8.4 Women’s rights
There is a great deal of misconception in the West about women’s rights in Islam. This is hardly surprising when you consider the widespread ignorance of what the Qur’an actually teaches, both among Muslims and non-Muslims. Added to this is also the fact that the Western democracies quite often pride themselves on the freedom and equal rights given to the women in the West. It is important to examine this claim and to find out what happens in reality. Perhaps it would be easier to understand the real position of women in Western society by outlining some of the facts and then show how Islam treats women, according to the Qur’an.
Taking Great Britain as an example the following facts emerge:
- Although women outnumber men they occupy very few high-ranking jobs. Even in comparable jobs, they are not paid the same rate as men. Labour Market Trends, (December 1998, p. 626) shows that adult average gross weekly pay of full-time employees in Great Britain, in April 1998, was Â£506 for non-manual men and Â£330 for non-manual women; manual men received Â£328 and manual women Â£221.
- Given a total of over six hundred M.Ps. in Parliament the number of women M.Ps. is insignificant, and the same can be said for the House of Lords. Social trends (28, 1998, p. 229) shows that at the end of November 1997 women MPs in Parliament were only 18% of the total.
- The commercial exploitation of sex is widespread and the sexual abuse that goes with it is often hushed up in the name of ‘freedom’. In addition to which, women are more sexually exploited than men, sexually provocative images of women being used to sell everything from fizzy drinks to cars.
- The unlimited sexual freedom that goes on in social life results in very high divorce rates. The philosophy being that all is well so long as one does not get into trouble. The moral side of sex is completely ignored. The following are some of the statistics from Social Trends (28, 1998, p. 41).
– Cohabitation: Around a quarter men and women who had ever been married had cohabited before their first marriage, while 69% had cohabited before a second marriage.
– Families: Lone parents headed around 21% of all families with dependent children in Great Britain in 1996, a figure which had tripled since 1971.
– Households: The number of households in Great Britain comprising a married couple with dependent children has fallen over the last 35 years, from 38% in 1971 to 25% in 1996-97.
- Last but not least is the commercial exploitation of pornographic materials, including blue video films. These are widely available in the name of ‘freedom of choice’. It is difficult to calculate the price women pay for being conned into the use of their body by unscrupulous men.
My reason for making the above points is to show that the West’s claim of freedom and equality for women is simply a myth. If we examine women’s rights in the Qur’an then we can see a fundamental difference in approach. The Qur’an deals with the reality of human existence as it is and protects the rights of women in that context. It is not hypocritical like some ‘religious’ persons who try to insist that these realities do not exist. Despite this, the accusation is often made against the Qur’an that men and women are not regarded as equal. The verses often quoted in support of this view are as follows:
(2:228) […]the rights of the wives (with regard to their husbands) are equal to their (husbands’) rights with regard to them, although men have a degree (of advantage) over them. Allah is Almighty, Wise. (see note on page 96)
(4:34) Men are the maintainers of women, because Allah hath made one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for support of women)[…]
(2:282) O ye who believe! When ye contract a debt for a fixed term, record it in writing. Let a scribe record it in writing between you in (terms of) equity[…]. And call to witness, from among your men, two witnesses. And if two men are not (at hand) then a man and two women, of such as ye approve as witnesses, so that if the one erreth the other will remember[…]
Regarding the first two verses, it is necessary to examine Allah’s role in human affairs. The Qur’an provides clarification on this point in verses: 20:50, 16:68, 6:38, 24:41, 41:12 and many others, of which 20:50 is quoted below.
(20: 50) […]Our Rabb is He who gave to each (created) thing its form and nature, and further gave (it) guidance.
Thus, according to verse 20:50, Man has been given a form and nature by Allah which is distinct from that of Woman. It is plain both from the Qur’an and plain common sense that the form and nature of Man and Woman is complementary, and a respect of each other in this matter is the best possible compromise for a balanced and happy life together. However, this distinction in form and nature must not be equated with an intellectual pre-eminence on the part of the man and certainly no suggestion is made in the Qur’an to the contrary (see verse 33:35, as quoted later).
One of the forms given to the man is physical strength, by virtue of which he, statistically, plays a dominant role as maintainers (but not as rulers as has been portrayed in some translations of the Qur’an). To counter the dominant role of the man the Qur’an has encouraged economic independence of the woman in the sense that a woman’s earnings are entirely her own and need not be mixed with family expenses.
(4:32) […]unto men a fortune from that which they have earned, and unto women a fortune from that which they have earned, (envy not one another) but ask of Allah His bounty. Lo! Allah is ever Knower of all things.
In reality men tend to have, statistically speaking, the upper- hand in society in view of the control they exercise in almost all spheres of life. This is not to say that women will never occupy the highest jobs in the country but, speaking statistically, men will always occupy the highest proportion of important jobs in most societies and therefore will exercise their economic and financial control over women. However, this does not mean that the women are intellectually or – come to that – spiritually inferior. The Qur’an makes this abundantly clear in the following verses:
(33:35) Lo! Men who surrender unto Allah, and women who surrender, and men who believe and women who believe, and men who obey and women who obey, and men who speak the truth and women who speak the truth, and men who persevere (in righteousness) and women who persevere, and men who are humble and women who are humble, and men who give alms and women who give alms, and men who fast and women who fast, and men who guard their modesty and women who guard (their modesty), and men who remember Allah much and women who remember — Allah hath prepared for them forgiveness and a reward.
