Women and Islam

A Man’s Perspective

By Tamim Saidi, Engage Minnesota

Tamim Saidi

Tamim Saidi

Based on my many conversations with Minnesotans about Islam, one of the most frequent criticisms I hear is the so-called “oppression of women.” As Muslims, we acknowledge that there are some Muslim women who are oppressed. But this oppression is not because of Islam, the religion, but rather because of cultures, traditions, politics, ethnic or tribal codes conduct or simply an individual’s desire to have dominion over another individual.

In a previous article I attempted to distinguish between the religion, Islam, and the culture of its followers, Muslims. One of the points I made was that just as it is not fair to blame Christianity for the non-Christian practices of various Christian groups, it is not fair to blame Islam for non-Islamic practices of some Muslims.  Unable or willing to distinguish religion from culture, many people end up blaming Islam for un-Islamic practices.

In the 6th Century CE Islam, via the teachings of Qur’an and the traditions of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him (p), elevated the status of women to a much higher degree than ever imagined.  As such, it is particularly distressing to see the religion that was then the “liberation movement for women.” now unjustifiably criticized for “oppressing women.”

In times when baby girls were being buried alive and women were traded like animals, the Prophet Muhammad (p) banned these practices and gave women rights previously unheard of. He (p) gave married women full ownership of their wealth and assets.  He (p) said that mothers have four times more rights regarding their children, than fathers (see my article “Mothers in Islam”).   He (p) urged husbands to remember their responsibilities to their wives, including the obligation to provide kind and gentle treatment along with food, clothing and shelter. In his last major sermon before his death, he (p) commanded Muslims to “Treat your women well.”   He (p) said:  “The best of you, in faith, are those who are the best to their wives.” 

The prophet Mohammad (p) did more than simply proclaim platitudes however; he (p) lived what he (p) preached. He (p.) was a model of piety and good behavior. Although it was the norm during those times for a man to hit his wives and children, the Prophet Muhammad (p) never struck or abused his family. He (p) did his own chores around the house, including mending his clothes.  He (p) consulted with his wives and treated them with love and respect.  And yes, like prophets before him, such as Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon and others, peace be upon them, Prophet Muhammad (p) had multiple wives whom he treated equally.  Clearly, if Muslim women are abused or oppressed today, it is not because of Islam – it is in spite of Islam.  In most cases, it might be due to cultural practices and understanding, and weakness of human nature.

Spiritual Equality & Women’s Involvement

The Qur’an, the Muslims’ holy book, and the last revelation of God, states that “The best among you in the Sight of God is the most pious of you.” From this verse, and a number of other references, Muslim scholars have concluded that men have no superiority over women for merely being male, and vice versa.  Superiority is defined exclusively by piety – not by gender, not by race, and not by physical appearances.

To site an obvious example that many Minnesotans can relate to, let’s consider a historic woman, the Virgin Mary (p), and a historic man, Pharaoh. In the Qur’an, Mary (Mariam, in Arabic) is called the “Most honored woman of humanity.”  No Muslim would ever argue that the man, Pharaoh, was more honored in the “Sight” of God than the woman, Mary.  Since she displays the highest state of piety, Mary (p), a woman, has a much higher place in Islam than Pharaoh, a man; in fact, she definitely has a much higher degree over billions of non-pious men. I do not think any Muslim would argue that a woman of good character who accepts God, prays, fasts, performs charity and, performs pilgrimage, has a good character and honors her duties to her family has a much higher standing in the Sight of God than a man who does none of these things.  The mere fact of being a male does not make one better in God’s Sight. Thus, both men and women have equal opportunity to be loved by God and to be admitted to highest levels of paradise, by God’s Grace and Mercy.

Muslim women have been an integral part of Islam since its beginnings. Early Islamic history attests to the contributions of many Muslim women, in different aspects of the society. Khadijah, the wife of Prophet Muhammad (p) was the very first Muslim. She accepted the message of the Prophet and relinquished her great fortune to support Islam.

Years after the death of Khadijah, Prophet Muhammad (p) married Aisha, who was a known for her piety and keen intellect. As a Muhadditha (narrator of prophetic traditions) and a faqeeh (scholar), she was a scholar in her own right. Uncharacteristic of women of her time, Aisha would not sit quietly when a man would misquote a prophetic tradition.

