The topic that I was asked to discuss here at McGill University is the elevation of the status of women in Islam. Many, upon hearing the title of this lecture, might assume it to be an oxymoron because the prevalent idea – at least in the West – is that Islam. does not elevate the status of women, but that Islam. oppresses and suppresses women. So people might find the title in itself to be shocking or a curiosity at least.
In discussing this topic – since it appears to me that this is a mixed audience of Muslims and non-Muslims – I’d like to make my remarks and comments brief. I will take no more than thirty to forty five minutes, and then allow you an opportunity to ask your questions. Perhaps the question and answer session might be more fruitful in addressing specific accusations, understandings or misunderstandings regarding the status of women in Islam.
As we all know, in the world today, there are – for the overwhelming majority of humanity – basically two world views. These two views are often in conflict – not only on the personal level where individual human beings are making choices, but also on the international level in terms of the debate over the authenticity and correctness of these two world views.
The first world view, which I am sure most of us are aware of, is the Western liberal view. A view which claims to draw its roots from the Judeo-Christian tradition that probably, upon investigation, is more well rooted in the ideas that appeared after the reformation; ideas that are rooted in secularism and the world view that appeared thereafter during the ‘era of enlightenment’.
The second view is that of the Muslims – the Islamic world view, and this view says that its roots and ideas lie in the revelation given by God (or Allah in Arabic) to the prophet Muhammad (sallallaahu `alayhi wa sallam). Those who proclaim this view say that it can be used by humanity during all ages and times, and that its relevance and benefit is not restricted to a certain period of time, geographic area or certain race of human beings. Likewise, the adherents of the first view, that of
Western secularism and the liberal tradition, believe that their world view, ideas, culture and civilization are the best for humanity. Some of you might have read a book that came out a few years ago by an American author of Japanese decent (Francis Fukuyama) called “The End of Time”. He basically put forth the theory that human development in terms of its ideas has concluded with this final period of liberal secular thought and nothing more will come to humanity. However in his book he adds that that the only part of the world which has not adopted this secular human view is the Islamic world and proposes that there will be a conflict in terms of this ideology in the Islamic world.
With that brief introduction, one of the topics of contention between these two worlds views, that of the secular liberal humanist in the West and the Islamic tradition, concerns women. What is the position and status of women? How are women looked to? Are women elevated in one culture and oppressed in another?
First, let’s review how exactly women were thought of and understood in the western tradition, to compare and contrast perspectives. We know that the western tradition sees itself as the intellectual inheritors of the Greek tradition that existed before the prophet Jesus Christ (peace be upon him), and so therefore many of the intellectual traditions of the West are found to some degree in the writings of the early Greek philosophers like Aristotle, Plato and so forth.
How did they look towards women? What were the ideas of Aristotle and Plato towards women? When one reviews the works of these early Greek philosophers, he finds that they had very disparaging views of women. Aristotle in his writings argued that women were not full human beings and that the nature of woman was not that of a full human person. As a result, women were by nature deficient, not to be trusted and to be looked down upon. In fact, writings describe that the free women in many aspects of the Greek society – except for the very few women of the elite classes – had positions no better than animals and slaves.
This is the tradition that the West inherited and thereafter we find in the 1800’s the first writings appearing by women and some men calling for the change of these ideas. And with this we have the origins of the first feminine movements. One of the first books written was the “Vindication for the Rights of Women” by Mary Walsencraft which appeared in the 1800’s. Thereafter the tradition of women receiving certain rights came. The first of these were basically legal rights because until the 1800’s women were not able to own property and were not able to dispose of their wealth as men did. It is very well known that the first laws that allowed women to own property in the United States or in Europe appeared only in the last couple of decades of the 1800’s.
The Industrial Revolution caused another impetus, another search, to this feminist movement. Women in the Industrial Revolution, especially England, were forced to labor for many hours in the coal mines and so forth, and would receive no pay whatsoever compared to men. So therefore the first calling of the movement was that people who work the same amount of hours deserved the same amount of money or pay.
Finally a break occurred in this century of basically all which is understood from the Western tradition. Coming from the latter feminist movement which appeared after World War II, a new movement called for the emancipation of women not only in terms of legal rights, but it also questioned some of the morals of society and called for greater sexual freedoms for women and men alike. It contended that basically a lot of problems were caused by the institution of marriage and the ideas of family and so forth. People wrote concerning the need to break from these.
