The position of women in Islam has been one of the most controversial aspects of this religion. In the West many writers on the subject, especially feminists, have been extremely critical of the position accorded to women in Islam. On the other hand Islamic writers do not see anything wrong and in fact go to the other extreme not only defending the Islamic position but considering it the most advanced and liberating in this respect in the world's religions. These Islamic writers include many Islamic women. The position of many academics writing on the subject is also slanted towards the Islamic position, although for the most past they ignore the relevant issues. On the other hand there are many studies which are extremely critical of the treatment of women in Islam. This article has considered both sides of the question but evaluated it from the perspective of humanism. Studies of the subject by humanists are few.
There are several ways of dealing with the question of women in Islam. Firstly we can look at the views expressed in the Koran, the most authoritative source in Islam. Next we have the views expressed by Muhammad, and the personal example he set, as recorded in the Hadith. Thirdly there are the constructions of the Islamic jurists, based on interpretations of the two previous sources, and incorporated in the body of Islamic jurisprudence, commonly referred to as the Sharia. Finally we can look at the practices in Islamic countries. This article looks mainly at the first two approaches, as the object is to analyse the views that can be directly attributed to the founder of the religion. Some reference will be made to the interpretations of the Islamic doctors and to current practice, but mainly from the point of view of illuminating the views of Muhammad. A list of the sources used is given at the end of this essay. [Note 1]
The primary source for the views of Muhammad are the sayings recorded in the Koran. The official Islamic position is that these are the views of God as conveyed to Muhmmad by the Angel Gabriel. This is similar to the Judeo-Christian view that the Bible is the Word of God. The human origins of the Bible is now generally accepted not only by Humanists and scholars but also by theologians.
In the same way Humanists ascribe a human origin for the material contained in the Koran. to a human source. The author of the Koran can be taken to be Muhammad himself (although this is contrary to Islamic orthodoxy). It is true that the "recitation" was given orally, perhaps recorded by scribes and also memorised by his companions. The written compilation is said to have been undertaken by Abu Bakr, the first Caliph, who arranged the suras as now given based on length rather than chronologically. It was entrusted to Hafsa, one of Muhammad's widows. However in the early years several versions are said to have been in circulation until Caliph Othman issued the present authoritative version.
Certainly no other religious leader has devoted so much attention to the question of women. The third longest Sura in the Koran is titled Women (Sura 4, Nisaa), and unlike other Suras where the title is not necessarily descriptive of the contents, this particular sura deals mainly with its subject. Reading of this sura is particularly enjoined for Muslim women. However Koranic references to women are not only contained in this Sura.
The Hadith ("traditions"), the second tier of Islamic jurisprudence, contains more material on the question of women. These consist of accounts of what Muhmmad had said (other than the Koranic revelations) or done. Each hadith is preceded by a pedigree of its line of transmission ( Isnard) until it was authoritatively recorded. The most authoritative of these collections ( sahih) are those by al-Bukhari and Muslim Ibn Hajjaj (for editions used see bibliography) both in the Ninth Century CE (or third century of the Muslim era). [Note 2]
Several Muslim women writers question the misogynic statements in the Hadith. Thus Lynn Wilcox ( op. cit., pp. 7-9) claims that they were "manufactured", even those attributed to al-Badawi. However Muslims do not object to Hadith they approve of and this selective rejection is inconsistent. While not much weight need be placed on Hadith statements, they confirm these sentiments in the Koran which are explicit enough.
More is known about Muhammad's actual relations with women than about any other religious teacher. All this information comes ultimately from Muslim sources as there were no non-Muslims who wrote on the subject in the early centuries of Islam.
The most salient aspect of Muhammad's teaching about women is the divinely ordained subservience of women to men, their role in marriage, their unequal rights, obligations placed on them, their role in religion, and finally their destiny after death. We cannot deal with all these aspects but shall discuss the more important of these.
A central passage from the Koran, affirming the subordination of women, reads:
This view is also asserted in Sura 2:228: "... and the men are a degree above them [women], and Allah is Mighty, Wise." In Islam gender differences are not social artefacts but are divine determinations by Allah. This makes the defence adopted by some apologists that they reflect the social custom of the day untenable.
