The Status of Women in Islam

The interpretation of original Islamic texts paints a far liberal and feminist picture than what is made of it in the centuries to follow. What we see in today’s Islamic world is a lot of injustice to women.  Women are oppressed under the false pretense of upholding Islamic virtue. The present system “keeps people locked in roles that stunt their growth and unjustly penalizes women who would exercise their rights”.  Indeed, if true Islam were to be implemented many injustices against women could be prevented – rapists won’t go free, victims won’t be jailed, women would be educated and fundamentalist thugs like the Taliban would not have thrived.

Some primitive traditional practices that we see in Islamic societies today is more a cultural norm than a religious one.  A few extreme examples are female genital mutilation and forced marriages.  More mundane practices include the prohibition of women from driving cars, etc.  These rules cannot be traced to Islamic literature.

The edicts in Koran are equally applicable to both men and women.  According to Islam, on the moral scale, both men and women are deemed equal. Islam does not discriminate between the status of men or women. The dynamic of a marital relationship requires that man has authority in certain matters. It is incorrect to assume that this implies a lower status for women. It says,

“Man and Woman were created of a single soul and are moral equals in the sight of God. The rights and responsibilities of a woman are equal to those of a man but they are not necessarily identical with them. Equality and sameness are two quite different things. This difference is understandable because man and woman are not identical but they are created equals. This is especially true as it is almost impossible to find even two identical men or women.” (Jafar)

According to the Koran, men and women are units of a pair. When both are taken independent of each other, there are certain obvious vacuums in the emotional, physical and psychological personalities of each. The Koran further goes on to say that God has created the two in such a way that they are complementary to each other in different ways, so that these vacuums are generally removed to a great extent. For this very purpose, God gave different mental, physical and emotional qualities to the male and the female of the species. These different mental, physical and psychological qualities, on the one hand complement man and woman, and on the other establishes for them different facets of activity in their personal and intimate relationships.

Though women are regarded equal to men, it is important to note that they are not the same.  This difference in their dispositions is an essential and desirable aspect of society.  Keeping in mind this distinction, their rights are also different.  Thus taking Koran by its word, women are not inferior to men.  Women are given equal, but not identical rights, in recognition of their unique personality.

The Koran provides clear-cut evidence that woman is completely equated with man in the sight of God in terms of her rights and responsibilities. However, considering the differences in physiology 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 either’s health.

The right to choose one’s husband is another measure of empowerment. The importance of a woman’s consent to marry a particular man is stated in no unclear terms. However, the prevailing practices in some Islamic countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh is incongruent with this edict. The concept of dowry is much misunderstood.  It is not the price to buy a bride, but rather, a gift of love by the groom.  This is a practice of prudence as it provides her with financial security for unforeseen developments.

Koran’s endorsement of polygamy is another misused custom.  At the time the Koran was revealed, most Arabic nations were involved in warfare, which resulted in a number of widows with children.. Taking this into account, a man was allowed to take as many as four wives, not to gratify him but to share the societal responsibility. The precondition for such additional marriages is the man’s ability to cater and support his wives.  As a matter of fact, the widows were not sexy young women, “but usually mothers of up to six children, who came as part of the deal”. It is a good sign that polygamy is not so common today.

The Islamic law pertaining to divorce takes due consideration of women’s needs and treats her fairly.  Also, in any marital dispute all options for reconciliation are tried before the decision to grant divorce is arrived.

Muslim women’s dressing is portrayed in the western media as anachronistic and oppressive. There is some rationale behind these dress codes. The emphasis is on modesty and prevention of unwanted sexual advances.  It is perfectly alright to wear attractive and graceful dresses, while avoiding being provocative. Given the context of our times, when sexual abuse of women is in ascendancy, the Islamic dress code helps maintain moral integrity. However, taken to the extreme, the veiling can have a repressive effect.

Islamic Law is just and fair with respect to a woman’s property rights.  In addition, Islam restored to woman the right of inheritance, after she herself was an object of inheritance in some cultures. Her share is wholly hers and none can make any claim on it, including her brother, husband and father.

Irrespective of whether she is single or married, she can “buy, sell, mortgage or lease any or all her properties”. Women’s employment is not encouraged, for it is regarded that her primary role in society is as a mother and care giver.  It is reasoned that this noble responsibility helps shape mentally and physically sound children. The scriptures grant women appropriate rights of inheriting wealth based on the context.

