Women’s Role in the Islamic Awakening

This is a paper that was written and presented by sister Shahana Jafri at the International Conference on Women and the Islamic awakening was held in Tehran a few weeks ago. A short documentary was aired by Press TV regarding the conference and can be watched here.

Imam Ruhullah Khomeini (ra) had said:

“The first and best institution of learning begins in your mother’s lap.” 

In today’s international arena and global platform, as we witness and observe the various developments and changes taking place, one development that is noteworthy and significant is undoubtedly the instrumental role of women in today’s contemporary Islamic awakening that has recently been sweeping across the Middle East region.

Throughout time, women have shouldered the responsibility of establishing a civilized and cultivated society for the sake of upholding and preserving human values and morality. The achievements and sacrifices made by women cannot be disregarded or discounted and we must continue to acknowledge their contributions through discourse and raising awareness, as we are today.

The pre-Islamic era saw a pagan Arabia, wrought with uncivilized, primitive practices, spiralling downward with no hope for salvation. The idol-worshipping people of Arabia were deeply steeped in Jahilliya and darkness.  As part of their many savage and barbaric rituals, they systematically and customarily buried newborn females alive, deeming them dishonourable.  Women were viewed as inferior objects.  This was the extent of their developmentally arrested intellect and faith.  Until Allah the Almighty sent down a mercy to mankind.

One of the outstanding achievements of the mission of the Holy Prophet (saww) was that he uplifted and restored the status, honour and dignity of women, who were the victims of brutal and inhumane treatment in the pre-Islamic era. The Holy Prophet of Allah (sawws) said : “Acquisition of knowledge is an obligation on every believing man and every believing woman.” The key to the success and growth of a society is knowledge. Thus, by giving women the complete right to acquire and gain knowledge, he elevated them as equal partners with men in building a flourishing and morally-sound society.

Having said this, we remember the strong and honourable women of Islam – those who courageously and conscientiously upheld the word of God and furthered the Prophetic mission.  In early Islam, these were none other than Khadija tul Kubra (sa) and Sayyeda Fatima Zahra (sa).  Being the esteemed and dignified wife of the Holy Prophet (saw), Lady Khadija supported and fought alongside her noble husband when Islam was in peril.  She sacrificed her wealth and riches to sustain Islam.  She relinquished her own comfort for the comfort of the isolated Muslims at the time who suffered countless hardships at the hands of the Kuffaar.

Not only did Allah (swt) award her the honourable distinction of being the beloved wife of the Holy Prophet, she was also given the highly-esteemed status of being the mother of Sayyeda Fatima Zahra (sa), the Best of all Believing Women.  Fatima embodied all the beautiful and sublime human traits as those of her father – she was not only emblematic of what a dignified daughter, a respectable wife and devoted, loving mother should be, she was also a strong advocate of women’s rights and demonstrated precisely what a woman’s societal role must be.

Many respected and highly esteemed scholars have written extensively on the life and noble character of Fatima – explicitly deeming and regarding her as the best example and role model for all women.

Fatima Zahra (sa) has been a significant focus of attention for historians, scholars and believers. This is the result and direct consequence of the unique traits which characterize and define her, the influence that she had on the socio–political developments of her time, and the manner in which Fatima set a consistent example of the rights, roles and status of the Muslim woman during her short and turbulent lifetime.

She spoke out against injustice and oppression. She was the first defender of Wilayah. She defended Wilayah with a broken rib when the Imam of the time was being stripped of his rights. She overtly exposed the Zalimeen and usurpers of the time with fearlessness and conviction. She was the ultimate role model for all believing women everywhere, and her flawless example still carries today and for all time.

When women are made to believe they are weak and fragile; when we are made to believe we are unproductive or incapable; when we are told that we are frail, unreliable or feeble; incompetent or defenceless, we need not look elsewhere – we must look towards the land of Karbala. It is 61 years after Hijri and we see Fatima’s own daughter, Zainab (sa) speaking out against injustice and oppression after the martyrdom of her brother Imam Hussain (sa) at the hands of the Zalimeen.  Come to Kufa and Shaam where you will hear her earth-shattering Khutbahs, like no man ever delivered in the Palace of Yazid before!  If Muslim women want to know what duties and responsibilities Islam has imposed upon them, they should study the life of Zainab, daughter of ‘Ali and Fatima. Zainab, a bold and valiant lady, was a symbol of patience and perseverance and a perfect model of virtue. The indescribable atrocities she witnessed and bore could have weakened her, broken her, shattered her, destroyed her, but being the daughter of Fatima (sa), they strengthened her and further emboldened her resolve.

