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World Council of Muslim Communities

World Dialogue Is a Global Dialogue

 

WOMEN AND DEVELOPMENT

By Dr. Malik Sardar Khan

Email:  motamar@hotmail.com

 

            In the Divine scheme of life, male and female are made as complementary instruments for procreation, sustenance, and advancement of the Creator’s will.  Like two wheels of a vehicle, as coordinators of movement and progression, they are responsible for equilibrium and harmony.  In their diverse attributes and different roles, yet united for cooperative functions, they are significantly placed in the position of being both individuals and couples; while man is a father, husband brother, and son, woman is a mother, wife, sister, and daughter.  Both men and women possess talents that are essential for a productive society.  They both are essential to the environment and the progress of the human race.

            Within this paradigm, as concerns woman, she is as important as man in her own way.  Biologically, physiologically, socially, culturally, intellectually, psychologically, and emotionally, her roles are paramount for the harmonious flow of existence on Planet Earth.  Her participation in society is the backbone of human society which, under the guidance of a moral system, is essential for the human race to prosper.

            Here, the mention of moral values is appropriate, as they are necessary in the development of the social, psychological, intellectual, and spiritual life of individuals. The family unit, by giving individuals a meaning in terms of their roles within the community, is a sterling conglomeration.  Contrarily, loose moral fiber produces byproducts such as AIDS, drug abuse, and other social ills.  The fear of God or chastisement by rejection or distaste makes human beings respect one another.   Religion furnishes guidelines and principles, through which the progress of society is controlled, leading it to the peak of its development and destination. 

            It is a recognized factor that the role of woman in society, on the basis of her own sublime place, is an essential element for the stability of human society.  Many women have been in the forefront of human history, playing leading roles in the fields of their endeavors. 

Everywhere in the world and in every area of legitimate effort, women need their fair share in all apropos walks of life.  Women’s backwardness and lack of rightful position in underdeveloped countries, as mistakenly blamed on religion and culture, is actually owing to the countries’ exploitation by colonial powers, which perpetuates under its own momentum even after the withdrawal of the colonial powers.  In some places the males were killed and the females were used for breeding, so the developing countries fell well behind economically.  As such, for several centuries of the modern time, woman’s status has been restricted globally.

Eighty percent of people of the developing world live in the agro-based economy, in which women plays the most critical role.  She is not only the housewife, fully engaged in domestic responsibilities, but she is an equal partner on the farm.  She generates her own financial and other valuable resources for the family.  Being a productive asset, she is important to the human family, brightening the future of mankind.

All the kinds of discrimination, based on religion, race, national origin, or other unjust bases, have inflicted serious injuries to mankind, in which Woman has suffered disproportionately.  There is no doubt that abuses take place in every society.  Woman often suffers doubly:  in addition to any gender-based discrimination, she also suffers along with men because of prejudice based on religion, race, ethnicity, origin, and other degrading treatments.  Unfortunately, the world is still unfairly oriented, in which woman has not yet been granted by any society her due share.  While the first step may have been to allow women to play their traditional roles in full with desirable opportunities and functions, now is the time for woman to attain key policy positions to create a world truly offering desirable opportunities to both sexes.  Woman, as the giver and nurturer of life, has a tremendous potential for the betterment of human destiny.  Amongst others, she may well be an active element in shunning war and bringing peace.

Women are the pearls of society, to be duly respected and gently taken care of, for they are a spring of life. That is the sentiment of Islam, a religion with adherents in every nook and cranny of the planet.  It preaches and practices peace, aspires for human fraternity and well-being, and desires deliverance of all.  Actually, the glory of woman is reflected in the lives of all prophets. Prophet Adam (peace be upon him, p.b.u.h.), praying in repentance,  was at the end of twenty years granted his wife, Eve, back at Jabl Ar-Rahmah, the Mount of Mercy outside Makkah.  Eve, whose name was formerly pronounced “Jeddah”, was coming from the west, where the city of Jeddah now stands.  Similarly, Prophet Ibrahim (p.b.u.h.) was granted Hajira as his wife, who became mother of Prophet Ismail.  She ran between the hills of Safa and Marwa in search of water for her son.  In honor and memory of this sacred event, Muslims repeat this practice during Hajj.  We all, including Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h.), follow the footsteps of the mother, Hajira. In so doing, the Muslims desire to win paradise.  This act exemplifies and strengthens their belief in the status of women as exemplified in the saying, “Under the mother’s feet lies Paradise.”

This aspect presages an environment, free from war, pestilence, crime, vice, and destruction and conducive to piety and peace.  Within such an atmosphere, with their myriad commendable attributes, women can be a boon to progressive human race.  As persons, virtuous and beloved, they can uplift man’s world.  As functionaries, efficient and efficacious, they can enhance human productivity for a better life.

