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Naseema Mall        

OVER the years there have been numerous articles and discussions on the rights of Muslim women, or rather the oppression suffered by Muslim women. More often than not the burning issue is associated with Islam. However, it is not often that the voices of Muslim women who find freedom in Islam are heard in the mainstream media.

Johann Hari's article that focused on the brutality suffered by women in Bangladesh deserves some merit, but falls markedly short in attributing their suffering to religion. There are few things more heinous than deliberately tossing acid on someone's face. I cannot even begin to imagine the pain and the burning.

This wrathful tradition is steeped in Indian culture, prevalent across the sub- continent, in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. It has everything to do with culture and a persistent patriarchal society. It is rife among Hindus and Muslims in the region and has nothing to do with religion.

The subjugation of women in Saudi Arabia can mainly be attributed to a psychotic monarchy whose main interest is accumulating massive wealth and whose burgeoning existence is courtesy of Western powers perpetually greedy for the oil. In fact it is not only women who suffer in Saudi Arabia, but a large number of men as well.

Those who are born in the country but of foreign descent have no right to claim citizenship and have to seek tertiary education outside of the country. My friend's father, of Turkish origin, toiled in Saudi Arabia for more than 30 years, contributed to the economy through his successful business and died without any rights and citizenship, though he tried for many years.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban, a group that received much support from the US to fight the Russians in the 70s, have indulged in tribal warfare in the quest for power, and use every means to attain it. They know very little about religion and much about tribalism. They harm women when they see fit, and torture men who do not subscribe to their understanding of Islam, or lack thereof.

Iran does not have an admirable track record when it comes to capital punishment. Again, unfortunately it is men and women who are stoned to death for adultery. Female genital mutilation is another despicable tradition that goes back hundreds of years, and in fact predates Islam and Christianity. It is rife in many parts of Africa and the practice transcends religious teachings.

The point I am trying to make is that there must be a clear distinction between culture and religion. Johann Hari perhaps has noble intentions, but is naive in his understanding of Islam.

He talks about "ugly passages" in the Quran. I cannot speak for Christian and Jewish texts as I am not well versed, but he makes no specific reference to the "ugly passages" in them. I ask: Which ones in the Quran is he referring to?

Are they: "O you who believe! You are forbidden to inherit women against their will. Nor should you treat them with harshness . . . ." (4:19); "If any do deeds of righteousness, be they male or female, and have faith, they will enter Heaven." (4:124); "The believers, men and women, are protectors, one of another . . . ." (9:71). Space does not permit quoting all the verses, but the Quran is very clear in that men and women are equal in front of God, and that women have equal rights.

Hari refers to "jihadism" as "an ideology committed to enslaving women". The word "jihad" has been used, abused and bastardised. Jihad has nothing to do with women; neither does it have anything to do with war. It simply means to strive to do good, to resist evil temptations, to strive to succeed against all odds, to make sacrifices in the hope of achievement, to not give up in the face of adversity - all with good intentions, and not malice.

The hope for abused Muslim women is for Muslim men and women of power to re- educate Muslim societies by understanding the teachings of the Qur'an and Prophet Muhammad who expunged the atrocious treatment of women and granted them their rights.

A Muslim woman has no financial obligation to her husband or to her family. If she wishes to spend of her wealth on her family she is free do to so or not.

She has every right to work, but is not compelled to. The Prophet commanded that every man and woman must seek knowledge and be educated. Prophet Muhammad said: "Treat your women well and be kind to them for they are your partners." An amazing example is that of a woman known as Shafaa bint Abdullah.

She was a competent medical practitioner who was appointed as the supervisor of the market of Medina by the Prophet. She performed her task so well that Caliph Umar reappointed her during his rule. I could go on and on about the rights of women in Islam.

More and more Muslim women today are finding their voices having returned to the teachings of Islam, myself included. Weary of men's persistent dominance, more Muslim women are taking the initiative to understand for themselves their position in society. It would be beneficial if mainstream media took more time to speak to Muslim women who do find freedom in their religion.

If Hari insists on blaming religion for violence towards women, then what excuse is there for abused women in so-called "free societies"? It is disturbing that when Muslim women are abused Islam is blamed, but when Muslim women are successful then Islam is incidental.

I am a successful Muslim woman because of my religion and not in spite of it. The abuse of women, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, can never be justified or trivialised. Research studies have shown that domestic violence towards women is rife in many countries, South Africa included. Reasons and circumstances vary, but women continue to bear the brunt of inhumane men.

But to confront and resolve the abuse of women let us approach it in context, and not let religion take the blame for the brutality of men.

Naseema Mall is a freelance journalist.

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