It was the duty of Zainab to convey the message of the living yet silent martyrs of Karbala to the Muslim masses. She was a voice for the voiceless; she had to speak for those who were silenced by the swords of the tyrants. Were it not for Zainab, the struggle and battle for haqq and righteousness would have been buried deep under the sands of Karbala and the message of the martyrs along with their innocent blood which was ruthlessly spilled would have remained mute and become lost somewhere in the pages of history. It would have been a victory for Yazid. She was an ‘Alimah, a great scholar and a very eloquent speaker. She had full knowledge of the great jihad that lay before her after the 10th of Muharram, but she accepted to endure every hardship and tribulation to help the flag of Islam rise high as she fought against the tyrants in her resolve to further the mission of Imam Hussain (as) and the tenets of his great sacrifice. Hence, it was this brave and courageous lady who was an equal partner in the revolutionary uprising and revival of Islam, thus earning her the title “Shareekatul Hussain”.

In more recent and modern times, we may examine the lives of more contemporary female martyrs whose contributions and sacrifices must not be overlooked or disregarded.  Let’s not forget Shaheeda Aamena Bintul Huda Al-Sadr, the famous Muslim author and revolutionary activist also known as Bint Al-Huda, sister of Shaheed Ayatullah Baaqir Al-Sadr, who was her teacher and mentor.  She was born in 1938 in Iraq, and together with her brother, played a significant role in fighting the zalimeen of her time. Not only was she a prolific writer, she was also a dedicated social worker and activist. Bintul Huda continued to play an active and leading role in Iraqi society through founding schools, hospitals and institutions for the welfare and advancement of the community. She devoted her life in raising Islamic awareness among the Muslim women of Iraq by educating and mobilizing them. She motivated them to be more proactive and involved in the changing circumstances that were surrounding them. They were being misled and gradually proselytized into abandoning Islamic principles and core fundamentals.

The first half of this century indicated that Western cultural values dominated the Arab and Muslim countries of the world. Secular systems spread deviation and corruption and branded Islam as primitive and a hindrance to progress.

At the age of 20, her articles drew the attention of intellectuals in Najaf and became torches of light which illuminated the darkness for women. Her writings awakened a society which, like many societies in other Muslim countries, was being deviated under the false pretexts of ‘freedom and equality’. Bintul Huda thus set out to awaken society to the true face of Western ‘liberation’, and protect the purity of Islam from advancing contemporary threats. Women were targets in particular for notions that promoted and sensationalised ‘equality’ ultimately by exploitation, at the cost of undermining their dignity, modesty and self-respect. Their Islamic identity was being threatened and jeopardized. Possessing keen baseerat and insight, she felt the detrimental effects and great damage that was being inflicted upon Islam through the deliberate misguidance and corruption of women. Bint-al-Huda considered story writing and literature as a medium to revive and restore Islamic concepts and values. Her simple yet profound stories tackled specific women’s issues and concerns, reiterating and reinforcing what a woman’s role and status should be in a healthy society.

The loss of this great scholar and Mujahida was a major blow to the Ummah when in 1980 the criminal and oppressive Iraqi Ba’thist regime brutally tortured and murdered this noble lady and her revered brother Shaheed Baqir Al-Sadr (May Allah bless them both). The tyrannical, anti-Islamic regime of Saddam was well aware of their brave struggle for the sake of Islam and undoubtedly, it was fear and cowardice that motivated him to have them killed in seclusion, away from the eyes and knowledge of the public.

She was indeed a unique and brave revolutionary who confronted tyrants and achieved martyrdom for the sake of Islam.

Islam defines the role and importance of women in society quite differently than the non-Islamic world; specifically the West.  There is a notable and striking exhibition of differences when one examines how each defines the success and development of a society.  Imam Khomeini (ra) had said, “If you wish to see how a society is functioning overall, look at the condition of its women.” In his eyes, he perceived a direct co-relation between the treatment and status of women to the success and growth of any society. If the women of a society are ill-treated or disrespected, the society cannot flourish or excel. Let’s take the Islamic Republic of Iran as a prime example.

