STATUS OF WOMEN IN ISLAM
by Mitra Abdur Rashid
I am by no means an authority on Islam, but I do come from a place where there is a spectrum of views on the subject of women in Islam. I grew up in Iran seeing my mother practice Islam in a pure and quiet way, with tolerance, care and concern for everyone Later I learned about political Islam and from that point on, the images between what is, and what should be, became apparent.
Many of us – those from the West and the East – have negative images of women in Islam: the uneducated woman who has no say in decision making, the pregnant mother who does household chores all day, the subservient wife who suffers under the abuse of her dictatorial husband . The western perception in general, and the western media in specific have specialized in portraying these images. In all honesty, in the East, where I come from, although the images may not be as harsh, the prejudices somewhat remain. In the East, at times, these prejudices which emanate from misunderstandings, ignorance, old tales and sayings, enter the fabric of society and after many generations people believe what is told to them is real religion and the word of God, it mixes with cultural attitudes and takes on the name of religion. So, it has been and remains a great challenge to affirm the rights of Muslim women.
For this reason, the topic of women in Islam is an essential subject for discussion, for both eastern and western women and men. I hope it will create a bond of discovery and understanding between them.
Given my limited time and knowledge, I will keep to just a few essential topics, beginning with the historical contexts and Quranic references that create the framework for understanding the place of woman in Islam. I will also try to touch on issues that concern both muslim women and men as well as non-Muslims.
My points will, inshallah, focus on the basic principles of Islam for both women and men to follow in society. Moreover, I would like to emphasize the distinction between the “normative” teachings of Islam and diverse cultural practices among Muslims which may or may not be consistent with these teachings. So although you might continue to have those negative images in your mind that I mentioned earlier, you will, insha’allah, know that the principles differ from actuality.
Today people think that women are liberated in the west and that the women’s liberation movement began in the 20th Century. Actually the women’s liberation movement was revealed by God to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in the seventh century. The Qur’an and the Traditions of the Prophet (Hadith and Sunna) guarantee every Muslim woman certain rights and duties.
II. EQUALITY VS. SAMENESS
These rights are equal to those of a man but they are not necessarily identical. Equality and sameness are two different things. This difference is understandable because man and woman are not identical but they are created equals. The distinction between equality and sameness is of paramount importance. With this distinction in mind, there is no room to imagine that woman is inferior to man, just because her rights are not
identical. Had her status been identical with his, she would have been simply a duplicate of him, which she is not. The fact that Islam gives her equal rights – but not identical rights- shows that it takes her into consideration, acknowledges her, and recognizes her independent personality and role.
In the Qur’an Allah frequently addresses both the man and the woman. In one passage Allah reveals:
“For Muslim men and women, for believing men and women, for devout men and women, for true men and women who are patient, for men and women who humble themselves, for men and women who give in charity, for men and women who fast, for men and women who guard their chastity, and for men and women who engage much in Allah’s praise – For them all has Allah prepared forgiveness and great reward.” (33:35)
III. Human Rights:
Woman is recognized by Islam as equal partner in the procreation of humankind. Man is the father, woman is the mother, and both are essential for life. By this partnership, woman has an equal share in every aspect; she is entitled to equal rights; she undertakes equal responsibilities, and she has as many qualities and as much humanity as her partner. So, fourteen centuries ago, Islam made men and women equally accountable to God in glorifying and worshiping Him – setting no limits on her spiritual progress. In the Qur’an in the first verse of the chapter entitled “Women”, God says:
“O mankind! Be careful of your duty to your Lord Who created you from a single soul and from it its mate and from them both have spread abroad a multitude of men and women. Be careful of your duty toward Allah in Whom you claim (your rights) of one another, and towards the wombs (that bore you). Lo! Allah has been a Watcher over you.” (4:1) And again in the Qur’an:
“O mankind! Verily we have created you from a single (pair) of a male and female, and made you into nations and tribes that you may know each other.” (49:13; cf.4:1)
IV. CIVIL RIGHTS:
When we then consider the area of civil rights, education is of greatest importance. The Prophet (pbuh) said: “Seeking knowledge is a mandate for every Muslim (male and female).” Keeping people ignorant equals oppression; whether man or woman. In the case of women their civil rights were considered necessary for the proper functioning of the community.