"Men shall have the pre-eminence above women because of those advantages wherein GOD has caused the one of them to excel the other, and for that which they expend of their substance in maintaining their wives. The honest women are obedient, careful in the absence of their husbands, for that GOD preserveth them, by committing them to the care and protection of the men. But those whose perverseness ye shall be apprehensive of, rebuke; and remove them unto separate apartments, and chastise them". (Sura 4:34 Sale trans.) [Note 3]
We may consider the contrary evidence adduced by Muslims. Abdul-Rauf Ph.D. may be considered a typical informed Muslim writer. The first chapter of his work ( op.cit.), has the title: "Men and Women are Equal" and in it he gives nine quotations from the Koran to prove that "sex equality" exists in Islam. These are:
1. Sura 4:7. Both men and women can inherit property. But the Koran also states that their shares are not equal, so this does not prove gender equality in this regard.
2. Sura 4:32. Both men and women have the right to what they earn. There is equality here, but it is of course, not true of slaves.
3. Sura 3:195: "I (Allah) will never cause to be lost the labour of any of you, be you a male or a female". This seems to be a restatement of the previous point.
4. Sura 16:97. "Whosoever of you, be it male or female, does a righteous deed we shall give him (or her) a goodly life". While both sexes are rewarded for doing the right thing, there are differences in what is considered righteous as far as the sexes are concerned, and in the nature of the reward.
5. Sura 9:71. This states that "believing" men and women "perform the prayer, and pay the alms, and obey God and the Messenger". However there are gender differences in religious duties, as will be seen.
6. Sura 5:38. This states that hands of a thief, male or female, should be cut off. While parity certainly exists here, it is not exactly the kind of equality women want!
7. Sura 24:2. "The fornicatress and the fornicator - scourge each one them a hundred stripes". However in other places the punishment of the woman can extend even to immuring alive, never prescribed for males.
8. Sura 24:30-31. "Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and guard their private parts ... Tell the believing women to cast down their eyes and guard their private parts, and not to reveal their adornment save such as is to appear". Even here there is unequal treatment of the sexes; this aspect will be considered later ( hijab).
9. Sura 33:35. This merely states that for believing men and believing women "God has prepared forgiveness and a great reward". While both kinds of followers will be rewarded in the hereafter, the reward promised to men greatly exceed that promised to women (see later in this essay).
As is apparent from the above quotations selected by a learned Muslim author there is no real equality even in those instances where men and women are spoken of at the same time, and nowhere is the "pre-eminence" of men assured in Sura 4:34 negated.
Muhammad considered marriage ( nikah) a central tenet of his religion, coming perhaps next to religious duty itself. [Note 4] He says that God has made for man "blood relationship and marriage relationship" (Sura 25:54). Muhmmad urges that those who are single should be married (Sura 24:32) and an authoritative Hadith says that if a person cannot marry he "should take to fasting for it will have a castrating effect on him" ( Manual of Hadith, op.cit. p. 268).
There are some requirements for marriage. Some degrees of consanguinity are excluded (Sura 4:23-4). Other than this it is supposed to be a free contract between the two persons involved subject to the payment of a dowry. However in practice this is not so. The father of a girl can give a daughter away, even if she is a child, as there is no minimum age for marriage. In many Muslim countries marriage is an arrangement between families, and the bride often does not even see the bridegroom until the last moment. And a man has the right to marry his slave women whether she likes it or not. All this makes the freedom of choice in marriage, extolled by Muslims and academics something a little further from the reality.
A requirement of marriage is the payment of the dowry ( Mahr). This is actually bride-price unlike in some cultures where the dowry has to be provided by the female not the male. This dowry becomes the absolute property of the wife, but no quantum is laid down. In some cases recorded the dowry was as low as a garment or an iron ring. Muhammad himself gave to one of his captives whom he married as dowry her freedom. But since she was deprived of the freedom by Muhammad himself he was in fact giving nothing.[Note 5]
Even if the dowry is substantial it is questionable whether it is adequate for the rights which the husband acquires over his wife. Firstly there are the sexual rights. The Koran says: "Your wives are your tillage; go in therefore into your tillage in what manner soever ye will" (Sura 2: 223 Sale tr.). For a woman to resist a sexual advance is to incur divine displeasure: "If a man invites his wife to sleep with him and she refuses to come to him then the angels send their curses to her till morning" (al-Bukhari, vol 7, Hadith No. 121, op.cit., p. 93). The man has the right to inflict corporal punishment on disobedient wives (cf. Sura 4:34, quoted above on punishment for "perverseness", sometimes translated as "rebelliousness"). There is also the statement about Prophet Job: "And we restored unto him his family ... and we said unto him, Take a handful of rods in thy hand, and strike thy wife therewith" (Sura 38:43-44 tr. Sale).
