Debate on Women Issues
In reviewing the literature which has been generated by our Web site discussion forum concerning the position of women in Islam, a number of themes have come up. Firstly, our participants make a distinction between “Islamic doctrinal” teachings and the reality facing Muslim women. There is a distinction made between “repressive cultural traditions in the guise of religion and Islamic teachings per se. Also the concept of Hijab has generated much debate and discussion. It seems very clear that one can not discuss women in Islam without addressing the role and concept of Hijab. This has particularly been highlighted with the developments in Turkey concerning the observation of Hijab.
Before presenting the arguments, and as a means of categorical clarification, it would be helpful to divided the various interpretations on women into three basic categories:
1) Those who argue that according to the Qur”an women are equal but have socially different roles to men as prescribed and defined by the Qur”anic teachings. The primarily role of the women is motherhood and the raising of children. Her domain is the domestic sphere, which is “best suited” to her nature. The man”s domain is the public realm, as the provider. It is argued that although spiritually there is no difference between the sexes, socially man is a “degree” above woman.
2) The new interpretations offered by Muslim scholars, such as Amina Wadud-Muhsin. Muhsin argues that the Qur”an does not support a specific stereotype role for its characters, male or female. Many popular and dominant ideas about the role of women do not have sanctions from the Qur”an, pointing these out , causes problems not so much with the logical analysis of the texts, but within the application of these ideas in the context in which Muslim societies operate. There is no inherent value placed on man and woman, there is no arbitrary preordained and eternal system of hierarchy. The Qur”an does not strictly delineate the role of women and the role of men to such an extent as to propose only a single possible outcome for each gender. In the Qur”an there is no indication that mothering is the only exclusive role of women. Respect is given to the female procreator and to the function of childbearing, this does not, however, mean that women must only be mothers.
3) A Gnostic interpretation of gender roles, which is concerned with a higher reality and the essence of Islam, such as one offered by Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Nasr views the difference between the sexes as not reducible to anatomy or biology, but in terms of a microcosmic reflection of a higher reality. The duality of the sexes is the earthly representation of the dual principles of the Divine Nature. Namely, the principle of Absolute Majesty and Infinite Beauty.
Man is the representative of the principle of Majesty and women of Beauty. The relationship between the sexes is not hierarchical but rather mutually interdependent. It is through the unity of these two aspects that one attains inner contentment. Hence the saying that marriage is half of Islam. In Islam sexuality is seen as a means of perfecting the human state and on the highest level a symbol of the union with God. love between the sexes is seen as inseparable from the love of god. It is precisely because of this that the theme of love as realised gnosis, dominates Islamic spirituality. God is symbolised inters of the Beloved and the female as the precious being that is the keeper of the inner paradise, which is hidden from man as a result of the loss of the “eye of heart”.
Female beauty can aid man to return to the centre once again, to inner peace which is inseparable from the name “al-Islam”, meaning peace. It is interesting to note that Nasr offers a alternative interpretation of “Modern” , in terms of that which is cut off from the Transcendent, it is all that is divorced and cut off from the Divine source.
Bearing in mind these three basic categories will enable us to assess the arguments presented within a large frame of reference. It is argued that the idea of rights for women should be tackled from two points; philosophical view point and, legal view point.
Philosophically: We must address the rights of women without having to recourse to any pre-religious thinking. Legally: We have to think the circumstances and the various limitations stated at the time of detailing with some of the legal Sharia rules. The fact that Sharia is male-dominated has resulted in a male-dominated interpretation. Muslim women, it is argued, must be able to delve into the subject without having to feel weak.
Islam sees a woman, whether single or married, as an individual in her own right, with the right to own and dispose of her property and earnings. A marital gift is given by the groom to the bride for her own personal use, and she may keep her own family name rather than adopting her husband”s. Roles of men and women are complementary and collaborative. Rights and responsibilities of both sexes are equitable and balanced in their totality. Both men and women are expected to dress in a way that is simple, modest and dignified; specific traditions of female dress found in some Muslim countries are often the expression of local customs rather than religious principle.
