Rights of Women in Islam

By Maulana Wahiduddin Khan

Progress and evolution of society depends upon the two basic factors: i) proper human relationship and ii)  inter connection of rights and duties. Oppression, exploitation and injustice are detrimental to a progressive society. It then begins to degenerate and tumble headlong towards destruction. In a just and balanced society, it is necessary that both men and women work together for the betterment and upliftment of society - that they work in coherence, completing and complementing each other. It is as much necessary that all members of the society are granted their due share of rights, and their duties too are well defined. In a just society, the weaker sections are looked after properly and compassionately while full care is taken to ensure that they are not deprived of their rights or oppressed in any way.

Women have all along belonged to the category of the weaker section of humanity. As such, a society that tries to uplift the status of women and installs them on the pedestal of dignity, looking after their welfare and making provisions for their protection can be considered a just society. At this juncture, while we are preparing to equip ourselves for the 21 century, would it not be worthwhile to examine, in short, whether we have tried to grant women the rights that may lead them to a better future, to a more peaceful just and dignified coexistence with all human beings?

The modern world may apparently be much concerned about women and make very fair promises to them. It promises them freedom from slavery, from male-domination, even from the established institution of marriage, from the boredom of being a housewife to a much more glamorous world. It promises them freedom from the burden of birth pangs, and the pains of rearing a family. But instead, what does it actually have in store? Nothing but exploitation, injustice, oppression, aggression, harassment, neurosis and indignity. In the name of emancipation, women today have to bear with rape, mutilation, abuse, inequality, discrimination and harassment.

Coming nearer home, we find that the apparent glamour of the feminist movement has overawed us. We have our own roots in the culture and religion embedded in our soil, but we try to blindly imitate the West in as much of our activities as possible. On the one hand, our women with their demure and bashful nature seem to us symbols of virtue, on the other hand we try to instigate our women to reveal as much of their bodies. Then, when our women are way laid and their modesty torn, we shed crocodile tears. The present Indian scenario, with events of female harassment ever on the increase, we have a most pathetic sight. Even our workplaces (not to talk about our homes) are not safe. Even those women holding higher bureaucratic posts are not spared. Laws against sexual harassment and rape are being moulded and remolded but the escalation in gender related crimes keeps rising unabated. Female foeticide is on the increase. Most dowry deaths go unreported. In fact, with the present day status, who would refuse to accept that women are poised suicidally on the brink of disaster? The facts and figures showing deliberate women's subjugation under the cover of pleasure making cannot put them to sleep. There is wave of restlessness to be found everywhere.

Many suggestions have been made in this regard like it is being felt at certain quarters that women need rights, not power. At other places, education is being recommended for women's over all development. Some recommend political empowerment. Yet some say that women can only be truly emancipated by becoming economically independent. Whatever be the case, we cannot isolate the various aspects of women's development into different channels and work for any one or the other. We have to devise a comprehensive system which, while recognising women as respectable human beings, may at the same time lend them confidence, dignity, poise, self-respect and freedom from exploitation of all kind. Only then could the human race become stronger, of superior breed, capable of taking up the responsibility of spreading welfare, love, friendship and goodwill to make this beautiful earth a better place to live in.

Till now, a dispassionate study of the position of women in Islam has rarely been made. Orientatalists are in the habit of quoting and misquoting, even misinterpreting the Qur'anic injunctions and the Sunnah, which form the source of the Islamic system. The Muslim society is also by and large responsible for stultifying the dynamism of Islam and creating misconceptions, because they have lost their capacity to represent Islam in its true spirit. The Muslim culture that we see around us is not truly the Islamic culture that the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) had evolved, but a sad mixture of many cultures, where un-Islamic infiltration have nearly altered the very essence of what should have been the Islamic society. So while presenting these points regarding the rights of women in Islam, one thing should be clear in our minds that these are purely what should have been in the Muslim society and not what is existing today.

One significant point that we have to understand about Islam is that it does nowhere raise the question of superiority or inferiority of any sex, while talking about men and women. Islam considers each sex unique in its own sphere of activity and allots roles to each sex, best suited to them and according to their nature and needs. Men and women in Islam are not antagonists, but separate entitles created to complement and complete each other. Each sex is given a definite set of goals, to be achieved by his/her own individual efforts. The unit of society is the family. As such, the well being of the family would mean the well being of the whole society.

