Women and Islam

by Snorri G. Bergsson

The following chapter was the third in a pamphlet I wrote a few years ago and also an essay I once submitted at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It appears slightly abridged from the latter form, enlarged and formatted in html, so you will understand some of its shortcomings..
    I must note that I am not a feminist, neither a Muslim, and certainly do not bear any harm in mind. I just want to share my opinions on the status of women in Islam.
    This site is still under construction, so bear with me. Also, the footnotes are sometimes not scholarly done, since I occasionally quote a reference I had earlier on referred to with a full title and other necessities.



The need to reform women's status
Marriage and Sexuality in pre-Islamic Arabia
The Iron Curtain
The Zaynab affair
Muhammed's women
Maintaining equality?
Al-Ghazali's, Muhammed and marriage

 When most Westerners think of Muslim women the first thing that usually comes to mind is their dress. The veil (hijab) has become the main symbol of their subordination - like an iron curtain to the Western world. One of the most important issues in Islamic gender studies is to examine how the development of Islamic jurisprudence changed the status of women-both in positive and negative ways. To answer this fundamental question one must consider who made the changes and why did they occur? The Koran mentions somehow fails to explain clearly how 'Allah' had determined what a woman's status should be, although women are the most frequently discussed subject in the Koran.
 Islamic law is not a systematic code for human behaviour, that was formed by 'Allah' and Muhammed and has been basically the same ever since. It is more like a growing organism, constantly changing according to scholarly opinion and cultural developments, although moderately few changes have occurred since medieval times. The modern Shari'a is not the same system of instructions as was advocated by Muhammed in the 7th century, but rather the effects of time on the symphony of laws he composed. Muslims generally agree on the validity of Muhammed's 'symphony', but often disagree over the way the ulema has 'recomposed' it according to various circumstances.
 Since this is not the forum for discussing the total development of Islamic law concerning women, we will take only the best example of the 'classical' understanding, Muhammed al-Ghazali, and confront his views with those of modern Muslim feminists, represented by Fatima Mernissi. In fact, we will discuss the status of women according to the understanding of early Islam (7th century) and classical Islam, which still dominates the Shari'a (9-10th centuries), versus modern Islam.
     The reason we have chosen al-Ghazali as the representative of the classical understanding, is that he, as Madelain Farah stated in her introduction to his Etiquette of Marriage, "restated and summerized the prevailing views from the advent of Islam up to his time."1 However, the recent trend in Muslim gender studies has taken a whole new course in determining the legal status of women. Nikki R. Keddie explains it as follows:
    Reformists usually refer to the earliest sources - the Quran and selected Traditions about Muhammad - and reject most later interpretation. Subsequent Islamic law is rightly seen as more patriarchal than the Quran. If the Quran is reinterpreted, law can be reshaped. Such new interpretations could end polygamy and improve women's rights.2
In this camp, the Moroccan scholar Fatima Mernissi is perhaps the most daring -even extreme- advocate of women's rights in the context of modern Islam. Our own understanding of the discussed issues will be supplementary to al-Ghazali's and Mernissi's confrontation.

The Need to Reform

 Islam does not, in fact, allow celibacy, except when physical attributes prevents the individual fulfilling his marital obligations.

