I think it is time to take the Moulana Dawood Sampson debate to a different level. We have all had our outrage, our evaluations of the impact of his words, and the extent of rebuke by his peers among the clergy. The strategic question, now with just a few days to go in August – Women’s Month – is how we ensure that we can rid Muslim women, the Muslim community and the general human and women’s rights community of this pandemic of sexism and misogyny, often masquerading as faith and religion?
So let me get 3 issues out of the way: firstly, we are a forgiving, Allah-Maaf, community and Moulana Dawood has asked for forgiveness. Those who can should forgive, but if there are women whose hurt and revulsion are so deep, then we who cannot experience that pain, cannot prescribe their response. But as for me: Allah Maaf!
Secondly, the man has confessed that he lacks emotional intelligence, so we have a duty to him, those who believe as he believes, and those who jumped to his defence –the entire “Mute-Cute” Brigade-to bring them to the light, through a combination of rehabilitation, reeducation and regulation.
And thirdly, let’s get out of the way the issue of polygyny: there is a dominant belief, supported by interpretations of Shariah, that marrying more than one wife is permissible, some believe, recommended, and a few even believe it’s compulsory. Let’s accept that polygyny is permissible. We may need to shift to the ‘how’ of polygyny.
“Out of Difficulty comes Ease” – The Quran
If we want to learn the lessons and ensure that we emerge a better community from this difficult incident, then let’s search for the ease. Our point of departure, therefore, is not to make this a Moulana Dawood moment. It is a moment rather, where Muslims have recoiled from a raw, honest, boastful – even lustful – glorification of polygyny.
For us to move forward, we must be thankful that we had gotten insight into the minds, the desires and the theological reasoning of some proponents and practitioners of polygyny and the underlying attitudes and beliefs about women.
As one woman who is the first wife in a polygynous marriage said about her internal wrestling with her husband’s motive and his religious justification to marry a second wife: “I accepted it dutifully as Sunnah, even though I thought it was ‘belustigheid’ (lust). The Moulana showed me I was not mad or rebelling quietly against Allah!”
Let’s also be grateful that someone lacked the sophistication to dress a dubious intention (niyyah) with sophisticated words, as so many do. This was also not an uncharacteristic moment of jest, because utterances like “a woman is cute when she is mute” suggest a consistent pattern. Now we all have a good diagnosis from which to start curing our community of the underlying lack of respect for women and their role in society and their voice. “Mute is Cute” is the way the unsophisticated tell women to shut up.
The sophisticated Sheikh will tell a qissa of advice to the bride at her wedding to put a toothpick between her teeth so that there is no danger of saying anything that could trigger an abusive husband. Similarly, the sophisticated will say beat her lightly with a toothbrush, whereas the unsophisticated say: “’n pak op ‘n dag!” (a beating a day)!
Did we also fail Muslim women?
As an activist in 1990, at the National Muslim Conference, where we influenced those who were writing the Bill of Rights and New Constitution for South Africa, we had dreams that we will have a society where all will enjoy equality and rights and freedom from discrimination, violence and indignity. We were torn between ensuring that Muslim Personal Law – which would right the apartheid wrong regarding Muslim marriage and divorce – be simply recognised by law, or that it be recognised but that we should still have a civil, court marriage, or that we should have a recognised nikah and we will suggest our own regulations.
Subject to the other provisions of equality, dignity and rights in the Constitution, we agreed that we must recognise polygyny and we will – with the ulema – work out the regulations later. Maybe we must ask maaf that 30 years later, and the ANC government should take responsibility also, there is no Muslim Personal Law and our divorces, marriages and polygyny are a free for all. This must be the moment to set it right and we must mobilise the whole Muslim community, not just the ulema, the whole women’s movement, not just Muslim women, the government, the courts, and the human rights agencies to ensure that we make right what we have neglected for 30 years.
