Book Review: Women in the Quran

Asma Lamrabet
translated from the French by Myriam Francois-Cerrah
Kube Publishing June 2016

Do you bring Islam to your feminism, or do you bring feminism to your Islam? Must we bend Islam to fit our modern sensibilities of women’s rights, humanism and justice towards both gender, or must we make compromises in our feminism to fit the classical interpretations of Islam that have always been skewed in favor of men?

In Asma Lamrabet’s Women in the Quran: An Emancipatory Reading (translated from the French by Myriam Francois-Cerrah), the author answers this question by declaring passionately and confidently that Islam has always considered women as equals to men. It is ‘certain biased readings, bolstered by patriarchal customs, which have rather legitimated these… inequalities.’

Lamrabet, a Moroccan pathologist and activist, blames ‘subjective human interpretation’ made by classicist, traditionalist and patriarchal interpreters, scholars, and translators for obfuscating the Quran’s essential humanist spirit. Islam in its original form, argues Lamrabet, doesn’t make distinctions according to gender, and certainly does not assign women a weaker spiritual status than men. Lamrabet distinguishes between an Islam that has been codified in centuries-old texts and a living Islam which women are struggling to re-negotiate in the light of a greater awareness of their rights as human beings to live in equality and peace with men.

Lamrabet goes further than the work of previous Islamic feminists by drawing upon the women in the Quran and deftly identifying archetypes such as: The Mother, The Governor, The Passionate Woman, The Spiritual, and The Sacrificial. Lamrabet’s classifications are especially compelling when discussing the excellent governing skills of Baklis, Queen of Sheba, or the insane passion of Zulaykha for Prophet Yusuf (peace be upon him) and her subsequent repentance for her wrongdoing.

There’s a refreshing refusal to dwell on women first and foremost as mothers, which male classical Islamic scholars tend to do. Lamrabet interprets the roles of Umm Musa and Asiah as parables to understand God’s tenderness towards women, and the value of piety and exemplary faith (Asiah disobeys her husband, the Pharaoh, in believing in Allah rather than following her husband’s religion), rather than focusing solely on their functions as mothers of the Prophet Musa (peace be upon him). Lamrabet draws the reader’s attention not to Maryam’s motherhood but to her “highly privileged spiritual station”, noting that God chose a woman rather than a man to be a symbolic link between Christians and Muslims.

Similarly, Lamrabet compellingly chronicles the lives of early Muslim women who stood up for their faith, and connects their resistance to political struggle. She writes of early Muslim muhajiratun (political refugees) Summaya, Zainab, Umm Sharik and Umm Kulthum noting their bravery, refusal to compromise, and willingness to even sacrifice their lives for their principles. This is in complete opposition to the modern portrayal of the Muslim woman as an oppressed victim unable to even raise her own voice.

A good case is made for women’s political participation through various examples from early Islamic history. In Surah Imran, the challenge from Muslims to Christians to participate in a theological debate called themubahalah asked for both men and women to take part. Similarly, women took part in mubayi’at, which included conversion, proselytzing, attending allegiance ceremonies, lectures at the mosque, and even being present in battle.

Lamrabet interprets mubayi’at as a political act, noting that the women took part in these activities of their own free will and independent agency. She argues against reductionism: the Prophet did not shake women’s hands during an allegiance ceremony. Classical scholars have used this as an excuse to invalidate the entire experience of women’s bayah, which Lamrabet castigates soundly in her discussion.

Lamrabet writes with verve and spirit, a tone which Francois-Cerrah captures well in her translation. Yet sometimes the style meanders and goes off into tangents where Lamrabet allows her imagination to supersede her arguments. Furthermore, some of Lamrabet’s circular arguments are stretched too far, diminished by her eagerness to make everything fit a modern feminist mold.

This is most apparent when Lamrabet deals with some of the contentions with verses such as 4:34 (it doesn’t permit wife-beating, but advises separation), 4:29 (making polygamy discouraged, but permissible in certain contexts), and other verses concerning inheritance, women’s testimony and the like. Lamrabet’s arguments will shore up those who already believe in Islam’s fairness towards women but will not convince those who are already certain that the religion is inherently misogynist.

