By Pervaiz Jamal Ibn Sharrif
Islam gave women rights and privileges at a time when only barbaric manners and values dominated.Yet, some people argue that Islam has alienated women in some domains. In fact, this belief is a misconception. People who say so, may have read about it in a magazine or seen it on TV. A quick examination of the issues judged as unjust to women will certainly correct the misunderstanding.Man as the head of the household: Some people believe that a woman in Islam is regarded as inferior to man since the Quran says (what means):"Men have one degree above women." [Quran 2: 228]In fact, to understand this Quranic verse, you should see another one, related to the issue in question. It reveals the wisdom behind this concept.
In the Quran it also says (what means): "Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allaah has given the one more than the other and because men support them from their means." [Quran 4:34]This verse implies that it is a man's duty to support his wife, and not the reverse, but this, in no way, makes him superior to her. In fact, the rights and responsibilities of a woman are equal to those of a man but they are not necessarily identical. Since men and women are not created identical, they have different physical and emotional qualities, jobs and privileges. This does not mean that women are inferior. On the contrary, women are considered crucial members of society in Islam since they are assigned the job of bringing up future generations. People today tend to look down at housewives but, in fact, raising children is one of the most important and difficult tasks. The way a mother brings up her child determines the way he will behave in the future. This duty, which requires patience, love, understanding and wisdom was significantly assigned to women in Islam because her nature suits this job. Allaah The Exalted, in His Wisdom, has assigned a role for each member of the family so that there would be no arguments concerning who should do what. If a sailboat has two leaders, each will want to follow a path, leading ultimately to chaos and even a crash. In the same manner, how many times have your parents fought over some decision because each had their own point of view and wanted to apply it? This is precisely why it is preferable to have one leader for each household. However, this does not give the leader the right to be a dictator, or to neglect the role of his companion. This does not make him superior to other members of his family. It just gives him a larger duty.
Inheritance: Some people claim that Islam is unjust towards women because it entitles them to inherit half of what men get. In fact, those people only know one side of the truth. First, the principle of women inheriting half the money is only applicable in 45 percent of the cases. In the other 55 percent, women inherit the same amount or sometimes even more. For example, a mother and a father each inherit the sixth of their son's property when they are not the only inheritors.In addition, the laws of inheritance in Islam are proportional to the duties of spending. Indeed, a man in Islam has the responsibility of supporting his family, his brother's children (when his brother dies), his parents (when they retire and do not have an income), his children from his previous marriage (if he has them) and his household, including his wife and children. A woman, on the other hand, does not bear this responsibility. She has the freedom to use the money she collects from her dowry or work as she pleases.
You might object here, saying that women today are working and helping their husbands pay the expenses, which entitles them to share equality with men. In fact, you should know that women's economic assistance to their husbands, which has become the norm today, is only an answer to the females’ wishes. Islam does not oblige women to spend on their households. It is a free choice many women have themselves taken today to feel more liberated, so it does not entitle them to a bigger portion of the inheritance.
Polygyny: Polygyamy is one of the most questioned principles that Islam grants men and women. Indeed, many people wrongfully accuse Islam of injustice because it allows a man to have up to four wives. Nevertheless, like every instruction in the Quran, polygamy has a reason. You see, Islam is a practical religion that acknowledges the needs and temptations of human beings and provides laws that deal with them, thus preserving harmony and morality.
· Polygyamy might be the solution for a couple if the wife is barren, the husband wants children of his own and the option of separation does not appeal to both parties.
· If a woman is chronically ill and is unable to perform her marital duties. Polygyny may also be the solution when the couple does not want divorce.
· Polygyamy is the religion's answer to cases where some men have excessive sexual needs that cannot be fulfilled by one wife. This in no way means that men should abuse this right and use it whenever they fancy a woman. It is rather a chance Islam has provided to prevent men from committing adultery. Many people who condemn polygyny cheat on their wives, calling this phenomenon a 'swift affair.' Islam, at least, has offered the second woman the option of being called 'a wife' rather than 'a mistress', especially in some countries where women remarkably outnumber men.
