The issue of women’s rights in Islam is a key arena of the debate between traditionalists and reformers in contemporary Islam. There has been a recent strengthening of traditional, socially-conservative views on women in Muslim societies, even in Western countries – some would go as far as to say that some of these views are misogynist. This article outlines ways towards challenging such views intellectually and promoting reform, gender-equality and freedom.
There are many eloquent verses of the Quran that point to the sexes as equal before God, partners in the lifelong struggle to love and worship God whilst living in an imperfect world. For example:
Believing men and believing women are supporters and protectors of each other:
They enjoin goodness and forbid evil;
They establish prayer and give charity;
They obey Allah and His Messenger.
Allah will shower mercy upon them.
Truly, God is Mighty, Wise.
When one of the Prophet’s wives conveyed to him an oft-heard female complaint that males seemed to dominate religious life, the following comprehensive verse was revealed:
Truly, those who submit, men and women,
those who have faith, men and women,
those who are devout, men and women,
those who are true, men and women,
those who show patience, men and women,
those who humble themselves, men and women,
those who give in charity, men and women,
those who fast, men and women,
those who guard their chastity, men and women,
those who remember God often, men and women:
for them has God prepared forgiveness and great reward!
However, a perusal of popular literature on Islamic law will confirm that conservative, traditionalist teachings about women such as the following are very common, even in Western countries:
- That a woman may not marry without her male guardian’s permission (father, brother, uncle, etc., or even son).
- That a woman may not travel outside her home town or city without a male chaperone who is a close relative.
- That a woman’s witness is worth half that of a man’s, in most areas of law.
- That a woman’s inheritance is usually half that of the corresponding male.
The above rulings are supported by a simplistic reading of various Quranic ayat (verses) and PropheticHadith (traditions). Given the common phenomenon of reading the Quran and Hadith out of scriptural and historical context, it is understandable how the above teachings gain popularity.
Traditionalist but open-minded jurisprudence can help here. For example, leading jurists with a comprehensive and generous view of the Sharia will often present a balanced approach to legal questions such as those mentioned above, within traditionalist paradigms. Hence, two influential contemporary jurists, in their detailed works on Islamic family law, prefer the view of the Hanafi school of thought over that of the other three main Sunni schools for the first case above, thus allowing a Muslim woman to marry a person of her choice, without the need for permission from her male guardian.
For the second case above, although there are explicit Hadith of the Prophet stating this view, there are other Hadith, plus references in the Quran (Chapter 60) which indicate that women could travel on their own. This leads to the obvious common-sense ruling that the issue is one of safety, and if this is guaranteed or protected, there is no religious problem. Reformist fatwas (rulings) along these lines have even appeared recently in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia.
The third and fourth examples of conservative teachings are even more problematic in Western societies. An alternative reading of the Quran and Hadith is given by reformist scholars who approach the subject from a variety of perspectives, including social science, feminism and the perspective of holistic readings. Their argument goes roughly as follows: women in pre-Islamic Arabia were often treated worse than second-class citizens, with baby girls sometimes being buried alive and women treated like slaves, to the extent that a Quranic verse was revealed to prohibit the practice of a son inheriting his father’s wives upon the father’s death. (Quran, 4:19) Thus, Islam’s giving women full rights of property and even some inheritance and recognition as a qualified witness, albeit not equal to men initially, has to be seen as revolutionary and the beginning of a process of the liberation of women, not as a fixed end-point that cannot be changed – the latter being the conservative position. The situation of slavery is analogous: slavery, like patriarchy, was an established pillar of pre-Islamic society. Although the Quran did not expressly prohibit slavery, it began a process of the emancipation of slaves with numerous teachings and rulings to encourage the freeing of slaves.
According to this viewpoint, those verses of the Quran stipulating detailed rules for social matters have to be understood in context as part of this process of women’s liberation, with the visionary goal being expressed in the verses such as those at the beginning of this article. The latter emphasise the transcendent unity and complementarity of the sexes in their search for God.
Mystical readings of the Quran see the sexes as reflections of the innumerable Divine Names. So, for example men and women respectively reflect the Majesty and Beauty, Transcendence and Immanence, Outwardness and Inwardness of God. Such readings can support conservative social attitudes towards gender roles. Perhaps the best compromise for Muslim societies is to adopt the principle of freedom, itself derived from a holistic reading of the Quran, so that Muslims have the right to choose traditional gender-specific roles if they so wish without imposing these on society, which evolves in keeping with the goal of full gender-equality in both the heavenly and earthly senses.