[OPINION] Slandering feminism in Islam by way of Shariah law

South African, Emlyn Culverwell (29) has been working in the United Arab Emirates for the past five years. It’s here that he met his fiancée Iryna Nohai (27) from the Ukraine. The couple lived together in Abu Dhabi and in January this year they were arrested for having sex before marriage. News of their detainment broke this week.

It was Nohai’s doctor that reported the couple to the relevant authorities. They visited the medical practitioner because Nohai had complained of stomach cramps. As it turned out, Nohai was pregnant. The charges have since been dropped but Nohai reportedly underwent several invasive tests on her body so that officials could prove the pair had sex out of wedlock on UAE soil. Sex before marriage in the UAE is a crime and had the couple been found guilty they would have faced a long time in prison.

The punishment for Nohai, not to mentioned the intimate medical examination, is what worried me most. The UAE is not exactly known for the fair treatment of women. Remember a couple of years ago when a Dutch tourist was raped and had to sit in a UAE prison for five years?

Shariah laws govern the UAE’s criminal court. These courts have the option of imposing flogging as punishment for adultery, prostitution, consensual premarital sex, pregnancy outside marriage, defamation of character, and drug or alcohol abuse.

Shariah law is defined as: the religious law forming part of the Islamic tradition. It is derived from the religious edicts of Islam, particularly the Quran and the hadith. While the Quran contains text for guidance on human existence, the hadith is a collection of sayings of the Prophet portraying his daily practice. Not all of these recollections are authentic or verified.

Shariah law also considers heavily the aspect of Sunna – a major source of guidance outside of the Quran. The Sunna can be described as the Islamic equivalent of ‘What Would Jesus Do’ except you would obviously replace Jesus with Muhammad. Doing as the Prophet would do, and living as he would live is high praise and many Muslims believe that strict adherence to this will guarantee them a place in heaven. But the Sunna is not safe from distortion or misinterpretation and Shariah lawmakers have used it to perpetuate the demise of women’s rights. This has also led to a general skewed version of what Islam is all about in the western world.

The BBC’s Facebook post of the above story serves as just one example: “Muslims are not tolerant of other cultures”, “Muslims are hypocrites”, “Islam is intolerance”, “Islam is not a peaceful religion” and my personal favourite “Muslims can hang their local women on trees if they want to but she’s a foreign national”. But they shouldn’t hang their women on trees, should they? Because in the Quran and in the Sunna women’s rights matter, in Islam, women matter. In many respects, feminism in Islam has existed long before it did in the West.

In 595 AD Khadija al-Kubra (Khadija the Great), proposed to Muhammad (*PBUH) - the Prophet of Islam and the religious, social and political reformer who founded the religion. She was 25 years older than he was, a widow and basically a fierce feminist. She was a landowner, a single mother and a wealthy trader. She was also Muhammad’s boss.

She proposed to him because she loved him, she did not, however, need him. She did not need him to tell her how to live her life as a woman and Muhammad brought nothing to the table in the way of economics. Khadija’s role as a woman is so great that many a scholar has argued that Islam as a religion would not exist had it not been for her affirmation of Muhammad’s words when he shared the revelation with her.

Fast forward to the year 1870. It’s just over 1,200 years after Khadija and married women in the United Kingdom have just been given the right to be legal owners of the money they earn and to inherit property. Just like the UK, entire continents in the west ruled by predominantly secular scripts only came around to implementing some of the women’s rights already established in Islam in the 6th century in the 18th century.

After Islam was solidified as an organised religion these rights only got better. Many revelations in the Quran serve to protect and improve the status of women. These revelations were enshrined in laws. Shariah law as we have come to know it today is not what it once was. At the time for example, laws made the education of girls a sacred duty and it gave women the right to own property. Many women in the pre-Islamic era did not have a choice in whether they married or not, but the new laws argued that a woman must give her consent before a marriage is legitimate. Islam was also the first of the monotheistic religions to give women the rights of inheritance […Men shall have a share of that which they have earned, and women a share of that which they have earned… (Ch.4: Vs. 33)].

Authors and academics alike (many of them non-Muslim, it begs saying) have written that arguably the Prophet Muhammad was the first feminist in history. During conquests over the Middle Eastern empires in the 7th Century - not only as a messenger of Islam but also as a political ruler - he laid down several doctrines that decreed the rights of women. Men were ordered to honour and respect women, - the exploitation of women was a punishable crime. Before his death, Muhammad repeated this one phrase over and over again: “I command you to be kind and considerate to women.”

Another historical record shows that he said: “It is only the generous in character who is good to women, and only the evil one who insults them.” When it came to the relationship between fathers and daughters, he frowned upon a patriarchy that favoured boy children over girls, and said that the birth of a daughter is a blessing. And when it came to his personal relationships, he led by example. Several academic texts record that he even spoke about a woman’s right to sexual satisfaction.

In the Quran, both genders are described as equal and born of one soul. On many occasions, the text refers to the spirit instead of the sex. But over the years, enduring inaccurate interpretations and patriarchal norms have exploited gender roles. Men, in both the legal system and academia, have handpicked Islamic teachings to implement laws that serve their own patriarchal interests. As a result, vital teachings such as “there is no compulsion in religion” and the laws concerning the rights of women have been disregarded so that further dominance of men over women can be asserted. And with this comes the further misunderstanding and criticism from the West that is understandably quick to bash Islam for the oppression of women.

But the truth is that this Islam that you have come to know is not Islam at all. Patriarchal norms and common practice in the Islamic world have muddied the waters of central, authentic Islamic principles.

Historically, women in Islam were outspoken, driven, confident, courageous and assertive. Again, without the wisdom and strength of Khadija, Muhammad’s development as the last prophet would not have come to pass. Many of the Prophet’s wives were like Khadija, working women - independent in their own ways - some economically, and others in thought. They embodied the feminism of Islam and lived it every day.

Another example of the Prophet’s wives who embodied this is Aisha. Beyoncé, eat your heart out. If ever there were a woman in history that I would like to emulate it would be her. She was a badass. Lezley Hazelton, Jewish author of the book After the Prophet, pens a hardcore portrayal of Aisha on horseback, leading soldiers into battle after the death of Muhammad when the kingdom finds itself without a leader. She is known for narrating over 2,000 of the hadiths on matters relating to Muhammad’s private live and she was also a scholar in medicine and poetry, among others. Aisha was sought out for advice on inheritance, pilgrimage and eschatology (the final assessment of humanity by god). Basically, Aisha #Slays.

Aisha was the opposite of how we’re taught to see Muslim women today. Her role was not to be submissive wife and mother. Not even if it was to the prophet. She remains a champion of women’s rights whose intellectual standing and religious authority were astonishing, especially if we measure it against the Islamic world of our time where women in Shariah law countries face harsh, unfair and inhumane punishments for having and exercising any form of independence.

In the case of the above couple, South Africa's foreign ministry has said that it is not able to help as this is a matter of domestic UAE law. The pair have been released but the fate of many women in similar situations in the UAE still lies in the hands of Shariah law.

For these women under this kind of patriarchal and false sense of Islamic rule, no zero degree of women’s rights exist and as it turns out, the Sunna of the prophet and the principles of the Quran don’t exist anymore either.

Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a commentator on gender equality, sexuality, culture, race relations and feminism as well as ethics in the South African media environment.