As someone who writes and lectures about women and gender in Islam, I am often asked if women had any role in the making of the Islamic tradition. Happily, the answer is always yes. There were in fact many prominent women in the early history of Islam.
At the top of the list would have to be Aisha, the widow of the Prophet Muhammad who was renowned for her erudition and wit. The Prophet in fact is said to have counselled his followers to “take half of your religion” from Aisha – in recognition of her learning. After his death, she spent the rest of her life transmitting the sayings of her husband and commenting on the Koran. Her authoritative pronouncements have decisively shaped the later Islamic legal tradition.
The early period of Islam in particular is peopled with such intelligent, assertive, and pious women. Another name that comes to mind is Umm Umara. Although she was a prominent companion of the Prophet Muhammad, whom he regarded highly in her own time, she has become an obscure figure over the centuries. One possible reason for this is that Umm Umara was a “difficult” woman – that is to say, she was someone who asked a lot of questions and who protested loudly when she was faced with inequality, especially in regard to women’s rights. Her passion for justice and outspokenness, however, were hardly out of place in the first century of Islam.
As historical records inform us, women in particular excelled in religious scholarship through the late Mamluk period, in the 14th and 15th centuries of the common era. This should not be surprising since women’s right to education is firmly guaranteed by Islam. A well-known saying of the Prophet Muhammad asserts that knowledge is equally obligatory for males and females – which has allowed for considerable Muslim receptivity towards providing education for girls and women alongside their male counterparts through the centuries. As a result, women scholars dot the Islamic intellectual landscape.
The famous 9th century Muslim jurist al-Shafii, widely regarded as the father of Islamic jurisprudence, studied with female teachers. Ibn Hajar, another prominent jurist from the 15th century, gratefully acknowledges his debt to a number of his female professors whose study circles he frequented.
Ibn Hajar’s student, al-Sakhawi, dedicated one whole volume of his encyclopedic biographical work on famous scholars from the Mamluk period to women alone. Among the 1,075 women listed in this volume, over 400 were active in scholarship. One such scholar is on record as having complained that she was not getting adequate compensation for her teaching (a complaint that may sound dismayingly familiar to contemporary professional women the world over today).
Regrettably, the memory of these accomplished women has grown dim over time. As Muslim societies became more patriarchal after the first century of Islam, many of these women have been air-brushed out of the master narrative of Islamic history, leaving us with the impression that the Islamic tradition was shaped mainly by men.
This erasure of women can lead to a dangerously mistaken belief that Islam itself mandates this marginalisation of women. The danger is real – as became recently evident in the Taliban’s brutal and misogynist vendetta against the indomitable 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai. A fearless warrior to promote education for females in her native Pakistan, Yousafzai has paid a huge price for her courageous stance, as she now struggles to recover after being shot by the Taliban.
*Asma Afsaruddin chairs the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at Indiana University in Bloomington. She has written books, lectures and frequently consults with private and public agencies on Islamic religious, political and gender issues.
Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.
SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.
The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.
It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.
Seoul housing prices top London and New York
In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.
According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.
Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.
One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.
According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.
Playing the stock market
At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.
A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."
In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.
42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s
Game of survival
In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.
But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.
This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.
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