Islam also specifies the rights of the wife. The foremost of these is the right to be maintained by the husband. However various forms of Islamic jurisprudence give conditions under which this right can be denied (see Rafiqul-Haqq and Newton, op. cit., ).
Islamic marriage is a polygynous one. Since polyandry is not allowed for females this raises the question of unequal treatment of the sexes. The authoritative statement in this regard reads as follows:
"And if ye fear that ye shall not act with equity towards orphans of the female sex, take in marriage of such other women as please you, two, or three, or four, and not more. But if ye fear that ye cannot act equitably towards so many, marry one only, or the slaves ye shall have acquired". (Sura 4:3 tr Sale).
Muslims like to point to the requirement that wives be treated equally saying that as this is impossible there is an implicit rejection of polygyny. But if monogamy is needed then Allah could have simply have ordained it as he has done in other regards. Besides treating equally does not mean absolute equality. Muhammad favoured his wife Ayesha above the others, and of course every wife did not get the identical dowry. He is said to have given equal sexual access to each visiting his wives in turn, but there were scandals as when he visited Mary the Copy when it was Hafsa's "turn".
There is also the question of the permissibility of "temporary marriage" or "marriage of enjoyment" ( muta). This is the taking of women for a short period for the sole purpose of carnal relations. There is evidence that in the early campaigns of Muhammad (e.g. in the campaign against the Khaibar, and even in the taking of Mecca) this practice was allowed by the Prophet. But a later Hadith records the prohibition of this practice ( Sahih Muslim Hadith No. 541, op.cit., II, p. 705). This prohibition seems to have been accepted by the Sunni Muslims. However according to Hamdun Dagher ( op. cit.) the Shiite sect of Islam considers muta to be still a valid form of arrangement between a man and a woman. Clearly "temporary marriage" is a travesty of the very notion of marriage.
When it comes to divorce once again the privileges of the husband and the wife are not equal. The popular notion that a man can divorce his wife at will by making a simple declaration of divorce a certain number of times is not far from the truth. Man can certainly initiate divorce at any time (unless the woman is menstruating or giving birth). There is no need even for a formal written request. all the woman gets is the right to keep her dowry, which we have seen can sometimes be trivial. There is no provision for the payment of maintenance.
A Muslim writer has written: "... the Holy Qur'an places the two parties on a perfect level of equality in the matter of divorce" (Muhammad Ali, op. cit. p. 675). He quotes two Hadiths which record the Prophet as allowing divorce to two women who asked him that they be divorced from their husbands and says: "These two examples are sufficient to show that the wife had the right to claim divorce on the very grounds on which the husband could divorce his wife". This is not true. The husband can divorce the wife by a simple pronouncement which is not a divine dispensation given to the wife. Also there are no "grounds" specified for divorce. Sometimes mediation by third parties is recommended (Sura 4:35) but this is not compulsory and the husband's decision to divorce is absolute, subject to a waiting period ( idda) usually three months (this latter to find out whether a pregnancy has occurred).
The implication both explicit and implicit in the Koran regarding to gender equality is the God-given superiority of men. This actually starts with creation. The Koranic creation story is burrowed from the Biblical narrative. The man is created first followed by that of the woman from a part of man: "O men, fear your LORD, who hath created you out of one man, and out of him created his wife" (Sura 4:1, tr. Sale). The Biblical story that woman was created from Adam's rib is retained and a Hadith states: "...[women] are created from a rib and the most crooked portion of a rib is its upper part" and "The woman is like a rib; if you try to straighten her she will break. So if you want to get benefit from her, do so while she still has some crookedness" (al-Bukhari, op. cit., Vol 7, Hadiths 113-114, pp. 80-81). All these statements are ascribed to the Prophet himself. There are different versions of the creation story but they generally affirm the notion that woman was created second to serve the needs of the man.[Note 6]
More explicitly woman was created for the carnal use of man. This is clear from one of the "Signs of God" as given in the Koran: "And of his signs another is, that he hath created for you out of yourselves, wives, that ye may cohabit with them" (Sura 30:21 tr. Sale). This seems to be the main purpose in creating women.
