Many in the West feel that Islam is a religion that is inherently degrading to women, and somehow encourages inequality and lack of rights. Much of this type of thought is linked to things like the hijab, especially as it is forced on women in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is also linked to the idea that Muslim women are somehow more submissive, subservient, or “less than” their husbands, and it is their duty to serve their husbands like a slave.


To begin, I have to remind you of last week's post on cultural issues and Islam. Many of the practices that the West, and especially those crying for the “liberation” of the Muslim woman, sees as degrading to women are actually long standing cultural (mis)interpretations of rules regarding women in Islam.


Secondly, the issue of forced covering in some countries has as much to do with Islam as Donald Trump's racist policies have to do with Christianity. Using the degradation and control of women's bodies in order to consolidate political power is nothing new, whether in the Middle East or the “civilised” West. Look at many European countries' policies on women's bodies and clothing: France, for example, uses the forced UN-covering religious women in order to promote their political agendas.


Today, as the first in a three part series on my reflections on being a woman in Islam, I would like to take some examples from the Qur'an itself and the traditions of the Prophet, peace be upon him, to give you an idea of the status of women in Islam.


There are many thing that I myself, when I first converted, was uncomfortable with as far as the position of women is concerned. I often took certain things as major inequalities for women, such as women being unable to lead mixed prayers, women praying behind men, women not being allowed to pray or fast while on their menstrual cycles, and women being required to cover most of their bodies, while men can supposedly run wild and free wearing whatever they please.


But after reading a section of Yasmin Mogahed's Reclaim Your Heart on women in Islam, my perspective was completely changed.


She cited the fact that Western feminism usually takes men as the standard, and therefore women have to do/have every single thing that men do/have in order to be considered equal, or in other words, up to the “standard.”


The thing about Islam, however, is that it recognises the inherent material differences between men and women. This does not mean inequality in the slightest: men and women are considered equal in the sight of God, and equal in human worth/value. Men and women do have different functions in this world though, which should be complementary, with neither one or the other being taken as some sort of “standard” for what humanity should look like.



To break it down in every day terms: no one can argue with me the fact that my husband has different body parts and hormones than I do, and that being the case there are some things that he is just inherently better suited for (not to say I can't do these things as well, but it would be more work). The thing is, this difference has nothing to do with our worth as humans. Islamically we are both required to pray five times a day, fast during Ramadan, and keep away from sins, and we will both be accountable for our own actions, not gender, on the Day of Judgement.


Keep in mind that this article is not about issues like equal pay, pro-choice/life, etc.. Obviously I 100% support the idea that men and women should be paid the same wages for the same work, and that women should have body autonomy (i.e. I do not get to dictate what other women do with their bodies based on my own religious beliefs) and the right to wear what they please and walk to the grocery store without being heckled and harassed. These are social and political issues, where I am more concerned with the status of women within the Islamic religious perspective.


So what is the wisdom behind some of these seeming “inequalities” between men and women in Islam?


Take the fact that women cannot lead mixed congregations in prayer. No, I cannot attain the immense (spiritual) reward of being the imam to lead a Friday prayer. However, I can attain a reward that no man can: I can produce another human being from my body. And then after I go through all of the pain that that entails, it is the mother that is supposed to be the most respected person in a child's life.


Different ways of attaining reward, but in no way is it understood that one is inferior to the other. Different, complementary even, but not inferior.


As for the fact that women are not permitted to pray or fast while on their monthly cycles, there are two elements to this.


Firstly, women are not considered “dirty” or “impure” while they are on their cycles like in some other faiths. Women in Islam are ritually impure, which means that they cannot pray or fast as acts of worship which require ritual purity, but they are not considered dirty as a human being. A woman is not required to be secluded while on her cycle, nor does her husband need to refrain from touching her (i.e. hugging, kissing, snuggling).


Secondly, if you think about the types of acts of worship that women are forbidden from on their cycles such as the ritual prayer (which involves standing and recited Qur'an, bowing, and prostrating multiple times) and fasting, these are very physical activities. So refraining from them while you are on your cycle and already likely tired and not feeling well is supposed to be a mercy from God. A woman gets to take a break once a month, where men do not have that luxury.


As far as the legal rights of women in Islam: a woman has the rights to her own property, whether she earns it or inherits it, she has the right to say yes or no to any potential spouse, and she has the right to request divorce.


In the traditions of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and the caliphs that came after him, it was a normal affair to involve women in political matters. There are reports of the Prophet discussing his problems with one of his wives, and her offering him counsel that he took. There are also narrations of the caliph Umar wanting to put a cap on the amount of money women could ask for in a dowry, and one woman standing up in the crowd to tell him that this was unfair and goes against the laws of Islam. He consented, and told her that she was right and he had been wrong.


Comparing that to the situation of women in the United States of America, who had to fight tooth and nail to be allowed a vote, and didn't even get that until 1920, gives you an idea of the revolutionary status that Islam gave to women, that is now sadly considered “backwards” and “outdated” by those who do not understand that men and women can be equal in human value, without necessarily having to have identical functions in the world.


One verse in the Qur'an that is often taken out of context and misunderstood by those who claim it is backwards and demeaning to women is the following:


“Men are in charge of women by [right of] what God has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth.” Surah al-Nisaa verse 35, Sahih International Translation


What this verse is referring to is the fact that while women have the right to dispose of whatever property they have in whatever manner they choose, men are required to take care of their female relatives from their own income. In practical terms: any money I make from blogging or translating can go straight into my bank account, and be spent in whatever book or stationary shop I choose (or I can choose to contribute to the household income). My husband, however, has the obligation to provide for the basic necessities for me (food, somewhere to live, clothing, etc.) out of the money he makes as a chef.


According to this verse then, women should show a degree of respect to the man that is required to spend out of his paycheck every month to make sure that she has all that she needs. That is not to say she then becomes his slave; the Prophet himself, peace be upon him, used to even help his wives with the housework when he had time.


This is also where the inequality in inheritance comes into play: yes, women usually get a half of what men receive as inheritance when someone in the family passes away. But if you think about it logically, the women who receives the half can do with it whatever she pleases, while the man, who gets twice what she did, will have to spend out of that for her sake anyhow.


For example: if a man's father passes away, he gets double what his sister does, but his sister gets to keep all of that money that she gets, while the man will have to spend all of his money on maintenance now for his mother, any sisters, and any wife and children of his own that he may have.


Islam is all about a system of rational balances.


Though it is only a small scratch on the surface of women's rights in Islam, I will leave the topic here for today. In my next two posts I will begin to talk about the hijab, why I choose to wear it, what it means to me, and what I find problematic in much of the rhetoric surrounding the hijab in today's discourse.


After these, I would also like to follow this series up with a post about my marriage, and some of the Islamic guidelines for marriages, in order to rebut the idea that marriage in Islam is by some means more oppressive or violent towards women than in any other society.


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Published by Ashley Bounoura