Beginning in the Roaring 20s, when many things began to change, tennis clothes and sportswear influenced female fashion so that by 1926 Hollywood actresses began a trend of wearing pants. By 1930, Greta Garbo, Ina Claire, Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn were causing sensations by wearing pants. Shortly thereafter, if not before, women were wearing suits. Traditional opinions of the day were against this trend, and a number of “experts” were paraded forth to explain that women secretly wanted to be men, and to complain that femininity was being lost.
But for all the controversy they caused, Hepburn, Garbo, Lombard and Dietrich never had criminal charges filed against them for wearing trousers—especially a crime that carried a punishment of forty lashes.
Right now in Sudan, Lubna Hussein (the woman pictured above) is preparing to stand trial for wearing pants in public in Sudan. Perhaps many of you already know the story. If not, Lubna Hussein worked for the United Nations and would have been exempt from the charge. But, Ms. Hussein wanted to go to trial because she wanted to challenge the law she was accused of breaking—a decency law—for which she has quit or will soon be quitting her job. The world needs more brave souls like her.
It is very unwise and illogical to lump all Muslim countries—and the cultures they contain—into a category one conveniently labels as “standard Islam”. There are differences from country to country—and perhaps even from region to region within countries. If decency for women in Afghanistan is a burqah, or Saudi Arabia a chador or elsewhere a hijab, or in Iran simply jeans and shirt like Neda Soltan, the woman killed in Teheran a month ago whose video became world renown on YouTube and elsewhere on the Internet, and whose 40th day of mourning was yesterday.
I have long been interested in the struggle of equality for women in Islam. From all of my reading, I believe that Muhammad never intended women to be regarded in Muslim society as they have throughout history. I also don’t think Jesus intended women to be regarded as second-class citizens in Christian society as they have throughout history.
With the mourning anniversary of Neda yesterday and the approach to trial next week, both because of strict fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law and lust for power and control, it is interesting to observe today is the anniversary of the death of Ahmad ibn Hanbal in 855 CE. Ibn Hanbal was a Muslim scholar and theologian who refused to accept the view of Caliph Al-Ma’mun who decreed that the Quran was a creation of God.
The Caliph demanded that ibn Hanbal and another Imam, Muhammad ibn Nuh, to accept his decree but they refused “to acknowledge the literal creation of the Quran as created like other of Allah's creatures.”
They were sent in irons to al-Ma’mun to be punished. In transit, ibn Hanbal prayed to Allah so that he would not meet al-Ma’mun. Suddenly, al-Ma’mun died and ibn Hanbal and Muhammad ibn Nuh were both sent back. On their return journey, ibn Nuh died and ibn Hanbal was left to prepare his funeral and bury ibn Nuh.
Ibn Hanbal was later flogged by al-Mu’tasim, the half-brother of al-Ma’mun, who succeeded him, for not accepting the Quran-as-God’s-creation and was banished from Baghdad by al-Wathiq, the son of al-Mu’tasim and successor as Caliph.
So you see, there is honor in what Lubna Hussein is doing from a historical perspective as well as a feminist perspective. Many scholars and theologians in Islam have rebelled against the more power-hungry fundamentalists throughout history as Islam has struggled to define itself then just as it continues to do so today.
I am a westerner trying to learn as much about Islam as possible for peaceful purposes. To paraphrase Richard Pryor at the beginning of his monologue, hosting Saturday Night Live back in December 1975, “Hope I’m successful.”
This is a link to Lubna Hussein’s Facebook page (not to be confused with Lubna Hussain with an “a”) for anyone who wants to offer her support.