The state of the Muslim woman on the global context with regard to way of dressing and approach to social issues has been in the debates of global community. In the past, Muslim women faced oppressing from the society due to hard-line stance by the dominant Muslim males. However, the trend is currently changing as the society is slowly embracing new thoughts about the mannerism of a modern woman. It has long been thought that the Muslim woman has had to endure the practice of putting on the veil, which most westerners interpret as oppression of the Muslim women. Islamic culture has long been thought be patriarchal and as such, women’s rights have been largely ignored by the dominated male society. The various inhuman practices such as honor killings and the practicing of stoning women to death are synonymous with the Muslim societies. Other practices such as circumcision of women and their confinement to their homes with limited freedom for movement also show oppression of Muslim women. This research paper explores the validity of the conviction that Muslim women still face oppression in the modern society.
There is a lot of distortion to some of these views, as the understanding of the Muslim women is mainly based on the one region, the Islamic countries. Today there are more than 1 billion Muslim women concentrated from mainly around 42 Muslim majority countries and other countries with predominantly significant minority Muslim populations. The current stereotypes of women are mainly influenced by the perception of women Muslim from Middle East and North Africa. These regions represent about 20% of the total Muslim women. The majority of Muslim women are located in South Asia and the Pacific region with Indonesia being the home of the largest Muslim population.
It is a fact that in these areas Muslim women mostly face gender-related inequalities mainly associated with the patriarchal system adopted in these societies. However, scholars argue that the origin of this culture is the traditional patriarchal system that is rampant in the region regardless of popular religious practice. According to Vogt, (2011), “Since the mid-1980s, different categories of women’s groups, networks, and associations have become increasingly visible, not only among Muslims themselves but also in society at large,” (292). Large geographical fragmentations are associated with system where early marriages, female circumcision, and male domination among other social differences are the norms in the society. The kin-based systems have restrictions on women as a representative of family honor; thus, they ought to remain morally upright. In such areas, segregation based on gender is common and sex veiling forms part of the virtue and honor of the family, which the women represent.
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The current understanding of the socio-cultural views of the various Islamic nations has enabled scholars to reject the notion that the Muslim faith oppresses the fundamental rights of women in the society. “From the introduction of human rights into the world milieu, Islamic thinkers regarded as very traditional and conservative not only agreed with the idea of human right, but also held that Islam supported human rights,” (Oh, 2008 410). This is because of the diverse cross-cultural variations that are to be found within the different geographical locations where the faith is predominant. As such, the varying condition those Muslim women are being subjected to can be attributed to the differences in their core values and causes. Some of these causes results from the different economic situations and the preexisting cultural norms and traditions. They argue that these factors have played a fundamental role in shaping the outcome of the different situations that women are in when practicing the Muslim faith. For instance, “The modernist Muslim feminist position is in this respect particularly revealing, since it attempts to reassess notions of male/female relationships without subscribing to the female role models advocated by the traditionalists or the fundamentalists,” (El-Solh and Mabro, 1994 17).
To better, understand how ancient traditions and cultures have shaped the different faces of Muslims in diverse countries it is important to visit the early times of the spread of Islam in the society. Religious scholars and human rights activists have repeatedly clashed over the controversial issue of a woman’s role in the contemporary society. Some people argue that Islamic teaching was first to give women their honor and right in the society; however, ancient texts might be interpreted to mean that Islamism is the genesis of all oppressions that Muslim women face today. The perspective of ideal Islamic women is clear from how Haddith and Qur’an represent the woman. According to Vogt, (2011) scholars agree that in the traditional Muslim society no women were allowed to deliver Jum’ah khutba also known as the Friday sermon but today they serve as mullars, shaykhas, and nakibas. In addition, in Europe, female religious leaders take charge of official ceremonies segregated by gender.