· Polygyamy may settle the problem of an increased number of unmarried women, especially during wars.
However, polygyamy has some limits and conditions to be met. Indeed, the Quran instructs the man to be fair with his wives on all levels, including treatment, money, house, etc. The only level where the man may have an uneven stance is the level of the feelings that he cannot control:
The Quran says (what means): "You will never be able to do perfect justice between wives even if it is your ardent desire, so do not incline too much to one of them [by giving her more of your time and provision] so as to leave the other hanging [i.e. neither divorced nor married]. And if you do justice, and do all that is right and fear Allaah by keeping away from all that is wrong, then Allaah is Ever-Forgiving and All-Merciful." [Quran 4:129]
Finally, it is worth knowing that Islam gives a woman the right to refuse polygyamy for her husband by setting it as a condition during the marriage procedures. If this condition is set, then the woman is granted divorce if her husband marries another while he is still married to her.
You might ask, why could not there be polyandry (a woman having more than one husband)? The answer is simple. Islam did not allow it because Allaah is All-Aware that it will create a problem of kinship. This means that the child may not know who is actually his father (it could be anyone of the four husbands). In addition to the psychological damage it may cause, this problem also complicates the issue of inheritance. Even birds and animals do not allow polyandry.
Islam considers marriage a basis for the Islamic family, since it develops bonds of love and caring and a secure atmosphere for the growth and progress of the human race. This, in turn, produces a sound society. This is why the Prophet taught us in a narration, that although classified ‘weak’, has a valid and important meaning. He said: "The most detestable of all lawful things in the sight of Allaah is divorce."However, this does not mean that divorce is prohibited. On the contrary, it can sometimes be the best alternative. Divorce is a right for both women and men if their problems cannot be solved. Two French legislators, Planoil and Ripert, have said: "Divorce is a mischief. However, it is a measure that cannot be avoided for the welfare of the community, because it is the only remedy for another harm which may be more dangerous, i.e. murder."
The above statement applies to cases where the husband and wife have lost their love for each other and where harmony in the marriage is over. Indeed, any other alternative will make them unhappy and will affect their children in the long run.In these cases, Islam advises the couple to try to reconcile their differences in the presence of some immediate relatives belonging to both sides. If they are unable to do so, they are instructed to seek counseling through a third party, such as friends or other relatives. If there is still no solution, then they should seek a solution through a judge.
The judge will advise the couple to be patient and think of the children. However, if the problem remains unsolved, the family life becomes unbearable and the children are affected, then divorce becomes the only alternative, to enable them to have other spouses.
When it is inescapable, divorce is neither harmful to men nor to women. It is also definitely not unjust to women. First, the couple must seek divorce in an amicable way. They are instructed to separate without hard feelings towards each other. They should keep a minimum of understanding that will secure the children's situation after the divorce.
The Quran says (what means): "Divorce is twice. Then [after that], either keep [her] in an acceptable manner or release [her] with good treatment. And it is not lawful for you to take anything of what you have given them unless both fear that they will not be able to keep [within] the limits of Allaah, and then there is no blame upon either of them concerning that by which she ransoms herself. These are the limits of Allaah, so do not transgress them. And whoever transgresses the limits of Allaah -- it is those who are the wrongdoers [i.e. the unjust]." [Quran 2: 229]
In Islam, the woman is not neglected after the divorce. Indeed husbands are instructed to provide housing to the divorced wife until her waiting period is completed, as in the saying of Allaah (which means): "Lodge them (During their waiting period (referring to wives whose divorce has been pronounced) [in a section] of where you dwell out of your means and do not harm them in order to oppress them (so that they would be forced to leave or to ransom themselves). And if they should be pregnant, then spend on them until they give birth. And if they breastfeed for you, then give them their payment and confer among yourselves in the acceptable way; but if you are in discord, then there may breastfeed for him [i.e. the father] another woman." [Quran: 65:6]
Finally, although it is true that only men are allowed to pronounce divorce, yet a woman has the right to ask for a divorce, which is called ‘Khul’. In this case, she has to return the dowry given by the husband, so that he utters the divorce.
