The status of women in society is neither a new issue nor is it a fully settled one.
The position of Islam on this issue has been among the subjects presented to the Western reader with the least objectivity.
This paper is intended to provide a brief and authentic exposition of what Islam stands for in this regard. The teachings of Islam are based essentially on the Qur'an (God's revelation) and Hadeeth (elaboration by Prophet Muhammad).
The Qur'an and the Hadeeth, properly and unbiasedly understood, provide the basic source of authentication for any position or view which is attributed to Islam.
Islam contributed (or failed to contribute) toward the restoration of woman's dignity and rights. In order to achieve this objective, it may be useful to review briefly how women were treated in general in previous civilizations and religions, especially those which preceded Islam (Pre-610 C.E.). Part of the information provided here, however, describes the status of woman as late as the nineteenth century, more than twelve centuries after Islam.
. WOMAN IN ISLAM
In the midst of the darkness that engulfed the world, the divine revelation echoed in the wide desert of Arabia with a fresh, noble, and universal message to humanity: "O Mankind, keep your duty to your Lord who created you from a single soul and from it created its mate (of same kind) and from them twain has spread a multitude of men and women" (Qur'an 4: 1).
A scholar who pondered about this verse states: "It is believed that there is no text, old or new, that deals with the humanity of the woman from all aspects with such amazing brevity, eloquence, depth, and originality as this divine decree."
Stressing this noble and natural conception, them Qur'an states:
He (God) it is who did create you from a single soul and therefrom did create his mate, that he might dwell with her (in love)...(Qur'an 7:189)
The Creator of heavens and earth: He has made for you pairs from among yourselves ...Qur'an 42:1 1
And Allah has given you mates of your own nature, and has given you from your mates, children and grandchildren, and has made provision of good things for you. Is it then in vanity that they believe and in the grace of God that they disbelieve? Qur'an 16:72
The rest of this paper outlines the position of Islam regarding the status of woman in society from its various aspects - spiritually, socially, economically and politically.
1. The Spiritual Aspect
The Qur'an provides clear-cut evidence that woman iscompletely equated with man in the sight of God interms of her rights and responsibilities. The Qur'an states:
"Every soul will be (held) in pledge for its deeds" (Qur'an 74:38). It also states:
...So their Lord accepted their prayers, (saying): I will not suffer to be lost the work of any of you whether male or female. You proceed one from another ...(Qur'an 3: 195).
Whoever works righteousness, man or woman, and has faith, verily to him will We give a new life that is good and pure, and We will bestow on such their reward according to the their actions. (Qur'an 16:97, see also 4:124).
Woman according to the Qur'an is not blamed for Adam's first mistake. Both were jointly wrong in their disobedience to God, both repented, and both were forgiven. (Qur'an 2:36, 7:20 - 24). In one verse in fact (20:121), Adam specifically, was blamed.
In terms of religious obligations, such as the Daily Prayers, Fasting, Poor-due, and Pilgrimage, woman is no different from man. In some cases indeed, woman has certain advantages over man. For example, the woman is exempted from the daily prayers and from fasting during her menstrual periods and forty days after childbirth. She is also exempted from fasting during her pregnancy and when she is nursing her baby if there is any threat to her health or her baby's. If the missed fasting is obligatory (during the month of Ramadan), she can make up for the missed days whenever she can. She does not have to make up for the prayers missed for any of the above reasons. Although women can and did go into the mosque during the days of the prophet and thereafter attendance et the Friday congregational prayers is optional for them while it is mandatory for men (on Friday).
This is clearly a tender touch of the Islamic teachings for they are considerate of the fact that a woman may be nursing her baby or caring for him, and thus may be unable to go out to the mosque at the time of the prayers. They also take into account the physiological and psychological changes associated with her natural female functions.
2. The Social Aspect
a) As a child and an adolescent
Despite the social acceptance of female infanticide among some Arabian tribes, the Qur'an forbade this custom, and considered it a crime like any other murder.
"And when the female (infant) buried alive - is questioned, for what crime she was killed." (Qur'an 81:8-9).
Criticizing the attitudes of such parents who reject their female children, the Qur'an states:
When news is brought to one of them, of (the Birth of) a female (child), his face darkens and he is filled with inward grief! With shame does he hide himself from his people because of the bad news he has had! Shall he retain her on (sufferance) and contempt, or bury her in the dust? Ah! What an evil (choice) they decide on? (Qur'an 16: 58-59).
Far from saving the girl's life so that she may later suffer injustice and inequality, Islam requires kind and just treatment for her. Among the sayings of Prophet Muhammad (P.) in this regard are the following:
Whosoever has a daughter and he does not bury her alive, does not insult her, and does not favor his son over her, God will enter him into Paradise. (Ibn Hanbal, No. 1957).
Whosoever supports two daughters till they mature, he and I will come in the day of judgment as this (and he pointed with his two fingers held together).
