WOMEN AND ISLAM
The treatment of and attitude towards women varies a great deal from place to place with Saudi Arabia, where women can’t drive and must be fully covered, and the Taliban, where girls are discouraged from attending school and stoned to death for committing adultery, representing the most conservative extreme. In many Muslim countries, such as Turkey, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Egypt, women can drive, vote and dress as they like. They can pursue professional careers and run for elected office and do most things that women in the West do.
Being an Arab woman is tough. They have to fight for what little rights the have. Mothers and motherhood are regarded as a foundation of society. Young married women are often dominated and pushed around by their mother’s in law. Women in urban areas generally have more freedom than those in rural areas.
Women are generally perceived as inferior and stupid by Saudi men. With the woman’s order there is pecking order and social hierarchy based on age and status with order high status women at the top. Mothers of married ons often wield considerable power over their daughter-in-laws.
Soheir Khashoggi told AP: “Contrary to what so many people think, strength,, energy and driver, these are very traditional for women in Arab culture. The Bedouin woman is very, very strong. She works in the fields, she moves in the desert.
Websites and Resources: Islam.com islam.com ; islamicity.com ; Islam 101 islam101.net ; Islamic History Resources uga.edu/islam/history ; Internet Islamic History Sourcebook fordham.edu/halsall/islam/islamsbook ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/islam ; BBC article bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam ; Islamic History friesian.com/islam ; Islam.com Timeline classicalislam.com ; Islamic Civilization cyberistan.org ; Muslim Heritage muslimheritage.com
Book: Standing Alone in Mecca by Asra Nomani (HarpersSan Francisco); Women and Gender in Islam by Leila Ahmed; Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women by Geraldine Brooks was read by U.S. President George Bush.
Traditional View of Muslim Women
Bedouin family Views towards women in the Arab and Muslim world are arguably shaped more by Arab traditions of honor and tribal loyalty than Islam. Many of the anti-women position taken by Islamists are not based on the Koran and other Muslim scriptures and laws but rather are based on tribal customs in which individual rights are secondary to one’s position in the tribe or family and women are viewed as “communal or tribal property.” A girl’s value, for example, has traditionally been tied to her role in uniting one family with another through marriage.
Women are regarded as rulers of the home and are expected to make their home their first priority. Outside the home is world dominated by men who frown on women having too many freedoms. One woman told the Washington Post: “The worst thing you can do in the Arab world is ask for permission. It will always be no.”
Shazia Mirza, a Pakistani-British comedian said: “My family are very strict. Growing up, I was never allowed to do anything. I wanted to do ballet but I wasn’t allowed. I was never allowed on school trips and I was never allowed out."
Woman and The Koran
The Koran is clear on the essential equality of men and women (40:40, 16:97): “Whoso doeth right, whether male of female, and is a believer, all such will enter the Garden.” The Koran instructs men to revere women and “live with them on a footing of kindness and equity.” On education the Koran mandates equal training for men and women (7:189; 16:97, 33:35). One Muslim scholar told AP, “I have not found anywhere in Islamic teachings where women cannot go out, and education is obligatory.”
But there are also verses that stress a subservient role for women in their relations with men. Sura 4:34 in the Koran says that men have “pre-eminence” over women and are “overseers” of women. The Koranic verse 33:32-3 and 53-5) that says that women “should stay quietly in your houses” and appear only before male relatives is used as a justification requiring women to stay at home and not interact with men who are not relatives. Many Islamic scholars says that this scripture applies to a specific case involving one of the Prophet Mohammed’s wives and was not intended to be generalized.
Muhammad and His Family An Iranian female activist told the Los Angeles Times, “What I say about women’s rights is based on what I studied of religious law and logic. And I can tell you from knowing the Koran and hadith that whatever the clerics are doing is not what is written in the Koran. It is only their interpretation—their male and sometimes chauvinistic” interpretation. “In the Koran it is written that men and women are equal before God. And those who are better are better because they are good Muslims not because they are men or women.”
When Muslim clerics get together in Saudi Arabia and other places to discuss women’s issues generally that are few women if any women present. site, When women are allowed to attend sometimes they have to sit in a separate room and monitor the proceedings from a television monitor.
Book: Qu’ran and Women by Amina Wadud, professor of Islamic Studies at Virgina Commonwealth University.
Women and Mohammed
See Mohammed, Women and Children
The women associated with Mohammed were often strong and independent. The Prophet’s first wife was a wealthy businessman who proposed to him. His favorite wife, Aisha, was six when she married and nine when the marriage was consummated but later became a warrior who once directed troops in a battle from the back of a camel.
