The issue of women in Islam, is topic of great misunderstanding and distortion due partly to a lack of understanding, but also partly due to misbehavior of some Muslims which has been taken to represent the teachings of Islam. We speak here about what Islam teaches, and that is that standard according to which Muslims are to be judged. As such, my basis and source is the Qur'an--the words of Allah, and the sayings of the Prophet, his deeds and his confirmation. Islamic laws are derived from these sources. To facilitate our discussion we can discuss the position of women from a spiritual, economic, social, and political standpoint.
From the spiritual aspect, there are seven points to remember:
According to the Qur'an, men and women have the same spirit, there is no superiority in the spiritual sense between men and women. [Noble Qur'an 4:1, 7:189, 42:11]
The Qur'an makes it clear that all human beings (and the phraseology doesn't apply to men or women alone, but to both) have what you might call a human; He "breathed some of My spirit into divine touch. When God created him"(or her in this sense). [Noble Qur'an 15:29 See also 32:9] Some of His spirit here means not in the incarnation sense, but the pure, innate spiritual nature that God has endowed her or him with.
The Qur'an indicates again that one of the most honored positions of human, is that God created the human, and as I referred to Surah 17 earlier, it means both sexes, as His trustee and representative on earth. There are many references in the Qur'an that reaffirm this.
Nowhere in the Qur'an do we find any trace of any notion of blaming Eve for the first mistake or for eating from the forbidden tree. Nowhere, even though the Qur'an speaks about Adam, Eve, and the forbidden tree, but in a totally different spirit. The story is narrated in 7:19-27, and it speaks about both of them doing this, both of them are told that both of them disobeyed, both of them discovered the consequences of their disobedience, both of them seek repentance and both of them are forgiven. Nowhere in the Qur'an does it say woman is to be blamed for the fall of man. Furthermore, when the Qur'an speaks about the suffering of women during the period of pregnancy and childbirth, nowhere does it connect it with the concept of original sin, because there is no concept of original sin in Islam. The suffering is presented not as a reason to remind woman of the fall of man, but as a reason to adore and love woman or the mother. In the Qur'an, especially 31:14, 46:15, it makes it quite clear God has commanded upon mankind to be kind to parents and mentions,
"His mother bore him in difficulty or suffering upon suffering." [Noble Qur'an 31:14, 46:15]
The Qur'an makes it clear again to remove any notion of superiority and I refer you again to 49:13. I must caution you that there are some mistaken translations, but if you go to the original Arabic, there is no question of gender being involved.
In terms of moral, spiritual duties, acts of worship, the requirements of men and women are the same, except in some cases when women have certain concessions because of their feminine nature, or their health or the health of their babies.
The Qur'an explicitly, in more than one verse, 3:195, 4:124, specified that whoever does good deeds, and is a believer and then specifies "male or female" God will give them an abundant reward.
In the area of economic rights, we have to remember that in Europe until the 19th century, women did not have the right to own their own property. When they were married, either it would transfer to the husband or she would not be able to dispense of it without permission of her husband. In Britain, perhaps the first country to give women some property rights, laws were passed in the 1860's known as "Married Women Property Act." More than 1300 years earlier, that right was clearly established in Islamic law.
"Whatever men earn, they have a share of that and whatever women earn, they have a share in that." [Noble Qur'an 4:32]
Thirdly, when it comes to financial security, Islamic law is more tilted in many respects towards women. These are seven examples:
During the period of engagement, a woman is to be on the receiving side of gifts. At the time of marriage, it is the duty of the husband, not the bride's family. He is supposed to pay for a marital gift. The Quran called it a gift, and it is exclusively the right of the woman. She doesn't have to spend it on the household, she doesn't have to give it to her father or anyone else. If the woman happened to own any property prior to marriage, she retains that property after marriage. It remains under her control. Also, in most Muslim countries, the woman keeps her own last name, and her own identity. If the woman has any earnings during her marital life, by way of investments of her property or as a result of work, she doesn't have to spend one penny of that income on the household, it is entirely hers. The full maintenance and support of a married woman is the entire responsibility of her husband, even though she might be richer than he is. She doesn't have to spend a penny.
At the time of divorce, there are certain guarantees during the waiting period and even beyond for a woman's support. If the widow or divorcee has children, she's entitled to child support.
