A long history of orientalist, missionary and colonial interpretations of Islam has generated specific stereotypes, perpetuated by Muslim men, that have often denied Muslim women the intrinsic rights given to them in the Qur’an, Islam’s sacred book, according to Dr. Nimat Hafez Barazangi, a visiting research fellow in Cornell’s Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program.
These biased views of Islam have portrayed women as “completely helpless” and as individuals who “have no say in family structure” or society, she says. In her new book Woman’s Identity and the Qur’an: A New Reading, Barazangi argues that men and women have always been given equal rights in the Qur’an, although for many centuries there has been a misinterpretation of these central tenets of Islam.
Barazangi says that, through their writings, “[some] outsiders have brought a general lack of understanding about Islam.” In her book, Barazangi emphasizes that her goal is not merely to “correct” these biases, but to urge women that they should be involved in reinterpreting the Qur’an.
“It is not enough to take what is being preached,” Barazangi said, stressing the importance of “going back to the source” to show how an initial lack of understanding of Islam’s core messages has generated further misunderstandings for centuries. According to Barazangi, it is not enough that only scholars deconstruct the interpretation of the Qur’an; she believes that all Muslim women should do it themselves as well.
Should women take up the challenge of reinterpreting the Qur’an for themselves, they would find that the Qur’an mandates that all individuals be able to understand the principles of Islam. Both men and women “are entrusted with carrying the message [of Islam], and, therefore, each individual must be able to understand the message and then make [their own] moral choices,” Barazangi explained.
In fact, during his time, the prophet Mohammed, to whom the writings of the Qur’an were revealed, insisted women should make these moral decisions autonomously. He even instituted a special day when women would come to visit with him and learn the message of the Qur’an and then announce whether they accepted or disagreed with his teachings. He insisted that women should have the right to vote, and that they should be given space to think and make their own decisions.
Among traditional tribal societies, where men were often the leaders of the household, these incidents were misinterpreted to mean that women should be segregated and should play a minimal and isolated role within the Muslim community. This misinterpretation, according to Barazangi, goes against the basic message that both men and women are entrusted to carry the message of Islam; the two sexes neither compete with each other, nor is one sex superior to the other.
As part of her research, Barazangi has worked with grassroots groups in North America and Syria, where women have begun to see the importance of understanding the Qur’an for themselves. Many of these women created their own study groups “out of curiosity and frustration.” Through a good mastery of lexical and linguistic Arabic and Qur’anic science, they have begun to realize that the traditional interpretations they had been taught were biased.
Barazangi noted that as these women began to talk to their families, close relatives and later, extended families, about their views, behavior and attitudes within their society began to change.
In Syria, the collaboration of these grassroots groups with larger women’s organizations has resulted in some changes in the national law. For example, women were given more autonomy, were able to obtain a passport at the age of 18, were able to travel on their own and were able to make certain stipulations within their marriage contracts. “This does not go far enough,” Barazangi said, but notes that at least “it is one step.”
Barazangi acknowledges that, for various reasons, some women still maintain their traditional understanding of the Qur’an, with a few not wanting to take up the responsibility of changing society’s views. But, she emphasizes, “women [need to] become aware that the way Islam has been taught needs rethinking … without a paradigm shift and [further] discourse, society’s attitudes will not change.” She stresses that Muslim women need to reclaim the rights given to them in the Qur’an, so that they can take their rightful places as principle members of society.
Archived article by Samira Chandwani
Sun Staff Writer