Status of Women in the Islamic Society
During the pre-Islamic era the Muslims had the habit of burying their women alive despite the fact that the Qur’an condemns the practice (Sura al-Nahl 16:48, 59). From this scripture, the Holy book condemns the Bedouins habit of live burial of girls, which was a common practice in the traditional society. This is a demonstration that there is variance in what the societies practiced against condemnation of same acts under the Holy books in the Islamic era. However, there are those who argue that Islam is the cause of women trouble in the Islamic society. One of the verses that is mainly cited is (Sura al-Nisae 4:34). This verse states that men are the managers of women and that it is God who has put them in charge of the women (Hassan 13). The fundamentalists who mainly claim that this is proof that women are inferior to men mainly use this statement to misrepresent facts. The verse is based on only one scenario where a woman went to seek justice from the Prophet after being beaten by her husband. This judgment was based on one particular circumstance and it would be wrong to use it in any other circumstance.
These verses have been interpreted differently by different scholars one of them Muhammad the reformer (1905-1949) interpreted the verse to mean that due to the fact that man is physically able, he is meant to fend for and protect the woman (Hassan 11). On the other hand, another Muslim scholar Abass Mahmud (1889-1964), insists that the place of women in the society should be in serving men. He further refers to women as vile beasts and that they are created for nothing but for evil (Hassan 11).
The Right of a Man over a Woman
According to prominent Muslim scholar, the right of the man always comes before the rights of the woman. Muslim scholars say that marriage is a bondage of slavery and that the wives have to obey their husband in whatever they demands; the only exception being if the demand would lead to law-breaking, Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali, 4:746. In al Ghazzali’s opinion, the obedience of the wife to his husband is one of the foundations of the pillars of the Muslim. This follows affirmation from Mohammed after being confronted by a woman on what the role of a Muslim woman is. In response, the prophet told the woman that it is the responsibility of the woman to obey any sort of command from husband, even if that means licking pus from his body
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On the other hand, Ibn Abass narrates a story about a woman who came to the prophet from Khatham and asked the prophet what role she has before her husband. The prophet told her that under all circumstances she should not keep herself from her husband, as it was his right. The emphasis that the woman should be confided to her homestead originates for the fact that the prophet said that women have ten nakedness and one of their nakedness is covered by the husband while the grave removes all of them (Ihya’ulum al-din, 4:746). The other things that the woman should observe include going out only after asking for permission from the husband and she should take care not to attract the attention of other men. She is also supposed to be keeping the honor of the family when the husband is not around.
According to the suna of Mohammed, an ideal wife should not only have low self-esteem but also be younger than her husband. He stated that the age should be between the 14-20 years, her maturity becomes perfect at 30 and she declines after the age of forty (Hassan 14). Fertility is also seen as the most important factor in choosing a woman for marriage. He adds that beauty is also an important quality as it sharpens the eyesight and cites that one of the reasons why men marry woman is because of her beauty, her family fortune and her religion. Waltz, (2004) on the other hand notes that it is evil to marry out of one’s religion according to the Islamic teachings.
The Legal Testament of a Woman
In Islam faith, a woman’s testimony is worth half the testimony of a man as described in the Q’uran and the Haddith (Sharma 384). It says that if compared with a man, man is like two women such that if one part makes a mistake then the other part can correct it (Sura al-Baqara 2:282). A woman asked the prophet why they are considered to be of less intelligence and deficient in faith. The prophet in reply said that the main reason was that their testimony as a woman is half of a man (Subedi 103).
However, one of the Muslim scholars Ibn Taymiyya argued this out by stating that indeed women are considered equal to men. He states the reason why the evidence of one man is equal to the evidence of two other women is that in matters that require witnesses, women were more inclined to make mistakes and as such, the other woman’s purpose was to remind the other in case she slipped (Zine 78). Modern Muslim scholars have since argued that the fact that the evidence of woman being half of a man is not due to their deficiency in intelligence but rather due to the fact that women used to find it difficult to bear witness in the areas of commerce and other transactions. This was not there area of specialization. Women are also considered to be more emotional than men are and as such, their testimony is seen not be objective as that of men.
The issue of the veil has become one of the most critical problems facing Islamic women throughout Western Europe (Hirschmann 1998). Most of western lawmakers see the veil as the symbol of oppressed women in the Islamic faith. They see it as restricting their movement and curtailing their freedom. As such, some European lawmakers have enacted laws that ban the veil in public places (Zine 78). The notion only Muslims oppressed their women is fallacious given that non-Muslims also practice the thing they criticize. According to Qutb as quoted by Oh, (2008), there is evidence to indicate that Western nations oppress women both economically and socially (412).
