Women in Islam
By Prof. Nilofer Sultana
Islam is a religion of peace, submission to God, tolerance and justice. Quran is a complete code of Ethics, encompassing every aspect of life and its teachings are a perennial source of knowledge and guidance for us. Islam is a religion that bestows a very exalted position to a woman, in the society and she enjoys inviolable and well-defined rights and privileges as a mother, wife and a daughter. It is a religion, the egalitarian dimensions of which are unmistakably specified. It opposes the inequality between men and women on gender basis. Each individual has to be judged on the basis of his character and deeds. Women in no way can be relegated to a lower status in an Islamic Society. Paul Findley, an American research scholar very emphatically points out, â€œThe chattel status of women was eliminated by Islam 1400 years ago. Female infanticide was prohibited. She was given the right of inheritance, to annul a marriage and to own and even run a business.â€
As a mother, a woman enjoys an unparalleled status in Islam. Paradise lies under her feet and her love being immeasurable, she has more rights than a father. As a wife, the rights of a woman are upheld and fully protected in Islam. Marriage is a sacred institution and as such it is sinful to coerce a woman into a marital relationship. Her consent has to be sought on an issue as important as her marriage. Saleem Ahmed, in his book â€˜Beyond the Veil and Holy Warâ€™ dwells upon this crucial aspect of marriage that is grossly misconstrued and misinterpreted and in actual practice a girl child is victimized and unduly exploited by her parents or guardians. In the words of Saleem Ahmed, â€œ Womenâ€™s consent is essential for the very validity of a marriage contract.â€
The misconception that a man has an unfettered freedom and the right to take more than one wife has to be eliminated. Polygamy is allowed only under given circumstances and with specific conditions. Naseem Ahmed in his book, â€˜Women in Islam.â€™ has dealt at length with the issue of polygamy. In his words, â€œMuch criticism has been leveled against Islam for having permitted polygamy. It is not realized that the Islamic permission for polygamy was and remains conditional.â€ A man can go for more than one marriage only if there are some justifiable and genuine reasons for that. It is incumbent upon him to be equally just and fair towards all his wives. No discrimination is permissible where the rights of the wives are concerned. Kind and gentle treatment has to be meted to the wives following the footsteps of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) who indubitably is the role model for humanity at large. He extended his kindness and attention to all his wives
and never expected them to wait upon him with a sense of servility. He partook of all the household chores thus exemplifying the dignity of labour. Our dear Prophet has given us an unforgettable message with his words and deeds that it should not be infra dig for a man to lend a helping hand to his wife in the household jobs.
Hummadhah Abid Ali, an Egyptian scholar of distinctive repute, lays stress upon the fact that polygamy is allowed primarily to provide protection to the orphaned, widowed and single women and to avoid chaos, adultery and immoral tendencies in the society. Extra marital relations can be harmful and painful both for the legal and illegal companions of a man. The protection of the first wife is held uppermost in Islam in the case of second marriage as Hummadhah Abid Ali points out, â€œ She is not degraded, another woman is protected.â€ It is to save the honour and dignity of another woman, that a man is allowed to legally wed her instead of deceiving his first wife and having secret relationships. Transparency and truthfulness in marital relationships holds a great significance in Islam. It is sinful for a man to treat any of his wives indifferently as Saleem Ahmed points out, â€œIf a man has more than one wife, he has to be fair and just to each one of them and would be answerable for any discrimination between them.â€
One very baseless notion that is erroneously associated with Islam is that a woman has a weaker position vis-a-vis man when a marriage has to be dissolved. For a woman it is exceedingly difficult to get out of a marital bond and contrarily a man can divorce his wife with his free will. This, however, is not in consonance with the real injunctions of Islam. We are all familiar with the incident of a woman who was permitted by our Prophet (SAW) to annul her marriage simply because her husband was repulsively ugly. Divorce, despite being repugnant, is allowed as a last resort under unavoidable circumstances. A woman is entitled to annul a marital contract through means of â€˜Khulaâ€™. She is entitled to a maximum legal protection. Islam, very emphatically, enjoins upon a man to be kind and not the least revengeful towards the woman he divorces. It would be sinful on his part to maltreat her in any way or to subject her to any abusive slander.
