International Women's Day is March 8th. In recognition of this event, we present the following article on women's rights according to the Abrahamic traditions.
Since modern Western thought and paradigms are based on the Western cultural heritage, what is meant by religion has been the Judeo-Christian tradition. Western thinkers, Orientalists, and “Westernized” intellectuals in the Muslim world, all out of their ignorance of Islam, have tended to criticize Islam from the perspective of criticisms directed toward the Judeo-Christian tradition. What follows is of great importance, especially in correcting and clarifying this important matter from the viewpoint of women’s status in Islam.
Do Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have the same conception of women? Are they different in their conceptions? Do Judaism and Christianity really offer women better treatment than Islam? What is the truth?
It is not easy to search for and find answers to these difficult questions. The first difficulty is that one has to be fair and objective or, at least, do one’s utmost to be so. This is what Islam teaches. The Qur’an instructs Muslims to say the truth, even if those who are very close to them do not like it: Whenever you speak, speak justly, even if a near relative is concerned (6:152) and: O you who believe, stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even as against yourselves, or your parents or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor (4:135).
Throughout this research, I have striven to approach the Qur’anic ideal of speaking justly. I would like to emphasize that my purpose for this study is not to denigrate Judaism or Christianity. As Muslims, we believe in the Divine origins of both. No one can be a Muslim without believing in Moses and Jesus as great Prophets of God. My goal is only to vindicate Islam and pay a tribute, long overdue in the West, to the final truthful Message from God to humanity.
The Judeo-Christian conception of Adam and Eve’s creation is narrated in detail in Genesis 2:4-3:24. God prohibited both of them from eating the fruits of the forbidden tree. However, the serpent seduced Eve to eat from it and Eve, in turn, seduced Adam to eat with her. When God rebuked Adam for what he did, Adam put all the blame on Eve: The woman you put here with me_she gave me some fruit from the tree and I ate it. Consequently, God said to Eve: I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing. With pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you. He told Adam: Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree .... Cursed is the ground because of you. Through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.
The Qur’an relates the creation account in several places. The Qur’an, contrary to the Bible, places equal blame on both Adam and Eve (7:19:23) and nowhere gives even the slightest hint that Eve tempted Adam to eat from the tree or that she ate before he did. In other words, Eve is not a temptress, a seducer, or a deceiver. Moreover, she is not to be blamed for the pains of childbearing. God, according to the Qur’an, punishes no one for another’s faults. Both Adam and Eve committed a sin and then asked for and received God’s forgiveness.
The Biblical image of Eve as a temptress has had an extremely negative impact on women throughout the Judeo-Christian tradition. All women were believed to have inherited from their mother, the Biblical Eve, both her guilt and her guile. Consequently they were all untrustworthy, morally inferior, and wicked. Menstruation, pregnancy, and childbearing were considered the just punishment for the eternal guilt of the cursed female sex. In order to appreciate the extent of the negative impact that this has had on all of Eve’s female descendants, we have to look at the writings of some of the most important Jews and Christians writers.
Let’s start with the Old Testament. Looking at excerpts from what is called the “Wisdom Literature,” we find: I find more bitter than death the woman who is a snare, whose heart is a trap and whose hands are chains. The man who pleases God will escape her, but the sinner she will ensnare.... while I was still searching but not finding, I found one upright man among a thousand but not one upright woman among them all (Ecclesiastes 7:26-28). In another part of the Jewish literature found in the Catholic Bible, we read: No wickedness comes anywhere near the wickedness of a woman..... Sin began with a woman and thanks to her we all must die (Ecclesiasticus 25:19, 24).