His other wives and concubines included an imam and a leatherworker. His daughter Fatima was a skilled political leader. His beautiful and talented granddaughter Sukayna married several times and once insisted in writing that her husband be forbidden from disagreeing with her about anything.
Mohammed is said to have helped with household chores. There are stories in the Koran of him competing against his wives in archery, horseback riding and swimming. Mohammed decreed sexual fulfillment was a woman’s right.
Women in Early Muslim History
Pre-Islamic Arab goddess In the early days of Islam, from the best that can be ascertained, women were secluded and repressed. They were not involved much in the economy except as servants, entertainers and helpers to their husbands. Poor women were reasonably active and visible while upper class women were likely secluded or members of harems. The only women with any real influence were the mothers of powerful male heirs.
A 14th Egyptian jurist wrote women should not go to markets lest they be corrupted by shopkeepers. “Some of the pious elders,” he wrote, “have said a woman should only her house on three occasions: when she is conducted to the house of her bridegroom, on the death of parents, and when sh goes to her grave.”
Fatima, Mohammed’s daughter, is the revered mother figure of Shiite Islam. Some Shiites regard her as “Our Lady of Compassion.” Her daughter Zainab is like a classical figure of high moral protest, a Muslim Antigone shaking her fist at a corrupt caliph who killed her brother. Her tomb has been visited by millions.
See Women and Education
Women Before Islam
Topless Bedouin by Lehnert and Landrock In Mohammed’s time it was common for people to bury alive unwanted female infants, women were regarded as the possession of their husbands and women had no right to own property or receive an education. Islamic law prohibited all these practices.
Some have argued that repression of women associated with Islam actually predates Islam, and is rooted in Greco-Roman traditions. That seems to be the case with the veil anyway (See Veil). Female Saudi scholar Hatoon al-Fassi, said, “Most of the practices related to women status are based in some local traditional practices that are not necessarily Islamic. Nor are they essentially Arabian.”
Some have argued that before Islam women enjoyed more rights than they did before it. In her 2006 book Women in Pre-Islamic Arabia ,female Saudi scholar Hatoon al-Fassi said that women enjoyed considerable rights in the Nabataean state, which was centered in modern Jordan and embraced the famous stone city of Petra. Al-Fassi said women in Nabataea were free to conduct legal contracts in their own name with no male guardian. Under Greek and Roman law women were not able to do this.
The word harem was coined to describe the confinement of women. It comes from the Arabic word harim , meaning forbidden.
Women, Rights and Equality
Bedouin woman in 1898 Mohja Kahf, author of The Girl with the Tangerine scarf, wrote in the Washington Post: “Blessings abound for me as a Muslim woman: the freshness of ablution is mine, and the daily meditation zone of five prayers that involve graceful, yoga-like movements, performed in prayer attire. ...The Quran doesn’t blame Eve. Literacy for women is highly encouraged by the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. Breast-feeding is a woman’s choice and a means for her to create family ties independent of male lineage, as nursing creates legally recognized family relations under Islamic law. Rapists are punishable by death in Islamic law. “ She also insists that birth control, masturbation and abortion are all allowed under some circumstances.
The theme of sexual equality lies at the heart of the Koran’s Adam and Eve story: “Oh mankind! Be conscious of your Lord, who created you out of one living entity, and from it created its mate, and from the two of them spread abroad the multitude of men and women.” One of the most quoted Islamic verses goes, “Paradise is at the feet of your mother.”
The right of women to work and make money is recognized in the Koran with the statement, “to men is allotted what they earn, and to women what they earn.” One verse of the Koran seems to imply that women can be leaders: “And the believers, both men and women—they are friends and protectors of one another; they enjoin the doing of what is right and forbid the doing of what is wrong.”
The aspects of Islam that are discriminatory towards women lie more in the fact the Koran and the Hadiths have been interpreted by men for 14 centuries than in the Koran and the Hadiths themselves.
Muslim Women and Education
Women and Conservative Islam
Burqa in Afghanistan Judaism, Christianity and Islam have all have rules and ideologies constructed by men to keep women down. In many Muslim sects and groups, women are considered the property of male relatives and they need permission of a male relatives to marry, name their children or work. In the Wahhabist interpretation of Sharia, a muhrim —father, husband, brother or son—must accompany women in public, give them permission to travel and attest their legal contracts.
Conservative Muslims insist that women distract men, tempt to them to fornication and cause them ascribe blasphemous divine qualities to women. Some Muslims believe that women should obey their husbands as if they were gods. In some cultures it is perfectly acceptable for men to beat, burn or imprison their wives without food for "disobedience."
One Arab man told the Los Angeles Times, “It is true that we view our women as commercial assets to be bought and sold.” The feminist Egyptian writer Salwa Bakr, told AP, "A woman in Arab societies is an object for sex and reproduction. As long as she is an object, she is owned by a father, a husband a brother. They way she uses her body is not her business, the business of those who won her."
