Opinion: Do Muslim women need emancipation?

Hijabi Muslim women

By Dr. Asma Zehra & Dr. Zoya Ayesha

Since time immemorial there have been  debate and  discussions surrounding the smoldering topic of ‘women empowermentʼ. So many – isms have evolved in this process to arrive at the elusive solution of this perpetual conundrum. Itʼs not that the answer doesn’t exist; it’s just that the package in which it is wrapped is abhorred by many so-called intellectuals/ reformers/progressives of our so-called ‘modern society. May be you have guessed it by now- the answers have been provided by Islam. We won’t go into the details of each aspect as countless literature is already out there for those who are really interested in knowing more about the stand of Islam with respect to Muslim women and their rights/ duties/issues. Here, I would like to highlight certain infractions which are insidiously creeping into the Muslim community. Before that, we would briefly give a glimpse of how ‘Muslim women were perceived by the ‘modern society. Words such as-oppressed, suppressed, tortured, abused, exploited, persecuted, servitude, subjugation- have been sprinkled generously in the context of Muslim women, be it speeches or written materials. This narrative in turn lead to the emergence of ‘emancipators of Muslim women in the form of liberals, feminists etc. They were so zealous about ‘saving Muslim women from the patriarchal clutches and/ or redundant religion. Seeing the intensity and fervour of these ‘emancipators, it would give the impression that they care more about the rights of Muslim women than Allah (swt), the Creator, Himself. Then came the brutal reality check in the form of anti-CAA protests where the foundation of courageous dissent, fearless outrage & continuous defiance- was laid down by the brave women of Shaheen Bagh & which catapulted common Indian women into the political arena too.

Breaking Barriers. Shattering Stereotypes. Defusing the myths.

Paving the path for future protests and resistance. All of these feats accomplished by the same ‘oppressed Muslim women. The next big obstacle to progress, as seen by these ‘emancipators was the ‘Hijabʼ. Lo and behold! Another blow was delivered to them in the form of vociferous resistance and indomitable protests of our empowered hijabi girls of Karnataka for their faith, dignity and constitutional rights. Breaking the bias. Smashing the stereotypes. Once again. Keeping all these events in mind, the debate has finally shifted from ‘oppressionʼ to ‘empowermentʼ. Now, here come the infractions that we had mentioned earlier. These ‘emancipatorsʼ are now subtly urging ‘Muslim women to demand ‘equality in every sphere. Few examples being; romanticizing careerist women, legal recognition of live-in relationships as well as rights of children born out of wedlock, model Nikahnama which includes an Iqrarnama, abortion rights to be the exclusive domain of a woman, right of Muslim woman to lead prayers in the Masjid and so on.

Next we see this divide in the community which is based upon the types of beliefs which Muslims adhere to in their day-to-day mundane life, depending upon their religious, social, cultural, economical and political backgrounds.

The recent Karnataka Hijab controversy has particularly brought forth this division within the community and we are witnessing that every group for example, the religious ones/ the secular ones/ liberal ones/ GangaJamuni ones/ woke or elite ones; have their own views regarding Hijab being an ERP (Essential Religious Practice) or not. Hence we have to keep in mind the anti-Islamic forces and their ideologies which fashion the concerns of these so-called ‘emancipatorsʼ- both from within the community and outside the community.

On Friday 18 March 2005, Amina Wadud acted as imam for a congregation of about 60 women and 40 men seated together, without any gender separation. The Adhan was given by another woman, Suheyla El-Attar. It was sponsored by the Muslim Women’s Freedom Tour, under the leadership of Asra Nomani. This was soon followed by opening of a women-only mosque in the metropolitan city of Amsterdam which was inaugurated by controversial Egyptian feminist writer Nawal El-Saadawi. The mosque is totally run by women, with a woman leading the prayer and another giving the Adhan. The traditional curtains separating male and female worshippers in mosques was conspicuously absent in this novel mosque.

Thereafter in 2016, the Mariam mosque which was the first female led mosque, opened in Copenhagen. One of the mosqueʼs main objectives was “to challenge patriarchal structures within religious institutions.” The mosque has its own six- page marriage charter with four key principles: ‘polygamy is not an option; women have the right to divorce; a marriage will be annulled if psychological or physical violence is committed; and, in the event of divorce, women will have equal rights over any children.ʼ Another bit of news- Recently, a young, 25-year-old woman Abby Ramsay who is an asexual actress, model and activist from Los Angeles has been in the news after her video went viral on the social media in which she is seen talking about and celebrating her voluntary sterilisation decision. Now let us scrutinise these influencers who want to bring so-called ‘reformationʼ in Islam. They belong to a group known as ‘Movement Of Muftinaatʼ.

