“And Allah has given you mates of your own nature, and has given you from your mates, children and grandchildren, and has made provision of good things for you. Is it then in vanity that they believe and in the grace of God that they disbelieve?” Quran 16:72
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.
The teachings of Islam are based essentially on the Quran (God’s revelation) and Hadeeth (Traditions of Prophet Muhammad).
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 women’s dignity and rights. In order to achieve this objective, it may be useful to review briefly how women were treated in general. How women were treated in previous civilizations, 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.
Women in Ancient Civilization
Describing the status of the Indian woman, Encyclopedia Britannica states:
In India, subjection was a cardinal principle. Day and night most women be held by their protectors in a state of dependence says Manu. The rule of inheritance was agnatic, that is descent traced through males to the exclusion of females.
In Indian historical 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 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.”
In the Encyclopaedia Britannica, we find a summary of the legal status of women in the Roman civilization:
In Roman Law a woman was even in historic times completely dependent. If married she and her property passed into the power of her husband . . . the wife was the purchased property of her husband, and like a slave acquired only for his benefit. A woman could not exercise any civil or public office. Could not be a witness, surety, tutor, or curator; she could not adopt or be adopted, or make will or contract. Among the Scandinavian races women were: under perpetual tutelage, whether married or unmarried. As late as the Code of Christian V, at the end of the 17th Century, it was enacted that if a woman married without the consent of her tutor he might have, if he wished, administration and usufruct of her goods during her life.
According to the English Common Law:
…all real property which a wife held at the time of a marriage became a possession of her husband. He was entitled to the rent from the land and to any profit which might be made from operating the estate during the joint life of the spouses. As time passed, the English courts devised means to forbid a husband’s transferring real property without the consent of his wife, but he still retained the right to manage it and to receive the money which it produced. As to a wife’s personal property, the husband’s power was complete. He had the right to spend it as he saw fit.
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.”
Stressing this noble and natural conception, the Qur'an states:
He (God) it is who did create you from a single soul and therefrom did create his mate, that he might dwell with her (in love)…(Qur'an 7:189)
He has made for you pairs from among yourselves …Qur'an 42:1 1
The rest of this article outlines the position of Islam regarding the status of women in society from its various aspects – spiritually, socially, economically and politically.
The Spiritual Aspect
The Quran provides clear-cut evidence that a woman is completely equated with a man in the sight of God in terms of her rights and responsibilities. The Qur'an states:
“Every soul will be (held) in pledge for its deeds” (Qur'an 74:38). It also states:
…So their Lord accepted their prayers, (saying): I will not suffer to be lost the work of any of you whether male or female. You proceed one from another …(Qur'an 3: 195).
Whoever works with righteousness, man or woman, and has faith, verily to him will We give a new life that is good and pure, and We will bestow on such their reward according to the their actions. (Qur'an 16:97, see also 4:124).
Women according to the Quran are 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 at 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.
The Social Aspect
As a child and an adolescent:
Despite the social acceptance of female infanticide among some Arabian tribes, the Qur'an forbade this custom, and considered it a crime like any other murder.
“And when the female (infant) buried alive – is questioned, for what crime she was killed.” (Qur'an 81:8-9).
Criticizing the attitudes of such parents who reject their female children, the Qur'an states:
“When news is brought to one of them, of (the Birth of) a female (child), his face darkens and he is filled with inward grief! With shame does he hide himself from his people because of the bad news he has had! Shall he retain her on (sufferance) and contempt, or bury her in the dust? Ah! What an evil (choice) they decide on?” (Qur'an 16: 58-59).
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:
"Whosoever has a daughter and he does not bury her alive, does not insult her, and does not favour his son over her, God will enter him into Paradise". (Ibn Hanbal, No. 1957).
The right of females to seek knowledge is not different from that of males. Prophet Muhammad (P.) said:
“Seeking knowledge is mandatory for every Muslim”. (AlBayhaqi).
Muslim as used here including both males and females.
As a wife:
The Quran clearly indicates that marriage is sharing between the two halves of the society, and that its objectives, beside perpetuating human life, are emotional well-being and spiritual harmony. Its bases are love and mercy.
Among the most impressive verses in the Quran about marriage is the following.
“And among His signs is this: That He created mates for you from yourselves that you may find rest, peace of mind in them, and He ordained between you love and mercy. Lo, herein indeed are signs for people who reflect.” (Quran 30:2 1).
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. Islam emphasizes the importance of taking counsel and mutual agreement in family decisions. The Quran gives us an example:
“…If they (husband wife) desire to wean the child by mutual consent and (after) consultation, there is no blame on them…” (Quran 2: 233).
Over and above her basic rights as a wife comes the right which is emphasized by the Quran and is strongly recommended by the Prophet (P); kind treatment and companionship.
The Quran states:
“…But consort with them in kindness, for if you hate them it may happen that you hate a thing wherein God has placed much good.” (Quran 4: l9).
Prophet Muhammad. (P) said:
"The best of you is the best to his family and I am the best among you to my family".
"The most perfect believers are the best in conduct and best of you are those who are best to their wives". (Ibn-Hanbal, No. 7396)
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. When the continuation of the marriage relationship is impossible for any reason, men are still taught to seek a gracious end for it. . If she is divorced, she may get alimony from her ex-husband.
The Quran states about such cases:
When you divorce women and they reach their prescribed term, then retain them in kindness and retain them not for injury so that you transgress (the limits). (Quran 2:231). (See also Quran 2:229 and 33:49).
As a mother:
Islam considered kindness to parents next to the worship of God.
“And we have enjoined upon man (to be good) to his parents: His mother bears him in weakness upon weakness…” (Quran 31:14) (See also Quran 46:15, 29:8).
Moreover, the Quran has a special recommendation for the good treatment of mothers:
“Your Lord has decreed that you worship none save Him, and that you be kind to your parents. . .” (Quran 17:23).
A man came to Prophet Muhammad (P) asking:
O Messenger of God, who among the people is the most worthy of my good company? The Prophet (P) said, Your mother. The man said then who else: The Prophet (P) said, Your mother. The man asked, Then who else? Only then did the Prophet (P) say, Your father. (Al-Bukhari and Muslim).
A famous saying of The Prophet is “Paradise is at the feet of mothers.” (In Al’Nisa’I, Ibn Majah, Ahmad).
The Economic Aspect
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.
There is no decree in Islam which forbids woman from seeking employment whenever there is a necessity for it, especially in positions which fit her nature and in which society needs her most. Examples of these professions are nursing, teaching (especially for children), and medicine. Moreover, there is no restriction on benefiting from woman’s exceptional talent in any field. Even for the position of a judge, where there may be a tendency to doubt the woman’s fitness for the post due to her more emotional nature, we find early Muslim scholars such as Abu-Hanifa and Al-Tabary holding there is nothing wrong with it
The Political Aspect
Any fair investigation of the teachings of Islam 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 Quran and in Islamic history we find examples of women who participated in serious discussions and argued even with the Prophet (P) himself, (see Quran 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: “Woman is right and Omar is wrong.”
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.
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 Quran 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.