Revealing the position of women in Islamic society
The Prophet Muhammad (570-632) established a system of religious thought that permanently transformed society around the world. Today Islam exists in a significant variety of regions and the influence of the tenets of the Quran have been able to efficiently adapt. The women of Islam stand at the forefront of the necessity for this adaptation.
The position of females in any society is often a significant indicator of the social structure as a whole. With respect to the women of Islam it is clear that this position can vary considerably and, thus, may have many other causes than simple issues of dogma.
The Taliban in Afghanistan are representative of rigid extreme Islamic fundamentalism. One of their stated goals has been to restore the “chasteness and dignity of women.” In reality this amounted to a true removal of any rights to a free existence.
Women were completely cut off from the rest of the world, with the only male contact being before the age of 8 and after marriage. The very sight of a woman, including images, was seen as something that could incite weaker individuals to impulse, and thus banned.
Under the Taliban all women were banned from employment. The thinking behind this was that women should not be required to work. In reality, a huge sector of the Afghan economy was removed. Extremely conservative, agrarian, or theocratic countries, like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan tend to have the least-free women.
Even though women were given the right to vote in Saudi Arabia, for instance, they still were barred from operating vehicles to get to the polls. These small details make female advancement in extremely conservative religious societies difficult.
Egypt is a perfect example of a more economically free, largely Islamic culture. This video from the Egyptian Revolution shows a woman out in public, as part of a protest:
Her clothing is partially torn off, exposing a part of her bra. This exploded as outrage for Muslim women. Their protest chants promised to give the blood of their brothers as righteous sacrifice.
The ideology of Islam stems, in large part, from the Zoroastrian, Hebraic, and Christian systems. A main difference, however, between early Islam and the few-centuries-old Catholic Church is a stance on celibacy that mirrors that of the Hebrews.
More specifically where the church had, in part, accepted an ideology handed down from the Roman Empire that largely stressed the “sinfulness” of the world, Muslim thought had embraced all elements of what they saw as the kingdom of God. A large majority of the Muslim saints were even married.
Islam is the language of submission in that its sole requirement for conversion is that of declaring that one has submitted to the almighty. Necessarily women, being physically weaker and bound by the burdens of childbirth had no real ability or hope to change the situation. This is the genesis of the standard doctrine that, “Men have authority over women because God has made one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them.” (Women:4:34)
Once again, however, the value of this quote comes not from the first, but the last part. Men were seen as legally responsible for the maintenance of the household, they had many more rights than women did in general. Because of this, men were also taxable and made somewhat responsible for being pillars of the community. In this way Islamic society was built. Women, on the other hand were often treated like children.
The position of women in early Islamic society was largely protected and highly shielded from the world. The sixth and seventh centuries (depending on one’s location) were fairly dangerous times. Owing to this as well as the nomadic cultures of the Arab tribes that would eventually join to carry out Muhammad’s conquests, women occupied extremely traditional roles.
Now, it is obvious that, at the time, these roles served a purpose. The Islamic population needed to keep expanding, therefore establishing a firm basis for maintaining and propagating the family unit was seen as paramount.
A system of thought like Islam, which acted to unify so many different groups of individuals, helped significantly to organize the peoples in the Arabian peninsula into a system that was large, effective. It has been argued that this system became the birthplace of a new golden age of culture.
Contrary to many other religions, Islam was not, necessarily, exclusive of other faiths, “Believers, Jews, Christians, and Sabaeans-whoever believes in God and the last day and does what is right-shall be rewarded…they have nothing to fear or to regret.” (The Cow:2:61) It is a perfectly-designed system for growth, both in terms of the dialectic and the expansion of societal management. Subjugated peoples were normally allowed to keep their faiths, provided that they pay a special tax; those who converted became exempt from the measure.
In fact, the Quran addresses many of the common issues that local magistrates were faced with at the time. For instance, “As for the man or woman who is guilty of theft, cut off their hands to punish them for their crimes.” (The Table:5:35)
To the individual of today this seems a tad harsh, however people must again remember that the world of early Islam was significantly different from that of today. It seems as if, in many instances, those Islamic societies who are more prosperous and generous to their people (including secular government) have a much more lenient stance on Islamic doctrine.
In the previous quote above, it is of value to note that the highly-traumatic experience of limb-severing applies both to men and to women. This is one of the most fascinating aspects of Muslim culture, the bizarre relationship between women, their husbands, property, and the law. It is also true that in certain instances women are given the advantage as accusations against them often require many witnesses, while those against men often do not require any.
In many other legal instances women are highly-protected. Women’s property, under Islam, is traditionally respected, “If you wish to replace one wife with another, do not take from her the dowry you have given her even if it be a talent of gold. That would be improper and grossly unjust.” (Women:4:20)
Today, Islam extends throughout the world with a significantly-growing population in Europe. As this trend continues it will be necessary to observe the relative freedom of women in different Islamic communities around the world to get at the true variables behind the disparity in freedom of choice.
In western areas, like Europe, Canada, and the United States, Muslim women can lead radically different lives. As soon as many everyday, material variables are taken care of, the focus of Muslims in prosperous societies can be on the higher virtues such that, “Men shall be rewarded according to their deeds, and women shall be rewarded according to their deeds.” (Women:4:26)
It is very clear that a perplexing relationship between the sexes exists in Islam. On one side, women appear to hold an almost exulted place. They are protected above all others (as the tendency to keep them from leaving the house without a male present).
This is an obvious carry-over from the time in which Islam was founded. On the other side they, just like men, can be abused by the system. Effort on the part of western countries should look to efficiently allocate resources in this struggle for equality across the globe, away from those movements which subjectively sensationalize.