Islam makes the family the key social unit. All the members of this unit play specific roles for its welfare and upkeep. The position of women derives from the very premise that the family is the cornerstone of the Muslim society. The Islamic system is very sensitive about protecting and safeguarding the foundation of the family. Hence there is strict prohibition of extramarital relations or indulgence in free sex, as this weakens the base of the family. Under the Islamic system, discrimination on grounds of sex, power or wealth is not allowed. Indeed the Qur'an states very simply the origin of mankind by rejecting any distinction or discrimination on account of birth. The Holy Quran explicitly states:

While conceding equality of the sexes, the Qur'an categories men and women according to their deeds in this world. It states that all men and women are answerable equally to God:

Even while seeking the blessings of Allah, both men and women are promised full returns of their labour, apart from the excessive bounties showered by Him: "To men is allotted what they earn and to women what they earn but ask God of His bounty. For God hath full knowledge of all things." (Nisa:32)

The wisdom of the principles and laws of nature have been employed in regulating mutual relationship. The Qur'an states: "All things We made in pairs" (Az-Zarial:49). This acknowledges men and women as distinctly separate entities, yet relates the two mutually making each the guardian of the other: "The believers, men and women are protectors of one another. They enjoin what is just, and forbid what is evil; they observe regular prayers, precise regular charity and obey God and His Messenger." (Tauha:71)

Personal development, intellectual pursuits and the acquisition of knowledge are human rights that should be conceded to males and females alike, without discrimination. Islam allows for equal opportunities to both the sexes in the pursuit of knowledge. Here is nothing of the reaction or hatred that the modern society preaches. There is no derision, no underestimation anywhere. Each sex is encouraged to build up the individuality in every way. The Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) he said "It is essential for every Muslim man and woman to acquire knowledge." Women's guardians are advised not to obstruct their pursuits in education but to encourage them and provide them with opportunities. Examples exist of a number of educated women scholars during the Prophet's time and after who have contributed poetry, Quranic interpretations, medicine and so on. The wives and daughters of magnates and sovereigns have known to patronise knowledge and lavish endowments for the establishment of institutes of learning and social service. All such actions as go for the construction of society and building up righteousness will not go unrecognised. Allah says in the Quran: if any do deeds of righteousness, be they male or female and have faith, they will enter Heaven and not the least injustice will be done to them." (Nisa:124)

Spiritual attainment is not exclusive for men only. Women have as much right over spiritual purification as men. The Qur'an is very explicit about this. "For believing men and women, for true men and women, for men and women who are patient and constant, for men and women who humble themselves, for men and women who give in charity, for men and women who fast (and deny themselves). For men and women engage much in God's prayer. For them has God prepared forgiveness and great reward." (Ahzah:35)

Islam treats of women in four dimensions: as mother, as daughter as wife and as separate human being, and gives them rights accordingly.

Mothers contribute enormously to society. Their love and sacrifice for the off springs cannot possibly be ignored. The Quran recognises the pain and hardship the mother experiences while keeping the human race alive and evoking. "In travail upon travail did his mother bear him, and in two years twain was his weaning" (Luqman:14). Keeping this noble service in view, the mother is evaluated to the highest pedestal of human glory. "Paradise lies at the feet of mother," taught the Prophet (peace be upon him). Islam makes it compulsory for children to obey their mothers. A mother's interest and welfare must be preferred thrice before a father's. A mother deserves gratitude, respect, love, kindness and obedience.

A daughter, women always belong to the paternal family. Marriage does not break this bond. The Islamic social order makes elaborate arrangements for fair treatment of the daughter. They must receive love and best maintenance. They have as much rights as the son in educational, physical and mental upliftment. They have their share in the father's property, which is recognised and granted at every cost. If, by chance, a woman becomes a widow or is divorced, Islamic law reverts her back to the paternal home where she may looked after with love and affection. The Holy Prophet (PBUH) said, "should I not tell you what is the best charity" That you should show kindness to that daughter who(becoming a widow of having been divorced) has been returned to you, and who has no other maintainer or supporter." (Ibne-e-Majah, Abwahul Adab).