There are references to men and to women in appropriate circumstances but invariably it is only men who are referenced, and addressed, in important sections of the Koran. Those attempting to give a different interpretation have to make ingenious assumptions. One female Muslim author writes: "From my perspective on the Qur'an, every usage of the masculine plural form is intended to include males and females, equally, unless it includes specific indication for an exclusive application to males" (Wadud-Mushin , op. cit., p.4). This is simply a convenient interpretation - one can equally assert that unless there is reference to both sexes then only the male sex, which is explicitly stated, is intended.
The most misogynist of comments attributed to Muhammad come from various Hadiths, not included in the collections of al-Bukhari and Muslim. Hamdun Dagher ( op. cit. Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â§2 "The Status of Women") quotes the following Hadiths taken from a collection by Ala al-Din Muttaqi al-Hindi entitled Kanzu al-ummal (Haidarabad, 1974):
It must be restated that these Hadiths are not vouched in the authoritative collections. However even they do record Hadiths which are more mysogynist than anything in the Koran.
The Hijab is the face covering which Muslim women are expected to wear in public. Where it has not been completely dispensed with it ranges from a full covering leaving only slots for the eyes ( chador) as favoured in the more fundamentalist countries to a simple head scarf. It has become the visible sign of Islamic womanhood, and to feminists the badge of female servitude..
The relevant Koranic passage relating to the veiling of women reads as follows:
"And say to the believing women that they cast down their looks and guard their private parts and do not display their ornaments except what appears thereof, and let them wear their head-coverings over their bosoms, and not display their ornaments except to their husbands or their fathers, or the fathers of their husbands, or their sons, or the sons of their husbands, or their brothers, or their brothers' sons, or their sisters' sons, or their women, or those whom their right hands possess, or the male servants not having need (of women), or the children who have not attained knowledge of what is hidden of women; and let them not strike their feet so that what they hide of their ornaments may be known; and turn to Allah all of you, O believers! so that you may be successful." (Sura 24:31)
This seems to be a clear injunction to cover the face before men (except those specifically exempted). It does not appear to justify the extreme covering of the chador, nor does it sanction the use of a mere head scarf.
In spite of this some Islamic feminists go to great lengths to deny the Koranic authenticity of the hijab. Thus Fatima Merniss writes: "The hijab ... descended not to put a barrier between man and woman, but between two men" ( op.cit., p. 85). The reasoning appears to be the story that a man tried to see the Prophet in his private room and Muhammad asked him to speak from behind a curtain. This is a separate incident and does not rescind the authority of Sura 24:31. The only exemption from the veil allowed in the Koran seems to be for "elderly women as are past the prospect of marriage" (Sura 24:60).
The Prophet's Marriages
The marriages of Muhammad have attracted a great deal of attention because he is held as an exemplar in Islam.
In his first marriage to Khadija, 15 years his senior and his employer, Muhammad seems to have lead an exemplary monogamous life until her death. But when he acquired the full power his prophethood things changed. There is some dispute on the exact number of his wives [Note 8] and he exercised the rights given by Islam over captive women.
The number of wives is regarded as a special dispensation from Allah and contradict what is allowed to other Muslim men. Several of these marriages were quite controversial. He married Ayesha when he was over 50 and she was only 7 years old, consummated two years later.[Note 9] Zaid Bint Jahsh was the wife of his adopted son who divorced her when he knew of Muhammad's interest in her. This was not only a prohibited marriage according to Arab custom, but also according the rules for ordinary Muslims. Ryhana had been taken as booty after the raid on the Jewish tribe of Quraiza at Khaibar at which over a thousand men (including her husband) were beheaded in a single day. [Note 10]
Muslims justify Muhammad's marriages on several grounds, none of them very convincing. These include: (1) All his wives except Ayesha were not virgins. But Muhmmad was also not a young man when he commenced his multiple marriages. (2) His wives were matronly women and the marriages were not contracted for sexual reasons. This is not true of several wives who are described as being beautiful, and Muhammad is recorded as having fulfilled his sexual duties to all his wives. (3) Some were widows of fallen soldiers who had to be looked after. But Muhammad as the temporal ruler could have instituted other arrangements, or married them to others.
