Muslim Women, throughout the centuries, have habitually been categorised, stereotyped, downsized and even degraded into a ‘lower class’, compared with the status of Muslim men. Through the personal translations of the Holy Qu’ran, the societal system during the coming of the Prophet Mohammed around 570AD, and general unease, Muslim women have often been denigrated into inequitable and unseen positions (Wiebke W, 1981, pg 8). Their stereotyped duties required them merely to get married (where possible), have children and raise them (again where possible), and look after all household duties.
Recently, with globalisation at the forefront of our ‘accepting’ and ‘non-stereotypical’ pluralist multi-cultural societies, this notion of the inequality of women has been frequently questioned. Pakistan and Bangladesh are densely Muslim-populated countries with Islamic traditions being vital to their laws and general well-being as differing nation-states. From December 1988 with election of Benazir Bhutto to Prime Minister in Pakistan to the most current election of Begum Khaleda Zia who is still in power, the question must be raised: ‘How does the appointment of Muslim women to political positions fit in with women’s status in Islam?’ (Esposito JL, 1987, pp 69-78). This will seek to give evidence to help answer this question and relate this to the primarily Islamic nation-states of Pakistan and Bangladesh specifically.
On December 2, 1988 Benazir Bhutto became the first female Prime Minister to lead a predominantly Islamic-based nation-state. Her time in office in Pakistan proved to be controversial and received much criticism with little achieved in her first two years of leadership. Her party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), lost the elections in 1990 but Bhutto regained her power, with much more enthusiasm, in 1993 with the re-election of the PPP. Her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was executed in 1978 through his controversial conviction of ‘conspiracy to murder’. The question still remains: ‘Was Benazir Bhutto justified in being allowed to be elected as the political leader of Pakistan under Islamic law?’ (Esposito JL, 1987, pp 53-78)
Syeda Abida Hussain and Tehmina Daultana are two other female political leaders in Pakistan that have both been state and federal ministers for many differing important ministerial positions. In Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina Wajed the former Prime Minister and Begum Khaleda Zia the current Prime Minister of Bangladesh are both female leaders in a country of 89% Muslim people (Saliba T, Allen C, Judith AH, 2002, pg 203; Esposito JL, 1987, pg 262). Through their reign as Prime Ministers, they have both employed some female ministers into leadership including: Motia Chowdhury (Minister of Agriculture) and Syeda Begum Sajeda Chowdhury (Minister of Environment and Forest) (Saliba T et al., 2002, pg 203). Again, ‘Does Islamic Law allow for such women to be in these places of leadership?’
In today’s pluralist, ‘non-discriminatory’ society, people are striving for equity. Women are constantly faced with the past as they are often reminded that their duty ‘should’ be in the household or with the children. Although this seems a little ‘old-fashioned’ to some, this remains a part of our Islamic society today, whether it is liked or not. A further question arises: ‘Does the Islamic belief system allow for equality of men and women?’ The Qu’ran has many verses where men and women are placed on equal grounds. Firstly, the Qu’ran never says that one gender is above the other (Qu’ran, Al-Hujurat: 13).
In At-Tauba: 71, it discusses that both men and women must obey the five pillars of Islam equally (Qu’ran). Further, the Qu’ran guides men and women alike portraying that they will both be rewarded or punished in proportion to their deeds (Qu’ran, Gafir: 40). Therefore, if men and women are judged equally by Allah, according to their deeds, that should mean that women should be able to become political leaders; does it not?
Although many like to believe that pure gender equality is at the forefront of Islamic law, the Qu’ran provides further insight into gender roles and essentially equality. In Al-Baqarah: 228, it states that “…women shall have rights similar to the rights against them, according to what is equitable; but men have a degree.” (Qu’ran). This, thus, stipulates that men are considered to be in a better position for leadership and guardianship in order to provide for the needs of women. In addition, “[m]en are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more than the other, and because they support them from their means.” (Qu’ran, An-Nisaa: 34).
Therefore, men are more enabled for leadership and they are supposed to “protect”, guard and support women. This does not say that women can protect other women. As a political leader, one is intended to protect his/her citizens and provide support for them but this role, according to the Qu’ran, must only be filled by a male leader, as women are not told to protect, guard or support. Thus, the women political leaders of Pakistan and Bangladesh, under Islamic law, must not retain their positions of leadership (Qu’ran, An-Nisaa: 34).
In contrast, Ar-Rum: 21 says that women are “…a source of peace and tranquillity for the man.” (The Qu’ran; Al-Minawi KM, Unknown date, pg 15). In a democratic Governmental system, people often strive for peace and harmony; with this verse in mind, a woman would be a great source for this and, thus, the political leaders in Pakistan and Bangladesh fit this characteristic well. As a society, striving for good over evil, individuals repeatedly desire a political leader who sets an example for what is just and right. The Qu’ran says that both men and women”…enjoin what is just and forbid what is evil…” (Qu’ran, At-Tauba: 71) while observing the five Muslim pillars (Al-Minawi KM, Unknown date, pg 37). Therefore, one can conclude that both males and females are suited to positions of leadership, based on this verse alone.
