Fighting As One
Title: Great Ancestors - Women Asserting Rights in Muslim Contexts Author: Farida Shaheed and Aisha Lee Shaheed Publisher: Oxford University Press, Pakistan (September 2011) Pages: 258, Hardback Price: PKR.795 ISBN: 9780195476361
While fighting against all odds, women in the Muslim world have greatly contributed to the social and political development of their societies. Women asserted their rights, highlighted their constraints and continued to struggle refuting the myth that “women rights” was an idea alien to Muslim culture. Great Ancestors introduces the readers to women from Africa, Asia and the Middle East who fought for and defended their rights between the eighth century and the 1950s. Perhaps it is time that women of today learn something from the women of the past.
The book is a response to the apprehensions expressed in many circles underestimating the role of women in the Muslim world. Questions about feminism being alien to Muslim contexts, the defense of women’s rights have been part of an increasingly dominant discourse in Muslim societies.
The book highlights the lives and deeds of women from diverse Muslim countries and communities who have, in the past, engaged in the struggle for gender equality. It provides examples of women struggling for their rights from the 8th century to the 20th century, in the Arab world, Egypt, Muslim Spain, India, Pakistan, Algeria, Iran, Turkey, Central Asia, Nigeria and Indonesia.
Fareeda Shaheed’s research allows the reader to connect the contemporary struggle for women’s rights [with our] historical past, engendering a sense of linkage with - and ownership of - both women’s assertions in the past and the contemporary movement. She tells the readers, “The strong and determined women emerging from the pages of history here effectively refute the myth of the silenced, cloistered and acquiescent women of popular imagination.”
The book helps us understand women’s assertiveness in three different phases, at times interconnected, at times developing independently from one another. The first phase, as the author states, consists of women asserting control over their personal lives, especially in terms of bodily integrity, including sexuality and rights within the family. The second and a much less documented phase is women’s actions for solidarity i.e. initiatives by women to support other women and the third is women’s efforts to look beyond their lives and improve their societies.
Great Ancestors is a balanced combination of both physical and intellectual activism. Some women worked towards ensuring access to education and thrived on intellectual achievements or the knowledge of scriptures. Others fought to secure
rights within marriage or refused the marriage institution altogether. Yet others engaged in collective solidarity projects, including anti-colonial struggles or early forms of transnational feminist networking. The combination of a chronological and thematic approach within the narratives makes the various chapters easy to navigate.
Great Ancestors gives credit to some male voices as well, appre- ciating the men who encouraged and supported gender equality and advocated women’s rights. Farida Shaheed emphasizes, “The notion that all men in Muslim societies are misogynistic is as much a myth as the notion that women are only silent victims.”
It is clear that the challenges women faced (and continue to face) are influenced by historical, social and political circumstances and that the strategies they designed (individually or collectively) are, accord- ingly, varied. Yet, Great Ancestors sets out to demonstrate that the efforts undertaken by women towards achieving gender equality in Muslim contexts have been ongoing for centuries.
The book is divided into sections covering the period from the eighth century to the mid-20th century. Each section provides an overview of the period followed by short biographies of women who defied the norms of that time. Umm-e-Salama of eighth century Baghdad who sent a proposal to the man she had chosen to marry along with the sum of money needed for the mehr and her contemporary, Arwa Umm-e-Musa, who convinced her husband to sign a legal contract promising that he would never take another wife or concubine during her lifetime, serve as brave and inspirational examples. When Umm-e-Musa’s husband later tried to have the contract annulled, she approached the highest legal authority, the grand Qazi of Cairo, who came down to Baghdad at her request and ruled in her favor.
Great Ancestors is unique in the sense that it brings on record the countless women who fought for justice and empowerment, not only for themselves but also for their sisters in the society. For instance, Nana Asma’u of Nigeria launched an education movement for rural women in the 1840s which survives to this day; Sadigheh Daulatabadi established what was perhaps the first school for girls in Iran after having attended school disguised as a boy herself; and Muhammadi Begum became the first sole female editor of an Urdu journal for women in India. These are just some of the women discussed in the book who brought significant changes in the lives of women in the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century.
The book is more than just a compilation of the struggles of women for their rights in different Muslim countries and communities. It is a work that helps to dispel the myth about women’s rights imported from colonizing countries to the colonies. It is this myth that de-legitimizes feminists as “westernized” women who betray their culture or religion by opting for a “non-indigenous” strategy. Great Ancestors takes us inside Muslim societies where female activists or scholars own the notion of women’s rights as an indigenous value that is part of their own heritage and not an alien idea.