work that is hindering this process. If women, themselves, decide to forge ahead in this field, no obstacle will stop them,” says Ashrafi.

One such woman is Emaan Asif, a business graduate who gave up her professional career by choice, and is currently studying to become an ‘Aalima, a degree in Islamic sciences awarded by traditional schools. Yet, Emaan has no scholarly ambitions for doing this. Her reason is simply to learn more about her faith and “become a better Muslim”. Her husband, Asif Misbah, supports her through the demands of this period of painstaking extensive study.

He feels one must venture into this field “as long as it does not compromise any fundamental life-role or leads to sharia non-compliance in any aspect, for both men and women.”

According to Haneef, the female voice is necessary and her perspective essential in the Islamic narrative.

“By virtue of her position, ‘Ayesha added aspects of the Prophet’s (pbuh) life to the Hadith corpus that were humane, personal, and intimate and might have been lost,” he says, citing the Prophet’s (pbuh) wife as an example.

While the change may have begun with a resurgence of women being seen in the area of Islamic scholarship, “it will be a long and discontinuous process,” says Ali. “But like anything worth doing, one must try.”

Bakhtiar is hopeful and feels that change takes time.

“We have to be patient.”

Content posted to MyMPN open blogs is the opinion of the author alone, and should not be attributed to MintPress News.

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About The Author
Farahnaz Zahidi
Farahnaz Zahidi
Farahnaz Zahidi is a Pakistani writer and editor, who writes to “tell stories that need to be told and contribute towards a better Pakistan, a better world.” Her areas of focus include gender, environment, peace-building and Islam. She currently works forThe Express Tribune. She blogs at chaaidaani and her photo-journalism can be seen on Flickr.

Sexual reproductive health: Life lessons

Despite being a key issue, Pakistanis still whisper when it comes to sexual reproductive health. DESIGN : TALHA KHAN

“I was nine years old when I started sprouting. I was not made to wear a trainer. Mykhala (aunt) came to me and said ‘no one should know that you are growing up. I will teach you how to hide it.’” She took two big coins, placed them on my chest at the right spot, and tied a long piece of cloth over it tightly.‘Never let a man kiss you, otherwise you will become pregnant’, she said. I was nine! I recall my uncle kissing me on my cheek and me crying all night thinking now I was pregnant and God would never forgive me.” Saima*, an educated working woman from Karachi, is now 39, married, and a mother. Yet, she still feels that the way she looks at sexuality is not normal but is unable to alter her thinking. For the longest time, she could not fully enjoy physical intimacy with her husband either since there was a sense of guilt “as if it is something wrong,” she shares.

This sense of shame that society conditions into people when it comes to matters of the body starts very early on. The man at the grocery store will very deftly look away the moment a woman asks for sanitary napkins and pack them in a brown paper bag. Most Pakistani daughters will not ask their fathers to buy sanitary napkins for them. Menstruation comes as a shock to many Pakistani girls. With a still relatively young average age of marriage of women in Pakistan, many women and even men confess that they did not know enough details of the conjugal relationship till they got married. Zareen*, a USA-based doctor shares that despite having done her MBBS at the time of her wedding, her knowledge was so bookish that she knew almost nothing. “The experience was horrendous,” she says. “My ex-husband was also young at the time and his sources of information about sex had been very wrong. I think we were never able to develop a normal bond.” 

Shame shame

This halo of shame that surrounds any and everything that has to do with a young body morphing into adulthood has dire consequences. Yet, there is still immense reluctance about discussing the matter with young adults.

“Lack of awareness  pushes young people to reach out to any source of information out of curiosity,” says Maliha Zia Lari, lawyer and human rights activist. “Questioning sexuality at a certain age is a natural occurrence, but the social clamp down further fuels the curiosity. As a result, they do learn about it, but they learn it [the] wrong way.” In Lari’s experience, this leads to dangerous things like unnatural experimentation, and often with the wrong people. Even young males are exposed to the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) or being emotionally exploited by ill-meaning men or women. Lari adds that this is one reason why human rights activists discourage early age marriages. “We teach people to be ashamed of our bodies, not to take ownership. A young mind has so many unanswered questions,” she says. Contrary to popular belief, research also proves that awareness about Sexual Reproductive Health (SRH) does not promote promiscuity in adolescents. In fact, it makes them more cautious.

‘The talk’

Survey of a cross section for this write-up reveals that most parents in Pakistan do not talk to their children about SRH, and if they do, the onus falls on the mothers. According to a study conducted by Marie Stopes Society in selected districts of Pakistan, the onset of menstruation was associated with anxiety in 47% girls as only 13% of them reported receiving information about puberty before the onset of menstruation.