(16:97) Whosoever doeth right, whether male or female, and is a believer, him verily We shall quicken with good life, and We shall pay them a recompense in proportion to the best of what they used to do.
Thus the woman has been given the same capacity in Islam — to be or to do what the man can. As for the criticism with reference to verse (2:282) quoted before (i.e. why two women witnesses are required to replace one man) there are a number of logically sustainable answers of which I give two below:
Even for men the Qur’an has prescribed the condition of TWO men to appear as witnesses in a court of law. If some deficiency remains in one witness’s statement, the other can make it up — that is to make good a probable deficiency. It is a sort of confirmation of one statement by the other. Similar is the case of two women as witnesses. Shyness is a specific feature of women as compared to men. Under this circumstance she certainly needs another woman whom she knows, to stand by her side and corroborate the evidence.5
The verse 2:282 refers only to the financial or business transactions (whereas in verse 24.8 we see that woman alone can be a witness). Since men are traditionally the breadwinners and are legally responsible for the maintenance of the family, it is logical to assume that they would be (statistically speaking) more familiar with commercial transactions. To protect a woman’s business interest, it is recommended that she have a co-witness. It should be noted that the same recommendation is made for a man.6
The Qur’an disapproves of divorce but accepts it is necessary when all other measures have failed. In this connection, the Qur’an has cautioned believers to be very careful with regard to it, and has pointed out the steps that the spouses have to take for reconciliation, in cases of serious discord between them. In fact, the procedure for divorce in Islam is such as to encourage reconciliation (see 8.5).
On the question of marriage there is usually a misconception that in Islam a man can marry four wives at the same time. This misconception comes from the Hadith literature. The fact is that the Qur’an encourages monogamy and regards polygamy as an exception (see 8.6). The main point to consider is that, although men have more power and influence in society, women must be treated equally in terms of all humane considerations. The Qur’an gives strong guidance on our everyday behaviour and strong warnings if we choose to ignore them.
Verses 7-13 of sura 4 deal with laws and rules of inheritance. However, it is important to note that the inheritance, in all cases, applies only after the deceased’s will has been executed and his debts have been paid. As far as the women’s share is concerned, in general they are entitled to half the share of that given to men. This seems unfair only when viewed superficially and out of the context of other Qur’anic directives. In order to understand more fully, we must remember that the woman is allowed to keep her whole share for herself alone, whereas the man must maintain his family from out of his portion. Verse 4:34 (already quoted in this section) confirms this. Note also the following verse:
(2:233) Mothers shall suckle their children for two whole years; (that is) for those who wish to complete the suckling. The duty of feeding and clothing nursing mothers in a seemly manner is upon the father of the child. No one should be charged beyond one’s capacity.
Many other verses indicate that in Allah’s eyes — men and women are treated equally. These should give us a clear guidance for our own behaviour. The principle of equality is observed even in the case of reward and punishment, as stated below:
(48:5,6) That He may bring the believing men and the believing women into gardens underneath which rivers flow, wherein they will abide, and may remit from them their evil deeds — That in the sight of Allah, is the Supreme Triumph — And may punish the hypocritical men and the hypocritical women, and the idolatrous men and the idolatrous women, who think an evil thought concerning Allah[…]
In fact, verses similar to the above are met often in the Qur’an. Yet a point is often made by the Qur’an’s detractors (as a supposed instance of male chauvinism) that it contains verses which state that believing men in heaven are granted companions with wide lovely eyes (houri). This is mainly due to mistranslation and misinterpretation of the the following verses:
(2:25) […] There for them are pure companions (zauj ); there forever they abide.
(44:54) Even so (it will be). And We shall wed them unto companions (zauj ) with wide lovely eyes (hur-ayyin).
(52:20) Reclining on ranged couches. And we wed them unto companions (zauj ) with wide lovely eyes (hur-ayyin).
(56:22-24) And (there are) companions (zauj ) with wide, lovely eyes (hur-ayyin), like unto hidden pearls, reward for what they used to do.
The word zauj means “one of a pair”, and can apply to either of the two sexes. Therefore, instead of translating this word as “one of a pair” it would be better to use the word “companions” which can apply to both, either male or female.
The accurate translation of the word hur means “marked contrast between the white of the cornea and and the black of the iris”. Therefore the nearest translation of hur-ayyin can be “with wide lovely eyes”. Further, the word hur is a plural word and can apply to both male and female. Its feminine is haura and masculine is ahwar.
Hence the references made to the above verses are for the righteous believers where no specific distinction is made for male or female.
Regarding veiling of women in public life there is no mention in the Qur’an that women must completely cover themselves in the presence of others. In fact, modesty is for both men and women, with more emphasis being placed on women owing to their vulnerable position in society (see 8.7). Muslim social life excludes having boyfriends and girlfriends, free sexual mixing, dancing between men and women, taking alcohol and such other things from which pre-marital and extra-marital sexual relationships frequently develop.
Finally, we must clarify quite strongly that women occupy a very important position in the family by caring for and holding the family together. The loving relationship between the grandparents and the children, and the parents and their children, gives lasting stability to the children in their later life; and in all these women hold a most prominent position.
(31:14) And we have enjoined upon man concerning his parents — his mother beareth him in weakness upon weakness, and his weaning is two years — give thanks unto Me and unto thy parents. Unto Me is the journeying.