In return for these listed securities, it is clear why the Islamic laws pertaining to inheritance give men a higher share. From the social standpoint, as a daughter we find that credit goes to Islam for stopping the barbaric practice of pre-Islamic Arabs of female infanticide. These ignorant people used to bury female daughters alive. The Qur'an forbade the practice, making it a crime. Surah 81 Additionally, the Qur'an condemned the chauvinistic attitudes of some people who used to greet the birth of a boy with gladness, but sadness in the case of a girl.
The duty, not the right, the duty of education, as the Prophet said, is a duty on every Muslim, male and female. As far as treatment of daughters is concerned, Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said, "Anyone who has two daughters, and did not bury them, did not insult them and brought them up properly, he and I will be like this," holding his two fingers close together. Another version adds, "And also did not favor his sons over daughters." One time the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) was seated. A companion was sitting with him. The companion's son came. He kissed his son and put him on his lap. Then his daughter came, and he just sat her by his side. The Prophet told the man, "You did not do Justice," meaning he should have treated the daughter equally, kissed her and put her in his lap also. Indeed, whenever the Prophet's daughter Fatimah came to him, in front of everyone, he stood up, kissed her and let her sit in his favorite place where he'd been sitting.
From the marital standpoint, the Qur'an clearly indicates in Surahs 30:20 and 42:11 that marriage is not just an inevitable evil, marriage is not somebody getting married to his master or slave, but rather to his partner.
"Among His Signs is this, that he created for you mates from among yourselves, that they may dwell in tranquility with them, and He has put love and mercy between your (hearts): Verily in that are signs for those who reflect." [Noble Quran 30:21]
There are numerous verses in the Quran to the same effect.
Secondly, the approval and consent of the girl to marriage is a prerequisite for the validity of marriage in Islam. She has the right to say yes or no. Husbands' and wives' duties are mutual responsibilities. They might not be identical duties, but the totality of rights and responsibilities are balanced. The Quran says:
"Women have the same rights (in relation to their husbands) as are expected in all decency from them, while men stand a step above them." [Noble Quran 2:228] This only specifies the degree of responsibility, not privilege, in man's role as provider, protector, maintainer, and leader of the family. The same Surah speaks about divorce, about consultation between husband and wife, even in the case of divorce. When there are family disputes, first the Qur'an appeals to reason and the consideration of positive aspects of one's spouse,
"Dwell with your wives in kindness for even if you hate them, you might be hating someone in whom God has placed so much good." [Noble Qur'an 4:19]
If that appeal does not succeed, and problems between the husband and wife continue, there are measures that can be applied. Some of these measures are done privately between husband and wife. Some of them might appear harsh, but there are qualifications to restrict excessive or abusive use of these measures. These measures are considered an attempt to save a marriage rather than break a family apart. If the situation does not improve, even with the limitation and prevention of excesses, the next step is a family council. One arbiter from his family and one from her family should sit together with the couple and try to resolve the problems.
If a divorce becomes necessary, there are many detailed procedures in Islamic law that really knock down the common notion that divorce in Islam is very easy and that it is the sole right of man. It is not the sole right of man alone and neither is it true that all you have to say is: "I divorce you three times," and that's it. Islam also has laws regarding custody of children. I was very surprised to see newspapers making the false claim that in all cases custody goes to the father. Custody involves the interest of the child, and laws often favor the mother of young children.
Polygamy has become so mythical in the minds of many people that they assume being Muslim means having four wives. This is a false notion, of course. A very renowned anthropologist, Edward Westermarck, in his two-volume work, "History of Human Marriage," notes that there has been polygamy in virtually every culture and religion, including Judaism and Christianity. But the point here is not to say, "Why blame Islam?" Actually, Islam is the only religion even among Abrahamic faiths, that specifically limited the practice of polygamy that existed before Islam and established very strict conditions for guidance. The question, "How could any man have two wives? That's terrible!" reflects ethnocentrism. We assume that because we're living in the West and it seems strange, and we assume it must apply to all cultures, all times, under all circumstances. This simply isn't true. Let me give you one current-day example. In the savage attack on Afghanistan, genocide was committed on the Afghani people. It is estimated that 1-1.5 million people lost their lives, a great majority of whom were men of a marriageable age. Now, with a great shortage of men, what will happen to their widows, their orphans and their daughters of marriageable age? Is it better to leave them in a camp, with a handout? Or better a man is willing to take care of his fallen comrade's wife and children?