Data from a 2013 baseline study conducted by Aahung (a non-profit organisation that concentrates on SRH) in four districts of Sindh, with adolescents as subjects, showed that only 34% adolescents would talk to their parents about pubertal issues. Nearly 49% of those questioned believed that AIDS is a curable disease, which means they were not aware of the possible dangers of unsafe sex either.

For Hira*, a mother of three, the experience was one typical for most Pakistani girls. “I came to know about puberty the day I had my first period. I went running to my mom who just told me that this happens to girls and that this is ganda khoon (bad blood) that needs to come out of the body. And I must not tell anyone about it as its one big secret,” she shares. She confesses that she learnt about feminine hygiene or issues related to puberty on a trial and error bases. “Only the basic information of how to use depilatory creams was provided, but nothing about when and where.” Her knowledge of the physical intimacy between men and women and how babies are born remained limited to that from Bollywood movies. “I thought you meet a boy, and then two roses dance together in a park, and you have a baby,” she laughs and says that she was told that “achi larkiyaan is baray mein baat nahi kartin”(nice girls don’t talk about these things).

“Once I begun menstruating, my mother would keep drumming one thing in our heads: do not commit adultery, it is one of the major sins,” shares 25-year-old Maria. Such a warning from mothers may not always be a bad idea. However, she acknowledges that her mother’s choice of words was harsh. “For the most part, I thank her for that. I have been tempted many times but never crossed a line and that has saved me from many an emotional disaster,” she admits. Maria’s idea of sex, however is so plagued by a sense of guilt that she fears she will feel guilty initially even with her husband after getting married. “It will take me time. But I would give the same training to my daughters,” she says.

Educationist and motivational speaker Abbas Hussain strongly endorses the practise of parents talking to children about SRH, albeit sensitively. Interestingly, Hussain feels that, “Urban mothers prove to be big prudes, whereas rural mothers see this very important part of human life as a part of nature. Such are the idiocies of urban life that a cow giving birth to a calf is not considered normal,” he adds.

Will daddy talk to his son?

“Fathers take very little interest in the sexual education of their children, even boys, as the common notion is uss key doston ney bata diya hoga (his friends must have told him). Men are generally shier then we think,” says Hira. “My father never talked to me about these things,” shares 20-year-old Shehryar Imran. However, he feels it is very important for adolescents to be adequately informed about the changes their bodies are going through “without having to rely on clandestine conversations with peers who also may not be fully informed,’” he says. “In order to combat the spread of STDs, it is imperative to target the root cause of the problem: breaking the unhealthy taboo surrounding sex.”

The ‘talk’ at school and choice of words

Hussain also stresses the importance of teachers’ role when it comes to SRH. “Senior teachers can play a huge role, but in this I am very clear about the gender segregation — male teachers for boys and female teachers for girls,” he says, adding that sensitive and cultural sensibilities need to be respected. He also stresses the importance of chosing words carefully. “Using the term ‘sex education’ deflects from the real issue; this term is the red herring,” he adds.

Maliha Noor, manager communications at Aahung, endorses using “culturally appropriate language.” Hence, Aahung’s successful awareness programme on the subject is called Life Skills Based Education (LSBE). “This should be included not just in school curriculum but even our medical practitioners in the making should be taught about this,” says Noor. “Often, doctors and nurses know the biological details but don’t know how to handle queries about it.” Aahung’s LSBE curriculum covers a range of issues including pubertal changes, gender discrimination, HIV / AIDS, protection from violence, peer pressure, rights within the nikah nama, and family planning. Part of the programme also concentrates on training teachers. “When students would talk to us about their issues, we would often not take them seriously and even joke about them,” confessed one of the teachers trained by Aahung. After the training, she has learnt how to handle these queries sensitively.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Farahnaz Zahidi is a senior subeditor at The Express Tribune. She tweets @FarahnazZahidi

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, January 25th, 2015.

What if Bilawal Bhutto actually joins PML-N?

Published: January 22, 2015

Are the reports of the prodigal Bhutto son – yet to return fully – Bilawal Bhutto Zardari joining Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) true?

The reports of Mark Twain’s death were greatly exaggerated. So were the reports of Imran Khan’s marriage. But as they say, there’s no smoke without at least some fire. Are the reports of the prodigal Bhutto son – yet to return fully – Bilawal Bhutto Zardari joining PML-N true?

PML-F would be outrageous enough.

But PML-N would be even more outrageous.

Or would it? Not really.

