I am by no means an “authority” on Islam but I do come from a place where there is a spectrum of views on the subject of women in Islam. I grew up in a town seeing my mother practice Islam in a pure and quiet way, with tolerance, care and concern for everyone Later I learned about political Islam and from that point on, the images between what “is” and what “should be” became apparent.
Many of us – those from the West and the East – have negative images of women in Islam: the uneducated woman who has no say in decision making, the pregnant mother who does household chores all day, the subservient wife who suffers under the abuse of her dictatorial husband. The western perception in general and the western media in specific have specialized in portraying these images. In all honesty, in the East, where I come from, although the images may not be as harsh, the prejudices somewhat remain. In the East, at times, these prejudices which emanate from misunderstandings, ignorance, old tales and sayings, enter the fabric of society and after many generations people believe what is told to them is real religion and the word of God, it mixes with cultural attitudes and takes on the name of religion. So, it has been and remains a great challenge to affirm the rights of Muslim women.
For this reason, the topic of women in Islam is an essential subject for discussion, for both eastern and western women and men. I hope it will create a bond of discovery and understanding between them. Given my limited time and knowledge, I will keep to just a few essential topics, beginning with the historical contexts and Quranic references that create the framework for understanding the place of woman in Islam. I will also try to touch on issues that concern Muslim women and men as well as non-Muslims.
My points will, Inshallah, focus on the basic principles of Islam for both women and men to follow in society. Moreover, I would like to emphasize the distinction between the “normative” teachings of Islam and diverse cultural practices among Muslims which may or may not be consistent with these teachings. So although you might continue to have those negative images in your mind that I mentioned earlier, you will, Insha’Allah, know that the principles differ from actuality.
Today people think that women are liberated in the west and that the women’s liberation movement began in the 20th Century. Actually the women’s liberation movement was revealed by God to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in the seventh century. The Qur’an and the Traditions of the Prophet (Hadith and Sunna) guarantee every Muslim woman certain rights and duties.
Equality v/s Sameness
These rights are equal to those of a man but they are not necessarily identical. Equality and sameness are two different things. This difference is understandable because man and woman are not identical but they are created equals. The distinction between equality and sameness is of paramount importance. With this distinction in mind, there is no room to imagine that woman is inferior to man, just because her rights are not identical. Had her status been identical with his, she would have been simply a duplicate of him, which she is not. The fact that Islam gives her equal rights – but not identical rights- shows that it takes her into consideration, acknowledges her, and recognizes her independent personality and role.
In the Qur’an Allah frequently addresses both the man and the woman. In one passage Allah reveals:
“For Muslim men and women, for believing men and women, for devout men and women, for true men and women who are patient, for men and women who humble themselves, for men and women who give in charity, for men and women who fast, for men and women who guard their chastity, and for men and women who engage much in Allah’s praise – For them all has Allah prepared forgiveness and great reward.” (33:35)
The woman is recognized by Islam as an equal partner in the procreation of humankind. The man is the father, the woman is the mother, and both are essential for life. By this partnership, the woman has an equal share in every aspect; she is entitled to equal rights; she undertakes equal responsibilities, and she has as many qualities and as much humanity as her partner. So, fourteen centuries ago, Islam made men and women equally accountable to God in glorifying and worshiping Him – setting no limits on her spiritual progress. In the Qur’an in the first verse of the chapter entitled “Women”, God says:
“O mankind! Be careful of your duty to your Lord Who created you from a single soul and from it and its mate from them both have spread abroad a multitude of men and women. Be careful of your duty toward Allah in Whom you claim (your rights) of one another, and towards the wombs (that bore you). Lo! Allah has been a Watcher over you.” (4:1)