So this being something that was taught 1400 years ago was a revolutionary idea in the sense that it is only within the last 100 years or so that the issue of women being full human beings has come to be accepted in western intellectual circles. Initially, women were not considered full human beings.
The civilization of Islam. – a civilization which is 1400 years old – is one which is rooted in religion. For a Muslim the greatest aim is to serve God, to worship God alone, and that is what the word Muslim means.
Muslim is not a racial description, it is not an ethnic category, Muslim means one who submits. Islam. means submitting to the will of God – the voluntary submission to God – so Islam. is a religion of submission. Therefore, in the most important aspect of the Islamic religion, we find that men and women share in the same aim and are expected to have the same responsibilities, in that men and women are both required or obligated to testify that there is none worthy of worship but Allah alone – God alone – and that Muhammad is His Messenger. Men and women are both obligated to pray five times a day, which is the second pillar of Islam. They are obligated to fast the month of Ramadan. They are obligated to make pilgrimage to Makkah. They are obligated to give charity. They are obligated to have the same beliefs. They are obligated to have the same type of morality and the same type of code of conduct and behavior.
Men and women share these essential ingredients of Islamic behavior, which define a Muslim from a non-Muslim. And this is of extreme importance because it breaks from the tradition of religions. For instance fifty years before the birth of the prophet Muhammad (sallallaahu `alayhi wa sallam) who was born around 560 CE we find that there was a gathering of bishops in France to discuss whether women possessed souls or not, and that, if they do possess souls, what would be their purpose on earth? Was it to worship God? And if they worshipped God, would they go to paradise? In the end it was decided that, yes, women do possess souls – which was a break from previous tradition – but that their purpose was not just to worship God, but also to serve men.
So therefore, the idea of having genders – this is a term which is not used in a biological sense, as we might use the word sex in a biological sense for male and female, but the understanding today is that the traits that define maleness or femaleness, the social traits and so forth are determined by upbringing, culture, and environment and that there is no inherent difference in the way men and women think or act or what their make up is and so forth. And that is why they use the term gender.
This extreme resulted from the initial extreme that occurred 2000 years ago, when the Greek thought that the women did not posses humanity. So as a result of this 2000 year processes we now come to another extreme – at least this is what Muslims would say – this extreme now is that men and women are the same, that there is no difference.
better term, philosophical, ideological or theological difference between the two opposing arguments. Now with that said, it is important to understand that when Islam. gave these roles to men and women alike, it put responsibilities equal to obligations to both. I will give you an example for that: Islam. senses that women have the nature of mother not by cultural tradition or by sociological system but inherently are better in providing and taking care of the offspring, that there is a bond there which goes beyond tradition. A psychological bonding, a physical bonding, something which is more than just traditions of human beings. As a result of that it has placed greater responsibilities upon women towards their children are then those of men.
This is an issue which exists and because the hosts were the Chinese, the United Nations didn’t really want to get into this issue. They didn’t want to talk about it because it was not politically correct to address that issue in China. Moreover, even though they might have passed certain regulations, platforms for actions and certain commitments which they have required of citizens of the world to follow, they at the end will see that perhaps in twenty-five to fifty years the status of the world child will not have markedly improved.
People receive no other reward, but paradise. Again that is the greatest aim for the Muslim and that is their motivation and reason of being. So Islam not only tried removing the negative aspect of murdering girls, but also included the positive aspect of educating girls and raising them in society, and this brings me to my final point. This is something of course which we can look at the previous declarations of human rights or whatever, irrespective of whether these being true or false, but they have not been able to achieve the aims which they have stated. As the example of human rights and the UN in Bosnia shows.
Where is this teaching from, of course when prophet Muhammad (sallallaahu `alayhi wa sallam) died after twenty three years Islam. only spread in Arabia. This religion of Islam was basically spread by four or five individuals who had the most in teaching. One of them was the prophet’s wife `Aa’isha. She is among the most to have narrated his statements and likewise she is amongst the three, four, five who have mostly given religious pronouncements, who have given religious verdicts, explained what these verses in the Qur’an meant or what the words of the prophet meant.