Gender Issue: A Study of Comparison and Contrast 
between Islam and the West  (2001)

By Md. Mahmudul Hasan


Gender issue has been a subject of much study and research in the recent history. And this study is shared by both the Islamic world and the non-Islamic one and has taken various dimensions and detours. In many Muslim societies, women suffered and are still suffering from many inequitable treatments mostly because of social customs, superstitions and misinterpretations of Islamic texts i.e. the Qur’an and the Sunnah. Moreover, with the rising of feminist movement mainly in the Western world, many questions have evolved which posed a potent threat to the inimitable and immutable teachings of the noble ideology of Islam. Under the circumstances, the Islamic scholars have given a required attention to the woman issue in their efforts to clarify her position in Islam. Still more and more work in this area needs to be done in order to meet the demand of the time.

The present study will focus, with reference to the primary sources of Islam and secondary works by different Islamic scholars, on some of the crucial matters that have been turned to be some points of contention regarding the status of women in Islam. Along with those concerns it will try to provide the readers with fairly a good picture of the women’s treatment in the writings of Western philosophers and literary giants, which will hopefully give an opportunity to appreciate the universal appeal of the noble tenet of 
Islam, Insha-Allah. It may as well offer a reason why the feminist movement in the West becomes sometimes crazy in their diatribe on Islam maybe to conceal their murky past. Basically women underwent a bleak chapter of history in the Western world which was and is tremendously influenced by the writings its philosophers and literary figures. An idea of that repressive past of West will hopefully put the readers in a point of vantage to appreciate the dignified position of women in Islam in a salient contrast to the manmade society of the West.

Considering the huge bulk of Western literature and philosophy, the study will refer to some selected leading philosophers and literary stars who left a tremendous influence in the Western scholarship and hence are remembered with much respect and adoration.

Mostly people especially in the West form their impression about women’s position in Islam by looking at the Muslim societies where women are neglected in many respects because of some obvious reasons extraneous to the teachings of Islam. Murad Wilfried Hofmann (1931-), a German diplomat and Christian-turned-Muslim, in this regard makes a nice remark, which may appear relevant to quote here:

"Non-Muslims usually assume that women are not allowed into mosque or on pilgrimage. Some people even still believe that women in Islam are thought to have no souls. How disturbed can man’s relationship to reality become! How grotesque that such legends continue to live on in the face of clear evidence to the contrary!

"In Islam, women are not only seen as possessing a soul; they also enjoy the same religious status as men, and therefore must, if possible, perform the pilgrimage. According to David Long (The Hajj Today, Albany, N.Y., 1979), in 1972 170,864 of the 479,339 pilgrims to Makkah, namely 34.6%, were female. And while it is true that whenpraying in a mosque, women do not mingle with men, this is very much like Catholic women who used to occupy only the left side pews when attending mass.

"In other respects too, Muslim women have enjoyed during the last 1400 years a legal status that their European sisters only obtained with difficulties during the 20th century. Marriage, for instance, has no negative consequences whatsoever for a wife’s property. She, and only she, can continue to administer, and dispose of, her pre-marital property as she sees fit. And separation of property (instead of male tutelage)- a recent European achievement — has always been the legal regime under Islamic Law.

"Similarly, even if it is true that sons inherit proportionally more than daughters, husbands alone provide for the upkeep of the entire family. And if the wife is unwilling to breastfeed her baby, her husband must pay for a wet nurse. She has the last word in questions of child raising, and if necessary, she can sue for divorce herself.

"As a matter of principle, women are not barred from any usual profession. During the Battle of Uhud (627), Muslim women fought as combat support troops, and the Battle of the Camel (656) was even pro forma commanded by a woman: Aishah, the Prophet’s wife.

"There are other debatable points concerning the equality of sexes in Islam. Nevertheless, the critic should absorb the facts that are mentioned here before he or she launches a wholesale attack on Islam in pursuit of women’s emancipation.”  (Journey to Islam: Diary of a German Diplomat 1951-2000, Murad Wilfried Hofmann; Leicester, UK: The Islamic Foundation, 2001 pp.112-113) Portrayal of woman as sexual being in the Western philosophy and literature

It is not long before when the Western world was not sure about the humanity of woman. She was thought simply as a sexual being whose whole existence is only to meet the sexual need of men and to ensure the continuity of the reproduction process. The common image of woman was that she was obsessed with a strong sexual urge and excitement and her body full of impurity and filth. She was responsible for all sexual perversions and was seriously abhorred with the plea that she tempts man and thus misguides him. Classical philosophers and literary giants had a big share in the formation of such negative impression about women in the Western world, which will hopefully be clearer in the following discussion.

