Maryam Rajavi: Islam does not recognize gender, ethnic and racial distinctions
Speech to a conference entitled, “Islam, women and equality”
I welcome you all for being here today.
It is indeed a pleasure to meet each and every one of you distinguished thinkers and scholars. I find it opportune and inspiring to see this gathering and the discussion over the most fundamental challenge before women today, namely the issue of fundamentalism.
Today, the rising wave of terrorism, carnage and destruction emanating from Islamic fundamentalism sheds lights on the dangers it poses to human society. The threat to women and the achievements of the equality movement, however, is far greater and would have dire consequences for humanity, because this reactionary force in its ideological roots rests on misogyny.
Let us look at Iran, where the ominous calamity has had a devastating impact on the Iranian people and particularly women for nearly three decades. In recent years, it has affected other Islamic nations.
In order to impose and consolidate its supremacy, fundamentalism employs the most extensive and inhuman suppression and misogyny. It does not accord women their human value. From an economic and a social standpoint, it has formally declared that women enjoy half the rights men do. And in such things as the competence to lead, govern and sit on the bench has absolutely denied women those rights.
The reactionary mullahs who rule Iran and are the godfather of all Islamic fundamentalists have set new records in misogyny in Iran. Perhaps you have heard about the kind of despicable relationships they have been promoting. For example by legalizing polygamy and temporary marriage they have promoted prostitution and victimized oppressed women.
They have institutionalized gender apartheid throughout society. This has made the oppression of women and an assortment of discriminations against them systematic practice.
The fundamental question as regards this catastrophic oppression that needs to be answered is what objective do the fundamentalists pursue in such conduct and outlook? Do they intend to lend credibility to their backward interpretation of Islam? Is this their objective or are they pursuing other goals?
The Iranian experience under the mullahs’ rule makes it clear that the fundamentalists’ main objective has been and continues to be the preservation of their rule. They have shown clearly that misogyny provides them with the dynamism to suppress and serves to preserve the ruling theocracy.
Yet, in diametric opposition to this medieval system, there is ample experience that has proven in practice that Islam is committed to the ideal of gender equality. This is what the Resistance movement has experienced.
Iranian Resistance’s leading women, who have carried out the most sensitive responsibilities in the ranks of a liberation movement, have received their inspiration from an Islam that believes in equality, namely a democratic Islam. They have been capable of leading this movement in its fight against the most barbaric religious dictatorship of our age. They have succeeded in overcoming the spell of lack of faith in themselves and the weaker sex syndrome and, what is more, liberated, not only women, but also men from the bondage of exploitation. They have also succeeded in paving the way to defeat the fundamentalists who rule Iran.
This experience has had many accomplishments. In a nutshell, I would say that the effective response to fundamentalism is democratic Islam. Here, an important question arises before us: which one is the correct interpretation of Islam? The democratic Islam, which rejects backwardness and misogyny and presents itself as the true message of Islam, or the fundamentalists, whose claims and actions rest on an Islam which says that Islamic teachings and traditions justify misogyny.
To respond to this question I will raise the fundamental issue of the dynamism of the Quran.
What is the dynamism of the Quran?
What are the fundamentalists identified with? I believe it is clear to all of us that they are identified with religious dogmatism and a reactionary interpretation of religion. The end result of this approach is misogyny. The fundamentalists deliberately confuse Islam’s utopian ideals with some practical tactics. By practical tactics I mean those tactics in Islam that were compatible to the historical capacity of early Islam. The fundamentalists confuse these temporal regulations with fundamental principles.
Let me give an example. It was quite obvious that in early Islam, when humanity was still in the age of slavery, gender equality, as we know it today, was impossible to implement. The reality of a backward society prevented the establishment of gender equality. Thus, to realize the ideals of Islam, a transitional period was necessary. By that I mean middle-of-the-road and temporary solutions. These solutions were the early phases which society has to pass through one by one to reach higher phases. Those with reactionary thinking take these intermediate stages as Islam’s fundamental values.
This is a distorted interpretation of Islam. Nevertheless, this approach gradually became very complicated. In other words, the regulations to which I referred earlier, such as the accepted difference in the right of women to inheritance, or the conditional respite for polygamy, were taken by the reactionary forces as Islam’s utopian ideals and values. They themselves set some precedents under the name of Islam and derived from it a theory: a man equals two women.
For its part, the democratic Islam has rejected these ploys and any reactionary interpretation of the Quran and Islam. In verse 7 of Chapter Al-e Imran (The Family of Imran), the Holy Quran states that there are two sets of verses, mohkamat and motashabihat. Mohkamat are the fundamental principles of Islam, definite and unchangeable. They contain the philosophical essence of Islam’s worldview on humankind. Motashabihat are relative, dynamic and flexible. They relate to the methods and rules of conduct in everyday life. As such, they are never rigid and they can and must be adapted to human progress, technological advancement and the social norms of the times, while preserving the same monistic essence and spirit of Islam. Otherwise, they would become a useless and rigid set of canonical laws.
