Sunday, January 29, 2012

Women helping men get into Paradise.

I sound like a broken record on the issue of how Muslim women are portrayed by both Muslims and non-Muslims, but I have to say something on this quote, which has been going round and round on Facebook (any way to unsubscribe based on content?).

Visual design from SpreadSalam

This quote is by Dr Mohammad Akram Nadawi, a scholar from Janpur and a research fellow at the Oxford Centre for Islamic studies. I can't find the original context of where he said this, but it's clearly rather catchy:

"When she is a daughter, she opens a door at jannah (Paradise) for her father.
When she is a wife, she completes half of the deen (religion/way of life) of her husband.
When she is a mother, jannah lies under her feet.
If everyone knew the true status of a Muslim woman, even the men would want to be women."

On a first reading, this seems to elevate women. Perhaps that's why it's been shared and re-shared on Facebook. But reproducing this quote without questioning its underlying assumptions is problematic, because:

  1. Women are framed solely in relation to men.
  2. Paradise is not possible for the orphaned, unmarried, or childless (or any combination of these 3).
  3. Male privilege is trivialised and women are patronised.

1. Women are framed solely in relation to men.

In all three instances, the worth of a woman is emphasised only as her role in relation to people i.e. daughter of a father, wife to a husband, and mother of children. Specifically for the first two roles, her worth is measured by how useful she is to men -- her father and husband -- by helping them get into paradise or making their life easier for them.

Wait a minute, I thought our worth was measured by our good deeds? Men and women who do good have the same chances of a happy life (16:97) entering paradise (4:124,16:97, 33:35, 40:40), and vice versa for those who do bad (40:40). For example, both Adam and his wife were expelled from paradise for going near the forbidden tree (7:20-22).

Most importantly, the only criteria for distinguishing between people is their level of piety (49:13). This is something invisible, so therefore it's only God that can make this differentiation.

Women have their own worth in relation to whatever good or bad they do. This of course, includes doing nice things for your father or husband, but is certainly is not limited to that. Especially if you have neither of the two.

2. Paradise is not possible for the orphaned, unmarried, or childless (or any combination of these 3).

Since the possibilities for women's status only apply to those who are daughters, wives or mothers, those who have no fathers, husbands or children cannot enjoy the same rewards (or points, according to the Dutchman).

And yet, orphans are repeatedly mentioned as one of several groups for society to be especially kind towards e.g. protecting their inheritance.

Maryam Amir-Ebrahimi wrote this great article on on how being a wife and/or mother are not the only ways to Paradise, addressing both issues of being unmarried and/or childless. She highlights how the primary role of women is to serve God, a role that is straightforward and is not conditional upon the behaviour of men.

3. Male privilege is trivialised and women are patronised.

Everyday, men can see examples of how women's de facto status in society. Being male has so many privileges in so many societies. This quote implies that men are in the dark about women's actual status, which is so elevated that they would want it for themselves.

Do men want to be under the guardianship of their parent -- requiring his permission to marry, for example? Do men want to be told to submit to their spouses and do domestic work in order to o to Paradise? Why would men want to be second in line to heaven when they can go there directly, according to all these prevalent discourses?

Women also, should not complain about any difficulties they face in being a daughter, wife or mother (look at that last picture, honestly -- is there no father around to help? Just because heaven isn't under their feet, they give up?) because actually, they don't know that all their difficulties are good for them. It's yet another way of telling women that they don't know what's good for them.

The strange thing is, Mohammad Akram Nadawi has actually written a book about muhaddithat, or the female scholars of hadith. He found 8000 female scholars throughout history. From some of his lectures too, he seems like a reasonable guy. I'm surprised that he's been quoted as saying this.

I would prefer the focus to be on the character and effort for men and women to do good and refrain from bad, instead of such 'automatic tickets' to heaven for one sex or the other, for whatever reason at all. It prevents us from striving to be better people.

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