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Islam, Women and Feminism ( 10 March 2011, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Status of Muslim Women in Islamic Societies – Past and Present

By Dr. M.I.H. Farooqi

Educate a man, you educate a person. Educate a woman and you educate a family. Educate a family and you educate the Ummah. Islam brought about liberation of women from bondage and gave her equal rights and recognized her individuality as a human being. Islam improved the status of women by instituting rights of property ownership, inheritance, education, marriage (as a contract) and divorce.

The women of the Prophet’s time enjoyed the full range of rights and freedoms that Allah and the Prophet allowed them. There were many prominent Muslim women in that generation who were outspoken and contributed to building the Islamic society. Their names have been recorded. Quran is insistent on the full participation of women in society and in the religious practices.

The history of Muslims is rich with women of great achievements in all walks of life from as early as the seventh century. Since the beginning of Islam, Muslim women have made strong contributions in the development of Islamic Societies.

The Qur’an provides clear-cut evidence that woman is completely equated with man in the sight of God in terms of her rights and responsibilities. Few examples of Quranic injunctions for the rights of Woman are as follows:

“Every soul will be (held) in pledge for its deeds” (Qur’an 74:38).

“So their Lord accepted their prayers, (saying): I will not suffer to be lost the work of any of you whether male or female. You proceed one from another” (Qur’an 3: 195).

“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 their actions”. (Qur’an 16:97, see also 4:124).

“When news is brought to one of them, of (the Birth of) a female (child), his face darkens and he is filled with inward grief! With shame does he hide himself from his people because of the bad news he has had! Shall he retain her on (sufferance) and contempt, or bury her in the dust? Ah! What an evil (choice) they decide on?” (Qur’an 16: 58-59).

“O Mankind, keep your duty to your Lord who created you from a single soul and from it created its mate (of same kind) and from them twain has spread a multitude of men and women” (Qur’an 4: 1). A scholar who pondered about this verse states: “It is believed that there is no text, old or new, that deals with the humanity of the woman from all aspects with such amazing brevity, eloquence, depth, and originality as this divine decree.”

It has been rightly claimed by some scholars that any interpretation of the Qur’an that is discriminatory against women is contradictory to core spirit, general principles and ultimate purposes of Islam.

Islam honours women as daughters, and encourages raising them well and educating them. Islam states that raising daughters will bring a great reward. For example, the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said:

“ Whoever takes care of two girls until they reach adulthood, he and I will come like this on the Day of Resurrection,” and he held his fingers together. (Muslim)

At another occasion Prophet said;

“None but a noble man treats women in an honourable manner. And none but an ignoble treats women disgracefully”. (Al-Tirmidhi).

As a result of rather revolutionary laws for women, early Islamic societies saw Muslim women being involved in diverse occupations and economic activities. They were employed in Hospitals as physicians and nurses. They were employed even in Secret Service (as part of Postal Department)  during the period of Abbasids and Islamic Spain. In the field of education, they could study, earn Ijazahs (academic degrees), and qualify as scholars and teachers. The women of Islamic Spain, like their counterparts in other Islamic societies, were active participants in political and cultural affairs. They helped shape the cosmopolitan civilization associated with the Muslims.

There are authentic reports that during the Rise of Islam,

(7th Century to 15th Century AD) Muslim women were active patrons and sponsors of public works. Rich women supported many public fountains, gardens, hospitals, and inns through their own assets and property.

All through the period of Islamic rise of Medieval Period it was impossible for anyone to justify any mistreatment of woman by any ruling embodied in the Islamic  Law, nor could anyone dare to cancel, reduce, or distort the clear-cut  legal rights of women given in Shariah.  As a matter of fact the reputation, purity and maternal role of Muslim women were objects of admiration by observers from the West.   Female religious scholars were relatively common in Muslim Societies. Mohammad Akram Nadwi has compiled biographies of 8,000 female jurists during Islamic Rise. and orientalist Ignaz Goldziher estimated that 15 percent of medieval hadith scholars were women. Women were important Transmitters of Hadith compiled by Sahih Sitthah (Six Collections of Prophetic Traditions). Many Western Scholars have appreciated Islamic recognition of fundamental rights of women. For instance, Annemarie Schimmel states that “compared to the pre-Islamic position of women, Islamic legislation meant an enormous progress; the woman had the right to administer the wealth she had brought into the family or had earned by her own work.”  Similarly, William Montgomery Watt states that “Muhammad, in the historical context of his time, can be seen as a figure that promoted women’s rights and improved things considerably”. Watt further explains: “At the time Islam began, the conditions of women were terrible - they had no right to own property, were supposed to be the property of the man, and if the man died everything went to his sons. Muhammad, however, by instituting rights of property ownership, inheritance, education and divorce, gave women basic safeguards.”

After fifteenth century AD things started changing against the interest of women. Harsh restrictions on women and general violation of human rights began. Culture and patriarchal constraints played instrumental roles in restricting Muslim women’s educational and economic participation. This was the period of Decline (Fall) of the Islamic World. The situation has gone so bad that many people believe that Muslim women are oppressed in Islamic Societies. They are denied education and other basic rights. These are not baseless accusations. But one must understand that these oppressive practices do not come from Islam. These are part of local cultural traditions in various countries. Western observers portray Islam as uniquely patriarchal and incompatible with women’s equality. Two rather unfortunate examples of deprivation of Muslim women from her Islamic Rights, after the fall of Islamic Societies, are with regard to their Education and inheritance in properties. As against the high women literacy during the Rise, (as high as hundred percent in highly developed cities of Baghdad and Cordova), it was deplorable during the Fall. An Indian survey in 1921 showed that only four out of every 1,000 Muslim females were literate. This situation was more or less the same throughout the Islamic World. The reason was the general edict that Muslim girls need not learn the writing as reading was enough for them.