Asra Nomani was born in Bombay, India and moved to the US when she was 4- years-old. She was a journalist and then professor and then later on became the founder and creator of the “Muslim Women’s Freedom Tour.” She has a son who was born out of wedlock, whom she named Shibli Daneel Nomani because supposedly “Shibli Nomani was the revered name of a paternal ancestor in my extended family who had been a reformer and scholar in the Indian Muslim world at the turn of the twentieth century. I chose Daneel for my sonʼs middle name because we wanted to pay homage to the spirit of my friend Danny. Dannyʼs murder and the rejection of my pregnancy by puritanical Muslim standards of decency, told me that the world is in need of more pluralism and tolerance. It was for this reason also that I gave Shibli a version of the Jewish name Daniel” (Standing Alone in Mecca). Later on, Momna Sohail Sultan, one of the grand-daughters of Late Shibli Nomani sent a letter which was published in Karachiʼs Dawn newspaper refuting her claim: “We were extremely embarrassed to read in ‘Books & Authors’ (April 17) about Asra Nomani, a controversial personality, who claims to be a direct descendant of Allama Shibli, after whom she has named her son. Asra is in no way connected to the Shibli family. Considering our sentiments and Maulana Shibliʼs fame as writer of Seerat-un-Nabi, we hope you will publish this clarification”.

Nawal El-Saadawi faced an apostasy case in 2001 before an Egyptian court after she had been quoted by Egyptian newspapers as saying that Hajj, which is one of the five pillars of Islam, was “a vestige of a pagan practice” and that Islamic inheritance law should be abolished.

Amina Wadud has openly advocated ‘pluralismʼ and ‘equalityʼ as an endorsement of LGBTQ+ rights. The alliance between Amina Wadud and Bharat Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) materialised during the Shayara Bano case in the Supreme Court. The BMMA hogged the limelight during the Triple Talaq case and what happened thereafter is known to all. Now the BMMA has proposed a draft Muslim Family Law which covers marriage, methods of divorce, questions on polygamy, nikah halala and muta, inheritance as well as adoption.

The co-founder of BMMA, Zakia Somanʼs second husband is a Hindu whom she married as per Hindu rite and her son Arastu Zakia is a selfdeclared atheist. She experienced an abusive first marriage which lasted for 16 years and that primarily motivated her to fight against patriarchy. During one of the TV debates when the Triple Talaq issue was at its peak, i met her in the guest room. We acknowledged her by saying what Muslims say to each other all over the world, ‘Assalam Alaikumʼ, to which she responded by raising her left hand and that gesture in itself left me nonplussed.

Secondly, Noorjehan Safia Niaz, the other co-founder of BMMA, has recently voiced her opinions regarding the ongoing Karnataka Hijab Controversy. According to her, “That the hijab is essential to Islam is also a superficial, reductionist understanding of the religion. What is missing in the current debates is the spiritual, cosmological understanding of Islam. The right wingʼs vicious propaganda against the community is also not helping. The problem lies in [menʼs] interpretation of religious texts. It is understandable that religious groups would oppose us. But secular, liberal feminist groups stood against us and openly condemned our work. Even during the triple talaq debate, they did not stand alongside Muslim womenʼs demand for a just, humane family law. This time, too, these groups — except Shabnam Hashmi — have taken the position of reinforcing hijab as a matter of identity. We must stand against all kinds of fundamentalism. Why canʼt the secular feminist groups say that though we stand with you [those fighting to be allowed to wear the hijab], we donʼt agree with you? Why not say ‘I stand with Muslim girls for their right to educate themselves,

