Contraction and Expansion of Women’s Rights

• Feb 1st, 2000 • Category: Interviews

 An interview with Soroush, Published in Zanan, 1378/2000


Q. New religious thinking in our society has remained consistently silent on women’s issues. There may be a number of reasons for this silence: it may be that some of the thinkers involved feel that there’s no such thing as women-specific issues; or that women’s problems will be solved when the fundamental problems of society are solved and that the more pressing concern now is to deal with the fundamental problems; or that current social conventions would not tolerate fundamental changes to the relations between men and women and that we should, therefore, content ourselves with piecemeal amendments and adjustments within the framework of the law.


The main debates in our society on women’s issues have been jurisprudential-legal in nature. These debates have, of course, been helpful in raising ideas and addressing some of women’s concerns, but we still seem to be lacking any debate based on religious theory.


Given the fact that we live in a religious society, it might be useful to begin by asking you what your conception of a religious society is. What, in your opinion, are the defining features of a religious society?


A. I believe that a religious society is a moral society. In a religious society, the important thing is to behave morally. A religious society is not synonymous with a jurisprudential [fiqhi] society. That is to say, it is possible to conceive of a society in which all human behaviour is in keeping with the demands of religious jurisprudence [fiqh] but which falls well short of the spirit of religion and the spirit of ethics. Behaving in accordance with fiqh is not by any means a guarantee of religious behaviour; at times, it’s even an indication of the absence of a religious spirit, an indication of an over attachment to peripheral and superficial issues, an indication that something is lacking in some other dimension. But there’s a great degree of compliance between a moral society and a religious society. Morals can easily accommodate rights and duties; not rights and duties, of course, that are of the nature of social contracts, but rights and duties that bind the individual even when he is alone. The most simple examples are telling the truth, not speaking behind people’s backs, not maligning people, not bringing people into disrepute and so on, until we get to much more subtle rights and values. I’m of the opinion that this is how a religious society should be. I’d say that justice amounts to much the same thing. Justice means acting on the basis of moral values. In fact, justice itself – as I understand it – is not a value towering above other values; it is identical to moral values. When moral values are put into practice in a society, it becomes a just society. When an individual puts moral values into practice in their own personal existence, he or she is considered to be just and equable.


In my view, the best legal system and the best social contract is one that aids adherence to moral values. If social contracts lead people to resent each other, lie to each other, steal from each other or behave unethically in other ways, this indicates that these social contracts have not been well conceived. The relations that are established between men and women in the family and in society are all of the nature of social contracts. They do not constitute moral values in and of themselves. These social contracts are like husks for safeguarding moral values. If they fail to safeguard these values, it is the husk that must go, not the kernel. The same thing applies in Islam. Certain important moral values have to be preserved in the relations between men and women and regulations have been devised to preserve these values. These regulations are entirely junctural, temporary and dependent on the social, economic and cultural circumstances of the time; whereas moral values are more stable a nd long term in nature. It may be possible to say that some of these values are permanent and supra-historical.


Q. Can you give some examples of the values underpinning the relations between men and women?


A. I believe that one of the most important values in the relations between men and women is that a woman should be a woman and a man should be a man. Thinkers throughout the ages have by and large agreed that the measure of excellence for any person is specific to them and that there is no universal measure of excellence. And this excellence lies in people being themselves. I believe that this idea is one of the most important values governing the relations between men and women, and governing women’s behaviour and men’s behaviour. The relations between men and women should not impede their attainment of excellence in terms of manhood or womanhood. In other words, these relations must not turn men into women or take women out of the sphere of womanhood. The philosophy underpinning this idea is that every creature has its own ideal excellence (particular potential) and attaining excellence depends on the fulfilment of this potential. Potential implies both quantity and quality. It must not be imagined that, for example, men have a potential of 100 litres and women a potential of 70 litres, and thereby conclude that one has a lower potential than the other. The word « potential » carries a combined sense of both quantity and quality.


Hence, regulations must not be devised that would take women out of the sphere of womanhood or take men out of the sphere of manhood. If we accept this initial premise, we face two difficult tasks: one is to come up with a proper definition of womanhood and the sphere of womanhood and, likewise, manhood and the sphere of manhood; and, secondly, to adhere to this definition and analysis when we devise our regulations. Any definition we come up with for the sphere of manhood or womanhood or the nature of men and women will, undoubtedly, be influenced by our knowledge and perception of the world at any given time and our cultural perspective. In other words there is no definition independent of the cultural circumstances. This is why these definitions will vary and, since they vary, the regulations safeguarding these ideas of excellence and desired ideals will change along with our definitions. This is a basic principle, whether we are dealing with Islam or with other belief systems and school s of thought. It would seem that the social commands stipulated in religious law are temporary in nature unless proven otherwise. Of course, our jurists [fuqaha] disagree and believe that everything in Islamic law is permanent and eternal unless proven otherwise. But historical studies regarding the formation and formulation of Islam and fiqh paint a different picture. That is to say, the Prophet basically endorsed the rules and commands current at the time in Arab society and they became the measures of justice in their own day. And there is no reason why we should consider the regulations current at that time in Arab society as the best possible regulations for all times.


Furthermore, modern theologians and jurists have been inclined to support the view that Islam is a political and social religion. What this means is that the commands of Islam are political and social in nature. And it is in the nature of politics and society to be changeable and in a state of flux. Political and social changes, for their part, arise from changes in the way people live, as well as changes to people’s understanding of one another, of nature, of reality, of history and so on.


All these things testify to the fact that the concept known as « law » [or rights] is changeable and in a state of flux. Today, the mutability of law and the link between the law and the circumstances in which we live are among the accepted principles of the science of law. If we take laws to be mutable, then it makes no difference whether we apply this to religious laws or to secular laws. It is exactly like philosophy. If we take the basic features and characteristics of philosophy as its essence, then those features and characteristics will hold true of philosophy, religious or otherwise. Hence, assuming that the law (whether concerning women’s rights, men’s rights, the laws of trade, etc.) is immutable and eternal displays ignorance of the nature of the science of law. I’m of the opinion that the law encompasses the minimum morality required by a society for satisfactory human relations. The law is not an exhaustive regulator of behaviour; it provides regulations for safeguard ing and ensuring a minimum level of morality in society. The law is an entirely social phenomenon and, the moment we enter the realm of the individual, we can no longer speak about the law, because we have entered the realm of morality. The law will last as long as it remains relatively true to the morality from which it has arisen; if it does not remain true, then it is the law that has to go, not the morality.


Q. What if we apply this argument – which concerns the philosophy of law – to the rights of women? What would be the outcome?


A. Of course, when it comes to women’s rights, things become more complicated, because people’s historical perspective of women affects and impacts on the issue. Personally, I believe that the perception of women in all schools of thought, and especially in religious belief systems, is intertwined with myths. This assessment applies to all religious commands, including those concerning women. The more the law and people’s rights become conventional, the more religious commands are brought into question. For example, special religious rituals such as ceremonial purification and ablutions are very similar to the conventional practices of washing and bathing. But religious ablutions have special mythical dimensions. The rituals are laden with mystery and they must not be equated with simple acts of personal cleanliness; otherwise, it would be very easy to replace them with alternative practices. Social commands concerning women are also not devoid of this element of myth and they can only be u nderstood if this element is taken into account. As you know, women have formed a component of the myths of all nations and peoples from ancient times, and they have always been depicted, alongside earth, water and rain, as symbols of creation and procreation. And they have been revered accordingly. This reverence had a taboo-like quality; a kind of mythical veneration. In other words, women were revered because they were considered to have a kind of godliness.


I’m of the opinion that the issue of the hijab or veils and coverings for women does not only have social, legal or moral aspects, but contains a mythical element as well. The fact that women had to be covered up and kept away from the hustle and bustle of social activity suggested the establishment of a special kind of relationship with them, in which they were depicted as something mysterious and laden with mythical secrets. I believe that this can also be seen in Islam and Islamic law. As you know, in Muslim societies, slave women and non-Muslim women are not subject to the command on observing the hijab; the command only applies to free women. Some of our thinkers and jurists, including Mr Motahhari, have argued that the hijab safeguards women’s decency or the decency of society as a whole. Now, the question arises as to why the presence of unveiled slave women and women from other religions in Islamic society, whose numbers have by no means been small, did not rob society of its decency in any way? Yes, « decency » is a moral concept and means that a woman should be a woman and a man should be a man; it is not confined to women. But, as to the question of what regulations need to be devised to ensure that « decency » is preserved, this is a matter of the methods chosen and the conventions prevalent at any given time. Islam, too, followed the conventions of the time and, in the light of the command concerning free women, slave women and women from other religions (and at a time when these distinctions no longer exist, at that), one has to try to fathom the spirit of the Prophet’s intention in this connection. The important point to bear in mind is that the commands concerning women are not devoid of mysterious and mythical elements, and mysterious and mythical elements make sense in their own context. If you pull them out of their context and try to put them into practice in a conventionalised society, you’ll face many problems. This is why we have t o look at all these commands to uncover their accidental and mythical aspects and demystify them.