Jewish Rabbis listed nine curses placed upon women because of the Fall: “To the woman He gave nine curses and death: the burden of the blood of menstruation and the blood of virginity; the burden of pregnancy; the burden of childbirth; the burden of bringing up the children; her head is covered as one in mourning; she pierces her ear like a permanent slave or slave girl who serves her master; she is not to be believed as a witness; and after everything--death.”1 Until today, orthodox Jewish men in their daily morning prayer recite: “Blessed be God King of the universe that Thou has not made me a woman.” Women, on the other hand, thank God every morning for “making me according to Thy will.”(2)
The Biblical Eve has played a far larger role in Christianity than in Judaism. Her sin has been pivotal to the whole Christian faith, because the Christian conception of the reason for Jesus Christ’s mission on Earth stems from Eve’s disobedience to God. She had sinned and then seduced Adam to follow her in sin. Consequently, God expelled both of them from Heaven to Earth, which then became cursed because of them. They bequeathed their sin, which had not been forgiven by God, to all of their descendants and, thus, all humans are born in sin. In order to purify human beings from their “original sin,” God had to sacrifice Jesus, who is considered to be the Son of God, on the cross. Therefore, Eve is responsible for her own mistake, her husband’s sin, the sin into which all people are born (Original Sin), and the Son of God’s death. In other words, one woman acting on her own caused the fall of humanity.(3)
St. Tertullian was even blunter than St. Paul. While talking to his “best beloved sisters” in the faith, he said: “Do you not know that you are each an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the Devil’s gateway: You are the unsealer of the forbidden tree: You are the first deserter of the divine law: You are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert even the Son of God had to die.”(4)
St. Augustine (d. 430) was faithful to the legacy of his predecessors when he wrote to a friend: “What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother, it is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any woman.... I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children.” Centuries later, St. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) still considered women defective: “As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from a defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence.” The renowned reformer Martin Luther (d. d. 1546) saw no benefit in women other than giving birth to as many children as possible regardless of any side effects: “If they become tired or even die, that does not matter. Let them die in childbirth, that’s why they are there.”
When we turn our attention to the Qur’an, we soon realize that the Islamic conception of women is radically different from the Judeo-Christian one. For instance: For Muslim men and women, for believing men and women, for devout men and women, for true men and women, for men and women who are patient, for men and women who humble themselves, for men and women who give in charity, for men and women who fast, for men and women who guard their chastity, and for men and women who engage much in Allah’s praise_for them all has Allah prepared forgiveness and great reward (33:35); The believers, men and women, are protectors, one of another: they enjoin what is just, and forbid what is evil, they observe regular prayers, practice regular charity, and obey Allah and His Messenger. On them will Allah pour His Mercy: for Allah is Exalted in power, Wise (9:71); And their Lord answered them: “Truly I will never cause to be lost the work of any of you, Be you a male or female, you are members one of another” (3:195); Whoever works evil will not be requited but by the like thereof, and whoever works a righteous deed_whether man or woman_and is a believer. Such will enter the Garden of bliss (40:40); and: Whoever works righteousness, man or woman, and has faith, verily to him/her we will give a new life that is good and pure, and we will bestow on such their reward according to the best of their actions (16:97).
It is clear that the Qur’an views the women in the same way as it does men: Both genders are God’s creatures whose sublime goal on Earth is to worship their Lord, do righteous deeds and avoid evil, and then be judged accordingly. The Qur’an never mentions that woman is the devil’s gateway or a deceiver by nature, or that man is God’s image, for it proclaims that all men and all women are His creatures. According to the Qur’an, a woman’s role is not limited only to childbirth, for she is required to do as many good deeds as a man is required to do. The Qur’an even gives examples of ideal and upright women of the past, such as the Virgin Mary and Pharaoh’s wife, and instructs all believers, women as well as men, to follow their example: God sets forth, as an example to those who believe, Pharaoh’s wife. Behold, she said: “O my Lord, build for me, in nearness to you, a mansion in the Garden. Save me from Pharaoh and his doings, and save me from those who do wrong.” And Mary the daughter of Imran who guarded her chastity. We breathed into her body of Our spirit, and she testified to the truth of her Lord’s words and Revelations and was one of the devout (66:11-13).
The Bible states: The period of the mother’s ritual impurity is twice as long if a girl is born than if a boy is (Leviticus 12:2-5). The Catholic Bible states explicitly: The birth of a daughter is a loss (Ecclesiasticus 22:3). In contrast, boys receive special praise: A man who educates his son will be the envy of his enemy (Ecclesiasticus 30:3).
Rabbis made it an obligation upon all Jewish men to produce offspring in order to propagate the race. At the same time, they did not hide their clear preference for male children: “It is well for those whose children are male but ill for those whose are female,” “At the birth of a boy, all are joyful ... at the birth of a girl all are sorrowful,” and: “When a boy comes into the world, peace comes into the world... When a girl comes, nothing comes.”5A daughter is considered a painful burden, a potential source of shame to her father: Your daughter is headstrong? Keep a sharp look-out that she does not make you the laughing stock of your enemies, the talk of the town, the object of common gossip, and put you to public shame (Ecclesiasticus 42:11), and: Keep a headstrong daughter under firm control, or she will abuse any indulgence she receives. Keep a strict watch on her shameless eye, do not be surprised if she disgraces you (Ecclesiasticus 26:10-11).
