What do women and Islam have in common? Besides the stereotyped images that each suffers from individually, the status of women in Islam is one of the most extremely misunderstood and incorrectly portrayed things in western society. We can investigate why this is so later. First, a brief introduction to the actual status of women in Islam is in order.
Before discussing issues pertinent to the social status of women, consider the original creation of the woman as portrayed by the Quran (the Islamic holy book) which does not subscribe to the view that Eve was created from the crooked rib of Adam and thus is of inferior status: "O humankind, be conscious of your Sustainer who has created you out of one living entity, and out of it created its mate, and out of the two spread abroad a multitude of men and women." Instead, the verse of the Quoran shows that there is no superiority for one sex over the other. This sets the tone for the status of women in Islam.
The concept of gender equality in Islam is stressed by the non-superiority of either sex over the other. It came at a time when it was necessary to elevate the demeaned status of women and grant them rights equal to those of men. The equality of women in Islam is evident by the unprecedented legal rights given to them under a monotheistic religion as defined in the Quoran. As one of many examples, consider the rights of women in marriage and divorce. Both men and women have equal rights to contract a marriage as well as to dissolve it. The precondition of marriage is merely the mutual agreement by both parties. And unlike Christianity, a woman in Islam can divorce her husband at any time if she feels that she has been dealt with unjustly or even if she is just unhappy with her spouse since marriage is based upon mutual responsibilities toward each other. Islam has also ensured the woman's right to remarry pending a three month refrainment period.
As for social rights, Islam has always recognized the prominent role that women play in society. They are given the freedom to pursue any profession including political positions. Both in the past and present day, women in Islamic societies have reached political heights unparalleled in the most "advanced" western nations. Even in the earliest day of Islam, Aysha, the wife of the prophet, lead an army of 30,000 soldiers. Currently, women lead two Islamic countries: Benazir Bhutto has served as the prime minister of Pakistan since 1988 and has been a strong and remarkable leader. Turkey is also headed by a Muslim woman, Tansu Ciller, who was elected the prime minister in 1993. Here in the U.S., we still have never had a female president and the outlook doesn't look too good either.
Those are just a few of the facts. Why then is Islam portrayed as a religion that oppresses women and puts them in a position inferior to men? Part of that is certainly due to the stereotyped image of how Islamic women are portrayed in western media as an extension of Islam-bashing. A prominent example is the movie "Not Without My Daughter" in which scores of false and fictitious depictions were made of women in an Islamic country. It is also true, however, that in many so called "Islamic" countries, women are not treated according to their God-given rights. But this is not the fault of Islamic ideology but rather the misapplication or sometimes the outright denial of the ideology in these societies.
Much of the practices and laws in "Islamic" countries have deviated from or are totally unrelated to the origins of Islam. Instead many of these practices are based on cultural or traditional customs which have been injected into these societies. For example, in Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive by law. This rule, in a country which is supposed to derive its law from Islamic legislation, is completely an invention of the Saudi monarchy. This horrific rule as well as a host of others are residues of old pre-Islamic tribal traditions where women were not entitled to the same rights as men. As another example, in some "Islamic" countries, many civil laws remain those that were imposed upon them during European colonization. Much of the civil law that legislates personal and family matters in Egypt, for example, is directly based on old French law. As a result, an Egyptian man can divorce his wife much more easily than the reverse. Consequently, women often have to suffer long and expensive court procedures and have to prove that they were mistreated by their husbands before being granted a divorce. Often times, laws in Middle Eastern countries, which are legislated and enforced by men, only take bits and pieces of Islamic law and combine them with concocted rules based upon some cultural or foreign practices.
The status of women in Islam is one of equality and honor. Unfortunately, in the current day and age, though there are many societies in which the majority of citizens are Muslim, there are no Islamic nations.
Noha Ragab is a Durham resident.