A similar Hadeeth deals in like manner with one who supports two sisters. (Ibn-Hanbal, No. 2104).
The right of females to seek knowledge is not different from that of males. Prophet Muhammad (P.) said:
"Seeking knowledge is mandatory for every Muslim". (AlBayhaqi). Muslim as used here including both males and females.
b) As a wife:
The Qur'an clearly indicates that marriage is sharing between the two halves of the society, and that its objectives, beside perpetuating human life, are emotional well-being and spiritual harmony. Its bases are love and mercy.
Among the most impressive verses in the Qur'an about marriage is the following.
"And among His signs is this: That He created mates for you from yourselves that you may find rest, peace of mind in them, and He ordained between you love and mercy. Lo, herein indeed are signs for people who reflect." (Qur'an 30:2 1).
According to Islamic Law, women cannot be forced to marry anyone without their consent.
Ibn Abbas reported that a girl came to the Messenger of God, Muhammad (P.), and she reported that her father had forced her to marry without her consent. The Messenger of God gave her the choice . . . (between accepting the marriage or invalidating it). (Ibn Hanbal No. 2469). In another version, the girl said: "Actually I accept this marriage but I wanted to let women know that parents have no right (to force a husband on them)" (Ibn Maja, No. 1873).
Besides all other provisions for her protection at the time of marriage, it was specifically decreed that woman has the full right to her Mahr, a marriage gift, which is presented to her by her husband and is included in the nuptial contract, and that such ownership does not transfer to her father or husband. The concept of Mahr in Islam is neither an actual or symbolic price for the woman, as was the case in certain cultures, but rather it is a gift symbolizing love and affection.
The rules for married life in Islam are clear and in harmony with upright human nature. In consideration of the physiological and psychological make-up of man and woman, both have equal rights and claims on one another, except for one responsibility, that of leadership. This is a matter which is natural in any collective life and which is consistent with the nature of man.
The Qur'an thus states:
"And they (women) have rights similar to those (of men) over them, and men are a degree above them." (Qur'an 2:228).
Such degree is Quiwama (maintenance and protection). This refers to that natural difference between the sexes which entitles the weaker sex to protection. It implies no superiority or advantage before the law. Yet, man's role of leadership in relation to his family does not mean the husband's dictatorship over his wife. Islam emphasizes the importance of taking counsel and mutual agreement in family decisions. The Qur'an gives us an example:
"...If they (husband wife) desire to wean the child by mutual consent and (after) consultation, there is no blame on them..." (Qur'an 2: 233).
Over and above her basic rights as a wife comes the right which is emphasized by the Qur'an and is strongly recommended by the Prophet (P); kind treatment and companionship.
The Qur'an states:
"...But consort with them in kindness, for if you hate them it may happen that you hate a thing wherein God has placed much good." (Qur'an 4: l9).
Prophet Muhammad. (P) said:
The best of you is the best to his family and I am the best among you to my family.
The most perfect believers are the best in conduct and best of you are those who are best to their wives. (Ibn-Hanbal, No. 7396)
Behold, many women came to Muhammad's wives complaining against their husbands (because they beat them) - - those (husbands) are not the best of you.
As the woman's right to decide about her marriage is recognized, so also her right to seek an end for an unsuccessful marriage is recognized. To provide for the stability of the family, however, and in order to protect it from hasty decisions under temporary emotional stress, certain steps and waiting periods should be observed by men and women seeking divorce. Considering the relatively more emotional nature of women, a good reason for asking for divorce should be brought before the judge. Like the man, however, the woman can divorce her husband with out resorting to the court, if the nuptial contract allows that.
More specifically, some aspects of Islamic Law concerning marriage and divorce are interesting and are worthy of separate treatment.
When the continuation of the marriage relationship is impossible for any reason, men are still taught to seek a gracious end for it.
The Qur'an states about such cases:
When you divorce women, and they reach their prescribed term, then retain them in kindness and retain them not for injury so that you transgress (the limits). (Qur'an 2:231). (See also Qur'an 2:229 and 33:49).
c) As a mother:
Islam considered kindness to parents next to the worship of God.
"And we have enjoined upon man (to be good) to his parents: His mother bears him in weakness upon weakness..." (Qur'an 31:14) (See also Qur'an 46:15, 29:8).
Moreover, the Qur'an has a special recommendation for the good treatment of mothers:
"Your Lord has decreed that you worship none save Him, and that you be kind to your parents. . ." (Qur'an 17:23).
A man came to Prophet Muhammad (P) asking:
O Messenger of God, who among the people is the most worthy of my good company? The Prophet (P) said, Your mother. The man said then who else: The Prophet (P) said, Your mother. The man asked, Then who else? Only then did the Prophet (P) say, Your father. (Al-Bukhari and Muslim).
A famous saying of The Prophet is "Paradise is at the feet of mothers." (In Al'Nisa'I, Ibn Majah, Ahmad).
