Women and Islam
By Tamim Saidi, Engage Minnesota
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.
Posted on September 22, 2008, in Tamim Saidi and tagged Engage Minnesota, hijab, Islam, modest, modesty, muhammad, muslim, Prophet, Tamim Saidi, women, women rights. Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.