 In even 21st century women education finds low priority in the Islamic world and the gap between male-female literacy is sometime as high 40%. For Instance, according to the Adult Literacy Rates and Illiterate Population by Country and by Gender report (of September 2006) by UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), Egypt’s adult literacy rate for males is 83% whereas that of females is 59.4%. The male adult literacy rate for Morocco is 65.7% and that of females is only 39.6%. Pakistan, another Muslim country’s literacy rate is 63% for males and a 36% for females. Similar is the case of Yemen (male literacy rate 73.1 percent, female 34.7 percent, difference 38.4 percent) and Afghanistan (male 43.1, female 12.6, difference 30.5), In Muslim Countries like Chad, Niger,  Benin, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, Malawi, the male-female gap is between 20 and 30 percent. This gap in the Western World is between 0 to 3%. In a report published (UNESC) in 2002, the illiteracy figures among Muslim women (throughout Islamic World) was found to be as high as 90 percent.

Denial of inheritance to women was another distressing example of unIslamic attitude during the Fall. A glaring denial of property to her was quietly accepted in India when legislations were passed (20th Century) that Women (Muslims or non-Muslims) had no rights in agricultural land and the properties of Taluqdars (Big Landlords). Similar situations existed then throughout the Islamic world.

It is being claimed by some Muslim Scholars of Turkey and Egypt that during the last two decades things have changed in favour of Women with the result that many countries, where Muslims are in majority, like Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Turkey, have been led by women. Nearly one-third of the Parliament of Egypt also consists of women.

Some other Muslim Intellectuals, in recent past, have condemned attitude of Muslim societies for their anti-Islamic treatment of womenfolk. Few examples are stated below:

Mohammed Ali Jinnah: “No nation can rise to the height of glory unless your women are side by side with you. We are victims of evil customs. It is a crime against humanity that our women are shut up within the four walls of the houses as prisoners. There is no sanction anywhere for the deplorable condition in which our women have to live”. (March 10, 1944, AMU, Aligarh), “I have always maintained that no nation can ever be worthy of its existence that cannot take its women along with the men. No struggle can ever succeed without women participating side by side with men.” (March 25, 1940).

Farkhonda Hassan: “Let us prove that a society which empowers its women is a society sure to succeed.  In many Muslim countries, gender-based discrimination, coupled with social and cultural barriers, limits access and participation of women in higher education. Some people attribute these barriers to the teachings of Islam, but this is false.”

Feroze Bakht Ahmed : “Although there’s a lot of wailing about the veiling of Muslim women, no one is bothered about their pathetic literacy levels despite the fact that Prophet Mohammed stated: “Talabul ilm farizatun ala kulli muslimin wa muslima” (It is compulsory for both men and women to be educated). To say that Muslim women have no rights would be a misnomer as Islam has given sufficient rights to them during the days of the religion’s advent. The problem is that most clerics have misinterpreted Quranic teachings with an anti-women tilt. A hue and cry is raised over issues like talaq (divorce), model nikahnama (marriage document), polygamy, family planning and the purdah (veil) - all issues that have been tirelessly talked over for decades without any consensus. But clerics, scholars or politicians rarely bother to promote education of Muslim girls. Abject illiteracy among Muslim women still lies at the root of the endemic backwardness of the community. More than veils, it is education that will make the Muslim women safer”.

Yahya M. (US): “At the beginning Islam was the most revolutionary liberalization of women’s rights the civilized world has ever seen. But afterwards Muslims became ignorant of this and now Muslim countries are the scene of some of the worst abuses of women’s rights”.

Dr. Hassan Abdalla Al Turabi (Sudan): “Whenever weakness creeps into the faith of Muslim men they tend to treat women oppressively and seek to exploit them. Present Muslim Society has become unduly conservative for fear that freedom of thought would lead astray and divide the community; and that freedom of women would degenerate into licentious promiscuity - so much that the basic religious rights and duties of women have been forsaken and the fundamentals of equality and fairness in the structure of Muslim Society, as enshrined in the Sharia, have been completely overlooked. In the fallen society of Muslims, women have little freedom. All sorts of subterfuges are employed to deny her inheritance. In the domain of public life, she is not allowed to make any original contribution to the promotion of the quality of life. A revolution against the condition of women in the traditional Muslim societies is inevitable. The teachings of their own religion call upon Islamists to be the right-guided leaders for the salvation of men and women”,

Neelofer: “What is certain is that unless societal leaders and modern opinion makers pay some attention to this problem (Women Education) a lot of social frustration and pain is on store for everyone. For, if mothers, daughters, and sisters remain behind, can fathers, sons, and brothers go forward”?

Samana Siddiqi: “Statistics point to the low level of literacy of Muslim women in Muslim countries. This is a shame for the people who claim to follow Islam, a religion which has made it a religious obligation on both sexes to seek knowledge. Women’s literacy, and in turn ignorance of Islam is a danger to Muslim societies and their stability. What kind of quality of life will an illiterate woman have? And what kind of children will she raise”?

Seema Qazi: The acknowledgement of the universality of women’s rights by the international community is relevant to the debate on Islam and women’s rights, particularly with reference to women’s rights in the family.

Source:  Issued by Sir Syed Scientific Society, Lucknow. Dr. M.I.H. Farooqi Secretary of the Society, is the author of PLANTS OF QURAN (9th Ed 2011) & MEDICINAL PLANTS IN PROPHETIC TRADITIONS (3rd Ed 2010)