Islam encourages marriage and prohibits any deviated forms of sexual gratification. Marriage helps men and women to develop along natural lines and head towards development and success through mutual co-operation. Marriage prevents immorality licentiousness and irresponsibility. The spouses in marriage agree to share rights and responsibilities to develop a happy family. In this regard it is a contract entered upon by both participants who vow to be ruled by the established law of Allah. The consent of the girl is essential for the completion of the marriage. What a contrast this is to the prevalent system of marriage in our country where the women are given over in the possession of greedy people who cannot be satisfied without demanding for a handsome amount of cash as well as other items of domestic luxury together with the girl. Islam does not five any concept of Tilak or Dahej (dowry). On the contrary, the woman receives the Mehr in marriage, which is the bride - money an exclusive right of the bride. This Mehr may be paid at once after the solemnisation (Nikah) of marriage or any time in life. But if it is not paid during the lifetime, it is considered a debt and like all other debts must be paid from the legacy of the deceased even before distribution of property among the legal heirs. Apart from the Mehr the wife is entitle to share of the deceased husband's property also.

It has been found that Islamic laws can work in offices and factories but society has no preventives to protect them. The educational system that is followed completely ignores the moral and spiritual guidance of human beings. This is the reason why society itself is ignorant about how to respect the women. Islam draws out the complete code of conduct and provides for maintaining the honour and dignity of the women through a modest dress code. All the exploitation and crimes regarding the women mostly centres around their physical charms. So, to put a full stop on any such exploitation believing women have been encouraged to follow the modest dress code and come out of their houses only when in need, not loiter aimlessly. But only this is not sufficient for the safety by making it a rule that in long distance journeys, where night stay is also involved, they be accompanied by a male Mahram (close relative with whom marriage is not possible). Who can safeguard women's honour better than Islam?

The rights of women in Islam are really God's blessings. In this age of violence, misogyny, subordination, exploitation and oppression, women are frantically seeking fair ways and means of deliverance. They want the assertion of their motherhood, in whole, their womanhood. They want to retain everything they own as their own, even their names. Who else can restore these to them if not Islam?

But today, more often it is the women falling prey to the male dominated society. Muslim women are not any the better. They have also remained lagging behind particularly in education, and this is one reason why they have misrepresented their religion. During the era of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and the Caliphate, Muslim women played an indispensable role in the construction of society. They took active part in opinion building and decision-making. They delivered religious discourses, ventured outside their homes for the pursuit of knowledge and carried on independent trade. They even participated in Jihad.

But later on, the Muslims themselves started to lose their mark of identity. Stagnation set in their society, and with this the position of women also gradually deteriorated. Today Muslim women, like the rest of their counterparts are in more or less the same deplorable condition, deprived of their rights and opportunities and kept under extremely rigorous conditions.

Hence, to improve the present status of Muslim women and to give them their due share in what is their right, it is indispensable that the Muslim organisations should come forward and make efforts to improve the status of women. It is their duty to see that Muslim women are not deprived from proper education. They have to see that more and more educational institutions for girls are opened and run efficiently, for the benefit of women. A fully planned strategy must be chalked out for vocational professional training to make them self sufficient, so that they may stand on their feet when any such need arises. More centres should be opened for self-defence, training and guidance for girls, to equip them with adequate methods of safety.

It is generally thought that Muslim women are only duty bound to their husband, family and home. They have no other activity outside their home. This a gross mistake, very much against the spirit of Islam, which does not restrict the women within the four walls of their houses only. Whenever there is a need of their positive and constructive contribution outside the home, they are allowed to do so. In doing so, their main motive should be to obtain the pressure of God and service to humanity.

It is a great responsibility for the educated Muslim women to speed up their movement and work among all sections of the society, be they educated, semi-educated or uneducated to awaken them to the true knowledge of Islam, and to revolutionize their lives so that they can stand as examples before all womenfolk. Islam has got the solutions to the problems of women. The need is to exert, to come out with the message to spread this message of peaceful existence with a freedom that is in absolute conformity with the will of Allah.

Date: 15 February 2000

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