Guardians of the pulpit

Guardians of the pulpit

By M.J. Akbar | 12 January, 2013
It is axiomatic that religions have differences, or they would not be different. But every faith has one thing in common. All priests are men.

It is silent. It is complex. There is unease but no outcry. There is diffidence, and uncertainty because it seems to carry sanction — not of faith, but some of the faithful.

The culture of the Indian subcontinent has been inevitably influenced by the spirit of the oldest of the world's dominant faiths, Hinduism, and its last, Islam. Religion begins as a social revolution, a liberation movement against existing inequity. Religion is inspirational in the voice of prophets and the sermons of saints.

What it becomes, centuries later, in the control of its self-appointed guardians is another story.

On 2 January, the Delhi edition of the Times of India tried to rescue one such narrative from the many layers of fog we use as a blindfold. Kamini Lau, an additional sessions judge, denied anticipatory bail to a certain Maulvi Mustafa Raja, who abetted in the abduction of a young girl by the accused, Nadeem Khan, by performing a nikaah between the two although Khan was already married. The ceremony did not have the girl's consent, and was conducted in the absence of her parents. The Maulvi argued that Muslims were permitted four wives. Judge Kamini Lau noted, forcefully, that Islam permits polygamy under certain conditions but does not encourage it; and no nikaah can be legitimate without the woman's consent. She added that Muslim countries such as Turkey and Tunisia had made polygamy illegal. She could have also said that the present Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, widely described as "Islamist", had also made rape within marriage a criminal offence, and awarded life sentence for "honour killings".

Kamini Lau did not mince her words. Nadeem Khan had raped the girl, and Maulvi Raja was accessory to the crime.

Perhaps the court order was as clear as it was because the judge was a woman.

It is axiomatic that religions have differences, or they would not be different. But every faith has one thing in common. All priests are men. Religious law and practice is determined by men, whether a faith believes in monotheism or polytheism, whether it worships the divine as an image or as a spirit. Only a man becomes a Pope, Shankaracharya, Dalai Lama or Shaikh ul Islam; and only men are in their robe-clad armies. There has been some reform in patches; but the Church of England was unable last year to permit women priests to rise to Bishop. A faith may split into sects. Sunni and Shia may quarrel till eternity over the successor to the Prophet, but it is the men who do the quarrelling.

The specific punishment for theft is cutting off the hand. No mullah or politician in India leads a mass agitation to insist that every convicted Muslim thief should have his hand chopped off. But ask for reform in laws to ensure equality for women, and Muslim politicians will suddenly declare that Islam is in danger.

Behind this bias is a conscious or subconscious conviction that women are inferior; and, in its more basic form that semen is profound and powerful, while menstruation is unclean. Sex is a gender right, a form of domination. This bias has slipped into more than one religious text.

All doctrines understand that law should be adjusted to circumstance. Islamic law specifically accepts this evolutionary process. Would religious law have evolved differently if women had been high priests? Hinduism permitted unlimited polygamy in India and denied inheritance until the reforms pushed through in 1955 by Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru against strong opposition from within the ruling party, in legislation known as the Hindu Code Bill. When Nehru was asked in 1962 why he did not attempt reform on polygamy in Muslim law, he replied that the time was not right in the mid-50s. The time was not right in the 1980s either when a widow from Bhopal, Shah Bano, demanded a pittance from her ex-husband as maintenance after divorce. The court granted her this pittance; Parliament overruled the court.

The high priests of Islam have never had a problem tweaking a religious injunction when they want to. The specific punishment for theft is cutting off the hand. No mullah or politician in India leads a mass agitation to insist that every convicted Muslim thief should have his hand chopped off. But ask for reform in laws to ensure equality for women, and Muslim politicians will suddenly declare that Islam is in danger. It is not Islam which ever has been, or ever will be, in danger; but male hegemony is hopefully under threat.

There is nothing exclusively Islamic about male prejudice. Listen to some Hindu savants rise from their pseudo-yogic perch to preach that women must share the blame for rape. They are joined by a politician like the Samajwadi Party's Abu Azmi; what unites them is not shared faith but shared prejudice. When they blame the West, they are not fearful of geography; they are terrified of modernity. Modernity is not singing English songs and wearing jeans. That is a cartoon view. Modernity is equality, political and social.

India has taken only the first steps towards that horizon. The churn, conflict and vicious rhetoric prove that conservatives will not surrender their stranglehold easily, and they still control the pulpit and the propaganda. Change is visible, but the long war has merely begun.

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