This same idea of treating daughters as sources of shame led pagan Arabs, before the advent of Islam, to practice female infanticide. The Qur’an condemned this heinous practice: When news is brought to one of them of the birth of a female child, his face darkens and he is filled with inward grief. With shame does he hide himself from his people because of the bad news he has had! Shall he retain her on contempt or bury her in the dust? Ah! What an evil they decide on? (16:58-59). This sinister crime would never have ended in Arabia were it not for the power of the scathing terms the Qur’an used to condemn it (16:59, 43:17, and 81:8-9). Moreover, the Qur’an makes no distinction between boys and girls, for it considers the birth of a girl, as well as the birth of a boy, to be a gift and a blessing from God. It even mentions the gift of a daughter’s birth first: To God belongs the dominion of the heavens and Earth. He creates what He wills. He bestows female children to whomever He wills, and bestows male children to whomever He wills (42:49).
In order to wipe out all traces of female infanticide in the nascent Muslim society, Prophet Muhammad promised those who were blessed with daughters a great reward if they would bring them up kindly: “He who is involved in bringing up daughters, and directs benevolent treatment toward them, they will be a protection for him against Hell-Fire” (Bukhari and Muslim), and: “Whoever maintains two girls till they attain maturity, he and I will come on the Resurrection Day like this; and he joined his fingers” (Muslim).
The difference between the Biblical and the Qur’anic conceptions of women extends far beyond the newly born female. Let’s compare their attitudes toward a woman trying to learn her religion. The heart of Judaism is the Torah (the law). However, according to the Talmud, “women are exempt from the study of the Torah.” Some rabbis firmly declared: “Let the words of Torah rather be destroyed by fire than imparted to women” and: “Whoever teaches his daughter Torah is as though he taught her obscenity”(6)
The attitude of St. Paul in the New Testament is as follows: As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church (I Corinthians 14:34-35).
One short story narrated in the Qur’an concisely sums up Islam’s view: Khawlah was a Muslim woman whose husband, Aws, exclaimed in a moment of anger: “You are to me as the back of my mother.” Pagan Arabs considered this to be a statement of divorce that freed the husband from any conjugal responsibility but did not allow the wife to leave the husband’s home or marry another man. Hearing these words, Khawlah was in a miserable situation. She went straight to the Prophet to plead her case. The Prophet thought that she should be patient, since there seemed to be no way out. Khawla kept arguing with him in the hope of saving her suspended marriage. Shortly thereafter, Revelation descended and her plea was accepted. The Divine verdict abolished this iniquitous custom. Surat al-Mujadilah (The Women Who Argues), the Qur’an’s fifty-eighth chapter, was named after this incident: God has heard the statement of the woman who pleads with you (the Prophet) concerning her husband and carries her complaint to God. He hears the arguments between both of you, for He hears and sees all things (58:1).
A woman in the Qur’anic conception has the right to argue even with the Prophet. No one has the right to tell her to be silent, and she is under no obligation to consider her husband the one and only reference in matters of law and religion.
The Old Testament considers any menstruating woman to be unclean and impure. Moreover, her impurity “infects” others, for anyone or anything she touches becomes unclean for a day: When a woman has her regular flow of blood, the impurity of her monthly period will last seven days, and anyone who touches her will be unclean till evening. Anything she lies on during her period will be unclean, and anything she sits on will be unclean. Whoever touches her bed must wash his clothes and bathe with water, and he will be unclean till evening. Whoever touches anything she sits on must wash his clothes and bathe with water, and he will be unclean till evening. Whether it is the bed or anything she was sitting on, when anyone touches it, he will be unclean till evening (Leviticus 15:19-23).
Due to her contaminating nature, a menstruating woman was sometimes banished so that there would be no possibility of having any contact with her. She was sent to a special house, the house of uncleanness, until her period ended.7 Furthermore, the husband of a menstruating woman was forbidden to enter the synagogue if he had been made unclean by her, even by the dust under her feet. A priest whose wife, daughter, or mother was menstruating could not recite a priestly blessing in the synagogue.(8)
Islam does not consider a menstruating woman to possess any contagious uncleanness. She lives her normal life with only one restriction: The couple cannot have sexual relations during her menstrual period. Any other physical contact between them is permissible. A menstruating woman also is exempted from some rituals, such as the daily prayers and fasting.
