Thursday, October 19, 2006

Gender Equality, Dr. Muhammad Yunus and the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize

Gender equality in the heterogeneous Muslim world is a work in progress. The 2006 Nobel Peace Prize gave a boost to this work when it was awarded to Bangladeshi economist Dr. Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank he founded in 1976.

Mainstream media have been abuzz with inspiring stories of millions of poor Bangladeshi women lifting themselves out of poverty by borrowing little sums of money from Grameen (a Bengali word meaning ‘village-based’) Bank and starting their own businesses, a model now emulated in over 100 countries. (97% of Grameen clients are women.)

What has received little attention is the contribution Dr. Yunus has made in helping disenfranchised women challenging a patriarchal society that often practices misogyny against them in the name of Islam.

Whereas the husband’s (or the father’s) word was the de facto law before, particularly in villages where illiteracy is high and sacred text is manipulated to suit the male viewpoint, economic freedom gave women entrepreneurs the courage to question religious chauvinism and resist attempts to undermine their dignity.

Speaking to a reporter a few years ago, Dr. Yunus explained the psychological barriers to his bank this way: “The first hostile person to our program is the husband. We challenge his authority. In the family, he is a macho tyrant. He starts to see that she is not as stupid as he thought. He says, ‘Now she cannot nag me about money, because she understands how hard it is to make.’ The tension eases and they become a team.”

A team can function only when there is mutual respect. A husband accustomed to obedience from his wife begins to respect her opinion on religious matters, too, since she has shown her worth by financially supporting the family.

This has been the noteworthy byproduct of the microcredit revolution that Muhammad Yunus launched three decades ago. Unwittingly, he forced a predominantly conservative Muslim society to confront its ingrained habits and customs, inspiring countless women to question dogma and realizing their God-given rights.

Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian lawyer-activist and the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, evoked the gender issue in her Nobel Lecture: “The discriminatory plight of women in Islamic states, whether in the spheres of civil law or in the realm of social, political and cultural justice, has its roots in the patriarchal and male-dominated culture prevailing in these societies, not in Islam. This culture does not tolerate freedom and democracy, just as it does not believe in the equal rights of men and women, and the liberation of women from male domination (fathers, husbands, brothers …), because it would threaten the historical and traditional position of the rulers and guardians of that culture … The patriarchal culture and the discrimination against women, particularly in the Islamic countries, cannot continue for ever.”

It certainly cannot, and the work of Dr. Muhammad Yunus, the “banker to the poor” who proved that poverty was not destiny, that, in fact, destiny was what one made of it, vindicates Ebadi’s hope and assertion.

In the post-9/11 world, Muslim women in affluent western countries are engaged in the battle of ideas to shape their faith and reclaim it from traditionalists and extremists.

In March of last year, for instance, Dr. Amina Wadud, professor of Islamic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of Quran and Women: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective, delivered a sermon and led a public, mixed-gender Friday congregational prayer in New York City.

This symbolic but seminal act received widespread support, and criticism, from Muslims around the world, stirring vigorous debate and soul-searching.

Asra Nomani, a journalist and author of Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam, is on a mission to reclaim the rightful role of woman in Islam defined by the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad but denied by centuries of cultural accretions.

“We joke that we want to take the “slam” out of Islam – that’s our American generation’s way of understanding it,” she says. “But it’s really that simple: we’re just so tired of going to our mosques and feeling unworthy or worthless or less than faithful. It says in the Quran, “There is no compulsion in religion,” and yet the fanatics in all religions want to make it compulsory that you follow their path of faith.”

Theological debates and reclaiming interpretive rights to sacred text by educated Muslim women activists constitute one path toward gender equality. The other is by empowering poor women engaged in daily existential battles to achieve financial freedom so that they too can challenge the myth of patriarchy in traditional societies and experience the egalitarianism that permeates Islam.

Only when the two paths converge – intellectual and existential, selective and grassroots - will true gender equality flourish in the heterogeneous Muslim world. Only then can we expect the sequence of events such as the following becoming a reality.

A seamstress in a village in Chittagong, Bangladesh, delivers garments to a demanding but honest merchant, and makes a tidy profit. The ripple from this transaction reaches Kandahar, Afghanistan, where a twenty-something teacher briskly walks along an earthen road to her one-room school, smiling to herself as she anticipates the fresh, eager faces of girls and boys waiting to learn arithmetic from her. A local cleric approaching from the opposite direction alights from his bicycle and respectfully acknowledges her.

The ripple from this gesture spreads to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where a middle-aged housewife patiently maneuvers her car heavy traffic and heads for the English-medium school in the center of town to pick up her two children. She has an appointment to see the principal about introducing more challenging curricula in the school and mentally rehearses her presentation.

The ripple from the rehearsal propagates to Katsina, Nigeria, where a judge raises her gavel to bring order to her courtroom in a complex inheritance case as she prepares to dispense justice tempered by mercy.

No comments: