We see religious leaders in many parts of the Muslim world speaking out against various forms of un-Islamic behavior, but when it comes to promoting human rights and education, they are strangely silent. The victims are therefore forced to turn towards advocacy groups.
I am not a big fan of Urdu movies, so when I found myself talked into watching the recent Pakistani box office hit Khuda Kay Liyay (In the Name of God), I expected it to be no different than the typical South Asian singing-and-dancing-through-lush-green-fields trash. Surprisingly, it turned out to be quite unique and in fact contained several important religious and ethical messages.
The main character of the movie, Mary, is the daughter of a Pakistani man living in Britain. Although her father had been extremely liberal in her upbringing, he cannot take it anymore when she wants to marry her British boyfriend. He tricks her into visiting Pakistan, where she is taken to a remote part of the country and forced to marry a cousin. This cousin used to be a musician, but having come under the tutelage of a radical cleric, he becomes a quasi-Taliban and agrees to the idea of coercing Mary into marrying him. After months of being held against her will and raped by her cousin, Mary writes to her boyfriend in Britain, who gets the British government involved and has Mary rescued. Mary decides to sue her father and cousin for kidnapping and rape, but the outcome of the trial is unsuccessful. Eventually, she returns to village where she had been held and starts up a school for the local girls.
Although the storyline is a little exaggerated and unrealistic, the movie still brings up two important issues: forced marriages in many parts of the Muslim world and female illiteracy. As Muslims living in the West, we are quick to respond to the likes of Geert Wilders and Pat Robertson that Islam in fact gives men and women the right to choose whom to marry. Similarly, when critics point out that the majority of women in the Muslim world are illiterate, we are quick to point out that Islam has made education mandatory for everyone. However, most of us go little beyond that.
Instead of simply paying lip-service to these values, we need to uphold and promote them. One of the reason why Islam was so vastly popular in its early days among the women and the downtrodden was because of its message of justice and equality. Promoting human rights and equality is the Sunnah of our beloved Prophet (peace be upon him), and as his followers, we need to step up to the plate.
During her trial, Mary tries to have a moderate religious scholar come and testify on her behalf. However, he refuses, saying that he doesn't want to get involved. Mary leaves in tears, telling him, "it is because of people like you that women are forced to go to NGOs."
Indeed, we see religious leaders (Shia and Sunni) in many parts of the Muslim world speaking out against various forms of un-Islamic behavior, but when it comes to promoting human rights and education, they are strangely silent. The victims are therefore forced to turn towards advocacy groups. These groups often have vehemently secular social and political agendas, and in addition to working for human rights, they actively use the victims that they help in order to portray Islam as the problem and secularization as the solution. Many schools and institutions that they have set up for women in rural parts of the Muslim world follow strongly secular curricula and denigrate Islamic teachings as cruel, unfair, and misogynistic.
Most of us who strongly believe in implementing Islam on a social and political level are of course quite angered at such groups. But the fact is, we have allowed them to hijack our agenda. When Khawla bint Thalaba was mistreated by her husband, she came pleading to the Holy Prophet. God Almighty revealed a whole chapter of the Qur'an after her (al-Mujadilah), and perhaps in order to remind us that a religious leader should be the one towards whom battered and wronged women should be able to turn to, and that promoting human rights, justice, and education is not the responsibility of secular advocacy groups but rather something that should be on every believer's agenda.