Throughout history, religions and philosophers have emphasized the importance of relations between men and women. Initially, Aristotle and other philosophers put forward views that generally disparaged women and presented ideas that were unlikely to be embraced by them.
There is a great difference in the approaches of the Abrahamic and that of other religions towards women, and from time to time they can contradict one another. Islam and Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) arrived at a time when mankind had accumulated a rich historical experience; to better understand just how great a revolution was brought about by the Prophet and the introduction of Islam we need to evaluate the principles that were put forward on this matter and the approach of the Prophet himself to Muslim and non-Muslim women.
In the religion that was propounded by Prophet Muhammad, women gained dignity, honor and social status. Islam guarantees civil, social, economic and legal rights for women and by raising the status of women as daughters, wives and mothers, gives them rights and privileges equivalent to that of men. The perception that views Muslim women in eastern societies as an uncivilized and ignorant group that lacks personal rights is not a result of Islam, but rather has come about due to a series of economic, political, social and psychological conditions. Following the death of the Prophet, the status of women decreased due to the concept and approach of the patriarchal family, which restricted the rights of women; this, in turn, was accompanied by the influences of social, cultural, environmental and political conditions. The consequence has had an effect on the interpretations of the laws.
The assessment of the status of the woman within the family and society, the analysis of her role and the nature of relations between men and women during the era of Prophet Muhammad all provide information about the Islamic view of the women. Islam views women as human beings who have the same status as men and portrays women as being equal to men in relation to their rights and responsibilities, as well as in their creation. Women and men are depicted as equally dependent on one another. In the Holy Quran it is stated “They are your garments and you are their garments” (Al-Baqarah, 2/187). In another verse it is stated, “The Believers, men and women, are protectors, one of another” (Al-Tawba, 9/71). During his farewell sermon the Prophet gave the following message while discussing the rights of women and relations between men and women: “O People! You have rights over your women and your women have rights over you.” Consequently, within the religion of Islam women are considered to hold a level equivalent to that of men and women and men are considered to be equal with regard to personal, legal and social rights. Women have many personal rights, such as the right of inheritance, the right to carry out religious duties, the right to participate in trade and the right to possess money. The rights of women were protected by laws, with the goal being that women became aware of their rights.
As stated in the Quran, although women have the same rights and privileges as men religiously and legally, it is impossible to speak of an absolute equality between the genders (Al-Hujurat, 49/35). Women have different physical, psychological and biological structures. Islam assesses these distinctive functions and differentiating roles by taking into account the differences between the genders. Islam, without going against the creation, establishes equality between the genders where possible and separates these two genders when such a concept is contrary to the idea or purpose of creation.
Due to the disparities in the natures of men and women there is a difference in the nature of their responsibilities; this has led to different rulings with regard to issues such as inheritance and marriage. The existence of different rulings in cases of inheritance, engagement or divorce has contributed to the portrait of the Muslim woman as a person who submits to the will of men and who has a secondary status.
One of the factors that contributes to this perception is that when a person passes away, if they have both sons and daughters, the inheritance laws states that the daughters are given half the share given to the sons. However, according to the same Islamic Laws, men are responsible for the sustenance of the family and have the responsibility of supporting any relatives, close or distant, who are in need of assistance; he also has various financial responsibilities, such as the obligation to pay compensation or indemnities and the dowry. In comparison to this, the financial liabilities of women have been reduced. When we realize that men are obliged to support the family by themselves, it is easier to understand why they have greater inheritance rights than women.
In Islamic law, the right to divorce is granted to men. In Islamic law men have more comprehensive rights compared to women. This situation was established to put the economic burden of divorce on men and thus prevent men from abusing their right to divorce, or from using it arbitrarily. On the other hand, women who experience harm or oppression in their marriage, or who are not happy with their marriage, are able to end their matrimony after consulting a judge or judges if their husbands refuse to divorce them. Moreover, acting upon the initiative and will of the woman, they may seek a divorce with compensation. During the era of Prophet Muhammad women had a say in matters of marriage and divorce. For example, Fatima, Prophet Muhammad’s daughter, did not consent to her husband Ali taking a second wife, and her father supported her, saying to his son-in-law “either divorce Fatima or abstain from marrying a second time”.
The Holy Quran accepts the existence of biological differences; however, these are not regarded as being grounds for inequality. Yet, in some Islamic countries the idea of inequality established between the genders on the basis of biological differences between men and women leads to a predicament that fuels the “rigid authority of men”. Since the Quran and the hadith (saying of the Prophet) were not understood as a whole, this led to a deviation in the context of hadiths relating to the obedience of women to their husbands, creating an image of women as helpless and without personal rights. However, during the era of Prophet Muhammad, the opposite situation had existed; the status of women within family and society was elevated, and the exemplary attitude of the Prophet in his positive relations with women and the great care he gave toward women’s rights are evidence of the value attached to women. The Prophet even treated non-Muslim women with kindness, helping a woman who came from Mecca to Medina, even though she was not Muslim, while during a military expedition he released a woman and her husband as they had provided the Islamic army with the necessary information. It is further stated that he helped Muslim women who were unwell, even paying visits to their houses.
Even though certain roles have been delineated for women in Islam, it can be seen that the distribution of roles are not completely distinct. In some societies, these roles may have been allocated in a manner that is disadvantageous for some and may have been of an unstable nature. Yet, the women who lived during the era of Prophet Muhammad were actively involved in the religious and social life. Women stood side-by-side with men in terms of politics, warfare and education. It is known that the Holy Prophet listened to women who negotiated for the amnesty of political prisoners and even acted in accordance with the advice of his wives regarding political issues. The fact that many companions wished for Aisha, the Prophet’s wife, to be their leader reveals the fact that women played an active role in social life. It is also known that Aisha, in addition to her talent for relating hadiths, also was renowned for her knowledge of fatwa, inheritance, history, genealogy, poetry, medical science and astronomy.
Contrary to what is evident in Islamic societies today, the distribution of work within the working life was less distinct at the time of the Prophet. For example, Zaynab, another wife of Muhammad, was engaged in the leather-trade and distributed her income as charity. The Prophet would help his wives with the housework, patch his torn clothes and stitch his ripped shoes himself. Consequently, we can understand that women in Islam had, and should have, independent personalities while also being independent economically. In one hadith, women are described not as a commodity in the possession of men, but rather as persons having the same rights to them. This may not seem so striking today, but 1400 years ago this was a novel and revolutionary idea. In addition to this, the fact that the Prophet borrowed money from Hawla bint Amr and asked Dubaa bint al-Zubair to send some meat from a sheep she had sacrificed also provides information as to his relations with women and how he regarded them.
During the period of Prophet Muhammad we can see that not only did women have dignity and were aware of their rights, but they were also able to defend themselves. The portrayal of Muslim women as persons with a secondary status, oppressed by male dominance, is the manifestation of the ongoing practices of Muslim people and of the clichés developed by the West. Unfortunately, the negative image of Muslim women has been formed over time and has a structure that contradicts the practices of the era of Prophet Muhammad. The negative notions of patriarchal cultures with regard to women might be said to have a quality that fuels their own prejudices. The wider range of male responsibility in daily life leads naturally to men having more rights and authority over women. As a matter of fact, in one verse of the Holy Quran it is said: “And women shall have rights similar to the rights (of men) but men have a degree over them” (Al-Baqarah, 2/228). However, this does not mean that women have secondary status within the family or society or that they lack individuality. What is important in Islam is not the gender, but the status of the individual before Allah. The best way to illuminate this concept is the verse: “The most honored of you in the sight of God is (he who is) the most righteous…” (Al-Hujurat, 49/13).
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