Of all women the most disadvantaged were slave women. Islam, like the other two Mosaic religions, permits slavery. While all slaves were subject to exploitation the women were in addition subject to sexual exploitation.
There are several Koranic statements which give the slave owner the power to cohabit with his female slaves at will (e.g. Sura 23:1-6, Sura 23:93-96, Sura 70:29-35) The general rule is: "It is permissible to have sexual intercourse with a captive woman after she is purified (of menses or delivery). If she has a husband her marriage is abrogated after she becomes a captive" ( Sahih Muslim, No. 567, Vol II, p. 743).
Amongst those who try to assert that concubinage with female slaves was not permitted in Islam is Maulana Muhammad Ali ( op. cit., pp. 667-670). His main argument is that Muhammad allows slave owners to marry female slaves. But the fact that marriage is allowed does not mean that concubinage was not. In Islam a girl was given in marriage with the consent of her guardian (usually the father). But a slave has no guardian other than the slave-owner so the slave-owner marrying his own slave cannot be a free contract. A Muslim can have only four wives but he can keep an unlimited number of slave concubines; that is why marriage to ones slave was rather rare. Finally even Maulana Muhammad Ali is forced to admit that in the Islamic jurisprudence (the Fiqh) "we find the rule laid down that a master may have sexual relations with his slave girl simply because of the right of ownership which she has in her" (p. 670).
Muhammad himself exercised this right. One of his concubines, Mary the Copt, was a slave. Even though Mary refused to give up her Christian religion she became one of Muhammad's favourites
The privileged position of men and the subordination of women is carried even beyond the grave. This is clear when one considers the Islamic view of heaven and hell.
Heaven is seen largely as an abode for the believing men. Its principal attraction for them are the black-eyed maidens of heaven ( houris), a number of whom will be assigned to each man. Their sole task is the sexual gratification of the men. This is seen in the following description of heaven:
"The love and eager desire of wives and children, and sums heaped up of gold and silver, and excellent horses and cattle and land is prepared for men: this is the provision of the present life ... Say, shall I declare unto you better things than this? For those who are devout are prepared with their LORD, gardens through which rivers flow; therein shall they continue for ever: and they shall enjoy wives [i.e. houris] free from impurity ..." (Sura 3: 14-15 Sale tr.).
The women do not have any counterpart paramours, but if they have carried out their appointed duties on earth well, they can only hope to join their husbands (together with his other co-wives and the houris he will be endowed with).
For women the normal destination is Hell, as is reported in the following Hadith from al-Bukhari: "O women! Give alms as I [Muhammad] have seen that the majority of the dwellers of Hell-fire were you (women)" [Note 11] Sahih Muslim also records a similar Hadith: "Amongst the inmates of Paradise the women will form the minority".[Note 12]
In the vision of Muhammad carnal desires of men are catered for in greater measure in the future life than it is in the present one - provided that you are not an infidel or a disobedient wife!
In addition to the specific topics considered above there are a number of matters which throw some light the position of women.
Inheritance. The law of inheritance laid down in the Koran is quite simple: "The male shall have the equal of the portion of two females; then if they are more than two females, they shall have two-thirds of what the deceased has left, and if there is one, she shall have the half ...; this is an ordinance from Allah" (Sura 4:11-2). This is another confirmation of the inferior status accorded to women, and gives a numerical ratio.
The Legal Testimony of Women. According to the Koran the evidence of a woman is worth only half that of a man: "call in to witness from among your men two witnesses; but if there are not two men, then one man and two women from among those whom you choose to be witnesses" (Sura 2: 282). This is in keeping with the ratio given in relation to inheritance - a woman is only worth half a man!