In traditional beliefs of Islam, many people wrongly believed that Muslim women were required to do all household duties and some even believed that Muslim women had to contribute to the household financially (Wiebke W, 1993, pg 59). In actual fact, according to Islamic law, the husband or father is required to provide his wife/daughter with all necessary clothing, suitable shelter and generous amounts of food (Wiebke W, 1993, pg 59). Yet it is generally accepted that a mother must look after and raise her child because she gave birth and nourished the child through breast-feeding (Al-Minawi KM, Unknown date, pg 79). Thus, if political leader is a mother it is generally seen that they should resign from their position to give full attention to the child instead. Sheikh Hasina Wajed, Benazir Bhutto and Begum Khaleda Zia were not mothers during their times of leadership, thus they were able to stand for leadership without having to be at home.
In contrast again the Qu’ran states that women should “…stay quietly in your houses and make not a dazzling display…” (Qu’ran, Al-Ahzab: 33) Women were only allowed to leave the house when the man in charge allowed this. Sheikh Hasina Wajed, Benazir Bhutto and Begum Khaleda Zia’s husbands and/or fathers, in other words the ‘men in charge’, have passed away due to executions, or other unfortunate events.
Considering that the man is ideally the supporter and provider for women, ‘what happens when there is no supporter of the woman due to death or illness?’ In this circumstance, the woman is allowed to receive employment and, thus, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, Benazir Bhutto and Begum Khaleda Zia chose to run for Prime minister for their chosen employment to support themselves. Also “Woman(sic) is(sic) allowed to work when there is a social need in the Muslim community…”(Al-Minawi KM, Unknown date, pg 37). Pakistan and Bangladesh have recently come out of years of poverty and oppression; one could stipulate that there is a “social need” for women to be political leaders in these nation-states. (Waylen G, 1996, pg 12)
Although the Qu’ran tends to treat males and females equally, females are often thought to be easily swayed in opinion and can often forge a one-sided judgement on differing situations due to gossip and general pre-perceptions of prejudices. The Qu’ran states that woman cannot be placed in positions of judgement but only in twos or threes “…so that if one of them errs, the other can remind her.” (Qu’ran, Al-Baqarah: 282). Therefore, women, according to this verse alone, should not be placed in positions of judgement alone. The primary function of a political leader is to make judgements and often alone. One of these judgements can affect the individuals, the nation-state and even the entire world. According to this verse, women in Pakistan and Bangladesh should not retain political leadership.
In conclusion, the Qu’ran and general Islamic law have provided the basis for thinking in Pakistan and Bangladesh for many years. Recently this thinking has been contested with the introduction of Muslim women as political leaders in these countries. The Qu’ran continually reiterates that men and women are to be judged equally yet they have differing roles to play in any Muslim community. Women are supposed to stay at home and look after the children, if they are so blessed. Men are the providers and supporters of women and only if women have no ‘man in charge’ or if there is a social need, can the woman gain employment in a Muslim community.
Women should also not make judgements alone, instead with other women to deplete prejudices and they should not be protectors of other female citizens, as required by a political leader. Yet Sheikh Hasina Wajed, Benazir Bhutto and Begum Khaleda Zia, the women political leaders of Pakistan and Bangladesh, have no ‘man in charge’ and there is a social need in their communities. They, as women, are filled with peace and tranquillity – the ideal characteristics of a political leader; and they need to support themselves. All in all, ‘does this justify there role as women political leaders under Islamic law?’
The interpretation of Qu’ran is the essence to answering the question. With direction from their political allies, the assembly leaders in Pakistan and Bangladesh are able to make socially correct decisions. Essentially if Sheikh Hasina Wajed, Benazir Bhutto and Begum Khaleda Zia’s hearts are focused on Allah and The Qu’ran, and their objectives are for the good of their people, it is believed that they should be able to retain the role of Prime Minister.
Al-Minawi KM, Unknown publication date, A Segment of Woman(sic) Rights in Islam (Translation), Dar Ashibil Publishing & Printing, Saudi Arabia.
Esposito JL, 1987, Islam in Asia: Religion, Politics & Society, Oxford University Press, United States of America.
Saliba T, Allen C, Howard JA, 2002, Gender, Politics And ISLAM, The University of Chicago Press, United States of America. The Qu’ran.
Waylen G, 1996, Gender in Third World Politics, Lynne Rienner Publishers Inc, United States of America.
Wiebke W, 1993, Women in Islam: From Medieval to Modern Times, Markus Wiener, United States of America.
Wiebke W, 1981, Woman in Islam, George Prior Associated Publishers Ltd, England.