By: Ismael Mukhtar
In the recent wave of revolutions sweeping the Middle East, Muslim women’s active participation at all levels was clearly evident. Their participation went beyond simple presence to actively leading, inspiring and courageously taking a stand. Many of them were detained, tortured and some executed. Despite all the odds, they remained firm in their resolve to fight for justice and liberty. Among the many women voices of revolution receiving greater publicity, two are noteworthy: Asmaa Mahfouz and Tawakul Karman.
Asmaa Mahfouz is a 26 years old Egyptian activist and one of the founders of the April 6 Youth Movement. She is credited with helping spark the mass uprising in Egypt. Her main tool was video blogs on YouTube and face book. She broke the wall of fear by calling on Egyptians to rally in full force against the dictatorial regime of Mubarak. Her simple, yet powerful message electrified the masses and inspired millions. Despite all threats and warnings, Asma continued her struggle with admirable resolve.
Tawakul Karman is a 32 years old Yemeni mother of 3, a journalist and political activist. She heads the ‘Women Journalists Without Chains” group. She is an outspoken human rights defender in Yemen. She became a leading voice in the Yemeni uprising against the dictatorial regime of Abdullah Ali Saleh. She was arrested many times, but continued to lead peaceful protests against the regime. Tawakal’s activism gained her international recognition and was a co-recipient of Nobel peace prize for 2011.
The resilience and courage of Muslim woman in these revolutions might come as a surprise for casual observers of women in contemporary Muslim societies. Muslim women are sometimes perceived as being submissive, laid back, un-interested in social activism and living under the shadow of their men. This perception is probably true in relation to certain cultures, but not to all. Referencing the textual and historical framework of Islam reveals that these perceptions are a reflection of anomalies that emanate from cultural norms more than Islamic ideals.
One of the highly acclaimed figures in the Quran is the wife of Pharaoh (Surah 66, verse 11). She is set as a model for the believers for her faith, courage and principled stand. She defied her brutal husband and distanced her self from his wrong doings. She chose, instead, to be on the side of prophet Moses and his oppressed people. Similarly, another reference is made in the Quran to a woman in the chapter known as “disputation” (Surah 58). This woman, known as Kawla Bint Tha’laba, came to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) to speak out against a pre-Islamic woman-dehumanizing social norm prevalent in Arabia, known as Zihar. Many women suffered under this norm with no other recourse. This particular woman, however, took it upon her self to courageously challenge this norm and point how unfair it was to woman. Her stance didn’t go in vain; her name became a fixture in the exegesis of the Quran as well as Islamic jurisprudence on family. Zihar was strictly prohibited in Islam.
Early Islamic history is full of examples of woman who defied the current stereotypical perceptions. It is known historically that the first person to die as a martyr in Islam was a woman known as Summaya. She renounced the idol worship of Arabia and as a result she was subjected to severe torture by her masters. Despite her old age and frail health, she stood for her belief and was brutally executed. In her resolve, Summaya, was not an exception. She was a reflection of the new sense of self worth gained by women as a result of their new faith.
In every juncture of the early struggle against Meccan pagan hegemony, Muslim woman were part and parcel of that struggle. Names such as Znira, Umu Salama, Asma Bint Omais, Asma Bint Abubaker,Umu Haram and many others stand in prominence. One of these women, Asma Bint Abu-Baker, lived long enough to witness the era of Al-Hajjaj, the tyrant of Iraq. Asma’ had a lengthy discussion with him. She courageously challenged him and told him, “I heard the prophet (PBU) saying, “from the tribe of Thaqief an imposter and annihilator will emerge”. We have witnessed the imposter (she was referring to an imposter known as Ubaidillah) and now we are now witnessing the annihilator and that is you!
Early Muslim woman were more engaged civically, had greater social awareness and were active participants in the social life. Much of the norms debilitating Muslim woman today in some Muslim societies are remnants of pre-Islamic cultures that persisted for centuries and are far from the authentic legacy of Islam.