There were even women who fought in battles to defend the Prophet (p) and Muslim communities. Sumaiya, who was tortured and killed by Makkans for defending her faith, is known as the first Muslim martyr.

The tradition of women’s involvement in their faith and communities continues on in our modern society. Countless Muslim women worldwide work tirelessly to make their communities and the world a better place. A number of Muslim majority countries, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Turkey, have had women leaders and prime ministers. By contrast, a woman president still seems like a far away dream for millions of Americans.

More recent examples of Muslim women leaders include Ingrid Mattson, a Canadian born Muslim convert who serves as the President of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). ISNA is one of the largest national Islamic organizations in US and Canada, and an umbrella organization for many Islamic centers and mosques, including the Islamic Center of Minnesota in Fridley, and the Columbia Heights masjid. Many of Minnesota’s Islamic organizations, including the Muslim Students Associations (MSA), benefit from the leadership and service of their dedicated women volunteers. And it is truly refreshing and inspiring to see Farheen Hakim, a Muslim woman who chooses to wear hijab (the traditional scarf worn by many Muslim women), run for public office including the post of the Mayor of Minneapolis. Finally, even a quick look at the authors and editors of EngageMN.com attests to the integral participation and dedication of Muslim women right here in Minnesota.

It is noteworthy that Islam does acknowledge the differences in genders, not just in physique, or anatomy or physiology, but also the different psychologies of both genders.  The author of the book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus made millions of dollars pointing to some of these differences.  Islam sees the outwardly stronger physique of men as not just a gift but as a responsibility and liability, and assigns men to the responsibility to be the protectors and sustainers of women.  In Islam, it is the responsibility of the husband to provide for the family.  A wife does not have to pay for the “bills” or for the food, even if she has an income.

Hijab – The modest dress

Quite often Minnesotans ask me, “Why do women have to wear scarves?” Modesty is an important aspect of Islam. The Qur’an asks women to be modest by wearing their scarves so that they will be “recognized and will not be harassed.”

But it is not only the Qur’an that encourages women to cover their heads. The Bible states, “every women who prays or prophesiseth with her head uncovered, dishonors her head… if the women be not covered let her (hair) also be shorn (shaved off).” I Corranthians 11:5-7.

Covering the hair is not only an Islamic practice.  Christian women of different countries cover their hair.  Many South America Christian women, as well as African Christian women (mostly older women) still cover their hair during Sunday services. Women visiting the Vatican cover their hair, as did First Lady Laura Bush when she visited the Vatican.  Russian women, Jewish women, Hindu women, and women of many more backgrounds cover their hair.

To single out and attack Islam for advocating modesty and then to frame that custom as “oppressing women” is wrong-headed and completely inaccurate. Modesty, after all. is not only an Islamic tenant. In fact, the overwhelming majority of religions endorse and urge modest behavior. Lest we forget, the mother of Jesus (p), the Virgin Mary (p) also wore a scarf.  I have never seen any image of the Virgin Mary without a scarf.  Mary (p) is considered as the “most honored” woman of humanity in the Qur’an, and I think most Christians would agree with this description.

As modest as nuns

In the footsteps of the Virgin Mary, many nuns of various religious orders wear head coverings of sorts, including scarves, and loose fitting clothing. This is very much the way many Muslim women dress.

Some time back I heard of a small study that evaluated observers’ perceptions of Muslim women in scarves.  Although I was not able to find the details of the study, it has made sense to every Minnesotan with whom I have shared this story.  The researchers selected a random group of Americans, and then separated them in two groups.  To Group A they showed a picture of a nun wearing a scarf and her lose fitting clothing.  To Group B they showed a picture of a Muslim woman wearing a scarf and loose fitting clothing.  They asked both groups about their perceptions of the women in the pictures and to describe their feelings about them.  [I understand that there may have been some small variable such as the Muslim woman may not have been Caucasian, or she may not have been wearing all black attire.].

Although both women were wearing scarves that covered their hair entirely, as well as loose fitting clothing, the findings were astonishing.  Overall, Group A, which was shown the picture of a nun, had very positive perceptions.  They described her as “a woman of God,” “dedicated,” “helping people,” “making a great sacrifice,” “woman of high spirituality,” and other very positive descriptions.  Many in Group B, which was shown the picture of the Muslim woman, had opposite descriptions.  They perceived the person as “oppressed,” “uneducated,” “backwards,” and a number of other negative descriptions.  Even though both women, the nun and the Muslim woman, were essentially dressed the same way, the observers took away radically different impressions of the two.

