The women's question is acquiring ever greater importance throughout the world. The women suffer discrimination whichever community or country they belong to. Women in western countries also suffer discrimination in the male dominated society though there may be difference of degree. Women in Islamic countries are perceived to be suffering more compared to other countries. What is happening in Afghanistan at the hands of Taliban has reinforced this perception. The Taliban are treating women in most primitive way. It is hardly Islamic. Yet they do it in the name of Islam.
The orthodox 'ulama treat the question of women in Islam with hypersensitivity. They are opposed to any kind of change in general but on women's question, in particular. They imitate quite mechanically all the provisions in this respect formulated by the 'ulama more than thirteen hundred years ago. Any re-thinking on the issue is no less than a sin. Also, the question of women has become an important question of Islamic identity vis-୶is the west as far as the Islamic countries are concerned and also of Muslim minorities vis-୶is the majority communities in countries like India. Thus any change in Muslim personal law is opposed vigorously as threatening Muslim identity and an unwarranted interference in Islam. One of the agenda of Islamic revolution in Iran was to reassert Islamic identity vis-୶is the west and it found expression in enforcing chador (a head-gear) for women.
The Islamic revival throughout Islamic world is compelling women to take to veil. In many cases Muslim women are doing so voluntarily. In Iran too many women who had taken to miniskirts during the Shah's period, discarded them and began to wear chador of their volition to escape the charge that they were opposing the Shah at the instigation of the Soviet Union. Similarly in countries like Egypt the women, particularly the university students have taken to veil to assert their Islamic identity. In fact in the period of MTV when the western pop culture is being disseminated with all vengeance such a reaction appears to be quite normal. In the west women bares as much as she can whereas in the east she hides as much as she can. It is thus more of reaction rather than coercion. Women in Islamic countries assert 'modesty' to fight the western 'vulgarity'. These are two different cultures poles apart. Thus veil should not be seen as mere subjugation of women. The Iranian women are quite assertive of their rights despite wearing chador. They are recruited in all government offices, are members of parliament, hold political offices like Masumeh who is vice president of Iran. Not only this the Iranian women are fighting for equal status today and women's movement in Iran is quite strong, as strong as in any other non-Muslim country. Thus veil is cultural expression of modesty rather than any oppressive measure.
In modern era education is spreading fast in all countries including Muslim countries. Muslim women in almost all countries are going to universities in ever larger numbers. These educated women become far more aware of their rights than illiterate women. Thus there is hardly any country with sizeable Muslim population where women are not asserting themselves. Even in a conservative Sheikhdom like Kuwait women are demanding right to vote and right to hold political offices. There is large number of women in the universities in Kuwait. The women spearheading the women's rights in Kuwait is a dean of faculty of arts in the Kuwait University. In Pakistan and Bangla Desh women have held highest offices of Prime Minister and hold offices in various governmental as well as non-governmental organisations.
However, that does not mean there are no serious problems. It is struggle all the way for women: struggle against orthodoxy, struggle against certain oppressive cultural norms which do not permit women to enter certain fields, struggle against dowry and bride burning and struggle against honour killing. As women assert their rights and struggle to find a place of honour in the society the society over which there is domination by men reacts more sharply and tries to put more restriction over them. This struggle will go on for a long time to come. What is shocking is that women are being denied even their well-defined Islamic rights.
It is important to note that Islam is the first religion in the world which recognised woman as legal entity and gave her all rights which man enjoyed. Thus Islam gave women right to enter into marital contract on her own condition. Her father or any male member of the family cannot give her away in marriage to any person of his choice. Her consent to marriage in presence of two witnesses is very necessary for finalisation of marriage. She could stipulate certain conditions which must be fulfilled for validity of the marriage. Any violation of the stipulated condition could lead to dissolution of marriage. What is most revolutionary is that she can insist on what is known as talaq-i-tafwid i.e. delegated right to divorce. According to this provision in the marriage contract she can insist on delegated right to divorce her husband on his behalf if he violates any condition of the marriage contract. It would be seen that even most modern law has no such provision for benefit of women.