Iranian law today mandates that women must observe the hijab or the traditional black chador when in public. However, this Islamic dress code was not always in effect, specifically in the pre-revolution era. In 1936, the Iranian ruler Reza Shah, founder of the Pahlavi dynasty, banned the wearing of the chador or even scarves as part of his campaign to force modernization on the country. Police would arrest and forcibly remove the religious covering, to the dismay of religious leaders and the general public. However, the ban was welcomed by many Western-oriented Iranians who saw it as a progressive step and measure. The ban was somewhat relaxed after the British forced Reza Shah to abdicate in 1941 and replaced him with his son, Mohammad Reza. Even still, wearing the chador continued to label and categorize a woman as “backward”, “illiterate”, and a member of the lower class.  She was culturally stigmatized and branded as incompetent; a prejudice that affected her ability to be hired for employment or even admitted into fancy restaurants and hotels.

After Mohammad Reza Shah was overthrown in the 1979 Revolution, Islamic tenets and principles were enforced and established. Judicial laws were passed mandating the wearing of hijab.  With the implementation of the hijab law there came about a major difference and change in the status and position of the Iranian woman in her own society.

Let’s examine the disparity and difference of the status of Iranian women today – not to their Western counterparts, but to Iranian women before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

In 1970 – only 25% of Iranian women could read and write. By 2007, the figure had climbed to 80%.
In 1970 – female school enrolment was 60%.  By 2000, it was 90%.
Under the Shah, approximately a third of university students were women.  By 2008, 70% of university students were women.

Unlike the Shah’s era, today in Iran public education, up to and including the university level is FREE. This provides opportunity to both males and females – even to the poorest Iranians – to receive a formal education.

Iranian women today are among the most educated and accomplished in the Muslim world. They have excelled in the fields of medicine, science, film and media, sports and athletics, community leadership, law enforcement including police services, martial arts and military training, business executives, politics, writers and even race car drivers. Iran has the only all-female fire-fighting company in the entire Middle Eastern region.

This signifies and demonstrates to the world that a Muslim woman, abiding by Shariah law and compliances, given the opportunity and support, is capable of achieving incredible, insurmountable feats with self-confidence and pride with the satisfaction of knowing she reached her full potential and that no conquest for her is impossible.

In Western society, a woman is viewed as a catalyst for successful commercialization. The exploitation and objectification of women is mistaken for prosperity and progress.  However, the tragic reality is that such a state of any human being is equivalent to subjugation and enslavement. Women are conditioned and indoctrinated from a very young age through media and absurd societal standards and definitions that their worth is proportional to their physical attractiveness and femininity.  Their ability is measured by how they can shrewdly utilize their feminine prowess to their advantage. THIS INDEED IS TRUE OPPRESSION.  And when a woman rejects or challenges this form of oppression, she is ridiculed and isolated.  But she must realize that the Western brand of feminist ideology, or demanding the right to expose herself makes her party to her own objectification.  Hijab is true liberation and freedom from such oppression and subjugation.  It compels others to appreciate her mind, her character, her piety and her contributions as a productive member of society. A woman adorning the hijab is assessed for her mind, not just superficial physical traits. The true feminist is not the woman who openly broadcasts her immodesty; a true feminist is she who carries herself modestly with dignity and self-respect, secure in her own self-worth.

She breaks the chains of societal and cultural enslavement, repossessing her rights of true freedom and equality.  It is not up to Western standards and ideals to define who we are; Islam – more than 1400 years ago – had already emphatically and unequivocally defined and outlined a woman’s pivotal role in an accomplished and fruitful society.

It is this hijab and the restored honour Imam Khomeini gifted to the women of Iran that has empowered them, lifting Iran out of regression and leading it into a wonderfully triumphant and progressive nation.  It is the restitution and reparation of the Iranian woman’s dignity and rank which is what emboldened post-revolution society and culture. The power and capacity of a determined woman is not to be underestimated.

Which such a rich and extensive history so beautifully adorned with determination and unfaltering will, is it any wonder that we see the role that Muslim women are portraying in today’s current Islamic uprisings in the Middle East?

Throughout the region, women have joined with men in fighting against increased militarism and in demanding governmental and social reform. We’ve seen women at the forefront of protests and rallies from Bahrain to Yemen, to Egypt, Tunisia and beyond.

