Women in Islam: philosophical underpinnings

In the preceding chapters we had a look at the attitudes of some of the  most  influential Western philosophers and literary figures of the recent centuries towards women. That background has confidently put us in a vantage point to appreciate the standing of Islam on the subject concerned. An objective study of the status of women in Islam by a fair and unbiased mind will definitely arrive at the conclusion that such universal approach to gender issue can only be taken by a SupremeBeing Who is the Creator of all that exists and Who “.. . knows what is before them [humans] and what is behind them [humans], and they 
[humans] cannot comprehend anything out of His knowledge except what He pleases. . . .” (Al-Qur’an 2:255)

It cannot be denied that in the recent history not merely in the West but throughout the world including the Muslim domains women have experienced a cruel treatment by the society. And because of this widespread 
injustice upon women, social scientists, thinkers, political and social leaders, reformers, preachers, educators and all conscientious people have come forward and shown their interest in the case of woman. They have called for doing her justice, treating her with respect and for the abolition of all forms of unfairness and repression towards her so that she can have her rightful access to learning, work, social responsibility and choice in marriage — these are some issues that Islam is also concerned about.

Some feminist movements since 1960s have gone much further and taken an extreme position in the name of women rights and are advocating in favour of sexual permissiveness, sexual independence (in the form of 
homosexuality, lesbianism and transexuality), unrestricted abortion, rebellion against marriage and family life, and a disregard of human values, religion and society; after all they want to destroy the natural distinctiveness between men and women and as such are proliferating a sense of rivalry between sexes. Such extremist endeavours in the name of women rights are the result of a sort ofdistance from divine discretion in terms of the guidance for human life. 

‘Say: "What! Will ye instruct Allah about your religion? But Allah knows all 
that is in the heavens and on earth: He has full knowledge of all things.’ 
(Al-Qur’an: 49:16) (
For more information about the immoderate and excessive approach of Western feminist movement please see Freeman, Jo (ed.), Women: A Feminist Perspective; USA: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1984)

Extremist attitudes of some secularists (with Muslim names) are more unfortunate as they advocate sexual permissiveness with their Islamic guise and thus are being used as tools of their Western counterparts. Nawal el-Sadawi, an Egyptian secularist feminist, is one such example. One most common Western feminist saying is “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”. Nawal el-Sadawi expresses almost similar attitude towards man when she says, “Was this a man’s body, the outside covered with hair and the inside full of decaying stinking organs, his brain floating in a sticky white fluid and his heart in thick red blood? How ugly man was, both inside and out . . . as ugly as could be!”(Memoirs of a Woman Doctor, 1988 Tr. 
Catherine Cobham; London, UK: Saqi Books; P.26)

Moreover, she brings some ridiculous points of discrepancy between men and women that does not have even the remotest relation with the sufferings of women in the present world. She says, “My brother’s hair was cut short but otherwise left free and uncombed, while mine was allowed to grow longer and longer and my mother combed it twice a day and twisted it into plaits and imprisoned the ends of it in ribbons and rubber bands.” (Ibid; p. 9)

“How I wished I could cut them off with a sharp knife! . . .” (ibid)

“The heavy long hair I carried around everywhere on my head held me up in the morning, got in my way in the bath and made my neck burning hot in the summer. Why wasn’t it short and free like my brother’s? His didn't weigh his head down or hinder his activities.”(Ibid; p.16)

Islam does not support such ludicrous ideas in the name of women rights. What Nawal el- Sadawi and other secularists like Taslima Nasreen of Bangladesh are spreading will bring little relief for thesuffering women and, on the contrary, will result in a perpetual sense of hatred between men and women. What Islam wants is to build a harmonious relationship between the sexes and thus to render the world a most possible 
place to live in peace.

Keeping this general tone of Islamic treatment of gender issue in mind, I intend to present the following fundamental principles of Islamic belief that are independent of time and space:

1. Allah (SWT), the Lawgiver of Islam, is the Creator of both men and women. He loves both the sexes equally and conferred honour upon both of them on equal basis. He says, “Verily we have honoured the Children of Adam. We carry them on the land and the sea, and have made provision of good things for them, and have preferred them above many of those whom We created with a marked preferment.” (Al-Qur’an: 17:70) So any question of gender bias is Islamic teachings is inconceivable.

2. The Islamic position of women is chiefly based on its concept of justice and equity, establishment of which was the primary mission of all the prophets that came from Allah. Allah says in the Holy Quran, “Say: My Lord enjoins justice . . ..” (7: 29) “And for every nation there is a messenger. So when their messenger comes, the matter is decided between them with justice, and they are not wronged.” (10:47) “Certainly We sent Our messengers with clear arguments, and sent down with them the Book and the Balance (of Right and Wrong), that people may stand forth in justice . . ." (57:25). The justice mentioned in the verses above and in many other places in the Holy Qur’an and the Sunnah signifies “justice” in its broadest sense that covers the rights of men and women as well. Women in Islam: a philosophical underpinning (continued)

3. In Islam the relation between men and women is not based on hatred or rivalry, rather it is one of love and co-operation. They are source of peace and happiness for each other. Allah says, “Among His signs is this, He has created for you mates from among yourselves, that you may dwell in tranquillity with them. And He has put love and mercy between your hearts. Verily in that are signs for those who reflect.” (30:21)

4. The whole universe is the family of Allah and, within that family, the whole humanity (men and women) comprises one entity, Adam and Eve being their parents. Allah says, " O people, keep your duty to your Lord Who created you from a single being and created its mate of the same (kind), and spread from these two many men and women; Be careful of your duty toward Allah in Whom you claim (your rights) of one another, and toward the wombs (that bore you). Lo! Allah hath been a watcher over you." (4:1).

