Empowerment of Muslim Women

The status of women has been generally low and subordinate throughout human history from ancient times to the modern period. Female component of humanity has been deprived of the basic human rights of dignity and freedom. This had been in a social system which held woman as an object of contempt and was systematically discriminatory…

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The status of women has been generally low and subordinate throughout human history from ancient times to the modern period. Female component of humanity has been deprived of the basic human rights of dignity and freedom. This had been in a social system which held woman as an object of contempt and was systematically discriminatory and exploitative for women. Islam is the basic system and social organisation that recognised, in most unequivocal terms, the rights of women in all walks of life. Advent of Islam in the 7th century in Arabia in fact symbolises a challenge to the rigid and male dominated social structure of the time.
Islam was the first to raise its voice against the oppression and cruel exploitation of women. Islamic principles of justice and equality changed the status of women in the society and accorded them a place of dignity and honour. The following statement of the second Caliph of Islam Umar best illustrates this point:
“By God we did not recognize and right of women in days of ignorance until the Holy Qur’an ordained to fulfil their rights.” (Muslim)
The teachings of the Holy Qur’an in this regards were nothing less than a revolution. It changed the entire outlook and perspective towards the position of women in the society. It declared: “Women have the same rights against their men as men have against them; but men have a degree above them. Allah is All-Powerful, All-Wise.” (2:228)
A companion of the Prophet asked him about the rights of a wife over her husband. The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be with him) replied that he is obliged to feed her when he eats himself, clothe her when he clothes himself and he is not allowed to strike upon her face nor revile her, nor leave her alone unless in her own house. (Abu Daud)
Stressing this point the Holy Prophet further said: “And enjoin upon one another goodness toward women; verily they are married to you: you have no power over them at all, unless they come in for a flagrant filthy action; but if they be devoted to you, then seek no way against them. And verily, you have rights over your women and your women have rights over you.” (Tirmidhi)
Islam paid great attention to the protection of economic rights of women. The Holy Qur’an ordained: “Do not covet what Allah has conferred more abundantly on some of you than others. Men shall have a share according to what they have earned, and women shall have a share according to what they have earned. Do ask Allah for His bounty. Allah has full knowledge of everything.” (4:32)
For the first time in the history women’s right to property was acknowledged and their share in inheritance was ensured. They Holy Qur’an says: “There is share for men in what has been left by parents and near relatives and there is a share also for women in what has been left by parents and near relatives, whatever it be little or much: for this share has been prescribed (by Allah).” (4:7)
In most cases the dowry (mahr) of wives was not paid by their husbands and in some other cases in which it was paid, the parents used to appropriate it. Islam stopped this practice and enjoined upon the faithful to scrupulously pay the money of dowry to the wives and never take it back without their permission as they are the real owners of the dowry. The instructions of the Holy Qur’an in this regards are very clear and binding: “O believers, it is not lawful for you to become the heirs of widows by force: nor it is lawful that you should treat your wives harshly in order to deprive them of a part of the dowry you have given them.” (4:19)
Though Islam exempted the women form fighting in the way of God but they were supposed to boost the morale of the army and to nurse the wounded. This is why the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be with him) took care to give them a share in the spoils of war.
Hashraj, son of Zaid, narrates from his grandmother as: “I went forth with the Prophet of God in his expedition to Khayber with five other women, and offered to assist men in the way of God by helping them with arrows and we had also medicine with us for the wounded and a drink of swig. Then when God gave the Prophet victory he divided the spoils between us as he divided among men.” (Bukhari)
Islam has not entrusted the responsibility of maintenance of women on their own shoulders rather it has asked their husbands to take care of their wives and children and provide them with proper maintenance commensurate to their status. Due to this responsibility men have been considered the guardians of their families as the Holy Qur’an says: “Men are the managers of the affairs of women because Allah has made the one superior to the other and because men spend their wealth on women.” (4:34)
Islam has encouraged women to own property and engage in business and trade. The Holy Prophet himself started his life as a trader and his wife Khadijat-ul-Kubra was one of the great traders of Makkah. There were a number of women running their own businesses in the period of the Holy Prophet. This helped them in spending money for alms and other charitable activities. Take the case of Qailah Umme-Bani Atmar, one of the merchant ladies. She said, “I am a woman who buys and sells.”
Umar Ibn Khattab entrusted the supervision of administrative market affairs to Shafa bint Abdullah bin Abd Shams. Umar used to seek her counsel, pay due regard to her and hold her in high esteem.” Islam provides an equitable and fair role for women in the economic life of Muslim society. They can contribute to support the family.
In contemporary Muslim society women seem to be handicapped in terms of business and trade. Muslim women’s involvement directly in business and trade is generally considered disagreeable.
