Women In Islam
(By Safiyan Rana, Bar-at-law, editor and legal advisor of A’ina (mirror), Fortnightly, Manchester)
Discuss the concept of the Islamic role of women with particular reference to possible problems facing women in the west.
‘There is sexism in Islam.’
This is the commonly held view in the western society. When asked to expand on this statement, it is usually followed by- ‘…women are mistreated in the Islamic religion.’
The role of women in Islam has often been misrepresented by the western society (mainly the media) as menial and disparaging. What the West regards as an unequal segregation of roles, the East regards as a fundamental prerequisite for the sake of a stable and a harmonious society. For the West, this concept is too ideological and far too simplistic. It is these two contrasting views that have often been the source of conflict and tension between the two respective societies.
Muslims regard Islam as a religion which satisfies and fulfils its followers every needs. In theory, it is supposed to provide men and women with equal chances to succeed in life and, as far as sexism goes, it is in fact the men who will face the greatest hurdle of succeeding in life. Men are seen to have the more difficult of the tasks in securing harmony within the family.
Islam, as a religion recognizes men’s and women’s roles as different but, however, it does not regard one as superior or inferior to the other. Both roles are regarded as important as each other.
For Islam, the social and economic sectors of the society can only survive if these roles are implemented correctly. This procedure requires equal attention from both parties (men and women). Their tasks need to be clear cut and appropriate. For example, it would seem unfair to ask a woman of relative size to do building work as her biological structure would allow only certain tasks to be completed. The female genetical structure of bones is considered to be more precarious in comparison with that of the male. Therefore, the roles that are set out are not only based on individual genetical structure but also suitability.
This is how the roles are ascribed and thus lead to criticism based on stereotyping, prejudice and exploitation.
It is a commonly held view in the West that women in Islamic societies are the oppressed and submissive minority and that they are exploited by men and not given an equal amount of chances to succeed in life. But women in Islam are spiritually equal and it is in fact the culture with its excessive demands and exaggerated role allocation which tends to differentiate the two. For example, the societies in the sub-Indian continent place too much burden and pressure on the female to play the emotional and nurturing role whereas the male is expected to earn a living and make all the important decisions.
A family consisting of a female as the head of the household is seen with less prestige and honour and is often looked down on in society. The woman is seen as ‘pushy and bossy’.
Although Islam does not condone any form of aggressiveness, it however does try to encourage assertiveness and enterprise.
In the eyes of God men and women are the same, they will face the same rewards and punishments. The Qur’an states categorically that men and women who practise the principles of Islam will receive equal reward for their efforts:
"Who ever performs good deeds, whether male or female, and is a believer, We shall surely make him lead a good life, and We will certainly reward them for the best of what they did." (The Qur’an 16:97).
One viewpoint which causes conflict between the West and Islam concerns the rights and obligations of men and women. In a Muslim society the man has full responsibility for the maintenance of his family while the woman is responsible for the care of her home and the welfare of her family.
"Men are maintainers of women with the bounties which God has bestowed more abundantly on some of them than on others; and with that they may spend out of their possessions." (4:34).
The argument against this view centres upon the types of roles men and women have to fulfil. The West regards women’s role in Islam as demeaning because too much demand is placed on women’s shoulders. They also regard the wearing of hijab as a sign of male oppression and inferiority and continually point to the Muslim women in the West who have succeeded without wearing the hijab. However, wearing of the hijab plays a very important part for a Muslim woman. Although she is entitled to wear whatever she likes in the presence of her husband and family, she is, however, expected to wear a dress which would cover all parts of her body- thus not revealing her figure- if any men other than her husband or close family are present. The wearing of the hijab poses a problem for the Muslim women in the West especially those who are in full-time professions and education. Schools in the West have a strict dress code and allow only the usage of school uniform. This prohibits the wearing of surplus clothing such as baseball caps, trainers and most importantly to Muslims, the hijab. Muslim girls cannot attend schools while wearing the hijab. Although several schools allow this practice, the majority still ban it. The same problem arises when women take up full time professions.
The West regards this as emancipation but the East regards this as exploitation. For many in the East, the intention of western dress is to reveal the figure while the intention of the Muslim dress is to conceal it, at least in public. The relevant verse of the Qur’an says:
"O prophet, tell your wives and daughters and the women of the believers to draw upon them their over-garments. That is more appropriate so that they may be recognised and not molested." (33:59).
"Clothed yet naked", is how the prophet Muhammad (pbuh) described some of his female contemporaries in his pre-Islamic community. He reputedly, single handedly removed all social and legal disadvantages faced by women during that period and granted them rights befitting their feminine nature. Among other things, the prophet (pbuh) suggested the veil to be worn by women, so as not to restrict their liberty, but for practical reasons, to protect them from prying eyes and threat of molestation under the conditions then apparent in pagan Arabia, centre of the Muslim world. The woman now protected by her own symbol of dignity (her dress) was free to take any role she wished without the added the burden of having to look beautiful. Perhaps that is what frustrates some men so much about the Islamic dress, complaining it "degrades" the woman giving her a lower status than the man. Their real complaint is that the Islamic dress deprives the lustful man of so much free "entertainment". It is therefore required foa Muslim woman when she goes out to wear a dress that covers her from head to foot and does not reveal the figure. According to some scholars only the hand and face should be left uncovered while according to some others the face should also be covered.
