Topic 2: Women’s Rights and Marriage in Islam
The lesson provides information on marriage and the general legal rights of women according to Islamic law. Quotations from the Qur’an and the Sunnah illustrate the spirit and substance of the ideal of marital relations. Several verses on gender rights and obligations explore the issue of relations between men and women in society. Finally, a series of quotations from prominent 20th century male and female writings on women in Islam give a range of viewpoints on the subject of gender relations.
The student will be able to:
- describe the basic rights and obligations of women by analyzing the words of the basic sources (in translation) to understand their basis in Islamic law
- explain the spiritual, personal and social significance of the ideal of marriage in Islam
- analyze aspects of gender relations according to the Islamic sources
- compare the views of several twentieth century writers on Islam and gender issues based upon excerpts from their writings.
- Distribute Handout 1 "Analyzing Primary Sources – Women’s Rights in Islam" and have the students read it over. Explain to the students that Muslim jurists have derived women’s rights from the two primary sources of Islamic knowledge, the Qur’an and Sunnah, for the purpose of judging individual legal questions and cases. Working as individuals, pairs or small groups, students will associate the numbered list of women’s rights at the top of the page to the primary source quotations in the list below the dotted line. In the post-activity debriefing, students will be asked to explain why they matched the sources to the rights in the way that they did. See answer key. NOTE: some quotations or rights have more than one correct match.
- Adaptation: For younger or mixed ability students, the teacher can select the briefer quotations, cut them out of the handout and ask students to and match them to the right item on the list of rights (on an overhead transparency or other form of projection). In small groups, have them read the statements of rights and prepare to describe how these quotations support the idea of rights for women in Islam. Discuss the concept of rights linked to duties, and ask what persons or social groups are responsible for giving women their rights.
- At the conclusion of the basic activity, open discussion on one or more of these basic rights for women with the purpose of answering the following questions:
- rights are linked to obligations in the Islamic ethical system. Using the primary source quotes, infer what obligations women have for each of the rights listed. Are these obligations implied in the primary source quotes?
- what do the rights of one gender mean in terms of obligations on the persons related to or married to a Muslim woman?
- What do these rights mean for economic, social and political affairs in society as a whole? What obligations fall on society in terms of courts and judges who would uphold women’s rights?
- What customs or traditions in Muslim and other countries might inhibit or impair exercise of the rights and obligations given to women under various belief systems? Why do you think such customs and traditions developed?
- Distribute Handout 2, "Analyzing Secondary Sources: Readings on Islam and Marriage, and the Status of Women." The students may be asked to choose one of the authors to focus on. Discussion questions for the three excerpts:
- How do the authors characterize the status of women in Islam? How do they characterize the status of women in contemporary Muslim countries?
- According to these authors, what efforts are Muslim men and women making to realize social justice for women?
- How do the authors contrast the efforts of Western feminism with efforts among Muslims on behalf of women’s rights?
- Adaptation: Select one of the excerpts, or select individual paragraphs from them, and discuss the selections with the class, going over any vocabulary as necessary.
- Extension: Students may do further research on the subject of marriage, divorce and women’s rights in Islam and in Muslim societies. Two good sites of links are "Women in Islam" at http://www.uga.edu/islam/Islamwomen.html and "Near Eastern, Islamic, & Arabic Studies: Selected Internet Resources" at Yale University.
See notes to excerpted secondary sources in Handout 2.
Qur’an and Hadith translations from The Alim Islamic Software, Release 4. Baltimore, MD: ISL Software Corporation, 1996.
Handout 1: Analyzing Primary Sources—Women’s Rights in Islam
For each of the listed women’s rights at the top half of the page, find primary source quotations from the Qur’an (the Holy Book of Islam, which Muslims believe was revealed to Prophet Muhammad over a period of 23 years ending in 632CE) and Sunnah (Hadith, or recorded words and deeds of Prophet Muhammad) that support this rights in the section below the dotted line. Write the number of the quotation in the box in front of the appropriate line in the list of women’s rights. There may be more than one correct match for each.
Some rights of women in Islamic Law:
___________ women are spiritually equal to men, and both genders are obligated to uphold the Five Pillars, or acts of worship.
___________ women have the right to legal personhood, meaning that they can represent themselves in a court of law, in a contract or financial agreement, without a co-signer or legal guardian when they reach adulthood.
__________ women have the right to own property, and the right to buy, sell, loan or otherwise dispose of it as they wish.