The Qur’an and the Bible also disagree on the issue of women bearing witness. The Qur’an instructs those believers who are engaged in financial transactions to get two male witnesses or one male and two female witnesses (2:282). However, in other situations the Qur’an accepts the testimony of a woman as equal to that of a man. In fact, sometimes a woman’s testimony can invalidate that of a man. For example, if a man accuses his wife of unchastity, he must solemnly swear five times as evidence of the wife’s guilt. If the wife denies and swears similarly five times, she is not considered guilty. In either case, however, the marriage is dissolved (24:6-11).
In early Jewish society, women were not allowed to bear witness at all,(9) for the rabbis considered this to be one of the nine curses inflicted upon all women because of the Fall (see the section on “Eve’s legacy”).(10) In modern Israel, women are not allowed to give evidence in rabbinical courts.(11) The rabbis justify this by citing Genesis 18:9-16, where it is stated that Abraham’s wife Sara lied. According to the rabbis, this incident is evidence that women are unqualified to bear witness. The Qur’an also narrates this account, but without any hint of Sara lying (11:69-74 and 51:24-30). In the Christian West, both ecclesiastical and civil law debarred women from giving testimony until the late nineteenth century.(12)
If a man accuses his wife of unchastity, the Bible says that her testimony cannot be considered at all. Rather, the accused wife has to be subjected to a trial by ordeal. In this trial, she faces a complex and humiliating ritual that was supposed to prove her guilt or innocence (Numbers 5:11-31). If she is found guilty after this ordeal, she is sentenced to death. If she is found innocent, her husband is considered innocent of any wrongdoing.
If a man marries a woman and then accuses her of not being a virgin, her own testimony will not count. Her parents have to prove her virginity to the town elders. If they cannot prove their daughter’s innocence, she is to be stoned to death on her father’s doorstep. If the parents cannot prove her innocence, the husband is to be fined only 100 silver shekels and cannot divorce her as long as he lives (Deuteronomy 22:13-21).
According to the Bible, a man must fulfill any vow he makes to God and must not break his word. However, a woman’s vow is not necessarily binding, for it has to be approved by her father, if she is living in his house, or by her husband, if she is married. If the father or husband do not endorse his daughter’s or wife’s vows, all of her pledges become null and void: But if her father forbids her when he hears about it, none of her vows or the pledges by which she obligated herself will stand.... Her husband may confirm or nullify any vow she makes or any sworn pledge to deny herself (Numbers 30:2-15).
A woman’s word is not binding per se because she is owned by her father before marriage and by her husband after marriage. Her father’s control over her was so absolute that he could, if he wished, sell her. Rabbinic literature indicates that: “The man may sell his daughter, but the woman may not sell her daughter; the man may betroth his daughter, but the woman may not betroth her daughter.” (13) This literature also indicates that marriage represents the transfer of the father’s control to the husband: “Betrothal, making a woman the sacrosanct possession_the inviolable property_of the husband...” Obviously, if women are considered somebody else’s property, they cannot make any pledges of which her owner does not approve.
History shows that this Biblical instruction concerning women’s vows had negative repercussions on Judeo-Christian women until the early twentieth century. A wife in the Western world had no legal status, none of her acts had any legal value, and her husband could repudiate any contract, bargain, or deal that she had made. Women in the West, the largest heir of the Judeo-Christian legacy, were considered unable to make a binding contract because they were practically owned by someone else. (14)
In Islam, the vow of every Muslim, male or female, is binding upon him or her, and no one can repudiate another person’s pledge. If a man or a woman fail to keep their solemn oath, each of them has to make the proper expiation, as outlined in the Qur’an: He [God] will call you to account for your deliberate oaths. For expiation, feed ten indigent persons on a scale of the average for the food of your families, or clothe them, or free a slave. If that is beyond your means, fast for three days. That is the expiation for the oaths you have sworn. But keep your oaths (5:89).
Male and female Companions of the Prophet would come to him independently and present their oath of allegiance to him personally. O Prophet! When believing women come to you to make a covenant with you that they will not associate in worship anything with God, nor steal, nor fornicate, nor kill their own children, nor slander anyone, nor disobey you in any just matter, then make a covenant with them and pray to God for the forgiveness of their sins. Indeed God is Forgiving and most Merciful (60:12). No man could swear the oath on his wife’s or daughter’s behalf, and no man could repudiate an oath made by any of his female relatives.
