How Skewed is Gender Equality in Islam

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Rana Safvi & Subuhi Safvi


“And women shall have rights similar to the rights against them, according to what is equitable; but men have a degree (of responsibility) over them. And Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise” (2.228 Quran)

For the medieval society of Arabia this was a revolutionary concept. The Prophet himself practiced what he preached and there are umpteen traditions, which talk of how he always got up when his daughter Fatima Zehra entered the room as a mark of respect.

In fact last address of Prophet Mohammed to the Muslims on the occasion of the Hajjat-ul-wida was:

“All people are equal, as equal as the teeth of a comb. There is no claim of merit of an Arab over a non-Arab or a white over a black person: Only God-fearing people merit a preference with God. Thus men and women are equal.”

Despite this there is widespread perception and practise which show that women are not equal in the eyes of Islam. Most of the arguments quoted in favour of gender inequality seem to emanate from a man who had said the above lines.

But most conservative Muslims seem to believe that women are to be neither seen nor heard. They are just a top to toe black covered nonentity.The reason for that lie in patriarchy and tribal customs which have refused to let Islam evolve.

When Islam started to spread through the Arab states, the population was mostly tribal. The teachings had to be incorporated with tribal customs. Some scholars argue that the practice of sex segregation and veiling of women are not mentioned in the Quran but have been practised because it was not easy to improve the status of women in trial practices.

In fact the verse which is quoted in relation to hijab [24.30] starts by telling men to lower their gaze and guard their modesty. It is only on the next verse [33.59] that women are instructed to guard their modesty and dress modestly in a way that their bosoms and sexual parts are covered. The verse which says women should wear an outer garment when going out was to differentiate them as believing women so that they could avoid harassment on the streets. They were not told to stay at home but advised how to go about their work comfortably and safely.

Islam has been criticised for granting low status to women. There are many scholars that believe that it is actually because of the interpretation of Islam by jurists and traditions that have resulted in the low status of women. The tribes of 7th century Arabia resisted many of the rights granted to women since it was a radical change to their customs. As centuries passed, these traditions have become part of Islamic practice and the rights and privileges granted to women by the religion have not been realised.

With the exception of a few verses the Quran grants equal status to men and women. It encourages a functionally supportive relationship between men and women in society. Dr. Jamal Badawi in his essay, ‘The Status of Women in Islam’, discusses the position of women in light of the Quranic verses. He says that The Qur’an provides clear-cut evidence that woman is completely equated with man in the sight of God in terms of her rights and responsibilities.

The Qur’an states, “Every soul will be (held) in pledge for its deeds” (Quran 74:38). It also says, “…So their Lord accepted their prayers, (saying): I will not suffer to be lost the work of any of you whether male or female. You proceed one from another” (Quran 3: 195).

“Whoever works righteousness, man or woman, and has faith, verily to him will we give a new life that is good and pure, and we will bestow on such their reward according to the their actions.” (Quran 16:97)

Another verse states, “And whoever does righteous deeds, whether male or female, while being a believer – those will enter Paradise and will not be wronged, [even as much as] the speck on a date seed. “ (Quran 4:124).

In fact the Qur’an does not not blame Eve for Adam’s mistake. “Both were jointly wrong in their disobedience to God, both repented, and both were forgiven” says Badawi. (Quran 2:36, 7:20-24).

The First Lady of Islam Khadija was a prosperous businesswoman whose money funded the initial expansion of Islam. She was not only successful but emancipated enough to send a proposal to Mohammed who was her employee and younger than herself, because she recognized his noble qualities. Isn’t it truly ironical that the women of the religion to which she was the first female convert are so suppressed and repressed in the name of Islam ?

There is no verse in the Quran that says that women should not participate in politics. In Chapter 27 of the Quran, Queen of Sheba, Bilquis is said to be a very good ruler. Women were also present at the pledge of allegiance for Prophet Mohammed. Khadijat ul Kubra, the Prophet’s first wife was a successful business woman. Aisha the Prophet’s youngest wife was active in politics and public life.

The achievements of these women are often overlooked by scholars that insist Islam affords women no rights.

Zainab binte Ali the granddaughter of the Prophet not only held the orphans and widows together after the Battle of Karbala, she also saved the life of her nephew the ailing Ali bin Hussain on at least three occasions by saying that those wishing to kill him would have to kill her first. She addresed gatherings in every place where their caravan was halted during an arduous journey from Kufa in Iraq to Damascus, she challenged the Governor of Kufa in his palace with her speech. Her speeches in the court of Yezid in Damascus are examples of her determination and endurance. It was she who put paid to efforts of Yezid in declaring the Battle of Karbal a as a fight between a rebel and a ruler and made people realise that it was a fight of good over evil. She ensured that her brother Hussain’s sacrifice was known to all.

We are in the present mess because we have stopped questioning and evolving.

The Messenger of Allah had said “Seeking knowledge is a duty upon every Muslim.”

It doesnot specify that only men should seek knowledge but that it is the duty of every Muslim.

And true knowledge does not come passively. You have to question, to probe in depth to get answers.

Islam was sent as a religion for all times and thus it has to be for all times. We are dragging it willy nilly into the medieval century.

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