Reflections on Women's Status in Islam
by Maha Thabit
One of the main areas where Islam is the most maligned is the area of women. The opponents of Islam claim that Islam segregates, depreciates, and deals with women unjustly. They try to distort the image of this religion by claiming that Is- lam favors men at the expense of women. Conscious and unconscious prejudice against Islam has pervaded Western cultural notions ever since the time of the crusades. The Western media has always misrepresented the rights of women in Islam and painted a gloomy picture. The need for a more accurate and more sympathetic understanding of the rights of women in Islam is indispensable for the present time, especially in the non-Muslim societies. The Holy Qur'an states very clearly that men and women are absolutely equal in humanity. It declares: "O mankind! Fear your Guardian Lord who created you from a single person, created his mate of like nature and from them both scattered countless men and women... " (4: 1). Also, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: "Women are the twin halves of men. The Qu'ran, in addition, emphasizes the essential unity of men and women in a most beautiful simile: "They (your wives) are your garment and you are garment for them" (2:187). In the Jahiliyya (time of ignorance) a female infant was buried alive. If her parents let her live, she lived the life of a servant who was sold and bought as merchandise. Some- times, she was treated as an object with no value, a commodity used to satisfy the every whim of men. Even now, women still suffer from the loss of their rights. Islam stresses that the woman is a fair half of society, and society is incomplete without her. She has responsibilities towards her religion and life, and in return, Islam guarantees to protect her rights, honor, and integrity. Lets take a look at civilization and see how women were treated and what rights they had, so that we may have a better perspective on how Islam dealt with the problem. Before the advent of Islam Arabia is referred to as jahiliyya, or the time of ignorance. In these times a women's role in society was so unimportant and meaningless that burying newborn girls was a common practice. The females that survived to experience adulthood usually led a horrible, oppressed life. A Jahiliyya Arab wife was inherited just like property. When a man died his son had every right upon his father's wife. One of the sons might marry her for himself, or they might marry her to anyone they desired. If she wanted to get married, they had the right to stop her, or she had to pay them money as her ransom. Islam came to regard the practice of burying a girl alive as a heinous crime. In this respect, the Holy Qur'an says: "And when the female infant buried alive is question; for w" (Quran, 82:8-9). The Qur'an guides parents on how they should behave when news of the birth of a girl is given to them. We learn from ahadith (sayings of the Holy Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him) that a female should not suffer injustice or in- equality. He is quoted as saying what it meant: "He who has a daughter and does not bury her alive, or insult her, and does not prefer his son to her, Allah will enter him into paradise. " As in biblical law, Encyclopedia Biblica provides a reading about some of the Biblical Laws, or still-Mosaic Law: "A woman was betrothed. " For a man to betroth a wife meant simply to possess her by payment of the purchase money which was a kind of dowry given to her father. It was not necessary to get the consent of the girl. The marriage was valid. The woman being a man's property, he had every right over her. He had even the right of divorce, and it was the privilege of the husband only. The wife had no such rights. This state of affairs was in vogue in Europe in varying degrees as late as the 19th century or after the French revolution. In addition, the result of a Christian religious conference held in the Fifth Century was that the woman had no soul and her residence was Hell. The only exception to this was Mary, mother of Jesus (pbuh). A century later another conference was held to discuss whether the woman was a human or not. They came out with the result that the woman was a human, but she was created for the benefit of man so she had to serve him. Judaism regards a woman as a much more inferior creature than her counterpart. Some consider her to be even lower in grade than that of the servants. She never inherited anything from her parents if she had brothers. Her father had the right of selling her if she were under the age of maturity. When a woman got married, her possessions were transferred to her husband. He had full right over her possessions during their marriage life. If she caught her husband in bed with another woman, she was to keep silent and not to com- plain. He could do anything he liked, as she was considered his property. In prayers there had to be more men than women present, otherwise the prayers were not conducted because the women were not counted as participants. Unlike other religions of the world, Islam removed the stigma of "wickedness" and "impurity" which had been placed upon women. Man and woman had both come from the same essence and, therefore, if woman is said to be wicked, man also should be regarded as such, or if man has a spark of nobility in him, woman should also posses it. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) taught respect for women in these words: "The most precious thing in the world is a virtuous woman. " He bade his followers to behave most humanel" He said: "The perfect among the faithfuls is one whose moral character is the best, and the best among you are those who are kindest to their families." (Tirmidhi) Fourteen centuries ago Islam declared that both men and women share the obligation of being true and faithful servants of Allah, and that both would be rewarded by Allah in accordance with their deeds. In Islam a woman enjoys a place of honor and dignity which in a sense may be considered higher than that of a man. Islam has laid down rules and laws regarding women, irrespective of whether she is a mother, daughter, sister, or wife. There are certain duties that men have toward women and women toward men. Social movements such as the women's liberation movement in the Western world are unnecessary and inconceivable inIslamic Society. These movements are the results of unceasing frustration; of financial, moral and physical insecurity, and the absence of a divinely patterned way of life. WOMEN'S RIGHTS AS A WIFE In Islam the house is looked upon as a kingdom run by the husband and the wife, but in each kingdom, as we know, there is always a person with the highest authority who is entitled to have the last say when a problem arises. This highest authority in the family life is given to the man, partly, because it is the man in Islam who is financially responsible for the maintenance of the family, and partly because the man by nature generally makes a better leader than a