But this is not what you should be fighting forʼ? We are clear that we donʼt stand with Hindu fundamentalists. But we are also keeping our distance from this narrative [that hijab is essential or part of our identity]. Feminist groups have the privilege of language and the ability to take positions. So why not now? Every situation is not black and white, there are shades of grey.” Sadia Dehlvi who was a Delhi-based activist, writer and a columnist had said, “Islam is dynamic, understood and practiced in a variety of ways in different cultures. Patriarchy remains deaf to the Quranʼs call for equality, justice and compassion that extends to all humanity. Excluding women from leadership, patriarchy is blind to the Quran celebrating the wise consultative rule of Queen Sheba and her diplomatic engagement with Solomon. Patriarchy fails to recognise the Quran honouring women as recipients of wahy, Divine Revelation; as experienced by Mosesʼs mother and Mariam, or Mary. Some famous early and medieval commentators of the Quran, such as Imam Hajar Asqalani and Imam Qurtubi, include Mary amongst the Prophets”. There are other dubious organisations which have misleading names like Muslim Rastriya Manch (MRM) and Muslim Mahila Manch (MMM) which are backed by RSS and BJP, hence anything being espoused by them in the garb of ‘liberatingʼ muslim women should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Then there is the Muslim Womenʼs Personal Law Board (AIMWPLB) headed by Dr. Shaista Ambar which released a 12-page ‘Shariat Nikahnamaʼ, applicable to both Sunnis and Shiʼas, offering an alternative to the conventional Nikahnama. She has “appealed PM Modi to make this Islamic Nikahnama a reality very soon and the PM too had shown an inclination.” The new Nikahnama will have to be linked with Aadhaar, whereby the Aadhaar number of both the bride and groom will be fed into the system, “so the woman does not suffer fraud”. It includes an ‘Iqrarnamaʼ in which the Muslim woman can include certain conditions as per her liking. Now, the issues related to this are: 1. Marriage in itself is a legal contract in Islam. It detracts the original contract and thus undermines it. 2. It hasn’t been studied and/or approved by any of the certified religious body like Deoband, Nadwa and AIMPLB. 3. It gives a false sense of security to the impressionable young minds out there because they feel itʼs going to be binding on their spouse, failing whom there will be legal implications, but thatʼs, not the case here.

Then there is Muslim Womenʼs Forum (MWF) headed by Dr. Syeda Saiyidain Hameed who after the completion of her term at the National Commission of Women started the MWF along with few other likeminded people. It was the outcome of the report, she wrote for the Commission titled ‘Voice of the Voiceless: Status of Muslim Women in Indiaʼ, that she felt this need to continue her work. She has contributed a lot in matters of education, particularly girl child education. Currently it has 7 other partner organisations collaborating with it. But it is highly influenced by the saffron forces which in turn are in total alignment with global powers surreptitiously trying to ‘reformʼ Islam. Now, my questions are- Is the religion actually in dire need of such reforms? Are these so-called personalities adequately qualified and rightfully certified to bring such ‘reformsʼ in the religion itself? How much of these injustices that we see happening in the social milieu stems from the fact that Muslim women are ignorant of the usul-ul-fiqh because of which they do not assert their rights rather than the religion being outdated/deficient?

What about the stance of those Muslim women who are ‘religious and empoweredʼ both? Why are the religious and empowered Muslim women not given an equal platform to voice their thoughts as compared to the Ganga-Jamuni Muslims? It has become religiously and socially and morally imperative that we think and understand and counteract the sinister ideological warfare being unleashed by the global fascist powers in collaboration with the fascist organisations in India. Along with the added menace created by feminist, liberal, leftist organisations, which is insidiously creeping into the Muslim organisations also. Their aims being:

  1. to attack and condemn the Muslim Personal Law.
  2. To target the Muftis, Ulemas and religious centres.
  3. To create disconnect by fostering disillusionment and hatred between the Muslims and their religious leaders.
  4. Facilitate in fracturing marital relations and sowing seeds for destabilising the Muslim society.

There is already a force mobilising globally for legalisation of LGBTQ category. Then a concept like sologamy is gaining much attention already.

