The traditional customs and practices of the historical Muslim Society could not have endured long in the face of challenges posed by alien cultures and unconventional patterns of life. The external influences are represented mainly in the ideological inroads of western civilization which have swept the whole of Muslim World. The Cultural domination of Muslims by the West has shattered their confidence in almost the whole legacy of ideas, Islamic and traditional. Furthermore Muslims have imbibed and assimilated cultural attitudes and modes which are very liberal with regard to women. This trend of women's liberation constituted a serious temptation for the downtrodden Muslim women.
The western liberal tendency has itself been a revolt against a sickly religious tradition which maltreated women in ways which closely resembled the aberrant traditional ways of the Muslims. In early European Society women were not equated with men in humanity or religion, in fundamental rights or obligations, nor in legal capacity or social consideration. The revolt of the new European society against religion and convention was universal. It was in particular a complete departure from the absolute homogeneous and monotheist order that once prevailed under the authority of the Church. Society became secular and humanistic in its values and therefore heterogeneous and free, pursuing no single ultimate end in life and tending to nonconformism and libertarianism. Thus, politics, economics, science and arts - all became free and autonomous. Likewise the petrified traditional forms of social life relating to sex relations and conduct broke down towards promiscuity, permissiveness and sexual indulgence. Like power, pleasure, knowledge and beauty, sex almost became an object of total uninhibited devotion. As a consequence the woman, once again, began to lose her primacy and autonomy as a human being, to become an object for physical pleasure and commercial promotion. Her purpose in life became more to realize her femininity than to fulfil her humanity. She would fake her natural physical aspect by all sorts of artificiality and cosmetic treatment or surgery: and waste her energy, wealth and time simply to maximize her seductiveness in the eyes of men. She would dress up, adorn herself and go out simply to attract, charm and excite, by her tempting nudity, beautiful form, sweet scent, delightful colours and sex appeal. This she would do to invite the fixed attention of men, to entice some to seek her privacy. Similarly the man, when overcome by the wanton pursuit of carnal pleasure would relate to women only as male, and would affect looks and conduct simply to attract them. He might waste all energy and wealth in satisfaction of his base desires. The privacy of sex is thereby shattered in society, matrimonial relations are subverted and the institution of family is undermined as the special stable milieu for nursing, rearing, and educating the child.
This way of life has become universal in the West; but some aspects of it have swept over most of the modern sectors of our Islamic societies, just as much as economic materialism and political secularism have spread to break some Muslims loose of their solid religious moorings and thereby to weaken the norms of social control in their life. This was brought about by the dominance of western culture and the debility of the Muslim society that has become prone to adulteration and blind imitation.
On the other hand, economic and social developments in Muslim lands have precipitated the destruction of the old social order. That order, with all its conventions and traditions was rooted in the past and could not withstand the change of circumstances. Neither man nor woman was holding on to the values of the past consciously, it was merely a legacy received from historical custom giving way to practices and developments of new times. Religion was hardly present in people's minds, and then only as a cultural value to sanctify custom. Anyway, religious values were waning as religious institutions which used to promote them date and die away.
As consciousness of the growing economic needs spread in the impoverished society of Muslims, and as they became less resistant to material temptation and more deprived of the close social ties of economic solidarity, the strong pressures for a better life swept away the reservations of the past. Fathers and husbands came to encourage daughters and spouses to go out, not in pursuit of knowledge or good works, but to earn a living and supplement the family income. Women took advantage of this new-found experience and power to assert their freedom from the vanity and authority of men. This was not so much a full choice of a new and better way of life, but a liberation from the old order: a revolt against control and a fancy of the permissive model of the West. Furthermore, increased urbanisation brought more people into a new and impersonal social context with little of the close community ties of acquaintance, kinship and solidarity, that used to cultivate regard for the norms of public decency or for family honour, and that was a deterrent to acts of indecency and ignominy. The crowded urban conditions brought about much more direct contact and, as a result, many occasions for temptation between men and women. The old-time institution of 'harem', the barrier of female privacy, was dismantled for practical considerations, with no compensating development of personal piety or moral barriers. The new urban attitude was one of indifference and emancipation. in lieu of the considerate, reserved attitude of before. Under the impact of cultural change and alien domination, the traditional society of Muslims is falling apart. No lamentations by conservatives over the changing times or tenacious clinging to the past would save much. The fate of the traditional way of Muslims would not be different from that of the European old orders when its theoretical and material foundations collapsed and new social values and structures were ushered in by the revolution. If conservatives hold on to rigid customary forms of the past and fail to direct the process of change according to Islamic guidance, the change will come to pass all the same; and even faster and more tragic than in the case of Europe, if only because the European example has become so compelling.
A revolution against the condition of women in the traditional Muslim societies is inevitable. The Islamists are urged by their own ideals to reform the traditional society and to close the gap between the fallen historical reality and the desired model of ideal Islam. This is even more urgent with respect to the present state of women. Contemporary social trends in an ever closer world require an early initiative to take the direction of change in hand before it takes its free course, when the alien trends take root and are assimilated, and it becomes too late to undertake right-guided Islamic reform. The Islamists should beware of an attitude that seeks refuge from the invading liberating western culture in the indigenous past as a lesser evil that should be preserved with some accommodation. Conservation is a wasted effort. The Islamists are worthy of the leadership of the movement of women's liberation from the traditional quagmire of historical Islam, and that of their resurgence towards the heights of ideal Islam. They should not leave their society at the mercy of the advocates of westernization who exploit the urgency of reform to deform society and lead it astray. The teachings of their own religion call upon Islamists to be the right-guided leaders for the salvation of men and women, emancipating them from the shackles of history and convention, and steering their life clear of the aberrations of mutative change.
1) Tafseer Ibn-Katheer
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