Some conservative Muslim claim conservative Islamist views towards women are ultimately based on respect and love for them. A 32-year-old female religious student in Iran told the New York Times, “We think a woman in Islam is a tender creature, a rose flower. And you should pay more attention to your roses than any other flower. The restrictions for women exist because Islam respects women.” The execution of adulterous men and women is sometimes held up as proof that women are held in high esteem.
Some Muslim women embrace conservative Islam. They willingly comply with veiling and segregation from men and other restrictions made on them. Some are active in jihadi movements and have participated in suicide bombing missions. An Internet magazine for female jihadis, called Al-Khansaa tells mothers their “main mission is to present lions on a battlefield” and offer advise on raising children to fight infidels and become martyrs.”
Book: Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali is about a woman growing up under harsh conditions in Muslim Somalia, Saudi Arabia and east Africa.
Women, Family and Honor
Burqa in England In many Muslim societies purity and chastity before marriage are considered imperative. From an early age girls learn about eib (shame) and sharaf (honor). They are taught to dress modestly, lower their eyes when in public and above all else to remain a virgin until they are married. Honor is linked to a woman’s purity and based on the fact she is weak and needs a man’s protection. In some societies, rape and being raped is regarded as worse than murder. Any affront on a woman’s honor is something that must be avenged.
Women are guarded and secluded because if they do anything regarded as unchaste or impure it dishonors their entire family. Female chastity and the appearance of chastity lie at the foundation of the Arab code of honor and the codes of honor of other cultures that embrace Islam.
The Muslim extremist belief seems to be that the honor of women is upheld by imprisoning them. The “protecting” is done by fathers, brothers and husbands. Explaining how honor works, a feminist Turkish lawyer told the Los Angeles Times, “It is a virtue that only a man can possess and that can only be soiled by a female body. It is a notion that was concocted by men to ensure their continued domination over tribe and society long before Islam was ever introduced.”
In families where honor is held at a premium, brothers follow their sisters around like private detectives, on the lookout for any questionable behavior. A French woman born to Algerian parents told the International Herald Tribune: “Until I was 17 my older brother hit me—for being in the street, or for visiting friends, or for wearing makeup, all the normal things French girls did. For a long time I tried to keep my head down, like all the other submissive women hidden in their homes.”
A lawyer explained how honor affects all the women in a family. “A stained reputation means that other unmarried girls in the family will never find suitors until it is cleansed,” she said. “If a woman has no skills, no education, her honor is her only currency in the marriage market.” Many girls are told the story of a girl who killed herself after she was raped so as not to stain her family’s honor. For this she was buried in gold. By contrast, girls who bring shame to their families are buried unceremoniously in unmarked graves.
Women, Sharia and Muslim Courts
Iranian students The Koran and Muslim law grants women the rights of property, divorce, inheritance, child custody, alimony, education, choosing a husband, divorce, working, engaging in business and entering a profession. Islam also recognizes the right of women to enjoy sex in their marriage and make decisions about contraceptives and family size. Even in conservative Saudi Arabia women are allowed to run businesses, donate land for schools and endow trusts.
But for many of the things listed above, women need permission of a man. According to Muslim law, every girl and woman has a guardian—her father, brother, or some male relative—and he makes major decisions about her life. Marriage contracts, for example, are worked out by him and the groom’s family and the woman has no say in the matter and must follow the wishes of her guardian.
The views towards women are often conveyed as being protective of women and serving their own interests rather than being discriminatory. Where honor or kin group is concerned Muslim law is often protective of women, for example, providing the widest possible limits within which the legitimacy of children born in wedlock are recognized.
Questions about Muslim laws that affect women have traditionally been decided by male clerics. But in some there are women muftias , overseen by male muftis. One such group ruled that a husband is not obliged to pay his wife’s travel expenses if she goes to her parents house without her permission and that trimming one’s nails during menstruation is not advisable and decided that the question of whether high heels are allowable required more thought an analysis.
See Marriage Contract, Divorce.
According to Muslim law males and a women’s testimony in court, at least on financial matters, hold’s half the weight of a man’s testimony. Women have traditionally been barred from courtrooms and had to testify through a special window.
According to Muslim law males receive twice as much in inheritance as females. Under the current system daughters inherit half of what sons gets and if a daughters only the only heir a proportion of the money goes to male relatives not the daughters because according to Islamic tradition men are responsible for taking care of their female relatives. Muslim law also says the blood money for a woman is half that of a man.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Arab News, Jeddah; Islam, a Short History by Karen Armstrong; A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). Also articles in National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2009 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated March 2011