Deviation of the Muslim youth

A quick go-through about the concept of transgression is necessary over here. Imam al-Baqir, the fifth Imam, (‘a) said: “There are three types of transgressions: the one which Allah (swt) forgives, the one He (swt) does not forgive, and that one which He (swt) does not ignore. Thus, the transgression that He (swt) does not forgive is infidelity unto Allah (swt). And the transgression which Allah (swt) forgives is the one that a person commits (against) himself between him and Allah (swt). But the transgression which He (swt) does not ignore is the one committed against rights of men.” (Al-Kafi, vol. 2, p. 330). Now the point is that ‘muqqamal deenʼ (Complete Religion) has already come to us in the form of Quran and Sunnah. Thereafter, the option of ‘Ijtihaadʼ is always available. A brief regarding ‘Ijtihaadʼ : It is important for us to remember that the basis of Islamic Law originates in two major sources, namely, divine revelation (wahy) and human reason(aql). This dual identity gets manifested in the form of Shariah and Fiqh. It is important to keep in mind that the Islamic jurisprudence has developed from four roots (usul al-fiqh): 1) Quran (2) Sunnah (Hadith) (3) Ijma (Consensus) and (iv) Qiyas (In Islamic jurisprudence, it is the process of deductive analogy in which the teachings of the Hadith are compared and contrasted with those of the Quran, in order to apply a known injunction to a new circumstance and create a new injunction.) Employing these ‘usul al-fiqhʼ, the Ulemas conduct a scientific and systematic inquiry. This is known as the process of ‘Ijtihadʼ. Through this process of ‘Ijtihadʼ sprung out various schools of thought, each of which owed its existence to a renowned scholar. These are the Sunni schools. Similarly, there are Shia schools, such as the Ithna Ashari, Jaffariya and Ismaili schools. Now, my questions are- 1. Are ‘mufassirūnʼ (Quran Specialists) & ‘muḥaddithūnʼ (Hadith Specialists) & ‘muftisʼ (Islamic Jurists) the real experts or not?

Can ‘Ijtihaadʼ be done by any layperson? If so, when and where and to what extent?       

There is a group of Muslims out there who only believe in the Quran, and not the Sunnah. It is their notion that ‘Sunnah shouldnʼt be given equal importance like Fardʼ, hence they are not pro-Hadith type Muslims and they do not endorse the Arab model of Islam. Is their ‘Imanʼ even adequate/eligible to do ‘Ijtihaadʼ is considering the concept of ‘Shahadahʼ?

How much of your religion can you glean/acquire from those who are not practicing Muslims in essence?                                                                    Are you willing to become an innovator and invoke Allah’s (swt) displeasure from now till the Day Of Judgment? To conclude, we would say that whatever this world and its inhabitants have come up with has always been skewed and flawed. It has always bordered on the extreme, like on one hand you have feminist groups and on the other hand you have MGTOWs (Men Going Their Own Way). Then there is patriarchy in the society on one hand and matriarchy on the other hand. Where is the balance? We have witnessed the recent success of Bushra Mateen, a hijabi and practicing Muslim girl. To all the Ganga-Jamuni Muslims & extremists out there, two ends of the spectrum, this is the balanced answer to all your assumptions & presumptions. As Zehra Mahdi, a psychoanalytic therapist and a doctoral candidate at Columbia University at the Department of Religion, mentioned in her article published on ‘The Wireʼ, “Ultimately, itʼs not if secularism can tolerate religion, but whose religion is it willing to tolerate as ‘religion’s The ongoing harassment of hijabi Muslim women tells us that while Gandhiʼs religiosity will be tolerated in the name of the secular nation, Muskanʼs piety will be questioned in the name of the same secular nation.” And so, our Muslim leaders and the Muslim organisations have to come forward now & take responsibility & engage actively in leading the community in this struggle to assert our identity. Yesterday it was about the Babri Masjid verdict, today it is about the Hijab verdict and tomorrow it will be something else. There has to be a cohesive action plan by the Muslim organizations because fundamentally speaking, the fundamental thing these days seems to be the denial of fundamental rights fundamentally to the minority communities for whom specific provisions were fundamentally included just so that they are not fundamentally exploited in any fundamental manner. In the words of Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, “People say that Islam needs a reformation. No, it doesn’t. Islam doesn’t need a reformation; it needs a ‘restoration.” The need of the hour for Muslims is: Revisit your DEENI roots, Redefine your CHOICES, and Rewrite your MUSLIMNESS!!!                                                                                                         ***                                                          Dr Asma Zehra is a executive member of All India Muslim Personal Law Board and head of  women’s wing. Dr Zoya Ayesha is a medical practitioner from Kolkata.                                                                                         Views are personal. 


  1. Dr. Asma did not give any satisfactory answer to the question she herself posed. The answer is yes, Muslim women need that emancipation that Islam gave them, and Muslim societies through the ages had been denying them those rights. Classical Muslim jurists and ulama all view that a wife is a kind slave to her husband. This opinion is in the apparent contrast to Quran and the prophetic model.

    In the current era, some Westernized, liberal women (and even some Islamist women too) are working for the emancipation of women, most of whom are inspired by Western feminism rather than the Qur’an and Sunnah. Dr. Samaa has spent most of his article condemning them.

    This is not the right way to analyse an issue.


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