There are many reasons that have been offered from time to time and over the ages by a section of the Muslim clergy to keep women ensconced within the four walls of the house, but never has one heard such a comment that girls should not go to school because doing so would make them “disobedient”. This comment was uttered by the head of Hefazat-e-Islam (HI), a person who is known to be well-versed in various aspects of Islam. And that is what makes the statement all the more surprising.
I do not possess the required level of knowledge on Islam to indulge in any kind of rebuttal of the comment. That should have come from other Islamic scholars who know better. But except for one, I'm yet to hear or read anything by way of a counterargument from any other Islamic scholars of the country.
Are we to believe that the deafening silence indicates endorsement of what has been uttered by the chief of HI? Either that the rest of our religious scholars agree with a comment that patently contradicts the normative teachings of Islam and what the texts say about education of women and the rights of women in general in our society, or that they consider the statement not worthy of a reaction.
The government reaction, in the form of a pithy statement by the deputy minister for education, was not much more than skirting the issue, passing it off as a personal comment. How can that be so when he made everyone present at the gathering, thousands of them, take the vow that they would not allow their daughters to study beyond class IV or V? Most of his audience in the gathering were simple-minded God-fearing credulous Muslims with an extremely impressionable and pliant mind. Thus, a comment that impacts a large section of people, localised they may be, no longer remains within the purview of one's individual comment but involves and ultimately affects the society at large. I can't help repeating a comment which I came by recently, that anything that remains unanswered is empowered. These words display wisdom as well as express caution.
Resistance to women's development comes from some quarters in the Islamic world, particularly some extremist organisations and not from the teachings of the Holy Quran or the Hadith. Malala Yusufzai's “crime” was that she wanted to seek education and contribute to the society. The name "Boko Haram" means roughly "anti-education". These show how far removed some people are from the normative teachings of Islam. And these minority Muslim views are taken by the rest of the world as reflective and representative of the teachings of Islam. The Holy Quran neither commands that women be confined and secluded within the house, nor does it prevent them from seeking education.
As for education, the Hadith says that education is not only a right but also a responsibility of all males and females. In fact, it is agreed by all the famous exegetists of the Quran that the first revealed verse starts with the word “Iqra” (read). The Holy Quran says, “Can those who have knowledge and those who do not be alike?” (39:9). The Prophet (PBUH) said, “Seeking knowledge is mandatory for every Muslim,” and the word “Muslim” is used here in the wider sense which includes both men and women.
Knowledge is what the entire edifice of the society is constructed upon. And knowledge is something whose acquisition is not contested in Islam. The source of knowledge can be many, but the source of knowledge that helps enhance one's quality as a human being is worth seeking and the pain worth enduring as the Prophet of Islam (PBUH) had said. There are many instances of the revered chief of HI contradicting the teachings of the Holy Quran and the traditions of the Holy Prophet (PBUH).
History also tells us that women participated in the campaigns during the period of the Holy Prophet (PBUH). Kahlua, sister of Zarrar bin Yusuf, participated in the Battle of Bait Lihya against the Byzantines under Khaled bin Walid in 634 AD. Women's knowledge and wisdom were duly recognised by the Holy Prophet. History informs us that the Prophet (PBUH) “consulted women and weighed their opinions seriously. At least one woman, Umm Waraqah, was appointed imam over her household by him. Women contributed significantly to the canonisation of the Quran. A woman is known to have corrected the authoritative ruling of Caliph Umar on dowry. Women prayed in mosques unsegregated from men, were involved in Hadith transmission, gave sanctuary to men, engaged in commercial transactions, were encouraged to seek knowledge, and were both instructors and pupils in the early Islamic period. Bibi Aishah was a well-known authority in medicine, history, and rhetoric, and women held political power during the three Caliphates” (Oxford History of Islam).
While the Quran and the Hadith call upon all Muslims to seek education, the Hadith of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) specifically commands fathers regarding the upbringing of daughters. One Hadith says, “The one who brought up three daughters or sisters, taught them good manners and treated them with kindness until they became self-sufficient, AIlah will make Paradise obligatory for him. A man asked: what about two, O Messenger of Allah? The Holy Prophet replied: 'The same for two.'” Ibn Abbas, the reporter of the Hadith, says: “Had the people at that time asked in respect of one daughter, the Holy Prophet would have also given the same reply about her.”
Therefore, urging parents not to allow their daughters to seek higher knowledge is anti-Constitution and anti-secular because such a human diktat would deprive women of their basic rights, like the right to education and right to equal opportunity guaranteed by the Constitution. Thus, doing the biddings of the HI chief would amount to violating the teachings of Islam, because what he has said is against the teachings of the two documents that Muslims rely heavily on for both spiritual and temporal existence. Because the very second chapter of the Holy Quran, Verse 2:228, states: “And for women are rights over men similar to those of men over women.”
Without going into the various aspects of gender equality, suffice it to say that our religion mandates upon the father the proper upbringing of daughters, and good education is indispensable to do that. Education does not make a girl “disobedient”; it makes for a better society and a better world. Perhaps we need reminding ourselves the famous saying that if you educate a woman you educate a nation. The contrary notion must be resisted; otherwise it would only lead the nation towards a regressive path.
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, ndc, psc (retd) is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.