Women in Islam: Rights and Realities – A Bird’s Eye View

Men and women are equal and complement each other, though the Quran does not hold them identical. The reality obtaining in the Muslim countries and Muslim societies may be quite different today. Some of the tribal practices that predate Islam still continue in various quarters. Pressures of urbanization, industrialization and a culture of greed are also introducing distortions and corruptions.

By Maqbool Ahmed Siraj

Any debate on the rights of Muslim women bases itself on the holy Quran, the major reference point for deriving divine sanction. It provides the basis for democratic feminism in its broadest sense. The holy book addresses the men and women separately as well as jointly at scores of occasions and sets the goal of trusteeship (khalifah) before them on the earth. A few chapters (suras) like ‘Noor’ and ‘Ahzab’ deal with family issues very elaborately and lay down a broad framework of principles for derivation of rules, laws, norms and regulations.
The fact that Quranic words are eternal and may not be changed or edited does not make them static in their intended meaning or place than in an absolute realm beyond reading in space and time. Rather the Quranic words should be read and reread and interpreted in space and time. Without this re-reading, humans cannot be described as rational and moral beings.
Over the last few centuries, the orientalists were the main source of knowledge about Islamic rights of women or status of women in Islamic countries. Their view was mainly coloured with feminist movement in the West which was more inspired by competitive gender rights. Western media promoted the ‘veiled women of the Harem’ image. Islam began to be viewed as a patriarchal religion incompatible with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While the fact was that Western women had borrowed—and might be borrowing—from the Quran the demands for voting, property ownership, name preservation after marriage, divorce and custody right and other issues of gender justice. Some of Islam’s principles were translated into democratic principles and modern women’s demands while Islam was chastised as antithetical to democracy, human rights and gender justice.
Women Studies Departments looked at the issues of Muslim women from this angle ignoring the spiritual and intellectual worldview of the people who identify with the Quran. They lost sight of the moral and intellectual autonomy of Muslim women which is a prerequisite for Islamic education. In other words it was necessary to build a relationship between self-identity and democracy.
Even within the Muslim world, the debate on the issue was focused on the lives of the family women of the Prophet’s household. Be it Fatimah, Khadijah, Aishah or Hafsa, (May Allah be pleased with them) they were idealized in their role as wives, daughters, mothers and sisters. These were all male-dependant and complementary roles. Some of the practices in the 7th century Arabia were generalized to fix the status of Muslim women without consideration of time and space. A close look at the Islamic history suggests that interpretations of the holy scripture and traditions were held on par with the scripture itself. It is a painful reality that not much of the social history of second and third century Islam has been recorded or is available. Though some women are seen as narrators of traditions of the Prophet, there are no worth mentioning female names among writers of tafasir, fiqh or hadith. Since there were no interpreters from among women, there was no scope for their inclusion in the mutual consultation process (shoora), a forerunner for Islamic democracy.
Most Muslim scholars suffice to interpret the Quranic principles merely in terms of right to literacy and education, but shy away from explaining the Muslim women’s right to higher religious education (active participation in the ongoing reading and interpretation of the Qur’an) as the foundational means to becoming the spiritually and intellectually autonomous persons mandated in the Quranic view of the individual, as Trustee of God (khalifah). Consequently, the issues like women’s participation in decision-making process, economic justice, were ignored. It was mainly discussed in terms of morality and again it got centred on women’s attire, leading to their seclusion and segregation. It further led to women being kept out of even Friday congregation.
This absence during the critical development of the structure of Islamic thinking and the Muslim community resulted in women becoming followers of interpretation imposed by others and consequently relating to the next generations only through these interpretations. Muslim women came to be identified with their secondary identification of gender, rather than the primary identity of vicegerent of God.
It must be admitted that the holy Prophet was primarily engaged in transforming a tribal society into a family based society. It was therefore necessary to set parameters for defining relationships and kinships in such close confines of family. In a tribal society, the kinship was based on male lineage. (For instance, there was this rule of father’s wife or consorts being passed on to sons which Islam prohibited.) But Islam shifted the kinship of the family to lineage, marriage, and even lactation. The concepts of libas, satr, jilbab, hijab, ghita and khimar were intended to bring the changes in keeping with this overall transformation and introduce the female as a principal in the familial socio-economic and religious relations.
Second, the Quranic view emphasizes the concept of hifz al farj to mark the criterion for human biological relations. The emphasis on reverencing the womb (ch. 4 : v. 1) and on covering the bosoms (ch. 24: v.31) for instance, is intended mainly to change the status of the woman from merely carrier of the child—who could be adopted or rejected by the tribe—to an active partner in the reproduction process as well as a principal in determining blood and marriage relations. The Quran reads: “Say to the believing men to lower their gaze and guard their furuj, the area of private parts, that is purer (azka) for them, and Allah knows what they do” (24:30). Yet, when the guidelines were directed to women, they were elaborated to the present effect of woman’s womb (the source of blood and marriage relations) and bosoms (the source of lactations) on determining the socio-economic legitimacy of all the male relatives “And say to the believing women to lower their gaze and guard their furuj, and not display their zinah except what appears thereof, and to draw their khumur over bosoms, and not display their zinah except to their husbands, fathers or fathers-in-law, their sons or stepsons, their brothers or nephews, their women or slaves, their male attendants who lack (sexual) vigour or who have not yet developed lust or awareness of women’s private parts (awrah al-nisa) and they should not stamp their feet while walking so their zinah become apparent and ask for forgiveness from Allah, all of you oh believers (males and females) that you may win Allah’s grace” (24:31).
Thus the outer garments (jalabib) in (ch. 30: v. 33) or the head covers (khumars) in (ch. 24: v. 31) are all intended to guard the womb and the bosoms as the places that determine lineage, more so than to cover the body of the woman ipso facto. The prophetic tradition that allows a woman to remove her khimar before a prospective husband is further evidence for this explanation. Modesty is intended to protect the family lineage, and since the two principals in family life are the woman and the man, their acceptance of each other is of a higher value than absolute observation of attire restrictions merely for the sake of covering the woman’s body.