__________ women have the right to speak and participate in public life, and to be equal partners in calling for social justice.
__________ women have the right to an education within the means of their family and society. This may be seen as a personal obligation upon a girl’s guardians, or upon her husband, or as a collective responsibility to provide for the education of girls on Muslim society as a whole.
__________ women cannot be forced into marriage against their will.
__________ husbands have no claims on their wife’s property, and the dowry belongs to the woman to spend as she wishes.
__________ women have the right to inherit from male and female relations; in some circumstances, the female’s share of inheritance is half that of the male, because in contrast to men, women have no obligation to support male or female relatives under any conditions.
__________ women have the right to initiate divorce, and have the right to protection and support from their husbands and male relatives in case of divorce.
"Verily the men who surrender (to Allah) and women who surrender, and men who believe, and women who believe, and men who obey and women who obey, and men who are sincere and women who are sincere, and men who endure and women who endure, and men who are humble and women who are humble, and men who give alms and women who give alms, and men who fast and women who fast, and men who are modest and women who are modest, and women who remember (Him), Allah hath prepared for them pardon and a great reward." (Qur'an 33:35)
"O mankind! Be careful of your duty to your Lord Who created you from a single soul and from it created its mate and from them He has spread abroad a multitude of men and women. Be careful of your duty toward Allah in Whom ye claim your rights of one another, and toward the wombs that bore you. Lo! Allah is a Watcher over you." (Qur’an 4:1)
"And the believers, men and women, are protecting friends one of another; they enjoin the right and forbid the wrong, and they establish worship and they pay the poor-due, and they obey Allah and His messenger. As for these, Allah will have mercy on them. Lo! Allah is Mighty, Wise." (Qur’an 9:70)
"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)
"They (women) have right like those (of men) against them; though men are a degree above them. Allah is Almighty, All-Knowing." (Qur'an 2:228)
"And their Lord has accepted of them and answered them: "Never will I suffer to be lost the work of any of you, be he/she male or female: you are members one of another..." (Qur’an 3:195)
"Ye who believe! It is not allowed you to be heirs of women against their will, not to hinder them from marrying, that you may take from them a part of that which you have given them, unless they have been guilty of evident lewdness. But deal kindly with them, for if ye hate them it may happen that ye have a thing wherein Allah hath placed much good." (Qur'an 4:19)
"… to men is allotted what they earn and to women what they earn: but ask God of His bounty: for God has full knowledge of all things." (Qur’an 4:32)
"For men there is a share in what parents and relatives leave and for women there is a share of what parents and relatives leave whether it be little or much an ordained share." (Qur’an 4:7)
"And among His sights is this, that He created for you mates from among yourselves, that ye may dwell in tranquility with them, and He has put love and mercy between your hearts; verily in that are Signs for those who reflect." (Qur’an 30: 21)
"…Your wives are your garments, and ye are their garments." (Qur’an 2: 187)
"This day are (all) good things made lawful for you. The food of those who have received the Scripture is lawful for you, and your food is lawful for them. And so are the virtuous women of the believers and the virtuous women of those who received the Scripture before you (lawful for you) when ye give them their marriage portions and live with them in honor, not in fornication, nor taking them as secret concubines. Whoever denies the faith, his work is vain and he will be among the losers in the Hereafter." (Qur’an 5:5)
"Give unto the orphans their wealth. Exchange not the valuable for the worthless, nor absorb their wealth in your own wealth. Verily that would be a great sin. And if ye fear that ye will not deal fairly by the orphans, then marry of the women who seem good to you, two or three or four; and if ye fear that you cannot do justice, then one only or those whom your right hand possess. That is better, that ye stray not from the path of justice. And give unto the women free gifts of their marriage portions; but if they, of their own accord, remit to you a part thereof, then ye are welcome to absorb it (in your wealth)." (Qur'an 4:2,3)
"Men are the protectors and maintainers of women because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient and guard in absence what Allah would have them guard." (Qur’an 4:34)
"If a wife fears cruelty or desertion on her husband's part there is no blame on them if they arrange an amicable settlement between themselves; and such settlement is best; even though men's souls are swayed by greed. But if ye do good and practice self-restraint Allah is well-acquainted with all that ye do.
"Ye are never able to be fair and just as between women even if it is your ardent desire: but turn not away (from a woman) altogether so as to leave her (as it were) hanging (in the air). If ye come to a friendly understanding and practice self-restraint Allah is Oft-Forgiving Most Merciful.