5. The essence of every human being is Ruh, which is independent of sex. Another such Qur’anic word is "nafs" that is mentioned in the verse 4:1 above. It bears two meanings. According to one use, it implies soul and according to another use, the significance of "nafs" is the whole of being of human and its essence. Based on this consideration, we find three fundamental areas where we both men and women are the same:

A. All the souls of men and women are created by Allah at one single time: "And when thy Lord brought from the children of Adam, from their loins, their descendants, and made them bear witness about themselves; Am I not your Lord?…." (7:172).

B. In the physical mould both men and women have excellent feature "Certainly, We have created Mankind in the best of make." (95:4)

C. Our family is one family. (4:1).

6. As human being and as the servant of Allah as well, both men and women are equal in dignity. But the western concept of equality as it is expressed in The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (or CEDAW, as it is often known) adopted by the UN General Assembly on 
December 18, 1979 is in manifest conflict with the concept of equality in Islam. Allah has made man and woman as two distinct sexes and entrusted them with some duties and responsibilities in accordance with their capabilities. Hence in some areas Islam gives men more duties and in some other variant 
ones women have to perform more. In some respects men enjoy more privilege and in some others women are given more favour. It is true that both men and women have certain limitations and both are not competent for each and every job. In no way Islam supports the present Western extremist feminist movements that have turned woman into a “third sex” in theireffort to destroy her feminine attributes. As a result women have earned very little whereas the capitalists are the beneficiaries as they are earning more by exploiting the female body. A glance at the Western world will show how women have been rendered simply a carnal object (far from being perfect human person).

7.The seventh most important thing that we should take into consideration when dealing with gender issue is that, there, very regretfully, remains a gulf of difference between the status of women as it is present in the normative teachings of the Holy Qur'an and the Sunnah and the diverse practices and treatments of womenin many Muslim societies. Dr. Jamal A Badawi, a prominent Islamic scholar ofthe present world, rightly says in this regard:

"In some Muslim communities women are treated in a manner which is not Islamic because of ignorance and non-application of Qur'anic teachings of Islam, however, an objective analysis of the teachings of Islam, the Qur'an, the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (SAWS), and its law, all show that in the spiritual, human, economic and social spheres, Islam's position on the status of women stands up to any test." (Islamic Teachings Course Vol. 3 , G-14)

Mention of some other important points that Dr Hasan al-Turabi, a great Islamic scholar of the present time, makes in his book “Women in Islam and Muslim Society” (1973) may seem appropriate here. A summary of those points is given below:

The oppressive treatment of women in some Muslim societies is simply the result of the weakness in Muslim faith. Most of the rulings of the Qur’an regarding women came from Allah (SWT) in the form of restrictions on at men with a view to prevent them from transgressing against women. By the passage of time men started forgetting those teachings regarding the fair dealing with women.

Exclusion of women from many areas of life has been caused by masculine capricious tendencies and an instinctive sense of jealousy. Men ban woman from active participation in the broad spectrum of human life and thus render her inexperienced and incapable. Despite the spread of Islmaic teachings, some pre-Islamic values and practices have persistently continued in many Muslim societies that influence the attitude towards women.

In the explanation of Shariah, a broad and liberal approach has been taken while granting authority to men. But in the issues of women a literal and strict stance has been pursued to impose limitations on
women. “Another aspect of this tendentious jurisprudence is to generalise the provisions of the Quran and the Sunnah that were meant to apply exclusively to the Prophet or his wives due to their uniqueposition.”

The traditional Muslim Society have followed an unduly conservative trend fearing that “freedom of women would degenerate into licentious promiscuity - so much that the basic religious rights and duties of women have been forsaken and the fundamentals of equality and fairness in the structure of Muslim Society, as enshrined in the Sharia, have been completely overlooked.”

Some Muslim scholars think that women should not be given that much freedom as was given during the prophetic society. They argue that Madinan society was a sound one where no problem occurred out of interaction between men and women because of the presence of the Prophet (SAWS). On the basis of such 
reasoning they have reshuffled the religious rulings related to women to some extent and imposed restrictions on women. The duty of Muslims under the circumstances is to reshape the present society keeping the Madinan society as standard.

“In the domain of public life she [woman] is not allowed to make any original contribution to the promotion of the religious quality of life. Whenever she was allowed to work towards the material development of life that was likely to be in a context of exploitation or as mundane work with little spiritual satisfaction or significance.”

“The greatest injustice visited upon women, is their segregation and isolation from the general society. Sometimes the slightest aspect of her public appearance would be considered a form of obscene exhibitionism. Even her voice was bracketed in the same category. Her mere presence at a place where men are also present was considered shameful promiscuity. She was confined to her home in a manner prescribed in Islam only as a penal sanction for an act of adultery. She was so isolated on the pretext that she might devote herself exclusively to the care of her children and the service of herhusband. But how could she qualify for attending to domestic family affairs or to the rearing of children in a satisfactory manner without being herself versed through education or experience, in the moral and functional culture of the wider society?” (For details please read chapter three: women in Muslim society of the book “Women in Islam and Muslim Society” by Dr Hassan Abdulla Al Turabi; London: Milestones Publications, 1991 [available on])

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