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share an unshakeable belief in the importance of marriage and family life. Nevertheless, clear differences do exist with respect to the limits of male leadership. The Judeo-Christian tradition virtually extends the husband’s leadership into ownership of his wife. The Talmud describes a wife’s financial situation as follows: How can a woman have anything? Whatever is hers belongs to her husband. What is his is his and what is hers is also his.... Her earnings and what she may find in the streets are also his. The household articles, even the crumbs of bread on the table, are his. Should she invite a guest to her house and feed him, she would be stealing from her husband... (San. 71a, Git. 62a).
In a Jewish family, the daughter’s property was meant to attract suitors. A Jewish family would assign their daughter a share of her father’s estate to be used as her dowry when she got married. This practice made a daughter an unwelcome burden to her father, for he had to raise her for years and then provide a large dowry so that she could get married. Thus, a Jewish girl was a liability instead of an asset. (15)
The dowry was the wedding gift presented to the groom under terms of tenancy. The husband acted as its practical owner, but could not sell it. The bride lost all control it at the moment of her marriage. While the groom had to give her a marriage gift as well, he was its practical owner as long as they were married. (16) Moreover, she was expected to work and give all of her earnings to her husband in return for his maintenance of her, which was his duty. She could regain her property only in the cases of divorce or her husband’s death. If she died first, he inherited her property. If he died first, she could regain her premarital property but could not inherit any of her deceased husband’s property.
Until recently, Christianity has followed the same tradition. Both religious and civil authorities in the post-Constantine (d. 337) Christian Roman Empire required a property agreement as a condition for recognizing the marriage. Under canon and civil law, a married woman in Christian Europe and America lost her property rights until late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For example, women’s rights under British law were compiled and published in 1632. These “rights” included: “That which the husband hath is his own. That which the wife hath is the husband’s.” (17) In addition to losing her property upon her marriage, the wife also lost her legal personality as well. None of her acts had any legal value, for her husband could repudiate any sale or gift made by her. The person with whom she had made a contract was held as a criminal for participating in a fraud. Moreover, she could not sue, be sued in her own name, or sue her husband.(18) A married woman was practically treated as an infant in the eyes of the law. She simply belonged to her husband and therefore lost her property, legal personality, and family name.(19)
From the beginning of its revelation, Islam granted married women the independent personality denied to them in the Judeo-Christian West until very recently. In Islam, the bride and her family are under no obligation to present a gift to the groom, and so a Muslim daughter is not considered a liability. A woman is so dignified by Islam that she does not need to present gifts to attract a potential husband; rather, the groom must present a marriage gift to the bride. This gift is considered her property, for the groom or her family have no share in or control over it, and she retains it even if she is later divorced. The husband has no share in his wife’s property except what she offers him with her free consent.(20)
The three religions have remarkable differences in their attitudes towards divorce. Christianity abhors divorce altogether. The New Testament unequivocally advocates the indissolubility of marriage based upon the attribution of Jesus’ words: But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery (Matthew 5:32). This uncompromising ideal is unrealistic, for it assumes a state of moral perfection that human societies have never achieved. When a couple realizes that their marriage is beyond repair, a ban on divorce will do them no good. Forcing ill-mated couples to remain together against their wills is neither effective nor reasonable. No wonder the Christian world has been obliged to sanction divorce.
Judaism, on the other hand, allows divorce even without any cause. The Old Testament gives the husband the right to divorce his wife even if he just dislikes her: If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled (Deuteronomy 24:1-4).
The above verses have caused considerable debate among Jewish scholars because of their disagreement over the interpretation of displeasing, indecency, and dislikes. The Talmud records their different opinions: The school of Shammai held that a man should not divorce his wife unless he has found her guilty of some sexual misconduct, while the school of Hillel says he may divorce her even if she has merely spoiled a dish for him. Rabbi Akiba (21) says he may divorce her even if he simply finds another woman more beautiful than she (Gittin 90a-b).
The Talmud has recorded several specific actions by wives that obliged their husbands to divorce them: If she ate in the street, if she drank greedily in the street, if she suckled in the street, in every case Rabbi Meir says that she must leave her husband (Git. 89a). The Talmud also has made it mandatory to divorce a wife who has born no children after 10 years: Our rabbis taught: If a man took a wife and lived with her for ten years and she bore no child, he shall divorce her (Yeb. 64a).
A Jewish wife cannot initiate divorce under Jewish law, but she can claim the right to a divorce before a Jewish court provided that a strong reason exists. Such reasons include a husband who has a physical defect or a skin disease, or who cannot fulfill his conjugal responsibilities. The court might support her request for a divorce, but only the husband can dissolve the marriage by giving his wife a bill of divorce. The court can scourge, fine, imprison, and excommunicate him to force him to deliver this bill of divorce, but he can refuse to do so and keep her tied to him indefinitely.
