Guardians of the pulpit

Published Jan 13, 2013 12:20am

IT is silent. It is complex. There is unease but no outcry. There is diffidence and uncertainty because it seems to carry sanction — not of faith, but of some of the faithful.

The culture of the Indian subcontinent has been inevitably influenced by the spirit of the oldest of the world’s dominant faiths, Hinduism, and its last, Islam. Religion begins as a social revolution, a liberation movement against existing inequity. Religion is inspirational in the voice of prophets and the sermons of saints. What it becomes, centuries later, in the control of its self-appointed guardians is another story.

On Jan 2, the Delhi edition of the Times of India tried to rescue one such narrative from the many layers of fog we use as a blindfold. Kamini Lau, an additional sessions judge, denied anticipatory bail to a certain Maulvi Mustafa Raja, who abetted in the abduction of a young girl by the accused, Nadeem Khan, by performing a nikah between the two although Khan was already married. The ceremony did not have the girl’s consent, and was conducted in the absence of her parents.

The maulvi argued that Muslims were permitted four wives. Judge Kamini Lau noted, forcefully, that Islam permits polygamy under certain conditions but does not encourage it; and no nikah can be legitimate without the woman’s consent.

She added that Muslim countries such as Turkey and Tunisia had made polygamy illegal. She could have also said that the present Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, widely described as “Islamist”, had also made rape within marriage a criminal offence, and awarded life sentence for “honour killings”.

Kamini Lau did not mince her words. Nadeem Khan had raped the girl, and Maulvi Raja was accessory to the crime. Perhaps the court order was as clear as it was because the judge was a woman.

It is axiomatic that religions have differences, or they would not be different. But every faith has one thing in common. All priests are men. Religious law and practice is determined by men, whether a faith believes in monotheism or polytheism, whether it worships the divine as an image or as a spirit. Only a man becomes a Pope, Shankaracharya, Dalai Lama or Shaikh ul Islam; and only men are in their robe-clad armies.

There has been some reform in patches; but the Church of England was unable last year to permit women priests to rise to bishop. A faith may split into sects. Sunni and Shia may quarrel till eternity over the successor to the Prophet (PBUH), but it is the men who do the quarrelling.

Behind this bias is a conscious or subconscious conviction that women are inferior; and, in its more basic form, that semen is profound and powerful, while menstruation is unclean. Sex is a gender right, a form of domination. This bias has slipped into more than one religious text.

All doctrines understand that law should be adjusted to circumstance. Islamic law specifically accepts this evolutionary process. Would religious law have evolved differently if women had been high priests? Hinduism permitted unlimited polygamy in India and denied inheritance until the reforms pushed through in 1955 by Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru against strong opposition from within the ruling party, in legislation known as the Hindu Code Bill.

When Nehru was asked in 1962 why he did not attempt reform on polygamy in Muslim law, he replied that the time was not right in the mid-50s. The time was not right in the 1980s either when a widow from Bhopal, Shah Bano, demanded a pittance from her ex-husband as maintenance after divorce. The court granted her this pittance; parliament overruled the court.

The high priests of Islam have never had a problem tweaking a religious injunction when they want to. The specific punishment for theft is cutting off the hand. No mullah or politician in India leads a mass agitation to insist that every convicted Muslim thief should have his hand chopped off. But ask for reform in laws to ensure equality for women, and Muslim politicians will suddenly declare that Islam is in danger. It is not Islam which ever has been, or ever will be, in danger; but male hegemony is hopefully under threat.

There is nothing exclusively Islamic about male prejudice. Listen to some Hindu savants rise from their pseudo-yogic perch to preach that women must share the blame for rape. They are joined by a politician like the Samajwadi Party’s Abu Azmi; what unites them is not shared faith but shared prejudice. When they blame the West, they are not fearful of geography; they are terrified of modernity. Modernity is not singing English songs and wearing jeans. That is a cartoon view. Modernity is equality, political and social.

India has taken only the first steps towards that horizon. The churn, conflict and vicious rhetoric prove that conservatives will not surrender their stranglehold easily, and they still control the pulpit and the propaganda. Change is visible, but the long war has merely begun.

The writer is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and editorial director, India Today and Headlines Today.


