Women and Shariah: Unraveling the myths
Whenever the word "Shariah" is mentioned, the oppression and mistreatment of women comes to the mind of many in the West. The Muslim community is all too familiar with words and phrases that are commonly associated with the subject of "Women and Shariah" in the Western media: second-class citizen, discrimination, injustice, violence, inferior to men, patriarchal, insignificant in society, enslaved to men and the list goes on.
One of the arguments presented by the West as to why they believe that the Shariah oppresses the woman is that the laws are restrictive towards the woman and particularly do not allow her personal,or sexual freedom. -They quote the dress code, segregation and the prohibition of socialising between the sexes, and the severe punishments for fornication or adultery. However, these liberal values come wrapped in their own set of problems. For example, they have allowed the sexual exploitation of women through the pornographic, advertisement and entertainment industries that have degraded the status of the woman in society. This has led to rising sexual harassment, abuse, and even rape. According to the British Crime Survey 2007, 230 women were raped every day in the UK. According to the British Crime Survey 2004, one in four women in the UK have faced some form of sexual assault since the age of 16. The US Department of Justice has reported figures regarding sexual assault in the US that indicate that a woman is sexually assaulted every 2 minutes. How much choice does a woman really have to engage in basic actions such as travel, work, education and taking her children to the park without fear of harassment or harm?
Islam does not believe in securing unlimited individual freedom but aims to protect other values within society. Values such as chastity, honour and respect of men and women alike, strong marriages, strong family units where every child is born within wedlock, knowing its father and mother and knowing who is responsible for its financial, physical and emotional welfare. It also believes in the cooperation of men and women within society - in education, economics, politics and societal life in general. It does not simply look at what will ensure maximum pleasure for individuals within society, but what is best for the harmony, safety, and respect for the community as a whole.
It believes the idea of men and women viewing one another in a purely sexual manner produces a culture of promiscuity and adultery that creates an obstacle in their cooperation and harms the other values it seeks to protect within society. It therefore sets down laws, rules and limitations to regulate the relationship between men and women in society to try and ensure that the triggering of the sexual desire and sexual relations are restricted to marriage and kept away from public life. The dress code, the prohibition of the socializing between the sexes, the prohibition of the use of the woman's body to sell any product or service, and the severe punishments for fornication, adultery and slander against the reputation of an individual, are all examples of such laws. The aim being to produce a society where women can interact with men and have an active public life that is productive, safe, and based upon mutual respect.
Another accusation brought against the Shariah is that it discriminates against the woman, is patriarchal and gives her inferior status to the man. -e reason given is the lack of gender equality in various laws. They quote the difference in the process of divorce between men and women, differences in the laws on inheritance, testimony, polygamy, roles and rights in marriage, and so on.
If we examine this concept of "Gender Equality", the irony is that in itself it is a patriarchal concept for it places the man as the figure head or goal that the woman aspires to reach. Over the generations many Western feminists have accepted that it brings its own set of contradictions and dilemmas. For example, the dilemma of how a woman can call for equality which negates the relevance of gender in public life but at the same time call for pregnancy or maternity rights or flexible working hours based on sex difference. The call for gender-neutral laws that do not recognise the obvious differences between the sexes may actually contribute to injustices against women. For example, employers could expect the same commitment at work with respect to time and physical activity of women who are pregnant or have young children. In addition, the concept of gender equality, which theoretically produced the "have it all woman" in reality produced the "do it all" woman - who continued to burden the household responsibility but now also had to burden the financial maintenance of the family through struggling to maintain a demanding career.
Islam has ordered that the man view the woman with great respect and honour. The Prophet(saw) said, "-The world and all things in the world are precious but the most precious thing in the world is a virtuous woman." The Messenger(saw) gave many sayings to elevate the status that the woman has in society, breaking away from the lowly status that women had as second class citizens enslaved to men in the Arab society. He (saw) said "The believer who has the most perfect faith is the one whose behaviour is the best and the best of you are the ones who are best to their women". It is this view towards the woman and the accountability to the Creator that acts as the primary guard to disrespect, discrimination, and harm of the woman.
With regards to gender equality, Islam does not compare the woman against the man or look at what is best for the woman verses what is best for the man when setting down all rights and responsibilities in family life or society. Rather it looks at the needs of the man and woman as a human being and what is best for family life and the community as a whole to achieve harmony.
Therefore, in certain areas the rights and rules are the same. For example access to basic needs, education, healthcare, economic rights, access to justice, the same punishment for the same crime, having a political voice in society and the right to vote for the leader of the state. In some areas the responsibilities are the same, for example the prayers, the fasting, the Hajj, the paying of the zakat, the carrying of the dawa and accounting the rulers. However, in some issues the rights and roles are different between the man and the woman, for example, the process of divorce, the dress code, inheritance, polygamy, the need for 2 female witnesses to provide testimony in certain court cases against one man, custody of the child, and the roles and rights in marriage and family life.
Therefore, in some areas, Allah (swt) has given the man certain rights He has not afforded to the woman and in other issues He (swt) has given the woman rights He has not afforded to the man. Islam does not see difference as a problem nor as discrimination for it does not view one role or right above another. For example, in family life Islam defines the responsibility of the man as the breadwinner and the woman as the homemaker and the nurturer of the children. One role is not above another, but both are essential for the functioning of a family and the progress of society as a whole. Within Islam the woman is to be financially supported by the male members of her family, her community, and by the state. Therefore, although the woman is permitted to work, there should be no societal or financial pressures upon her to do so if she chooses not to. This is crucial as the woman cannot compromise her vital role of being a wife and mother and of nurturing the thinking and behaviour of the future generations.
In summary, the roles and rights of men and women in Islam are complementary rather than competitive. Simply looking at what is best for the woman verses what is best for the man can sometimes overlook what is best for the children, for a strong marriage and for a harmonious family life. It believes strongly in cooperation rather than in gender battles.
As Muslims living in the West, we are in a prime position to challenge the lies being propagated about Islam and the Shariah. We have a great responsibility to not only defend the Islamic rules but to show others the failings of the capitalist secular liberal creed in solving the problems that women face within society. We have a duty to present the truth and beauty of the Islamic system in addressing the status and position of women within society and a duty to present the beauty of the Shariah in regulating the relationship between men and women to produce true cooperation and harmony in society.