Munazzah Chou, Farnham
With the advent of Islam, the status of women in Arabia was raised from that of objects deserving of live burial, or as commodity to be treated or even traded as desired. Their rightful status was restored to the religious equal to their male counterparts and Islamic law made the education of girls a sacred duty and gave women amongst other rights the right to own and inherit property and wealth.
The status of Muslim women in the 21st century has not changed since the advent of Islam in the 7th century. God has pronounced in the Holy Qur’an,
‘But whoso does good works, whether male or female, and is a believer, shall enter Heaven, and shall not be wronged even as much as the little hollow in the back of a date-stone.’ (4:125)
Numerous other Quranic verses leave no ambiguity of the equal spiritual status of the sexes.
The spiritual status is the most important indicator of parity between sexes for Muslims as the Quran states that though different people appoint various objectives for their lives, the purpose that God Almighty has specified in His Holy Word is
‘…that they may worship Me.’ (51: 57).
According to this verse the true purpose of human life is the worship and understanding of God Almighty and devotion to Him.
21st century Muslim women cannot be considered a single entity. The Muslim woman is characterised by many as an oppressed victim deprived of the most basic rights. This might be the obvious conclusion on observing the treatment of women by ISIS, Boko Haram and some courts in Muslim countries. Yet at the opposite end of the spectrum, Muslim women have reached the pinnacle of political participation in countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh.
The realities of Muslim women’s lives range from being powerless and deprived of human and religious rights, to enjoying equal and sometimes more freedom and legal protection than non-Muslim women in the developed world. The contradictory developments and diversity in practices among Muslim societies, must urge one to question the assumption that Islam is the source of oppression.
The spectrum of the condition of Muslim women in the 21st century mirrors the continuum found within and between all society. The universal reality is that women face a gender gap. The World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Gap Index assessing health, education, economy and politics disparities has revealed that progress is ‘still too slow for realising the full potential of one half of humanity within our lifetimes.’
Unfortunately, Muslim women seem to be worst affected as Muslim countries make up 23 of the bottom 25 countries with the widest gender gaps. The challenges women face in the Muslim world are often enshrined in archaic laws and practices on ownership, education, healthcare, job opportunities and wages which are ironically in violation of Islamic teachings on women’s rights.
In education the gender gap remains large, relative to most other major religious groups, although some progress has meant it has narrowed in recent generations. Muslim women have made greater educational gains than Muslim men in most regions of the world, according to the Pew Research Centre. Illustrative cases include United Arab Emirates, where women enrol in university at three times the rate of men and Saudi Arabia, where the university gender gap was closed ten years ago, and university enrolment rate is higher than in China, India, or Mexico.
Studies to understand the gap in political participation in Muslim-majority countries show that major cross-national differences in the extent of the gender gap cannot be explained by levels of ‘state Islamisation’, modernisation or societal gender equality. We are well aware that even in developed countries such as the UK, there are many barriers preventing women from entering politics unrelated to faith.
Nevertheless leaders in Muslim countries might wish to remind themselves of the dictates of Islam prescribed to ensure equity for Muslim women. Just as in the 7th Century, modern day women have the right to and are expected to pursue education. As evidenced in hadith, the pursuit of knowledge is a duty on every Muslim, male and female and the contribution of women in theological learning was affirmed when the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) said that half of faith can be learned from his wife Ayesha (may Allah be pleased with Her)
Fathers and husbands have been charged with responsibility for the adequate provision for females to a standard which is equal to their own. It ought to follow then that in patriarchal societies in particular, there is no scope for suboptimal provision of services for women. The Holy Prophet (peace be on him) said that the best amongst the believers are those who are best in morals, and the best in morals are those who are best in treatment of their wives. He has also said that taking good care of a daughter opens the door to Paradise for a Muslim. In his final sermon, he counselled
“O people, you have rights over your wives and your wives have rights over you. Remember, you must always treat your wives with kindness. Woman is weak and cannot protect her own rights. When you married, God appointed you the trustees of those rights. You brought your wives to your homes under the Law of God. You must not, therefore, insult the trust which God has placed in your hands.”
The 21st century reality is that Muslim women are fighting to overcome inherent, discriminatory attitudes prevalent in all levels of society just as all women are, within the cultural context they find themselves. Muslim women are doing this not on the grounds of the secular rally for women’s equality but based on a right Islam has given.
Yet her greater fight is the 14 century-old struggle to achieve her life’s purpose through the recognition of God. Every individual continues this struggle within the constraints of her society, financial situation, family and personal capabilities. As God has comforted –
‘Allah burdens not any soul beyond its capacity…’ (2:287)
Her definition of success is her personal relationship with God – she may achieve this whilst serving as a leader wielding immense political power, but equally as a daughter who discharges her obligations to her parents, or as mother who fulfils the dues of her children.
Motherhood is a relevant subject of discussion for women in every century. In the UK while 74% of women recognise motherhood as a full time career, over 70% of mothers work. The factors driving this picture are many of which economic reasons are foremost. The drive to get women in to work waxes and wanes in sync with perceived economic need by governments. But Islam assigns a position of great honour to a mother which is unchanging. The love and devotion due to parents, and especially to the mother, are repeatedly stressed in the Holy Quran:
“We have enjoined on man kindness towards his parents…” (29:9)
and by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him):
“Paradise lies at the feet of your mothers.”
The paradise mentioned refers to both the societal paradise that can be achieved and the heavenly Paradise. Islam recognises the unique position of women in their ability to nurture valuable future denizens of the world and in this recognition has placed mothers above fathers.
Hilde Coffé, Selin Dill, The gender gap in political participation in Muslim-majority countries. International Political Science Review Vol 36, Issue 5, 2015