Divorce is a recognised institution in Islam though it is not encouraged. Both man as well as woman has right to divorce. The Qur'an has made very fair provision for divorce. It stipulates arbitration. Thus the Qur'an says, " And if you fear breach between the two (i.e. husband and wife), appoint an arbiter from his people and an arbiter from her people. If they both desire agreement, Allah will effect harmony between them." (4:35) The very concept of arbitration is quite modern and this was stipulated 1400 years ago by the holy Book of Islam. However, it is highly regrettable that such fair provision of the Qur'an is ignored by Muslims and they resort to triple divorce in one sitting which was part of pre-Islamic customary law.
Unfortunately at least in India triple divorce has become the most prevalent form of divorce among the Sunni Hanafi and Shafi'i Muslims. In fact triple divorce is un-Qur'anic and is rejected even by Hanbalis and Ahl-e-Hadith among the Sunni Muslims and all Shi'ah sects. Triple divorce being unjust to women was not practised during the Prophet's (PBUH) time and also during the time of the ist Caliph Hazrat Abu Bakr and for two and half years during the reign of 2nd Caliph Hazrat 'Umar. It was during the later part of his reign that triple divorce in one sitting was enforced again on account of its misuse by some Arabs. Triple divorce has never been a part of Islamic teachings. It was, in fact, part of the Arab customary law. Even according to Shah Waliyullah, a great Islamic thinker with social vision of eighteenth century India it is unfair to apply the Arab customary law to non-Arab people. Many Shari'ah provisions include some aspects of the Arab customary law prevailing in the pre-Islamic times. Abolition of triple divorce on which there is no unanimity among Muslims will give great relief to Muslim women. Many men misuse it either to harass their wives or divorce them most arbitrarily leaving them in lurch. Hundreds of women are suffering today because of its validity. Fortunately it has been abolished in Pakistan and Bangla Desh.
Islam has also given right to Muslim women to divorce which is known as Khula'. Though this word has not been used in the Qur'an, a woman, according to it, can buy her freedom from her husband by giving fidyah i.e. compensation. And this right is absolute. Thus the Qur'an says, "Then if you fear that they cannot keep within the limits of Allah, there is no blame on them for what she gives up to become free thereby." (2:229). Commenting on this verse Maulana Muhammad Ali says, "These words give the wife the right to claim a divorce. It is one of the distinguishing characteristics of Islam that it gives the wife the right to claim a divorce, if she is willing to forgo the whole or part of her dowry." (Holy Qur'an, Lahore, 1973, P-98). The Holy Prophet enforced this right in the case of Jamilah who wanted to free herself from her husband though she found no fault in his behaviour towards her except that she did not like him. According to Sahih Bukhari the Prophet (PBUH) allowed her khula' by returning the orchards which her husband had given her by way of mahr. But unfortunately the orthodox 'ulama deprive her of this right also by insisting on consent of her husband. This approach is not in keeping with the sunnah of the Prophet (PBUH). Her right to khula' should be absolute particularly when they fear they cannot keep within the limits of Allah i.e. they cannot fulfil the marital obligations.
There is also a form of divorce what is called mubarat. It is in this form of divorce that mutual consent of both husband and wife is required. Unfortunately the 'ulama have equated khula' with mubarat which is not correct. The Muslim personal law as it operates in India also does not allow woman right to khula' without her husband's consent and naturally husbands, more often than not, exploit this for harassing her and also for extracting much higher compensation than justified.