Q. You said that the rights and commands governing the relations between men and women in the ancient world, including the world of Islam, were based on a particular definition of womanhood and manhood. In view of the fact that theories about the nature of human beings have undergone profound transformations and that there has, consequently, been profound transformations in the definitions of womanhood and manhood, is it not imperative that the morality and law governing the relations between men and women should also change? Is the appearance of something known as « the problem of women » basically not a product of the disharmony between « traditional morality and law », on the one hand, and « the new definitions of womanhood and manhood », on the other?


A. There’s no doubt that men have devised certain rights for women based on their own perception and understanding of women. But this was not the only factor involved in the formation and formulation of women’s rights in the past. The fact of the matter is that, in the past, women played a different role in society, for various reasons, and did not enjoy the same opportunities and possibilities as men. Society was, by and large, illiterate and uneducated, but women were even more illiterate and uneducated than men. In the past, women were thought to be capable of a lower level of understanding than men. You can even find an echo of this in Kant’s philosophy. Although Kant was a philosopher of the Enlightenment, he maintained in his moral theories that only independent creatures are capable of understanding. And he did not consider women to be independent. In fact, Kant’s view was very similar to that of Mulla Sadra and master Sabzevari, who believed that women were capable of understanding particulars, but that generalities were, on the whole, beyond their comprehension.


This view was widely held in ancient Greece, by Islamic and European scholars, and even up until the dawn of the Enlightenment. It goes without saying that women’s rights and the rules of behaviour concerning women were adversely affected by this view. Not only did they place women on a lower level in terms of thinking and understanding, but they believed that women were not in full control of their sentiments either and that they, consequently, not only led others into temptation, but were also largely incapable of acting in their were own best interests. You will find it said in Islamic narratives and in Ghazzali’s Revival of Sciences that women form half of Satan’s army and that Satan can achieve his aims in a religious society with their assistance. It has been stated in another narrative that his holiness the Prophet once said that, on the night of the ascension, I looked into hell and saw that most of the people there were women.


These narratives are most likely fictitious but they are phenomenologically very telling. That is to say, they reveal to us the religious community’s thinking at the time; the thinking of a scholar of the standing of Ghazzali; the thinking of the people who read this learned man’s books and accepted his ideas. This way of thinking was very much the norm then which is why these narratives and commands concerning women were never questioned by the religious community. There was a perfect harmony between the understanding they had of women and the commands concerning women, so they had no reason to object to them. A rupture in the traditional understanding of women led to a situation in which « women’s rights » and « women’s existence » were out of line and this raised cries of protest. Laws and rights must respect the conventions and psychology of the time. You cannot tell people to go and change their conventions and mentality. With something like gravity, you can say: th is is how it is; if you don’t like it, go and change the universe. But you can’t say this about rights and the law. Otherwise, what would be the meaning of « God imposes no duty beyond people’s capacity  »? One aspect of human capacity is precisely their psychological ability to tolerate and accept things. Let me give you an example. It has been said in our religious commands that it’s good for a girl to marry when she is nine years old. There are narratives about what a blessing it is if a man can send his daughter to a husband’s house before she starts her periods. But this is a blessing no-one hopes to benefit from these days. That is to say, the conventions within our religious community today are such that it is by no means acceptable to marry off daughters at the age of nine. Even if a family decided to do this, they would be frowned upon by the religious community. And these conventions have not come about arbitrarily. In other words, it is not as if the majority of the people have embar ked on some kind of satanic collusion and decided that they’ll refuse to marry off their daughters at nine, but wait until their eighteen or twenty instead. The understanding people have now of women and the role played by women in society is completely different from the understanding they had in the past. If the only role we envisage for a woman is that she should keep having babies as long as her body allows it, raise her children, keep her husband pacified and content when he’s at home, and do nothing else, then she should marry as soon as possible and constantly have babies until she is physically incapable of doing so. But, if we consider women to have other roles and say that they should play a part in building society along with the men, then they need to be educated and informed, and have experience of social activities. They must not only understand particulars, they must understand generalities as well. In which case, we need to reach a new decision on the age at which girls marry. Now we can under stand how much those narratives were products of their time and based on the prevailing conventions. These things can by no means be viewed as eternal values. The issue of coming of age, the question of family law and the other commands concerning women are all in the nature of husks protecting deeply-held values.


