There are many misconceptions and prejudices against Islam. The status and treatment of women is a prime target of criticism and debate. Many non-Muslims have a preconceived notion regarding the status of women in Islam, a notion that is not based on reality.
In most cases, where the status of women is lower, the reason is cultural rather than religious. Most instances of women being marginalized can be traced back to specific cultural practices that have nothing to do with Islam.
Treatment of Women in Islam
A discussion of gender equality or lack thereof in Islam is incomplete without examining the specific cultural and social norms that were prevalent in Arabia before the advent of Islam.
To contextualize, Arabia was a tribal community. Tribal laws and customs were commonly followed and adhered to. As per these tribal values, women were looked down upon as property of men. Women either belonged to their fathers or husbands and could be passed down from one man to another much like any other asset.
Women were also considered a burden and there is proof that female infanticide was a common practice. Newborn female babies were buried alive as raising a girl was seen as a liability since marrying off would require payment of a dowry and women were also the main target of tribal revenge.
The Holy Quran details and condemns this practice in the following verses:
“When any of them is told about the birth of a female his face turns dark, and he is filled with suppressed anger, and he hides himself from people because of the bad news, thinking: should he keep the child despite disgrace, or should he bury it in the dust? How evil is their estimate of Allah!” (16:58-59)
Allah condemns this treatment of women. It is no surprise that after the spread of Islam in Arabia, the practice of female infanticide disappeared. The status of women was elevated as before Islam, women were not allowed to inherit property or wealth. Considering the misogynistic and backward society of Arabia at the time, the teachings of Islam brought about revolutionary changes in the lives of most marginalized groups, chief among these being women.
If we look from a contemporary perspective, in a post-feminist movement world, the treatment of women in Islam may not appear very modern. Yet, that cannot be far from the truth. Islam has preserved a special place for women and granted them rights and responsibilities based on their particular disposition.
Assessing Gender Equality in Islam
Before we ask whether men and women are equal in Islam, it is pertinent to look at gender in Islam. Islam views men and women as different but does not consider one superior. The two genders complement one another.
It is less a question of equality and more so of equity. In some instances, men have more rights than women, but in others, women’s rights are greater. For example, when it comes to inheritance male heirs get double the share relative to the female heirs. At the same time, men are designated as the providers and protectors of women.
This indicates that with more rights come greater responsibilities. Similarly, since mothers play a much more significant part in a child’s upbringing, they have more rights in cases of child custody.
In this sense, Islam recognizes the biological and emotional differences between the two genders and grants them rights and responsibilities accordingly. In this manner, Islam is progressive and aligns gender roles with the innate abilities of the two genders. Here are some areas where gender equity is present in Islam:
· As Believers
Islam does not discriminate between men and women in spiritual aspects. Believing men and women are seen as equal, one is not superior to the other. In the eyes of Allah, a believer is ranked based on the strength of their faith rather than gender, race, ethnicity, or any other aspect of their identity.
· As Members of the Society
Family forms the basis of the community in Islam, which is why men and women are encouraged to get married. Men are encouraged to work outside the home, while it is more desirable for women to manage household affairs and raise children.
This does not mean Islam strictly enforces these traditional gender roles. The Holy Prophet Muhammad was married to Hazrat Khadijah (RA), an established businesswoman. Islam is very liberal but recognizes that both genders have specific dispositions that make them more inclined toward certain jobs. Women are far better at childrearing and managing the household due to their empathetic nature, while men are better suited for working outside the house.
· Equality in the Eyes of Law
Legally, both men and women are recognized as equals. The same punitive measures apply to women as men. For example, the punishment for stealing is amputation of the hand.
In some instances, like the law of inheritance or witness testimony, women may seem disadvantaged. Yet, there is a good explanation for these laws. The testimony of two females is equivalent to one male testimony because women are usually more emotional.
Regarding the law of inheritance, favors men because men are designated as the providers for the family. Women do not have the same responsibility.
· Genders and Modesty
Women in Islam do have a much more restricted attire than men. Men can wear anything if it covers their body from the navel to below their knees.
Women possess beauty and are deemed as being far more attractive. This is why Muslim women have a more restricted dress code that they must follow. Women must cover their bodies in loose-fitting clothes that are not transparent from top to bottom. They must have their hair covered as well.
These directives are aimed at keeping women safe and preserving their modesty. It is not to restrict their freedom or to oppress them. Alternatively, there are restrictions on what men can wear that do not apply to women. Men, for example, cannot wear gold ornaments or silk.
Islam and the Genders
Islam is often vilified for the treatment of women because there are so many misconceptions surrounding the question of gender equality. In Islam, all humans have an intrinsic value, regardless of gender. It is unlawful to harm any human being, whether they are a Muslim or not. The question of gender inequality is not even one that should be a topic of debate if people know how men and women are to be treated.
This lack of knowledge and sheer ignorance is why such misconceptions exist. Islam, in reality, liberated women and gave them tools to protect and safeguard them. A well-known tradition of the Holy Prophet in Sahih al-Tirimdhi (1916) makes it clear that anyone who has three or two daughters or sisters who cares for them will surely enter Paradise.
Allah created men and women with a purpose. Based on their biological makeup and innate dispositions, each of the genders has a particular role in society. One gender is not superior to the other, they are complementary.