Even worse, he can desert her without granting her a divorce and thus leave her unmarried and undivorced. He can remarry or live with a single woman out of wedlock, and Jewish law will recognize the children as legitimate. On the other hand, the deserted wife cannot remarry because she is still legally married and will be considered an adulteress if she does so. If she has any children from another man, her children will be considered illegitimate for 10 generations. Such a woman is an agunah (chained woman).(22) In the United States today, there are approximately 1,000 to 1,500 Jewish women in this condition. In Israel, number might be as high as 16,000. Husbands may extort thousands of dollars from their trapped wives in exchange for a Jewish divorce.(23)
Islam occupies the middle ground between Christianity and Judaism, for it views marriage as a sanctified bond that can be broken only for compelling reasons. Couples are instructed to pursue all possible remedies to save their marriages, for divorce is the last resort. In a nutshell, Islam recognizes divorce but discourages it by all means. Let’s focus on the recognition side first. Islam recognizes the right of both partners to end their marriage. Islam gives the husband the right to divorce (talaq) and, unlike Judaism, allows the wife to dissolve the marriage through khula’.(24) If the husband dissolves the marriage, the Qur’an explicitly prohibits his from taking back their marriage gifts, regardless of their value: But if you decide to take one wife in place of another, even if you had given the latter a whole treasure for dower, take not the least bit of it back. Would you take it by slander and a manifest wrong (4:20).
If the wife ends the marriage, she may return the marriage gifts to her husband, for in this case doing so would be a fair compensation for a husband who wants to keep his wife while she chooses to leave him. The Qur’an instructs men not to take back any of the gifts they have given to their wives, unless she chooses to end the marriage: It is not lawful for you (men) to take back any of your gifts except when both parties fear that they would be unable to keep the limits ordained by God. There is no blame on either of them if she gives something for her freedom. These are the limits ordained by God, so do not transgress them (2:229).
Once, a woman came to the Prophet and asked him to dissolve her marriage. She told him that she had no complaints against her husband’s character or manners, but that she honestly disliked him so much that she could no longer live with him. Prophet asked her: “Would you give him his garden (the marriage gift he had given her) back?” She said: “Yes.” The Prophet then instructed the man to take back his garden and accept the marriage’s dissolution (Bukhari). In some cases, a wife might be willing to keep her marriage but find herself obliged to get a divorce for such compelling reasons as her husband’s cruelty or inability to fulfill his conjugal duties, desertion without a reason, and so on. In these cases, the court dissolves the marriage.(25) In short, Islam offers women some unequalled rights: the rights to end the marriage and to sue for divorce. Thus, a recalcitrant husband can never chain his wife to him.
Let’s now focus our attention on how Islam discourages divorce. The Prophet told the believers that: “Among all the permitted acts, divorce is the most hateful to God” (Abu Dawud). A man should not divorce his wife just because he dislikes her. The Qur’an instructs men to be kind to their wives even in cases of lukewarm emotions or feelings of dislike: Live with them (your wives) on a footing of kindness and equity. If you dislike them it may be that you dislike something in which Allah has placed a great deal of good (4:19). Prophet Muhammad gave a similar instruction: “A believing man must not hate a believing woman. If he dislikes one of her traits, he will be pleased with another” (Muslim). He also emphasized that the best Muslims are those who are best to their wives: “The believers who show the most perfect faith are those who have the best character, and the best of you are those who are best to their wives” (Tirmidhi).(26)
However Islam, being a practical religion, recognizes that there are circumstances in which a marriage is on the verge of collapsing. In such cases, advice to be kind or self-restrained is no longer viable. Given this, then, how can such marriages be saved? The Qur’an offers some practical advice for the spouse (husband or wife) whose partner (wife or husband) is the wrongdoer.
If the wife’s bad conduct is threatening the marriage, the Qur’an gives the husband four types of advice: As to those women on whose part you fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them, refuse to share their beds, and beat them (lightly without slapping their faces). But if they return to obedience, do not seek against them means of annoyance, for God is Most High, Great. If you fear a break between them, appoint two arbiters, one from his family and the other from hers. If they wish for peace, God will cause their reconciliation (4:34-35).
