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Why Islam is a women-friendly religion

By Ahmed Versi

The media has portrayed an image of the Taliban's oppression of women which Westerners have found fascinating and horrifying. What is overlooked is the long history of Islam's gender equality and the many examples around the world of how Islam continues to promote women's opportunities.

When Imam Zuhri, a Muslim scholar of the Sunnah (life and practice of the Prophet), in the eighth century, told Qasim ibn Muhammad, a scholar of the Qur'an, that he wished to seek knowledge, Qasim advised him to join the assembly of a well-known woman jurist called Amra bint al-Rahman.

Early Islamic history is replete with famous women jurists and scholars. Muslim women were famous in all fields of knowledge. 

Shaykha Shuhda, known as Fakhr al-Nisa, living in the eleventh century, was well known in literature, rhetoric, poetry, and history. She gave public lectures in the mosque of Baghdad attended by many 'ulama (scholars). Shaykha Shuhda granted diplomas to many famous men of her time. 

In the spiritual field, Rabi'a al-Adawiyyah, a great Sufi of Basra, in the eighth century, infused the concept of divine love with such intensity that she devoted her whole life to contemplation of God. Khadijah, wife of the Prophet, was a very successful trader. She used her wealth in the way of Islam by helping the poor, in freeing slaves, and propagating the message of the nascent religion. Khadijah was one of many women at that time who ran their own businesses.

Women were consulted in the conduct of political affairs by the caliphs (Khalifah) from the seventh century right through to the end of the Ottoman Empire. For example, Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second caliph, consulted both Shifa bint Abdallah and Samara bint Nuhayk, who worked as inspectors in the market of Madinah. Women were among the first Muslims who were forced to leave their homes because of persecution and then spread the message of Islam. They were also among the first martyrs. 

In the Qur'an, the main source for Islamic teachings, men and women have absolute parity: "The true believers, both men and women, are friends to each other, they enjoin what is just and forbid what is evil, they attend to their prayers and pay the alms-tax and obey God and his Apostle." 

The only characteristic which distinguishes and differentiates between human beings in the Qur'an is piety. 

"Men and women, we have created you from a male and female and divided you into nations and tribes that you might get to know one another, the noblest amongst you in God's sight is he who fears Him most."

Both men and women are encouraged to acquire knowledge. The Prophet has said: "The quest for knowledge is obligatory for every Muslim (men and women)."

Do we find the high status and equal treatment of women that Islam prescribes? Not in the Western-created and sponsored Taliban where women are barred from participating in public life.

Nor can we find it in the pro-Western secular state of Turkey, a country which prides itself on more than 70 years of secularism and "women's emancipation". Muslim women are not allowed to work in government offices, the civil service, government hospitals and judiciary. They are also forbidden from teaching in the government universities. Nor can they take up a seat in the parliament. Why? Because they wear the hijab (head scarf).

Yet there are countries where Islamic Law is implemented where the women are empowered. In Sudan, there are 21 women in the parliament. The Federal Supreme Court - the highest judiciary body in Sudan - has three female judges; in the British equivalent body, there are none. These women earn the same pay as their male counterparts; a total of 70 women work in the judiciary.

Nor is there any bar against women obtaining positions of power and serving in government. Professor Sit el Nafar Badi, for example, chairs the Industrial Committee of the National Assembly, with 40 men working under her. Yet this is a country where Islamic Law is implemented.

So where does the stereotyping of Islam as oppressive to women originate? Why does it receive such attention in the Western media? And why is so little attention given to Islamic countries where women do participate fully in public life? Could it be that the answers to these questions lie in political expediency and a historical desire for the West's political hegemony over the resource-rich Islamic world rather than in a genuine desire to see women uplifted?

Ahmed Versi is the Editor of the national newspaper, The Muslim News.

The above article appeared in Face to Faith section of The Guardian. Saturday, November, 16, 1996.

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