Likewise, treatment of women in some areas of the Muslim world reflects cultural practices which may be inconsistent, if not contrary, to authentic Islamic teachings. The messenger of God said: “The most perfect in faith amongst believers is he who is best in manner and kindest to his wife.”
However, one of the biggest problems is domination of Muslim males over females. This domination is based on tradition rather than religion. Such review may start with the most critical issue such as acceptability of woman leadership and equal rights in performing public duties.
The fundamental question is: can a radical review be rooted in “fiqh” or should it be addressed philosophically? There is little point in discussing how well or badly so called “Islamic countries” are living up to the teachings of Islam, or why.
First, it is necessary to clear up misunderstandings of what those teachings are. Women are equal to men in the sight of God but they have in some respects different roles in life to men because of their different natures. They differ psychologically, physiologically, and biologically from men. This makes them more suitable than men for certain responsibilities and less suitable than men for others. Islam recognises these differences. Oppression of women is the result of removing their rights. Islam gives men and women rights that are different in some aspects to those they have in the western world. The principle difference in the way these rights came about is also important. In the West rights became part of the law only after women had been through great political struggles and also partly due to the necessity of women working in factories during wars.
In Islam, rights were given “out of the blue” by God through revelation. They cannot be reversed by anyone”s decision. Most Muslims recognise the purity and validity of the Qur”anic laws even if they are not following them, but it may be necessary to struggle for a return to them from time to time. It is quite commonly agreed that all things in life which are worthwhile require some struggle.
Since the height of the feminist movement in the late 70″s there has been a magnifying glass placed over the status of Muslim women. Unfortunately, the magnifying glass that has been used is an unusual one. Unusual in the sense that it is very selective about which items it will magnify; other items it will distort to such a degree that they will no longer look familiar.
However, the extent to which Hijab has come to define the extent of a women”s religious commitment is debatable, as is the exact form Hijab should take. In other words is the principle of modesty the defining aspect of Hijab or a specified way of dressing.
It is argued that there is a general consensus among the Muslims that Muslim woman is required to cover her head leaving only her face showing as part of an overall dress code and behaviour which Islam prescribes. It is therefore part of the social system of Islam, and a manifestation of important general Islamic principles. It is suggested that a Muslim woman does this because she is following guidance from God and His prophet Mohammed recorded in the Qur”an, and in the Sunnah (the knowledge about the practice and example of the Prophet Mohammed (peace and blessings be upon him).
The principal reason for the Hijab is modesty, which is not wishing to receive unnecessary attention from people, such as admiration and flattery, envy, or, most importantly, sexual attraction from those other than a husband. Great care is taken to keep sexual thoughts, feelings and interactions to within the boundaries of the marital relationship. These types of attention may boost the “ego” for the short term, but all have the potential to lead to disastrous consequences in the long term, for example leading to confused feelings, suspicions, affairs, break-up of marriages and other relationships, disturbed children, and ultimately a community where people are insecure, unhappy, and divided amongst themselves.
Hence it is argued that from this it can be seen that the Hijab is a manifestation of another important principle in Islam, which is valuing benefits which are permanent above those which are temporary.
The other arguments on Hijab assert that the primarily and most fundamental aspect is modesty which can be explained and re-interpreted over time. It is important to comply with the specified rules of modesty but the specific shape of Hijab is culturally and socially relative. Others argue that it is more important to be a good Muslim first and a “muhajiba” second. It is so difficult to put the debate on Hijab in perspective within the context of an overall Islamic teachings. We all know many good Muslim men and women who are so strict about any relaxation to the traditional Hijab yet they do not hesitate to break many ethical and moral rules stated in the Quran such as Gossip-Geeba (where the Quran describes it as eating the meat of a dead brother Muslim) and lies (where the Quran says that Allah states in the Quran the many attributes of being truthful).
It is well known that the ways of life of Muslims were strongly influenced by the expanding empire that encountered other cultures and absorbed their traditions into the lives of Muslims. We can trace the influences of the Indian and orthodox cultures into the lives of Muslims. The concept of Hijab should be debated with ease and an open mind so that all good Muslims can come to terms with the essence of Islam and its teachings.