Nothing has received more vilification from commentators and writers then the issue of Islam’s view on women. Images of fully covered women, with veils across their faces, leap to mind whenever the western media discusses the issue. The treatment of women in any society has become a key benchmark measurement to its progress so when the Muslim world is assessed it miserably fails on the standard western tests ranging from the treatment of women to their involvement in society. This has led to a number of ferocious attacks on Islam that has led some Muslims to feel weary, embarrassed and unable to defend the Islamic viewpoint on this issue. This article will focus on how Islam deals with male-female relations and elaborate on some of its details.
When Islam laid down roles and responsibilities it is clear, where the man and the woman share similar qualities in their nature, the obligation prescribed to both is the same such as the salaat (prayer), sawm (fasting), and Hajj (pilgrimage). However, where the nature differs then different duties have been prescribed. So, the husband or father has been obligated with the responsibility of protecting the family and providing for them financially. The woman has been obligated with the primary role of ensuring the welfare of the family by nurturing the children and conveying the Islamic culture to them.
In Islam the duty prescribed to the man is not viewed as better than the role prescribed to the woman. Rather, the duties prescribed to the man are seen as responsibilities that need to be fulfilled and for which the man will be held accountable to Allah (SWT). Likewise the woman will also be held accountable as to how well she fulfilled her responsibilities. Both duties compliment one another and are crucial for the family and society to function properly and with tranquillity. This accountability to Allah (SWT) is what prevents a devout Muslim woman from giving precedence to her career over the welfare of her family, as in her mind her success lies in how well she fulfils the roles ascribed to her by Allah (SWT) and not in how much she earns (in monetary terms) or what type of career she is pursuing. However, this by no means suggests that she is not permitted to pursue her desired career.
Islam came with the Shari’ah commandments, which it obliged, on the man and the woman. When it clarified the Shari’ah rules that treat the actions of each of them, it did not give the issue of equality or comparison any attention nor did it give it even the slightest consideration. Rather it viewed that there was a problem that required a solution. So, it treated the actions regardless of whether it was a problem pertaining to a man or a woman. Thus, the solution was for the action of a human, for the incident, and not for the man or woman. Therefore, the question of equality or the lack of equality between the man and woman is not the subject of discussion. This expression is not present in the Islamic legislation. What exists is the Shari’ah rule of an incident, which has resulted from a certain human whether it is from a man or a woman.
Hence, equality between men and women is not an issue for discussion, nor is it an issue that forms a subject in the social system of Islam. The woman being equal to the man or, the man being equal to the woman is not a significant matter that has influence over the societal life in Islam. Islam has established its social system on a basis different to that of western definitions of ‘equality’, which is fixed and does not change with the change in attitudes and time ensuring communal and societal cohesion.
The Shari’ah commandments have been legislated upon this basis, and according to it, the rights and obligations of men and women have been assigned. When the rights and obligations are for humans, one will find equivalence in these rights and obligations for both men and women. Thus, the rights and obligations will be for all, and assigned to all men and women as one, without difference or disparity. Hence, you will find that Islam did not differentiate between men and women when it invited people to Islam. Nor did it differentiate between men and women in the commandment of carrying the da’wah (call to Islam). It made the commandments relating to Islam such as salaat (prayer), sawm (fasting), Hajj (pilgrimage), siyaasa (politics), employment and Zakaat (alms) the same in terms of their legal obligation. It made the acquiring of the morals as Shari’ah rules for men and women without distinction. It also made the rules of societal transactions such as buying, renting, representation, guardianship etc. relating to, and relating between, humanity the same for men and women. Islam imposed punishments for breaching the rules of Allah (SWT), with both pre-determined penalties and discretional punishments on men and women without discrimination in their capacity as humans. In addition Islam made both learning and teaching an obligation for Muslims with no difference between men and women. So, in this manner, Allah (SWT) has legislated for all the rules pertaining to humans in their capacity as humans, exactly the same for men and women without distinction. So, the commandments from this perspective are all the same, and the rights and obligations are also the same. The verses and ahadith with regards to such rules have come as general and inclusive for humans in their capacity as humans. Indeed, many verses stipulate that the legal obligation is for the male and for the female. Allah (SWT) said:
“Verily, the Muslims, men and women, the believers, men and women, and the men and women who are obedient (to Allah), the men and women who are patient, the men and women who are humble, the men and women who give Sadaqat (charity), and the fasting men and women, and the men and women who guard their chastity, and the men and women who remember Allah much. Allah has prepared for them forgiveness and a great reward”
[TMQ Al- Ahzab: 35]
When rights, obligations and commandments relate to the nature of a man or woman, in their physical, anatomical, biological and psychological make-up then their rights and obligations will be disparate due to the inherent differences. This is because the solutions are required for problems that arise from the inherent difference. The solution is therefore not for humans in general but to one gender in particular who possesses different characteristics from the other. When a problem is faced by one gender due to their specific nature or attribute, then the rule pertaining to that gender cannot be applied generally to everyone because only one gender faces the problem. Thus the general rules would not apply and specific rules that address the characteristic in question are required.
