Gender Equality and Islam
Gender inequality, a hot issue, is genetically ascribed to religion whereas its causes are purely non-religious. It originates from political, economic, social and cultural factors. As for Islam, gender equality is part of its jurisprudence and fundamental teachings. Numerous Verses of the Qur’an and Prophetic Traditions enjoin gender equality which categorically proves that gender inequality is not faith-based.
“O mankind! Fear your Lord Who (initiated) your creation from a single soul, then from it created its mate, and from these two spread (the creation of) countless men and women.”
This Verse clearly expounds that man or woman are created from a single entity and are basically equal genders. As a gender, one is not superior to the other.
“And according to usage, women too have rights over men similar to the rights of men over women.”
This Verse denotes that rights enjoyed by men are the duties of the women and the duties of men are the rights of women. This implies a similitude between both the genders. There is no right conferred on man that woman may be deprived of because she is a woman.
“Men, however, have an advantage over them.”
Here the Qur’an refers to man’s superiority by virtue of his responsibility of protection and maintenance of woman and fulfillment of their rights. Nature has made him stronger, more responsible and tolerant with reference to mundane matters of life. So man is held superior to woman in the grade of responsibility.
Social and societal structure of Islam is based on family system which can be secure if made subservient to natural discipline:
“Men are guardians and managers over women.”
The Arabic word ‘qawwam’ used in this Verse denotes support, protection and supervision according to the Arabic usage. The relation between rights and duties in Islam is reciprocal and cannot be compartmentalized. However, man has been made more responsible in connection with the performance of social and economic obligations. Maintenance of woman is the basic responsibility of man in the Islamic Law. At no place has this responsibility been placed on woman. Woman has been freed of the burden of social, political and economic responsibilities. But they have been given more freedom than men under certain rules and regulations and the opportunities for women to capitalize on them are more than those enjoyed by men. For example on economic matters the Qur’an says:
“Men will have a share of what they earn, and women will have a share of what they earn.”
For men is what they earn and for women is what they earn. But woman has not been burdened with the financial responsibilities of family. It has squarely been placed on the shoulders of man; he is responsible to ensure the fulfillment of the rights of woman even though she may be earning herself. It is not her responsibility to bear the financial burden of a family. Whatever she earns is her personal income to which man cannot stake any claim legally. However, it will be an act of benevolence on part of a woman if both of them spend on the wellbeing of their children out of their volition. But whether she earns or not she has been given the guarantee of complete economic maintenance; man is responsible for that.
Men and women enjoy equal rights in all walks of life according to teachings of Islam. Islam regards woman a complete legal personality. Like man it has given woman the right to choose the head of the state, participate in the legislative work and vote in the performance of state matters. Women have been heads of states in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Turkey.
We can gauge its human, social, political and civilizational significance by reviewing the history of the recognition of this right of woman at international level. It has taken the contemporary society centuries to acknowledge the sanctity of vote, fighting the plagues of apartheid and racial discrimination. A brief on history of recognition of women’s right to vote is attached as Appendix A.
There is no discrimination between men and women in opportunities at different levels. Both enjoy equal opportunities in all walks of life. However, it is also necessary to distinguish between the responsibilities Islam has placed on both so that they could utilize their capabilities accordingly in the best manner, within their respective spheres and do not have to encounter any social disorder. So far as the assignment of various responsibilities to women on the basis of capability is concerned, Islamic history is replete with examples. (See Appendix B)
In the absence of gender equality a society would not only face deprivation, economic inequality and other social evils but would also be unable to tread the path of life with a win-win mindset. As for its relation to religion, Islam enjoins to promote gender equality in all walks of life, be it economic, social, worldly or religious.
Islam is for the elimination of gender inequality. It provides opportunities for women, commands to proceed ahead along with men in every walk of life. Minhaj-ul-Qur’an International (MQI) is busy promoting and projecting this message of Islam in the global society through one of its dynamic forums, ‘Minhaj-ul-Qur’an Women League (MWL)’, which has been working in different areas of life for last 15 years. It is engaged in serving the cause of women equality in educational, social, political, economic, legal and sociological areas.
The MQI is engaged in spreading the awareness about the gender equality at intellectual, scholarly and practical levels. The MWL has worked in various social, educational, political and economic areas. It has spread public awareness about the welfare of women in society through its broad-based programmes such as:
- Nursing courses for women.
- Training Courses to promote peace, equality, justice, moderation and tolerance in society through weekly gatherings.
- Character Building Workshops in the last ten days of Ramadan. Over 10,000 women attend the workshops every year.
- Periodical Conferences and Conventions for the promotion of awareness of women’s rights.
- Mother Day and Women Day Celebrations to awaken consciousness of the women role in the education of children and fight against ignorance.
- Special Workshops for creating awareness of the rights of children and their upbringing.
- Mass educational centers have been set up to create awareness among the rural women about their rights and responsibilities.
- Sayyida-e-Kainat Conferences to seek spiritual motivation for higher values of life.
- Meelad Festival to create among ladies awareness of true Islamic culture.
As a leader of religious organization, my message is that the issue of gender equality should not be seen in the religious perspective; rather it should be looked at from a broader perspective. This issue is cultural, social, sociological and economic. It is class-based instead of faith-based. Had this issue been a religious one, Islam would not have encouraged gender equality and five women would not have become prime ministers in various democratic countries of the Islamic world, which is a rare example as a culture and civilization.
Contrary to this if we look at the western world, it appears that women were granted right to vote in the last century. So far as the highest state office is concerned, no woman has so far reached the highest office in an enlightened country like the US. The same is the case of the majority of European countries.
Had religion been a hurdle in the achievement of gender equality, the rate of women reaching the top positions would have been higher in the Western countries especially the US than that in the Islamic countries. We need to analyze this issue in its true perspective in order to enable our societies to get rid of the tendencies of terrorism, extremism and obscurantism and to achieve real democratic and social equality. Only such societies as are built on these lines will be the embodiment of the culture of tolerance, political and economic freedom, harmony and peaceful co-existence and the whole world would become the hub of peace.
* In United Kingdom, Mr. Fawcett Millicent started the struggle for the suffrage of woman in 1897 by establishing National Union of Women’s Suffrage. This Movement got a fillip when Emmeline Pankhurst founded Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903. This Union later on came to be known as Suffragettes. The British House of Commons passed Representation of People Act in 1918 with a majority of 385 votes against 55 by which the women above the age of 30 years were given the right to vote. Although this was seminal point for the acknowledgement of women’s right of suffrage, yet they were not given the status equal to that of men because age limit to vote for men was 21 years and for people of armed forces it was 19 years.
* The Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776 is considered to be the foundation-stone upon which stands the edifice of modern democratic society of the US but it also does not regard woman worthy of basic human rights. According to Richard N. Current, woman of colonial society was deprived of right of every kind:
In colonial society a married woman had virtually no rights at all. The Revolution did little to change this. (1)
- Richard N. Current et al., American History: A Survey, 7th ed. (New York:
Knopf 1987), 142.
In the similar way when Mr. Jafferson used the word ‘The people’ in the Declaration of Independence, he used it to mean only white free men. (2)
- Lorna C. Mason et al., History of the United States, vol. 1: Beginnings
to 1877 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992), 188.
And even after the passage of two centuries, women are still engaged in the struggle of equality and freedom. (3)
- Milton C. Cummings and David Wise, Democracy Under Pressure: An Introduction to the American Political System, 7th ed. (Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace, 1993), 45
The Declaration….refers to ‘men’ or ‘him’ not to women. (4)
- James MacGregor Burns et al., Government by the People, 15th ed. (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1993), 117.
In the words of John Blum:
[Early American men] would not accept them as equals. (5)
- John M. Blum et al., The National Experience: A History of the United States, 8th ed. (Ft. Worth: Harcourt 1993), 266
That is why Elizabeth Cady Stanton, while writing Declaration of Sentiments for historic New York Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls in 1948, emphasized that private and general demands of women should also be included in the Declaration of Independence. (6)
- Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980), xii.
Ms Susan B. Anthony, a torch-bearer of women’s rights in the US in 18th century, was arrested for voting in the Presidential elections in 1872 and was fined $100 because she did not possess the right of suffrage.
Ms Susan B. Anthony took up this viewpoint in the light of the following provisions of the preamble of the American Constitution that woman is also a complete person constitutionally who should enjoy all constitutional rights:
We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
On July 4, 1919, the American Congress adopted 19th Amendment Bill to the American Constitution which stated:
Article IXX: The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.
