Status of Women in Islamic Teachings: The Value of Womanhood

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Saleh Hassanzadeh

The women’s rights challenge is one of the most controversial theoretical fields in contemporary world, so that, if one claimed that every theory of humanities should take a clear position toward that challenge, they would not have exaggerated. During the past few decades the Islamic world has been also faced with that challenge and Muslim thinkers have tried to present a religious reading of women’s rights.

However, the way has not been cleared yet and debates among Muslim thinkers in this field still continue. The present paper aims to explore Islam’s emphasis on the role of women in various political and social fields through an Islamic standpoint.

Before Islam, people had two kinds of looks at social status of women. Some maintained that women have no essential role in social structure of human society, but are part of living conditions and are necessary just as men need a house and related equipment. Others believed that women were subordinate individuals in the society and had no role in establishing it. In this viewpoint, men decided about women’s affairs and took care of them in order to exploit their labor force.

In such societies, women were deprived of all rights, save for those rights, which were also beneficial to men, who were considered as women’s guardians. In those societies, men treated women in the way that strong treated the weak. In other words, they exploited women. However, in Islamic societies, women were cast in three ways:

1.    Traditional image of woman (Shariati, 2336, p. 90): That is, a woman who is introduced as the model for a Muslim woman, but her soul and thought are dominated by ethnic and reactionary traditions and customs and she knows nothing about true Islam. That woman will have to lead a life within old frames of life. Her roles as mother and wife are based on old notions, not those of Islam.

2.    Modern and European-style image of woman which has just begun to thrive: The character of this woman is cast by owners of cosmetics and pharmaceutical companies of the modern world and her news are relayed throughout the world in the most stimulating way through audio and visual media. A wise man who is master of his carnal desires knows that the mask of freedom and that doll-like façade belies an ugly face underneath which stands in sharp contrast to spirituality and human values and is against spiritual and human independence of man.

3.    Image of Muslim woman who has been raised according to true teachings of Islam: This face stands at equal distance from the past two images. Islam neither accepts traditional, reactionary woman dominated by ethnic customs who is slave to men’s desires, nor the modern version of woman, who is enslaved by owners of big pharmaceutical and cosmetics firms and is considered a consumer object. Hazrat Fatemeh (AS) is exemplar of this image of a Muslim woman.

Hazrat Zahra (AS) is neither like old-style, traditionalist and ignorant women, nor like modern, doll-like women who only serve to satisfy men’s concupiscence. Our reference for the above division of women as well as negation of the first two and acceptance of third image is Sunna of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) and Quran. From the viewpoint of Islam, skin color, nationality, or being man or woman are not good criteria for determining superiority of one human being over the other, but the piety is.

Islam maintains that a male and a female were partners to creation of man and none of them are superior to the other except in piety and virtues. When introducing women, Islam has never said, “women are solely carriers of human seed” or “children of our sons, are our own children, but children of our girls, belong to other people” (Tabatabaei, Bita, Vol. 2, p. 406). From the viewpoint of Islam, everybody is responsible for his/her own actions and their consequences and nobody’s actions, whether a man or a women, would be wasted by God: “I will not waste any person’s action, whether a man or a woman” (Chapter Al-e ‘Imran: 159). In addition to such verses, which clearly indicate equality of men to women in human values, there are other verses, which condemn humiliation of and contempt for women (like Chapter Nahl: 59). Islam appeared in an environment when women were not considered true human beings and were considered a cause of contempt for their families and peoples. Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) saved women from those wrong customs and notions. As put by Imam Khomeini, “History of Islam is evidence to extreme respect of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) for his daughter Hazrat Zahra (AS) in order to prove that women’s status in the society is no less than men.”

Islamic role model

From the viewpoint of Islam, a good woman, like a good man, is a role model for the Islamic society. Islam has never said that good women are role models for women and good men are role models for men. “If a human being is virtuous, he/she would be a role model for other human beings. If it is a man, he would be a role model for all human beings, not simply men, and if it is a woman, she would be a role model for the whole society, not only for women.” (Javadi, 1996, p. 153)

In Chapter Tahrim, verses 110-112, Quran has brought four women as examples for good and bad people (two good and two bad women). Imam Khomeini has noted on the occasion of the birthday of Hazrat Fatemeh (AS): “This is a great day. A woman has been born, who is as worthy as all men; a woman who is a complete role model for humans, a woman who is reflection of complete human identity.”

After Hazrat Fatemeh (AS) started her marital life with Imam Ali (AS), sometimes Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) asked Imam Ali (AS), who was embodiment of piety, about Fatemeh (AS). Ali (AS) always said, “She is my best aid in obeying the orders of God.” (Islamic Republic of Iran’s Women Society; 1989, p. 20)

Of course, Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) or Imam Ali (AS) did not appreciate Fatemeh (AS) because she was their daughter or wife, but because she was a full example of human perfection. It was her perfect personality, which made them laud her, not that she was simply loved by Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) and Imam Ali (AS). Both of them had other daughters and wives, but they lauded neither of them as they did Fatemeh (AS).

Quran has appreciated all women’s efforts at reaching perfection and has ordered his messenger to accept allegiance from women who seek perfection and monotheism. Basically, women are in charge of the most sensitive phase of human perfection by assuming responsibility for raising children. Therefore, to make an exemplary society, Islam first emphasizes on raising good women and Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) has introduced such a woman as a flower from the Heavens.

Other historical evidence, which attest to equality of men and women in Islam, is as follows:

1.    Islam addresses the whole humanity, not men or women;

2.    Human beings are differentiated according to their faith, not their social status or class origin and not according to gender, nationality and color skin;

3.    The main criterion for superiority and priority is piety and meritocracy. “The most honorable of you before God is the most pious of you” (Chapter Hujarat: 13). According to historical books, Hazrat Khadijeh (AS) was greatly revered by Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) and he always talked about her services to Islam. One day, his other wife, ‘Aisheh, was upset and told Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) “she was just an old woman out of old women and God has given you better women” (Bahr ul-Ulum, 1979, p. 117). Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) answered her by saying, “By God! I have never had a better woman. She believed in me when disbelief was at its peak. She confirmed by mission when everybody rejected me and when I was besieged by infidels, she spent her property to help me….” (ibid)

So, it is clear that the criteria for Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) to judge about his women were their faith and service to humanity and Islam, not their appearance and outward beauty.

4.    Men and women are held responsible for what they do: “Men and women will reap the benefits or suffer the punishment for what they do” (Chapter Baqara: 286). So, just in the same way that men can decide about their fate and act independently to see the consequences of what they do, the same is true about women.

5.    Islam also believes in total equality between men and women from the viewpoint of social affairs and their role in management of those affairs. The reason for that equality is that women have all the needs that men have. Therefore, Quran has said, “Men and women are of the same substance” (Chapter Al-e ‘Imran: 195).

6.    Men and women supplement each other in Islam and perfection is attained when they interact correctly. Therefore, as Quran has noted, “Women are raiment for you, as you are raiment for them” (Chapter Baqara: 187). Therefore, Islam looks at women from the viewpoint of their human values and this is Achilles’ hill of feminist groups who emphasize on gender. Therefore, they have not only failed to solve problems facing contemporary women, but have also added to problems and conflicts between women and men.


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