The oppression of Muslim Women has been a topic of intense international discussion and debate. Before we attribute the oppression of women in Islamic society, to the dictates of the religion itself, we must take a closer look at what the Islamic religion actually is. A study of Islamic societies down the ages, show a stark display of women being treated as inferior to men This treatment was justified as the accurate interpretation of what the Shariat has to say about women and their role in society.
According to Azam Kamguian’s article, ‘Islam and the Liberation of Women in the Middle East- Women’s status in the Middle East’, oppression of women in Islam has generated a lot of interest internationally. People seek to understand the sway of Islamic ideology, over the practice of oppressing women in Islamic societies. It is a widely accepted fact that the role of women in Islamic societies cannot be understood without referring to Islam itself. Although, people would agree that no two Islamic societies are the same, each and every one of them regards women as second class citizens.
Thus the basic attitudes towards women in Islamic societies are similar, with a slight variation in the level of freedom they give them.
Their perception of a woman’s role in society is to a large degree influenced by what they perceive to be the interpretation of their religion. It is in essence a patriarchal society governed by the central paradigm of andocentric principles that upholds the man to be right. Before we draw any conclusions about the role of women we must seek to understand the Koran, which gives us a correct and unbiased picture of Islam itself.
It has often been argued that Islam liberated women by giving her full rights as a citizen. However, in reality women have been subjected to social and political oppression. Instances, such as forced marriages, arbitrary divorces, female mutilations, and other forms of abuses are very common in Islamic societies. Their right to education and their role in the labour forces are seriously restricted. These discriminations are deeply rooted in the socio cultural and political dynamics of Islamic society itself rather than the realm of religion.
According to Seyyed Hossein Nasr, in his book ‘Ideals and Realities of Islam’ pp2-5, states that religion is essentially an attempt to understand the unknown. In his book, he seeks to analyse the study of Islam as a religion trying to unravel the secrets of God and his creation. Islam also attempts to understand what is real and what appears to be real. Its’ end role is to seek an insight into the relation between the two. Kenneth Cragg, in his book ‘The House of Islam’, considers the Koran and the Hadith, to be the only true source of understanding Islam, because they clearly state the principles governing Islam in its true form without any biases.
Tracing our roots back to the evolution of the world, the Koran states that, Islam, places both men and women on an equal footing and blames both Adam and Habba (Eve) for the sin they committed which ensued their banishment from the Garden of Eden. However, it clearly chalks out their roles based on their psychological and physiological attributes, with an aim to maintaining a harmonious balance in society. The Koran in this context explicitly states “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.” (Koran 4:1)
This equality should not be overly emphasised or praised because Islamic society, with respect to women has not always executed the dictates of the Koran in its true form. The following
Synopsis of the real position held by women in Islamic society in contrast to what their religion says shall help us in understanding the status of women in Islamic societies through the annals of time. Do the women really enjoy the privileges and status the Holy Koran gives them or is reality an entirely different scenario?
According to the book ‘The House of Islam’ by Kenneth Cragg, the Koran gives the woman a very important and special place in society. She is a wife and a mother above all else and in the proper fulfilment of these roles is her true essence.
When it comes to religious duties the Koran places the same requisitions on both men and women, though, it does make some allowances for women. Daily prayers (namaz), Fasting, Poor due (alms or donations given to the poor), Pilgrimage (haj), are all religious obligations, which are applicable to men and women alike. The woman is however, exempted from fasting during her menstrual periods, pregnancy and forty days after childbirth, and nursing her child if the duties pose a threat to either the child or the mother.
It is in the context of religious exemptions for women, that we see a softer side to Islam, as it gives due consideration to the physical stresses a woman has to undergo and in empathy with her physical and emotional states exempts her from any duties. Moreover, the Koran specifies that, women are not compulsorily required to attend the congregational meetings held every Friday.
However, women were not allowed to step out of their houses without a male member of their family. Even in places outside their houses they were segregated from men.
Keeping the fact that both men and women are equal, Islam endows upon the woman certain social, economic and political rights. These rights emanate from the time she is born and continue right through her life. Kenneth Cragg is of the view that when a culture faces a threat from another culture it adopts a mental rigidity towards it, and this mental tenacity found expression in its extreme form in Islam.
Keeping in mind the fact that female infanticide is prevalent in different parts of Afghanistan, Iran and other Islamic societies, the Koran itself condemns the act and considers it a crime at par with any other murder. Prophet Mohammed himself upheld the rights of women. In his last sermon he is said to have stated, “Treat your women well and be kind to them for they are your partner’s and committed helpers.”
According to the book, The Social Structure of Islam by Reuben Levy, chapter two, the prophet Mohammed himself gave a lot of importance to women and their role in society. Education among women is also actively encouraged and the Koran states that any man educating his girl child would go to heaven. According to Abdullah Ibn Masood, the Prophet himself is reported, to have stated, “ 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 the hell fire.”
