This weekend marks the death of Mohammed, prophet of Islam, 1,382 years ago. Of course Islam receives much media attention in America these days and in that media attention stereotypes are perpetuated, one of which is the position of women in Islam. Let it be said first that I am not a Muslim and this is not an apologetic for Islam. I teach Religious Studies at a private Catholic university. Thus my job is to educate and in educating, dispel ignorance while engaging students to think critically about serious issues.
One of the most difficult aspects of teaching religion (especially these when it come to teaching about Islam) is being able to distinguish what a religion actually teaches and how a particular religious society/culture puts those teachings into practice. For example, Jesus taught people to love their enemies as well as their neighbors. Case in point: one only need to look at the Spanish Inquisition, the treatment of Jews (there are accounts of how, during the Crusades, when Jews saw the Christian armies coming, mothers would kill their infants before killing themselves because such was the better alternative as compared to what the Christians would do) or the treatment of Native Americans to see that Christians did not always practice what Jesus taught. But how easy it is for us to forget such history and therefore think uncritically about Christianity. And of course today there is the Westboro Baptist Church.
When it comes to Islam, however, many are all too ready to believe the stereotypes perpetuated by the media and continue to act upon their own ignorance.
Now it is true that treatment of women in many Islamic countries today is less than humane, often brutal, and in no way do I condone such practices. These are cases again where it becomes difficult to differentiate what a religion teaches and how a society practices the religion. How a society practices a religion is always wrapped up in particular political agendas that are then wrapped up in particular historical contexts and in the case of Islam, are often wrapped up in application and interpretation of Islamic Law, which historically has been dominated by men.
The following discussion will proceed through three discussions: Religious Sources, Clothing, and Mohammed as a Social Revolutionary.
So what does Islam say about women?
Before answering this question, I must disclose my source. My source is the Qur’an which, according to Muslim belief, is the Word of God, through the mouth of the prophet Mohammed.
Spiritually Islam recognizes the position of women to be equal to that of man. The Qur’an says: “I will not suffer the work of a worker among you to be lost, whether male or female, the one of you being from the other” (3: 194). The rewards of heaven are equal for men and women: “Whoever does good whether male or female and he or she is a believer–these shall enter the Garden” (40: 40; 4-124). Neither was Divine Revelation a man’s purvey as Moses’ mother as well as Mary, mother and Jesus, received revelation.
So too does the Qur’an state women are to be recognized as being equal to man from a material point of view. She can earn money, she can own property, and she can follow any profession. “For men is the benefit of what they earn. And for women is the benefit of what they earn” 4:32). “But if they (women) of themselves be pleased to give you a portion thereof (ie of their property), consume it with enjoyment” (4:4), meaning women have full control over their property.
Now one may say, yes, that is fine, but what about the passage in the Qur’an that allows a man to beat his wife? So states the passage: “As to those women on whose part you fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them first, next refuse to share their beds, and last beat them lightly” (4: 34).
Now without going into the intricacies of Qur’anic interpretation, it should be noted that when it comes to interpretation, “0ne of the key rules of understanding words of the Quran is to go to other places in the Quran to investigate the usage in other places” (www.islamtomorrow.com). The Arabic word translated as “beat” is daraba, which, following the principle of interpretation leads to the following conclusion: daraba does not mean that physically abusing one’s wife is allowed in the way the English term “beat” implies. It rather implies lightly rapping her in a way that leaves no physical mark.
As regards to the spiritual position of women, let us briefly look at what some Christian saints–yes saints–have said on the very same subject:
–“Woman is the daughter of falsehood, a sentinel of Hell, the enemy of peace; through her Adam lost paradise” (St. John Damascene).
–“Woman is the arm of the Devil, her voice is the hissing of the serpent” (St. Anthony).
–“Woman has the poison of an aps, the malice of a dragon” (St. Gregory the Great).
In both the Jewish and Christian traditions, women, were, based on men’s interpretations of the story of Adam and Eve, considered of inferior substance, of secondary creation and thus of secondary importance to God. This led to further opinions such as St. Thomas Aquinas’s claim that women had no souls.
Women were the doorway for the devil of course. And how did the devil enter the world? Through a woman’s sexuality. And here we find another case of historical amnesia and recall the above Qur’anic statement in regards to beating one’s wife: because the devil entered the world through a woman, Martin Luther, that church revolutionary, said it was okay to beat your wife when she got out of line because you were not really beating her, you were beating back the devil.
