Why Not Women Ulema?

The News, November 19, 2005
Why not women ulema?
Hafizur Rahman

When Malik Meraj Khalid was the caretaker prime minister, he selected the old President's House in Rawalpindi as the location for a new Islamic University for Women. He went so far as to actually transfer the building and its vast grounds to the International Islamic University of Islamabad (IIU) and on return to his post of rector of the IIU, started planning accordingly. But the new prime minister, Mian Nawaz Sharif, revoked his decision and decided to use the place for what is now the Fatima Jinnah Women University.

This was a disappointment for the authorities of the IIU whose vision had reached the point of materialising, but there was nothing they could do about it. So they began to devote their energies towards improving the conditions of teaching and boarding and lodging for women students in the Madinatul Hujjaj on Peshawar Road which had earlier been secured for them in place of the scattered bungalows in Islamabad.

I am always asking people, "Why don't we have women ulema?" The answer is invariably unsatisfactory. My sister, when she was in Punjab University, once had to sit with a highly qualified teacher of Islamiat to go over a syllabus. She was horrified to find him selective in his approach to tenets that dealt with the rights and privileges of women. When she objected that he was playing with almost divine dictates, he said, "Our women need not know everything. It will spoil them for their roles as wives and mothers."

This was in Islamabad. In the same city, the Islamic University has hundreds of women students who can take up subjects like usuluddin (Islamic Studies), fiqh, shariah and economics, to which were later added business administration, computer science, and English language and literature. It never occurred to the IIU bosses to be similarly selective in teaching these subjects to wives and mothers.

Since the IIU, from its very inception in 1985, had functioned in the Faisal Mosque complex, it had not been possible to accommodate women students for sheer want of space. There was barely room in the complex for any kind of activity except conducting classes, while its various academies and institutes were packed like sardines in the limited area allotted to them, let alone its magnificent library and the printing press.

Later work started in real earnest on the buildings at the new site comprising the entire H-10 sector, and the university was in a position to spread and begin new disciplines like engineering and medicine and others that it had always wanted to offer. An academic block and hostels for women students were on the list of priorities.

Coming back to my question, it seems that the absence of females among scholars and interpreters of the Quran and Sunnah is not confined to Pakistan; it prevails generally all over the Muslim world. Maybe that is why the government has always found it a problem to nominate a woman member to the Council of Islamic Ideology. Somehow religious scholarship is a purely male preserve, as if faith is not a woman's concern at all, whereas Islam makes no distinction in this regard between men and women. Why is this so?

The answer could be that in order to maintain their domination, Muslim men have purposely kept women away from the deeper study of religion. It is as if they were saying (like that Islamiat teacher) to their female relations, "Leave this matter to us. We'll tell you what is relevant to you in the Holy Book. You go and cook the dinner." Purdah too has contributed much to this state of affairs.

The situation boils down to the fact that we in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan can have a woman prime minister to govern the destiny of 130 million Muslims. But we will not countenance a woman acquiring the distinction of being a venerated and trusted scholar of Islam and whose views can be treated with respect.

It comes as a pleasant surprise to most people that there are nearly eight hundred women students in the International Islamic University. A still greater surprise is that almost half of this number are from thirty foreign countries. How brave of them to come to a strange land in their love for Islamic learning. Pakistan certainly inspires confidence and trust outside, and this is one big contribution of the IIU to the country's image in the Muslim world.

The case of the Islamic University in the matter of women students' devotion to studies is rather different from that of other colleges and seats of learning. These girls do not come here for the sole purpose of getting degrees but to acquire Islamic education about which they are serious and intelligent seekers. And maybe they are determined to break the monopoly of men in religious knowledge.

If an institution had noble objectives they will apply equally to all students, whether men or women, local or foreign. The aim of the IIU is to integrate modern knowledge with Islamic principles and to turn out enlightened Muslims who will be a pride to the faith. Women deserve this enlightenment as much as men.

By the way, the IIU has certain other characteristics too. It is the only university in Pakistan to maintain discipline in its affairs, in that it holds all its academic activities, including admissions and examinations, right on time. Women too need much discipline, or at least the sense of it, which is otherwise lacking in our social and family lives. And yet girl students turned out in large numbers some years ago against PPP Interior Minister Naseerullah Babar's uncalled for remarks about the IIU's alleged involvement in terrorism.

The presence of women students in the IIU is a tribute to the belief that in Islam religious education is as much enjoined on women as on men. It is not something esoteric; it is part of a Muslim's life. Without it, his or her life is not complete. We talk every day of women going into all kinds of professions -- from high court judges to airline pilots -- but somehow we balk at women becoming reliable scholars of Islam. Let us see if the IIU is able to produce women ulema for Pakistan and other Muslim countries.

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