Women’s Situation in Contemporary Muslim Societies
Main sources of Islamic Law are Quran, Hadith (what the Holy Prophet said), Sunnah or what the Holy Prophet did, and Fiqh, the interpretation of the earlier two sources by scholars who were essentially products of their time.
As for the Holy Quran, it itself declares that certain of its verses are categorical (Muhakkamat), others are ambiguous (Mutashabihat). Then there are verses on whose meanings there is no consensus.
Secondly the Holy Quran has adopted a language which has layered meanings, unfolding their relevance to time and society in which it might be read. Look for example the verse 34 of the fourth Surah Nisaa (women) which reads Arrijalu Qawwamuna Alan Nisaai.
Look at the translation by Abdullah Yusuf Ali:
4:34 Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in (the husband’s) absence what Allah would have them guard. As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (Next), refuse to share their beds, (And last) beat them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them Means (of annoyance): For Allah is Most High, great (above you all).

Now look at the translation done by Leopold Asad:
Men Shall take full care of women with the bounties which Allah has bestowed more abundantly on the former than on the latter and with what they may spend out of their possessions. And the righteous women are the truly devout ones who guard the intimacy which Allah has ordained to be guarded.
And as for those women whose ill-will you have reason to fear, admonish them (first); then leave them alone in bed; then beat them; and if thereupon they pay you heed, do not seek to harm them. Behold, Allah is indeed most high, great! (4: 34)
It could be interpreted even more variedly as : Men are protectors, providers, custodians, caretakers, guardians of women. In each of these senses the co-relationship between men and women could be different. Guardian is quite different from caretakers. Similarly protectors or providers are widely different roles.
As for Hadith, it is a vast treasure house of what the Holy Prophet said or did at different times. The Prophet was an Arab and lived in a tribal society of 7th Century Arabia. The Hadith has to be understood in this overall context and also in relation to persons who quoted him saying and witnessed him doing something at a particular time.
The third most important source of law as is recognized today is Fiqh (jurisprudence). This came into existence when Islamic state had grown to immense proportions, a settled society had come into existence and economy, society, and politics were urging more refinement in the law. This is a vast corpus of legal literature and displays a diversity of legal thought, juristic interpretation. From this emanated four schools of Islamic legal philosophy 1- Hanafi, 2- Shafii, 3- Maliki, 4- Hanbali. Most Muslims and present day clerics consider them as final but the fact is that Islam ensured provision for continuum of legal interpretation with instruments like Ijma (consensus), Qiyas (analogical reasoning) and Ijtihad (interpretative judgement), Istihsaan (application of discretion in legal matters). It is another matter that these instruments are largely defunct today due to segregation of theological and secular education and clergy’s largely narrow minded approach.