“… if you fear injustice…” – The Quran
But let us say immediately that setting it right is about doing it according to the Shariah! Allah indeed says on polygyny, in a verse dealing with orphans, that we can marry two, three or four wives, but, if we even fear an injustice, then we should take only one, and again ends the verse with the exhortation to “to prevent you from injustice.” (Quran 4:3). We must, therefore, act to eliminate the possibility of injustice and have it written into the law, because we have
proven incapable of managing it ourselves. So, what are the issues of consensus that should be written into law?
“Actions are According to Intentions” – Hadith
We obviously cannot write intention into the regulations. But because all who practice or advise polygyny invoke love for the Prophet (s) as their intention, we must test intention against the prophetic practice. The Prophet (s) had affection for all of his wives and particularly loved some – Khadija and Aisha come to mind – but never was lust ever a motive or sexual prowess ever a condition. There was a general category of intention where some women faced enormous hardship (Sawda was 55 years old and lost her income after conversion to Islam); some were widowed by war (like Hafsa & Zaynab), while Umm Salama had no one to care for her and her children.
The true sunnah was about alleviating hardship, even marrying older than you, but accepting to care for a destitute family, rather than leaving your own family
destitute when marrying younger. Others were married to strengthen relationships with other communities (Rayhana, the Jew; Maria, the Christian; and Juwayriyyah of the Banu Mustaliq).
We must, therefore, let each Muslim man, and the Iman who performs the nikah, be the ones who examine their consciences as to niyyah.
“Trust in God, but Tie Your Camel” – Hadith
But as to justice, we must regulate. Because people are weak and forgetful, we must tie our camel so that the law ensures the compliance with the Shariah regarding polygyny. If the Shariah demands transparency, we must outlaw secret marriages and insist on a letter or certificate of knowledge, if not permission, by the first wife. If a religious criterion is an affordability, we should write in the need to produce an income statement that shows that all families will be cared for.
If the Shariah includes financial equity, we should either have the estate divided at the point of the second marriage or a garnishee order written so that no family is financially neglected. And we must have a bureau which a woman in a polygynous marriage, who is not receiving equal treatment, has recourse to: if the Prophet (S) was so scrupulous in ensuring that each wife had an equal visitation rotation, then we who claim to love the Sunnah must be scrupulously held to that standard. Maybe we should address this in advocating for a Muslim Marriages Act consistent with the best values of the Bill of Rights and Constitution, rather than the ambitious project of Muslim Personal Law.
“Organise or Starve!” – Oscar Mpetha
We thought that people and the ulema will simply do the right thing. Thirty years later, we see that unless Muslim women are organised into a mighty movement in coalition with others, we will starve, as Oscar Mpetha told the food and canning workers who were suffering. This must translate into an active plan that mobilises a movement and coalitions for gender justice with capacity and resources to lobby lawmakers, petition the courts, hold scholars and leaders to account, pressurise the perpetrators and rehabilitate offenders.
This must also – if we fail to self-correct – lead to appropriate action against the serial offenders of the “Mute and Cute” Brigade, those who seek to silence women, who practice hate speech that denigrates women, and those who perpetrate gender-based violence. We may have to embark on ‘name and shame’ measures: you may get away with things in your home or mosque, but your bosses in government or the private sector must know that they’re employing someone who is violating the codes they’ve committed to upholding.
We must petition the various Commissions (from gender to religious rights) so that alleged perpetrators could be tested in front of the Equality Court. And we must find consensus on the best provisions to be inserted into a Muslim Marriages Act that acts in the interest of Muslim women. Most importantly, we must insert Muslim women into the mainstream of the Women’s Movement so that we act in pursuit of a gender-equal society, rather than allow an island of Muslim exceptionalism that allows some to say and do things outside of the main values of society.
Ebrahim Rasool is the former South African ambassador to the US and served as the premier of the Western Cape. He is the founder of the World For All Foundation. He is a Senior Fellow at Georgetown University.