Sunday, 26 July 2009

Is There Equality of the Sexes in Islam?

A question that comes up a lot is whether men and women are considered equal according to the teachings of Islam. Apologists who would answer that they are tend to quote passages such as this one:
“O mankind! Be careful of your duty to your Lord Who created you from a single soul and from it created its mate and from them twain hath spread abroad a multitude of men and women. Be careful of your duty toward Allah in Whom ye claim (your rights) of one another, and toward the wombs (that bare you). Lo! Allah hath been a watcher over you.” (4:1)
The assertion that men and women have been created “from a single soul” is sometimes pointed to as evidence that Islam recognises the full equality and dignity of women. Ayatollah Murtada Mutahhari says that “other religions also have referred to this question, but it is the Qur’an alone which in a number of verses expressly says that woman has been created of the species of man, and both man and woman have the same innate character.” He then quotes 4:1.

And yet traditional Islamic views of women have been overwhelmingly in favour of the idea that they are in almost all ways inferior to men. The noted scholar Baydawi sums up this attitude: “Men are the maintainers over women just as rulers are over their populous...due to the completeness of men’s brains over women’s deficiency, their management skills, and their extra requirement of worship; this is why men were chosen to be prophets, religious leaders, rulers, and enforcers of commandments, legal witnesses in a court of law, fighters in the cause of Allah, receivers of more share of the inheritance and in control of divorce.” Islamic tradition and law deny the equality of women in numerous ways: a woman's testimony is worth half that of a man (2:282); a son's inheritance is twice the size of a daughter's (4:11); Allah has made men the “protectors” of women because they are superior to them (4:34); and the majority of the people in Hell will be women (Bukhari v.1, b.2, no.28). Thus it is not surprising that another famous scholar, Qurtubi, even goes so far as to dehumanise women completely: “A woman may be likened to a sheep – even a cow or a camel – for all are ridden.”

The Sufi mystic Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d.1111), often lionised as the greatest ever Muslim after Muhammad himself, clearly did not believe that men and women were equal partners. Here is an excerpt from one of his works, in which he outlines a woman's role:

“She should stay at home and get on with her spinning, she should not go out often, she must not be well-informed...she must not leave her house without his [her husband's] permission and if given his permission she must leave surreptitiously...She should be clean and ready to satisfy her husband's sexual needs at any moment.”

Al-Ghazali also warns men that the guile of women “is immense and their mischief is noxious; they are immoral and mean-spirited.”

So much for equality.

I should also briefly address the other common claim that Islam made life better for women in Arabia. The Islamic texts explicitly say otherwise. Aisha herself, Muhammad's favourite wife, said it best, after witnessing her husband fail to do or say anything to criticise a Muslim man who had brutally beaten his wife: "I have not seen any woman suffering as much as the believing women. Look! Her skin is greener than her clothes!" (Sahih Bukhari v.7, b.72, no.715)

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