Now looking at what the Quran or Hadith say we glean the following:
1- Men and women are equal and complement each other, though the Quran does not hold them identical. Islam salvaged humanity from the perception of women being the evil temptress and being the eternal sinner.
2- The Holy Quran assigns them equal roles, prescribes the same social mores, rites and rituals, but differentiates in matters of biology and makes special provisions with regard to menstruation, pregnancy, childbearing, lactation, modes of dressing, etc.
3- In matters of marriage, women were given the right to choose their spouse, give consent at the time of Nikah, documentation of Nikah (which could be called registration in the modern legalese), demand Mehar (dower), secure divorce (Talaq) or separation (Khulaa), right to maintenance during the Iddat period, access, custody and maintenance of children in case of divorce,
4- In matters of marriage, Islam did allow men to marry up to four women with strict command to maintain justice between the wives. But it has to be understood that Islam was trying to limit the number of wives to four from former situation of unlimited marriages. So it must be understood that the trajectory Islam was setting was one of reform and progress and justice and not the one of liberty and license. It has also to be understood that these provisions were made when wars caused widowhood on a large scale.
5- Similarly, Islam provided a way out for men and women whose marriage was not working and did not want them to remain locked in a broken down marriage. So Talaq was introduced. Its methodology is however a matter of differences – and lately controversy—between various schools of Islamic law.
6- Islam encouraged widow remarriage with the Prophet himself marrying a widow 15 years elder to him and avoiding no other marriage while she remained his only wife for 25 years.
7- Polygyny was advised also in view of abundance of orphans due to high incidence of male fatality in the event of wars.
8- Islam was the first religion to fix women’s share of inheritance from nothing to half that of what males get. So the trajectory it set was one of giving than depriving.
9- Islam recognized the rights of women to education and employment. So the Prophet’s hadith exhorted Talabal Ilmal Farizatun ala Kulli muslimin was muslimah, that attainment of knowledge is obligatory on Muslim men as well as Muslim women. Similarly, during the succeeding Caliphate, women were employed in administration. Some women rose as scholars of hadith and some like Rabia Basri as saints. But this continued only for about 150 years of the Prophet. There is no mention of women scholars in latter Islamic history. An Encyclopedia compiled recently lists 8,000 women muhaddithat (narrators of hadith).
10- Some argue that Islam placed restriction on women traveling alone. It must be understood in a particular context. It might be possible that the Prophet might have asked a particular woman not to travel alone to a specific destination at some point of time. Also note that most of the Arabian peninsula comprised desolate sandy stretches for hundreds of miles. This restriction is nowadays generalized to bar women traveling alone even though the mode of transport is no longer horseback or donkey-back. But today we travel in bus, train and plane which carry a lot of people with definitive time schedule and communication facilities to pick and drop the visitors.
11- Islam also gave the women the right to vote and be part of consultative bodies. However, there are certain Hadith which indicate the Holy Prophet barring women as being appointed heads of state. This Hadith relates to a particular context. Someone informed him that the likely successor to throne in Iran would be a woman. The Prophet is reported to have said: The country that is going to be headed by a woman is headed for disaster with particular reference to Iran of that era as he knew the kind of decadence that had set into Iranian system and not in general terms as women should not be allowed to head a state. Tunisian author Fatima Mernissi went into the origin of Hadith about the head of the state and zeroed in upon its narrator who she found out was of very doubtful antecedents, hence not credible.
12- In matters of slavery, Islam could not abolish slavery. Perhaps, it was not possible so early in the reform process to bring about this revolutionary initiative. It could have caused a social tumult. But again Islam set a trajectory whereby a transition could be possible in the long term. For instance, recompense for various sins was to set free slaves. But Islam ended one very obnoxious tribal practice, i.e., slave women being passed down from fathers to sons, i.e., father’s female slave consort playing the same role with son. In one fell swoop, the Quran struck at the roots of this custom so that a transition from tribal lineage to family based lineage could be initiated. Because of this tribal custom there was lot of confusion in economic responsibilities and slave-women were being treated as property. Islam wanted the economic responsibilities to be fixed with family as a template and no one should remain uncared for in the society.