Recognizing her individuality, Islam grants a woman freedom of choice and expression. We are encouraged to contribute opinions and ideas. Women would pose questions directly to the Prophet (sal) and to other Muslim leaders and offer their opinions concerning religion, economics, and social matters. (Qur’an 58:1-4; 60:10-12)
Actually it was 1400 years ago that a right to vote was given to the woman. When the women came to Prophet Mohammad (sal) and swore their allegiance to him, he had to accept their oath. This established the right of women to publicly participate in the selection of their leader. Nor does Islam forbid a woman from holding important positions in government.
Historical records show that women participated in early public life, accompanying Muslim armies into battle to nurse the wounded, prepare supplies, serve the warriors, and so on. They were not shut behind iron bars or considered worthless creatures and deprived souls, as we see today in such deteriorating and misguided societes as Taliban Afghanistan. People kept ignorant of Islam’s true position on women due to age-old cultural practices begin to accept the misguidance as true. This is especially unfortunate in Afghanistan where so many women were professionals, contributing to the well being of their society, for many years prior to the Taliban. Not only does it poison the minds of the Afghani people toward Islam but also it focuses
the rest of the world’s attention on an aberration that uses the name of Islam so wrongly.
V. ECONOMIC RIGHTS:
In terms of contributions to society the status of women economically is unique. From the earliest days greater financial security was assured for women. Women are entitled to receive marital gifts, and to keep properties and income for their own security. No married woman is required to spend a penny on the household She is entitled to full financial support during marriage and during the waiting period (‘iddah) in case of divorce. Whether she is a wife or mother, a sister or daughter, she is allowed to receive a certain share of deceased kin’s property, and no one can disinherit her.
Although both man and woman are entitled to inherit property of relations, their portions may vary. In some instances the man receives 2 shares whereas the woman gets one only; this is because the man by law is solely responsible for the complete maintenance of his family. It is also his duty to contribute financially to all good causes in his society. The woman, in contrast, has no obligatory financial responsibilities. She is provided for, whether by her husband, son, father, brother, or other male relative. If she has no relation on whom she can depend, and she has no inheritance, then she is the responsibility of the society. She may be given aid or a job to earn her living, and whatsoever money she makes will be hers. So, in the hardest situation her financial responsibility is limited, while the man’s is unlimited.
VI. RIGHTS AND DUTIES OF A WIFE:
In further addressing rights, it is important to look at the role of the wife. The Qur’an states:
“And among His signs is that He created for you mates from among yourselves that you may live in tranquility with them, and He had put love and mercy between you; Verily, in that are signs for people who reflect.”
Marriage, therefore, is not just a physical or emotional necessity, but in fact, a sign from God! It is a relationship of mutual rights and obligations based on divine guidance. God created men and women with complimentary natures, and in the Qur’an, He laid out a system of laws to support
harmonious interaction between the sexes.
Allah says in the Qur’an:
“They are your garments and you are their garments.” (2:187)
Clothing provides physical protection and covers the beauty and faults of the body. A spouse is viewed similarly . Each protects the other, hides the faults and compliments the characteristics of the spouse.
To foster the love and security that comes with marriage, Muslim wives have several rights: the first one is to receive mahr from the husband, which is a gift as part of the marriage contract A wife has the right to kind treatment. The Prophet (pbuh) said :
“The most perfect believers are the best in conduct. And the best of you are those who are best to their wives.” God tells us He created mates and put love, mercy, and tranquillity between them. With rights come responsibilities. The Qur’an states: “the good women in the absence of their husbands guard their rights as Allah has enjoined upon them to be guarded.”
A wife has to keep her husband’s secrets and protect their marital privacy. Issues of intimacy or faults of his that would dishonor him, are not to be shared by the wife, just as he is expected to guard her honor.