In considering the historic background of the veil, it is important to look at the pre-Islamic era where the veil was used to separate free women from slaves in order to avoid being molested. However, Muslim scholars have cited verses to indicate that the wearing of veils is mandatory in the religion (Ashrof 106). The most common verse that they cite is,
Tell the believing woman to cast down their eyes, guard their chastity, and not to show off their beauty except what is permitted by the law. Let them cover their breasts with their veils. They must not show off their beauty to anyone other than their husbands, father, father-in-laws, sons, step-sons, brothers, sons of brothers and sisters, women of their kind, their slaves, immature male servants, or immature boys. They must not stamp their feet to show off their hidden ornaments. All of you believers, turn to God in repentance so that perhaps you will have everlasting happiness
On the other hand, there are those who argue that the face of the woman is not nakedness, which is the basis of her covering her body with the veil. However, the Hanbalites and Shafites opine that the whole woman’s body to another man is considered a form of nakedness. Abu Hanifa and Malik on the other hand offer a differing opinion stating that a woman’s body is nakedness; but her face is a form of nakedness and as such, they are not mandated to wear the veil. The veil is also subjected to scrutiny, as it should not be ornament-like to avoid attracting attention of other strangers. It should also be made of thick garment and worn loosely so as not to reveal the figure of a woman to the strangers.
From the above arguments the various roles of the Muslim woman in the Islam society; for instance, her duties towards her faith, the society, her and husband has been explored from the perspective of the Islamic sources in the Q’uran and the Haddith. Despite the fact that Islam made many reforms in favor of the woman in the Arab world, the woman is still seen to be equal to half a human being in the religious writings (Bullock 102). She is seen to exist for the sole reason of serving her husband unconditionally and unreservedly. On this point, the Q’uran has been so distinct and clear that there is little room for interpretation on this issue by modern scholars. This has made it difficult for the current Muslim scholars to incorporate the teachings and laws to fit the modern conditions and requirements in the society.
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The different roles of women in the Islamic society, as seen from the perspective of sharia law have been argued to be promoting the oppression of women in their society. However, Islam like all the Abrahammic faiths like Christianity and Judaism when interpreted, they all support the patriarchal social institution (Moghissi 209). As such, most western observers and feminists have argued that Muslim is uniquely patriarchal and therefore it is incompatible with women’s freedom and equality in the society. This points out that the legal systems of most Islamic countries is mostly dual system that is composed of the civil law that was borrowed from the West and the Sharia law, which is Islamic. They point out that though the civil law offers equality of both genders, the Sharia law is still seen as an obstacle to equality because it always overrides the civil law in importance. As such, though guaranteed by the constitution, women’s rights continue to be ignored by the society.
However, different states have tried to reform the family law, which is a segment of the sharia-based laws. Countries like Morocco have tried to make the necessary reforms to allow women to take part in economic development and political activities (Afshah 124). Women are encouraged to exploit other avenue; for instance, seeking court injunction against a husband who marries another wife. This should be a valid reason to seek divorce. With respect to the value of human rights and the need for self expression, it would be insignificant to reject the wave of new economic and social order that pit women equally against men, whether they are Muslim or not.
In recent times, women have made rapid progress in both the education and health sectors. Today women in North Africa and the greater Middle East enjoy access to education like any other modern society as observed by the enrollment of women in al-Azhar University in Cairo since the 1970s, (Vogt, 2011 297). It is possible to find women doctors and professors in the Arab countries all over the world. This progress has been achieved by the increasing awareness to both the men and women about the changing times and need to reinterpret the Islamic laws in line with the cultural diversity of modern society. Many men today acknowledge that there are some Islamic laws that cannot apply in the modern world and the need to incorporate them to the present deeds. Though the veil is still seen as a symbol of subjugation of the Muslim woman by men, women in the Islamic world have already experienced progress in various aspects of their social life and there is hope that more will still be done in the new future. Hence, the notion that Islamic women are oppressed in modern society is just but a fallacy.