To build a just society is a tricky business because human beings are very complex creatures, acting from both rational motives and irrational drives.  To put appropriate social controls on the powerful and irrational drives has always been a major factor shaping a social milieu.  The consequences of too easy access to vice are easily visible in corrupt societies.  Sexually transmitted diseases, prostitution, poverty, antisocial behavior, and low motivation are more prevalent in broken homes or single-parent households.  The exploitation of sex as a marketing tool and overemphasis on a woman’s physical beauty as a factor in her marriageability are crippling factors that lead to degeneration. On one side, the independence of woman from man breeds social evils.  On the other side, their cooperation and coordination, with moral values, can put the society on its desired course.

On the other hand, some societies have gone to the opposite extreme.  Putting the dangers of the abuse of sexuality before all other aspects of a woman’s being, in some places she has no place beyond the four walls of her home, having no ability to contribute to society other than by bringing up righteous sons.  Fairness dictates that some sort of balance between these two extremes be sought.  Societies have fluctuated between men’s lovingly looking after women as admirable partners, albeit with their own unique contribution, and treating them as property or chattel (historically and linguistically speaking, “cattle”), a practice that dates from an era when a man was likely to take care of his cattle with more zeal than his wife.  In some societies today a woman is still viewed only in terms of what she can contribute to the wishes and welfare of the household (economic contribution, status, sons).  The new generation must be educated to understand that a man has more obligation than merely to put a roof over his wife’s head and fulfill her other physical needs.  She has a right to participate in decision-making, education, finance, etc.  Although this will tend to modify the current balance of the relationship, with the recognition of mutual rights and obligations, the eventual outcome shall be rewarding for all concerned (viz., man, woman, children, society).  In such a true partnership, each can make maximum contribution, enriching life in general.  Specifically, women’s fresh input will enliven public and private discernments for the benefit of all.  Among others, with true love born of mutual respect, marriages will be secure and bountiful in their endowments to society.

The impact of woman’s productivity in appropriate engagements shall enhance overall benefits to the entire nation.   The mass industrialization today has brought the technology to a pushbutton and computerized method, which Woman can easily control, thereby adding substantially to the world’s free-market economy.  If both sexes work jointly, the retarding social evils can be overcome, making the world a paradise.

The increase of technology in the workplace creates more opportunities than it eliminates.  But it generates skilled jobs and eliminates unskilled ones.  Work with computers or computerized machinery, or the processing of information and the provision of services, with no physical labor, offers an excellent opportunity for women to make an economic contribution to their households and to the prosperity of their society.  Naturally, this must be coupled with adequate education and necessary training. The public and private sectors must continue to improve daycare, compatible leave, and flexible work hours, so as not to place impossible demands on working mothers and not to leave children alone after school to get into trouble or danger.

Science and technology should be geared to a balance rather than the mass destruction and discrimination against women in general.  Religion plays a major role as an equalizer of opportunities.  Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him (p.b.u.h.) lived as a deliverer of the human race and liberated women from thereto the most degrading conditions.  Today, religions leaders should bear the moral standard to bring about a just society, where women must be protected from abuse and discrimination (such as unequal access to education, medical care, jobs, unequal pay, harsh labor, physical and emotional abuse, systematic abortion of female fetuses, concubinage without any financial or legal protection for herself or children, polygamy, forced prostitution, sexual harassment, promotions in exchange for sexual favors, and other abuses).  Women face discrimination and abuse at all stages of their lives, right from the fetal state, where her own parents may decide to abort her if the ultrasound reveals that the fetus is female.  Or the girl-child is put on the street, where if she is lucky she may be taken into a shelter or other environment than her home.  Or if she is kept and grows into a young adult, no matter what her beauty or education, she may not get a decent marriage because of the lack of a dowry.

Reproductive rights and family planning are areas of hot controversy where it is critical that technology and religion harmoniously seek the moral application of the potential benefits of modern science.  Though the outcome is of interest to all mankind, it is naturally of particularly keen interest to women.  A good place to start would be for countries to be left alone to develop their own policies for all human relationships and affairs.  It is to be expected that communities where out-of-wedlock births are already a big problem will take a different approach than those where premarital and extramarital relations are rare and public policy is geared to keeping it that way.

Today, the worldwide prevention, punishment, and eradication of domestic violence needs to be looked at in all societies of the world.  Violence is recognized to be a social problem caused by unequal relations that exist between men and women in the social, economic, legal, political, and cultural spheres.  Legislative provisions ought to classify sexual harassment as a criminal offense and to consider a woman victim an aggravating factor in determining the penalty for a violent crime.

Women must be provided normal access to justice and to entry into professional societies.  Some countries need more facilities to provide for education, training, scholarships, and grants to strengthen women’s position.  Special emphasis needs to be placed on protecting housewives, widows, orphans, divorced, and others seriously affected.  Equally, discrimination against women must be combated in the fields of access to land, housing, credit, and participation in development projects.

