Debate on Women Issues
In reviewing the literature which has been generated by our Web site discussion
forum concerning the position of women in Islam, a number of themes have come
up. Firstly, our participants make a distinction between 'Islamic doctrinal'
teachings and the reality facing Muslim women. There is a distinction made
between 'repressive cultural traditions in the guise of religion and Islamic
teachings per se. Also the concept of Hijab has generated much debate and
discussion. It seems very clear that one can not discuss women in Islam without
addressing the role and concept of Hijab. This has particularly been highlighted
with the developments in Turkey concerning the observation of Hijab.
Before presenting the arguments, and as a means of categorical clarification, it
would be helpful to divided the various interpretations on women into three
1) Those who argue that according to the Qur'an women are equal but have
socially different roles to men as prescribed and defined by the Qur'anic
teachings. The primarily role of the women is motherhood and the raising of
children. Her domain is the domestic sphere, which is "best suited" to her
nature. The man's domain is the public realm, as the provider. It is argued that
although spiritually there is no difference between the sexes, socially man is a
"degree" above woman.
2) The new interpretations offered by Muslim scholars, such as Amina
Wadud-Muhsin. Muhsin argues that the Qur'an does not support a specific
stereotype role for its characters, male or female. Many popular and dominant
ideas about the role of women do not have sanctions from the Qur'an, pointing
these out , causes problems not so much with the logical analysis of the texts,
but within the application of these ideas in the context in which Muslim
societies operate. There is no inherent value placed on man and woman, there is
no arbitrary preordained and eternal system of hierarchy. The Qur'an does not
strictly delineate the role of women and the role of men to such an extent as to
propose only a single possible outcome for each gender. In the Qur'an there is
no indication that mothering is the only exclusive role of women. Respect is
given to the female procreator and to the function of childbearing, this does
not, however, mean that women must only be mothers.
3) A Gnostic interpretation of gender roles, which is concerned with a higher
reality and the essence of Islam, such as one offered by Seyyed Hossein Nasr.
Nasr views the difference between the sexes as not reducible to anatomy or
biology, but in terms of a microcosmic reflection of a higher reality. The
duality of the sexes is the earthly representation of the dual principles of the
Divine Nature. Namely, the principle of Absolute Majesty and Infinite Beauty.
Man is the representative of the principle of Majesty and women of Beauty. The
relationship between the sexes is not hierarchical but rather mutually
interdependent. It is through the unity of these two aspects that one attains
inner contentment. Hence the saying that marriage is half of Islam. In Islam
sexuality is seen as a means of perfecting the human state and on the highest
level a symbol of the union with God. love between the sexes is seen as
inseparable from the love of god. It is precisely because of this that the theme
of love as realised gnosis, dominates Islamic spirituality. God is symbolised
inters of the Beloved and the female as the precious being that is the keeper of
the inner paradise, which is hidden from man as a result of the loss of the "eye
Female beauty can aid man to return to the centre once again, to inner peace
which is inseparable from the name "al-Islam", meaning peace. It is interesting
to note that Nasr offers a alternative interpretation of "Modern" , in terms of
that which is cut off from the Transcendent, it is all that is divorced and cut
off from the Divine source.
Bearing in mind these three basic categories will enable us to assess the
arguments presented within a large frame of reference. It is argued that the
idea of rights for women should be tackled from two points; philosophical view
point and, legal view point.
Philosophically: We must address the rights of women without having to recourse
to any pre-religious thinking. Legally: We have to think the circumstances and
the various limitations stated at the time of detailing with some of the legal
Sharia rules. The fact that Sharia is male-dominated has resulted in a
male-dominated interpretation. Muslim women, it is argued, must be able to delve
into the subject without having to feel weak.
Islam sees a woman, whether single or married, as an individual in her own
right, with the right to own and dispose of her property and earnings. A marital
gift is given by the groom to the bride for her own personal use, and she may
keep her own family name rather than adopting her husband's. Roles of men and
women are complementary and collaborative. Rights and responsibilities of both
sexes are equitable and balanced in their totality. Both men and women are
expected to dress in a way that is simple, modest and dignified; specific
traditions of female dress found in some Muslim countries are often the
expression of local customs rather than religious principle.