According to Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78), the French philosopher and theorist whose ideas have left a remarkable influence throughout the Western world and beyond, a woman is naturally weak, and in order to aid her weakness she has to practise her seductive power to arouse the passions of man and thus to subdue him. He advises, “She should learn to penetrate into their [men] real sentiments from their conversation, their actions, their looks and gestures. She should also have the art, by her own conversation, actions, books, and gestures, to communicate those sentiments which are agreeable to them, without seeming to intend it. Men will argue more philosophically about the human heart; but women will read the heart of man better than they.” (Emilius: iv.v.74-75).

Such advice for women to exploit the sexual passions of men is not unlikely from a philosopher who thinks, “A girl is naturally a coquette, and that a desire connected with the impulse of nature topropagate the species.” (Ibid; iv.v. 21; 25; 45)

What Rousseau tries to indicate by the above statements is that man is strong and woman is weak, so it is very natural that man will do violence and aggression (of whatever kind) to woman and it is her duty to take measures to shield herself from his assault. He clearly says, “Hence arise the various modes of attack and defence between the sexes; the boldness of one sex and the timidity of the other; and, in a word, that bashfulness and modesty with which nature hath armed the weak, in order to subdue the strong.” (ibid). Definitely the world Rousseau talks about is a veritable lawless jungle where no human relation exists between men and women.

Adam Smith (1723-1790), Scottish philosopher and economist and the writer of the famous book the Wealth of Nations, thinks in the same way as Rousseau. According to him the chief concern of women is “to be observed, to be attended to, to be taken notice of with sympathy, complacency, and approbation . . .” (The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759 1.i.iii.2)

In c18th and c19th instruction books or conduct books designed for women were very popular and well read throughout the Western society {e.g. Sermons for the Young Women (1766) by James Fordyce, A Father’s
Legacy to His Daughters (1774) by Dr John Gregory, Letters on the Improvement of the Mind (1773) by Hester Chapone, An Inquiry Into the Duty of the Female Sex (1797) by Thomas Gisbourne, Letters to a Young Lady (1811) by Jane West, etc}. Written by the giant Western philosophers and moralists of the time, these books address exclusively the women and their contents and objectives were to give advice to women how to behave as sexual being and to preserve thefemale attractiveness in order to please men, which was considered their primary duty. James Fordyce (1720-1796), Presbyterian minister and moralist, advises the women in his female conduct book “Sermons to Young Women” (1765; corrected edn. 1766, xiii. 221) not to engage in any serious contemplation i.e. intellectual exercise and to strengthen his point he quotes John 

“For contemplation he and valour form For softness she and sweet attractive grace.” 
Paradise Lost, iv. 297-8

All the concerns of the philosophers were centred into the female body and her mind was left simply to “rust”. And to embellish her body fondness for dress was important. This is why Dr John Gregory (1724-73), a Scottish philosopher, encourages women to nurture their liking for dress as such fondness for dress is natural to them. (A Father’s Legacy to His Daughters, 1774)

Image of woman as intellectually incapable in the Western philosophy and literature

In the recent history of the Western world women were treated simply as a sexual being (not perfectly human) and accordingly their chief duty was to please men (husbands or others) as men were considered second to God. In the discussion of Adam and Eve, in the famous epic poem Paradise Lost, John Milton hints at the same thing when Eve addresses Adam:

“To whom thus Eve with perfect beauty adorn’d.
My Author and Disposer, what thou bidst
Unargu’d I obey; so God ordains,
God is thy Law, thou mine: to know no more
Is woman’s happiest knowledge and her praise.”
Paradise Lost; iv. 634-38

According to Milton the status of women in comparison to men is so far beneath that Adam expostulates with his Maker as He gave him such an inferior life mate i.e. Eve:

“Hast thou not made me here thy substitute,
And these inferiour far beneath me set?
Among unequals what society
Can sort, what harmony, or true delight?”
Paradise Lost: viii, 381-85

As the two sexes were thought so unequal, female education was considered in the same way and was directed to the sole purpose of serving men i.e. to please him. Rousseau says,