This writer was one of the resource persons for a Muslim women conference held at Cuttack in 2006. A woman invited my attention towards her problem. Her husband had retired from the post of attendant and had been getting a meagre pension of Rs. 600 a month. Obviously, the amount was insufficient for the maintenance of the family, particularly with expenses on educating her four children. To add to the problems of the family the husband fell ill. Ultimately she decided to start a tea-stall in the front portion of her house but she was opposed by her relatives on the ground that Muslim women are not supposed to expose themselves before men. People were opposing her but not coming forward to support her in solving her problems. She wanted to know whether the step taken by her was wrong and unlawful according to Islam. Listening to the miserable economic condition of the lady, this writer told her that the step taken by her was appropriate and an act of virtue. The following observations of the Holy Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be with him) clearly confirms it: I and the woman whose cheeks have grown dark (on account of the cares and anxieties of her children) shall be like this on the Day of Resurrection (here the Prophet put together his middle finger and forefinger).” (Bukhari)
A misconception is rampant in the Muslim society that the voice of women must be concealed and they should not talk to strangers in any way. In other words it is not permissible for a woman to make her voice audible to males. It means that a woman should not opt for any job related to her voice like announcer, teacher, principal, doctor, lawyer, etc. Traditional Ulema say the Purdah of the voice can be understood from the Shari’ah instructions to a woman who has to correct the Imam. If a woman happens to be performing Salat in congregation, and the Imam commits an error in recitation, the woman cannot rectify the Imam by reciting the relevant portion. The method the Shari’ah has ordained for her for this occasion is the clapping of hands. She should draw the attention of the Imam to his error by clapping her hands once. Such clapping which is an excessive act in relation to Salat is not permissible for men.
This argument is contradicted by the verses of Holy Qur’an which commands the Muslim women to speak to strangers in plainer way: “Be not soft of speech, lest he in whose heart is a disease aspire to you but utter customary speech.” (33:32)
It is a well-known fact that the companions of Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be with him) used to talk to the wives of the Prophet to seek religious knowledge. Ayesha Siddiquah, in this way, instructed a number of companions after the death of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be with him).
A Muslim woman having three children was divorced by her husband. She was compelled to earn money to feed and educate her children. She was lucky to get a job of news-reader in All India Radio. Before joining her job, she asked the local Ulema about her job. They termed it unlawful on the ground that the voice of women must be concealed. Perturbed with the decree, she referred the matter to another scholar of Islam, who advised her to join her duty as this was a gift of God in the given situation. He also suggested to her to use modest dress and be punctual in her duty.
A Muslim social activist, Mrs. Uzma Naheed of Mumbai, who is working for the socio-economic uplift of women, had also the similar experience. She came forward with several schemes of vocational training and job oriented programmes for Muslim girls but she did not receive active response from the society.
Islam asks women to conduct themselves with care and decorum and remain very modest. If they are in need to go out of home, they should use proper dress so that they could not be the target of lustful eyes of men. They Holy Qur’an ordains: “O Prophet, enjoin your wives and daughters and the women of the believers that they should let down over their faces a part of their outer garments, it is expected that they will thus be recognised and not molested. Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.” (33:59)
Islam has not forbidden the women from moving out for business or otherwise. Islam only places certain restrictions upon Muslim women on her dress and general deportment while going out of their houses for their needs. Sayyidah Ayesha is quoted as saying that after the introduction of segregation Saudah went out of her house to pursue some need. She was a bulky lady and anyone who knew her could easily recognise her. Umar bin Al-Khattab saw her once and said, “O Saudah, you are not unrecognisable to us. Just see how you have come out?” When she heard that, she withdrew and returned. The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be with him) was at that time in my (Ayesha’s) house for his dinner. Saudah entered and said to him, ‘O Prophet of God, I went out of my house for some need and Umar said to me so and so’. Ayesha reports that on this revelation came from Allah to the Prophet. He told Saudah, “God has permitted you to go out of your house for your needs.” (Bukhari)
Some contemporary theologians are of the view that for Muslim women driving cars is contrary to the spirit and teachings of the Holy Qur’an and Sunnah. They base their argument on the following verse of the Holy Qur’an: “And remain within your homes and make not a display like the display of the ignorance.” (33:33)
They also argue that Islam lays stress upon modesty and sense of shame (haya). Whereas driving destroys haya of women. Through the means of driving a woman places herself in the forefront of exhibition (The Pious Women, Idara Ishaat-e-Deeniyat, New Delhi)
This narrow interpretation of the Holy Qur’an is not only improper but also violates the basic tenets of Islam which treat women as independent and responsible beings.
These theologians perhaps failed to comprehend the difference between the projection and exhibition of beauty and the necessity of movement. A Muslim woman who observes the Islamic law of hijab can drive a car without compromising her modesty. It is better for her to drive her own vehicle than hiring a taxi and sitting with a strange driver.
Islam fully recognises women’s rights to own movable or immovable property. If the women’s ownership of car is lawful then the driving of the car is also lawful. The Holy Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be with him) has appreciated the women of his time for riding the camels. He said: “The best women are riders of the camels.” (Bukhari)
Needless to say that a car may be considered necessity and not a luxury for the women working as doctors, teachers and professionals.
If the teachings of Islam regarding the women are kept in mind in their entirety, it would clearly emerge that Islam wants to build a society in which women could play their legitimate role and make their contribution to the society. This was what the women did in the early history of Islam. Their contribution to overall development of the Muslim society and their great achievements in various fields form a shining chapter in the history of Islam. By denying them the rights the Qur’an and the Holy Prophet have conferred upon them, the contemporary Muslim society is committing a grave injustice to the women and depriving itself of the benefit that could accrue to it by their active participation in the affairs of the community. It is the need of the hour that the Muslim women should be accorded the rights that have been given to them by Islam and are allowed to play their rightful role in the development of the community.
[The writer is Chairman Department of Sunni Theology, Aligarh Muslim University]