Most Minnesotans are fascinated by this study.  The Muslim woman may have been one of the thousands of American Muslim women who are physicians, nurses, lawyers, teachers, engineers or other highly educated professionals.  But unfortunately because of her attire, the observers had entirely skewed perceptions of her.  Clearly this study makes it clear that our untested perceptions have much to do with us and our backgrounds rather than with the person herself.

So by making modesty a regular practice for both men and women, Islam has made it clear to men that women are their spiritual counterparts, and not a sexual commodity to be bought or sold.  Islam urges the societies to honor and value women for who they are, for their piety, righteousness, intelligence, integrity, lofty characters, efforts, accomplishments and the sacrifices that they make as a mother, a sister, a daughter and a member of the community, and not based on how “sexy” she looks. 

So the next time when we see a Muslim woman wearing a scarf, let’s assume that she might be the doctor who will save our lives, or the nurse who can comfort our pain, or the lawyer who will defend our rights. Let’s see her as a teacher, who shap.es our kids, or a respected and devoted mother who instills compassion and respect in her children, or a treasured wife who meets life’s challenges head-on with her beloved husband.  Let’s remember that she is an immensely cherished daughter, a precious member of our community, and perhaps, a person with a very lofty position in the Sight of God, Almighty.  And finally, let us all remember that God loves all of us.

 

Tamim Saidi is an American Muslim and an active member of the Muslim community in Minnesota.

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A Voice for Minnesotan Muslims

Posted on September 22, 2008, in Tamim Saidi and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. Salam
    a good article
    I published it in Midpress
    http://midpress.wordpress.com/

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  2. Why don’t men wear scarves?

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  3. salam jill.

    this is a question i’ve heard before and i think it’s a good one. i think if you analyze, even anecdotally, the relative societally percieved importance of different physical aspects of each gender, there is inherent asymmetry, regardless of being a member of the post-modern West, or the non-industrialized world.

    i think if you could make a case that men’s hair was as essential an aspect of their outward beauty as women’s hair truly is to them (and, often, society) then many a man would and ought wear scarves. i don’t think the intrinsic value of women’s hair, both to the individual woman, and those who view her hair is disputable – the sheer volume of cosmetic hair products in this world are a testament to the reality that women’s hair quality is widely viewed a testament to her beauty.

    but who looks after the perceive beauty of the woman who has “unattractive” or thin hair? and, further, who preserves the right of the beautifully coiffed woman to be valued with some level of objectivity walking down the street? we all know that the number of women who dye their hair blonde speaks volumes about what women and men perceive about hair.

    there is a major issue underlying this all, which is a concept in islam of the equality and equity, as it’s often called. i’d highly recommend a lecture by hamza yusuf hanson entitled “men and women” available on alhambraproductions.com (i think!). it’s a really brilliant talk on the post-modern fallacy of gender equality in all arenas.

    the gist is that women and men can simply not compete if it comes down to absolute egalitarianism in every single arena of life – especially the physical.

    don’t get me wrong, though, the souls and intellects of men and women are, without a doubt, equal: but there are some realities on the ground that we are constructed with which make it pretty clear that we are completely different creatures.

    modern pop literature a la ‘men are from mars, women are from venus’ simply confirm the anecdotal truth we all know about our differences.

    islam acknowledges those differences and embraces them; further, islam seeks to create an atmosphere where those differences are not exploited at the expense of one side or the other.

    have paternalistic or misogynistic cultural backwardness invaded under the pseudonym of ‘islam’ to oppress women? you bet. but that’s another story.

    i think the post-modern civilized West, however, is quite openly attacking the ability of women to be seen as equals. the prize money at most major sports competitions in tennis and golf, for example, still favor men in most cases. women in tennis have to wear dresses. women in beach volleyball wear bikinis.

    it’s not their choice to wear those thing, if you are honest: it’s what they’re supposed to do because it’s what’s been done and what – their bodies are supposed to be public property in perfect example of capitalism abusing personal space. it’s all about ratings and advertising.

    anyhow. i don’t think i answered your question, but just went off. sorry – it’s late and i’m wired.

