Paradise lies at the feet of your mother
- Prophet Muhammad
Societies that invest in and empower women are on a virtuous cycle. They become richer, more stable, better governed, and less prone to fanaticism. Countries that limit women’s educational and employment opportunities and their political voice get stuck in a downward spiral. They are poorer, more fragile, have higher levels of corruption, and are more prone to extremism.
We live in a world in which women living in poverty face gross inequalities and injustice from birth to death. From poor education to poor nutrition to vulnerable and low pay employment, the sequence of discrimination that a woman may suffer during her entire life is unacceptable but all too common. The debate over women’s rights within Islam is not a new one. For centuries, Islamic scholars, thinkers, and activists have been pondering this question of women’s rights, and reaching very different answers.
In today’s increasingly global world, however, the stakes are higher than ever—for everyone. Societies that invest in and empower women are on a virtuous cycle. They become richer, more stable and better governed. As Hafez Ibrahim the great Egyptian poet puts it: "A mother is a school. Empower her and you empower a great nation."
When we place capital in the hands of women, especially low-income women, who don’t have access to loans through traditional means it works wonders – unlocking her entrepreneurial impulses. We help empower not just women, but the communities in which they live. When women are reached, they gain the courage and skills to break the cycle of inter-generational poverty. We create the most powerful catalyst for lasting social change.
I have spent more than decades in micro finance and have been amazed at the grit and tenacity of poor women in battling out of poverty in the face of severe odds. When I initiated this programme as a Bank Manager, I encountered stiff resistance from the local clergy who couldn’t believe that their women could attend a meeting without a male chaperone. There were some who felt that since I was a male; I had no religious sanction to interact with women.
I convinced the village elders that if their women remained ignorant, their children would also have the same fate. I came up against many challenges, the first being: How do we convince a woman to take loans, invest them in a business and then make financial choices to enhance her income? After initial reluctance, the elders conceded some ground.
The first woman to whom I offered a choice was Shakeela, in village Charurkhati in eastern Maharashtra. She thought she must opt for it rather than serving a lifetime of hell in the company of her cruel husband who used to blow up the entire precious and bare savings in smoking and gambling. She did not have much else to look forward to and was expected to go on in the same miserable way all her life.
Fear of poverty and respect for society keep many women locked in bad marriage, as does the prospect of losing custody of their children. In a life bound to realities beyond the grasp of man, there was little room for an identity to emerge. Most important, Shakeela’s reputation for honesty made people adore her. In a village where honesty was in short supply I was glad to see a woman who was respected just because her only wealth was honesty.
Shakeela was excited about what the bank and its manager might mean for them, but her husband tried to dispel what he considered her silly notions that any bank would actually help them.
“I don’t want to have anything to do with the bank,” he said at first, with a dismissive toss of his hands to his wife who he felt was being taken for a ride by a charlatan banker.
When I first proffered the loan, Shakeela stuttered with fright. Feeling desperately sorry I asked her to believe in me. I assured her that if she made a serious attempt at properly investing the loan and yet failed in generating surplus, we would not divest her of her bare belongings in the way of a moneylender. Yet Shakeela’s honest face crumpled in despair. Shakeela scratched her head, did quick mental math and decided to give the loan a try. There was nothing to lose.
Shakeela’s new sewing machines have allowed her to double production and she is now making 8-9 cholis – sari blouses – daily. She’s also been able to employ one person to help her and is ready to meet the demands of the high season through December, when it gets colder and sales drop off. With her next loan, Shakeela increased her margins and save time by buying greater quantities of thread, sequins, beads, and other materials from wholesalers rather than from a nearby retail shop.
Shakeela is soft and introvert but speaks so well the language of the quiet. Despite being a business woman, Shakeela remains a devout Muslim. She is the sole Muslim in the village of 3000 inhabitants but is a candle bearer for all .Such is her commitment, diligence, honesty and piety.
Shakeela rose to become an elected village leader, a rarity for a Muslim woman. Today, Shakeela is an advisor to other women. The queasiness is gone and she has now taken the village stage. Her skills at financial arithmetic are phenomenal. She and the other 30 women of the village Self Help Group (SHG) have even managed to chase the local liquor shop out of their village. They walk about proudly in their uniforms - identical saris that they bought out of the money they pooled together. Contrast them with their appearances just a year ago - a group in discolored rags.
I visited her village recently and was wonderstruck by the transformation she has brought about. There’s a bank and a school. Women are out of the house and working on village improvement projects such as sanitation systems and vegetable gardens. They have started small businesses. People eat more nutritious foods; they use mosquito nets and repellents to ward off mosquitoes. They know they must boil water for drinking to protect the family from water-borne diseases. Even more remarkable is the social transformation that the movement has wrought. No one drinks. Only a handful smoke. There hasn’t been a crime here in years. Even the practice of untouchability has weakened. The village is brisk and prosperous. Signs of rural modernity abound.
Shakeela’s humble story, at first, strikes little interest in a passerby. However, played out over and over again in markets, slums, barrios, and villages, it shines as a compelling and inspiring story of resolute perseverance, of the power of the human spirit, and of the dignity of so many people struggling to escape the enduring grasp of poverty.
For empowering women, men have to be properly sensitized so that women are allowed both time and freedom and opportunity to chart out a path of social and economic independence. Treating women with the inherent dignity that they were created with, ensuring that they are given equitable opportunities to succeed is necessary to uphold the Qur’an’s vision, "O you who have attained to faith! Be ever steadfast in upholding justice," (Q4:135).
It is clear that Muslim women’s empowerment, like many things, cannot be imposed on a culture from outside. Men and women within these conservative communities must first find their own reasons and their own justifications to allow women a fuller role in the society. Increasingly, they are finding those reasons within Islam. Like men, women deserve to be free. Empowering women should be as much a man's responsibility, as it is a woman's aspiration. As Rumi says in the Mathnawi, “This woman, who is your beloved, is in fact a ray of His light. She is not a mere creature. She is like a creator”.
Women form one half on Muslim talent and by depriving them of their creativity we are depleting our own intellectual resource .As Allama Iqbal puts it:
Afraad ke hathon mein hai aqwam ki taqdeer
Har fard hai millat ke muqaddar ka sitara
Mehroom raha doulat-e-darya se woh ghawwas
Karta nahin jo souhbat-e-sahil se kinara
[Fortunes of empires ripen through talents of men
Each man is one star of the ascendant destiny
The ocean withholds her treasure when the diver
Fears the storms and clings to the shore]
To those opposed to reformist ideals, let us remind them of Iqbal’s assertion:
“[t]he teaching of the Qur’an that life is a process of progressive creation necessitates that each generation, guided but unhampered by the work of its predecessors, should be permitted to solve its own problems.”
[Moin Qazi is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker. He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]