“For this reason their [women’s] education must be wholly directed to their relations with men. 
To give them pleasure, to be useful to them, to win their love and esteem . . ..” (Emily for Today: The Emile of Jean Jacques Rousseau; Melbourne, London, Toronto: William Heinemann Ltd, 1965)

So in terms of female education the only thing, which used to be taken seriously was how to instil accomplishments and refinement in women, which were necessary for their purpose of pleasing men. Since women had no important occupation, there was little generally-perceived need for any higher education for them, and most writers on the subject of "female education" preferred that women receive a practical training for their domestic role - thus Byron once suggested that women should "read neither poetry nor politics — nothing but books of piety and cookery". In Jane Austen’s famous novel Pride and Prejudice, Bingley, a major character, says, "It is amazing to me, how young ladies can have patience to be so very accomplished as they all are"; "I am sure I never heard a young lady spoken of for the first time, without being informed that she was very accomplished".

Apart from this acquisition of refinement and accomplishments, women were not encouraged nor allowed to engage themselves in any academic matters. This is what Rousseau and Gregory suggest for the women in
their conduct books:

“ . . . as to works of genius, they are beyond their [women’s] capacity; neither have they sufficient precision or power of attention to succeed in sciences which require accuracy: and as to physical knowledge, it belongs to those only who are most active, most inquisitive. . . .”
Rousseau’s Emilius: iv.v. 74-75

In the person of Sophia in Emilius, Rousseau tries to give a paradigmatic example of an ideal woman, whom he praises in the following way:

“What a pleasing ignorance! Happy is the man destined to instruct her. She will be her husband’s disciple, not his teacher. Far from wanting to impose her tastes on him, she will share his.” (Emily for Today: The Emile of Jean Jacques Rousseau; p.153)

Dr John Gregory goes even further and advises women to hide their learning if they happen to have any share of it. He says,

“Be even cautious in displaying your good sense. It will be thought you assume superiority over the rest of the company—. But if you happen to have any learning, keep it a profound secret, especially from the men who generally look with a jealous and malignant eye on a woman of great parts, and a cultivated understanding.”(A Father’s Legacy to His Daughters, 36-7)

Milton terms female intellectual exercise as dangerous as he thinks it unsafe in the hands of women:

“All higher knowledge in her presence fallsDegraded. Wisdom in discourse with her Loses discountenanc’d, and, like Folly, show; Authority and Reason on her wait.—”
Paradise Lost: viii. 549-54

Famous English poets Jonathon Swift (1667-1745) and Alexander Pope (1688-1744) share almost the same notion about female intellectual capacity:

“Her learning wants to read a song,
But, haft the words pronouncing wrong;
Has every repartee in store,
She spoke ten thousand times before.”

(Jonathon Swift; The Furniture of a Woman’s Mind)

“Woman and fool are two hard things to hit;
For true no-meaning puzzles more than wit.
. . . . .. . . . . . . . . .. …. … . . .. . … . . . . ..
No thought advances, but her eddy brain
Whisks it about, and downs it goes again.”

(Alexander Pope; Epistle II— To A Lady: Of The Characters of Women)

In the English Victorian period a common impression widespread in the society was that intellectual study for a woman could lead to suppressed menstruation, which might cause the eruption of nymphomania. Similar argument was employed later in the century to bar female entry into higher education that, the physicians argued, would lead to a complete breakdown of female health.(Sally Shuttleworth; Charlotte Bronte and Victorian Psychology; Cambridge University Press 1996; p.77)

Similarly creative work was not thought appropriate for women and was considered a social taboo for them. In 1837 Charlotte Bronte wrote to the Poet Laureate Robert Southey (a poet most vociferous in his denigration of Islam) for advice in pursuing her career. Southey was more than discouraging; he advised her to give up any dreams of becoming a poet and said, “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life and it ought not to be.”(Quoted in Elaine Showalter; A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing, 1979 p. 55)

This is why the three Bronte Sisters (Charlotte, Emily and Ann), who later on turned to be three famous literary figures in the history of English literature, had to resort to masculine names (Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell) to commence their writings in 1846. Similarly George Sand (Amandine-Aurore-Lucile Dupin 1804-1876), the French romantic writer, and  following her George Eliot (George Marian Evans Cross 1819-1880) most  famously used a kind of male impersonation to gain male acceptance of their  intellectual prowess.

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