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Saturday, May 15, 2004

Women in Islam

As in most of the nomadic tribes of the ancient world, women were deemed unimportant in pre-Islamic Arabia. Indeed, in a society shaped by the rigors of desert life, women were relegated to the margins of community life.

The advent of Islam fundamentally altered the status of women in several ways. First, and most importantly, it overturned tradition by according women equal status before Allah. No longer were women denied a human face. Their souls like the souls of men were precious to Allah. They, like men, were worthy of dignity and respect. As a result of this new status and the revolution it worked on Arab society—women became pillars of early Muslim society and were counted among its strongest supporters. Several women—notably Fatimah, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad and wife of Ali, the fourth caliph—even played important roles in the propagation of the faith. To the Shia, for example; Fatimah is an authoritative source of the Prophet's sayings and deeds.

The status of women under Islam also altered as a consequence of the spread of the religion itself. As Islam became a world religion and its influence spread the character of Arab society changed, requiring that women take a larger role in society. As men hurriedly left their flocks and businesses to fight for Islam, women readily assumed the burdens and responsibilities of the home.

The Prophet set an example for the treatment of women in marriage through his relationship with his first wife Khadijah. Although fifteen years his elder, Muhammad remained a faithful and devoted husband for twenty-six years, contrary to the tradition of polygamy which prevailed at the time in Arabia. After her death Muhammad remarried, but he always remembered Khadijah with love and spoke of her with reverence. Khadijah was, in fact, Muhammad's first convert to Islam and his strongest supporter in the struggle to establish the new faith.

Aishah bint abu Bakr (613-678) was Muhammad's favorite wife of later years. Noted for her education and intelligence, in particular her ability to read and write, she was often consulted about the teachings of the Prophet after his death. She played an important role in the life of the early community, most famously by opposing the succession of Ali after the death of Uthman, the third khalifa.

The new, elevated status of women is apparent in numerous Qur'anic proscriptions which set out women's rights and obligations. On protecting the dignity and self-respect of women, for example, the Qur'an is emphatic and unequivocal: One of the seven hudud crimes is maligning a woman's reputation.

The Qur'an, of course, acknowledges and makes provision for differences between men and women. Indeed, on these differences is erected an elaborate structure of individual and social rights and obligations. Some appear inequitable on the surface but on examination reveal a deeper logic and reasonableness. A man, for example, stands to inherit twice as much as a woman, but then he must provide for his own wife and family and relatives should the need arise.

The same holds true of traditional rules of dress and behavior. Women are enjoined to cover their bodies (except for the face and hands) and lower their gaze in the presence of men not related to them. Moreover, although women and men are subject to the same religious obligations—such as prayer, fasting, pilgrimage to Mecca—women pray separately from men. Nonetheless, these rules of dress and behavior—however restrictive they may appear to Western eyes—serve a social function. In societies which by tradition provide few protections outside the family, they insure a woman's integrity and dignity. For that reason, too, men are enjoined to lower their eyes before women and to be appropriately covered from above the chest to the knees.

In other areas, women enjoy a strict parity with men. A woman's right to own property is just as absolute as a man's. Male kin cannot handle a woman 5 financial interests without her permission. A woman must specifically consent to marriage and cannot be forced to accept a husband she does not approve of. In cases of divorce—in a prominent departure from traditional practice—women have exclusive guardianship rights over children up to early puberty. Although a husband has the right to divorce his wife unilaterally—a right not shared by women—a wife can divorce her husband on specific legal grounds by court order.

In education, too, women have the same rights as men. In contemporary Muslim society, in fact, women have attained the same levels of education as men and in many countries occupy positions of power and influence.

Nothing in Islam prevents a woman from accomplishing herself or attaining her goals. Societies may erect barriers, but nothing in the spirit of the Qur'an subjugates women to men. In time, of course, social barriers will disappear—as they are disappearing now—because Muslim women will expect and demand it. As a result, it can only be expected that women will play an increasingly larger role in Islamic society and surpass the contributions of early Muslim women.




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