    And of His signs is this: He created for you helpmeets from yourselves that ye might find rest in them, and He ordained between you love and mercy. Lo, herein indeed are portents for folk who reflect.3
This sura sounds familiar to those who have read the biblical chapter of creation, when God created a helpmeet (Eve) for Adam, and, as the relevant Hebrew word means, as a wall of protection around the man. But the wife is not supposed to be equal partner to the man, only his helpmeet. Marriage forms an important part of the Shari'a, as we mentioned briefly in chapter one and thus has to be fulfilled according to the rules laid out in the Koran and the sunna.
    At the advent of Islam, the status of women was very much tolerable. Muhammed seems, in his first years of Prophethood, to have promoted women as almost equal partners to men, and an important part of the Muslim society. But when situations changed, first by the hijra to Medina and later by the expansion of the Islamic empire, the status of women changed rapidly. Now, instead of being equals, they were considered inferior. Muhammed said: "O Women, I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelligence and religion than you."4 Women are thus lacking intelligence, and should not be equal to men.
 Since medieval times, the subordination of Muslim women has been, it seems, different from what was practised in pre-Islamic Arabia. Indeed they are still subjected to inhuman treatment, such as female circumcision, which is neither based on koranic passages nor on Muhammed's words. If the Prophet is not to blame for the obloquy of women, perhaps their status can be 'reformed'. On the other hand, if those 'bad' changes were consciously advocated by Muhammed, then reform is impossible, considering his absolute status in Islam.
 We must bear in mind that the Meccan Muhammed preached social justice for orphans, widows and the poor but after the flight to Yathrib (Medina) in 622 CE he turned into a warrior-prophet. He was no longer a dreamer-reformer, but the political and religious leader of a growing number of Muslims. Thus, most of the Koranic suras and the sunna turned from attention to social reforms to emphasise such issues as war, division of booty, treatment of non-Muslims and women. Most -if not all- of the koranic verses and the related sunna constituting the discrimination against women were from the Medinan, and not the Meccan, period. The best example is probably the Surat al-Nisa, the fourth chapter in the Koran, which introduced in verse 34 the principle of qawama, the superior status and guardianship of men over women. Muslims have recited this verse in order to justify women's exclusion from holding public office and whatever problems arise concerning women, about which the Koran was not explicit.
 The legal status of women under the Shari'a is based on the principle that all people of full legal capacity, that is mature and non-slave Muslims, enjoy the same legal protection and rights. This means that slaves and non-Muslims only enjoy partial rights under Islam. Women, however, enjoy in theory similar legal rights as men in certain matters, but concerning other issues they fall short. To name but one example: daughters receive only half the share of inheritance that sons of a deceased father do.
 The main line is that the present status of Muslim women is in conflict with many aspects of the Declaration of Universal Human Rights (1948) and other human rights declarations issued by the United Nations. However, the teachings of Meccan Muhammed can easily be reconciled with the issue of universal human rights. In that period, Muhammed declared the solidarity of all human beings, including women, non-Muslims and slaves, and not only for Muslims as he preached in Medina. Concerning this matter, Fatima Mernissi refers to al-Ghazali's views on female sexuality and concludes her discussion as following:
    Ghazali's conception of the individual's task on earth is illuminating in that it reveals that the Muslim message, in spite of its beauty, considers humanity to be constituted by males only. Women are considered not only outside humanity but a threat to it as well...5
If the equality of all human beings was advocated by Muhammed at any time in his prophetic career, why should Muslim societies and laws discriminate against women the way they do today?  If the Muslim view of the human race leaves out women, and indeed non-Muslims as well, because they are a threat to the social order, what has happened to the social reformer who preached in Mecca in the early 600's?
 If we assume that the status of women in pre-Islamic Arabia was different from the present, we must ask how the changes occurred and why? Were they 'bad' or 'good'? Who made the changes, Muhammed or Muslim theologians and jurists?
 If we are to compare the situation of women in pre-Islamic Arabia to that under Islam, we have to divide the answer into two parts. Women's status under Meccan Islam was somewhat better than under  jahiliya (pre-Islamic times). On the other hand, Medinan Islam treated women, according to our understanding, much worse than the pagan Arabs did before the advent of Islam. Thus one would like to find an answer to the following question: What happened between the hijra and al-Ghazali's time, that changed women's status so drastically?



1 Madelain Farah, Marriage and Sexuality in Islam. A Translation of al-Ghazali's book on the Etiquette of Marriage from the Ihya (Salt Lake City, 1984), 5.
2 Nikki R. Keddie, "Introduction", Women in Middle Eastern History (eds. Beth Baron and Nikki R. Keddie. New Haven and London, 1991), 15.
3 The Koran 30:21.
4 Al-Bukhari.
5 Fatima Mernissi, Beyond the Veil. Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society (revised edition, Indiana, 1987), 45.