The fact of the matter is that the new perception of women is out of harmony with the old laws concerning them. We have to examine our religious commands and see what theories about the nature of human beings they were based on. Some new thinkers, such as Fadhl al-Rahman, are of the opinion that, on the commands and laws concerning women (such as a woman’s testimony as a witness), if we looked at the philosophy underpinning them, many of them would change. I believe that deeply-held values (which are at the service of justice) need to be extracted from religious and rational sources and we need to see laws as temporary husks protecting these values and having no sanctity in their own right. On this basis, if the circumstances change, new husks need to be devised for protecting the relevant deeply-held values.


It may be the case that our laws are imposing severe social constraints on women, but I believe that they are the weakest links in the chains restraining women. I think that the main issue we need to concern ourselves with is the basic principle of womanhood and manhood. The social contradictions are staring us in the face now and they make it clear that these regulations and commands do not correspond to our social needs and the roles that men and women have taken on in society; in other words, these laws do not meet the needs of the current relations between men and woman. To all appearances, the resistance comes from that same traditional definition of womanhood and manhood. It would, therefore, be best to focus the debate on that issue. In the light of such a debate, we would then be able to answer the questions: are there rights specific to women? Are there rights specific to men? Do we have women’s values? Do we have men’s values? And so on. I think that we have had enough debates abo ut fiqhi and juridical concerns, and the clash between some of these commands and the existing realities have become blatantly obvious. The debate needs to be moved to the broader fields of philosophy, science and theology.


Q. You spoke about « the sphere of womanhood ». How would you define this sphere yourself?


A. I find it very difficult to answer your question. Let us imagine that the discussion was not about women at all and someone asked me, how would you define « the sphere of manhood » or « the sphere of being human ». I would still find it difficult to answer. The difficulty of defining « a human being » is clear from the fact that there have been many different definitions. For example, some people have said that a human being is a talking animal; a moral animal; a tool-making animal; an artistic animal; and so on. Presenting a well-founded definition of men and women is also very difficult. But one thing is clear: the contradictions are more blatantly obvious today than ever before. I remember one of our teachers telling us a narrative about Her Holiness Fatimah when we were in high school. According to the religious narrative, a blind man went to see the Prophet one day. Her Holiness Fatimah, who was there, rose up and went to hide somewhere. When the blind man had gone, the Prophet asked Fatimah, why did you leave? She said, because the blind man was with you. The Prophet said, but he can’t see. Fatimah said, it’s not good for women to see men either. This is when the Prophet said, I couldn’t have hoped for a better daughter. Since then, I’ve always wondered if Fatimah’s behaviour in this narrative should serve as a model for all women. In that case, why does she go to a mosque herself to protest against the violation of her rights? Of course, one point is undeniable here: The religious community values this kind of behaviour and endorses it; it believes, in other words, that, as far as possible, men shouldn’t see women and women shouldn’t see men; women shouldn’t hear men’s voices and men shouldn’t hear women’s voices; and so on. The clash between this value and the lives women lead today, even in the Islamic Republic, is as plain as plain can be. A women who goes to university, has a job, takes part in mass rallies, and even participates in military and comba t activities has, by no means, accepted the value that she should neither see men nor be seen by them. This contradiction has become so obvious that our contemporary theologians don’t even suggest as a recommended religious precept that it would be better for the women who have come into the streets, universities and factories to stay at home, and that they should keep out of the public eye to such an extent that they should not see any men nor be seen by them. In the light of this change, our definitions of decency, modesty and all the other things which had extremely mysterious and mythical dimensions in the past have also changed. If a girl spoke to a boy in the past it was seen as shameful and indecent, but this kind of behaviour is considered normal today. In other words, women have shown that they are different creatures and they’ve broken with their historical past.


