Dr. Saleha Mahmood Abedin

Dr. Saleha Mahmood Abedin, Sociologist, Muslim Scholar and Director of Institute for Muslim Minority Affairs, London

“We want complimentality, we want to be recognized as women, we want to be different.” —Dr. Saleha Mahmood Abedin

“Men and Women as ‘Two Wings of a Bird’”

“I begin in the name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful.

“Distinguished guests, as well as our benevolent hostess, Amma, whose birthday we are here to celebrate and use that occasion to mark the celebration of women in our societies and in the world…. All of the distinguished and very patient guests and listeners: ‘May peace and blessings of God be on you all.’

“I have been asked to speak on the subject of ‘Men and Women as “Two Wings of a Bird.”’ I found that a very interesting formulation in terms of words of the age old controversy about the role of men and women in society. In other words, the recently raging gender wars.

“Interestingly enough, all of our religious traditions have always recognized the differences between men and women. There was never a problem in addressing that issue.
“Today, however, perhaps as a result of a backlash of the intensification and calcification and often misrepresentation of religious teachings and cultural practices, that women continue to be discriminated against in almost all societies and at almost all times as the world tended to be, what is called in sociology and anthropology, a more patriarchal society, and was dominated by men. However, the role of women has always been crucial and central even to the perpetuation of patriarchy. We would not have had the patriarchal system but for the devotion, the commitment of the women who raised those men in their laps and inculcated the values. It is the women who are the bearers of tradition and the carers and nurturers of our values and our traditions.

“Islam has recognized the role of women and has glorified, in fact, the role of women. The most glorified woman in the Koran is Mary, the Mother of Jesus. No other Muslim woman is mentioned, but Mary is glorified in her role as a mother. Motherhood is a position of grace, as well as of dignity, as well as of honour.

“Once, one of the early disciples of the Prophet approached him and asked him, ‘Who in this world besides God should I be obedient to or respectful of, or caring for, or be responsible to?’ The Prophet replied, ‘It is your mother.’ And he said, ‘Well, after my mother, who?’ He said, ‘Your mother.’ He again repeated, ‘And after my mother?’ He said, ‘Your mother.’ And after the third time, when he asked again, ‘And after my mother?’ He said, ‘It’s your father.’ So there is the position of the woman as the honoured position.

“Unfortunately, Muslim women themselves—as women in all other faith traditions—have either been deprived, or deprived themselves, of the knowledge and the information that will empower them and that will enable them to know and realize the importance they have and they exercise in society and the family. This is more a process of lack of information rather than, perhaps, a deliberate conspiracy on the part of men. I don’t blame men as much as I would put women responsible, in a sense, for their own plight.

“I was involved in the discussions relating to the Beijing Conference where the issue of the gender and male/female differences had become quite hot. And there were positions taken by very enthusiastic sisters who were, indeed, reacting to the suppression of women, which is unquestioned in all societies. And still they put forward the agenda that there are no differences between men and women, that men and women are equal, they are the same and so on. The famous phrase from the American feminist Bella Abzug, ‘Biology is not destiny,’ was used as an argument to promote the total absolute equality of women. What we tried to promote—and I’m so glad to hear from all of the other panellists this morning, who were saying the same thing—‘We want complimentality, we want to be recognized as women, we want to be different.’

“It is illogical, if not defying the reality of Nature and the reality of biology, to say we are the same. We are made differently. We have different biological constructions; we have different roles; we compliment each other. We want equity rather than equality. We want to be treated as women. We want to have maternity leaves—men don’t need that, we do, we bear children in our wombs, we are different. So to go ahead and say we are the same and we should have by 2015—one of the UN objectives—half of all jobs be occupied by women, I think, that is unfair to women. Let us have the choice. Let us want to stay home and make babies for a period in our lives and, when we want to, we can go back to work. As one writer said it very effectively, she said, ‘All this force on me that I should be working and I should be getting indebted with loans and doing businesses and being responsible for myself and suffer the way our men are suffering in terms of debt and in terms of economic responsibility…. And, at the same time, I maintain the responsibilities for running a household and bearing children and so on.’ She said, ‘This is pressure on me, this is force on me…’ And she said that, ‘If I am conscripted, I shall not serve.’ This is another imposition of slavery on women, on making us responsible for ourselves.

