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Get on with it now

Curiously, it is Islam, now globally under scrutiny for its malpractices against women, that was a true pro-woman revolutionary back in the seventh century.

india Updated: Jun 17, 2006 12:55 IST

Why are we surprised by the latest stunt at Ajmer Sharief calling for women to be banned from public prayer? It only reflects the deep patriarchal bias that has discoloured organised religions around the world. We know the discriminatory practices of old South Asian religions like Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism backwards. In Sikhism, though Guru Nanak treated women as equal, socio-economic motives have made Punjab an established leader in female foeticide, so don’t bother twirling mustaches in that quarter.

In the religions of West Asia that went international – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – there’s an interesting inversion. The ancient Jews were completely discriminatory about women (one wonders if Moses and Manu were separated at birth). But modern Jews challenged those norms and most Jewish women are not kept back by the preachments of old prophets from living their lives. The Jews even voted in a woman prime minister, Golda Meir, the “Iron Lady” of Israel.

Jesus overturned many Jewish hangups about women by admitting them as followers, speaking in equal terms about women and revealing himself after resurrection to Mary Magdalene first. But the Church that came up in his name was heavily pro-male and kept women down as merely a service sector for men. Yet, it’s the modern Christian world (forced by the social breakdown caused by two world wars), that brought in women’s rights like never before.

Curiously, it is Islam, now globally under scrutiny for its malpractices against women, that was a true pro-woman revolutionary back in the seventh century. Given the long-debased condition of women, it was the Prophet Mohammed who singlehandedly provided new status, rights and legal protection for women. No reformer has ever gone into such detail.

Even the bit about taking four wives has strict, almost impossible conditions attached, like being able to please all wives equally. If a man divorces his wife in a fit of temper, he can’t just remarry her when he returns to his senses. He needs to marry someone else first and divorce her before being able to marry his lost wife again. This difficult impediment was apparently put in as a check against impulsive and irresponsible behaviour. Moreover, in those war-torn times, polygamy was meant to provide protection for widows and orphans. Inevitably, these rules were misused and Islam is on the backfoot in many places about its treatment of women. It seems, however, to be a matter of catching up with modern times through fresh, liberal interpretations rather than a problem with the blueprint.

In every faith’s history, it was enlightened men and feisty women, appalled by the inequities, who bravely took on their respective orthodoxies for a more humane gender balance. This balance is needed both in the larger rights and in the small but important dignities of everyday living, in the right to dress, speak, move about and exist with a sense of entitlement, without apologising for being born.

Most people want to think well of their own faith and it hurts their pride to admit any fault in it. But in this, like in other issues, we are all in the same boat. If we set aside the childish need to feel that ‘our’ faith is the ‘best’ and take a candid overview, we may realise that there is no need to drag in obscure justificatory props.

For instance, when Roop Kanwar’s sati is recalled or child marriages during Akha Teej are reported, Hindus are greatly embarrassed. In self-defense, some love to cite Rishini Gargi’s famous debate with Yajnavalkya in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad as proof of ancient Hindu gender equality (in fact, he bullied her into silence).

But why should any one of us waste emotion on the need to look good? All of us have problems and all of us know it. It is foolish to say, “I am better than you.” Instead, can’t the average male ego which alas is Meru samaana (as enormous as Mount Meru) learn a little humility from better men like Prophet Mohammed, Guru Nanak and a host of sincere reformers in other faiths? We could then get cracking on gender reform without wasting more years and tears.

First Published: Jun 17, 2006 12:55 IST