There is another provision in the Qur'an which is often exploited by men in the most un-Qur'anic way i.e. the provision for polygyny. A man has been permitted to take upto four wives. But this is far from being a general provision for man. It is permitted only in exceptional situation and subject to stringent conditions. Many 'ulama feel that since this verse was revealed after the battle of Uhud in which ten per cent of male Muslim population was wiped out leaving many orphans and widows, provision up to four wives was made only to help these widows and orphans. Thus the relevant verse is as follows: "And if you fear you cannot do justice to orphans, marry such women as seem good to you, two, or three, or four; but if you fear that you will not do justice, then (marry) only one or that which your right hands possess. This is more proper that you may not do injustice." (4:3)
Thus it will be seen that there is so much emphasis on justice. Qur'an has exercised enough caution in this respect. Again in 4:129 Qur'an makes men aware of difficulty in exercising justice between spouses. It says: "And you cannot do justice between wives, even though you wish (it), but be not disinclined (from one) with total disinclination, so that you leave her in suspense. And if you are reconciled and keep your duty, surely Allah is ever forgiving, Merciful." Thus Qur'an makes it clear that equal justice is not possible and one should not leave the first wife in suspense by marrying the other. The early `ulama also discussed what is meant by justice and generally they emphasised equity in maintenance of all four wives. But some felt it included equal love for all wives and since it is not possible as rightly emphasised in 4:129, the intention of the Qur'an is to promote monogamy. Also, the verses on polygamy should be read along with other verses of the Qur'an on husband-wife relationship to understand the real spirit of the Qur'anic approach to this question.
In 21:30 Allah says, "He put between you love and compassion." Thus the relationship between husband and wife is basically of love and compassion. Then how just relationship can exclude love between the two. Also Qur'an says that "They are a garment for you and you are garment for them. Thus if the verses on polygamy are read in conjunction with these two verses it becomes very clear that equal love and dignity in husband-wife relationship is a must. Libas (garment) stands for human dignity. And since equal love with all wives is not possible and human dignity cannot be upheld without love and compassion multiple marriages are not encouraged by the Qur'an. Thus polygyny is an exception and not a rule.
The women's question needs to be tackled with new sensitivity and freshness of approach. It is not true to say that what the medieval theologians thought on this question is immutable and divine. After all the 'ulama are human beings, howsoever learned they may be and what is more important to emphasise is that they were product of their own time. What they thought on women's question reflected ethos of their period. The real vision of the Qur'an unflods itself with passage of time. The Qur'an really envisions equality of sexes and there is enough in the Qur'anic verses to draw this conclusion. Thus the verses 2:228 and 33:35 declare sexual equality in no uncertain terms. Yet in medieval ages these verses were by and large neglected or understood with differently. The time has come to unfold the real message of the Qur'an in this respect. Islam has treated women with great sense of dignity. True Muslims, therefore, should not allow an impression being created that Islam treats women unjustly.
It is not the intention of Islam to confine women to home and entrust her alone with the responsibility of minding household work and bringing up children. There is no where stated either in the Qur'an or any of the hadith that household work is her sole responsibility. It is, at best, a shared responsibility. In Fatawa' 'Alamgiri compiled during the reign of Aurangzeb Alamgir, the Moghul emperor we see that maintenance has been defined by the 'ulama to include cooked food, sewn clothes and a separate house to live in. Thus a husband has to serve her with cooked food and cannot insist that his wife cook the food and serve him; on the contrary it is his duty to serve cooked food to his wife as part of maintenance. Minding children should also be a shared responsibility between the two. No faqih i.e. Islamic jurist can insist that man should not share household responsibility with his wife and that it is wife's function alone. Even the concept of qawwam in 4:34 has undergone great change. The earlier commentators and theologians thought it means either 'ruler' or 'controller of household affairs' or 'caretaker of the family' while wife is his subordinate. The modern scholars maintain that this verse does not entitle man to dominate woman but indicates his function of earning and maintaining family. It is only a functional concept and does not show any inherent superiority over women. Even a scholar like Maulana Azad maintains this and says that in those days it was man who earned (the word qawwam is an exaggerated form of qama which means to stand and since one who earns stands too much is called qawwam) and spent on his wife and chidren and looked after them he has been described as qawwam by the Qur'an. Maulana, therefore, argues that if wife earns and shares the expenses incurred on the family she will also be called qawwam as she also performs the same function as her husband does. There may also be cases in which wife earns and husband does not. In that case she will be qawwam and husband will not be. And there are many families today in which wife is the sole bread earner.