It must be noted that a dynamic understanding of Islam is based on Islam’s methodology and not a newly created understanding. Islam possesses a kind of dynamism that opens the way for society’s advancement and progress.
In Al-e Imran Chapter, the Quran denounces any attempt to confuse solid principles with transient rules. It warns that clinging onto the allegorical verses is like being drawn into a whirlpool in which those with weak minds and evil hearts will drown. But those who are firmly grounded in knowledge would be spared from such pitfalls. They prosper who consider the teaching and message of Islam in its totality and separate lasting principles from passing rules.
This modus operandi is the most fundamental criterion to distinguish between backward-looking values and the true Islam that the Prophet of Islam left behind.
To avoid dogmatism and insure the longevity of this school of thought in social leadership, the principle of ijtihad exists in Islam that guarantees the compatibility of edicts with the specific set of societal conditions.
The other issue is recognition of the place of the masses in political power. This is one of the foundations of Islamic thinking. This is one of the most fundamental differences between democratic Islam and fundamentalism. This difference is over the way we look at political power, politics and law.
The fundamentalists impose the kind of laws on social and political life which they purport to be divine. In their view, there must be absolute submission to these laws. In the view of fundamentalists, the vali-e faqih (or the supreme leader) of society is God’s vicegerent on Earth and enjoys unlimited authority and is not accountable to any worldly being. Fundamentalism considers the people as minors who lack responsibility. It does not recognize free choice for the people and rejects the notion of human responsibility. When assuming power, this mode of thinking, as we experienced in Iran, quickly installs a bloody theocracy.
But democratic Islam believes that political power belongs to the people and it is they who enact laws. Of course, the Quran, which introduces itself as “the interpretation of every phenomenon”, has put forth some edicts in a limited number of areas. But the main issues which the Quran has addressed relate to the interpretation the Universe, philosophy, evolution and the liberating essence of historical advancement under human beings’ responsibility in the path of attaining freedom, equality and building a society around human values. Therefore, the determination of social and political relationships has been bestowed on human beings themselves who will do so inspired by those very principles.
Chapter Al-Qessas (The Stories) underscores that God has wished that those who have been oppressed in the land should rule, lead and inherit the Earth. This right is inalienable, unconditional and without restrictions. True Muslims believe that God’s will in social realm would essentially and historically be realized through people’s power.
Another fundamental difference between democratic Islam and fundamentalism is the issue of man’s exploitation of man. Islamic fundamentalists have given theoretical basis to an assortment of discriminations and inequalities, including gender inequality under the name of Islam, the foundation of which is exploitation.
Democratic Islam believes in Towhid (monotheism), rejection of exploitation and the realization of equality and liberation from all forms of discrimination and bondage. In Chapter Hadid (Steel), the Quran says that the prophets were chosen to establish justice and equity. In Chapter Al-Anbiya (The Prophets), human beings have been heralded with being liberated from oppression and discrimination. Verse 104 states, “My righteous servants shall inherit the earth.”
A dynamic understanding of Islam is inherently an ally of man in his struggle for freedom and justice and an ally for women’s equality movement. This thinking is respected by all progressive human beings.
It does nevertheless raise a question, which is whether a dynamic interpretation of Islam has its roots and foundations in Islam itself or whether we plan to engage in a revision of Islam and correct it.
The answer is that this dynamic interpretation is Islam’s true identity. This thinking is directly based on the Quran and Prophet Mohammad’s traditions and teachings. This vision does not look at women as second rate. It is a vision that is not affected by distortion and misuse by oppressive rulers and reactionary peddlers of religion or the interests of the male-dominated system of fourteen centuries ago. We call this thinking democratic Islam. But this is not a new religion. It is an Islam that when made rid of that tainted interpretation, would bring about a qualitative change in the destiny of Muslims, and particularly women in the Islamic world, and would make it dramatically capable of pushing aside fundamentalism.
The reality of Islam’s history, religious scripture and most importantly, the Quran itself, advocate Justice for all mankind and gender equality.
Considering this principle, we must reply to the question that if gender equality is one of Islam’s utopian principles, what changes it has gone through after the advent of Islam.
In reality, from the outset, Islam has confronted oppression and discrimination against women. During the complex circumstances fourteen centuries ago, Prophet opened the way for women, particularly the most oppressed women, namely the women slaves, to participate in political and social struggle. Not before too long, he succeeded in bringing to the fore a large layer, including hundreds of pioneering women, whose names have been recorded in history. You may have heard that the first person who died under torture for defending was a woman slave, named Somayya.