Today women’s undervalued contribution in all spheres of socio-economic activities is being duly enhanced and recognized, particularly in the domain of community improvements.  Women must be provided access to all relevant fields (e.g., agriculture, rural workforce, business, commerce, and family planning with no discriminatory practices in any pursuit (e.g., education, housing, health, employment, legislative, politics, business.)

Religious leaders, with due spiritual and secular insight, could be the beacons of progress by broad-mindedness that the religion itself prescribes.  They should be the guides in matters concerning both here and hereafter.  Islam in particular sees no divergence between religion and science as well as religion and politics.  It conjoins both spiritual and secular in a happy amalgam within ordained limits.  Indeed, the timeless religious wisdom must be dynamically applied to the solution of contemporary problems and avoidance of pitfalls.

The following suggestions are offered to governmental and non-governmental bodies to aid women’s development:

1)                            Governments to review their laws that particularly impact women, with a view to repealing laws discriminatory to women that hinder their due development.  Concomitantly, to enact and implement laws that have a positive effect on them.  Corporations and organizations should, similarly, review their policies and practices.

2)                            Economic aid to women in all pertinent sectors to be increased (particularly agriculture and cottage industry).

3)                            Tax breaks may be offered to establishments whose work environment makes it easier for women to enter and stay in the job market (e.g., by offering flexible leave and onsite daycare facilities).

4)                            Scholarships to be offered to women to study in all relevant fields, coupled with aggressive enforcement of nondiscriminatory hiring and penalties to violators.

5)                            Broad attack in schools, through appropriate measures, to change attitudes that unfairly debase and restrict women. 

6)                            Adult literacy programs to be taught both in schools and in private facilities such as small groups in homes and factories to make it more feasible for women to attend such classes.

7)                            Both traditional and modern female education to be geared to the needs of women.  Curricula to be reviewed with an eye on what can be taught to help women to be more competent in their callings, both in internal and external matters.

8)                            Ensuring female inheritance rights, throughout the world, by such mechanisms as the probate court system.

9)                            Enactment of laws and funding for programs that strengthen the family, with lucrative incentives for women’s participation.

10)                        Ongoing research – by women as much as possible – to monitor the effectiveness and progress of the abovementioned modalities, so as to effect improvement in women’s conditions.

11)                        Governmental and nongovernmental assistance and implementation of the recommendations of the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women.

The United Nations has, in fact, enhanced the betterment of the position of women around the globe.  In 1979 the General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.  Accordingly, many countries (e.g., Uganda, South Africa, Brazil, Australia) have incorporated the treaty’s provisions into their constitutions and domestic legal codes.  Furthermore, some other states (e.g., Nepal, Ukraine, Thailand, the Philippines) have passed new laws against sexual trafficking, the practice of selling women and girls into sexual slavery.  And, after ratifying the treaty, Colombia has made domestic violence a crime and required legal protection for victims.  Also, other ratifying nations (e.g., Nicaragua, Jordan, Egypt) saw significant increases in literacy, improving access to education for girls and women.

            Of course, monumental problems remain:

·        At least four million women and girls around the world are still sold into sexual slavery each year.

·        Two-thirds of the world’s 875 million illiterate adults are women.

·        About 510,000 women die each year from pregnancy complications.

·        Millions of women still lack full legal and political rights.

·        Even in the United States, gender equality in the workplace is not complete.  Though laws prevent the blatant practice of unequal pay for equal work, women face more subtle forms of discrimination in what is knows as the “glass ceiling,” where, for instance, women are granted maternity leave but denied promotions if they take it.

In order to elevate the status of women, all forms of discrimination against women ought to cease. Legislative and administrative measures must be taken to ensure gender fairness in both public and private life (viz., labor, economic, social, and cultural) for women as active participants.  It is important that due efforts be made to uphold women’s rights.  There are constraints all over the world that prevent the implementation of practical measures to ensure women’s comprehensive and full development.  Enforcing women’s rights in substantiality is an uphill task because of ingrained discriminatory attitudes in many communities around the world.

It is necessary for governments and societies to take considerable responsibility in ensuring women’s development through academic, religions, commercial, medical, and professional institutions to provide proper opportunities for women to attain their ordained prerogatives.  All prejudices against them (e.g., racial, religious, ethnic) must be eliminated.

There is an urgent need to set up programs for the advancement of rural women for activities in health, education, basic services, and income generation, as well as technical and financial support for improving their socioeconomic status.

To enhance the participation of at least Muslim women in public life and to better equip them for their role in the modern world, the World Council of Muslim Communities has selected a panel of scholars composed of 25 men and 25 women to discuss pertinent issues and prepare them for the 21st Century.  There is a long way to go.  The UN and its agencies (ECOSOC, DPI), NGOs, and other organizations are committed to bringing change in the world to create a new order.  The World Council of Muslim Communities is working with its numerous counterparts on all relevant for a (symposia, conferences, seminars) and will coordinate its activities through the United Nations, media, and dialogues to establish programs that address the dire needs of the women’s world.