Thus whichever angle we look the woman's problem from, she is not the looser or unequal from the Qur'anic stand point. We should not impose our own thinking and explanations on the Qur'an. It is too much to think that what we feel is the real intention of the Qur'an. Thus for example, many people justify polygyny by saying that since woman gives birth to child and man cannot go near her for several months or she goes through the menstrual periods man needs to have more than one wife. It is purely un-Qur'anic approach and an explanation never intended by the Qur'an. Such explanations reflect sexual obsession. In fact the verse 24:33 says "Let those who do not find the wherewithal for marriage keep themselves chaste, until Allah gives them means out of His grace.."
Thus Allah requires that man remain chaste until he finds means to marry even one wife. Sexual obsession is obviously discouraged. Secondly, such explanations reduce a woman to be a mere sexual object, not a companion to be loved and respected as the Qur'an requires. Allah has created mawaddah and rahmah (love and compassion) between the two and not mere sexual instinct. Sexual instinct is more for propagation of species than mere pleasure. Even most orthodox 'ulama would agree on this point. However most of the Muslims take another wife more for sexual reasons than otherwise. This defeats the very purpose of treating women with love dignity and as companion. One must thoroughly revise the whole outlook on polygamy. Today women are much more educated and much more aware and hence would consider it undignified to live with a co-wife and share her husband's attention and love with her.
As we hinted above the question of Islamic identity vis-୶is the west is being treated in terms of women's rights in Islamic world. Why only women should bear the entire brunt of the question of Islamic identity. Her clothes, her hijab, her role in the society is seen as part of Islamic identity whereas man does not have to face any such restriction. He can continue to wear western dress and adopt new ways of life in the modern society without in any way violating the Islamic norms. Wearing western dress is even seen as more dignified as far as men are concerned. But if woman takes to different dress Islamic norm is violated. The Qur'anic verses with such interpretations as to restrict her role are invoked. All will agree that thrust of the Qur'ani'c argument is that women dress modestly. She should not expose her sexual charms. This is also in a particular context prevailing in Arabia. The Arab women used to stand in public places and attract men's attention by displaying their charms, wearing anklets and thumping their feet to attract men's attention. Also, she would bare her body as much as she could. It is these vulgarities the Qur'an wanted to stop. It is also important to note that Qur'an never took away her right to zeenah i.e. to adorn herself. She is allowed to display her charms before her husband and those close relatives with whom she cannot marry (mahram).
Thus the Qur'anic verse 4:31 gives the description of those before whom she can display her charms and adornment. This verse begins with the words which are quite significant" And say to the believing women that they lower their gaze and restrain their sexual passions and do not display their adornment except what appears thereof". The words "except what appears thereof" are quite significant. This clearly implies that certain parts of her body can remain open. There is almost a consensus among orthodox `ulama also that the face and hands can remain open and that she can apply collyrium to her eyes (which is part of adornment and wear rings in her fingers and bangles and these parts can remain open. We also find in hadith (Abu Daud 31:30) according to which the Prophet himself is reported to have told Asma', his wife `A'isha's sister, when she appeared before him in thin clothes, through which parts of her body could be seen: "O Asma', when woman attains her puberty it is not proper that any part of her body should be seen except this, and he pointed to his face and hands." This settles conclusively that Islam never enjoined the veil por covering of the face.
