Rights of Women: Quranic Ideals Versus Muslim Practice

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SHAFAQNA - Muslim men never tire of repeating that Islam has given more rights to women than has any other religion. Certainly, if by “Islam” is meant “Qur’anic Islam” the rights that it has given to women are, indeed, impressive. Not only do women partake of all the “General Rights” mentioned in the foregoing pages, they are also the subject of much particular concern in the Qur’an. Underlying much of the Qur’an’s legislation on women-related issues is the recognition that women have been disadvantaged persons in history to whom justice needs to be done by the Muslim “ummah”. Unfortunately, however, the cumulative (Jewish,Christian,Hellenistic, Bedouin and other) biases which existed in the Arab-Islamic culture of the early centuries of Islam infiltrated the Islamic tradition and undermined the intent of the Qur’an to liberate women from the status of chattels or inferior creatures and make them free and equal to men.

A review of Muslim history and culture brings to light many areas in which – Qur’anic teaching notwithstanding – women continued to be subjected to diverse forms of oppression and injustice, often in the name of Islam, while the Qur’an because of its protective attitude toward all downtrodden and oppressed classes of people, appears to be weighted in many ways in favor of women, many of its women-related teachings have been used in patriarchal Muslim societies against, rather than for, women. Muslim societies, in general, appear to be far more concerned with trying to control women’s bodies and sexuality than with their human rights. Many Muslims when they speak of human rights, either do not speak of women’s rights at all,[52] or are mainly concerned with how a women’s chastity may be protected[53]. (They are apparently not worried about protecting men’s chastity).

Women are the targets of the most serious violations of human rights which occur in Muslim societies in general. Muslims say with great pride that Islam abolished female infanticide; true, but, it must also be mentioned that one of the most common crimes in a number of Muslim countries (e.g., in Pakistan) is the murder of women by their husbands. These so-called “honor-killings” are, in fact, extremely dishonorable and are frequently used to camouflage other kinds of crimes.

Female children are discriminated against from the moment of birth, for it is customary in Muslim societies to regard a son as a gift, and a daughter as a trial, from God. Therefore, the birth of a son is an occasion for celebration while the birth of a daughter calls for commiseration if not lamentation. Many girls are married when they are still minors, even though marriage in Islam is a contract and presupposes that the contracting parties are both consenting adults. Even though so much Qur’anic legislation is aimed at protecting the rights of women in the context of marriage[54] women cannot claim equality with their husbands. The husband, in fact, is regarded as his wife’s gateway to heaven or hell and the arbiter of her final destiny. That such an idea can exist within the framework of Islam – which, in theory, rejects the idea of there being any intermediary between a believer and God – represents both a profound irony and a great tragedy.

Although the Qur’an presents the idea of what we today call a “no-fault” divorce and does not make any adverse judgements about divorce [55], Muslim societies have made divorce extremely difficult for women, both legally and through social penalties. Although the Qur’an states clearly that the divorced parents of a minor child must decide by mutual consultation how the child is to be raised and that they must not use the child to hurt or exploit each other[56], in most Muslim societies, women are deprived both of their sons (generally at age 7) and their daughters (generally at age 12). It is difficult to imagine an act of greater cruelty than depriving a mother of her children simply because she is divorced. Although polygamy was intended by the Qur’an to be for the protection of orphans and widows[57], in practice Muslims have made it the Sword of Damocles which keeps women under constant threat. Although the Qur’an gave women the right to receive an inheritance not only on the death of a close relative, but also to receive other bequests or gifts during the lifetime of a benevolent caretaker, Muslim societies have disapproved greatly of the idea of giving wealth to a woman in preference to a man, even when her need or circumstances warrant it. Although the purpose of the Qur’anic legislation dealing with women’s dress and conduct[58], was to make it safe for women to go about their daily business (since they have the right to engage in gainful activity as witnessed by Surah 4: An-Nisa’ :32 without fear of sexual harassment or molestation, Muslim societies have put many of them behind veils and shrouds and locked doors on the pretext of protecting their chastity, forgetting that according to the Qur’an[59], confinement to their homes was not a normal way of life for chaste women but a punishment for “unchastity”.

Woman and man, created equal by God and standing equal in the sight of God, have become very unequal in Muslim societies. The Qur’anic description of man and woman in marriage: “They are your garments/ And you are their garments” (Surah 2: Al-Baqarah: 187) implies closeness, mutuality, and equality. However, Muslim culture has reduced many, if not most, women to the position of puppets on a string, to slave-like creatures whose only purpose in life is to cater to the needs and pleasures of men. Not only this, it has also had the audacity and the arrogance to deny women direct access to God. It is one of Islam’s cardinal beliefs that each person -man or woman- is responsible and accountable for his or her individual actions. How, then, can the husband become the wife’s gateway to heaven or hell? How, then, can he become the arbiter not only of what happens to her in this world but also of her ultimate destiny? Such questions are now being articulated by an increasing number of Muslim women and they are bound to threaten the existing balance of power in the domain of family relationships in most Muslim societies.

However, despite everything that has gone wrong with the lives of countless Muslim women down the ages due to patriarchal Muslim culture, there is hope for the future. There are indications from across the world of Islam that a growing number of Muslims are beginning to reflect seriously upon the teachings of the Qur’an as they become disenchanted with capitalism, communism and western democracy. As this reflection deepens, it is likely to lead to the realization that the supreme task entrusted to human beings by God, of being God’s deputies on earth, can only be accomplished by establishing justice which the Qur’an regards as a prerequisite for authentic peace. Without the elimination of the inequities, inequalities, and injustices that pervade the personal and collective lives of human beings, it is not possible to talk about peace in Qur’anic terms. Here, it is of importance to note that there is more Qur’anic legislation pertaining to the establishment of justice in the context of family relationships than on any other subject. This points to the assumption implicit in much Qur’anic learning, namely, that if human beings can learn to order their homes justly so that the human rights of all within its jurisdiction – children, women, and men – are safeguarded, then they can also order their society and the world at large, justly. In other words, the Qur’an regards the home as a microcosm of the “ummah” and the world community, and emphasizes the importance of making it “the abode of peace” through just living.

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