Reality remains that the present day PPP and PML-N may be different in terms of inherent ideology, but what they do to Pakistan remains essentially the same. One may be on the right and the other on the left, but they have a middle ground where they meet, join hands and work happily in unison. And that middle ground is plagued by words that we are today all too familiar with – nepotism, corruption, bad governance, lack of accountability, disconnection with people, the list goes on.

While hard core and genuinely sincere PPP supporters are trying to hide inner fears by publicly laughing at the idea Arbab Ghulam Rahim has presented, they know that all there is definitely trouble in paradise.

If ever this actually happens, nothing will change for Pakistan and its people. The faces change but the predicaments of this nation remain the same. It doesn’t really matter whether the battle is raged with the help of a teer (arrow) or a sher (lion), and it doesn’t matter whether it is Bilawal or Shahbaz Sharif in rubber boots in flood stricken parts of Pakistan. Children will continue to die in Tharparkar and Punjab police will continue to beat up blind persons and even children. The lifestyles of the rich and famous will not change. Pakistani mothers will risk their most precious children when they send them to school, while the children of the leaders of most Pakistani political parties will be in safe insulated havens of top notch universities abroad.

However, if Bilawal were to join “them”, one thing would happen for sure. The many sincere ‘jiyalas’ who hope that one day, maybe, just maybe, Bilawal miraculously proves critics wrong, will be heartbroken. It is not that if Bilawal were to become the saviour they are hoping, he can do it only from the platform of PPP. Because if someone wants to work for the betterment of Pakistan sincerely, it doesn’t matter what the platform is. However, the problem with PPP is that dynastic inheritance supersedes everything else, sadly. If at all, the young Bhutto-Zardari were to change camps, a blow which the jiyalas will not be able to withstand, because sadly, a majority of them support the PPP less for its ideology, whatever is left of it, and more for the lure and romance of the Bhutto name. If PPP supporters had more sense, there would have been not one but many forward blocks within the party by now, and Bilawal’s dad would have been out of business.

Those who actually look up to Bilawal, much as this idea amazes the rest of us who are more realistic, have a miniscule flicker of hope. That hope is actually increased with rumours and factual reports of disagreement between father and son. Many of those who are too loyal to the Bhutto name to openly declare PPP in-contextual, are secretly excited and happy when they hear that Bilawal strongly disagrees with the father regarding how the party is working.

What we are seeing right now is just speculations and rumours. But in politics, there are no permanent friends, nor foes. Only time will tell which way Bilawal will steer himself. But if at all Bilawal decides to move away from the party of his papa, PML-N would be a sad choice – he will just end up being another brick in the wall called “the status quo”.

I am sure Bilawal has read up on these “rumours”, and back door channels are in the process of convincing him to negate this as mere gossip through another emotional tweet. As a Pakistani, one can just hope that one day, the young man sees the light and does something substantial for his people; maybe from a newer forum, or no forum at all by serving the people in an individual capacity. That would be real news, the kind of news that lasts.

So what if Reham Khan is divorced?

Published: January 10, 2015

The stigma attached to a divorced woman resiliently continues, despite increased urbanisation and standards of literacy. PHOTO: REHAMKHANOFFICIAL.COM

There are occasions when the misogyny and gender-bias that exists in Pakistan becomes more obvious than ever. Imran Khan’s wedding to Reham Khan has been one such occasion that has brought to light the underlying and inherent concept that an “honourable woman” needs to have certain pre-requisites. On the top of that list is this: she must not be a divorcee.

For most men of Pakistan, even the so-called educated ones, the only women of honour are their own mothers, sisters, wives and daughters. Any other woman’s repute, especially that of a divorced woman, is something they can plunder, especially if she is a celebrity. People stoop to the level of digging into a woman’s past and relish anything they can find against her. In our culture, a “divorced” woman is mostly not considered a ‘good’ woman. A 60 plus male relative of mine over a family dinner said to me,

“How could Imran have chosen her? He could have gotten any unmarried woman he wanted. She is divorced… she must be at fault somewhere, right?”

“But he is divorced too,” I replied.

The gentleman obviously felt that was not an issue. Add to it the fact that in this day and age, digital technology keeps track of our deeds more than angels do, and Reham’s modern attire, a snappy wit and nature of work were all over social media. They assume that if an empowered woman is divorced, well, she must have been the reason. As a society, we share compromised photographs and recordings of women, laugh, share, enjoy, and silence our guilt by uttering “taubah astaghfar” (God forbid) intermittently. Through it all, our pre-conditioned bias is at work.