While women have struggled alongside the men to oust oppressive regimes in the region, they are still fighting on different fronts.  They are demanding their full and equal rights as women. Moreover, at this critical juncture of change, women can be valuable peacemakers in post-conflict and post-militarization reconstruction. This year’s Nobel Peace Prize, for example, was awarded to three women who have fought for peace and stability in their countries, and show us the critical role that women can—and should—play in peace and reconstruction, and in all aspects of political and civil life.

Even in today’s modern era of dissatisfaction, women have assumed the role and responsibility of safeguarding their homelands and fighting injustice by assembling and organizing themselves.  They fearlessly stand up to law enforcement and intimidation – when asked, they will tell you that they are standing up for their freedom rights and protesting against dictatorship and autocracy.  Security forces and government thugs use lowly tactics to terrorize these women and weaken their resolve through harassment and violence.  But the courageous women of today’s uprisings know very well how to resist these tactics and protect themselves and their strong-willed determination. 

The recent uprisings in the Middle East are clear proof that society is demanding their basic rights and they will not allow dictatorship and autocracy to overrule anymore. What is encouraging and uplifting is the image of female participation in these protests.  In addition, there are women working at various levels of the movement. Many young women are involved in youth movements and are prudently using social media to facilitate change and as an outlet to express them selves. Many female physicians have come from overseas to attend to and treat wounded protesters and activists in makeshift clinics and hospitals. Many have established rehabilitation centers for female victims of torture and abuse. Female lawyers and journalists are launching women’s rights groups to advise women on issues like sexual harassment and their rights according to the law. Women are forming key nongovernmental organizations that are making a difference. Female activists are consistently appearing on television and playing an active media role with their demands and concerns.

For some of these countries, the political horizon has indeed brought change and for some, social reform is still looming.  As events continue to unfold, one cannot help but feel assured and firmly believe that the determined will and ambition of an aspired woman is a force to reckon with – as we have seen throughout history and with recent events as well.

Imam Khomeini had a very positive and deep insight on the ability of a woman in the face of today’s challenges and tribulations. He declared the 20th of Jamadi-uth-Thani, the birthday of Sayyeda Fatima Zahra (sa) as Women’s Day; a day to celebrate women’s achievements and contributions; to demonstrate that a woman has a special place in society.  When referring to the role that women played in the Islamic revolution and movement, the Imam addresses them by saying, “Women are the educators of society. Women are the educators of human beings. A country’s success depends on women. Women are the source of all blessings. We all saw the role that women played in this movement. Were it not for the lion-hearted women of Iran, the Revolution could have not succeeded. We ourselves have witnessed the kind of woman Islam has nurtured.”

Moreover, when Imam Khomeini said, The first and best institution of learning begins in your mother’s lap. It is from the laps of women that true human beings originate” – he was referring to women being the nucleus of the family structure – she shapes and moulds the fabric of society by raising strong, determined and righteous children.  She prepares them for self-actualization through independence and an impermeable sense of self-identity. She facilitates fearlessness and strength in her children and trains them to serve their religion and Creator – just as the brave and courageous women of Karbala demonstrated by preparing and encouraging their children to fight persecution and tyranny, no matter what the cost, no matter how great the sacrifice.

In conclusion, it may be deemed appropriate to draw a simple comparative parallel of the pre-Islamic era of Arabia to the pre-Revolution era of Iran.

Similar to the way the Holy Prophet (saww) eradicated the systematic mistreatment and objectification of women in his society, Imam Khomeini succeeded in accomplishing the same great task. Using the Quran, Prophetic Sunnah and the teachings of the Ahlul Bait as his guide and manifesto, he raised the status and rank of women, not just within Iranian society, but all over the Muslim world. Through the implementation of Islamic tenets and principles, he revolutionized not merely his nation, but also the hearts and the minds of people everywhere. The empowered women of Iran have become exemplary and emblematic of how unleashed female potential and ability can transform a dwindling, regressive society; how awarding women their full rights can mobilize them to become ambassadors of haqq and justice.

We ask Allah (swt) to forever keep the memory of Imam Khomeini alive in our hearts and minds.  We ask Allah (swt) to give us the ability to conceptualize his vision and struggles and be able to implement them in our practical lives. May we never be heedless to the way he emphasized the importance of female contribution to the worldwide Islamic awakening and its impact in shaping a prosperous, self-sufficient and independent Ummah.