In Islam, one male witness equals two females: The Quran says (what means): "And get two witnesses out of your men. If there are not two men, then a man and two women such as you choose [maybe in place of two men as the witnesses]; so that if one of the women errs, the other one will remind her..." [Quran 2:282]
Here again, many people tend to denounce Islamic principles as unjust to women. They tend to interpret this requirement as proof of men's superiority over women. Again, this assumption is not true. In fact, various psychological and biological studies conducted on the psyche and hormonal functions of women, have proved that men generally tend to react more rationally and less emotionally, than women.
In cases of crime, for example, torn bodies and pouring blood are more likely to spur an emotional reaction among women than among men. This reaction is alone capable of distorting the female's perception and/or memory.
On the other hand, men are also bound by rules concerning their testimony. For instance, they must not be parents, friends or enemies of the accused. Can we then conclude that, if it was the case for women, that male parents and friends of the accused must be considered inferior too? Of course, they are not.
Finally, one should note that there are matters where a woman is the only witness required. These are related to areas where women are the experts, for example, in issues of breast feeding, bringing up children and the question of kinship (who is her child's father).
How many times have you seen an educated veiled woman, working and acting normally on television ? Very, very rarely. On the other hand, how many times have you seen a veiled woman being hit by her husband, in tears or fighting and rioting along with fundamentalists?
Just think: What does a black 'Hijaab' veil evoke in your mind? Certainly not the image it is meant to evoke -- religious commitment and peaceful, deep-rooted faith. How many times have you seen a veiled young girl and said: "Haraam! Poor thing! She has not seen the world yet..." Is all this just a coincidence?Veiled women today are either associated with alienation or fundamentalism. They are either looked upon with pity or fear. Have people ever asked the question: Where is the woman's will to surrender to God in this? Where is her choice of protecting her dearest possession, her body?
When Islam ordered women to wear the veil, it did it to privilege her, not constrain her:
The Quran says (what means): "O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw upon them their over-garments. That is more appropriate so that they may be recognized and not molested." [Quran 33: 59]
The above verses show that Islam aims to protect women from being considered sexual objects. It instructs women to uncover their faces in front of their husband, close relatives whom she cannot marry (Mahaarim) and other women. In front of strangers, she must conceal everything but her face and hands.
Why does one need to show a semi-clad woman in a car's advertisement? Why do we not see a veiled woman? In the first case, because the advertisers are trying to sell the image of the woman with the car. Unconsciously, you buy the car wishing it will provide you with such a "babe." In the second case, the woman has refused to be treated as an object for trade and has worn the veil, a sign of dignity rather than humiliation.
Among the many topics of interest to non-Muslims, the status of Muslim women and the theme of their rights -- or rather, the perceived lack of them – seems to be foremost. The media’s portrayal of Muslim women, usually outlining their “oppression and mystery” seems to contribute to this negative perception.
The main reason for this is that people often fail to distinguish between culture and religion -- two things that are completely different. In fact, Islam condemns oppression of any kind whether it is towards a woman or humankind in general.The Quran is the sacred book by which Muslims live. This book was revealed 1400 years ago to a man named Muhammad , who would later become the Prophet . Fourteen centuries have passed and this book has not been changed since, not one letter has been altered.In chapter 33, entitled Soorah Al-Ahzaab (The Clans), verse 59 Allaah The Exalted Almighty Says (what means): "O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the woman of the believers to bring down over themselves (part) of their outer garments. That is more suitable that they will be known (as free respectable women) and not be abused. And ever is Allaah Forgiving and Merciful." [Quran 33:59] This verse shows that Islam makes wearing a Hijaab necessary. Hijaab is the word used for covering, not only the headscarves (as some people may think) but also wearing loose clothes that are not too bright.Sometimes, people see covered Muslim women and they think of this as oppression. This is wrong. A Muslim woman is not oppressed, in fact, she is liberated. This is because she is no longer valued for something material, such as her good looks or the shape of her body. She compels others to judge her for her intelligence, kindness, honesty and personality. Therefore, people judge her for who she actually is.When Muslim women cover their hair and wear loose clothes, they are obeying the orders of their Lord to be modest, not cultural or social mores. In fact, Christian nuns cover their hair out of modesty, yet no one considers them “oppressed”. By following the command of Allaah, Muslim women are doing the exact same thing.
