Exhibitions portray ideals: all that is best in a person's work, a society, a period of artistic endeavour and so on. A talk at an exhibition should do the same, so I shall begin by putting forward the ideals of Islam concerning women, and their role models. I shall show how these ideals are set forth in the Qur'an, which Muslims consider to be the revealed word of God - Allah - in the Arabic language, and also refer to the Hadith and Sunnah, the reports of the sayings and the model practice of the Prophet Muhammad*. These two sources make up the basis for the Islamic law, Shari'ah, the body of legislation and moral guidance constructed by the Muslim scholars. Although the Qur'an is taken as unchallengeable, each Hadith is open to well-founded scholarly question as to its authenticity; and the interpretations given to the Qur'an and Hadith, which frequently result in differences of opinion, are open to still further questioning. The many different opinions expressed by the scholars give latitude to Muslims to choose between them to find acceptable guidelines. The Islamic law is not as monolithic and unchangeable as it might appear, although it does have a base of absolutes on which to stand.
This preamble is important with regard to women in Islam, because it has often been observed by Muslim scholars that the Islamic family law as practised in some Muslim countries bears little resemblance to the liberating and sympathetic treatment of women pioneered by the Prophet Muhammad himself (pbuh). Even Mawdudi, considered by some to be among the most conservative of modern Islamic revivalist commentators, Abul A'la Mawdudi, has criticisms to make of the why Indian Muslim law has been practised1. So it is important to distinguish between current, or even past practice, and the spirit of the law - the ideals as laid down by Allah in the Qur'an and exemplified by the Prophet Muhammad*. Most modern writers on Women in Islam are agreed that it is vital to go back to these original sources and reinterpret them in the context of the societies in which we all live now in order to clear up corruptions which have been incorporated into the laws, both from indigenous cultural sources and European colonialist efforts to, as they thought, `reform' the Shari'ah. So it is to these original sources, the Qur'an and Hadith, that I shall mainly refer.
The Qur'an has much to say both ABOUT women, and TO women. One Surah is called `Women', another is named after Maryam the mother of Jesus (pbuh). Women appear in many other parts. In stories of the prophets we have
- Hawwa (Eve) the wife of Adam, no longer the temptress who leads Adam to sin but a partner jointly responsible with him and jointly forgiven by Allah soon afterwards.
- There is the wife of Nuh (Noah) (pbuh) who betrays her husband and is held up along with the wife of Lot as an example of a disbeliever (66:10-11).
- There is the wife of Ibrahim, who laughs at the news the angel brings, of the baby she is to have in her old age;
- the wife of Pharaoh, who saves the infant Musa (Moses) (pbuh) and, along with Maryam, mother of Jesus, is one of the two female examples of the good believer held up in Surah 66:10 & 11.
- The wife of Aziz, who tried to seduce Yusuf (Joseph), is nevertheless treated with some sympathy, when she shows her friends how handsome he is and they all cut themselves with their knives because they are distracted by his beauty;
and there are more women besides.
It is noteworthy that the four women I have mentioned as examples are presented to both male and female Muslims to show how it is possible to be true believers in difficult circumstances, and disbelievers in favourable circumstances.
- The two good examples believed in spite of the attitudes of those close to them, Pharaoh's wife saving Moses from her husband's wicked command to kill all the Hebrew firstborn sons, and Maryam confronting accusations of immorality when she brought home her baby after the virgin birth.
- The two bad ones disbelieved in spite of being married to prophets of Allah. In neither case do these examples show the traditional picture of the `submissive' woman.
Then there are the contemporary women of the Prophet's household, his wives and daughters. One of his wives, Umm Salamah, complained to him that the Qur'an was addressed only to men, and then a long passage was revealed to the Prophet* addressed clearly to men and women in every line, which states clearly the equal responsibilities and rewards for Muslim men and women.
Aishah, his youngest wife, caused a scandal when she went out into the desert to look for a necklace she had lost there and got left behind by the caravan. She was rescued by a young man and came back with him and rumours spread that she had been dallying with him. This caused great pain to her and to the Prophet and it was a long time before they were relieved by another revelation (24:4), demanding that people making such accusations against chaste women must produce four eye witnesses to the act or suffer a flogging themselves and have their evidence rejected ever after.
