Celebrate digital Scheherazades this women’s day

What we are witnessing today in Iran and Afghanistan is a culmination of decades of repression by totalitarian regimes and terror groups like the Taliban.

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By: Arshia Malik
Updated: 10 March, 2023 9:39 pm IST
The digital world firstly provides a safe space to interact, which in real life was forbidden to women by policing family members, especially males.

This March on International Women’s Day, the quiet and loud revolutions in the Muslim world were splashed across news portals and digital media. The Iranian women along with their enlightened male counterparts were giving their lives for “Women, Life, Freedom” as their slogan goes. On the subcontinent, Afghan women and their male colleagues in the media and academia were standing shoulder-to-shoulder against the barbarism of the medieval Taliban who have banned females from workplaces and public spaces with the customary veiling enforced. This digital revolution was not possible without the help and quiet march of ‘Digital Scheherazades’ or techno-savvy Muslim women who are at the forefront of this churning in the Muslim world.

Fatima Mernissi, one of the Moroccan pioneers of this revolution which started after the most important year in Islam – 1979, wrote about the Digital Scheherazades in the early millennium. Though I have reservations about her citation of the recently deceased, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, she did point to the quiet revolution taking place in the Muslim world which the controversial Imam also commented on and gave sermons about. His main thrust was on how the frontier or hudud that divides the sheltered private arena where women and children are supposed to be protected and the public one where adult male exercise their presumed problem-solving authority was being destroyed by the digital chaos. This was worrying for the likes of the controversial Imam because he was alerted to the fact that “Arab women and youth were now navigating freely on the web and communicating intimately with strangers, escaping religious and parental censorship”.

It is understandable why this would disturb the Imam and his cohorts, the digital world firstly provides a safe space to interact, which in real life was forbidden to women by policing family members, especially males. Secondly, the answers to uncomfortable questions regarding religion, importantly misogynistic verses and Hadiths were now available without scholarly obscurantism obfuscating the already present ambiguity in them. Thirdly, more and more women and men were challenging the validity of patriarchal interpretations of the scriptures and the traditional religious authorities could no longer stand the scrutiny. Sceptical women and men, who doubted the origins of those scriptures and were growing aware of the alliance between the Caliphs and the misogynist Ulema when they were compiled, were increasing, one of them being Fatema Mernissi herself who wrote The Veil and Muslim Elite in 1987, amidst the increasing critiques by even non-Muslim thinkers, writers, and scholars. The three combined – safe spaces, available answers, rising critical scrutiny – overlapping one another, was potentially dangerous for the closed Muslim world.

This had another ripple effect too, with social media providing the connecting lines and networks to the subcontinental Muslims in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Maldives who wanted answers to and were closely examining the histories taught to them since the upheaval of the 1940s resulting in the Partition of India into two (East and West Pakistan) and the aftermath of the Afghan-Soviet War (1979-89) which spilled over into Jihad against India via Kashmir. Post September 9/11, the world was not ready to be tolerant of the “peaceful version” being promoted by “secular organisations” in the West and Europe and India too was resurging with a nationalist identity exhausted by the constant onslaught of Islamic terrorism in Kashmir as well as many Indian cities with through cross-border proxy war.

What we are witnessing today in Iran and Afghanistan is a culmination of decades of repression by totalitarian regimes and terror groups like the Taliban. It is also the failure of Western foreign policies of intervention in the affairs of the Middle East as well as the cultural relativism practised by their woke liberals on their own home turfs; emboldening Islamists implanted in their foundations and institutions by the Muslim Brotherhood and CAIR.

So, when Qaradawi, who was no saint is alarmed by the advent of technology and satellites, it is time to sit up and take notice. According to some reporters and journalists in the Western press who wrote long obituaries after his demise, some of his views are simply conservative (and some perhaps reactionary). But some of his views are dangerous, not just to those who follow them, but to others as well. The exclusivist brand of Islam that he represents makes it easier to demonize, and ultimately kill, those who disagree — whether Muslim or non-Muslim. Most famously and notoriously, he is noted to have justified suicide bombings. Qaradawi spent decades propagating a view of Islam that helped fuel much of the violence that has rocked the Middle East and North Africa and even the Indian subcontinent not just the Republic of India over the past few decades, counting terror financiers and terrorists among his former confederates and business partners.

This is an era when Al-Qaradawi-types too champion the rights of women. They defend the right of women to hold the highest positions in society, like being judges or heads of governments or states, which ultra-orthodox and many orthodox scholars still oppose; but it is more of a lease for them to stay within the designated “borders” of religion and politically correct statements with just enough criticism so as to come across as “liberal”. This is the age when Muslims have no choice but to acknowledge that there are sets of ideas within Islam that are dangerous not because they explicitly lead to violence, but because they create a worldview that is exclusivist in a way that affects others — a worldview that renders violence more likely. If this is not corrected, civil war in societies especially the ones where Islam clashes with other belief systems, for example in India with the Hindu majority, engineering its constitution and laws to be Sharia-compliant – is imminent.

And the solution is to arm the Digital Scheherazades of the subcontinent with knowledge, ensure safe spaces for them to express themselves and build institutions where they can come up with critiques, reviews and objections about regressive practices and medieval mindsets from Muslim heritage.

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