Circumcision. The Koran does not refer to circumcision either of males or females. Despite this the circumcision of males has become universal Islamic practice. The basis for this is God's command to the Prophet Abraham that "every male child of yours shall be circumcized" (Gen 17:10), which is quoted in the Hadith. The circumcision of females ("Female Genital Mutilation" or FGM) has been more controversial. The basis for this again goes back to Abraham's Egyptian concubine Hagar who gave Abraham his son Ishmael. Abraham's wife Sara became jealous and vowed to cut "three limbs" off Hagar. This led Abraham to order that Hagar's ears be pierced and that she be circumcized. Stowasser ( op. cit., p. 47) calls Hagar "one of the pillars of Islamic consciousness". FGM is today practised mainly by Muslim communities in Africa, and has been introduced to the West by immigrants from these areas. Only one school of Islamic jurisprudence, the Shafii, considers this practice obligatory (R. Putai, Encyclopaedia of Religion, Vol. 5, p. 385). Today there is a growing campaign in the West against FGM. However this should be extended to all mutilation (female or male) inspired by religion. Most campaigners against FGM are silent about male genital mutilation.
Female Infanticide. A point invariably made in favour of the Prophet is that he abolished the Arabian custom of female infanticide (Sura 81:8-9, 16:58). In general the prohibition was against the killing of infants, male or female, usually on the ground of want (Sura 17:31) or Ignorance (Sura 6:140). This is something that he can claim credit for, but it must be remembered that no other religion actually endorses infanticide. In this Muhammad was conforming to general usage, not pioneering something new and the credit given to him in this regard may be extravagant.
Women and the Mosque. It is well known that in many Muslim communities the access to the mosque is restricted to women. This does not seem to have been the case in Muhammad's time. But several Hadiths have been attributed to Muhammad to the effect that a woman's place is the home.
Funeral Rites. In funerary ritual the women were forbidden to follow the bier (Muslim, Hadith 331, op.cit., II, p.445). This is generally taken to mean the exclusion of women from most formalities concerned with the disposal of the dead. It does not seem to have Koranic sanction.
What is surprising is that despite the manifest lack of the basic rights which Humanists would consider the entitlement of any human being many Muslims present the position given to women by Muhammad as reaching a high point in human achievement.
The main justification for practices like the Hijab is that otherwise women will be a temptation to men. However if this is the case then it is men who have to be penalised, not women. Humanists do not recognise any differences in human rights of persons on the basis of gender.
Another reason adduced by Muslim apologists are the biological differences between men and women. However there are other differences between human beings based on genetics, incapacitation, etc. and these are not grounds to restrict rights or have different rights for different groups. In many places in the Koran and the Hadith there are references to menstruation of women; this does not figure to the same extent in other religions. What we are dealing with here with may well be ethnic-cultural taboos masquerading as religious sanctions.
Islam continues the oppression of women which has been a feature of the Judeo-Christian tradition. As in many other areas of Islam in this respect is the true heir to the Mosaic tradition to which these three religions belong. Many of the Islamic restrictions on women are seen in early Christian practice, even the practice of the veiling of women. In fact some of these continue to this day. All three Mosaic religions believe in the Superstition of God. This is the fundamental reason for their oppression of humanity, of which that of women is the ultimate form (if we exclude animals and the natural environment).
This fact also accounts for the lack of criticism of Islam that is now characteristic of Christianity and Judaism. This was of course not always the case. When the Crusades was in their full rigour Islam was the butt of criticism and distortion by Christians. Today the Christian theologians realise that they cannot really attack Islam without exposing their own flank. In fact they have made a virtue of this necessity and like to present their reticence and moderation in this regard as an example of religious tolerance. The fundamental theology of the three Mosaic religions does not make any one of them a tolerant religion in the true sense of the word.
The three Mosaic religions have closed ranks in the face of what they perceive are two threats. One is the Asian religions which are now becoming known in the West. [Note 13]
The other is the rise of secularism. The first threat is still to insignificant to disturb the religious monopoly of the Mosaic religions in the West. The secular threat to the Mosaic religions however has had some success.
Of the secular forces confronting the Mosaic religions it is Humanism that poses the greatest threat. Humanism unlike other ideological movements like atheism challenges the Mosaic religions by its strident advocacy of human rights and its presentation of an alternative secular ethic which is in many respects superior to the religious ethic. Thus it is necessary to develop a Humanist critique of Mosaic religion. Of the Mosaic Religions it is Islam which presents the greatest threat to human rights. We have concentrated in this article only one aspect of this denial, that of the rights of women. It should be extended to other areas as well.