Of course, in order to offer a rough and ready definition of the sphere of womanhood, we would have to refer not only to the experimental sciences, but to history as well. Women have, after all, revealed themselves throughout the course of history. We cannot ignore this. That is to say, we cannot put brackets around the entire history of women and decide to disregard or deny women’s long historical existence. This would be an unscientific thing to do and it would lead us to unrealistic results. I spoke about precisely this point in an article entitled Learning from History. I said that history is a laboratory; a laboratory for studying human beings, for studying women, for studying men, etc., because, wherever else people may be able to hide themselves, they cannot hide themselves throughout the course of history. If human beings are wild and savage animals, they will have displayed this in history. If they are angels, they will have displayed it in history. At any rate, when the scr oll of history is unravelled, it is the scroll of human existence that is unravelled. It’s true that human beings always display the colour of their society and culture and it isn’t possible to find « the naked individual » in society, but it is possible to discover « the naked human being » in history, because there is no disguise in history and we have revealed ourselves in our nakedness. Historians hold the view that periods of peace and calm have been the gaps between two wars. In other words, human beings have fought so many wars that the periods of calm have been like cease-fires between two wars. If history demonstrates that people have, as a rule, been engaged in wars, we cannot conclude that war has been imposed on them; it has to be said that human beings are quarrelsome and combative creatures. In other words, fighting is in their nature and it is not the case that war has always been imposed and inflicted on them. When something becomes a rule in history, then it has to be seen as rooted in human psychology and biology.


The point I’m trying to make is that we cannot easily say that women have been subjected to cruelty throughout history and, since they’ve been subjected to cruelty, they’ve been unable to display their true essence; and that they’ve been trying for the past fifty years, for example, to cast off this cruelty and display themselves in their true light. If we start by saying things like this, then we’d have to conclude that women have generally been prone to tolerating cruelty and, if they’ve done so in the past, they can continue to do so in the future; unless women decide to stop being women. Anyhow, the methodological point I want to stress is that, in order to avoid extreme judgements in one direction or the other and in order to make a fair and balanced assessment of women, we need to understand their biological-psychological make-up, and to study the role they’ve played in history; we cannot and must not ignore this long stretch of women’s history.


Q. This long stretch may, of course, be just a tiny fraction of human history.


A. That’s absolutely right. Our assessments are provisional. Anything we say today about men, women or human beings will have to be stamped « provisional and temporary ». This is why I said at the start that the things we say concerns our own era and future eras will have to decide things for themselves. Nonetheless, I’d stress again that, in terms of methodology, we cannot ignore this long stretch of women’s historical existence. We cannot say that the entire existence of women thus far has been imposed or accidental. I believe that such a verdict would be very dangerous, methodologically speaking, and afflict us with a kind of scientific myopia. It would make our assessment even more temporary, provisional and self-regarding than usual. In general, in studies about women, only the present circumstances and the needs and requirements of the moment or women’s ideals are taken into account. Even if the historical aspects of women’s lives are examined, it is only to obtain evidence of the injustices committed against women. At the end of the day, women have had a history. If they were housewives, if they were farmers, if they were good wives, if they were bad wives, if they were literate or illiterate, they have exhibited themselves in history in some way or another. We have to examine why women were seen as second rate in society. Why has history been patriarchal? Why did a matriarchal system not prevail? Or is it the case that women were angelic creatures who did not want to be cruel to men, whereas men were brutal creatures who wanted to be and could be cruel to women? Did the patriarchal system come about purely by chance? Let me give a very brief – and, of course, modest – response to this question. I believe that the course of history has to be studied in terms of the trajectory of people’s learning and knowledge. Let me explain a bit: for example, in the agricultural era, the ruling system was the feudal system, and people exploited nature, the land, plants, seeds, water and so o n to the extent allowed by the level of knowledge at their disposal at the time. As knowledge grew, the agricultural era gave way to the industrial era. In other words, the transformation of the knowledge people had, led to the transformation of the way they made their living. There is a definite and direct link between the way people make a living and their level of knowledge, such that, when one changes, the other changes. Human relations follow the same logic. We can therefore conclude that the perception women had of themselves, the perception men had of women, and the perception women had of men somehow dictated that there should be a patriarchal system. I don’t want to say that women have been subjected to injustice or that they haven’t been subjected to injustice. What I want to say is that adopting this injustice-based viewpoint is not going to solve anything. The solution lies in discovering why things turned out as they did, by going to the root of the problem. What I’m saying is that it was not jus t a question of men having an incorrect or inappropriate perception of women, but that women, too, had this same male perception of themselves. In fact, the history of women has been produced by the interaction of four viewpoints: women’s perception of themselves; women’s perception of men; men’s perception of themselves; and men’s perception of women. These four viewpoints have created a system in history as a whole that is known as the patriarchal system and, in this system, women have been subjected to injustice. (Of course, on the basis of this analysis, it may be impossible to speak of it as an injustice, because, when something is an inevitable consequence of the circumstances, how can it be described as unjust?) Today, if we want to see a change in the area of relations between men and women, these four viewpoints have to change.


