The status of women in Islam has often been misinterpreted by the Western world, however, one only needs to read the Islamic texts as well as examine the history of women in the Muslim world to understand what the true standing of women is according to Islam. The difference arises when people look at the variety of rules and conventions that are practiced in Muslim countries today, and how these countries treat women when it comes to their legal status and rights, marriage, divorce, education, dress and civil rights. Differences also arise because there exist a number of different scholarly opinions and commentaries on whether these different practical applications are correct or unjust interpretations of Islamic law. Generally, the conservative Muslims believe that Islam does accord a different status and responsibilities for women, where as the more liberal Muslims (some advocates of the Islamic feminism movement) believe that all Muslims are equal, gender notwithstanding, in public as well as private life. The purpose of this paper is to present an accurate view of the status of women in Islam, as proposed by Quranic guidelines, traditions of the Holy Prophet Muhammad and interpreted by Islamic jurisprudence.
Status of Women in Islam
In Islam a woman, whether she is single or married, is equated to a man in terms of her roles and responsibilities. Haddad and Esposito (1998, p. 163) state that “Muhammad granted women rights and privileges in the sphere of family life, marriage, education, and economic endeavors, rights that help improve women’s status in society.” The Quran says, “Whoever works righteousness, man or woman, and has faith, verily to him will We give a new life that is good and pure, and We will bestow on such their reward according to the their actions. (Qur’an 16:97) Women can earn money, own property, spend her money as she wills, use her marriage dowry as she pleases, and is not required by Islam to take her husband’s name after marriage, rather it is a matter of her own personal choice (Qaradawy, 1992).
However, debate arises when some fractions of Islamic society demand complete equality for women when in fact, Islam promotes the principle of complementary roles of men and women, recognizing their logical differences. Islam subjects men and women to the same religious obligations of Prayers five times a day, Fasting in the Islamic month of Ramadan, giving alms to the poor (zakaat) and performing the pilgrimage or Hajj. But, it recognizes the differences between the two genders and in some cases, even provides some leeway for women. For example, when a woman is menstruating, she is exempted from the daily prayers as well as from fasting. She also does not have to fast when she is pregnant or nursing her newborn if by doing so, she will be harming herself or her baby’s health. Prayers missed due to these reasons do not have to be made up for, and she can make up for the missed fasts whenever she is able to. Another example is that while men have to go to the mosque to attend congregational prayers on Friday, which is a holy day for Muslims, there is no such compulsion for women (Qaradawy, 1992).
Some of these differences stem from the expectation in Islam that a woman’s space be her home, and that her primary role is that of a home-maker and to take care of her children. Islamic tradition has been that there be a division of labour such that women are mainly responsible for the house while men have the task of supporting their families financially by earning a livelihood. According to the Quran (4:34), “Men are the maintainers of women because Allah has made some of them to excel others and because they spend out of their property; the good women are therefore obedient”. But this should not be taken to mean that Islam does not recognize women’s civic rights or their aptitude/personality. The man is given certain “superiority” in the family dynamic but that is because of his role as the guardian, because of which he has also been given the duty to provide for his family financially.
Islam considers motherhood as one of the most respectable and important roles of a woman and has revered the status of a mother. According to a famous Hadith, A man approached the prophet Muhammad and said, “O Messenger of God, I want to go to battle and have come to ask your advice.” The Prophet asked him if he had a mother. When he replied in the affirmative, the Prophet said to him, “Then stay with her because Paradise is under her foot” (Ahmed, 2005, p. 48).
Another hadith states, “A man asked the Prophet: ‘Whom should I honor most?’ The Prophet replied: ‘Your mother’. ‘And who comes next?’ asked the man. The Prophet replied: ‘Your mother’. ‘And who comes next?’ asked the man. The Prophet replied: ‘Your mother!’. ‘And who comes next?’ asked the man. The Prophet replied: ‘Your father'” (Ahmed, 2005, p. 48).
However, that being said, Islam does not forbid women from studying or working outside the house. Women can pursue education and can attain employment or engage in voluntary service for the benefit of society, as long as they are allowed to do so by their husband, do not ignore their primary responsibilities to their husband, children and families and in any way, harm or compromise their faith in this pursuit. In fact, if they are financially constrained, Islam recommends that women seek employment, and Islam recognizes women’s contribution to societal development.
According to Qaradawy (1992), in situations where for example the woman is widowed, or divorced or did not marry and she has no source of income, then instead of seeking charity or humiliating herself by asking other people for financial help, she should work to support herself. There might even be scenarios where the family needs another earning member, and the Quran gives an example of two daughters of an old man to illustrate that women are in fact allowed to work in Islam: “And when he arrived at the water of Midian (Madyan) he found there a group of men watering (their flocks), and beside them he found two women who were keeping back (their flocks). He said, “What is the matter with you?” They said “We cannot water (our flocks) until the shepherds take (their flocks). And our father is a very old man.”