Women in the US did not have the right of suffrage till 1920 but when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was passed, this right was recognized.
* On February 7, 1848, the interim government of France made the recognition of following three rights mandatory for the new Republic:
- Universal Suffrage
But in spite of this, women had to wage their struggle for 100 years to get equal constitutional status. They were finally granted the right to vote in 1944.
* Women were given the right of suffrage in 1926 at the national level. The first woman who won elections for Australian Parliament was Edith Cowan who got elected as member of Legislative Assembly of the Western Australia in 1921.
New Zealand was the first country, which gave women the right to vote in 1893.
Contrary to this, if we review the history of suffrage in Islam, we would be pleasantly surprised to know that its practice started taking place since the inception of Islam. The following examples are in order here:
1- The Caliph Umar presented a legal bill about the right to dower which was decided on the basis of an opinion of a woman. This clearly shows that woman possessed right to vote in Parliament during the Caliphate of right-guided caliphs and especially in the Parliament of Caliph Umar. The words spoken by Umar are these:
A woman argued with Umar and she got better of him.
Abd ar-Razzaq, al-Muƒannaf, 6:180 *10420.
According to another tradition, Umar acknowledged so:
A woman said the right thing and the man committed mistake.
Ash-Shawkani, Nail al-Awtar, 6:170.
With regard to this incident, it should be kept in mind that Caliph Umar was not discussing the public matter at any public place like market or bazaar etc. Rather this issue was being debated in the Parliament, which means that only the chosen people were participating in the discussion and debate and not the masses. Therefore this can easily be derived from the event of a woman standing up and objecting to a proposed bill that women of those days possessed the right to participate in the state affairs, governance and offer their opinions freely on legal matters. Moreover, the withdrawal of the bill by Caliph Umar by acknowledging his mistake is a glaring proof of the fact that there is no space for gender discrimination in Islam and man and woman are equal in its sight.
2- The Holy Prophet’s (PBUH) act of consulting Umm-e-Salama on the occasion of Sulh-a-Hudaybiya denotes the principle of holding consultation with women of sound judgment.
Ibn Hajar Asqalani, Fath al-Bari, 6:275.
3- The rightly guided Caliphs kept on following this piece of advice given by the Prophet of Islam (pbuh). In consultation with the mother of the believers, Hazrat Hafsa (ra), Hazrat Umar (ra) determined the period of remaining away from their families for those who were engaged in military service.
* The Muslim women did not merely enjoy the right to vote in Parliament. They occupied various administrative positions too: The Caliph Umar appointed Shifa bint Abdullah as in-charge of a bazaar, the in-charge accountability court and market administration. Shifa, a wise and capable woman, Caliph Umar held her opinion in high esteem and preferred it to that of others.
- Ibn Hazm, al-Mahalla, 9:429.
- Ibn Abd al-Barr, al-Istiab in the margin of al-Isaba by Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani, 4:331.
* Samra Bint Naheek Asadayyia lived during the days of the Messenger (pbuh) and was very aged. Whenever she went through the Bazar, she would command good and forbid evil. She had a whip to hit such people as would be found doing some anti-social or destructive activity.
Ibn Abd al-Barr, al-Istiab in the margin of al-Isaba by Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani, 4:335.
* The Caliph Usman sent Umm-e-Kulsoom bint Ali on a diplomatic mission to the court of Empress of Rome during his Caliphate in 28 Hijra.
Umm-e-Kulsoom bint Ali ibn Abu Talib was sent to the Empress of Rome with perfumes, drinks and the boxes for keeping women's stuff. …….The wife of Hercules came to receive her and she gathered the women of Rome and said: These gifts are on behalf of wife of king of Arab and daughter of their Prophet.
- Tabari, Tarikh al-Umam wal-Muluk, 2:601.
The Muslim women played a prominent role in every department of life - in art and literature in addition to political, administrative and diplomatic roles. Many women held authority in the narration of Traditions, poetry and literature.
- Tabari, Tarikh al-Umam wal-Muluk, 4:260.
- Ibn Abd al-Barr, al-Istiab in the margin of al-Isaba, 4:335.