The prophet’s wife Ayisha was one of the greatest scholars, and there have been instances when the Prophet asked people to go to her to seek advice. Women are also encouraged to pursue careers like teaching and nursing. Nevertheless, she should always bear in mind that her primary role is that of being a wife and mother. Women like Dr. Sima Samar and Dr Suhaila Seddiqui in Afghanistan have taken up successful careers, but they are an insignificant few. The majority still live in families, which are entrenched in views, that hold the woman as a weaker entity and whose sole purpose is to be a wife and a mother. These statements are more shocking when their western counterparts enjoy unlimited freedom in chartering out the course of their lives.
This brings us to our second point of discussion, the family laws in Islam with relation to women. Prophet Mohammed at- Tirmithy said, “None but a noble man treats his wife in an honourable manner. And none but an ignoble treats her disgracefully.” Keeping in mind the position due to women, laws in Islam give women the right to have her say in marriage, inheritance as well as divorce. Nasr in his book refers to The Koran, which gives the woman the right of independent ownership. She has full right to her money, real estate and any other form of property. She is also entitled to her ‘Mahr’-security money paid by the husband at the time of marriage. However, she gets only half of what her male sibling is entitled to and this pretext has been an instrument in exploiting women and labelling them as the weaker sex.
However it has been shown that Islam itself does not interfere in the Will made by parents. It is only in situations where no will has been made that the Koran states that the male offspring get double of what the female offspring. But, where parents make their own will they are free to distribute the money as they want.
Her right of being protected by her husband under the ‘Quiwama’ has led to dictatorship of the male members in the family and in certain cases to continuous abuse both at a physical and mental level. Marriages are solemnised mainly by the consent of the parents and the girl more often than not has no voice (in either initiation or termination) even though the Koran forbids forceful marriages and require the consent of both parties involved.
The Koran also empowers a woman with the right to end an unsuccessful marriage but in application, there have rarely been instances when the woman has called off her marriage. Islamic societies continue to be a male dominated one where women, are the property of their husband and completely dependant on him for maintenance. This male domination results when men who have a good literary knowledge of the Koran but tendentiously interpret it to suit their own prejudices. It must be mentioned that Islam propagates the submission of mankind to the will of GOD, not the submission of women to the will of men.
Domestic violence has also been rampant in Islamic society, even though the exact number is not known because it is a fairly under reported crime.
The use of violence by men against women never received the endorsement of Islam but was a misinterpretation of the Islamic text. The Koran in The Final Testament 4:3 stated, ‘ The men are made responsible for women, and GOD has endowed them with certain qualities, and made them the bread earners. The righteous woman will cheerfully accept this arrangement, since its Gods commandment, and honour their husbands during their absence. If you experience rebellion from the women, you shall talk to them first, then deserting them in bed, then you may beat them. If they obey you, you are not permitted to transgress against them. GOD is most high. Supreme.
At a first glance, this statement may seem to be promoting physical abuse of women, but a careful study reveals that it actually protects the woman from physical abuse by adopting the psychological path of reasoning first.
However many ‘Muslim’ men disregard their own obligations and righteousness. These men use various baseless excuses to justify their behaviour and proceed straight away to the third step which results in domestic abuse.
Hence, the atrocities carried out against women in Islam, are the result of biased and misguided views as well as the fabrication of the Hadith and the Sunna.
The Koran has also been misinterpreted by the Muslim patriarchal society to keep the woman restricted within the four walls of the house and secluded from the rest of society. According to the book ‘Woman and the Koran: Status of Women in Islam’ , by Annear Hekmat, pages 1-3, the Muslim Clergy, Theologists and the Fundamentalist believers, Islam itself justifies the seclusion of women and veiling of the women in voluminous burkhas.
Another horrific instance of oppression against women is the reports of “honour killings” in places like Afghanistan and Iran. It must be mentioned that the Islamic religion nowhere supports these killings; rather it condones them in the strongest language possible, the Koran in sections 5:32, 6:151, and 17:33 calls for severe punishment for these crimes.
However, the situation in current day Iran has improved for women with the breaking down of the strict barriers. Since the 1990’s women have been entering the public sphere and the composition of the labour force has dramatically changed. Owing to the programmes of free education and literacy drives, women now have the right to education
The Islamic Republic has also adopted policies to encourage women to excel in their chosen field by setting quotas. To them this was what justified sexual segregation. While quotas exclusively for women were set up in the fields of gynaecology and paediatrics, women were restricted from becoming civil engineers.
