Women: Status of women in Islam

Q704 :What is the position of women in Islam. What are the rights of women? What are the duties of a Muslim woman, as a wife, mother and daughter?

A704 : Full size books have been written on this subject, particularly in the last few decades, because scholars have felt that it is their duty to clear prevailing misconceptions about the status of women in Islam. If I were to treat this subject fully, I would need to devote to it several pages of Arab News. One of the best books that I have read on this subject is the one written by the late Moustafa Al-Sibai, former professor of Islamic Law in the University of Damascus. His book Women in Islamic Fiqh and Law, is a comparative study of the status of women in Islam and their rights and obligations under the law. I will summarize here his outline explaining the principles on which the Islamic view of the status of women is based. 1. Men and women are absolutely equal with regard to their human status. Allah says in the Qur'an: "Mankind, remain conscious of your Lord, who has created you all out of a single soul, and out of it created its mate." (4;1) The Prophet says: "Women are the sisters of men." (Related by Ahmad, Abu Dawood and others) Needless to say that brothers and sisters are equally treated. 2. Earlier religions used to put all the blame for man's fall from heaven on women. Islam repudiates that and makes Adam and Eve equally responsible for that. On the incident of their disobedience in heaven, Allah says in the Qur'an: "Satan caused them both to stumble, and thus brought them out of what they had been in." (2;36) Indeed, in some verses, the sin is attributed to Adam alone: "Adam disobeyed his Lord and thus he was astray." (20;12) Furthermore, Islam rejects outright the principle of the original sin. It considers everyone responsible for his or her actions. Thus, no woman is responsible in anyway for what Eve had done in heaven, in the same way as no man is responsible for what Adam did there. 3. A woman is susceptible to faith in the same way as a man is. Thus she deserves admittance into heaven if she does well in her life, and she is liable to punishment if she does badly. The same standard applies here to both men and women. Allah says in the Qur'an: "Whoever does well, whether male or female, having already accepted the faith, shall be made by Us to enjoy a goodly living. We will also administer to them their reward according to their best deeds." (16;97) He also says: "Their Lord answers their prayer: I shall not loose sight of what any of you does, whether man or woman; each of you is an issue of the other." (3;195) 4. Islam denounces the practice of those who feel sad or adopt a gloomy posture when a girl is born to them. This used to be the case in Arabia prior to the advent of Islam, and it is still so in many communities. According to Islam, the birth of a girl should be celebrated in the same way as the birth of a son. 5. Prior to Islam, several Arabian tribes used to bury newborn girls alive. Islam has forbidden that practice and denounced it in clearest of terms, threatening those who kill their children with utter ruin in this life and in the life to come. 6. Islam issues strict orders to all Muslims to take good care of their women and look after them properly, whether they are their daughters, wives or mothers. In connection with looking after young girls, the Prophet says: "He who looks after two young girls until they attain puberty will be on the day of judgment with me like these two (and he pointed with his two fingers)." The Qur'anic verse and the Hadith which says: "The best blessing in this world is a good wife who pleases you when you look at her and protects you when you are away." (Related by Muslim and Ibn Majah) The verses which emphasize the importance of being dutiful to one's parents often highlights the role of mothers in order to stress the fact that a Muslim is always required to take particularly good care of his mother. A man came to the Prophet and asked him: "Who deserves my caring attention most?" The Prophet answered: "Your mother". The man asked: "Who comes next?" The Prophet answered again: "Your mother". He gave the same answer the third time, but when the man asked him the same question again, the Prophet said: "Your father". (Related by Al-Bukhari). 7. Islam also encourages that girls be educated as well as boys. The Prophet says: "To seek education is mandatory on every Muslim." All commentators on Hadith emphasize that this applies to both men and women in the same way. It is well known that a general Islamic order applies to both sexes without distinction, unless there is a specific indication to make it otherwise. 8. Islam has made women entitled to shares in the inheritance of their parents, children or husbands, and Allah has apportioned shares of inheritance to women in all the situations. The right to inherit is given to females whether they are young or old, and indeed to a female embryo who has not been born. 9. Islam has regulated the rights and duties of husband and wife, outlining the rights and obligations of each. Allah says in the Qur'an: "In accordance with justice, the rights of women (with regard to their husbands) are equal to the (husband's) rights with regard to them." (2;238) 10. Islam has also regulated divorce in a way which prevents its abuse by the man. No man can claim any arbitrary authority in matters that relate to divorce. [It is only when men or women overstep the Islamic regulations that injustices occur.] 11. Islam has also regulated polygamy, allowing a man to marry a maximum of four wives at any one time. In other communities which allow polygamy, there is no maximum number of wives a man may have. 12. When a girl is below the age of puberty, she is placed under the care of her guardian who is required to take good care of her, educate her and invest any property she has in a way which ensures its growth. When she comes of age, she has the same legal status as a man. She undertakes all financial and business transactions at the same level as of any man. To sum up, Islam gives woman the same status as man without any distinction. From the social point of view, it gives her a dignified status throughout her life. Legally, she has the same status as men and she does not need to defer to any authority to be exercised by a man whether he is her father, husband or head of clan. Having said that, I should point out that there are some minor differences between men and women in certain aspects of Islamic law. These differences relate to a woman's position in her family and her rights, duties and obligations in the Islamic system. They do not reflect on human status. A woman in the Islamic system is not required to work for her living. Her husband or her guardian is responsible to look after her. If she has none to support her, the state is required to undertake that task. At the same time, a woman is fully entitled to work either as a free agent or an employee. From the Islamic point of view, there is no decent job which is restricted to or made the absolute reserve of men. Provided that the Islamic standard of propriety and morality is maintained, a woman may have any respectable job. In pre-Islamic days, women were generally ill-treated and given a low status in society. In the Greek civilization, women started with a very low status to the extent that they were considered impure, and they were bought and sold in marketplaces. A woman could not refuse a husband chosen by her guardian and she could not disobey her husband in anyway. Later, they acquired a somewhat higher status, but they remained inferior to men. The same applies to many other old civilizations. Under the Roman Empire, women did not have the right to own anything. If a woman had any property of her own, it was automatically transferred to the ownership of the head of the family. Later, in the reign of Justinian, women were given the right to retain what they earned through their own work, but any money given to a woman by the head of her family remained his. Christian Europe was influenced by notions that prevailed in the days of paganism about the status of women. As recently as 1805, the English law allowed the man to sell his wife. In the year 586 AD. - that is when Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was still a young man - French elegies organized a convention in which they discussed whether women were human or not. They concluded that a woman was a human being created only to serve men. Even after the French Revolution, in the late 18th century, the French law continued to consider that an unmarried woman was totally unqualified to enter into any contract without the consent of her guardian. The French law of the time stipulated that those who did not have legal status were "young boys, idiots and women." You ask bout the duties of Muslim woman. In brief I can say that it is the duty of a wife to take good care of her husband and her family. Mothers must always be kind to their children, and daughters must always be respectful of, and dutiful to, their parents.

Our Dialogue ( Source : Arab News - Jeddah )