woman. The man, however, is prohibited from abusing his rights to oppress his wife where the relationship turns into a servant and a king. In spite of the higher degree of the man over the woman, since he is the leader and the one responsible for the maintenance of the family, the man does not have the power to burden his wife for the sake of imposing his decisions. Thus, a successful life depends on understanding, consultation, and conferment, listening and respecting each other's opinions. WOMEN'S CIVIL RIGHTS EDUCATION: Islam has given the woman the right to education, to be an active and productive member of society, so she can learn and teach just like a man can. Of course it should fit under the jurisdictions of Islam. The women who lived during Prophet Muhammad's (peace be upon him) life, for instance, used to teach various Islamicjurisdictions. Those teachings make the women great wives, mothers, and powerful planners in the house. A woman has the right to learn whatever type of science or art that she is interested in. It is not only a right but also an obligation. This is clearly stated in the Holy Qur'an when Allah said: "O ye who believe! When ye are told to make room in the assemblies, (spread out and) make room: (Ample) room will Allah provide for you. And when ye are told to rise up, rise up, to (suitable) ranks (and degrees), those of you who believe and who have been granted (mystic) knowledge: and Allah is well-acquainted with all ye do " (58: 11). The Prophet (pbuh) emphasized the importance of education more when he said: "Seek knowledge even if it takes you to China . And: "Knowledge is incumbent on every male and every female. " Hence, we see that a woman is encouraged just as the man is to seek education, and reach the highest levels of scholar- ship and success possible. From these rights we can feel the greatness of Islam that granted the woman the highest levels of honor and created laws that preserve her rights forever. WORK: The woman also has the right to improve her intuitive talent so she can contribute to the improvement of her family or society, again within the limits of Islam. This means that the environment of the job has to be suitable for a Muslim woman. She should obey the Islamic dress code by covering her body, neck and hair with loose, non-transparent clothing. Woman are entitled to receive a fair rate for the work that they are doing and if a particular job has a particular rate of pay, a woman would be entitled to that pay and not any less because of her gender, something which is still not practiced in this country, as Equal opportunity Commission Reports show every year. MARRIAGE: Islam granted women the right to choose her husband. This way she would not be forced into a marriage that she resents. If she desires to marry a Muslim man, she is not stopped unless the husband-to-be is not fit religiously. In this situation, her parents have the right to reject the groom. Over and above all this, she must retain her full identity: her last name remains the same, and is not changed to the husband's last name. DIVORCE Islam does not only give the woman the right to decide on marriage, but also the right to divorce. Although it is a legal step that Allah dislikes, a woman may choose to divorce her husband whatever her reason. Ibn Abbas reported that a woman came to the Prophet (peace be upon him), and she complained that her father had forced her to marry without her consent. The Messenger gave her the choice between accepting the marriage or invalidating it. (Ibn Hanbal, No. 2469). In another version, the woman said. - "Actually I accept this marriage but I wanted to let women know that parents have no right (to force a husband on them)" (Ibn-Maja, No. 1873). If the husband happens to abuse his wife, she can seek refuge under the law of Islam, and it will give her justice. On the other hand, a divorced woman or a widow has a full right to remarry with no duties to the previous husband. This right is not given to women in most societies. This shows that there is absolute equality between men and women under the civil jurisdictions of Islam. FINANCIAL AND ECONOMICAL RIGHTS INHERITANCE: Islam granted the woman broad rights in inheritance. A woman has the right to inherit from her father or husband or children. A man inherits double what the woman does and there is a reason for that. The reason is that it is the responsibility of the father, brother or son to financially provide for their wives daughters, sisters or mothers. The woman does not have this responsibility. She may do as she pleases with her money. In the Qur'an, Allah says: "From what is left by parents and those nearest related there is a share for men and a share for women, whether the property be small or large, a determinate share." (4:7). Waselah-b-Asqa'a reported that the Messenger of Allah said: "A woman shall get three inheritances - (from) one whom she emancipated, one whom she picked up and her child about whom she imprecated. " (Tirmidhi, Abu Daud, Ibn Majah) MAHR: Islam also granted to women what is called Mahr, which is what the man offers her as a pre-marriage gift. Allah says in the Qur'an: "And give the women (on marriage) their dower as a free gift, but if they, of their own good pleasure, remit any part of it to you, take it and enjoy it with right good cheer" (4:4). This Mahr is given to her, not to her father or anybody else. She owns it from the moment she receives it and no one has the right to use it without her consent. Even if she makes a fortune from a certain business, her husband is not allowed to ask her for it or order her to spend it for any reason. Even if the wife is rich, this doesn't detach the husband from the duty to provide for her. Therefore, we find the financial status of women in Islam is almost better than that of the men, which justifies the man's double inheritance to that of a woman. These are some of the issues concerning the status of women in Islam. Whoever thinks that Islam oppresses women and takes away rights is entirely wrong. Before Islam a woman had, literally, no rights, but Islam took her under it's care and gave her the rights as a worthy half of the society. The point to note about these rights and equalities given to women is that they have come from Allah. It was not necessary for women to fight for these natural rights and overturn the basic balance or natural order with which the universe and human society has been created in doing so. Non-Muslim women had to fight a dire battle to gain these same rights. The price for society as a whole has been heavy. Non-Muslim societies need to find Islam, but they will only be willing to see what it has to offer if they can see Muslim men - and especially women - finding happiness and fulfillment in Islam and acting to the honorable role set for them by it. " Whoever works righteousness, man or woman, and has Faith, verily to him will We give a new Life, a life that is good and pure and We will bestow on such their reward according to the best of their action. " (26:97).