"It is the generous (in character) who is good to women, and it is the wicked who insults them."
3. The Economic Aspect
Islam decreed a right of which woman was deprived both before Islam and after it (even as late as this century), the right of independent ownership. According to Islamic Law, woman's right to her money, real estate, or other properties is fully acknowledged. This right undergoes no change whether she is single or married. She retains her full rights to buy, sell, mortgage or lease any or all her properties. It is nowhere suggested in the Law that a woman is a minor simply because she is a female. It is also noteworthy that such right applies to her properties before marriage as well as to whatever she acquires thereafter.
With regard to the woman's right to seek employment it should be stated first that Islam regards her role in society as a mother and a wife as the most sacred and essential one. Neither maids nor baby-sitters can possibly take the mother's place as the educator of an upright, complex free, and carefully-reared children. Such a noble and vital role, which largely shapes the future of nations, cannot be regarded as "idleness".
However, there is no decree in Islam which forbids woman from seeking employment whenever there is a necessity for it, especially in positions which fit her nature and in which society needs her most. Examples of these professions are nursing, teaching (especially for children), and medicine. Moreover, there is no restriction on benefiting from woman's exceptional talent in any field. Even for the position of a judge, where there may be a tendency to doubt the woman's fitness for the post due to her more emotional nature, we find early Muslim scholars such as Abu-Hanifa and Al-Tabary holding there is nothing wrong with it. In addition, Islam restored to woman the right of inheritance, after she herself was an object of inheritance in some cultures. Her share is completely hers and no one can make any claim on it, including her father and her husband.
"Unto men (of the family) belongs a share of that which Parents and near kindred leave, and unto women a share of that which parents and near kindred leave, whether it be a little or much - a determinate share." ((Qur'an 4:7).
Her share in most cases is one-half the man's share, with no implication that she is worth half a man! It would seem grossly inconsistent after the overwhelming evidence of woman's equitable treatment in Islam, which was discussed in the preceding pages, to make such an inference. This variation in inheritance rights is only consistent with the variations in financial responsibilities of man and woman according to the Islamic Law. Man in Islam is fully responsible for the maintenance of his wife, his children, and in some cases of his needy relatives, especially the females. This responsibility is neither waived nor reduced because of his wife's wealth or because of her access to any personal income gained from work, rent, profit, or any other legal means.
Woman, on the other hand, is far more secure financially and is far less burdened with any claims on her possessions. Her possessions before marriage do not transfer to her husband and she even keeps her maiden name. She has no obligation to spend on her family out of such properties or out of her income after marriage. She is entitled to the "Mahr" which she takes from her husband at the time of marriage. If she is divorced, she may get an alimony from her ex-husband.
An examination of the inheritance law within the overall framework of the Islamic Law reveals not only justice but also an abundance of compassion for woman.
4. The Political Aspect
Any fair investigation of the teachings of Islam o~ into the history of the Islamic civilization will surely find a clear evidence of woman's equality with man in what we call today "political rights".
This includes the right of election as well as the nomination to political offices. It also includes woman's right to participate in public affairs. Both in the Qur'an and in Islamic history we find examples of women who participated in serious discussions and argued even with the Prophet (P) himself, (see Qur'an 58: 14 and 60: 10-12).
During the Caliphate of Omar Ibn al-Khattab, a woman argued with him in the mosque, proved her point, and caused him to declare in the presence of people: "A woman is right and Omar is wrong."
Although not mentioned in the Qur'an, one Hadeeth of the Prophet is interpreted to make woman ineligible for the position of head of state. The Hadeeth referred to is roughly translated: "A people will not prosper if they let a woman be their leader." This limitation, however, has nothing to do with the dignity of woman or with her rights. It is rather, related to the natural differences in the biological and psychological make-up of men and women.
According to Islam, the head of the state is no mere figurehead. He leads people in the prayers, especially on Fridays and festivities; he is continuously engaged in the process of decision-making pertaining to the security and well-being of his people. This demanding position, or any similar one, such as the Commander of the Army, is generally inconsistent with the physiological and psychological make-up of woman in general. It is a medical fact that during their monthly periods and during their pregnancies, women undergo various physiological and psychological changes. Such changes may occur during an emergency situation, thus affecting her decision, without considering the excessive strain which is produced. Moreover, some decisions require a maximum of rationality and a minimum of emotionality - a requirement which does not coincide with the instinctive nature of women.
Even in modern times, and in the most developed countries, it is rare to find a woman in the position of a head of state acting as more than a figurehead, a woman commander of the armed services, or even a proportionate number of women representatives in parliaments, or similar bodies. One can not possibly ascribe this to backwardness of various nations or to any constitutional limitation on woman's right to be in such a position as a head of state or as a member of the parliament. It is more logical to explain the present situation in terms of the natural and indisputable differences between man and woman, a difference which does not imply any "supremacy" of one over the other. The difference implies rather the "complementary" roles of both the sexes in life.