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  4. Hi Jill,

    Thanks for the question. I often get this question.
    Islam does recommend a modest dress for both men and for women. Also, if you were to look the way Muslims traditionally dress, most men wear hats, turbans or in some Gulf countries, a scarf over their heads. Many Muslim men, traditionally, also wear long flowing robes.

    In order not to make the article too long, I remotely hinted to part of the answer for this common question: “It is noteworthy that Islam does acknowledge the differences in genders, not just in physique, or anatomy or physiology, but also the different psychologies of both genders.” If you get a chance, please read the book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. It points to many different ways that the two groups think about, perceive things and go about carrying out their goal or their tasks.

    Of course, this question can be answered in number of ways, and here is one of the simplest ways I can explain: It is because of the differences between the majorities of population in each gender group.

    Allow me to point out one of the studies that I heard about this topic some time back. Actually it was mentioned in one of Minnesota’s TV stations, but I cannot remember the exact date. From what I have noticed from the reaction of those whom I have shared this story with, most men can relate to, but many women do not understand how this can be.

    Obviously this points to the different experiences of each gender.
    The researchers in this study examined the brains of men while they showed them “pictures of beautiful women.” If I remember correctly, they either did CT scans or MRIs to study the reaction in their brains. The researchers said that the men’s brains reacted as cocaine addicts who were receiving cocaine after a long withdrawals period!!!

    I would think that if women were to be studied, their brains may not react this dramatically. As I mentioned earlier, when I have mentioned this to a group of audience, most men in the audience nod in approval while may women in the audience would have a puzzled look after hearing about this study.

    The other part of this is that, generally and historically men have the stronger and more aggressive of the two genders. I would think that over 95% of rapes are committed by men against women, and not vice a versa. I think the same can be said of the vast majority of cross gender physical assaults. Surprisingly, even in America in 21st Century, most marriage proposals are made by men (this is from my experience, and I don’t have hard data for it). In my opinion, all of these point to the different ways that genders think and that men are, generally, more aggressive.

    So Muslims would look at these would say that God, Almighty, is not only the creator of our anatomies and physiologies, but also the creator of our psychologies. God, the Infinitely Wise, is well aware of our difference, and thus there are different rulings in some instances. So despite the overall equality of genders in the Sight of God, in Islam, what is considered “beauty” [‘awrah, in Arabic] is different for both genders.

    I am sure in some places women are forced to wear hijab, but there are a large number of Muslim women who take pride in wearing the scarf. I have heard many who consider it a way of liberating them from materialist looks of things, and a way to earn respect and not be treated as a sexual objects by men, in addition to fulfilling a religious commandment.
    I know this must be hard for many in America and in the West to empathize with, but I hope this article can help in getting that conversation started.

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  5. Thank you all for answering my question! I’m enjoying the dialogue.

    I should say that I found it rather nice to be in Egypt where the women dressed more modestly. American fashion makes it difficult to tell who’s a high school student and who’s a prostitute. Sexualized clothing is becoming trendy at younger and younger ages, it’s really quite alarming.

    A women needing a scarf so that she will be “recognized and will not be harassed” is of course, bothersome. Rather than asking the women to modify their behavior, ideally the harassers would stop harassing.

    While out and about in Egypt without a scarf, though, I was never harassed. It seemed clear as a visitor that the Muslims I met respected my culture, and the obvious thing to do is respect theirs.

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  6. Hey, dudes, what a worthwhile and substantive discussion!

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  7. For more in depth review please see Dr. Jamal Badawis scholarly repot on Women in Islam.
    at http://www.al-sunnah.com/pdf/women.pdf

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  8. Oh, Sheikh Adhami also has good lectures on this:

    http://www.sakeenah.org/lr_lectures.php?cat=all

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  9. Bismillah
    as salam alaykom
    Brother Tamim,
    Also, if you were to look the way Muslims traditionally dress, most men wear hats, turbans or in some Gulf countries, a scarf over their heads.
    Is this type of head cover based on an Ayah in Quran??

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  10. In response to “Muslimah:”
    Even though it was the tradition (sunnah) of Prophet Muhammad (p) to cover his head, I cannot think of any ayah (verse) in the Qur’an that commands that.