However, the conditions remain: the work women choose to engage in should not be in violation of Islamic law, for e.g., it should not require the woman to serve alcohol, which is haram or forbidden in Islam. Additionally, the woman must work in safe conditions and if she is to leave her premises, she must be mindful of her modesty as Islam lays down strict conditions for women to guard their modesty. Lastly, the work should not cause her to ignore her familial commitments since as mentioned above, Islam believes that the woman’s primary responsibility is towards her family (Mutahhari, 1980).
The above should not be taken to mean that Islam has only given the husband rights over his wife, and the wife is a mere puppet. Quite the opposite, Islam declares many rights for the woman, the first of which is her right to a dower. A husband is obligated to give the woman “mahr” or dower as a symbol of his desire to marry her. According to the Quran (4:4), “And give to the women (whom you marry) their Mahr with a good heart, but if they, of their own good pleasure remit a part of it to you, take it, and enjoy it without fear of any harm (as Allah has made it lawful)”. When the husband is ordained to give this dower with a “good heart”, it means this is his wife’s gift and is not a price put on her for the pleasure he attains by marrying her.
Another right Islam grants the wife is her right of maintenance as the husband is supposed to provide food, clothing, a house as well as any health or medical treatment his wife might require, and he should provide these keeping in line with his environment and financial conditions. If a husband can afford the best medical treatment, he is obligated to provide that as the wealthy and poor have their own measures. As the Holy Prophet said in this regard, “You are obliged to provide them with food and clothes honorably.” Honorably in this context should be taken to mean that it should not be excessively extravagant, and neither should it be stingy and unfulfilling of the required purpose. Islam does not burden anyone beyond their financial conditions and the rich and the poor are both supposed to fulfill their obligations in this regard according to however much they have been given by Allah (Mutahhari, 1980).
Another right Islam grants the wife is her right to an honorable life as the Quran says, “And live with them honorably.” This encompasses a lot of things, which critics of Islam and its treatment of women often don’t understand. This refers to the husband being obligated to treat his wife well, with good manners and a pleasing disposition. Hence it is not as the wife is supposed to cater to her husband and family’s demands to no end, she also has certain rights which have been ordained by Allah Almighty and which appear many times in the Quran. The Holy Prophet said in the address he gave at his Farewell Pilgrimage, “O my people, you have certain rights over your wives and your wives over you … they are the trust of God in your hand. So you must treat them with kindness” (Ali, 2004, p.49).
Women have relatively fewer financial obligations in Islam as compared to men, and also have limited financial rights. The Quran specifies the woman’s share of inheritance as lesser than a man’s. Daughters share of the inheritance is half of that of the sons, and generally, where both men and women have the same relationship with the deceased, women’s share is half of that of males. If a deceased man was without child, his sister would inherit half his property, while in the case of a deceased woman, her brother would inherit all her property. The Quran says, “Allah commands you as regards your children’s (inheritance); to the male, a portion equal to that of two females. [Surah 4:11], is clearly due to the difference in the duties and costs that each has to cope with by virtue of the Islamic teachings (shar’a)” (Qaradawy, 1992).
According to some Islamic scholars, the different responsibilities which men and woman have in a marriage are to account for these differences. When a man gets married, he must pay the obligatory bridal money to his wife while if his sister gets married, she receives this money from her husband. The sister is not obligated to support her family financially while the brother is obligated to provide for his wife and children. These differences in the living costs of both lead to different shares in inheritance. However, these differences are not absolute, and there are cases when women are entitled to equal or even a higher share in the inheritance (Qaradawy, 1992).
From the above discussion, it is apparent that in terms of their position in life, their rights as human beings as well as their obligations towards and relationship with the Creator, men and women are on an equal footing in Islam. Differences between their status arise for very logical reasons and explanations that Allah provides and that have been further clarified by the Prophet’s traditions and interpretations in Islamic jurisprudence. Islam grants a woman, whether she is single or married, an equal status to that of a man in terms of her roles and responsibilities. The Qur’an as well as the Prophet’s sayings and tradition bears witness to the fact that woman is, at least, as important a part of this world as man himself, and that she is not inferior to him nor is she to be treated as one of the lower species. The man is given certain “superiority” in the family dynamic but that is because of his role as the guardian, because of which he has also been given the duty to provide for his family financially. Women have the same rights as men do in Islam, such as the right to own property, to work, to seek education, to inherit, to marry among others, and Islam grants them a respectable status in their family as well as in society. It is very important to remember that in Islam, men and women are equal, but not the same. The fact that Islam gives her equal rights, but not identical, is a recognition of how Islam takes her into due consideration and acknowledges the differences between the two genders, yet gives them similar rights, according to what is equitable.
Ahmed, M. M. (2005). Encyclopedia of Islam. New Delhi, Anmol.
Ali, M. S. (2004). The Position of Women in Islam: A Progressive View. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Mutahhari, A. M. (1980). The Rights of Women in Islam. World Organization For Islamic Services. Web.
Haddad, Y. & Esposito, J. L. (1998). Islam, Gender, and Social Change. New York: Oxford University Press.
Qaradawy, Y. (1992). The Status of Women in Islam. Cairo: Islamic Home Publishing & Distribution. 2008. Web.