But if they disagree (and must part) Allah will provide abundance for all from His all-reaching bounty: for Allah is He that cares for all and is Wise." (4:128-130)"And when ye have divorced women and they reach their term, place not difficulties in the way of their marrying …if it is agreed between them in kindness. This is an admonition for him among you who believeth in Allah and the Last Day. That is more virtuous for you, and purer. Allah knows: ye know not." (2:232)
"A divorce is only permissible twice: after that the parties should either hold together on equitable terms or separate with kindness. It is not lawful for you (men) to take back any of your gifts (from your wives) except when both parties fear that they would be unable to keep the limits ordained by Allah. If ye (judges) do indeed fear that they would be unable to keep the limits ordained by Allah there is no blame on either of them if she give something for her freedom. These are the limits ordained by Allah; so do not transgress them. If any do transgress the limits ordained by Allah such persons wrong (themselves as well as others). And if he has divorced her (the third time), then she is not lawful unto him thereafter until she has wedded another husband. Then if he the other husband divorce her it is no sin for both of them that they come together again if they consider that they are able to observe the limits of Allah. These are the limits of Allah. He manifests them for people who have knowledge." (2:229-230)
"When ye have divorced women, and they have reached their term, then retain them in kindness or release them in kindness. Retain them not to their harm so that ye transgress (the limits). He who doeth that hath wronged his soul. Make not the revelations of Allah a laughingstock (by your behavior), but remember Allah's grace upon you and that which He has revealed unto you of the Scripture and of wisdom, whereby He exhorts you. Observe your duty to Allah and know that Allah is Aware of all things." (2:231)
"But if ye decide to take one wife in place of another even if ye had given the latter a whole treasure for dowry [bride gift], take not the least bit of it back: would ye take it by slander and a manifest wrong?" (4:20)
"Seeking knowledge is mandatory for every Muslim." (Hadith, in al-Bayhaqi)
According to Abdullah ibn Mas'ud, the Prophet is reported to have said; "If a daughter is born to a person and he brings her up, gives her a good education and trains her in the arts of life, I shall myself stand between him and hell-fire." (Hadith in Kanz al-Ummal).
A report from Bahz b. Hakim states: "I inquired the Prophet (peace be upon him) about his teaching in respect of women. He replied: ‘Feed them as you feed yourselves, clothe them as you clothe yourselves, and do not beat or scold them.’" (Hadith in Kanz al-Ummal)
Our Prophet (may God bless and keep him!) said, "Women are the twin halves of men." "The rights of women are sacred. See that women are maintained in the rights granted to them."
Abu Hurairah reports that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said: ‘A mature girl shall be asked permission about herself. If she is silent, it is her permission; and if she declines, there shall be no compulsion on her.’"(Hadith Muslim)
Handout 2: Analyzing Secondary Sources—Readings on Islam and Marriage, and the Status of Women
From The Status of Woman in Islam
Jamal A. Badawi, (also available here in PDF)
"…The Qur'an clearly indicates that marriage is sharing between the two halves of the society, and that its objectives, beside perpetuating human life, are emotional well-being and spiritual harmony. Its bases are love and mercy. Among the most impressive verses in the Qur'an about marriage is the following.
"And among His signs is this: That He created mates for you from yourselves that you may find rest, peace of mind in them, and He ordained between you love and mercy. Lo, herein indeed are signs for people who reflect." (Qur'an 30:2 1).
According to Islamic Law, women cannot be forced to marry anyone without their consent.
Ibn Abbas reported that a girl came to Muhammad, and she reported that her father had forced her to marry without her consent. The Messenger of God gave her the choice . . . (between accepting the marriage or invalidating it). (Ibn Hanbal No. 2469).
In another version, the girl said: "Actually I accept this marriage but I wanted to let women know that parents have no right (to force a husband on them)." (Ibn Maja, No. 1873).
Besides all other provisions for her protection at the time of marriage, it was specifically decreed that woman has the full right to her mahr, a marriage gift, which is presented to her by her husband and is included in the nuptial [marriage] contract, and that such ownership does not transfer to her father or husband. The concept of mahr in Islam is neither an actual or symbolic price for the woman, as was the case in certain cultures, but rather it is a gift symbolizing love and affection.