The first three are to be tried first. If they fail in this effort, the help of the families concerned should be sought. In the case of beating the rebellious wife, we should recognize the fact that this is no more than a temporary measure that is to be resorted to only as third in line in cases of extreme necessity in hopes that it might remedy the wife’s wrongdoing. If this measure is successful, the husband must not continue to annoy his wife. If this measure fails, the husband must resort to the final measure: family-assisted reconciliation.
Prophet Muhammad instructed husbands to use these measures only in extreme cases, such as a wife’s open lewdness. Even in these cases the punishment should be slight and, if his wife desists, he must not irritate her: “In case they are guilty of open lewdness you may leave them alone in their beds and inflict slight punishment. If they are obedient to you, do not seek against them any means of annoyance” (Tirmidhi). Furthermore, the Prophet condemned any unjustifiable beating. Some wives complained to him that their husbands had beaten them. Hearing that, he stated that: “Those who do so (beat their wives) are not the best among you” (Abu Dawud) and: “The best of you is he who is best to his family, and I am the best among you to my family” (Tirmidhi). He even advised Fatimah bint Qais not to marry a known wife-beater: “I went to the Prophet and said: ‘Abul Jahm and Mu’awiyah have proposed to marry me.’ The Prophet (by way of advice) said: ‘Mu’awiyah is very poor, and Abul Jahm beats women” (Muslim).
The Talmud sanctions wife-beating as a method of discipline.(27) A husband can beat his wife even for reasons that are not considered extreme, such as is she refuses to do the housework. In addition, his punishment does not have to be light, for he can whip or starve her if he so wishes.(28)
In the case of a wife who is seeking divorce, the Qur’an offers the following advice: If a wife fears cruelty or desertion on her husband’s part, there is no blame on them if they arrange an amicable settlement between themselves; and such settlement is best (4:128). In this case, she is advised to seek reconciliation with her husband (with or without family assistance). The Qur’an does not advise her to deny sex to her husband or to beat him. The reason for this disparity might be to protect the wife from a violent physical reaction by her already misbehaving husband, for such a reaction would only harm the wife and damage the marriage even further. Some Muslim scholars have suggested that the court can apply these measures on the wife’s behalf. In other words, the court first admonishes the rebellious husband, then forbids him his wife’s bed, and finally executes a symbolic beating.(29)
To sum up, Islam offers married couples much viable advice to save their marriages during times of trouble and tension. If one partner jeopardizes the marriage, the Qur’an advises the other partner to do whatever possible to save this sacred bond. If all measures fail, Islam allows the partners to separate peacefully and amicably.
The Old Testament commands the kind and considerate treatment of parents and condemns those who dishonor them. For example: If anyone curses his father or mother, he must be put to death (Leviticus 20:9) and: A wise man brings joy to his father but a foolish man despises his mother (Proverbs 15:20). Although honoring the father alone is mentioned in some places, such as in: A wise man heeds his father’s instruction (Proverbs 13:1), the mother alone is never mentioned. Moreover, there is no special emphasis on treating the mother kindly as a sign of appreciation for her great suffering during childbearing and suckling, and they inherit nothing from their children. (30)
Some New Testament verses can easily be misinterpreted if read literally with respect to the mother’s status (Luke 14:26 and Mark 3:31-35). Jesus was trying to teach his audience the following important lesson: Religious ties are just as important of family ties, and real virtue lies with belief in and servanthood to God.
Islam gives motherhood unparalleled honor, respect, and esteem. The Qur’an places the importance of kindness to parents as second only to worshipping God Almighty: Your Lord has decreed that you worship none but Him, and that you be kind to parents. Whether one or both of them attain old age in your life, do not say to them a word of contempt or repel them, but address them in terms of honor. And out of kindness, lower to them the wing of humility, and say: “My Lord, bestow on them Your Mercy, for they cherished me in childhood (17:23-24).
The Qur’an also puts special emphasis on the mother’s great role in giving birth and nursing: We have enjoined upon man to be good to his parents. In travail upon travail did his mother bear him and in two years was his weaning. Show gratitude to Me and to your parents (31:14). The Prophet eloquently described the very special place of mothers: “A man asked the Prophet: ‘Whom should I honor most?’ The Prophet replied: ‘Your mother.’ ‘And who comes next?’ asked the man. The Prophet replied: ‘Your mother.’ ‘And who comes next?’ asked the man. The Prophet replied: ‘Your mother.’ ‘And who comes next?’ asked the man. The Prophet replied: ‘Your father’” (Bukhari and Muslim).