Yet her writing is at its sharpest when Lamrabet excoriates modern Muslim governments and countries for obfuscating the revolutionary egalitarian spirit of Islam. She expresses justifiable anger in noting reform has taken 1500 years to come in countries like Morocco and Saudi Arabia: a willful theft of women’s rights for which adequate reparations have not yet been made. Her phrase ‘an aborted women’s revolution’ captures the essence of the conflict: a patriarchal backlash against the freedom and equality given to early Muslim women under the Prophet’s guidance.

Unusually, Kube Publishing have taken the step of distancing themselves from some of Lamrabet’s more radical positions. In a detailed introduction they say they do not necessarily endorse all the ideas in this work, but are publishing it ‘with a view to providing access to some trends in contemporary Muslim thinking.’ The note that the author’s interpretations are daring and ‘will no doubt be seen as problematic’ and remark on her ‘disregard for the hadith corpus.’ Her ‘sweeping judgments regarding ‘traditionalist’ understanding of Islam, by which she seems to be referring to the scholastic tradition of the past 1400 years, are unfortunately not substantiated in her work.’  The publishers have, ‘in an attempt to remedy this to some degree… included some end notes’ which refute some of Larambet’s points and correct others.

Whether the publishers fear Larambret’s book displeasing their conservative reader consumer base, or are trying to cover their legal bases, the caveat and endnotes detract from the overall reading experience. Still, perhaps this is a working compromise that guaranteed the text being published in its entirety. Whatever the case, it illustrates quite literally how contentious is the idea of women’s freedom and independence even within an Islamic framework, and how carefully women still have to tread in asserting their viewpoint on matters of theology, even when it is fully their Islamic right to do so.

This book review was first published in Sister-Hood magazine

Daddy’s Boy

Very little fanfare’s been made of Shandana Minhas’s third book, published last month by Harper Collins India. Strange, because this Karachi-based writer’s work is very well known in Pakistan, and received acclaim: her first, Tunnel Vision, was nominated for the Commonwealth First Book award, while her second, Survival Tips for Lunatics, won the French Fiction Prize at KLF last year. But then, that’s Minhas’s specialty, to come out of left field and surprise you as a reader with her wit, acerbity, and prescience.

Daddy’s Boy is no different in the Minhas tradition, then. It’s a quick read (I finished it in 2 days, and at 200 pages, it’s at the shorter end of the novel scale), and one that’s hard to put down once you start. The premise is this: a young man in Lahore, Asfandyar, has always been told by his mother that his father died when Asfandyar was a child. But suddenly he learns one day that his father was alive all along, and has just died, and he, Asfandyar, must go to his funeral in Karachi.

Following his mother’s instructions, buoyed on his love for his beautiful but dull fiancee Lalarukh, Asfandyar makes his way to Karachi, where he comes across three old men who are friends of his father. With rapid-fire dialogue and entertaining jabs, they win over the young man’s trust. He follows them through the restive city as they bury his father, then help Asfandyar to dispose of his father’s flat and whatever is inside it.

But this is no straightforward tale: things quickly go out of control for Asfandyar, and he’s struggling to understand just what he’s gotten himself into. Nothing’s as it seems, not the uncles, not the beautiful, capricious woman who shows up at his father’s funeral, not the city itself. Everything overwhelms Asfandyar, and he finds himself making one choice after another that leads him deeper and deeper into a quagmire, caught between morality and mortality, desire and duty.

Minhas plays with words in a way that no other Pakistani writer does. In this book, the result is a boisterous energy, a story that’s sometimes dialogue-heavy, sometimes description heavy, but always teasing and tricking the reader. “I wanted the prose and the rhythm to mimic the manic nature of our lives in Karachi, be suffused with it,” she says. She also recounts how she wanted to do “something ambitious with the idiom,” in “using the English language to tell a local story.”

