Gender inequality is often considered to be a basic characteristic of Islam. It is a tough issue to deal with if we consider the Muslims diverse cultural practices, which may or may not be consistent with normative Islamic teachings. It took me many hours of reflecting, reading, and attending lectures in Europe and the US to understand the Qur'an's position on this issue and the modern practice of gender equality in politics.
I attended a lecture by Iceland's Olof Olafsdottir, who is the head of the division for Equality between Women and Men at the Council of Europe a very long title to carry along with the heavy responsibilities that follow
The topic was women in politics in the 43 Council of Europe member states. First of all, it is worth noting that voting rights for most European women were achieved only after World War I (1919 for the US). Statistics on the percentage of women in the government are extremely astonishing,1 although the trend is rather expected. As we move toward southern and eastern Europe, the female percentage decreases. Sweden, Finland, and Norway, are at the top of the list. Half of all Swedish government officials are women. On the other hand, Italy has only 8%, the lowest among European Union member countries.
Certain countries have undertaken serious reforms to increase female participation. For instance, Spain moved up to 21% when, in the post-Franco era, women took advantage of the rebirth of democracy. France, the symbol of equality, fraternity, and liberty, recently reformed its constitution to grant equal opportunities for women to participate in politics. Even though women had the right to vote and be elected since 1949, the French government was only 27% female as of 2001.
Political systems are a major factor. If political parties and politicians have too much power, the competition is tougher. As a consequence, it is believed that women find it too difficult to deal with process as well as with the power of the positions. Turkey and France are perfect examples of this phenomenon, and so women are likely to be discouraged by the ensuing harsh power struggle.
Why does the decision-maker's gender make a difference? Many people might pose this question. The most current and concrete answer is the case of Sweden, where 50% of the decision-makers are women. A paternal leave law exists in many democratic countries. However there is a major flaw almost all cases only the mother uses her paternal leave while the father does not interrupt his career. The Swedish Parliament passed a law offering a month-long paternal leave to the father that cannot be passed on to the mother. As a result, many fathers who had used the excuse that their jobs were more important and any interruption would be considered a major reversal suddenly decided to use this opportunity to be with their new-born children!
Another major result of the high female presence in the Swedish Parliament is the seen in legislation related to prostitution: both the prostitute and the customer are punished!
Two related factors can account for the major gap between countries having high and low rates of women in their governments: democratic identity and culture. Efficient and older democracies have established a real democratic culture in which individuals are valued and politics is close to the people. Also, culture tends to affect the role of men and women immensely. For instance, Turkish women are very powerful in the household. The division of duties has developed according to Islamic teachings, which assigns specific social roles to men and women according to their nature. Women are more emotional, intuitive, and affectionate, and so are more fit to run the family and the household and to educate the children. Men, on the other hand, are responsible for struggling outside the house to maintain the family. Thus, in most Muslim-majority countries the percentage of women in politics is rather low. However, as the family structure is very strong, fewer social problems are observed.
It was hard for me to accept this view until I realized that, according to the Qur'an:
- Men and women have the same spiritual human nature.
- Both genders received the divine breath, for they were created with the same human and spiritual nature.
- Both genders are dignified and are trustees of Allah on Earth.
- Woman is not blamed for humanity's fall. Pregnancy and childbirth are not seen as punishments for eating from the forbidden tree. On the contrary, the Qur'an considers them to be grounds for love and respect due to mothers.
- Men and women have the same religious and moral duties and responsibilities, and both face the consequences of their deeds.
- The Qur'an does not state that one gender is superior to the other. Some mistakenly translate qiwamah (responsibility for the family) as superiority. The Qur'an makes it clear that the sole basis of superiority is piety and righteousness instead of gender, color, or nationality.
- The absence of women as Prophets or Messengers of Allah is due to the demands and physical suffering associated with such figures' roles, not because of any spiritual inferiority.2
There is no evidence from the Qur'an to preclude women from leading a state. Islam does not forbid or discourage the education of women. On the contrary, Islam authorizes women to have careers in fields such as teaching and medicine. However, a woman's most essential responsibility is to educate her children and raise a sound family. Raising children is a key social function, for a society's future and efficient functioning depends on educated generations. Thus, from this perspective, a woman's responsibility is rather significant and challenging.
I hope that those who are having a hard time with gender equality in Islam take the time to do a little research, because the most logical and convincing answers are there to be discovered.
1. All statistics are from the 2001 Report of the Directorate General of Human Rights of the Council of Europe, Women in Politics in the Council of Europe Member States.
2. Jamal A. Badawi, Gender Equity in Islam. Online at: www.iad.org/books/GEI.html.