The Islamic solutions for men and women
So Islam has ordered that the attire of women be different from men, just as it has ordered that the attire of men should be different from the attire of women. It forbade one from resembling the other in attire, and from imitating what is particular to one gender or which distinguishes one from another gender. It has been narrated that Muhammad (SAW) said:
“The Messenger of Allah cursed the man who wears the clothing of women, and the woman who wears the clothing of men”
[Reported by al-Hakim who declared it authentic (Sahih)].
Islam arranged the public life in a way that would not lead to what is occurring in western societies of rape and violence against women, this was achieved by segregating the public life between men and women. To this end Islam stipulated specific attire for women in the public life. The rules concerning the definition of the awrah (private parts) are disparate between men and women because their nature requires this. The man’s awrah is from the navel to the knees, in front of both men and women, whilst for the women it is her whole body excluding her hands and face.
The only exception to this for the women is in the private life, where her private parts are from her lower legs to the shoulders. Islam allowed the exposure of the awrah for both men and women in the situation of bondage, between the husband and wife, to a judge (to determine identity and age), to a doctor (for a medical need such as pregnancy) and to a limited degree to her other mahrem (non marriageable men). By considering most of a woman’s body as awrah Islam required that women be covered in public life, so Islam legislated the rules of the hijab (covering). Islam prescribed the covering of the head excluding the face and the Jilbab, which is a large outer garment draping down to the feet. Much has been written about the hijab since its banning in France; it should be made perfectly clear that the subject of the nature of the woman’s dress-code can never be discussed using the basis of western thoughts on the matter. What is appropriate and acceptable does not come from the human mind but from the Shari’ah texts. In fact the matter does not merit study or reach the level of a legislative and societal discussion in Islam! The correct discussion is only on the rules laid down by the Shari’ah.
Islam came with rules, some of which are particular to men and some of which are particular to women. It distinguished between men and women with regards to a section of these rules based on inherent differences in physical, anatomical, biological and psychological make-up and ordered them to accept what Allah (swt) has specially assigned for them in terms of these rules. He (swt) forbade them from envying each other, and from desiring things in which Allah (swt) has preferred one to the other:
“And wish not for the things in which Allah has made some of you to excel others. For men there is allotted from what they have earned, (and likewise) from women there is allotted for what they have earned”
[TMQ An-Nisa: 32]
This specification does not mean inequality; rather it is a solution for the actions of a female in her capacity as a female, and a solution for the actions of a male in his capacity as a male. The perspective of equality or inequality is not considered because it is not the subject of study. This is since solutions for problems faced by a particular gender should differ from the solution for humans generally. This does not mean discrimination between humans or that it is a discussion about equality or inequality. This can be viewed by the Islamic answers to married life.