“In Islam, women are not responsible economically for themselves. The economic responsibility for them and for their children fall on their fathers or their husbands, or their brothers, or the male relatives who provide their income for the family. So men and women compliment each other. We should ask for equality of opportunity only, but not insist on equal number of people in the same number of jobs because that would force us into labour force.

“And we have seen the consequences of working mothers and latchkey kids who develop all kinds of problems. And the world is returning again to the concept of the family raising their children together, so they realize the importance of fathers and mothers in the lives of their children and they focus on their families once again, now that the Industrial Revolution and the economic boom has taken its toll on our lives and on our societies, generating so many social and economic problems for us. They recognize that we need men back in the homes; they need women back in the homes, not in the workplaces. And the most advanced of societies, even in the Western world, are recognizing now, implementing new laws of what they call ‘paternity leaves’ in addition to maternity leaves and motherhood is now being given credit. Whereas, in the general approach of some of our sisters from the feminist perspective, motherhood was always presented as a problem, or as a burden on women, as an interruption of their careers, as an interruption of their jobs and so on.

“So I think if we go back to all of our religious traditions—whether it’s Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam—they all have important place for the role of women and mother in society. And we should recognize that as the principle on which we expand again the involvement of religion in our daily lives. I’m glad to see that religion again is becoming the in-thing to do. It’s no longer something that people shied away from. We are being forced to address ourselves to the issues of spirituality, of faith, of religion and how we find our sources of strength and of guidance from those fundamental principles.

“If we go back to Islam, we will learn that the differences between men and women are not differences of quality. They are the same in terms of their humanity. Everywhere in the Koran there is a constant address to men as well as to women. It’s not addressed to men alone. It constantly says, ‘Men of faith, women of faith,’ ‘Men who believe, women who believe,’ ‘Men who practice, women who practice.’ Continuously, women are addressed as well as men are addressed. So it is not that we ignore, or Islam ignores women; women are recognized. And there are many fundamental rights that Muslim women have, if we went back to Islam, which are not known even to us as Muslim women, that if we went back to that, we would have, in fact, not just equality, but superiority to men in many ways.

“We have, for example, the famous, or infamous, instance of two witnesses of women and one witness for a man. In case of witnesses, men have to be always two men to be witness. But in case of a woman’s witness—for example, witnessing the birth of a child, which might determine, for example, the heredity principle as to who is the oldest child—the witness of one woman, the birth attendant, is enough. In no case the witness of one man is enough. So the woman is given an honour that’s completely forgotten by the fact that, in cases of business, two women’s witnesses are required and then they say, ‘Oh, Islam denigrates women.’ But they don’t come back and finish their sentence, because in some cases only one woman is necessary; in no cases only one man is necessary. So we need to educate ourselves and see what we have and we will find that it will strengthen us, it will strengthen the societies, it will move forward our agenda to improve our lives and ourselves in this increasing difficult world.

“As a demographer, I know, if nothing else, it’s a pressure of numbers, population explosion and that has all these consequences of poverty, of lack of education and so on. So we’ve got to focus on those issues. We’ve go to raise our children right; we’ve got to discipline them right; we’ve got to inculcate the proper values of love and compassion and of understanding and tolerance. There is diversity in this world. And Islam is one religion that has never degraded or denied diversity; it has celebrated diversity. There are verses in the Koran that say, ‘We have intentionally made you into races and nations and people so that you get to know one each other.’ God says, ‘If I wanted to I could make you all one people. But my intention was to make you different and to keep you different.’ So there is never any effort to homogenize the world. The only thing that keeps us all on one platform, all of us here and everywhere, is the platform of humanity. We are all children of God, we all come from Him and we will all return to Him. So we are equal with men and only in sharing the burden with men on the basis of equity and complimentality, we can do the variety of things that we are obligated to do in these very challenging and difficult times.

“I am only one speaker away from your lunch and I don’t want to hold you further in this very hot but a very blissful and peaceful day. Thank you very much for having me here.”