The rules for married life in Islam are clear and in harmony with upright human nature. In consideration of the physiological and psychological make-up of man and woman, both have equal rights and claims on one another, except for one responsibility, that of leadership. This is a matter which is natural in any collective life and which is consistent with the nature of man.
The Qur'an thus states:
"And they (women) have rights similar to those (of men) over them, and men are a degree above them." (Qur'an 2:228).
Such degree is qiwama (maintenance and protection). This refers to that natural difference between the sexes which entitles the weaker sex to protection. It implies no superiority or advantage before the law. Yet, man's role of leadership in relation to his family does not mean the husband's dictatorship over his wife. Islam emphasizes the importance of taking counsel and mutual agreement in family decisions. The Qur'an gives us an example:
"...If they (husband wife) desire to wean the child by mutual consent and (after) consultation, there is no blame on them..." (Qur'an 2: 233).
Over and above her basic rights as a wife there is the right which is emphasized by the Qur'an and is strongly recommended by the Prophet (P): kind treatment and companionship.
The Qur'an states:
"...But consort with them in kindness, for if you hate them it may happen that you hate a thing wherein God has placed much good." (Qur'an 4: l9).
Prophet Muhammad said:
"The best of you is the best to his family and I am the best among you to my family."
"The most perfect believers are the best in conduct and best of you are those who are best to their wives."
"Behold, many women came … complaining against their husbands (because they abused them) -- those (husbands) are not the best of you.’
As the woman's right to decide about her marriage is recognized, so also her right to seek an end for an unsuccessful marriage is recognized. To provide for the stability of the family, however, and in order to protect it from hasty decisions under temporary emotional stress, certain steps and waiting periods should be observed by men and women seeking divorce. Considering the relatively more emotional nature of women, a good reason for asking for divorce should be brought before the judge. Like the man, however, the woman can divorce her husband without resorting to the court, if the nuptial contract allows that. More specifically, some aspects of Islamic Law concerning marriage and divorce are interesting and are worthy of separate treatment.
When the continuation of the marriage relationship is impossible for any reason, men are still taught to seek a gracious end for it.
The Qur'an states about such cases:
"When you divorce women, and they reach their prescribed term, then retain them in kindness and retain them not for injury so that you transgress (the limits)." (Qur'an 2:231).
From Women, Muslim Society and Islam,
Lois Lamya al-Faruqi (American Trust Publications, 1988)
"…Islam brought women from the position of chattel in marriage to that of equal partners. In the matter of divorce, she changed from a completely impotent bystander, to one who could initiate divorce proceedings and claim her rights of dowry and inheritance. From a position of legal nonentity, she became a legal personality in the full sense of the term, able to hold property, entitled to a just share of her husband's and family's inheritance property. Socially, with education equally required of her as well as of every man by Islam, she rose to a position of social and cultural influences and service. Even in religious practices and duties, woman was asked and expected to play a role equal to that of man, insofar as her special physical characteristics and maternal duties allowed [i.e. women are not required to pray during certain times of the month and just after childbirth]…"
From ISLAMIC TRADITIONS AND THE FEMINIST MOVEMENT: CONFRONTATION OR COOPERATION?
Lois Lamya' al-Faruqi, (online text at http://www.salaam.co.uk/knowledge/faruqi.php )
"…Whether living in the Middle East or Africa, in Central Asia, in Pakistan, in Southeast Asia, or in Europe and the Americas, Muslim women tend to view the feminist movement with some apprehension. Although there are some features of the feminist cause with which we as Muslims would wish to join hands, other features generate our disappointment and even opposition. There is therefore no simple or "pat" answer to the question of the future cooperation or competition which feminism may meet in an Islamic environment. There are however a number of social, psychological, and economic traditions which govern the thinking of most Muslims and which are particularly affective of woman's status and role in Islamic society. Understanding these can help us understand the issues which affect male and female status and roles, and how we should react to movements which seek to improve the situation of women in any of the countries where Muslims live.
THE FAMILY SYSTEM: One of the Islamic traditions which will affect the way in which Muslim women respond to feminist ideas is the advocacy in Islamic culture of an extended rather than a nuclear family system. Some Muslim families are "residentially extended" - that is, their members live communally with three or more generations of relatives (grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, and their offspring) in a single building or compound. Even when this residential version of the extended family is not possible or adhered to, family connections reaching far beyond the nuclear unit are evident in strong psychological, social, economic, and even political ties. Mutual supports and responsibilities affecting these larger consanguine groups are not just considered desirable, but they are made legally incumbent on members of the society by Islamic law. The Holy Qur’an itself exhorts to extended family solidarity; in addition it specifies the extent of such responsibilities and contains prescriptive measures for inheritance, support, and other close interdependencies within the extended family.