13- Similarly, some scholars are of the opinion that women are not allowed to be qazis or judges, or two women should be taken as witnesses if one single man is not available and there are hadith which assign men superior status than women (e.g., If God would have asked his servants prostrating before other servants that could have been a woman prostrating before her husband.) These commands or roles portray Islam as a patriarchal religion. These definitely need more study in matters of context in which these were said. Similarly, there is this Muslim custom of slaughtering of two goats when a boy is born and a single one if a girl is born as thanksgiving. Such traditions do raise suspicion that Islam assigned a superior status to men over women.
In the end what has to be understood is that Islam originated in a tribal dominated society of 7th century Arabia which had a small and widely distributed population. Means of communication were poor. Language had limited vocabulary as it was not a centre of civilization. It was difficult to preserve the spoken word. Most people were engaged in pastoral occupations. Islam unfolded a trajectory on which civilization had to proceed with inclusion of urges of the time. What it prescribed was not the outer fringes of laws, code, mores or ethos, but a threshold to begin. Certain things that constituted the principal motivations in delineating rights and duties were
There should be clear boundaries between families.
Economic obligations, duties and liabilities will be decided on this basis.
Lineage, marital relations and lactation should be the basis of a family’s definition and dos and don’ts for marital relationship.
There should be certitude of parenthood of every individual in order to ensure integrity of the family or the society.
Sources of confusion among these should be identified and people should be wary of them.
Strict punishments were prescribed for those who made allegations against innocents and the onus of proof was put on the ones who make allegation. It was more in the spirit of guarding the privacy of individuals rather than punishing the ones being held suspects. It was also to guard the dignity of people and to ensure that piety is the general tenor of the society. It is why Islam disapproved meeting of a male and a female unrelated to each other in privacy as well as it prescribed 80 lashes to those who failed to produce four eyewitnesses to an adulterous act.
This is a bird’s eye view of rights of women in Islam. However the reality obtaining in the Muslim countries and Muslim societies may be quite different today.
Some of the tribal practices that predate Islam still continue in various quarters. Pressures of Urbanization, industrialization and a culture of greed are also introducing distortions and corruptions:
Female circumcision is common in Sudan, Somalia, Eriteria and parts of Egypt. It was a pre-Islam tradition in some countries of Africa.
Honour killing is resorted to in Jordan, Syria and Pakistan.
Iran has contractual marriage system or Mutaa where a period of validity is mutually agreed between two individuals.
Saudis have invented a system in which a male and female could enter a marriage contract (called Misyar) and can have conjugal relationship without sharing economic responsibilities of maintenance or children.
In some African Muslim states slavery still continues whereby women could be consorts without being wives.
Poverty in the subcontinent leads poor women getting lured by unscrupulous touts into marrying Arab visitors and remain locked in marriages with fugitive husbands saddled with kids.
Unreasonable demands of Mehar by fathers from suitors in the oil rich Gulf nations leads to girls remaining spinsters till advanced age.
Saudis having their own penal code under which unrelated male and female found in isolated places or cars are punished by lashing. Driving licenses being denied to women in Saudi Arabia.
Mix of Indian traditions and Muslim Personal Law allowing irresponsible Muslim men in India to utter Talaq thrice to divorce women who fail to fulfill their demands for dowry.
For all these, Islam is no way responsible. But Muslims are. Corruptions and distortion of law over a time period are quite expected going by the human nature to experiment with taboos and find loopholes in the laws. It is why we need to have system whereby law should evolve continuously and men of faith should remind the hoi polloi about the outer perimeters of religion, propriety and conventions.
The question therefore is: how is it possible for a Muslim society to provide the individual an autonomous independent moral and rational entity when almost one-half of the humanity is paralysed or not actively participating in realizing the Quranic meaning and guidance? This should set the basic premise for an educational curriculum of the Muslim women which provides them direct access and conscientious knowledge of Islam. Only such a curriculum would make them agents of change rather than recipients of change. Freeing the women from traditional and Western worldview which is dominated by veil, politics of competitive gender, should form the objective of this educational policy. n
(This paper was presented by Maqbool Ahmed Siraj at Henry Martyn Institute, Hyderabad, on October 1, 2014 as part of the Workshop on Islam and Inter Faith Relations. He can be reached at [email protected])

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