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Using Imtiaz Dharker’s collection Purdah, this essay will attempt to question the understanding or imagining of religious and cultural structures in reference to their effects—intellectual, emotional and spiritual— Islamic women. The first part of the essay will delve intodifferent viewpoints concerning feminism and Islam. The second shall attempt to juxtapose the opinions of traditional Islamic religious fundamentalists and those of social activists. There are a variety of themes which bring out these opinions via the help of Dharker’s collection. These themes lead us to question these opinions which may or may not hold true. [EDIT]

_____________________________________________________________________ 1
Fundamentally, “the word ‘Purdah’ is used as a title for the set of injunctions which constitute the most important part of the Islamic system of community life. (Al-Ash’ari, 19) Purdah is the result of the “feudal ruler’s concept of izzat(honour-here used in the sense of inviolable feminine chastity)” This concept of izzat and its protection by men itself implied male superiority. It’s essential message was that woman needed to be protected and that man was her protector” (Asghar Ali Engineer,6) Hence, the men put ‘their’ women in Purdah and in doing so emphasized their dominance over women. In order for women to protect their ‘izzat’, it was essential as per the holy book of Qur’an, that “They should draw their over-garments close on to their breasts, and should not display their decoration except before their husbands, fathers, fathers-in-law, sons, step-sons, brothers, nephews, their own women, male attendants lacking sexual urges, or boys who are not yet conscious of feminine secrets.”(24:30-31) (Translated by Al-Ash’ari,183) Women, hence, had to protect themselves from the lustful eyes of men by wearing a Purdah, long enough to cover their breasts. The easiest justification for this by men was the fact that women are objects of sexual desire and evoke feelings of lust within them. They (the women) must learn to hide their sexuality and pose as model figures of virtue rather than desire. Besides this, one might question the need for ‘being protected’. Is it really because women ought to protect themselves from the uncontrollable desires of men? Or is it simply because these men are untrusting of their own ‘brothers’ and possess an utter lack of self-control when it comes to looking at a woman? And if they are unable to look at a woman without stripping her down in their mind’s eye, must the women be blamed and wrapped up for simply being ‘female’? Or shouldn’t these ‘protectors’ attempt to bring their emotions under control?

Feminists, thus, view women as having been set apart from the rest of the society as objects of lust. “There are two 'instruments' of seclusion: the physical segregation of living space, and the covering of the female face and body. They have different psychological and physical concomitants and affect women's mobility in different ways.” (Hanna Papanek, 294) [EDIT]

However, there exists a relation of distress between feminism and Islam. While feminism continues to be a movement to emancipate the rights of women, “Muslim women have argued that feminism is an ideology relevant only to the lives of western affluent women and that for them it has only resulted into making them quasi men or sex objects.”(Muhammad Legenhausen, 255). Also argued by Legenhausen (237), is the basic fact that “Islam places greater emphasis on marriage and the family. Islam dignifies these primary concerns while feminism tends to undermine them.” That it places a greater emphasis on marriage and family may be correct but that it dignifies these concerns may not hold true in my opinion. We may argue that the concern lies not with the emphasis on family and marriage as much as it does with the means of [means adopted to manifest this ideal..phrase better]this emphasis which rather then being undermined by feminism is highlighted as more oppressive, patriarchal and fundamentalist in nature. So, is it possible to view the Purdah as ‘dignifying’? Purdah as observed by Sehmina Jaffer Chopra (< veil.html/>) is an “an act of faith” which is “not oppression but a liberation from the shackles of male scrutiny and the standards of attractiveness.”[1] Hence, what western feminists consider oppression, Muslim women consider liberation. A decisive conclusion cannot be made from these extractions but before we go more extensively into the subject of decoding Purdah, let us examine the viewpoints of Islamic feminists who try to balance out the apparent extremist views of feminism and Islam.

So what is Islamic feminism? According to Margot Bradan (242), “Islamic feminism is a feminist discourse and practice articulated within an Islamic paradigm. Islamic feminism which derives its understanding and mandate from the Qur’an, seeks rights and justice for women, and for men, in the totality of their existence.”
Bradan(219) also has a broader look at Muslim women's re-visioning of Islam through ijtihad[2] as part of the global project in which feminist and Islamist women are engaged today. She says that “both religiously oriented women and feminist women are rereading the Qur'an and other religious texts, brining to bear their own experiences and new critical methodologies to enact readings that are more meaningful to modern women.” They attempt to re-construct meanings of the passages in the Qur’an which suit modernity. They understand the points western feminists make but at the same time, they do not disregard their holy book. By re-reading the Qur’an from a modern yet Islamic point of view, they attempt to balance out two extremist viewpoints. Also, Muslim women , who are more highly educated in greater numbers than ever before, have begun gender-progressive readings of Islamic sacred scripture that will achieve—and indeed have already achieved—significant "feminist" breakthroughs. Only the language of an "Islamic feminism" can potentially reach women of all classes and across urban-rural divides-or, to put it slightly differently, the majority of Muslims can associate only with a "feminism" that is explicitly "Islamic" (Margot Bradan, 219) But we must note that most of these Islamic feminists are women of the upper-middle class, who speak good English and have been educated.

At the end of the above section, I am left with a singular question. Considering the viewpoints discussed, I realise that we cannot come to a definite conclusion as to what the Qur’an says or means to say. Does the religion appear to repress women? Or does it dignify them? Has the religion been misinterpreted by western feminists or is it the other way round? The debate surrounding this socio-religious and socio-political paradigm of Islamic women and their rights may never stop.

However, let’s consider the fact that women who have spoken ‘for’ the rights of Islamic women, be it the western feminists or the Islamic feminists, are themselves women. Who are women in this society of ranks? Where do they stand? Are they subalterns[3]? As Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak(83) puts it, “The subaltern has no history and cannot speak, the subaltern as female is even more deeply in shadow." She says this in the context of post colonialism and Marxism. This however, can be applied to women of Islam from a religious-gender perspective. The subaltern is not heard. The sulbatern is spoken for. The subaltern is not an agent of communication but requires an agency to communicate for them. This agency, in the case of women both Islamic and otherwise is men. So, if women are subalterns and need an agency to communicate, then can we can that feminists all over the world, speak through an agency? So does the subaltern actually speak? Is she her own agent?
“When we come to the concomitant question of the consciousness of the subaltern, the notion of what the work cannot say, becomes important.” (Spivak,82)
Let us now examine the representation of religious fundamentalism as well as it’s effects on the minds of Islamic women with the help of Dharker’s Collection ‘Purdah’. Imtiaz Dharker writes as a voice for Muslim women. She attempts to bring out their emotions and thought patterns concerning their religious obligations. Dharker succeeds in creating— among a variety of other things— vivid images of puberty, lust, sacrifice, dejection, societal approval, geographical segregation and mother-daughter relationships

[1] Purdah is a very positive and respectful practice that actually liberates women. It is viewed as liberating because it brings about an aura of respect. Women are looked at as individuals who are judged not by their physical beauty but by their inner beauty and mind. For them, Purdah is an act of faith that entails the acts of honour, respect, and dignity. Islam exalts the status of women by commanding that women should enjoy equal rights with men and remain on the same footing as them. When a woman covers herself she places herself on a higher level and allows men to see and respect her for her intellect, faith, and personality. The physical person is to play no role in social interaction.
[2] Ijtihad is a methodology which feminist and islamist women have used to reread the Qur'an and other religious texts to expose patrichial interpretations and to advance more gender- just understadings of islam. (Margot Bradan,32)
[3] Meaning of Subalterns.

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