Equality and it’s limitations
It is essential, at this point, to reiterate that whenever one gender alone faces an issue due to the specific nature or attribute of the gender, then the rule pertaining to that gender cannot be applied generally to both genders. This is so as only one gender faces the problem. Thus it is plain that general rules would not apply and specific rules that address the characteristic in question would be required. When rights, obligations and commandments relate to the nature of a man or woman, in their physical, anatomical, biological and psychological make-up then their rights and obligations will be disparate due to the inherent differences. This is because the solutions are required for problems that arise from the inherent difference. The solution is therefore not for humans in general but to one gender in particular who possesses different characteristics from the other. Thus the rules to do with pregnancy, menstruation and suckling only apply to the one gender or are solutions for them only.
Equality is not the basis of Islam and never has been in the history of Islamic jurisprudence. This is a term alien to Islam. Many thinkers when they study the rules Islam lays down for women do so from the angle of equality. Hence they look at inheritance, polygamy, clothing and the Islamic view on the public life from the prism of equality. Thus polygamy is interpreted to mean that it is permissible only if women can have the equivalent number of multiple marriages. Similarly with inheritance the claim is made that it should be equal from a monetary angle. The problem with such a mentality is that everything would be wrong, invalid and outdated, as it doesn’t agree with arbitrary understandings of ‘equality’. So in a society where the women outnumber men polygamy would be considered invalid as its not done equally even though it clearly solves the problem. The women’s dress would be seen as oppressive because its not the same as the male dress even if this creates a stable and unifying society. We could extend such thinking further:
• Would we consider the development of China wrong because it was not entirely built upon the free market model, even though its on course to become the largest economy on the planet within 30 years.
• Would we consider it wrong that North Korea in the 60’s and 70’s by the use of the Juch Philosophy managed to feed its entire population and distribute its resources in a manner where all the needs of its citizens where being fulfilled because this was not being done via freedom of ownership but rather via the Socialist model.
• Would the Islamic ruling system, the Khilafah, be wrong because its not built upon western models of democracy even though at its peak it ruled over 60% of the world and lasted for 14 centuries?
• Would it be correct for one to say the UK’s fiscal policy is destined to fail because it does not have Islamic taxation incorporated into them?
• Would it be correct to say that the US policy on allowing women to be free and dressing in a seductive way is wrong merely because it disagrees with the Islamic view?
Any study of any thought from the viewpoint of another ideology would be deeply flawed, biased and deficient from the outset. Therefore the discussion can never be about does your belief complement or agree with mine, this implicitly makes one’s belief the benchmark, which is wrong. Making equality the universal benchmark brings up a whole host of other problems. Equality assumes sameness between the genders and would thus fall into trouble when faced with problems, which are gender specific e.g.
Should there be small lodges on the streets of London for mothers to breast-feed their newborn child?
Should women be allowed one week’s paid leave from their employments due to menstruation?
Should a man be allowed two years paternity leave due to the fact he has a mother and a child to care for whilst the mother has only the child?
Should the women be allowed only two weeks maternity leave considering the man has at present only two weeks paternity leave? [In UK law]
The only way to measure equitably any social system is to measure it by neutral universal principals, such as what is the role of men and women in producing cohesive societies? How should duties be assigned to ensure both genders needs are met without neglecting one for the other creating comfort and tranquillity? How do we allocate rights in the marriage contract ensuring both genders needs are met? How do we allocate duties and responsibilities in regards to children and elders looking at the make up of humans?
• Islam most certainly does not view women as intellectually deficient. This is because the intellect is the same in terms of the natural characteristics of men and women. Adherence to Islam is also the same in terms of the belief and action of the men and the women.
• Islam defined clearly the role of women in society; it made her primary role as a mother and wife but did not restrict her to these roles only. It permitted her the right to gain employment, invest her wealth, take up positions of governance, carry the call of Islam and gain an education. When Islam spoke about her role as a mother and wife this was in the context of her primary role not her only role.
• It clarified for men their responsibility towards women. Therefore Islam obliged the earning and providing of provisions for the family upon the man. It clarified for the man the make up of women, including her sensitivity and her fragility. Thus Islam defined very clearly the role of each gender, so in Islam there is no gender class where women are looked down upon and viewed as inferior beings.