Perhaps the most visible image Western media employs to “prove” Islamic oppression of women is the veil. First off, the Qur’an does not require a woman to wear a veil. It does not even require covering the hair. Heck, even the modest clothing is not an Islamic invention, for the tradition of such in the Middle East predates Islam by nearly 1,000 years. Here are but a few passages:
“O prophet, tell your wives, your daughters, and the wives of the believers that they shall lengthen their garments. Thus, they will be recognized (as righteous women) and avoid being insulted. God is Forgiver, Most Merciful” (33:59).
“O children of Adam, we have provided you with garments to cover your bodies, as well as for luxury. But the best garment is the garment of righteousness. These are some of God’s signs, that they may take heed” (7:26).
“Tell the believing men that they shall subdue their eyes (and not stare at the women), and to maintain their chastity. This is purer for them. God is fully Cognizant of everything they do. And tell the believing women to subdue their eyes, and maintain their chastity. They shall not reveal any parts of their bodies, except that which is necessary. They shall cover their chests, and shall not relax this code in the presence of other than their husbands, their fathers, the fathers of their husbands, their sons, the sons of their husbands, their brothers, the sons of their brothers, the sons of their They shall not strike their feet when they walk in order to shake and reveal certain details of their bodies” (24:30-31).
Of course one may object, saying that a woman’s body is a woman’s body and it is her right to do with it what she wants. I don’t disagree. At the same time, it is important to respect another culture’s traditions. Like the West, Islam organizes space into the public and private sphere and while not completely restrictive, the public (or zahir) is traditionally the man’s domain, the private (or batin) is traditionally the woman’s purvey. The term batin means private, hidden, and sacred. The batin is the woman’s domain. Accordingly, in Islamic tradition women are to be dressed modestly (hidden and private) because their bodies are embodiments of the sacred. Thus, dressing modestly is an expression of honoring the sacred.
The stereotype of oppression is maintained of course, because we in the West maintain our own ideals. We look at others through our own perspectives. But what if we were to switch the perspective around? What if we were to look at Western traditions when it comes to such matters? The following cartoon sums it up nicely and provides a point of reflection:
Furthermore, the issue of dress is again, in relation to the above introductory comments, an issue often wrapped up in larger social-political issues in a given historical context. Thus we have an image like this from Iran prior to the revolution:
Heck, you even find images like this of an Iranian woman in the 1970s prior to the revolution:
Mohammed the Social Revolutionary
America has historically prided itself on progressiveness. After reading what follows, one might question how progressive America has really been when it comes to women’s rights. Islam, on the other hand, is presented as oppressive. This assumption too, might be put forth to question. Mohammed was a social revolutionary and one of his biggest impacts on Arabian society dramatically changed the role of women.
To understand how he (and Islam) changed the role and status of women in Arabic society, we must first look at the status of women in Arabia prior to Islam. In short, women essentially had no status. Women were property, literally owned by their husbands who could sell and trade them at whim. As property, they could not own property and could not file for divorce. So too were they denied an education. Then there was the tradition of killing a newborn infant girl until a woman bore her husband his first son. Rape was not illegal. Basically women were good for sex and bearing a man a son.
That being said, what did Mohammed do and how did Islam change this situation? Here are but a few examples:
First, women could own property and could file for divorce. They possessed political rights and were obligated to receive an education. Mohammed outlawed female infanticide and rape was deemed not only immoral, but illegal (the purpose of the emphasis will become clear below).
All of these changes occurred in the brief 22 years Mohammed lived as a prophet and Islam began.
Now let us look briefly at rights of women in the progressive United States. After reading this one might object and say “yes, but Islam is a lot older than the United States.” That is precisely against the point. As mentioned, the changes Mohammed brought to the status of Islam occurred within those 22 years. What follows is not to be compared to the development of such changes in the passage of historical time, but in reference to the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
In 1920 women in America were given the right to vote. 144 years after the signing of the Declaration.
187 years after the signing, America put the Equal Pay Act into law, meaning men and women were to be paid the equal amount for the same job. (But we all know that doesn’t always happen.)
In 1964, 188 years after the signing, the government passed the Civil Rights Act which barred discrimination based on race and biological sex in the work place.
In 1969, 193 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence were women given the right to divorce.
Then (and here we find the reason for the point of emphasis considering rape above), it was not illegal for a man to rape his wife until the 1980s. In other words, for more than 200 years after the signing of our country’s foundational document–declaring our freedom and granting us the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness–it was legally okay for a man to rape his wife.
200+ years later.
How is that for progressiveness?