It is obvious that monogamy is the norm for Muslims. If we assume that having four wives is the norm, then we assume a population of 80% female and 20% male, which is an impossibility on the aggregate level. The only verse in the Quran that speaks about polygamy, speaks about limiting not instituting polygamy. The verse was revealed after the Battle of Uhud in which many Muslims were martyred, leaving behind wives and children in need of support. This verse shows the spirit and reason of the revelation.
The Quran placed obedience to parents immediately after worship of God. "We commanded mankind to be kind to his parents" [Noble Qur'an 31:14] And then speaks of the mother. In a very succinct statement, Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said, "Paradise is at the feet of mothers." Once a man came to him and asked, "O, Messenger, who among mankind is worthy of my kindness and love?" The Prophet answered, "Your mother." "Who next?" "Your mother." "Who next?" "Your mother." Only after the third time he said, "And your father."
As a sister in faith, in blood, we find the Qur'an speaks about men and women, that they should cooperate and collaborate in goodness. Surah 9:71 speaks about men and women as supporters and helpers of each other, ordaining the good and forbidding the evil, establishing prayers and doing charity. Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) echoed what the Qur'an said, "I command you to be kind to women." In one of his last commands in his farewell pilgrimage before his death, he kept repeating, "I command you to be kind and considerate to women." In another hadith, he said, "It is only the generous in character who is good to women, and only the evil one who insults them."
On the question of attire, the Qur'an and the sayings of the Prophet did not say women must adopt a particular dress of a particular country. It only gives basic boundaries, and for a committed Muslim woman, she doesn't follow this simply because her father or husband tells her, but because Allah already stated that as a requirement in the Qur'an, and was explained through revelation given to Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) that this was not to restrict woman, but to provide a virtuous society where sexual attraction is not the main obsession of everyone. This forces everyone to respect the woman for what she is as a human being, as an intellectual and a spiritual being, rather than being diverted to her sexuality.
Finally, a few words about political involvement. The verse quoted earlier, Surah 9:71, which speaks about men and women being supporters and helpers of each other was taken by some jurists to mean that it involves also public life. How could they ordain the good and forbid the evil without women being active in the affairs of their society? According to the Qur'an, I'm not talking about the practices of Muslims, in Surah 60:12, we read about Muslim women making "bayy'ah" to the Prophet. Bayy'ah as an Islamic term is somewhat analogous, to a degree, to what we would call an election, or oath of allegiance. And that was given in his capacity not only as a Prophet, but as a head of state, as he was already the head of state in Medina.
During the rein of 'Umar, women participated in law making. 'Umar made a proposal of a certain regulation concerning marriage. A woman in the mosque stood up and said, "'Umar, you can't do that." 'Umar did not tell her, "Shut up, you are a woman, you have nothing to do with politics, etc." He asked, "Why?" She made her argument on the basis of Quran. In front of everybody, he stood up and said, "The woman is right and 'Umar is wrong," and he withdrew his proposal. That was the spirit in the early days of Islam.
In the most authentic collection of Hadith, Hadith Bukhari, a section is devoted to the participation of women, not only in public affairs, but in the battlefield, too, and not only as logistical support. Women carried arms, and when there was great danger to the Muslims, they volunteered to participate even in the battlefield.
The problems presented here are not the problems of Islam. They are problems of a lack of commitment, lack of application, or misapplication of Islamic teachings by Muslims themselves. The topics I have tried to cover here represent and exemplify the big gap that exists between the true teachings of Islam as derived from its original sources and its projected image in the West and the way some Muslims behave in the disregard of those noble teachings.
There's no question that the Western media has played an important role in perpetuating these misconceptions. But in fairness, we should not blame the media alone. Western culture, in writings about other religions, in particular Islam, have distorted images. From books, novels, even in the academic circle, and sermons from the pulpit in places of worship, these kinds of prejudices are perpetuated.
There are fair and honorable people in the media who are receptive to correction of inaccuracies, and who present the facts, when the facts become manifest, as we have seen in the coverage of the barbaric and cruel treatment of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. What I would suggest to the media is instead of depending on the distorted information about Islam, they should keep in touch with educated Muslims, and remember, the U.S. has between 5 and 6 million Muslims. Only through correct representation and open communication with Muslims in America can the media give a fair analysis of current events, given the background of those conflicts, and provide a great service to society.