The Sixth Majlis (parliament) also undertook reformatory steps to undo the centuries old conservative laws of a male dominated society. The awarding of the Nobel Prize to Shirin Ebadi, a human rights activist and feminist, further emboldened the resolve of Iranian women to achieve their freedom and fight against oppression.
As far as the political context is concerned, women have the right to election and to hold political offices. They even have the political right to participate in public affairs. However, the leadership rests with the man. Islam justifies this condition by stating that women do not have the necessary physical attributes to lead and her main role is that of a nurturer. It must be borne in mind that the real day to day existence of Muslim women in Afghanistan are in sharp contrast to their supposed life as depicted in the Koran and there were hardly any women in the political arena.
The dissatisfaction among women was not limited to the ‘Taliban’ regime alone. Back in 1977, the dissatisfaction among women with reference to their positions in Islamic society, led to the opening of the RAWA (Revolutionary Association of Afghanistan). This group primarily worked for the emancipation of women and in giving them what was rightfully due to them in every aspect of life. The organised movement by Islamic women against oppression was also witnessed in the 1970s when the women of Iran actively participated in the revolution against the oppression of the Shah.
In comparison to its other Islamic counterparts, Afghanistan was a country where women enjoyed a greater amount of liberty. They had the freedom to move about and to pursue their desired vocations. They enjoyed an equal right to education and had comparatively more freedom in making decisions.
Nasr, who has a profound knowledge about the realities of the life led by women in Afghanistan, in his book ‘Ideal and Realities of Islam’ pp 2-7 and pp11 states that the Taliban unleashed in Afghanistan an era of horrific torture, which would make the bravest of souls tremble in fear. They shook the very foundations of the female section of society in the country and stunned the Western world into disbelief and horror. This view was also endorsed by John and Linda Schulz, in their journal article, ‘The Darkest of Ages-Women under the Taliban’, who termed the rule of the Taliban as the darkest era for Afghan women.
They devised a contorted and almost grotesque interpretation of the Islam. Under their domination women in Afghanistan lost all freedom and were confined within the four walls of their house. Nasr points out that this power terrified the female population into virtual house
arrest and women who were used to leading a life of relative freedom were faced with a life of trepidation and danger. Their movements were restricted and every violation of the law upheld by the Taliban was met with inhuman punishments. Infact death by stoning was a common punishment meted out to women who had been accused of adultery.
By 1998, the once thriving city of Kabul had become a city of beggars, reported a journalist, and women who had once been teachers or nurses were now moving in the streets like ghosts enveloped in their Burkhas trying to sell whatever little possessions they had in order to feed their children. Girls were withdrawn from schools and more than 100 private schools for girls were closed permanently. These institutions were termed as “gateways to hell”.
There were hardly any options for treatment, since they could not visit a clinic and a male doctor could not check them. Many a girl child and women died of the most simple of ailments due to the lack of medical attention. Succumbing to international pressures, the Taliban did allocate a health centre for women. However, studies conducted by the United Nations found that the centre was seriously short of even the most basic equipments and medications.
Being resilient, a section of women sought to violate the rules of the regime in the privacy of their homes and began teaching girls. The backlash against women also affected the entire society of Afghanistan for without teachers, the schools failed to function and without nurses the healthcare suffered. Slowly, the entire infrastructure was falling apart from the seams.
An end to this horrific reign of terror came in 2001. Though the power was gone, its rule had left lasting impressions. Afghanistan was now in a state of complete poverty and abject disparity and ridden with inter-faction rivalry and violence. Sexual harassment of women was on the rise and they no longer felt secured being by themselves.
However, the grit in Afghan women is slowly showing and they are once again trying to reassert themselves and reclaim what is their rightful place in society. Since September 2001, Afghan
Women have started to increase their outdoor activities. Numerous activities such as panel discussions, conferences and international meetings have been organised in order to address the needs of the women and direct international funds to where they are needed the most.
Women have taken an active role in governance. Schools for girls are now being reopened and young women are once again making their way to universities. They are seeking to return to their former jobs as teachers, doctors and civil servants. Radio and television broadcasts are once again airing female broadcasters.
The above study of the status of women in Afghanistan, through the annals of time show that there are, numerous discrepancies in what the Koran says and what the actual life of a woman in Islam is. This discrepancy is starker when we compare it to the rights women in the Western World take for granted. The books written by Kenneth Cragg and Seyyed Hossein Nasr seek to draw a line between Islam and Christianity, by showing the contrast between the lives of women in these two religions.
The situation in Iran was no different. What Iranian women want is equality, respect and the right to participate in all social, political and economic arenas. They want to live their lives with dignity. Right through the twentieth century women in Islam have organised and fought for their human rights.