Our Islamic traditions also prescribe a much stronger participation of the family in the contracting and preservation of marriages. While most Western feminists would decry family participation or arranged marriage as a negative influence because of its apparent restriction of individualistic freedom and responsibility, as Muslims we would argue that such participation is advantageous for both individuals and groups within the society. Not only does it ensure marriages based on sounder principles than physical attraction and sexual infatuation, but it provides other safeguards for successful marital continuity. Members of the family provide diverse companionship as well as ready sources of advice and sympathy for the newly married as they adjust to each others' way. One party of the marriage cannot easily pursue an eccentric course at the expense of the spouse since such behavior would rally opposition from the larger group. Quarrels are never so devastating to the marriage bond since other adult family members act as mediators and provide alternative sources of companionship and counsel following disagreements. The problems of parenting and generational incompatibility are also alleviated, and singles clubs and dating bureaus would be unnecessary props for social interaction. There is no need in the extended family for children of working parents to be unguarded, unattended, or inadequately loved and socialized because the extended family home is never empty. There is therefore no feeling of guilt which the working parent often feels in a nuclear or single-parent organization. Tragedy, even divorce, is not so debilitating to either adults or children since the larger social unit absorbs the residual numbers with much greater ease than a nuclear family organization can ever provide.
The move away from the cohesiveness which the family formerly enjoyed in Western society, the rise of usually smaller alternative family styles, and the accompanying rise in individualism which many feminists advocate or at least practice, are at odds with these deep-rooted Islamic customs and traditions. If feminism in the Muslim world chooses to espouse the Western family models, it should and would certainly be strongly challenged by Muslim women's groups and by Islamic society as a whole.
INDIVIDUALISM VS. THE LARGER ORGANIZATION: The traditional support of the large and intricately interrelated family organization is correlative to another Islamic tradition which seems to run counter to recent Western trends and to feminist ideology. Islam and Muslim women generally advocate molding of individual goals and interests to accord with the welfare of the larger group and its members. Instead of holding the goals of the individual supreme, Islam instills in the adherent a sense of his or her place within the family and of a responsibility to that group. This is not perceived or experienced by Muslims as repression of the individual. Other traditions which will be discussed later guarantee his or her legal personality. Feminism, therefore, would not be espoused by Muslim women as a goal to be pursued without regard for the relation of the female to the other members of her family. The Muslim woman regards her goals as necessitating a balance with, or even subordination to, those of the family group. The rampant individualism often experienced in contemporary life, that which treats the goals of the individual in isolation from other factors, or as utterly supreme, runs against a deep Islamic commitment to social interdependence.
DIFFERENTIATION OF SEX ROLES: A third Islamic tradition which affects the future of any feminist movement in an Islamic environment is that it specifies a differentiation of male and female roles and responsibilities in society. Feminism, as represented in Western society, has generally denied any such differentiation and has demanded a move toward a unisex society in order to achieve equal rights for women. By "unisex society," I mean one in which a single set of roles and concerns are given preference and esteem by both sexes and are pursued by all members of the society regardless of sex and age differentials. In the case of Western feminism, the preferred goals have been those traditionally fulfilled by the male members of society. The roles of providing financial support, of success in career, and of decision making have been given overwhelming respect and concern while those dealing with domestic matters, with child care, with aesthetic and psychological refreshment, with social interrelationships, were devalued and even despised. Both men and women have been forced into a single mold which is perhaps more restrictive, rigid and coercive than that which formerly assigned men to one type of role and women to another.
This is a new brand of male chauvinism with which Islamic traditions cannot conform. Islam instead maintains that both types of roles are equally deserving of pursuit and respect and that when accompanied by the equity demanded by the religion, a division of labor along sex lines is generally beneficial to all members of the society. This might be regarded by the feminist as opening the door to discrimination, but as Muslims we regard Islamic traditions as standing clearly and unequivocally for the support of male-female equity. In the Qur’an, no difference whatever is made between the sexes in relation to God. "For men who submit [to God] and for women who submit [to God], for believing men and believing women, … for them God has prepared forgiveness and a mighty reward." (33:35) "Whoever performs good deeds, whether male or female and is a believer, We shall surely make him live a good life and We will certainly reward them for the best of what they did." (16:97)
It is only in relation to each other and society that a difference is made - a difference of role or function. The rights and responsibilities of a woman are equal to those of a man, but they are not necessarily identical with them. Equality and identity are two different things, Islamic traditions maintain -- the former desirable, the latter not. Men and women should therefore be complementary to each other in a multi-function organization rather than competitive with each other in a uni-function society.