The preceding verse 24:30 also makes it clear what is real intention in observing modesty. It says, "Say to the believing men that they lower their gaze and restrain their sexual passions. That is purer for them. Surely Allah is Aware of what they do." Thus it will be seen hat it is not only the duty of woman to restrain herself from displaying her sexual charms but also of man to lower his gaze and restrain his sexual passions. In fact both men and women have to observe a moral code. It is also to be noted that the concept of modesty is culturally conditioned. There cannot be a universally valid concept. What is considered modest in one culture may not be necessarily so in other culture. Western way of dressing for women (except ultra-modern and fashion oriented which is promoted by the profit motives of the cosmetic industry) has its own dignity and modesty. All western women do not dress in ultra-modern and exotically fashionable way. Such way of dressing is not only vulgar but is based on exploitation of women.
What early commentators have prescribed for women to wear is based on their own culturally conditioned notions. The Arabs had their own notions of what is zeenah (adornment), what is sexually charming and exciting and what constitutes modesty and modest way of dressing. Thus what is binding on us is that women should refrain from displaying their sexual charms publicly and restrain her sexual passions and not wearing what Arab women wore and not to go by their concept of what constitutes modesty. We must distinguish between what is fundamental in the Qur'an and what is instrumental to achieve it in the society. What is fundamental alone is binding on the believers, not hat is instrumental in a particular society to achieve what is fundamental. While observing chastity and restraining sexual passions is a fundamental requirement and binding on all believers wearing hijab or a particular type of dress prescribed by earlier commentators of the Qur'an is not binding. One must make distinction between the two. Hijab, if it means hiding or covering the face is certainly not what is prescribed by the Qur'an. It is a totally wrong notion that the Qur'an prescribes hijab.
It is also a culturally conditioned notion that women should not venture out except in prescribed fields. It is neither proved from the Qur'an nor from the sunnah (Prophet's sayings and doings). The women during the Holy prophet's time used to take part in all fields including the battle field, and not only for tending the wounded. Their role was much mre than that of nurses. The case of Umm 'Umarah is well known among them. In the battle of 'Uhud it was she who protected the Prophet from being harmed by the kuffar (unbelievers of Mecca who were trying to kill him. Umm 'Umarah took sword in her hand and attacked those who tried to come near the Prophet and pierced sword into his body. She was, therefore, popularly known as 'woman of Uhud'. The Prophet (PBUH) also had great regard for her and always used to inquire after her health. We also have to instance of Ghazalah, a Kharijite woman who was known for her bravery and who challenged Yusuf bin Hajjaj in the battle, an Umayyad governor who was feared even by all Arabs. He was a great tyrant.
Thus we see that women took active part in combat situations and proved their might. Why should then women be restricted from taking part in military or police service, if they want? Hazrat 'Umar had appointed a woman the chief inspector of markets in his time. In Aghani we read stories of highly skilled poets, musicians and lovers of art. They were greatly respected. Some of these women were women of highest achievements in the diverse fields in life. Zubeda, the wife of Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid was a highly skilled administrator. She was often consulted before major policy decisions were taken. It is she who built a network of canal system which immensely benefited the people. Thus it will be seen in those days there were no restrictions on her which are being imposed today. It is again culturally mediated restrictions rather than prescriptions by the Qur'an or hadith.
Feudal culture put severe restrictions on women and confined her role to household affairs only. She was made to observe strict purdah. All that is changing but still there is lot of resistance to change. Cultural prejudices are not easy to fight. Thus it is feudal cultural sensitivities which are restricting her role. Muslim women should fight these restrictions and try to excel in any field of their choice. The Muslim community cannot progress if their women remain confined to the house. Early marriage is also culturally determined rather than religious requirement. Child or pre-puberty marriages should be ruled out. Islam, while permitting child marriage due to cultural reasons, had given her what is known as khiyar al-bulugh (option of puberty) i.e. she could annul the marriage on achieving puberty, if she did not approve of the same. Thus child marriage is discouraged by Islam.
Empowerment of Muslim women is not possible until she overcomes all such restrictions imposed on her by the feudal society. She must acquire modern skills and excel in all these fields. What Islam has given her by way of rights is being given to her now by modern society. She should overthrow her restrictive role and fight for her Islamic rights and this struggle for Islamic rights will empower her.