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Women in Islam: Body, Mind and Spirit

Muslim women are no longer nameless, faceless or voiceless; they are ready to stand up and be counted


Riffat Hassan, Ph.D.

[Dr. Riffat Hassan
  is a member of the Islamic Research Foundation International and is an award winning scholar, an inimitable voice for moderate  Islam & interreligous dialogue and Professor for Religious Studies and Humanities at the University of Louisville, Louisville, KY.
In February 1999, she  founded The International Network for the Rights of Female Victims of Violence in Pakistan (INRFVVP), a non-profit organization with a worldwide membership, which has played a noteworthy role in highlighting the issue of violence against girls and women, particularly with reference to “crimes of honor”  (website:; E-mail:]

The United Nations Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), held in Cairo, Egypt in 1994, was an extremely important landmark in raising global consciousness of many issues central to the lives of women. The Conference was particularly momentous for Muslim women who participated in record numbers, held in one of the most important capitals in the Muslim world. The presence in Cairo of Al-Azhar University, the oldest university in the world, whose "farwas or religious proclamations carry much weight among Muslims, added further significance to the venue of this conference.

In an opening session, three male professors representing the university presented what were called "Muslim viewpoints" on the subjects of "Religion, Population and Development." After stating that Islam was not against family planning but that it allowed abortion only to save the mothers life or health, the speakers focused on the status of women in the Islamic tradition. The purpose of this panel presentation was to preempt any discussion on the subject of Muslim women by making the "privileged" position of women in Islam clear to both the Western media (which stereotypes Muslim women as poor and oppressed) and to Muslim women themselves. In comments from the floor, however, the "Muslim viewpoints" were questioned because there were no women on the panel. Muslim women demanded -- and received -- equal time.

Challenging Traditional Views

Identifying women with body rather than with mind and spirit is a common feature of many religious, cultural, and philosophical traditions. Though women have traditionally been identified with body, however, they have not been seen as "owners" of their bodies. The issue of who controls womens bodies -- men, the state, the church, the community, or women -- has been one of the most important underlying issues of the Cairo Conference. The fact that Muslim women forcefully challenged the traditional viewpoint not only with regard to womens identification with body but also with regard to the control of womens bodies, indicates that Muslim women are no longer nameless, faceless, or voiceless. They are ready to stand up and be counted.

It is now generally accepted globally that issues that may appear to pertain primarily to a womans body, namely contraception and abortion, cannot be looked at in isolation from the larger factor of womens overall development as human beings. However, as pointed out by a number of people and agencies, the primary focus of the ICPD was on "population" issues focusing on the body rather than on "development" issues that focus on the whole person.

The challenge before women in general, and Muslim women in particular, is to shift from the reactive mind-set, in which it is necessary for women to assert their autonomy over their bodies in the face of strong opposition from patriarchal structures and systems of thought and behavior -- to a pro-active mind-set, in which they can finally begin to speak of themselves as full and autonomous human beings who have not only a body but also a mind and a spirit. The pivotal question that Muslim women needed to ask themselves was: What do Muslim women -- along with Muslim men and the rest of humanity who have been designated as Gods vicegerent on earth by the Quran -- understand the meaning of their lives to be? The critical issue that Muslim women were called to reflect upon was what kind of model(s) of self-actualization can be developed within the framework of normative Islam, which also takes into account the Quranic ideals as well as the realities of the contemporary Muslim world?

Liberation and Oppression

Women such as Khadijah and 'Aishah (wives of the Prophet Muhammad) and Rabia al-Basri (the outstanding woman Sufi) figure significantly in early Islam. Nonetheless, the Islamic tradition has, by and large, remained strongly patriarchal. This means, among other things, that the sources on which the Islamic tradition is based, mainly the Quran (which Muslims believe to be Gods word transmitted through Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad), the Sunnah (the practice of the Prophet Muhammad), Hadith (the oral traditons attributed to the Prophet Muhammad), and Fiqh (jurisprudence), have been interpreted only by Muslim men. These men have arrogated to themselves the task of defining the ontological, theological, sociological, and eschatological status of Muslim women. It is hardly surprising that until now, the majority of Muslim women who have been kept for centuries in physical, mental, and emotional bondage have accepted this situation passively.

In recent years, largely due to the pressure of anti-women laws in some parts of the Muslim world, women with some degree of education and awareness are beginning to realize that religion is being used as an instrument of oppression rather than as a means of liberation. To understand the power impetus to "Islamize" Muslim societies, especially with regard to women-related norms and values, it is necessary to know that of all the challenges confronting the Muslim world today, perhaps the greatest is that of modernity. Muslims, in general, tend to think of "modernity" in two ways: 1) as modernization which is associated with science, technology and material progress, and 2) as Westernization, which is associated with promiscuity and all manner of social problems ranging from latch-key kids to drug and alcohol abuse.

While modernization is considered highly desirable, Westernization is not. What is important to note is that an emancipated Muslim woman is seen by many Muslims as a symbol not of modernization but of Westernization. Even today, when a Muslim boy returns from a western institution for higher education, he is considered modernized. A young girl in the same situation is considered Westernized.