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Comments (22) (Closed)


Feroz
Jan 13, 2013 08:51am
Akbar has written a master piece that is lucid, logical and punctures the aura of male dominance we see around us. That religion has been interpreted to perpetuate male dominance is one of the reasons many have decided to become atheists. This very crazy belief that one woman equals four men may be preached by just one religion but in reality is sub consciously practiced by most others. The world is still struggling to give women equal rights but obstacles are still being constructed in a devious manner at times using divine symbolism. Humanity will prosper and Peace will flourish only when women are liberated in every sense of the word.
Arvind Das
Jan 13, 2013 06:50am
Always a pleasure to read your articles. Something very mature about your analyses & I like the oneliners that are usually present in the first para of your articles.
Cyrus Howell
Jan 13, 2013 07:04pm
Any group, regardless of race or religion, who enslaves children are predators. Religion has always been justification for human slavery.
Sunder Lal Dua
Jan 13, 2013 08:05am
I admire M J Akbar for his views on gender bias.
Maharaja Shahenshah
Jan 13, 2013 06:30pm
MJ AKBAR we love you .. you have exposed the male chauvinism particularly in Islam and other chauvinistic mindsets....thanks for retaining the humanity !
hitesh
Jan 13, 2013 11:42am
Congratulations ! Mr. Akbar ! You have shown Hope for Muslim and especially for rise of India.
Krish Chennai
Jan 13, 2013 05:34pm
Excellent write-up, Sir ! I recall over a decade ago, the late Benazir Bhutto asked you in an interview you conducted with her on a TV channel, " Are you a Kashmiri?", and you replied "Yes"! Your concluding line "...the long war has merely begun " appear inappropriate. The ball has started rolling, and it's inevitable that in India, the hand that rocks the cradle will rock more than just the cradle.
Shaduram
Jan 13, 2013 05:06pm
Agree entirely
Singh
Jan 13, 2013 11:53am
Mr. Akbar is wrong when he says that "The culture of the Indian subcontinent has been inevitably influenced by the spirit of the oldest of the world?s dominant faiths, Hinduism, and its last, Islam." Sikhism is the last dominant faith of Indian sub-continent. Sikhism enjoins Hinduism and Islam by drawing best from both but more stress in Sikhism is serving the humanity irrespective of caste, creed, religion and sex by serving free food to everyone. If other faiths like Hinduism, Islam and Christianity follow the lead of Sikhs, there will not by any hunger in this world and less discrimination against women in general.
sh.jamil
Jan 13, 2013 11:56am
AKBAR is true to his name as usual.A torch bearer.we for his long life.
Neptune
Jan 13, 2013 08:40pm
Akbar, what a superb article you have written. As ever, very proud of you.
Sanjay
Jan 14, 2013 09:41am
You are right to a great extent Mr. Singh.
munaf
Jan 14, 2013 02:51am
The change is inevitable but it will take time in India because the politicians go in the sleep mood on a drop of a hat. I ask sisters to keep the pressure on all levels of the government. This includes all countries of the subcontinent
Krishna
Jan 14, 2013 02:04am
I hope Javed Naqvi learns to write columns like this.
Terry Bola
Jan 14, 2013 01:12am
Mr. Akbar, I have been a fan of yours since I read your 'Autobiography of Nehru' about twenty years ago. Keep on speaking out your mind as you did in this article. Well done!
Arshad sherazi
Jan 14, 2013 02:31am
I erred twice by writing influenced instead of influence above.
rich
Jan 13, 2013 06:38am
grt article completely agree
Arshad sherazi
Jan 13, 2013 11:20pm
Well written, but faith's influenced on culture is to blame faith for the ills of society. Faith sets rules and states roles for both genders,one can agree and disagree with the rules and roles set by the faith, on the other hand culture's influenced on faith is also a factor in shaping human behavior.
Sanjay
Jan 13, 2013 02:25pm
A masterpiece article from a secular Indian analyst. So Mr. Akbar, should India have a uniform civil code now?
Raj
Jan 13, 2013 03:58pm
Absolutely admirable!
Nony
Jan 13, 2013 05:19am
Very beautifully written
Akhlesh
Jan 13, 2013 03:28pm
Thank you, MJ.