VII. WOMAN AS THE MOTHER:
The woman as mother is of special importance. This is something that most of us have been blessed with. Mothers, in Islam, are accorded a special place of honor. A man came to the Prophet Mohammad (sal) asking: ‘O Messenger of Allah, who among the people is the most worthy of my good companionship? The Prophet said, your mother. The man said then who is next: the Prophet said, your mother. The man asked again, then who is next: the Prophet said, your mother. The man asked further and only then did the Prophet say, your father. (Al Bukhari) Kindness to parents, especially to mothers, is a foundation stone in the structure of Islam.
VIII. EXAMPLES OF MUSLIM WOMEN TODAY:
I would like to mention a few contempory Muslim women who have and continue to contribute to today’s world.
Queen Noor of Jordan
Laleh Bakhtiar – author and scholar , psychologist
Rabia Terry Harris – translator and writer
Haja Noura Durkee: Author, lecturer, teacher
Nahid Angha: Psychologist, founder Internation Assoc. Of Sufism
Mouna Abul Fadl – Author. Scholar
Leila Ahmed – Author and Scholar; first Muslim woman appointed to the faculty of Harvard Divinity School
Audrey Shabbas – Educator, founder of Arab World and Islamic Resources (AWAIR)
I would like to conclude by stating that 1400 years ago, the Muslim woman was given a role, duties, and rights that most women do not enjoy today, even in the west. Yet, the religion which revolutionized the status of women is being portrayed as repressive to women. As mentioned earlier, this myth is perpetuated by the media; in addition, in the case of the Taliban and other examples from my own country and elsewhere, women’s inherent Islamic rights have been abrogated.
One issue surrounded by a great deal of misunderstanding is the custom of wearing hijab. The Qur’an enjoins modest dress for both men and women, and in a Muslim society, the men as well as the women typically dress conservatively. Some Muslim women interpret the Qur’an and Hadith as guiding
them to dress modestly and cover their hair in all public situations, others insist that their whole body including hands and face are to be covered, yet others understand the guidance to mean a more general attitude of modesty both in dress and attitude. Many Muslim women freely choose to dress modestly in order to avoid the public scrutiny, judgments, and social dynamics associated with physical appearance. By dressing in ways that do not draw attention to ourselves, we affirm the Qur’anic teachings both of modesty and gender equality. Or as one Canadian Muslima, Naheed Mustafa has written: “…that men and women are equal, and that individuals should not be judged according to gender, beauty, wealth, or privilege”
No scholarly or informed Muslim can condone women being forced to remove themselves from public life altogether, anymore than we can condone violence against women, the denial of women’s right to work and own property, or the refusal to allow women a voice in government. Where such treatment takes place in the Muslim world, people of other faiths ought to realize that there are in certain places and circumstances a significant disparity between beliefs and practices in Islam as well as their own faiths; and the simple fact that the actions of certain individuals who claim Islam do not truthfully or accurately represent Islam. Nor are Muslim women unique in their issues; Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Sikh women in various parts of the world as well as certain sects of Judaism and Christianity share the same problems. To label the status of women in the Muslim world today as “Islamic”, is as far from the truth as labeling the position of women in the West today as “totally liberated and equal”. Inshallah, with this understanding in mind, Muslims and non-Muslims – men and women- could start a process of communication and dialogue in order to remove misconceptions,
suspicions, and fears.
So as you can see there are many challenges for today’s Muslim woman whether in the westernized world or in traditional societies. Through internal and external dialogue I am confident we will find the ways to remain true to the Shariah and Sunnah and contribute to the world today.
I am very grateful for this opportunity a nd I thank you for your patience. Please forgive me for any errors I may have made. Asalam Aleikum wa Rahmatullahe wa Barakatuh. May the Peace, Compassion and Mercy of Allah be with you.
Mitra Abdur Rashid
Delivered at the Interfaith Gathering in Beckley, W.Va