From day one, women held positions of responsibility that were until then generally not routine. I mean women’s participation in political and social affairs. At the time, hundreds of leading women organized themselves around Prophet . According to credible Islamic sources, all of them, more than 600, had personally signed a pledge of allegiance with the Prophet free of the influence of their husbands or other men. This pledge was called “bey’a” and historical texts have referred to these women as “mobaye’a,” meaning those who made ” bey’a.”
About ten years after the advent of Islam, many new regulations were enacted for all women. Reviewing them demonstrates an impressive trend. Several fundamental issues could be raised here:
1. The right to life and equal sanctity for women
Prior to the advent of Islam, women could easily be murdered by the men in their tribes or family members with the slightest suspicion of infidelity. Female children and even female infants would be buried alive. There were several reasons for these crimes, for example fear of poverty or becoming slaves in tribal wars, or in a more general sense, looking at women as having a bad omen. In Chapter Al-Isra (The Night Journey), the Quran has unequivocally banned this prevalent crime.
How about another question: Were these crimes and denying women’s right to life at the time prevalent only in the Arabian Peninsula? Not at all. This circumstance was an all-embracing phenomenon in the world at the time. There are recorded historical instances in the most important civilizations at the time, including Persia, Rome, China and India, which confirm this.
2. Equality of women with men in their human value
As far as Islam is concerned, the most fundamental value is human qualities and activities that emanate from them. In Chapter Al-Hujraat (The Inner Apartments), the Quran states that it does not recognize any gender, ethnic and racial distinctions. In Quran’s term, Taqva, meaning control over one’s self and commitment to responsibilities, which women and men equally possess, carried all the values.
3. Recognition of women’s leadership qualities
In democratic Islam, women and men are similarly worthy and duty bond to carry out the leadership of society. They have learned this ideal from Islamic scripture and the Quran. Chapter Al-Tawba (Repentance) states, “And (as for) the believing men and the believing women, they are inseparable and they are guardians of each other…”
The term “Vali” (or guardian) in the verse is an important one, because it means guardianship and leadership, the height of friendship, compassion and sense of responsibility toward fellow beings.
This issue has been addressed in other form in the Quran. For example in the Chapter Al-e Imran, women and men have been recognized as coming from one body and their efforts have been rewarded equally.
According to the Quran, equality between women and men in taking on responsibility and becoming knowledgeable are considered indiscriminate. In Chapter Al-Ahzab (The Clans), verse 35 states, “For Muslim men and women,- for believing men and women, for devout men and women, for true men and women, for men and women who are patient and constant, for men and women who humble themselves, for men and women who give in Charity, for men and women who fast (and deny themselves), for men and women who guard their chastity, and for men and women who engage much in Allah’s praise,- for them has Allah prepared forgiveness and great reward.”
4. Equality in social issues
According to Chapter Al-Ahzab, women like men share responsibility toward all social issues and are duty bond to intervene in all social matters. Chapter Al-Maeda (The Table Spread) underscores that women and men share equal responsibility in standing for justice and in testifying to justice. What is interesting is that in the Quran, those verses which direct human beings to establish justice are addressed to all believers and do not discriminate on the basis of gender. God has called on all people, women and men, to deliver on their commitments and pass fair judgment. It has not singled out men only. There is no religious scripture or established tradition that would show that women must be stripped of the right to govern and arbitration.
From the time of Prophet until after his passing, trust in the testimony of women was quite prevalent even in religious affairs.
5. Support for women in family relationships
Prior to Islam, women and girls had no right to choose their husbands. Islam gave women the right, similar to men, to negotiate and reach an agreement on any condition they would deem necessary as far as their fate was concerned. Women’s enjoyment of equal rights in setting the terms for marriage is underscored in Chapter An-Nissa (Women). In other words, contrary to the practices of some religions and the age of non-enlightenment, marriage became strictly a contract between two human beings. In other words, it became a contract devoid of any religious or metaphysical color. In marriage, both sides have the right to agree on any condition they see fit. These conditions relate to the up bringing of children, occupation, residence, divorce and other matters relating to family life. We must also note that there is consensus over the fact that a marriage without the approval of the woman is null and void.
In Islam, unjust divorces have been banned. Prior to Islam, the right to divorce was entirely that of the husband and there were a variety of divorces.
6. Financial and economic issues
As Chapter Al-Nissa stipulates, the Quran underscores women’s right to equal and unconditional right to hold property. Prior to Islam, the wife was virtually a property of the husband or generally speaking men. Women did not even possess their personal jewelry and other material. These did not belong to her but it was as if they had been loaned to her and could be taken back whenever men so wished. In Islam, however, the right to complete ownership for women has been recognized without at all differing with that of men.
