Gender Equality and Muhammad Yunus


By Hasan Zillur Rahim

Gender equality in the heterogeneous Muslim world is a work in progress. It
received a boost when Bangladeshi economist Dr. Muhammad Yunus, and the
Grameen Bank he founded in 1976, won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize.

The media have since been abuzz with inspiring stories of millions of poor
Bangladeshi women lifting themselves out of poverty by borrowing little sums
of money from Grameen (a Bengali word meaning ‘village-based’) Bank and
starting their own businesses, a model now emulated in over 100 countries.

What has received little attention is the contribution Dr. Yunus made in
helping disenfranchised women challenging a patriarchal society that
practices misogyny against them in the name of Islam.

Where before the husband’s (or the father’s) word was the de facto law,
particularly in villages where illiteracy is high and sacred text is
manipulated to suit the male viewpoint, economic freedom gave women
entrepreneurs the courage to question religious chauvinism and resist
attempts to undermine their dignity.

Speaking to a reporter a few years ago, Dr. Yunus explained the
psychological barriers to his bank this way: “The first hostile person to
our program is the husband. We challenge his authority. In the family, he is
a macho tyrant. He starts to see that she is not as stupid as he thought. He
says, ‘Now she cannot nag me about money, because she understands how hard
it is to make.’ The tension eases and they become a team.”

A team can function only when there is mutual respect. A husband accustomed
to obedience from his wife begins to respect her opinion on religious
matters, too, since she has proven her worth by financially supporting the

This has been the much-welcomed byproduct of the micro-credit revolution
that Muhammad Yunus launched three decades ago. He forced a predominantly
conservative Muslim society to confront its ingrained habits and customs,
inspiring countless women to question dogma and realizing their God-given

Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian lawyer-activist and the first Muslim woman to win
the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, evoked the gender issue in her Nobel Lecture:
“The discriminatory plight of women in Islamic states, whether in the
spheres of civil law or in the realm of social, political and cultural
justice, has its roots in the patriarchal and male-dominated culture
prevailing in these societies, not in Islam. This culture does not tolerate
freedom and democracy, just as it does not believe in the equal rights of
men and women, and the liberation of women from male domination (fathers,
husbands, brothers …), because it would threaten the historical and
traditional position of the rulers and guardians of that culture … The
patriarchal culture and the discrimination against women, particularly in
the Islamic countries, cannot continue for ever.”

It certainly cannot, and the work of Dr. Muhammad Yunus, the “banker to the
poor” who proved that poverty was not destiny, that, in fact, destiny was
what you made of it, vindicates Ebadi’s hope and assertion.

In the post-9/11 world, Muslim women in affluent western countries are
engaged in the battle of ideas to shape their faith and reclaim it from
traditionalists, extremists and misogynists.

On March 18, 2005, for instance, Dr. Amina Wadud, professor of Islamic
Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of “Quran and women:
Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective” delivered a sermon and
led a public, mixed-gender Friday congregational prayer in New York City.
This symbolic but seminal act received widespread support, and condemnation,
from Muslims around the world, stirring vigorous debate and soul-searching.

Asra Nomani, a journalist and author of “Standing Alone in Mecca: An
American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam” is on a mission to reclaim
the rightful role of woman in Islam defined by the Quran and the Prophet
Muhammad (saws) but denied by centuries of cultural tradition.

“We joke that we want to take the “slam” out of Islam – that’s our American
generation’s way of understanding it,” she says. “But it’s really that
simple: we’re just so tired of going to our mosques and feeling unworthy or
worthless or less than faithful. It says in the Quran, “There is no
compulsion in religion,” and yet the fanatics in all religions want to make
it compulsory that you follow their path of faith.”

Theological debates and reclaiming interpretive rights to sacred text by
educated and well-to-do Muslim women constitute one path toward attaining
gender equality. The other path is for poor and powerless women engaged in
daily existential battles achieving financial freedom so that they too can
challenge the myth of patriarchy in traditional societies and experience the
egalitarianism that permeates Islam.

Only when the two paths converge – intellectual and existential, selective
and grassroots - will true gender equality reign in the heterogeneous Muslim
world. Only then can the following become a reality.

A seamstress in a village in Chittagong, Bangladesh, delivers garments to a
demanding but honest merchant, and makes a tidy profit. The ripple from this
transaction reaches Kandahar, Afghanistan, where a twenty-something teacher
briskly walks along an earthen road to her one-room school, smiling to
herself as she anticipates the fresh, eager faces of girls and boys waiting
to learn arithmetic from her. A local cleric approaching from the opposite
direction alights from his bicycle and respectfully acknowledges her. The
ripple from this gesture finds its way to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where a
middle-aged housewife patiently maneuvers her car in heavy traffic and heads
for the English-medium school to pick up her two children. She will have a
talk with the principal about introducing more challenging curricula in the
school and silently rehearses her presentation. The ripple from the
rehearsal propagates to Katsina, Nigeria, where a judge raises her gravel to
bring order to her courtroom as she prepares to dispense justice tempered by
mercy in a complex inheritance case.