Iranian women were strong participants in the 1979 revolution, but fundamentalists like Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, seized power. Once in power, he completely overlooked the contribution of women and implemented a stringent rule based on gender apartheid. He portrayed women as being morally, intellectually and physically weaker than men. These inequalities and deficiencies eclipsed all possibilities of women participating in the social or political affairs. Women were considered to be inferior to men and hence were to live their lives as per the dictates of the male members.
Though the situation in current day Iran has changed a lot women are yet to attain complete freedom. It must be borne in mind that Islamic societies are essentially patriarchal and the oppression on women is a result of the wrongful interpretations of the fundamentalist followers of the religion rather than a result Islam itself.
Azam Kamguian in his article, ‘Islam and the Women in The Middle East’ blamed Political Islam as being the root cause, of the oppression being carried out against women in Islam. This political movement came to the fore front as a backlash against the secular and progressive demands of liberty, equality and justice being demanded by the Islamic women.
They sought to restrict the advancement of women in the various social and personal domains as well as curtail their civil and other liberties. They turned the countries and the houses as prisons for women, in which they were bound. Killing, beheading and genocide became the law of the land. Moreover the laws they injected into the system implicitly sanctioned male violence.
Yet, the world is coming closer and international pressures have a good deal of influence over a country’s decisions and policies. The Islamic world cannot afford to stay aloof from the mounting international pressure to remove oppression against women.
What these women need is empowerment in all fields- social, economic and political. In order to achieve this there needs to be a change in the thinking of Islamic society. They need to change the ills present in the social fabric and give women the chance to live their lives on their own terms. These changes may seem enormous given the nature of present day, yet it is only this that can set women free and help them realise their true potential.
As ‘Globalization’ brings the entire world closer, the oppression of Muslim women continues to be in the limelight, especially because their western counterparts enjoy a greater deal of freedom. The atrocities that Islamic women have sometimes been subject to would shock women living in the Western World.
Given the intense animosity of Islam towards the equality between the two sexes, the woman’s role in society as well as her rights, what is essential is that the influence of Political Islam be removed. The presence of oppression against women is more pronounced in Islamic societies in the Middle East because these societies are more conservative in their approach and their members are more backward in their thinking than the rest of the world.
In the words of Nawal El Sadawi, women in the Middle East are more oppressed not because they live in the Middle East or are in an Islamic society; rather they are the result of the patriarchal class system that has ruled this part of the world for thousands of years. In such societies, women’s civil liberties, individual freedom and secularism have no place or significance at all. The Koran is interpreted as the male members of the society choose to.
Hence, we see that oppressing women is not the dictate of Islam, rather it is the misrepresentation of what Islam says by ‘Muslim’ men.
As the Islamic world comes out of its cocoon of isolationism, these laws of oppression are slowly loosening and women are becoming more resilient and determined to break free from the shackles of oppression. What is really needed is a change in the mindset of the Islamic society as a whole, for the root cause of oppression lies in the misrepresentation and fabrication of the dictates of the Koran.
On views relating to the position of women during the creation of the world, refer to the Koran-4:1
On the views towards Islamic society refer to Azam Kamguian’s article- Islam and the Liberation of Women in the Middle East
On views relating to women’s position in society refer to ‘The House of Islam’ by Kenneth Cragg
On views relating to the views of Prophet Mohammed’s views on women, refer to Reuben Levy’s book, ‘The Social Structure of Islam’, Chapter 2
On views relating to violence against women and the punishments dealt out by the Koran refer to ‘The Koran’- sections – 4:3, 5:32, 6:151, 17:33
On views relating to the Taliban rule and the torture of Women, refer to the article ‘ The darkest of ages- Women under the Taliban’ and Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s book ‘Ideals and Realities of Islam’ pp 2-7 and pp11
On views relating to the oppression of women by Political Islam refer to the article-‘Islam and the Liberation of Women in the Middle East’ by Azam Kamguian
On views relating to the rights of women in Islam, refer to Arvind Sharma and Katherine K Young’ book World Religions- Women in Islam pp303-305
Cragg Kenneth, The House of Islam, 3rd Edition, Wadsworth, October 1998
Hekmat Anwar, Women and the Koran: The Status of Women in Islam, Prometheus Books, 1997
Kamguian Azam, Islam and the Liberation of women in the Middle East: Separation of Mosque and the State is the only answer, Free Enquiry, Vol 23, October-November-2003
Levy Reuben, The Social Structure of Islam: Being the Second Edition of the Sociology of Islam- Women in Islam, Cambridge University Press, 1957
Nasr Hossein Seyyed, Ideals and Realities of Islam, ABC International Group Inc, September 2000
Sharma Arvind, Katherine K Young, Today’s Woman in World Religion, State University of New York Press, 1994
Smith Hudson, The Religions of Man
Schulz J John, Linda Schulz, The Darkest of Ages: Afghan Women under the Taliban, Peace and Conflict, Volume 5, 1999
The Holy Koran