The Status of Women in Islam
Family, society and ultimately the whole of mankind is treated by Islam on an ethical basis. Differentiation in sex is neither a credit nor a drawback for the sexes. Therefore, when we talk about status of woman in Islam it should not lead us to think that Islam has no specific guidelines, limitations, responsibilities and obligations for men. What makes one valuable and respectable in the eyes of Allah, the Creator of mankind and the universe, is neither one's prosperity, position, intelligence, physical strength nor beauty, but only one's Allah-consciousness and awareness (taqwa). However, since in the Western culture and in cultures influenced by it, there exists a disparity between men and women there is more need for stating Islam's position on important issues in a clear way.
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.
The paper starts with a brief survey of the status of women in the
pre-Islamic era. It then focuses on these major questions: What is the
position of Islam regarding the status of woman in society? How similar
or different is that position from "the spirit of the time," which was
dominant when Islam was revealed? How would this compare with the
"rights" which were finally gained by woman in recent decades?
One major objective of this paper is to provide a fair evaluation of
what 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.
Describing the status of the Indian woman, Encyclopedia Britannica states:
In Hindu scriptures, the description of a good wife is as follows: "a woman whose mind, speech and body are kept in subjection, acquires high renown in this world, and, in the next, the same abode with her husband." In Athens, women were not better off than either the Indian or the Roman women.
"Athenian women were always minors, subject to some male - to their father, to their brother, or to some of their male kin. Her consent in marriage was not generally thought to be necessary and "she was obliged to submit to the wishes of her parents, and receive from them her husband and her lord, even though he were stranger to her."
A Roman wife was described by an historian as: "a babe, a minor, a ward,
a person incapable of doing or acting anything according to her own
individual taste, a person continually under the tutelage and
guardianship of her husband."
Only by the late nineteenth Century did the situation start to improve. "By a series of acts starting with the Married women's Property Act in 1870, amended in 1882 and 1887, married women achieved the right to own property and to enter contracts on a par with spinsters, widows, and divorcees." As late as the Nineteenth Century an authority in ancient law, Sir Henry Maine, wrote: "No society which preserves any tincture of Christian institutions is likely to restore to married women the personal liberty conferred on them by the Middle Roman Law." In his essay The Subjection of Women, John Stuart Mill wrote:
Before moving on to the Qur'anic
decrees concerning the status of woman, a few Biblical decrees may shed
more light on the subject, thus providing a better basis for an
impartial evaluation. In the Mosaic Law, the wife was betrothed.
Explaining this concept, the Encyclopedia Biblica states: "To betroth a
wife to oneself meant simply to acquire possession of her by payment of
the purchase money; the betrothed is a girl for whom the purchase money
has been paid." From the legal point of view, the consent of the girl
was not necessary for the validation of her marriage. "The girl's
consent is unnecessary and the need for it is nowhere suggested in the
Law." As to the right of divorce, we read in the Encyclopedia Biblica:
"The woman being man's property, his right to divorce her follows as a
matter of course." The right to divorce was held only by man. "In the
Mosaic Law divorce was a privilege of the husband only .... "
III. 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."
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.
The Spiritual Aspect
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.
Criticizing the attitudes of such parents who reject their female children, the Qur'an states:
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:
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:
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.
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:
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:
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.
Moreover, the Qur'an has a special recommendation for the good treatment of mothers:
A man came to Prophet Muhammad (P) asking:
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."
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.
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.
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.
The first part of this paper deals briefly with the position of various religions and cultures on the issue under investigation. Part of this exposition extends to cover the general trend as late as the nineteenth century, nearly 1300 years after the Qur'an set forth the Islamic teachings. In the second part of the paper, the status of women in Islam is briefly discussed. Emphasis in this part is placed on the original and authentic sources of Islam. This represents the standard according to which degree of adherence of Muslims can be judged. It is also a fact that during the downward cycle of Islamic Civilization, such teachings were not strictly adhered to by many people who profess to be Muslims.
Such deviations were unfairly exaggerated by some writers, and the worst of this, were superficially taken to represent the teachings of "Islam" to the Western reader without taking the trouble to make any original and unbiased study of the authentic sources of these teachings.
Even with such deviations three facts are worth mentioning:
It is also worthwhile to state that the status which women reached during the present era was not achieved due to the kindness of men or due to natural progress. It was rather achieved through a long struggle and sacrifice on woman's part and only when society needed her contribution and work, more especial!; during the two world wars, and due to the escalation of technological change.
In the case of Islam such compassionate and dignified status was decreed, not because it reflects the environment of the seventh century, nor under the threat or pressure of women and their organizations, but rather because of its intrinsic truthfulness.
If this indicates anything, it would demonstrate the divine origin of the Qur'an and the truthfulness of the message of Islam, which, unlike human philosophies and ideologies, was far from proceeding from its human environment, a message which established such humane principles as neither grew obsolete during the course of time and after these many centuries, nor can become obsolete in the future. After all, this is the message of the All-Wise and all-knowing God whose wisdom and knowledge are far beyond the ultimate in human thought and progress.
The value of a woman in Islam:
The Prophet said, "A woman is married for four things, i.e., her wealth, her family status, her beauty and her religion. So you should marry the religious woman (otherwise) you will be a loser." [Volume 7, Book 62, Number 27: Narrated Abu Huraira]
A worth reading essay about the sexual relationships between husband and wife