The stigma attached to a divorced woman resiliently continues, despite increased urbanisation and standards of literacy. Leave alone men, talk to women across the board, and seemingly modern women will also say “taubah karo, God forbid” that their unmarried sons or brothers were to marry a divorced woman. Even the religious men and women who want to emulate the Holy Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in every little act seem to forget that other than Hazrat Ayesha (ra), all of the Prophet’s wives were either widows or divorcees. We pick and choose cleverly between the Sunnah (way) of the Prophet (pbuh), and our religion takes a back seat when juxtaposed against cultural pre-conditioning.

There are a few unfair assumptions about a divorced woman and perhaps the most pre-dominant one is that she is someone who does not have her priorities right; that she has a messed up value system.

“Divorces are on the rise because women do not have tolerance anymore” is a common sentiment.

I recall meeting an advocate who confirmed that cases of Khula (Islamic divorce) are steeply on the rise in Pakistan.

“These are mostly human rights-type women,” he said, explaining the term that these are mostly women who are not willing to take it anymore.

Pehle ki aurtain bewafaai bardaasht kar leti then. Thappar khaa leti thi. Abb to Khula lene khari ho jaati hain.”

(Earlier, women tolerated infidelity. Or took a beating. Now they stand in line for divorce.)

If a lack of tolerance means that more women today will not stand injustice and insult, then such a woman, who took such a stand, should in fact be respected more. Somewhere deep inside, women who are most critical of other women who have opted for divorce are possibly envious that they did not have the same guts or chances.

Another painful assumption about divorced women is that they are not chaste women. A seemingly sensible woman said the other day,

Uss type ki aurton ki talaaqain hoti hain

(Those types of women get divorced)

And all I wanted to do was bang my head against the wall. Divorced women experience how even the closest of friends start avoiding meeting them in presence of their husbands, as if they are vultures on the lookout for men.

This is not to imply that all divorced women are tolerant, compromising, giving and saint-like. There will always be all kinds. But sweeping assumptions are extremely unfair, specially bearing in mind that a divorced man is not judged the same way. The divorce of any man or woman is not what defines them. Their actions and intentions do.

Everyone needs a companion and a second chance at happiness, more so when the first experience has been bitter. We should let people be. Everyone around us is fighting their own battles. Let’s not make it tougher for others, or karma may start acting up before you know it.

Apart from the many other healthy precedents that Imran and Reham’s marriage has set, one is that in a culture steeped in gender-bias, a divorced woman is today the wife of the country’s most popular leader and may end up becoming the country’s first lady in the future. Here’s hoping this will open up the minds of our people a bit more.

2014 report: Pakistan most dangerous country for journalists, says IFJ

Farahnaz Zahidi
Published: January 1, 2015

At least 14 journalists and media staff were killed in the country last year. STOCK IMAGE

KARACHI: Pakistan was the most dangerous country in the world for journalists during 2014 with 14 recorded deaths, according to the 24th Annual List Asia of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) released on Wednesday. Syria, where a deadly insurrection against President Bashar al Assad has been ongoing, was in the 2nd place on the IFJ report with 12 journalists killed in the line of duty.

A total of 118 journalists and media staff were killed in work-related attacks in 2014, states the IFJ report. The attacks included both targeted or crossfire incidents. Seventeen other mediapersons died in road crashes and natural disasters while on assignments. In 2013, 105 journalists and media staff were killed.

After Pakistan and Syria, Afghanistan and Palestine recorded nine killings each while eight journalists were killed each in Iraq and Ukraine.

“We have been raising our voice for security of media persons but the government has never taken the safety of journalists seriously,” said Amin Yousuf, the secretary general of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), told The Express Tribune. Yousuf complained that when journalists and media staff die in the line of duty, announcements are made by political leaders but their families never get compensation.

The IFJ report also warns that these new figures are a reminder of the gravity of the safety crisis in media and renews its urgent call to governments to make the protection of journalists their priority.

The Asia Pacific region, where Pakistan is located, had the highest death toll with 35 killings, making it the most dangerous region for journalists and media staff in the world for the second year running.

According to the IFJ, the ongoing wars in Syria, Iraq and Ukraine as well as the violent insurgency in Pakistan and Afghanistan account for most of the targeted killings of journalists.

“The levels of violence against journalists remain unacceptably high in a number of countries where journalists risk their lives in their daily job,” said IFJ General Secretary Beth Costa. “Sadly, many have paid the ultimate price this year and lost their lives to the spiraling violence which is engulfing media, fuelled by the climate of impunity.”

Published in The Express Tribune, January 1st, 2015.