Moreover, the reactionary custom that widowed wives were considered as inheritance and belonged to the husband’s survivors was annulled. Women were granted the right to inheritance. Naturally, when the laws on inheritance were enacted in the form of verses of the Quran, a number of the Prophet’s disciples protested, because they argued that any wealth in the hands of women would be wasted.
I want to conclude from these achievements that what Islam has promoted in the early years as far as women’s human dignity, social, economic and political rights for women were concerned, amounted to a great revolution. Giving a share of inheritance to women and recognizing their right to ownership was a major undertaking, because they were completely out of the production cycle. Moreover, recognizing the right of testimony, judgeship and leadership for women was a great leap that was unprecedented at the time and even in many centuries beyond.
How about another question?
Did the advantages which women gain at the time mean that in the view of Islam, women had reached complete equality with men? Clearly not. Those advantages did not mean women were completely equal with men. But, each of them was a qualitative step fourteen centuries ago. If Islam did not believe in gender equality and did not seek to move toward that end, giving women such rights would not make any sense. In other words, those gains were gradual steps toward equality. When we look at the Quran from a dynamic perspective, we realize that these advantages were a road map toward emancipation and equality.
For a greater understanding of this issue, let us compare this situation with that of women in Europe. In the most advanced societies of our time, until several centuries after the advent of Islam, women did not enjoy the freedoms and the rights Islam had provided to them. In Great Britain, women for many centuries were considered to be incapable of taking care of themselves, similar to a minor. The law adopted on 1882, removed that status for women. In Germany, the civil law of 1900 declared that wives enjoy the same rights as their husbands. In France, the law adopted in 1938 modified the status of a married woman. Ultimately, in the next decades, women were gradually granted equal rights with men in European countries. Nevertheless, when it comes to women’s participation in political leadership, no important steps have been taken in European societies.
Thus, even if some one were to look at women’s achievements during the early days of Islam from the perspective of advances made today, one would acknowledge that Islam has created a great leap in women’s lives.
Yet again, there is another question. Should we use the edicts that were progressive fourteen centuries ago as models for women today? Obviously not. Those achievements were tactical steps, on the road from the old to the new. Today, we cannot stop there. For this would be reactionary and unacceptable. Remaining faithful to Islam’s genuine spirit makes it imperative that today women would enjoy the rights and liberties on par with social and economic progress of our times.
Thus, what is genuine is the human message of Muhammedan religion that women and men are equal. But, if this is true, then we must experience it in practice with specific accomplishments. Here, the question is what are those accomplishments?
Our Resistance movement has significant achievements in this regard. We have seen through our own experience that a development which carries with it new human values is for a generation of women to be in leadership. But this is not designed to guarantee women’s equality only. It is a development that liberates both women and men. It casts aside their sense of alienation and allows every one to realize his or her own human essence and achieve perfection and oneness.
When a pioneering generation of women and men at the height of their awareness and volition choose some one as their leader who has historically not occupied the position of an equal human being, this choice is tantamount to passing through from the world of patriarchy and its backward values to the world of humanity.
It is in essence a change in culture that brings to fore human gem in every human being. Women and men in this movement have emerged successful from this test and have been persevering in this path for several years. They have been swimming against history’s spontaneous direction and rejected the thousands-years old gender-based and exploitative culture.
One of the most important outcomes of this path is that everyone humanizes how he understands, comprehends, looks and listens or better said feels and as the Quran says, enlightens his or her heart.
Thus, he or she can see and grasp all that is good, clean, all that is God’s mercy and kindness. In such a world, human beings’ shortcomings and vices are not genuine. But it is the relationship of each human being with the other and the extent of sacrificing for the other that prevail.
We must acknowledge this reality.
The obvious question is how did the Resistance movement achieve such a status?
In truth, attaining women’s equality has been achieved through women’s unsparing sacrifice in the front lines of a difficult, bloody and long struggle against the most ominous, medieval dictatorship.
In the past 24 years, out of the 120,000 victims of political executions, some 40,000 have been women, among them 13-year-olds such as Fatemeh Mesbah to elderly mothers such as Mother Zakeri to pregnant women, all of whom were brutally executed by the mullahs’ henchmen.
In one word, they demonstrated that they represent the necessary response to fundamentalism and theocracy and that without their presence in political leadership, nothing would remain steadfast and no prospects for victory would exist.
Of course, the mullahs have held their grip on power through the most violent oppression. But, the reality is that the Resistance’s leading women have defeated their misogynist ideology and have removed the stain of inequality from the face of Islam.
One must say with utmost pride that these resistant women have proven in action the real visage of Islam, its human essence, its belief in gender equality and its message of tolerance, forgiveness, mercy and emancipation.
Thank you very much