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Complexities of the Place of Women in Islam

Even as one of the world’s major religions, Islam may unfortunately not be well understood – particularly in the West – despite having come under the global scrutiny of scholars, politicians, and spiritual aspirants alike for the past few decades. In particular, the role of women in Islam is substantially more complex than is typically recognized by contemporary (oversimplified) notions of Muslim women being oppressed under the patriarchal religion. Although I am in no position to delve into these complexities, I hope this post will provide more information as we work towards more informed opinions on the topic.  


Women before & after Muhammad's revelation

For approximately sixteen centuries, women in Arabia were able to hold positions of power including that of Queen. However, by 400 CE, especially in the particular time-period preceding Muhammad’s revelations (known as jahiliya or time of ignorance) the power and privileges of women had been greatly reduced. Pre-Islamic customs involved female infanticide, the beating or stoning of adulterous women, men having the right to unlimited polygamy. Women were considered the property of men and had little to no property rights.

Given this context, Muhammad’s teachings therefore improved the social and legal status of women with the abolishment of female infanticide, limitation to polygamy, choice in marriage and the provision of some property rights to women (e.g. inheritance and bequeathal). Women could even pray alongside men in mosques.

Under Islam, women also became more significant contributors to society (beyond the role of child-bearers). Particularly because of the belief that both men and women shared equal religious responsibility in Islam, women were largely responsible for the canonization of the Quran and the propagation of the Prophet’s teachings both in the public sphere and household. Muhammad’s first wife Khadija (who was a believer before her husband was convinced; the first Muslim in the world) as well as other wife A’isha and daughter Fatima were essential to the transmission of his teachings, through the hadith and other scriptures. Furthermore, while women such as Umm Waraqah were appointed as religious teachers (imams) of their households, others were officials in the market in Medina or even rulers under various Arab caliphates.

Although Islam improved social justice by granting greater rights to women and limiting the privileges of men, it still could not escape the pre-existing Arab system entrenched in patriarchy.


Muhammad’s Death & His Successors

Despite some debate, the female condition generally worsened under Muhammad’s successors: Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali. As the Islamic faith spread across and beyond the Arab regions, Islam began to take on a more patriarchal form of Muhammad's Quranic ideals.

As stated in the Quran, the Prophet’s wives were only allowed to communicate with Muslims through a screen covering their face (hijab). This subsequently resulted in their seclusion from social interaction (purdah), where they stayed at home. Although the Quran does not specifically require the veiling or seclusion of regular women, after Muhammad’s death, these practices gradually extended to all women in Islam. The Prophet’s successors extended the covering of a woman's beauty (zeenah) to include all parts of the body to further ensure chastity and prevent the enticement of men. (I am urged to question: Is it really the women who should cover themselves, or the men who should show self-restraint and discipline their minds? Is it not as much the responsibility of men to control themselves from being enticed, as much as it is women to prevent enticing?)

Apart from enforcing the above, Umar also practiced the exclusion of women from more extensive religious and communal practices. He appointed different imams for men and women (perhaps resulting in the imparting of different values), and excluded of women from mosques. These cumulatively changed the consciousness of women in Islam. Their role was no longer just submitting to God (as decreed by the Muhammad), but also submitting to the male dominated society.


What does all of this mean to us, today?

As with many religions, the gender stereotypes of Muslim women (as we commonly see today) has origins in the very evolution of Islam - as the religion develops politically and fundamentally, it continuously alters how the world perceives its believers. For instance, feminists feel that wearing a hijab or burka means submitting to the dominant male and therefore conforming to patriarchal supremacy. Yet, as we've seen, feminism and Islam may not be as contradictory as typically portrayed - the original tenets of Islam were entrenched in the progression of women from existing Arab patriarchy.

On another note, many people - including many of us Singaporeans - hold the perception that Islam is rigid, restrictive and bad for society. However, if we truly wish to strive towards the betterment of humanity, we cannot be ignorant. It is important that we understand how Islam originated, its initial tenets, and the potential reasons why it has taken the form it has today (both in reality, and within our minds).

Feminist or not, there are several ways to look at the role of women in Islam:

Could it be that the Quran teaches a double standard with regard to gender? Perhaps it was never the original spirit of Islam that was flawed, but the practice and execution of it by Muhammad's successors? Or could it just be that we are imposing our western standards of gender equality, social justice and ethics on Islamic culture?