The onus of modest behaviour however falls not only on women. The injunctions of the Qur’an are directed to man and woman alike. God says:
"Tell believers to avert their glances and to guard their private parts; that is purer for them. God is informed about anything they do. Tell believing women to avert their glances and guard their private parts and not to display their charms, except what (normally) appears of them. They should draw their coverings over their bossoms and not show their charms except to their husbands…" (24:30-31).
However, the wearing of the hijab has been compromised by those who have integrated themselves into the western society. For them, the word ‘modest’ holds an entirely different meaning. They wear dresses that they regard as modest. They feel the need to assimilate more readily than others and thus do away with the hijab. It must also be said that some parents are not as strict as others. They accept the need to integrate into the western culture and therefore let their offsprings wear what they like. These parents however are in the minority. The majority still discourage assimilation for the sake of retaining old values and overall group identity. For example, a minority sect in Bradford (The Pathans) have decided that integration is not really necessary and therefore keep "themselves to themselves".
They view too much assimilation as the possible root cause for the break up of their group.
It is therefore interesting to note that individual interpretation has lead to different ideas about religion.
The concept of marriage also faces problems in the West where it is regarded the woman has no say in who she has to marry. It is presumed that the girl is forced to marry someone of her parents’ choice rather than hers- hence the origin of the term "arranged marriage". This view for a Muslim, however, could not be further away from the truth. We have to go back in distinguishing between culture and religion. Whereas culture may have a social stronghold on the female, which may give them the right to choose the partner, the religious aspects are rarely taken into consideration. This dual nature of Islamic and in particular Asian society, has often been represented as purely religious in the eyes of the western media. Whether this is intentional or pure ignorance on their behalf, is a matter of opinion.
As far as Islam’s view point on this is concerned, it accepts the parents’ role in the choice of the husband but it does offer the girl a choice. She has to be consulted before the decision is made. If she does not want to marry that person then she has the right to say "NO". It is reported that when a girl came to the Prophet (pbuh) complaining that she had been married without being consulted, the Prophet (pbuh) directed that she was free to have the marriage dissolved if she wished.
Nowadays educated Muslim girls are having a greater say in the choice of husband, but it is still considered that the parents’ opinion of the boy is of great importance, and it is rare for a boy or girl to marry against their parents’ wishes. It is a part of the Muslim tradition for either to be married with the consent of their parents or guardians.
It is the view on marriage which has been specifically criticised by the West. On the one hand they accept that the boy or girl has a choice but on the other hand it is rare for them to go against their parents’ wishes. They regard the Muslim family as having such an emotional and psychological stronghold on the individual that effectively they have no choice. Traditions are seen to play such an important part that anyone going against it are seen as deviant.
In the marriage, the dowry (mahr) plays an essential part. When a woman or girl is married, the bridegroom is expected to give her a dowry (mahr) which may be of any value agreed upon. This dowry is not like the old European dowry which was given by a father to a daughter on her marriage and thence became the husband’s property. Nor is the Muslim dowry like the African "bride-price" which is paid by the bridegroom to the father as a form of payment or compensation. The Muslim dowry is a gift from the bridegroom to the bride and it becomes her exclusive property. This is contrary to the popular opinion that the bride has to pay the dowry. Although this practise does take place, it is however outside the parameter of Islam and more in parallel with the culture. We are once again placed with a problem here.
As we have recognised, there are two predominant ideas on marriage; Religion, which is supposed to be the authority and Culture which, in recent years, has overtaken the religious power.
Families (even Muslim ones) still crave for a male offspring as opposed to the female. This is surprisingly apparent in many Muslim countries.
It is an accepted fact that divorce rate in Islam is very low. However, the cynics point to several external factors in contributing these low statistics.
These include from:
2. Social stigma.
3. Consanguine stronghold.
4. Emotional and psychological pressures.
Muslim scholars accept that such sociological explanations cannot be disregarded but argue low rates cannot be entirely attributed to social and cultural factors.
Divorce laws in Islamic societies are as flexible, if not more so, than any other society. A woman can ask for divorce on several grounds.
This includes from:
1. A husband’s failure to support his wife.
2. Gross maltreatment by the husband.
3. The husband’s insanity.
4. A husband’s absence for more than six months.
5. A husbands sterility for more than five years.
A divorce therefore can be easily obtained. This presents us with an interesting argument. If, for example, the concept of an arranged marriage is unsuccessful then the individual can use the flexibility of the laws to opt out or at least seek a temporary settlement. But divorce rates constantly stay low. Can we therefore assume arranged marriages are successful? This is an impossible question to answer as on the one hand we can explain the reasons behind such law divorce rates but on the other we can state the flexibility of divorce laws.