The equality demanded by Islamic traditions must, however, be seen in its larger context if it is to be understood properly. Since Muslims regard a differentiation of sexual roles to be natural and desirable in the majority of cases, the economic responsibilities of male and female members differ to provide a balance for the physical differences between men and women and for the greater responsibility which women carry in the reproductive and rearing activities so necessary to the well-being of the society. To maintain, therefore, that the men of the family are responsible for providing economically for the women or that women are not equally responsible, is not a dislocation or denial of sexual equity. It is instead a duty to be fulfilled by men as compensation for another responsibility which involves the special ability of women. Likewise the different inheritance rates for males and females, which is so often sited as an example of discrimination against women, must not be seen as an isolated prescription. It is but one part of a comprehensive system in which women carry no legal responsibility to support other members of the family, but in which men are bound by law as well as custom to provide for all their female relatives.
Does this mean that Islamic traditions necessarily prescribe maintaining the status quo in the Islamic societies that exist today? The answer is a definite "No." Many thinking Muslims - both men and women - would agree that their societies do not fulfill the Islamic ideals and traditions laid down in the Qur’an and reinforced by the example and directives of the Prophet Muhammad. It is reported in the Qur’an and from history that women not only expressed their opinions freely in the Prophet's presence but also argued and participated in serious discussions with the Prophet himself and with other Muslim leaders of the time (58:1). Muslim women are known to have even stood in opposition to certain caliphs, who later accepted the sound arguments of those women. A specific example took place during the caliphate of 'Umar ibn al Khattab. The Qur’an reproached those who believed woman to be inferior to men (16:57-59) and repeatedly gives expression to the need for treating men and women with equity (2:228, 231; 4:19, and so on). Therefore, if Muslim women experience discrimination in any place or time, they do not and should not lay the blame on Islam, but on the un-Islamic nature of their societies and the failure of Muslims to fulfill its directives.
SEPARATE LEGAL STATUS FOR WOMEN: A fourth Islamic tradition affecting the future of feminism in Muslim societies is the separate legal status for women which is demanded by the Qur’an and the Shari'ah. Every Muslim individual, whether male of female, retains a separate identity from cradle to grave. This separate legal personality prescribes for every woman the right to contract, to conduct business, to earn and possess property independently. Marriage has no effect on her legal status, her property, her earnings - or even on her name. If she commits any civil offense, her penalty is no less or no more than a man's in a similar case (5:83; 24:2). If she is wronged or harmed, she is entitled to compensation just like a man (4:92-93; see also Mustafa al Siba'i 1976:38; Darwazah n.d.:78). The feminist demand for separate legal status for women is therefore one that is equally espoused by Islamic traditions…
THE FORM OF AN ISLAMIC FEMINISM: If the goals of Western feminism are not viable for Muslim women, what form should a feminist movement take to ensure success?
Above all, the movement must recognize that, whereas in the West, the mainstream of the women's movement has viewed religion as one of the chief enemies of its progress and well-being, Muslim women view the teachings of Islam as their best friend and supporter. The prescriptions that are found in the Qur’an and in the example of the Prophet Muhammad, (Peace and blessings of God upon him), are regarded as the ideal to which contemporary women wish to return. As far as Muslim women are concerned, the source of any difficulties experienced today is not Islam and its traditions, but certain alien ideological intrusions on our societies, ignorance, and distortion of the true Islam, or exploitation by individuals within the society. It is a lack of an appreciation for this fact that caused such misunderstanding and mutual distress when women's movement representatives from the West visited Iran both before and after the Islamic Revolution.
Second, any feminism which is to succeed in an Islamic environment must be one which does not work chauvinistically for women's interest alone. Islamic traditions would dictate that women's progress be achieved in tandem with the wider struggle to benefit all members of the society. The good of the group or totality is always more crucial than the good of any one sector of the society. In fact, the society is seen as an organic whole in which the welfare of each member or organ is necessary for the health and well being of every other part. Disadvantageous circumstances of women therefore should always be countered in conjunction with attempt to alleviate those factors which adversely affect men and other segments of the society.