The lives of the people who responded to the Quran have changed drastically. It had a tremendous impact on so many people, especially women, since this was the first time that the souls of man and women were declared equal -- with the same obligations as well as the same rewards. For the first time in history, women were granted economic independence in Islam. The money they bring in to marriage is theirs as well as the money they earn. In Islam, women are allowed to choose their own husbands and in extreme cases, ask for divorce. A woman has the right to be educated, contrary to what the contemporary world might think. The responsibility is that of the person who is raising her. Islam is a religion that holds women in high regard. Long ago, when baby boys were born, they brought great joy to the family. The birth of a girl was greeted with considerably less joy and enthusiasm. Sometimes, girls were hated so much that they were buried alive. Islam has always been against this irrational discrimination against girls and female infanticide.
The Prophet Muhammad, sallallaahu ‘alayhi wasallam, said: "Seeking knowledge is mandatory for every Muslim (male and female)." Men and women both have the capacity for learning and understanding. Since it is also their obligation to promote good behavior and condemn bad behavior in all spheres of life, Muslim women must acquire the appropriate education to perform this duty in accordance with their own natural talents and interests.While maintenance of their homes, providing support to the husband and bearing, raising and teaching children are among the first and very highly regarded roles for a woman, if she has the skills to work outside the home for the good of the community, she may do so. However, this is allowed only as long as her family obligations are met and as long as she complies with the Islamic code of dress and conduct, with no intermingling with men in the workplace. Islam recognizes and fosters the natural differences between men and women despite their equality. Some types of work are more suitable for men and other types for women. This differentiation in no way diminishes the effort or benefit of one gender over the other. God will reward both genders equally for the value of their work, though it may not necessarily be within the same sphere of activity.
The two great roles a woman plays in life are that of a wife and a mother. The Prophet , once said to a group of Companions : "The best among you are those who are the best to their wives." This shows that Islam highly encourages treating the wives well. They should be shown love, respect and care. To foster the love and security that comes with marriage, Muslim wives have various rights. The first of the wife's rights is to receive dowry, a gift from the husband, which is part of the marriage contract and required for the legality of the marriage. The second right of a wife is maintenance. Despite any wealth she may have, her husband is obligated to provide her with food, shelter and clothing. He is not forced, however, to spend beyond his capability and his wife is not entitled to make unreasonable demands.
Concerning motherhood, the Prophet Muhammad, sallallaahu ‘alayhi wasallam, said: "Heaven lies under the feet of mothers." This implies that the success of a society can be traced to the mothers who raised it. The first and greatest influence on a person comes from the sense of security, affection and training received from the mother. Therefore, a woman having children must be educated and conscientious in order to be a skillful parent. A man came to the Prophet, sallallaahu ‘alayhi wasallam, and asked: "Who among my kinfolk is worthy of my good companionship?" The Prophet , replied: "Your mother" three times before saying: "Your father." This indicates the impact that a mother has in a person's life. So women are highly honored in this great religion.Islam is a religion that treats women fairly. The Muslim woman was given a role, duties and rights 1400 years ago that most women do not enjoy even today in the West. These rights are from God and are designed to maintain a balance in society; what may seem “unjust” or “missing” in one place is compensated for or explained in another place.