As always, Minhas’s work is characteristically dark and cynical, and I struggle with the fact that her characters never seem to find the redemption the reader wishes for them. In Daddy’s Boy, this is because it’s not a morality tale but “an amorality tale.”  She refuses, in fact, to give the reader what he or she wants most in order to convey what she knows to be true about Karachi, and Pakistan. “The dark heart of it is the point that patriarchy creates broken people. Broken women, yes, but also broken men.”

Yet the book contains beautiful writing, especially the moment when Anis is buried, and another tableau describing the city of Lahore in breathtaking prose. “I wanted the Lahore stretch to be tonally different to emphasise that difference between cities,” says Minhas of this shift.

Lahore reclines by a river, secure in her charms. Men pass through her. Their gifts outlive them. The Moguls left palaces, pleasure gardens and tombs. Birds nest over their bones. Her present owners too seek to mark her. Green and white minarets watch the sky, their bases tile-lined to wash what has happened away. Recently built roads are bangles on her wrists, every meal in her markets offered as aphrodisiac.

It’s this contrast between ugliness and beauty, between action and observation, that can leave the reader completely off balance, or punched in the stomach, as Minhas’s best friend said after reading the book. Her energetic writing sometimes veers on this side of feeling out of control, but then again this could be a deliberate effect to keep the reader guessing. My preferences tend to lean towards symmetry and elegance, but Minhas’s style is far too punchy for that. She deliberately goes instead for discord and clamour, much the way Picasso’s Cubism shook up the artistic idiom and turned it into something entirely different than what was expected.

Perhaps it’s this daring and disregard for the predictable that ensures Minhas remains an “alternative” instead of “mainstream” fiction writer. Yet as her style evolves, her instincts deepen and her prose progresses towards an ever more polished form, it retains that distinctive capriciousness — much like the women in her stories — that make her work, love it or hate it, un-putdownable. And that’s really what every writer wants.

Thinner Than Skin

I’ve just finished Uzma Aslam Khan’s Thinner Than Skin, the novel which won the inaugural French Fiction Prize at the Karachi Literature Festival this year.  I’m very, very impressed and am still trying to make sense of all the images, emotions, and thoughts that it has stirred up in me. It’s a strange, sad tale, written in a minor key: the characters’ voices are weighed down with melancholy, with memory, and most of all, with yearning.

The book was published last year and here’s a quick summary of its content from Google Books:

Thinner Than Skin is a riveting novel about identity and belonging. It’s also a love story: between a young Pakistani man trying to make his way as a photographer in America, and the daughter of a Pakistani father and German mother brought up in the U.S. who wants to return to a country she’s never seen. Together they make the trip to Pakistan, where a chance meeting with a young nomad changes their lives, and the lives of those around them, forever. The novel is also a love letter to the wilds of northern Pakistan, to glaciers, to the old Silk Road, and to the nomadic life of the indigenous people in the northern territories, where China encroaches and Pakistanis, Uzbeks, Russians, Chinese and Afghans come together to trade.

Khan has said of herself that she considers herself a nomad at heart: “I was born in Lahore, Pakistan, and grew up mostly in Karachi, though my early years were nomadic: three years in Japan, two in the Phillippines, and two in England.” It’s this early experience that informs the entirety of this book, because it’s all about people who are wanderers in search of themselves.  There’s Nadir, the Pakistani who’s making a living in San Francisco as a wedding photographer, but who thinks his true home lies in Farhana, the Pakistani-German American who restlessly pushes Nadir to take her back to Pakistan, where she thinks her true home is.