Third, Islam is an ideology which influences much more than the ritual life of a people. It is equally affective of their social, political, economic, psychological, and aesthetic life. "Din," which is usually regarded as an equivalent for the English term "religion," is a concept which includes, in addition to those ideas and practices customarily associated in our minds with religion, a wide spectrum of practices and ideas which affect almost every aspect of the daily life of the Muslim individual. Islam and Islamic traditions therefore are seen today by many Muslims as the main source of cohesiveness for nurturing an identity and stability to confront intruding alien influences and the cooperation needed to solve their numerous contemporary problems. To fail to note this fact, or to fail to be fully appreciative of its importance for the average Muslim – whether male or female - would be to commit any movement advocating improvement of women's position in Islamic lands to certain failure. It is only through establishing that identity and stability that self-respect can be achieved and a more healthy climate for both Muslim men and Muslim women will emerge…"
From "Muslim Women’s Rights in the Global Village: Challenges and Opportunities,"
Azizah Yahia al-Hibri, Fellow, National Humanities Center, University of Richmond Law Professor. This article was reprinted by permission of the Journal of Law and Religion and is posted online on the Karamah Muslim Women for Human Rights web site at http://www.karamah.org
In this age of information technology that shrank our world into a global village, it is fair to ask how this recent development has impacted Muslim women’s rights across the world. Having just traveled through nine Muslim countries, ranging from Pakistan and Bangladesh to the Gulf States, Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon, I would answer that it is leading, slowly but surely, to reassessment and change. Attempts to accelerate the pace of this change, however, without full understanding of its complex topology, and the deep-rooted commitment by most Muslim women to spiritual and cultural authenticity, could halt or even reverse this process at great cost to women particularly and Muslim societies as a whole. Hence the challenges and opportunities.
Pious Muslim women are generally bewildered by the laws and judicial systems of their societies, which are supposed to be Islamic. It is well understood that the hallmark of Islam is justice. Yet Muslim societies have been dispensing injustices to women in the name of Islam. Some women seeking divorce in Islamic courts have been trapped within the system for years. On the other hand, divorce and remarriage have been rendered much easier for men. Also, various Shari’ah (Islamic law) protections for women in case of an unhappy marriage, divorce, or custody have been ignored even by the women’s own families. While Western feminists have been focusing on such issues as the veil and the perceived gender discrimination in the laws of inheritance, Muslim women I spoke to did not regard these issues as important. They were more interested in re-examining family law and in the proper application of all Islamic laws, including the laws of inheritance as they stand. In short, Muslim women want a more just understanding of and adherence to Islamic principles. They appear to believe that existing laws and practices are not conducive to a happy home life or a just society. Surprisingly, Muslim women have the support of many Muslim male jurists who share their concerns.
Several factors have forced Muslims to reassess the status quo. The colonization experience, wars, Western education and Western modes of communication have been primary among these factors. Colonization exposed the soft underbelly of the indigenous systems of governance, while at the same time challenging and marginalizing the Muslim individual’s religious beliefs and cultural values. Wars dislodged established social structures, especially those relating to the family. Finally, through the twin lenses of Western education and modes of communication such as satellite television and the Internet, Muslim men and women are experiencing instantaneously, though vicariously, the post-colonial Western worldview and Western ways of life. Generally, they like a good part of what they see, such as democratic governance, freedom of speech, independent women, and comfortable technologically advanced societies. There are other things, however, they decidedly do not like, such as sexual permissiveness, the accelerating divorce rate, growing violence in society, especially among the youth, and the treatment of the elderly.
Consequently, many Muslims, male and female, are struggling today with the following questions: How do they introduce progress into their societies, while at the same time protecting their deep-seated spiritual beliefs and cultural identities, two valuable foundations that colonialism tried unsuccessfully to destroy? How can they benefit from the Western experience, including its recognition of the legitimate rights of women, without inadvertently destroying their highly valued familial ties? In this context, the experience of those North American Muslims who have successfully integrated their religious beliefs and ethnic heritage with the American and Canadian ways of life becomes very valuable. It is a living proof of the fact that Islam is not a mere "Oriental" religion, but a world religion which is capable of meeting the needs of Muslims in all historical eras and all geographical locations…"
[Original footnotes can be read at www.karamah.org/docs/JLRal-HibriFin.doc]