There are passages specifically addressed to the wives of the Prophet as a group. For example:
And stay quietly in your houses, and make not a dazzling display, like those of the former times of ignorance, and establish regular prayer, and give zakat (welfare due) and obey Allah and His Messenger. And Allah only wishes to remove all abomination from you, Ye members of the family, and to make you pure and spotless.
And recite what is rehearsed to you in your houses of the Signs of Allah and His Wisdom, for Allah is All-Subtle, All-Aware.
Other passages are addressed via the Prophet to his wives, daughters and the women of the believers.
Still others were revealed in answer to questions from ordinary women, like the one concerning the practice of divorce by abstinence within the marriage (zihar). A woman complained to the Prophet about this practice, which left the woman with no sexual satisfaction, but still not free to marry another husband and a verse was revealed condemning this practice.
Another passage was revealed in answer to a woman's complaint about the way her husband wanted to have intercourse with her (2:223).
So the Qur'an is a book which has a lot to say TO women and ABOUT women. What does it say? We have already seen that it does not condemn all women in the image of Eve as Christianity has been known to do; that it is often on the side of women who complain about injustice, in marriage, divorce and in false accusation. How does it view the creation of woman? Is she just a part of Adam and an afterthought? This is what it says, in the first Ayah (verse) of Surah an-Nisa - The Women:
`A single soul' is neither male nor female, although it could be understood to mean Adam it is not necessarily so. In fact `soul' is feminine and `mate' is masculine! Not that I'm suggesting that women came first, because in other parts of the Qur'an the creation of Adam is described. But the gender relationship here is ambivalent. And the mate was created from the `soul' not the humble `rib'. No Muslim scholar could ever argue, after reading this, as some Christians have done, that women do not have a soul! They are made of the same soul as men. Their capacity for good and evil is identical with that of men. In 49:13, of the Qur'an we find that it is good deeds and awareness of Allah which make the believer, male or female, noble in the sight of Allah:
The works of male and female are of equal value and each will receive the due reward for what they do:
The same duties are incumbent on men and women as regards their faith:
There are a few exceptions: women are given exemption from some duties,
- Fasting when they are pregnant or nursing or menstruating,
- Praying when menstruating or bleeding after childbirth, and
- The obligation to attend congregational prayers in the mosque on Fridays.
- They are not obliged to take part as soldiers in the defence of Islam, although they are not forbidden to do so.
But under normal circumstances they are allowed to do all the things that men do.
- Even when they are menstruating, on special days, like the two Id festivals, they are still allowed to come to the Id prayers, and menstruating women can take part in most of the actions of the Hajj pilgrimage.
But are women's duties in social life different and complementary as most scholars assert? Is their sole function to keep house and bear and rear children while the men do everything else? Does the fact that they suffer disruption to their health when they menstruate make them unsuitable for any job outside the house, and fit only to maintain a happy and peaceful home, as Mawdudi would have us believe? This is an argument that is grossly exaggerated by male scholars everywhere to justify all kinds of discrimination against women. Mawdudi would have us believe that women scarcely enjoy a few days' sanity in their lives, so disruptive are the effects of menstruation and childbearing. No doubt there is some truth in his description of such disruption, and allowances should be made by men, and other women for this, but this does not disqualify women from any task that men can do any more than it disqualifies them from creating happy and well-run homes.