Then there’s Maryam, the Gujjar nomad woman from North Western Pakistan, whose family spends its winter in the Kaghan Valley and summers in the highlands, grazing livestock and existing on what temporary crops they can, a literal nomad. They all live in the shadow of two mountains above the Valley, Malika Parbat and Nanga Parbat (the “Queen” and the “Nude”). Maryam is a pagan, observing rituals and continuing traditions that cause suspicion in the people around her, as well as the strangers that intrude upon their lives.  They never use the word “witch” but it creates unspoken tension, to echo the tension between the old ways she wants to perpetuate, and the growing influence of men who wield Islam like a weapon against the people of the Valley. In this way, the Valley, already steeped in mythology and folklore, becomes a metaphorical battleground between the new ways and the old, the residents and outsiders, Nadir’s personal quest to win Farhana’s waning love back, and much more.

Time and space cease to exist in the linear sense, as Khan jumps back and forth between past and present, tracing the origins of Farhana and Nadir’s love like an archeologist. She never makes it clear what made Farhana and Nadir fall in love with each other, but it’s very apparent that Farhana’s heart doesn’t rest in one place for long; not in one place and certainly not with one man. Nadir seems like a fool sometimes for not understanding this about her, and for all that he’s got a keen photographer’s eye, his blindness to the reality of his situations gets annoying at many points in the book (and perhaps this is why Farhana doesn’t want to stay with him).

Farhana and Nadir, along with Wes, Farhana’s colleague and Irfan, Nadir’s childhood friend, make an expedition to Kaghan, to investigate the glaciers in the area. One of the book’s most arresting images comes from this plot line: that of mating glaciers, and the ritual that the local people enact to “mate” ice from two existing glaciers in order to create a new glacier where none existed before.  This could also be a metaphor for Farhana and Nadir’s love, or indeed romantic love of any sort, when “ice” from two disparate entities joins to create something completely new.

But for all the ice and mountains around them, it’s the flesh that Khan pays attention to: the idea that the heart is “a guest who must be fed”; the warning that forgiveness is “thinner than skin” and that skin is fragile and delicate. Then, there’s the physical intimacy that appears and disappears and reappears again, much like Nanga Parbat, which is only visible on exceptionally clear days.  And there is much nudity, too, representing the emotional and mental vulnerability that these characters are imprisoned by, which leads them to their fateful encounter with Maryam’s family.

Khan weaves a spell of her own with her descriptions of both Maryam’s visions and the environment in which she lives, where skies turn all colours from palest apricot to deep amethyst, where glacial ice litters the ground like stars, where forests and earth and trees have existed for thousands of years and where the mountains and glaciers are not fixed beings but living entities that move and crumble and kill and die.  She can stop your heart cold with an image like the mountain Nadir is climbing up having “moving feet” and the Hunza River twisting around it like “a jingling anklet”.

The nomadic people and their plight — their dealings with government officials, the laws and rulings that restrict their movement and where they can graze their animals and get water for them — form a dark background for the ominous events that take place in the story. When the Westerners, filled with negative energy that vibrates all around them like an electrical storm, come to the Valley, they wreak havoc in the lives of the nomads, and must pay for it. And they do, in various ways that are unwound throughout the book.

The narrative tension itself is driven forward by the appearance of Ghafoor, an old love of Maryam’s who has left the nomadic life to become a trader on the Silk Route moving from China to Pakistan to Iran and Kazakhstan and back again. There’s an unanswered question of whether he’s involved with terrorists from China, and this role too has strong consequences for Nadir and Farhana.

The story unwinds like a long spool of thread that has been wound tight for a long time, and the many crinkles and kinks in that thread are welcome deviations from a conventionally straightforward plot. Towards the end of the book, it meanders a little too much, and some of the tension goes flat, but Khan picks up the pace towards the end, but suddenly cuts the thread short, with an ambiguous ending that doesn’t feel like a cheat – it feels like the sudden imposition of real life upon a long hallucination.

I’ve avoided using the word “beautiful” to describe Khan’s book, but that’s exactly what it is. And it richly deserved the KLF Fiction Prize, conjuring up a world that exists like a perfect prism for so many different shades of light and darkness. It demands nothing less than devotion from the reader, in order to prise out its many secrets, but there are many hidden rewards in doing so.

This is not an easy read.

Because this is not an easy life.