Since the height of the feminist movement in the late 70's there has been a magnifying glass placed over the status of Muslim women. Unfortunately, the magnifying glass that has been used is an unusual one. Unusual in the sense that it is very selective about which items it will magnify; other items it will distort to such a degree that they will no longer look familiar. I remember once reading an "in depth" article about the lives of Muslim women. This article "explained" that at any time a man can divorce his wife by simply stating "I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you". This article can lead anyone ignorant of the Islamic ruling regarding divorce to believe that in less than five seconds the woman is left with no husband and is left to care for herself (and possibly children) by any means necessary. The question that immediately popped up in my mind was, "Did the author innocently write that out of sincere ignorance or was it another of the many attempts to degrade the religion of Islam and its followers (Muslims)?" It may be out of paranoia, but I tend to believe it was the latter of the two. The truth of the matter is that Islam has the most humane and most just system of divorce that exists. Firstly, many options are taken and tried before coming to the decision of divorce. If the man and woman decide that they can no longer live together successfully as a husband and wife, the husband (in most cases, not always) pronounces the divorce by saying "I divorce you". At this point the waiting period begins. The waiting period lasts for three menstrual cycles to assure the woman is not pregnant. This period allows the couple time to think about what they are doing and if this is what they really want to do. There are no lawyers involved to antagonize an already delicate situation. In the case that it is realized, that the woman is pregnant, the waiting period lasts the entire time she is pregnant. During the waiting period (whether the woman is pregnant or not) the man is obligated to provide food, clothing and shelter to the woman as he did before the divorce pronouncement. If the couple carries the divorce through to the birth of the child and the woman suckles the baby, the man is obligated to feed and clothe both his ex-wife for the time the woman suckles (the maximum being two years). After his weaning, the child will be provided for by the father until he/she is no longer in need of support. It is quite ironic that in such an "advanced society" as America, there are divorce cases in which women are being forced to pay alimony to their ex-husbands. Can this and many other things we know about the American system of divorce compare to the Islamic system of divorce?
I have also read stories wherein it is stated that women are forced to marry men without their consent. This in no way resembles the marriage system in Islam. In Islam the woman marries the man of her choice. She may even marry someone that her mother and/or father objects to. The point is that it is the woman who makes the final decision as to whom she will marry. Once the man and the woman decide that they are interested in one another for marriage, a dowry is decided upon. A dowry is not a bride’s price but it is a gift from the groom to the bride. They agree upon a gift that is affordable by the groom. In the time of the Prophet , often things such as livestock and money were given. This is a wise decision in the event that a woman becomes divorced or widowed, she has some financial security to fall back on even if it is for a limited amount of time. Once the man and woman are married, the man is required to clothe, feed, shelter and educate her (or allow her to be educated) in the same manner as he does himself. The last distorted image that I will cover is that of the Muslim women's dress. The western-influenced media portrays our dress to be outdated and oppressive. Needless to say, I differ with these adjectives. Our dress code does not hinder us from doing anything productive in our lives. Muslim women maintain a variety of jobs, none of which are devalued nor hampered due to their dress code. And as for the timing of Muslim women's dress during these contemporary times, it seems most appropriate due to decreasing morals in the world today. For those who say that Islamic dress is outdated, they speak from great ignorance. The decreasing morality and trials of this time makes Hijab even more in need. More than ever before sex crimes are rampant. Although this society tells women they can wear what they want to wear, anytime a rape occurs the woman is the one put on trial and one of the first questions is, "What were you wearing?" This concept seems as though it is a set up directed against the so-called contemporary woman. Also there is a direct correlation between the respect a man has for a woman and the amount of her body she displays flauntingly.
In conclusion, I hope this article helps to clear up some distorted/misunderstood aspects of Islam and women. Women in Islam are respected and held in high regard. We will never find success and/or solutions to our problems until we realize that Allaah knows best and that this disbelieving society will ruin itself.
Pervaiz Jamal Ibn Shariff.