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

Southasia - - Book review - Ar­shi Saleem Hashmi is an As­sis­tant Pro­fes­sor at the Depart­ment of Peace and Con­flict Stud­ies at the Fac­ulty of Con­tem­po­rary Stud­ies, NDU.

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.

Re­viewed by Ar­shi Saleem Hashmi

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