Likewise, treatment of women in some areas of the Muslim world reflects cultural
practices which may be inconsistent, if not contrary, to authentic Islamic
teachings. The messenger of God said: "The most perfect in faith amongst
believers is he who is best in manner and kindest to his wife."
However, one of the biggest problems is domination of Muslim males over females.
This domination is based on tradition rather than religion. Such review may
start with the most critical issue such as acceptability of woman leadership and
equal rights in performing public duties.
The fundamental question is: can a radical review be rooted in 'fiqh' or should
it be addressed philosophically? There is little point in discussing how well or
badly so called 'Islamic countries' are living up to the teachings of Islam, or
First, it is necessary to clear up misunderstandings of what those teachings
are. Women are equal to men in the sight of God but they have in some respects
different roles in life to men because of their different natures. They differ
psychologically, physiologically, and biologically from men. This makes them
more suitable than men for certain responsibilities and less suitable than men
for others. Islam recognises these differences. Oppression of women is the
result of removing their rights. Islam gives men and women rights that are
different in some aspects to those they have in the western world. The principle
difference in the way these rights came about is also important. In the West
rights became part of the law only after women had been through great political
struggles and also partly due to the necessity of women working in factories
In Islam, rights were given 'out of the blue' by God through revelation. They
cannot be reversed by anyone's decision. Most Muslims recognise the purity and
validity of the Qur'anic laws even if they are not following them, but it may be
necessary to struggle for a return to them from time to time. It is quite
commonly agreed that all things in life which are worthwhile require some
Since the height of the feminist movement in the late 70's there has been a
magnifying glass placed over the status of Muslim women. Unfortunately, the
magnifying glass that has been used is an unusual one. Unusual in the sense that
it is very selective about which items it will magnify; other items it will
distort to such a degree that they will no longer look familiar.
However, the extent to which Hijab has come to define the extent of a women's
religious commitment is debatable, as is the exact form Hijab should take. In
other words is the principle of modesty the defining aspect of Hijab or a
specified way of dressing.
It is argued that there is a general consensus among the Muslims that Muslim
woman is required to cover her head leaving only her face showing as part of an
overall dress code and behaviour which Islam prescribes. It is therefore part of
the social system of Islam, and a manifestation of important general Islamic
principles. It is suggested that a Muslim woman does this because she is
following guidance from God and His prophet Mohammed recorded in the Qur'an, and
in the Sunnah (the knowledge about the practice and example of the Prophet
Mohammed (peace and blessings be upon him).
The principal reason for the Hijab is modesty, which is not wishing to receive
unnecessary attention from people, such as admiration and flattery, envy, or,
most importantly, sexual attraction from those other than a husband. Great care
is taken to keep sexual thoughts, feelings and interactions to within the
boundaries of the marital relationship. These types of attention may boost the
'ego' for the short term, but all have the potential to lead to disastrous
consequences in the long term, for example leading to confused feelings,
suspicions, affairs, break-up of marriages and other relationships, disturbed
children, and ultimately a community where people are insecure, unhappy, and
divided amongst themselves.
Hence it is argued that from this it can be seen that the Hijab is a
manifestation of another important principle in Islam, which is valuing benefits
which are permanent above those which are temporary.
The other arguments on Hijab assert that the primarily and most fundamental
aspect is modesty which can be explained and re-interpreted over time. It is
important to comply with the specified rules of modesty but the specific shape
of Hijab is culturally and socially relative. Others argue that it is more
important to be a good Muslim first and a 'muhajiba' second. It is so difficult
to put the debate on Hijab in perspective within the context of an overall
Islamic teachings. We all know many good Muslim men and women who are so strict
about any relaxation to the traditional Hijab yet they do not hesitate to break
many ethical and moral rules stated in the Quran such as Gossip-Geeba (where the
Quran describes it as eating the meat of a dead brother Muslim) and lies (where
the Quran says that Allah states in the Quran the many attributes of being
It is well known that the ways of life of Muslims were strongly influenced by
the expanding empire that encountered other cultures and absorbed their
traditions into the lives of Muslims. We can trace the influences of the Indian
and orthodox cultures into the lives of Muslims. The concept of Hijab should be
debated with ease and an open mind so that all good Muslims can come to terms
with the essence of Islam and its teachings.