Three Theological Assumptions

In todays Muslim world, due to the pressure of political and socioeconomic realities, a significant number of women may be seen in public space, that is, a space normally thought of as for men only. Caretakers of Muslim traditionalism feel threatened by this phenomenon. They see emancipated Muslim women as symbols of Westernization that is linked not only with the colonization of Muslim people by Western powers in the not-too-distant past, but also by the continuing onslaught on what they perceive to be "the integrity of the Islamic way of life" by Westerners and Westernized Muslims who uphold the west as a model for intellectual and social transformation. They believe it is necessary to put women back in their "space" (also designates their "place") if "the integrity of the Islamic way of life" is to be preserved.

As a result of study and reflection on how women became so unequal to men, I came to perceive that in the Islamic, as well as in the Jewish and the Christian, tradition, there are three key theological assumptions which the super-structure of mens alleged superiority to women has been erected. These three assumptions are: 1) Gods primary creation is man, not woman, since woman is believed to have been created from mans rib, hence is derivative and secondary ontologically; 2) woman, not man, was the primary agent of what is generally called "The Fall," or mans expulsion from the Garden of Eden, hence "all daughters of Eve" are to be regarded with hatred, suspicion, and contempt; and 3) that woman was created not only from   man but also for man, which makes her existence merely instrumental and not fundamental.

The three theological questions to which the above assumptions may appropriately be regarded as answers are: 1) How was woman created? 2) Was woman responsible for The Fall? and 3) Why was woman created?

It is not possible to deal exhaustively with any of these questions in this short article, however the first question is critical, because philosophically and theologically, if man and woman have been created equal by Allah who is the ultimate arbiter of value, then they cannot become unequal at a later time. On the other hand, if man and woman have been created unequal by Allah, then they cannot become equal at a later time.

Muslim Beliefs on Gender Equality

The ordinary Muslim believes, as seriously as the ordinary Jew or Christian, that Adam was Gods primary creation and that Eve was made from Adams rib. While this myth is obviously rooted in the Yahwehists account of creation in Genesis 2:18-24, it has no basis whatsoever in the Quran which describes the creation of humanity in completely egalitarian terms. In the 30 or so passages pertaining to the subject of human creation, the Quran uses generic terms for humanity and there is no mention of Eve. The word "Adam" occurs 25 times in the Quran, but it is used 21 times as a symbol for self-conscious humanity. Here, it is important to point out that "Adam" is a Hebrew word (from "adamah," meaning "the soil") and it functions generally as a collective noun referring to "the human" rather than to a male person. In the Quran, the word "Adam" mostly does not refer to a particular human being but to human beings in a particular way.

The Quran evenhandedly uses both feminine and masculine terms and imagery to describe the creation of humanity from a single source. That Gods original creation was undifferentiated humanity and not either man or woman (who appeared simultaneously at a subsequent time) is implicit in a number of Quranic passages. If the Quran makes no distinction between the creation of man and woman -- as it clearly does not -- why do Muslims believe that Hawwa (Eve) was created from Adams rib? It is difficult to imagine that Muslims got this idea directly from Genesis 2, since very few Muslims read the Bible. It is much more likely that the rib story entered the Islamic tradition through being incorporated in the Hadith literature during the early centuries of Islam.

Theologically, the history of womens inferior status in the Islamic (as well as Jewish and Christian) tradition began with the story of Hawwas creation from a (crooked) rib. The negative impact of this story on the life of Jewish, Christian and Muslim women is impossible to overstate. At the same time, it needs to be borne in mind that the Quran, which to Muslims in general is the most authoritative source of Islam, does not discriminate against women despite the sad and bitter fact of history that cumulative (Jewish, Christian, Hellenistic, Bedouin, and other) biases which existed in the Arab-Islamic culture of the early centuries of Islam infiltrated the Islamic tradition, largely through the Hadith literature, and undermined the intent of the Quran to liberate women from the status of chattel or inferior creatures, making them free and equal to men. Not only does the Quran emphasize that righteousness is identical in the case of man or woman, but it affirms, clearly and consistently, womens equality with men and their fundamental right to actualize the human potential that they share equally with men.

To Establish Peace and Justice

God, who speaks through the Quran, is characterized by justice, and it is stated clearly in the Quran that God can never be guilty of "zulm" (unfairness, tyranny, oppression, or wrongdoing). Hence, the Quran, as Gods Word, cannot be made the source of human injustice, and the injustice to which Muslim woman have been subjected cannot be regarded as God-derived. The goal of Quranic Islam is to establish peace which can only exist within a just environment. It is also important to note that there is more Quranic legislation pertaining to the establishment of justice in the context of family relationships than on any other subject.

Some people in the Muslim world adopt the position that human rights and Islam are incompatible and that the abandonment of Islam is a pre-condition for womens liberation from oppression and development. In my judgment, the average Muslim woman in the world is poor, illiterate and lives in the rural environment. If I, as a human rights activist, wanted to "liberate" this average Muslim woman, I could not do so by talking to her about the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, 1948, because this means nothing to her. However, it is possible for me to reach this womans heart, mind, body and soul by reminding her that God is just and merciful and that, as a creature of this just and merciful God, she is entitled to justice and protection from every kind of oppression and inequity. I make this statement because I have seen the eyes of many Muslim women who have lived in hopelessness and helplessness light up when they realize what immense possibilities for development exist for them within the framework of their belief system

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