The role of women within the family has been the source of constant criticism from the non-Muslim societies. As I have stated earlier, it is not so much the actual allocated role which has come under criticism but how it compares with the role expected of a man.
The woman’s role, whether as a wife or mother, is of extreme importance if the family is to survive. The Prophet (pbuh) has said:
"The best woman is she who, when you see her you feel pleased, and when you direct her she obeys. She protects your rights and keeps chastity when you are absent."
This concept of the woman being submissive or obedient to her husband naturally raises questions of sexism and exploitation. This is obviously correct on its own but if we look at the statement in its context then it may become clearer.
Some Muslim scholars have suggested the wife herself is responsible for the care of her home and the welfare of her family. She may express her views and make her suggestions concerning all matters, but the best role (and one which receives the most coverage) she can play in keeping the marital tie intact and strong, is to recognise her husband as the person responsible for the running of the affairs of the family, and thus to ‘obey’ him even if his judgement is not acceptable to her, in a particular matter, provided he does not go beyond the limits of Islam.
Such an outlook is bound to raise awareness concerning the welfare of women. However, I must say at this moment that such an idea is not condoned by every Muslim. Many will follow the set guidelines provided by the shariah but many others will be very liberal in their attitude.
Apart from her role as the wife, the Muslim woman has a very important role as the mother. The status and value attached to parents in the Muslim world is very high. The Qur’an says:
"Your Lord has decreed that you should worship nothing except Him, and (show) kindness to your parents, whether one or both of them attain old age (while they are) still with you, never say to them ‘shame!’ nor scold either of them. Speak to them in generous fashion. Protect them carefully and say: ‘My Lord, show them mercy, just as they cared for me as a child’" (17:23-24).
The importance of parents is highlighted by the fact that a sura was deemed necessary to be sent down. As the verse indicates, thankfulness to parents is linked with thankfulness to God, and a failure in either of these respects is indeed in major failure in one’s religious duties.
It is reported that a man came to the Prophet (pbuh) and asked:
"Messenger of God, who is the most deserving of good care from me? The Prophet (pbuh) replied: "Your mother (which he repeated three times) then your father, then your nearest relative in order."
This once again highlights what esteem the woman, in particular the mother, is held in.
In another hadith the Prophet (pbuh) has said: "Paradise lies at the feet of mothers" - in other words paradise awaits those who cherish and respect their mothers.
A woman’s role is mainly confined to the domestic needs of the family and the opportunity for business rarely arises and when it does, the contracts are stringently set out. The arrangement is very apparent regarding the role of witnesses.
In a business transection, it is required that two women are present as witnesses as opposed to the single man.
This is done so that if witness forgets the deal then the other can remind her. This may, at first glance, seem patronising as regards to the woman’s intellect but one must understand the difficulties and hurdles the Muslim woman has to go through in her domestic setting.
The law was originally set over 1400 years ago when a woman’s role was mainly confined to the home. Islam allowed the women to venture into business but as their experience in the field was limited, the law regarding witnesses had to be altered. The law now comprised of two male witnesses or if men weren’t present then one man and two women.
"…And get two witnesses, out of your men, And if there are not two men. Then a man and two women, such as ye choose for witnesses. So that if one of them errs the other can remind her…" (Al-Qur’an 2:282)
The need to have two witnesses as opposed to the single male raises inevitable questions such as:-
1. Do women have weaker memories than men?
2. Why should two women be needed in the place of one man? And ultimately
3. Are women inferior to men?
Shamshad M. Khan in "Why two women witnesses?" (1993) has tried to explain the need for two women witnesses using scientific data.
"As for women, we are aware of the cyclical psychological strains that she has to encounter. The symptoms during early pregnancy, the ante-natal and post-natal depressions, the phenomenon of menopause, the physiological and psychological problems faced after miscarriage. It is under these situations that women can experience extraordinary psychological strains giving rise to depressions, lack of concentration, slow mindedness and SHORT TERM MEMORY LOSS."
The answer to question two is mainly due to the women lacking in experience and the business know how. It is therefore suggested that two women be used in place of one man.
As for question three, the answer is a categorical "NO." As far as Islam is concerned, there is no intellectual or spiritual difference between men and women.
Despite the fact, many Muslim women stay at home, there is nothing to stop them going into business. It is however suggested that if both parents are working then the children will suffer as a result.
In summing up, one must realise Islam is not just a religion but in fact a way of life. It states everything there is to know, from how to sit correctly to the appropriate dress code. There is no division in its treatment of men and women. The problem arises when people begin to interpret incorrectly and begin to suggest their own ideas, as in the case of the ‘modest dress code.’
As with most religions, interpretation has lead to different ideas about religion.