Islam gave women special consideration, elevated their position, and honored them. It moreover conferred upon them great status whether in their capacity as mothers, sisters, wives or daughters and safeguarded their rights without burdening them beyond their capacities. In addition, Islam made allowances for women’s physical constitutions by according to them what suits them of rights and duties.
The Status of Women in Islam
At no time in the history of Muslims was there anything that could be referred to as ‘women’s issues’. Muslims did not view women as separate individuals but as components of both the family and societal system. It was only when the west, which regards women as separate individuals, exported to Muslims its culture and cognitive paradigm did such issues emerge.
The entire corpus of Islamic legal texts, whether the Holy Quran or Prophetic Sunnah, confirm gender equality in terms of legal obligations, rights and responsibilities, and punishments. Any differences in rights and duties are predicated on the functions and characteristics accorded to each gender. Allah the Almighty is the Creator; He gave men and women distinctive attributes and consequently different roles. Men are physically stronger than women and exhibit greater firmness. It is such defining attributes that qualify men for their role as economic providers and protectors within their families.
Women are naturally disposed to the roles that suit their physiological, emotional, and mental characteristics. They fulfill the role of wives, life partners of their husbands, and take on the duties of motherhood — bearing, nursing, and nurturing their children. These complementary variations demonstrate an integrated system of rights and duties represented by the family that is the basic building block of society.
It is erroneous to equate equality with equal physical standards. This is both a superficial and limited interpretation and entails forfeiting the distinguishing characteristics of both men and women. Moreover, it will inevitably lead women to undertake masculine roles that do not suit their nature, and this is something that cannot be accepted by those of sound minds, especially the followers of heavenly revealed religions.
The meaning of men’s qawama (guardianship) over women
‘Qawama’ means to look after something, take care of it and protect it. Allah the Almighty made men guardians over women, assigning to them the responsibility of looking after and protecting them. The reasons for this are twofold. First, Allah the Almighty gave men distinctive characteristics that equip them for this responsibility. The second reason is linked to men’s fulfillment of material obligations as well as to the payment of mahr (marriage dowry).
It must be noted at this point, that the preference accorded to men in the Quran does in no way indicate the superiority of all men over all women. It merely implies that men were selected to bear the financial responsibilities mentioned above. Otherwise, how would it be possible to explain the numerous instances where women surpass and excel their husbands in terms of knowledge, religion, work, opinion, and so forth?
Women's legal rights
Islamic law established the principle of equality between men and women with respect to legal capacity, thereby ensuring for women the right to conclude contracts and manage their property. Islam extends to women the same equal rights to financial independence and ownership as men. Women are therefore entitled to dispose of their properties in any manner when they reach mental maturity and are competent to handle property. Additionally, women enjoy the same equal rights as men to all stages of judicial proceedings.
As for the status of women’s testimony, it is often claimed that Islam degrades women’s competency by making their testimony half the worth of a man’s. In answer to this argument, it is necessary to say that gender is not a criterion for accepting or rejecting testimony. Evidence for this can be seen in the fact that the crescent of Ramadan may be established by the testimony of a single woman. Furthermore, the testimony of a single woman is accepted in matters related to women’s affairs such as breastfeeding, childbirth, menstruation, idda (waiting period after divorce or the death of a husband) and so forth. Islamic juristic tradition includes scholarly opinions maintaining that the judge may accept the testimony of two men, two women, one man and one woman, one man and two women, one woman and two men, one man, or one woman whenever his conscience is left with a clear and settled conviction with regard to the evidence. The gender of the witness has no bearing on the decision the judge will make based on the evidence put before him.
Women's Right to Education
Islamic law gave great consideration to education and learning without discriminating between males and females. The scriptural address encouraging and calling upon humankind to acquire knowledge is directed to both genders. Women at the time of the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) attended his lessons and learned from him. He even offered teaching sessions specifically to women.
The Mother of the Believers, ‘Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her), issued fatwas in the presence of the Prophet’s Companions and acted as a reference in problematic issues. Islamic history is replete with examples of female scholars who engaged in scholarly pursuits and religious instruction, teaching hadith, jurisprudence, and other Islamic legal sciences.
There is no doubt that, at present, neglecting to provide females with an education entails evident harm. It shortchanges females of the opportunity to learn about matters related to their religion and worldly affairs, limits their horizons, negatively impacts their chances at marriage, and hampers their ability to raise good children. There is no doubt that women’s intellectual capabilities expand proportionately to match their education and vice versa.
Based on this, education is one of women’s rights which they must demand and pursue to enhance their moral and material lives. The government, state, and society are required to give females access to education and support them without any degree of gender discrimination.
Women's Right to Work
Islam encourages work and maintains its permissibility. Everyone has the right to pursue the career of their choice provided it is lawful in order to cover their expenses and live with dignity.
Islamic law does not discriminate between men and women with regard to this right; work is a right that is equally guaranteed to women as it is to men as long as it is lawful, appropriate to their nature, and has no negative impact on their family life. At the same time, work should not interfere with the religious and moral commitments of women and with the security of their person and honor.
In our modern context, economic requirements and increasing education opportunities have helped women to assume roles that go beyond their conventional roles of procreation.
Women’s work therefore fulfills the principle of equal opportunity and justice and is considered a true manifestation of the principle of citizenship among the members of society. In addition, it contributes to providing good living conditions for both women and their families.
Women’s Right to Participate in Public Affairs
Women have a basic right to interact with societal issues, participate in public affairs, and enjoy all public political rights. These may be summarized as follows: the right to vote, the right to participate in public issues, and the right to hold political office in the government or state institutions.
The right to elect a ruler (bay’a) is mentioned generally once in the Quran without gender specification and another time with reference to women. Islamic law therefore establishes women’s right to elect their ruler without discrimination.
Islam advances the principle of shura (consultation) in the governance of public affairs without gender discrimination. The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) consulted his wife, Umm Salamah (may Allah be pleased with her) during the crisis at Hudaybiah and her advice proved to be sound and beneficial to the Muslims.
There is nothing in Islamic law that prevents women from serving in parliament and municipal councils. However, their admission into these arenas is conditional upon three matters: that they be elected, that the work be free of anything that is inconsistent with their nature, and that they maintain the boundaries set by Allah the Almighty.
Many non-prophetic traditions show that during the early years of Islam, women held positions in the executive branch of the government, law enforcement (known in Islamic jurisprudence as ‘hisba’). This suggests the permissibility of women holding political positions in the government or state institutions provided they are qualified and competent for the job. In addition, they should be able to balance between their work and their other social and family duties. Women must also observe the Islamic principles of dress and behavior.
Today in most of Islamic and Arab countries, women hold the same positions as men in both politics and science. For years, they have continued to assume leading positions as ministers, ambassadors, university professors, and judges and receive the same treatment as their male counterparts in terms of material and moral remuneration.
Women’s social rights
Social rights include:
- Treating mothers kindly. Textual evidences confirm this precept and there is no disagreement about it.
- Maintaining ties of kinship with sisters, paternal and maternal aunts, etc.
-Taking care of widows and divorced women.
Islam promotes all of these women’s social rights. However, it is important to focus on women’s rights in marriage. Islamic law respects women’s right to full and free consent to marriage.
Women's right to be treated with respect and to protection of their dignity and honor
Islamic law prohibits infringement upon people in general out of respect for their humanity and freedom. Based on this, it is impermissible under any circumstances to exploit women in any way. Allah the Almighty warns those who seek to spread corruption among people of a grievous punishment both in this life and in the hereafter. The preservation of dignity is one of the five objectives of Islamic law that must be protected at all times and it is not permissible to forfeit or undermine it in any manner.