A husband is not supposed to confiscate anything from the wife he divorces and he should not force her to quit the house where she is living. Similarly it is for affording protection to the women that Islam makes it incumbent upon men to pay â€˜Mehrâ€™ the dower money to their wives. In this context, Naseem Ahmed says, â€œMehr is a sum of money that the husband pledges to pay the bride upon marriage. It plays an important role in the dynamics of marital relations giving women, a high degree of security and serves as a deterrent to divorce.â€ This amply proves that in Islam every aspect of a womanâ€™s safety and protection has the uppermost importance. As a mother, a wife, a daughter and even a divorcee she is not to be left helpless without a home or a refuge.
It is in no way in accordance with the teachings of Islam and Quran to confine the women to the precincts of their houses. They are an active part of the society and it is sinful and criminal to make them a victim of total segregation. A woman having the intelligence, skill and avidity to work cannot be debarred from doing constructive jobs simply because she is a woman. How can we forget that women actively participated in the battles with the holy Prophet (SAW) and his Companions. Saleem Ahmed in his bookâ€™ Beyond the Veil and Holy Warsâ€™ quotes the example of his own widowed mother who had to work outside the house to fend for her orphaned children without violating the dictates of decency and modesty. His question in this context is quite pertinent, â€œIf women stay at home, who will support widows and other single women?â€ The only factor that is imperative for women to keep in their minds is never to trespass, the dictates of decency
and moderation, a factor that is equally important for her male counterparts. Exposure of beauty and not covering herself properly would amount to a womanâ€™s own degradation. Paul Findley who has interviewed people from a cross- section of society for compiling material for his research studies, quotes an American woman who had embraced Islam, â€œI do not violate my faith by wearing Western attire as long as it is modest and covers my entire body.â€ Similarly a Bengali woman working in the paddy fields under the scorching sun clad in a sari, cannot be condemned for toiling outside her home particularly when she is dressed up decently according to her regional customs. Islam does not and cannot condone to the degradation of a woman. She is not an object to be ogled at, not the one to bring any disintegration in a family or the society to which she belongs. In the words of Hummadhah Abid Ali, â€œA womanâ€™s sanctity has to be guarded and things like wearing veils etc. simply signify the safety of her soul from weakness, her mind from indulgence, her eyes from lustful looks and her personality from demoralization.â€
It is thus for the safety, protection and sanctity of women that certain conditions and limits have been specified. Both men and women have to follow the teachings of Islam for their individual, familial and collective benefit of the society. In prayers women stand behind men and some opponents of Islam, unjustifiably attribute this to gender discrimination. We all know that during the prayers the king and the pauper stand side by side. Women have to stand behind men again to safeguard the sanctity of women. If women stand in front of men, they can be a cause of distraction in meditation. Men can look at them and their movements can be a cause of disturbance. Women as well as men can concentrate on their prayers only if they stand in the order our true religion has specified for us. Women should not be a source or cause of any moral weakness, even the adultery of the eyes. They have a sanctified position in Islam and are supposed to be the strength not the weakness of men. If accidentally any part of their bodies is exposed during prayers if they occupy the front rows, that would amount to their degradation.
It is thus an incontrovertible fact that Islam bestows numberless rights, privileges and benefits upon women. The followers of this true religion have to faithfully observe its golden rules, principles and injunctions. Women has to be given the status, the rights that Islam has specified for them and only then can the physical, mental and psychological violence that is practically perpetrated upon them, can be effectively eliminated. For a lasting peace and harmony in the families and societies, it is essential to follow the teachings of Islam and Quran and as such the sanctity and rights of the women should not be violated. Women in their various sanctified roles are a source of strength for men for the families and societies. It is grossly unfair and wrong to consider them weaker vessels and to relegate them to a position of weakness and helplessness. The concept of a happy family would be incomplete without a mother, a wife or a daughter. Women thus have to be seen in the light of teachings of Islam and should be given the place and status they truly deserve.