Q. In the book Knowledge and Value, you developed the idea that there is no logical, productive relationship between knowledge and value. Bearing this in mind, how can belief in biological and psychological differences between men and women (which is a scientific belief) affect the area of morality and law?


A. That’s a very good question. I said in Knowledge and Value that natural and historical reality does not exhort any value, because, in that case, an « ought » would have to be derived from an « is », which is logically impossible. As a friend of mine puts it, « Marvellous though science undoubtedly is/an ‘ought’ will never arise from an ‘is’». Nonetheless, I’ve said elsewhere in the same book that morality should be realistic; in other words, an « ought » does not follow from an « is », but an « ought » should not go into combat with an « is » either. Implausible « oughts » aren’t moral. In this sense, « oughts » (that is, moral values and rights) should be in keeping with reality, not derived or extracted from it. In other words, some « ought nots » do arise from reality, but no « oughts ». But this basically means that « ought nots » arise logically in the sense that something ought not to be done if nature has declared it impossible.


It’s the same with men and women. We shouldn’t devise rights and duties that their historical, biological and psychological existence has declared impossible, undesirable or inappropriate. If such an obligation is imposed, it will inevitably fall into disregard. Rights and duties are, in the language of philosophers, normative (subjective) and normative things cannot be « true » or « false »; they can only be desirable or undesirable, appropriate or inappropriate, possible or impossible. If the spirit and mentality of women brushes aside certain commands, then these commands will become impracticable, regardless of the fact that we may be able to marshal a hundred religious sayings and narratives in their support. If the physical bodies and biological structures of men and women are such as to brush aside certain commands, they will inevitably become null and void. The verse saying « no duty beyond people’s capacity » is testimony to this fact. We do not have a ny duties that are beyond our capacity and endurance. In fact, such a duty would go against Islamic law. But we have to bear in mind that capacity and endurance don’t just refer to physical capacity and endurance. As I said, it is also a matter of mental and psychological capacity and endurance. And this capacity and endurance changes with the passage of time and in the course of the different eras of history. Hence, in enacting laws for men and women, young and old, capacity and endurance have to be taken into account. Things must not be said and obligations must not be imposed that would be brushed aside and ruled impossible by reality and nature.


Q. If we officially acknowledge that there are biological and psychological differences between men and women, would we be able to say that there is a kind of « women’s view» of the world? In other words, is it possible that women would explain the world and human relations differently from men? What effect would this have on relations between men and women?


A. Of course, I wouldn’t completely rule out such a possibility. Yes, it may be that women have one view of the world, whereas men have another. But the exact details of this difference would need to be spelt out. Is this difference of perspective confined to normative issues and values? Or does it exist in relation to non-normative issues as well? It’s a complicated story. On some issues, men and women definitely have different perspectives, but this difference doesn’t harm the relations between men and women in any way; on the contrary, I believe it enriches human life. If you have a philosophical view of the world, a poetical view, a scholarly view, a religious view, what could possibly be wrong with also having a women’s view and a men’s view?


Q. Thank-you for taking part in this interview.

Translated by Nilou Mobasser


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