“Whether she is a wife or mother, a sister or daughter, she receives a certain share of the deceased kin’s property, a share which depends on her degree of relationship to the deceased and the number of heirs. This share is hers, and no one can take it away or disinherit her. In the case of inheritance, the question of quality and sameness is fully applicable.” (Jafar)

Also, a woman has no financial responsibilities whatsoever except for her personal expense, the high luxurious things that she likes to have. She is financially secure and provided for. If she is a wife, her husband is the provider; if she is a mother, it is the son; if she is a daughter, it is the father; if she is a sister; it is the brother, and so on. If she has no relatives on whom she can depend, then the question of inheritance does not arise because there is nothing to inherit and there is no one to bequeath anything to her. However, she will not be left to starve, maintenance of such a woman is the collective responsibility of the society. She may be given financial aid or a job to earn her living, and whatever money she makes will all be hers The proportion of inheritance between men and women though may vary. This is in recognition of the additional financial responsibilities that lay on a man’s shoulder and not a statement of supremacy of one over the other.

An inquiry into the history of Islamic scripture will present clear evidence for women’s political rights.  Women were allowed to be nominated to political offices. However, their participation in public affairs today is highly disproportionate. The Koran expresses some reservations about women’s leadership abilities as they are emotional by nature. This is not to slight women, but to acknowledge their psychological makeup.

“She is entitled to freedom of expression as much as man is. Her sound opinions are taken into consideration and cannot be disregarded just because she happen to belong to the female sex. It is reported in the Koran and history that woman not only expressed her opinion freely but also argued and participated in serious discussions with the Prophet himself as well as with other Muslim leaders.” (Wollaston)

Historical documents prove this elevated life-style of women during the early days of Islamic tradition.  Women nursed wounded soldiers, prepared supplies and provided vital support during times of war.  Such public participation was much appreciated and welcomed.

For bearing witnesses in civil disputes and agreements, two women are treated as equal to a man.  This is so because women are generally not experienced with affairs of commerce and is likely to make errors of judgement.  In this case, two women are better to only one.  How far this holds true in the contemporary world is another debate.  Nevertheless, this law is a precautionary measure and not an instrument of derogation to women.  Another way of looking at this law is that, it gives women a great opportunity to participate in public affairs.

The two primary scriptures of Islam, the Koran and the Hadeeth, guarantee women the rights they deserve.  Contrary to prevailing beliefs, women are given special privileges to attend Mosques at night.  That women are required to stand behind men in mosques is not because they are discriminated against.  The prayers offered in such places involve assuming various bodily postures.  It is conceivable that some of the routines will disturb a woman’s clothing and expose her skin.  Such distractions are least wanted in a place of worship.  So the practice was introduced as a means to aid concentration on God.

The holy books of Islam emphasize the importance of education to all muslims, irrespective of their sex.

“She is equal to man in the pursuit of education and knowledge. When Islam enjoins the seeking of knowledge upon Muslims, it makes no distinction between man and woman. Almost fourteen centuries ago, Muhammad declared that the pursuit of knowledge is incumbent on every Muslim male and female. This declaration was very clear and was implemented by Muslims throughout its early history.  It is a sad fact that much transgression is manifest today.” (Gruver)

There is no decree in Islam which prohibits woman from seeking appropriate employment whenever there is a necessity for it, especially in positions which fit her nature and in which society needs her most. Examples of such professions are nursing, and teaching, especially for children. Moreover, there is no restriction on benefiting from woman’s extraordinary talent in any walk of life. Early muslim scholars even held that there is nothing wrong in appointing a woman to the position of a judge, though there may be a inclination to doubt the woman’s fitness for the post due to her more emotional nature.

Thus it is clear that the status of woman in Islam is quite high and realistically suitable to her nature. Her rights and duties are comparable to those of man but not necessarily or absolutely the same with them. If she is deprived of one thing in some aspect, she is fully compensated for it with more things in many other aspects. The fact that she belongs to the female sex has no bearing on her human status or independent personality, and it is no ground for justification of prejudice against her or injustice to her person. Islam gives her as much as is required of her. Her rights match beautifully with her duties. The rights are balanced by her duties and no side overweighs the other.

Works Cited:

Gruver, Kathleen E.; Jones, Trevelyn E.; Toth, Luann; Charnizon, Marlene; Grabarek,

Daryl; Raben, Dale. Women in Islam. School Library Journal, Jun2005, Vol. 51 Issue 6,

p187-187.

Jafar, Afshan. Women, Islam, and the State in Pakistan,  Gender Issues, Winter2005, Vol. 22 Issue 1, p35-55.

Quoc-Benjamin, Nguyen Tang Le Huy. Women, Democracy and Islam, UN Chronicle, Dec2004-Feb2005, Vol. 41 Issue 1, p38-39.

Wollaston, Isabel. Women in Islam. Reviews in Religion & Theology, Sep2000, Vol. 7 Issue 4, p438.

Sirriyeh, Elizabeth. The Rights of Women in Islam,  Journal of Beliefs & Values: Studies in Religion & Education, Oct99, Vol. 20 Issue 2, p261.