Monday, August 22, 2005

Women And Islam: By Tyseer Aboulnasr, Ph.D.

IMAGE OF MUSLIM WOMEN: As a Muslim woman, I found myself thrown right into the controversy of women's role in today's society. Over and over I had to explain that what you see in a Hollywood movie about Islam has nothing to do with Islam. For years and years, the average western person has been subjected to one image of a Muslim woman: mysteriously veiled, heavily guarded, living in a harem with a brutal sex maniac for a husband. One can't really blame this person if he or she accepts this image as true especially if he or she never saw Muslim women in any other light.
So how can one start this preconceived image and get this person to see where a woman fits in a truly Muslim society? I can only try to highlight the status of women in the actual teachings of Islam as opposed to the practices of many so-called Muslim countries and the misrepresentation of Hollywood movies. Then, it would be up to the individual to pass a fair judgement on where women stand in a truly Muslim society.
MEN AND WOMEN ARE EQUAL: Let us start right from the beginning, the creation of Adam and Eve as revealed by God in the Qur'an. Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat fruit from the tree but both were tempted by Satan to taste it. They both sinned and later regretted it. God repeatedly reprimanded them both. Thus, in no way was Eve and subsequently all women held responsible for the original sin nor was she considered as Satan's way to get to Adam and all his male descendants. That, to start with, breaks to pieces the general belief that women are the cause of men's sufferings on earth, that they are Satan's temptation, an evil to be avoided if at all possible. In Islam, men and women are created equal as human beings though obviously not identical. Throughout the Qur'an, it is repeated over and over that men and women are created as companions on earth to complement and comfort one another. They are both held accountable for their deeds, individually. Both are rewarded or punished equally for their deeds. Muslims have been spared the debate about whether a woman had a soul or whether she was a person or not. That was never questioned while it was a hot issue in western societies up to the 1930's when the Supreme Court of Canada passed a judgement that women really are persons! This was simply a fact asserted by a religion that was born in a society where burying newborn girls alive, out of shame, as common practice. Sons were a source of pride while girls brought along disgrace. Islam immediately prohibited such a brutal discrimination. It was spelled out clearly that one person, be it male or female, can be better than another by virtue of his or her piety alone, not sex, not origin.
ACTIVE PARTICIPATION: However, Islam's regard for women is not simply giving her a chance to survive. Muslims, men and women, are told to seek knowledge and education wherever they find it and to use this knowledge to help fellow human beings. This is a duty about which they will be asked on Judgement Day. When the Prophet himself could not read or write, his wife Hafsa, taught others to read and write. History tells us about the immense contribution of women to the Islamic community. The first believer in the message of the Prophet Muhammad was a woman. She was his wife, Khadija, and his source of protection from the pagans of Mecca in the early years. The Prophet himself was later actually physically saved by a woman during one of the battles after having been isolated by the pagans. Later, after he died, many of his sayings and teachings were narrated by another woman, his second wife Aisha. These sayings are an essential part of Islamic teachings. So what does that say about how Islam views woman, to entrust her with these roles? The Muslim woman's active participation in community affairs was established from the earliest days. This includes the right to vote. She has always been a separate individual with a separate vote. She had to swear allegiance independently of her husband and father.
MARRIAGE AND DIVORCE: Now what happened if this Muslim woman got married. For starters, she couldn't be married against her will, her consent was essential. If she did accept, she did not give up her family name for her husband's name. She did not have to be a staunch feminist or proclaim I am not a property to be passed on from father to husband. She simply was never expected to change her name. Important as that may be symbolically, it is even more important, on a practical level, that she was always considered a separate financial entity. When she married, her property remained her own and her husband had no access to it without her consent. She wasn't even required to share in the family's expenses even if she were a lot richer than the man. She was entitled to an explicit share of inheritance from family members. That share might be less than her male counterpart but that was only fair considering that her money was hers to keep while his money belongs to his whole family including his wife and any other women in his family who need financial support. All this was established more than 1400 years ago even before people in Europe realized it was unfair to shut daughters out of their father's inheritance or for the man to automatically acquire his wife's wealth upon her marriage.
If the marriage relationship fails and a divorce becomes the only option, a woman's rights are protected. A Muslim woman is entitled to maintain the right to divorce her husband if she specifies that right in the marriage contract. Otherwise, he retains that right. In any case, whoever has this right does not change the fact that divorce is considered a last resort, highly discouraged and to be used only if attempts for reconciliation by family members and even the judge have failed.
A MOTHER: As a mother, she is held in the highest regard. We are told that our mothers are the most worthy of our care, love and companionship. Fathers come in a distant second. Because God knows his own creation, he knows that men would be tempted to abuse their physical strength when dealing with women. Repeatedly, throughout the Qur'an and in the Prophet's sayings, men are reminded of their responsibility to be kind and compassionate to women. That was again stressed by the Prophet in his last public address where he highlighted the essentials of Islam. Men are told that the best among you are the kindest to the women in their families. They are often reminded not to take advantage of the woman's relative physical weakness since they will eventually have to answer to an even stronger Being, God himself.
WOMEN'S DRESS: All this seems to paint such a beautiful picture of women in Islam but what about the veil or, less romantic but more real, the Muslim dress code? Islam, as a whole, is described in the Qur'an as a religion of the centre balancing the needs and freedom of the individual with the good of the society. This is the general rule which also governs the relationship between men and women in society. They have the right to work and mix together as long as that right is not abused, hurting the society as a whole. This implies that the environment in which they see and talk to one another should be a clean respectable environment where sexual temptation is practically eliminated. Some westerners, and regrettably, some Muslims, take this to imply locking up the women or hiding them in veils. However, that contradicts the practices in the Prophet's life when women fought in battles, nursed the wounded, argued with the Caliph and even taught religion. The whole idea of modesty in dress is to ensure that both sides are not distracted by physical appearances. The dress code applies equally to men and women. Both should not look sexually inviting. That might not seem like too much fun, it certainly will not allow for Dallas-like episodes, but it would improve the chances for a better family-oriented society where men and women treat each other with mutual respect as human beings, rather than as sex objects. These are the general requirements for the Muslim dress code for men and women. How women actually dress in specific Muslim countries has a lot to do with the local culture and not just with Islam.
FACT OR FICTION: YOUR CHOICE. One can't help but wonder, if Islam is so good for women, how come what we see in countries with Muslim majorities is utterly different? If it makes things any easier to understand, without, justifying them, the same applies to all other religions. I am sure Jesus would be appalled to see how his teachings have been twisted around for ages to the extent of promoting slavery or tolerating exploitation through turning the other cheek.
Muslims, like people of other beliefs have done a super job of twisting their religion to suit the needs of the more powerful in their society by generalizing specific rules on the one hand and limiting general rules on the other as they find convenient. Add this to innovations added onto the religion to suit the local cultures and you get something that may or may not represent the original. If on top of that you have a media that is either too ignorant or too hostile then the end product that reaches the average unbiased non-Muslim definitely has nothing to do with the real teachings of Islam. The only hope lies in people realizing that before one judges anything, one has to separate fact from fiction, opinions from actual happenings, etc. . . The true image of a true Muslim woman in a true Muslim society may not be as fascinating as what we see in the movies. However, if given a choice between this image and any other alternative available to date, I doubt it will be a hard choice.