Status of women in Islam
By S.G. Jilanee
The purpose of this article is not to discuss how women’s rights are practiced in Muslim society today, but what they mean in a truly Muslim society. It is necessary to understand this difference, because Muslims today are facing much confusion over this issue and it has, in fact, percolated to every sphere of life and created two schools of thought.
One propagates western thinking and value system. According to it, the restraints Islam imposes on women are not only oppressive and unjust but also responsible for the material backwardness of the Muslims. They advocate “moderating Islam” and adapting it to a western model.
The other view presents notions of strict seclusion for women, and that they should not be seen outside their homes unless chaperoned by a male, not in the prohibited degree, or participate in social affairs on equal terms with men or even gain more education.
“Women’s rights” is the mantra that everyone aspiring for entry into the “mainstream” chants. Let us take a look at its background. The slogan reflects women’s reaction against prolonged “persecution.” In ancient times, roles were strictly defined for men and women. So “Adam delved and Eve span” became the proverb.
At the same time, women were regarded as “the weaker sex,” incapable of performing physically arduous functions and even of protecting themselves. They were, therefore, treated as inferior to men.
Even though Queen Bodicea led a rebellion against the Romans (62 A.D.) and Joan of Arc, a French peasant girl, led the French armies against the English in the early 15th century, still there was no place for women in social affairs.
Gradually men became more aggressive and began to treat women like chattel. Even queens were not spared. King Henry VIII of England had two of his queens (Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard) beheaded on charges of infidelity and adultery. Two he divorced and banished.
In Hinduism, women were required to worship their husbands. They ate separately after all males had finished eating. A widow was burnt to death on her husband’s funeral pyre, according to a rite called sati.
After Viceroy William Bentinck intervened to ban this religious practice, their widows were subjected to other torments. A widow had to keep her head permanently shaved, eat a frugal meal only once a day, always dress in coarse white, not remarry, nor participate in auspicious rituals such as marriages etc. And the Hindu law, embodied in manusmirti (the “Law of Manu”) and its two offshoots, the Mitakshara and Dayabhaga schools, both exclude women from inheritance.
Judeo-Christianity had no provision for inheritance nor did it define conjugal rights, such as maintenance and divorce. Fornication and adultery were cursed like other sins, in passing, but not treated as culpable.
Christianity’s failure to solve social problems triggered a revolt in 16th century Europe which came to be known as the period of Enlightenment. The world view expounded by its apostle, Francis Bacon, emphasized the need for man to “consult only things themselves.”
Hobbies followed, rejecting everything, other than material existence, as unreal. And Descartes put the seal on it with the postulate “Never to accept anything for true which I did not clearly know to be such.”
This new weltanschauung banished God from human affairs. A new concept of liberty synonymous with license emerged, evoking Miltion’s famous line, “License they mean when they cry liberty.”
Women took the cue from the Enlightenment to organize and agitate. Thus the expression “feminism” was born in 1895, implying “political, social and economic equality between sexes.” But, as they won victory after victory, the success fou spurred them to claim absolute liberty. So, feminism became “women’s lib.” Their new claims included the right to use their body as they wished, to have babies out of wedlock, besides lesbianism and abortion.
This attitude amounts to a revenge on religion for its failure to give them relief. So the laws on women’s rights in non-Muslim societies were made by man. But human knowledge, despite all his achievements, is never the last word.
By contrast, Islam had codified the laws to protect the rights of women, 1,200 years before the phrase “women’s rights” had been coined. And eight centuries before King Henry VIII banished his divorced wives, Muslim women had been assured of appropriate settlement on divorce.
It is a marvel that Islam’s laws relating to women, revealed so long ago meet all the tests of modern civil law. Among them, marriage is the most glaring example. It is a contract according to the most rigorous definition of the term under the Law of Contract, embodying all the four basic ingredients of a contract, – offer, acceptance, consensus ad idem and consideration.
The woman’s free consent (acceptance) to a marriage proposal (offer) is indispensable. Both must have a unity of minds on the issue (consensus ad idem). And the man must agree to pay a specified sum of money to the woman he marries (consideration).
Besides, not only married women have the right to maintenance but even divorcees have such rights under given circumstances. It follows, therefore, that a Muslim woman can only be married to a Muslim man.
Therefore the marriage of any woman to the Quran, for instance, as practised by some people in Pakistan, is not only invalid in Islam but also an enormous heresy because it amounts to attributing male gender to the Divine Revelation.
The element of tender care for women is reflected in 2:223 where it says, “Your wives are as a tilth unto you…” You have only to ask a farmer how he cherishes, cares for, and covets his tilth, to capture the exquisite beauty of the simile. Reciprocal respect is enjoined in 2:187, where spouses are called each other’s “garment.” There is no concept of the woman worshipping the husband.
Although one of the steps to discipline wives, “on whose part one fears disloyalty and ill-conduct,” permits “beating.” (4:34), all commentators, including Imam Shafei, are unanimous in holding that “beating” should be deprecated and if at all resorted to, should be nominal, without any element of cruelty. Besides there must be no “nagging” if the wife corrects herself.
If dispute persists, there is provision for arbitration and counselling (4:35) And 4:128 provides for separation if a wife fears cruelty or desertion on her husband’s part.
A woman inherits a specified share in the property of her deceased parents as well as her deceased spouse. A Muslim woman is sui juris. She can sue and be sued in her own name.
She can own and dispose of property. Women can go out of doors alone and take part in social, economic and political activities or pursue a lawful vocation. They have the right to offer prayers with men. But “with,” here, means “in unison with,” as in Makkah, Medina and other mosques, as distinguished from standing sandwiched between men.
Muslim widows are free to remarry. (24:32). Launching a charge against chaste women unless supported by four witnesses (24:4) is a punishable offence. Actually, Islam interprets the laws of nature.
It takes note of the perils inherent in excessive gender interaction, because, despite all their masculine achievements, women remain vulnerable as borne out by frequent complaints of gender harassment on job.
Recent reports in the American media about the scandals in some of the US Air Force bases and the Lyndee England – Charles Graner scandal at Abu Ghraib prison further highlight the consequences of carrying gender equality too far.
To prevent such ugly eventualities, Islam emphasizes modesty. The Quran asks not only women, but also men, to keep their gaze low. Islam puts a heavy premium on chastity which is still valued even in non-Muslim societies, despite widespread promiscuity. This should explain the restraints on women’s dress and conduct among relatives within prohibited degree and others.
“Elderly women, past the prospect of marriage, may lay aside their outer garments provide they do not make a wanton display of their beauty;” (24: 60). For appreciating its profundity the ayah requires some reflection.
Fornication and adultery are crimes in Islam, for which specific punishment is prescribed without gender inequality (24:2). Anything beyond that (e.g. karo kari) is, therefore, transgression. There is no question that adultery is far worse than fornication. It breaks homes. It ruins lives.
Islam preaches that everything in heavens and earth belongs to Allah. That includes the human body. Humans had no choice in the creation of their bodies, the formation of their limbs or their faculties. Therefore, all people are not equal physically and mentally. They cannot stop the onset of decay in their bodies.
In fact, humans are lessees in perpetuity; Allah is the owner of their bodies and unto Him shall they return eventually. As a lessee is not free to do whatever he wishes with his leasehold, so humans must use their limbs in the way their Creator and Owner has ordained.
Therefore the concept that women have a right over their own bodies to use it the way they wish is unacceptable in a Muslim society. To understand the spirit of the Islamic principles with regard to women, a careful study especially of Sura Nisa (4) and Sura Noor (24), is recommended.