Nor is there any basis in the Qur'an or Hadith for such an attitude. The Qur'an mentions menstruation in 2:222:
Islamic law makes no demand that women should confine themselves to household duties. In fact the early Muslim women were found in all walks of life. The first wife of the Prophet, mother of all his surviving children, was a businesswoman who hired him as an employee, and proposed marriage to him through a third party; women traded in the marketplace, and the Khalifah Umar, not normally noted for his liberal attitude to women, appointed a woman, Shaff'a Bint Abdullah, to supervise the market. Other women, like Laila al-Ghifariah, took part in battles, carrying water and nursing the wounded, some, like Suffiah bint Abdul Muttalib even fought and killed the enemies to protect themselves and the Prophet* and like Umm Dhahhak bint Masoud were rewarded with booty in the same way as the men. Ibn Jarir and al-Tabari siad that women can be appointed to a judicial position to adjudicate in all matters, although Abu Hanifah excluded them from such weighty decisions as those involving the heavy hadd and qisas punishments, and other jurists said that women could not be judges at all. The Qur'an even speaks favourably of the Queen of Sheba and the way she consulted her advisors, who deferred to her good judgement on how to deal with the threat of invasion by the armies of Solomon. (Qur'an 27:32-35):
A much vaunted Hadith that the Prophet said, `A people who entrust power to a woman will never prosper', has been shown to be extremely unreliable on several counts. It is an isolated and uncorroborated one, and therefore not binding in Islamic law, and in addition there is reason to believe it may have been forged in the context of the battle which Aishah the Prophet's widow led against the fourth Khalifah Ali. In view of the examples set by women rulers in history, it is also clearly untenable and false.
To sum up, the qualifications of women for work of all kinds are not in doubt, despite some spurious ahadith to the contrary. Women can do work like men, but they DO NOT HAVE to do it to earn a living. They are allowed and encouraged to take the duties of marriage and motherhood seriously and are provided with the means to stay at home and do it properly.
The Muslim woman has always had the right to own and manage her own property, a right that women in this country only attained in the last 100 years. Marriage in Islam does not mean that the man takes over the woman's property, nor does she automatically have the right to all his property if he dies intestate. Both are still regarded as individual people with responsibilities to other members of their family - parents, brothers, sisters etc. and inheritance rights illustrate this. The husband has the duty to support and maintain the wife, as stated in the Qur'an, and this is held to be so even if she is rich in her own right. He has no right to expect her to support herself, let alone support his children or him. If she does contribute to the household income this is regarded as a charitable deed on her part.
Because of their greater financial responsibilities, some categories of male relations, according to the inheritance laws in the Qur'an, inherit twice the share of their female equivalents, but others, whose responsibilities are likely to be less, inherit the same share -mothers and fathers, for instance are each entitled to one sixth of the estate of their children, after bequests (up to one third of the estate) and payment of debts. (Qur'an 4:11):
If no children, and the parents are the (only) heirs, the mother has a third; if the deceased left brothers (or sisters) the mother has a sixth...
Nor are women expected to do the housework. If they have not been used to doing it, the husband is obliged to provide domestic help within his means, and to make sure that the food gets to his wife and children already *****d. The Prophet* himself used to help with the domestic work, and mended his own shoes. Women are not even obliged in all cases to suckle their own children. If a divorcing couple mutually agree, they can send the baby to a wet-nurse and the husband must pay for the suckling. If the mother decides to keep the baby and suckle it herself, he must pay her for her trouble! This is laid down in the Qur'an itself, (2:233):
as well as the men and ordered the men to pass on what they had learned to their women:
Nevertheless the womanly state in marriage is given full respect in Islam, and so are the rights of children. No Muslim woman could feel ashamed to say she was only a housewife. She is the head of her household, although the husband has the final say in major decisions. According to a Hadith:
The wife must defer to her husband in respect for the fact that he maintains and protects her out of his means (Qur'an 4:34), but not if he tries to make her break the laws of Allah. Likewise children's obedience and respect for parents goes only to the limits set by Allah. If the parents try to make them disobey Allah, then it is their duty to disobey the parents. If the husband wilfully fails to maintain his wife, she has the right to divorce him in court.
Women are also entitled to respect as mothers: Allah says in the Qur'an (31:14):
In cases of divorce, the mother has first claim to custody of the young children, followed by other female members of her family, if she remarries or is unable to look after the children. The right reverts to the husband's family only after the children reach an age of greater independence, which varies according to the school of law, and then the wishes of the child must be taken into consideration, if the example of the Prophet* is to be followed. In a disputed case, he asked the child: