By: Heba Salah
The January 21, 2017 Women’s March in Washington is seen by social scientists as an attempt to prove that women’s rights are human rights. The March was open for any person, regardless of gender, religious or race identity. This march challenged social injustice towards women in general, and due to many prominent leaders of the march being Muslim, it simultaneously confronted the western perspective of Muslim women as victims of a gender-biased religion.
Prior to discussing whether or not Islam is a gender-biased religion, it is worthy to shed light on the status of women in western societies. Historically speaking, the American and European post World War II societies have witnessed dramatic social changes, especially through the 50s and 70s of the 20th century. Three theories have been used by global economy theorists to explain the different levels of development and social inequality between countries, namely; modernization, dependency, and world system. The goal of these three theories failed to incorporate the issues of gender into an analysis of international equality. Many feminist theorists and researchers have attempted to integrate women into these theories of development. This included for instance the female theorist Ester Boserup’s Women’s Role in Economic Development in 1970, who argued that we need to understand women’s role in society in order to design policies that not only successfully foster development, but also policies that are not detrimental to the lives of women.
Since the emergence of such social change in western countries, women around the globe are facing tremendous injustice to their rights as human beings. Women in modern industrial societies and under globalized neoliberalism, have been and still suffer social, political, cultural and economic injustice. In certain communities, women are regarded as inferior to men, while in other parts of the world, women are deprived of their rights to education, inheritance, choosing a spouse, having a well-paid job, participating in social, political life among an array of other conditions
Despite the injustice that women all over the globe suffer due to social and cultural norms, voices from the western world still hold the religion blameworthy for humiliating and oppressing women. With the rise of such unprecedented attacks against Islam due to the heinous crimes committed by extremist groups, the so-called first world tends to consider Islam the cause of Muslim women’s oppression. They constantly question the Muslim community as to whether or not gender equality exists in Islam. However, the fact is that the injustice that Muslim women suffer is the result of an ignorant fussing of social and cultural traditions with the noble teachings of Islam. In other words, customs and traditions have unfortunately masqueraded as Islam and have placed gender equity at stake.
Gender Equity in Islam
When it comes to the question of gender in Islam, the right term to use is equity not equality. The reason is simply that equality is sometimes mistakenly understood to mean absolute equivalence in everything. In Islam, equity is used to establish justice and overall equality in all rights and responsibilities of both genders. It allows for the possibility of variations in specific items within the overall balance and equality.
God the Almighty explains this meaning of ‘equity’ in the Qur’an,
“Whoever does righteousness, whether male or female, while he/she is a believer, We will surely cause him/her to live a good life, and We will surely give them their reward [in the Hereafter] according to the best of what they used to do” (Qur'an 16:97).
According to the legal maxim, giving a ruling on something requires clear understating of the issue itself. In this respect, it is important to understand the essence of gender equity in Islam through the following aspects:
God the Almighty says in the Qur’an,
“For Muslim men and women, for believing men and women, for devout men and women, for truthful men and women, for men and women who are patient and constant, for men and women who humble themselves, for men and women who give in charity, for men and women who fast (any deny themselves), for men and women who guard their chastity, and for men and women who engage much in remembering God, for them God has prepared forgiveness and great reward” (Qur'an 33:35).
In the noble verse, God the Almighty addresses the believers using the words “believing men and women” to emphasize the equity between both genders in regards to virtues and merits. Both men and women equally need the spiritual nourishment, and both genders are equal before God in regards to acts of worship and reward. God the Almighty says,
"Verily the most honored of you (male and female) in the sight of God is (he/she who is) the most righteous of you” (Qur'an 49:13).
The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Surely, in the body there is a small piece of flesh; if it is good, the whole body is good, and if it is corrupted, the whole body is corrupted, and that is surely the heart” (Bukhari).
The Prophet's words teach us that every person, male or female, has to work hard to meet their Lord with a sound heart.
What is sad today is that women are still denied access to mosques in some communities, and if they are allowed in, they are kept in the most neglected part inside the mosque. The Prophet's tradition in which he said that it is better for a woman to pray in her house is misinterpreted. The proper interpretation of this tradition is that due to the fact that women are busy most of times with their children and housework, the Prophet made it easy for whoever among them cannot make it to the mosque to pray at home. By doing this they would not receive any less reward than a male praying in the mosque. However, this meaning of mercy is misinterpreted into gender discrimination!
The cultural traditions changed the clear teachings of Islam and neglected the words of the Prophet, “Do not prevent women from going to the mosque.”
According to the practice of generations of Muslims from among the predecessors and successors, the mere presence of males and females in the same place is not prohibited in itself. Rather, the prohibition concerns the manner of their gathering and if it contradicts the rulings of Islamic law then it becomes disliked or completely prohibited .
Islam came and found women offensively treated and regarded with great disrespect within the Arabian Peninsula. During the pre-Islamic era (Jahiliyah), the people in the Arabian Peninsula used to consider girls and women a source of shame and poverty. For the sake of this blind social tradition, fathers used to bury their daughters alive right after birth to avoid disgrace in the future. God the Almighty says in the Qur’an,
“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!” (Qur'an 16:58)
After the advent of Islam, God established gender equity that made men and women equal partners in humanity and within the social sphere. God says in the Qur'an,
"O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (not that you may despise (each other)" (Qur'an 49:13).
In Islam, both genders are entitled to social equity that incorporates the rights to good education, a well-paid job, and choosing a spouse to establish a good family based on mutual respect, love, and understanding.
However, the cultural practice in today’s communities is at odds with the above-mentioned list of social rights. Women as daughters, sisters, mothers and wives are facing social injustice that keep them in constant confrontation with men who appear to have the dominant power over them!
The Right to Education
The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon) said, “Seeking knowledge is an obligation on every Muslim [males and females].”
Women in certain societies, especially in rural areas, are deprived of their right to education based on the assumption that females' main job in life is to take care of housework and raise children, which is a great job by itself.
The Right to Choosing a Spouse
God the Almighty says,
“And among His Signs is this, that He created for you mates from among yourselves, that you may dwell in tranquility with them, and He has put love and mercy between your (hearts): verily in that are Signs for those who reflect” (Qur'an 30:21).
A woman in Islam has the right to choose her husband and must not be forced by her family or guardian to marry against her own will. The same right given to men which bestows upon them the right to choose their spouses, women are entitled the same.
The verse establishes the criteria upon which a Muslim family should be established. Men and women are entitled to lead a happy marital life based on the foundations and advices given by God and His Prophet.
The Right to Seek a Divorce
Just as God legislated marriage to establish a good family, He the Almighty also gave the two spouses the right to seek a divorce when marital life becomes impossible due to any valid legal reason. Although divorce is considered the most hated of lawful things in God’s sight, it is a right that every spouse is entitled to as long as the legal conditions are observed.
It is needless to say that divorced women continually engage in a social battle due to the distorted image that cultural norms attribute to them. In some cultures, the woman is regarded as the only party to be blamed for the divorce, whether or not she was the reason for it.
The reality is that divorce or discord within the family happens when either of the spouses neglects his/her duties bestowed upon them by God and only seeks their rights. For instance, some husbands misinterpret the meaning of protection (Qawamah) and mistakenly think that it means to have absolute power and control over their women. Qawamah means that the man takes care of his dependents and provide them with material and emotional needs. A man is to provide his family with protection, care and act justly in solving their problems.
Men and women are financially independent in the Muslim economic system. A woman enjoys financial independence and no one is entitled to take any part of her own property except with her consent. The mother of the believers, lady Khadijah (peace be upon her) was a well-off business-woman who voluntarily supported her beloved husband and Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) in his mission from her own property.
In Islam, greater financial security is assured for women. They are entitled to receive marital gifts (mahr), and to keep present and future properties as livelihood for their own security. No married woman is required to spend from her property and income on the household. She is entitled to full financial support during marriage and during the waiting period ('iddah) in case of divorce. She is also entitled to child support.
A Muslim woman is generally guaranteed support in all stages of her life, as a daughter, wife, mother, or sister. These additional advantages of women over men are balanced by the provisions of the inheritance which allow the male, in most cases, to inherit twice as much as the female. This means that the male inherits more but is responsible financially for other females: daughters, wives, parents, and sisters, while the female inherits less but can keep it all for investment and financial security without any legal obligation to spend any part of it, even for her own sustenance (food, clothing, housing, medication, etc.).
Females in some societies are denied their legal shares of inheritance based on gender disparity. This is a form of clear injustice towards women, which is totally in opposition to the pure teachings of Shari’ah.
The pure Shari’ah establishes balance in human relations. Men and women were and are partners in building human civilization and have been throughout the ages. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Women are the sister-halves of men” (Abu Dawud).
The Shari'ah confirms women's right to mercy. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said: "Oh God! I prohibit the violation of the rights of the two weak [categories of] people: orphans and women" (An-Nasa'i and Ibn Majah).
A woman deserves mercy due to her emotional nature and her need, most of times, for someone to protect and maintain her. It is mandatory for Muslim men to understand the teachings of Islam properly to be able to achieve equity.
The abovementioned lines are but a few examples to prove that gender equity does exist in the teachings of Islam. However, the social traditions and misinterpretation of religious texts have contributed to creating this social imbalance in the relationship between the two genders.