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  11. Bismillah
    Jazakum Allah khairan brother, yes no Ayah is included in Quran commanding men to cover their heads. What we need to focus on brother is that Muslims male and female adopt rulings made in Quran and Sunnah (traditions of the Messenger blessing and peace be upon him). What is also disturbing to me, is that as a Muslim woman, I feel that Muslims alaways have to answer to why this and why that?? and sometimes we even try to use anologies. Well, to me I dont think I need to. But rather I want to raise a question to non muslim guests on this site. Why I never heard anyone questioning the Indian women Sari? why no one wondered why do they expose their stomach? no one is bothered to focus or feel awkward or even stereotype them due to this. Contrary to what a Muslim woman may face due to complying to the Muslim woman dress code. I call it as such, since the word Hijab – as you probably know – is not this. Muslim women status is another point of controversy, whereas, no one digs around the Sati practice, yes eradicated, but still willingly practiced.
    As for the head cover which is ordained by a Quranic Ayah, I have a very humble opinion, being blessed as a native Arabic speaker, Alhmaudlelah, that if allowed I will post here Insh aAllah. So let me know if I will be allowed. It is an explanation of the word Khimar (head cover).

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  12. Salaam,

    You are welcome to post your views as long as they abide by our policies. Read the tab “Write for Us” for details.

    On that note, it is sunnah for men to cover their hair. The prophet wore a turban. When I was in Tarim, Yemen – all the scholars there wore turbans and their students either had a kufi/hat or turban. Men coming to the program were not allowed to wear tight clothes, but had to wear a sarong or a long skirt above the ankles. Modesty is for men and women in Islam with differences. It is not just for women. That is a new age thing.

    See below indonesian Muslim show for kids and how the kids are both covered islamically – look at the boys dress. That is according to the Sunnah.

    See below a film of Habib Ali. I have never seen him without a turban. All the Traditional Scholars that I have seen wear a turban/hat.

    Both men and women must dress modestly.

    wasalaam,
    Fedwa

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  13. Bismillah
    Jazaki Allah khairan Fedwa for your input, I was trying to introduce to non muslims guests here the difference between women abiding by the dress code as commanded by virtue of a Quranic Ayah in order to stress why Muslim women must do so, and to reply to questions of why men are not. Certainly, men are also commanded to dress modestly and head cover is Sunnah (following the Messenger’s blessing and peace be upon him traditions).

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  14. Islam has provided guideline for dressing men and women. Muslims around the world can follow that dress code or guideline and wear dresses according to environment or weather conditions.

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  15. Maybe it is Biblical?

    Passage Leviticus 21:9-20:

    9And the daughter of any priest, if she profane herself by playing the whore, she profaneth her father: she shall be burnt with fire.

    10And he that is the high priest among his brethren, upon whose head the anointing oil was poured, and that is consecrated to put on the garments, shall not uncover his head, nor rend his clothes;

    11Neither shall he go in to any dead body, nor defile himself for his father, or for his mother;

    12Neither shall he go out of the sanctuary, nor profane the sanctuary of his God; for the crown of the anointing oil of his God is upon him: I am the LORD.

    13And he shall take a wife in her virginity.

    14A widow, or a divorced woman, or profane, or an harlot, these shall he not take: but he shall take a virgin of his own people to wife.

    15Neither shall he profane his seed among his people: for I the LORD do sanctify him.
    —–
    Passage Deuteronomy 22:14-22:

    14And give occasions of speech against her, and bring up an evil name upon her, and say, I took this woman, and when I came to her, I found her not a maid:

    15Then shall the father of the damsel, and her mother, take and bring forth the tokens of the damsel’s virginity unto the elders of the city in the gate:

    16And the damsel’s father shall say unto the elders, I gave my daughter unto this man to wife, and he hateth her;

    17And, lo, he hath given occasions of speech against her, saying, I found not thy daughter a maid; and yet these are the tokens of my daughter’s virginity. And they shall spread the cloth before the elders of the city.

    18And the elders of that city shall take that man and chastise him;

    19And they shall amerce him in an hundred shekels of silver, and give them unto the father of the damsel, because he hath brought up an evil name upon a virgin of Israel: and she shall be his wife; he may not put her away all his days.

    20But if this thing be true, and the tokens of virginity be not found for the damsel:

    21Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die: because she hath wrought folly in Israel, to play the whore in her father’s house: so shalt thou put evil away from among you.

    22If a man be found lying with a woman married to an husband, then they shall both of them die, both the man that lay with the woman, and the woman: so shalt thou put away evil from Israel.

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