Among the few Islamic precepts that Muslims still faithfully observe is the considerate treatment of mothers. The honor that Muslim mothers receive from their sons and daughters is exemplary. The intensely warm relations between Muslim mothers and their children, and the deep respect with which Muslim men approach their mothers, usually amaze Westerners.(31)
One of the most important differences between the Qur'an and the Bible is their attitude toward female inheritance of a deceased relative's property. The Biblical attitude has been succinctly described by Rabbi Epstein: "The continuous and unbroken tradition since the Biblical days gives the female members of the household, wife and daughters, no right of succession to the family estate. In the more primitive scheme of succession, the female members of the family were considered part of the estate and as remote from the legal personality of an heir as the slave. Whereas by Mosaic enactment the daughters were admitted to succession in the event of no male issue remained, the wife was not recognized as heir even in such conditions." (32)
The Biblical rules of inheritance are outlined in Numbers 27:1-11. A wife is given no share in her husband's estate, while he is her first heir_even before her sons. A daughter can inherit only if no male heirs exist. A mother cannot inherit anything, while the father can. Widows and daughters, in the case of surviving male children, were at the mercy of the male heirs for provision. Christianity followed suit for a long time. Both the ecclesiastical and civil laws of Christendom barred daughters from sharing with their brothers in their father's patrimony. Moreover, wives were deprived of any inheritance rights. These iniquitous laws survived until the late nineteenth century.(33)
Among the pagan Arabs before Islam, inheritance rights were confined exclusively to the male relatives. The Qur'an abolished all of these unjust customs and gave all female relatives specific inheritance shares: From what is left by parents and those nearest related there is a share for men and a share for women, whether the property be small or large_a determinate share (4:7).
Muslim mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters received inheritance rights 1,300 years before Europe recognized that these rights even existed. Inheritance is a vast subject (4:7, 11-12, 176). The general rule is that the woman's share is half the man's, except in cases where the mother receives a share equal to that of the father. If taken in isolation from other related legislation, this general rule may seem unfair. In order to understand the rationale behind this rule, one must consider that in Islam the financial obligations of men far exceed those of women (see the "Wife's property" section). For example, a groom must provide his bride with a marriage gift, which remains her exclusive property even if she is later divorced. The bride does not have to present any such marriage gift.
Moreover, the husband must maintain his wife and children. The wife is under no obligation to help him do so. Her property and earnings belong to her only, except for what she may voluntarily offer her husband. Besides, one has to realize that Islam strongly advocates family life. It strongly encourages young people to get married, discourages divorce, and does not regard celibacy as a virtue (exceptional cases always exist). In a truly Islamic society, family life is the norm and living a single life is a rare exception. Thus almost all marriage-aged Muslim women and men are married. In light of these facts, one must appreciate that men generally have greater financial burdens than women and that the Qur'an's inheritance rules are meant to offset this imbalance. As a consequence, the society is not burdened with gender or class warfare. After a simple comparison between the financial rights and duties of women, one British Muslim woman concluded that Islam treats women not only fairly but generously.(34)
Given that the Old Testament recognizes no inheritance rights for widows, these women were among the most vulnerable members of their societies. The male relatives, who inherited all of a woman's deceased husband's estate, were to use that estate to take care of the widow. However, widows had no way to ensure this provision was carried out, and so lived on the mercy of others. They were among the lowest classes in some ancient societies, and widowhood was considered a symbol of great degradation (Isaiah 54:4). But the plight of a widow in the Biblical tradition extended even beyond her exclusion from her husband's property. According to Genesis 38, a childless widow must marry her deceased husband's brother, even if he is already married, to produce offspring for him so that his name will not die out: Then Judah said to Onan: "Lie with your brother's wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to produce offspring for your brother" (Genesis 38:8).
The widow's consent is not required, for she is treated as part of her deceased husband's property and her main function is to ensure her husband's posterity. This Biblical law is still practiced in some places today.(35) For example, a childless widow is bequeathed to her husband's brother. If the brother is too young to marry, she has to wait until he comes of age. Should the deceased husband's brother refuse to marry her, she is set free and then can marry any man of her choice.
The pagan Arabs before Islam had similar practices. A widow was considered a part of her husband's property to be inherited by his male heirs. In addition, usually she was given in marriage to the deceased man's eldest son from another wife. The Qur'an scathingly attacked and abolished this degrading custom: Do not marry women whom your fathers married, except for what is passed, for it was shameful, odious, and abominable custom (4:22).
Widows and divorced women were so looked down upon in the Biblical tradition that the high priest could not marry a widow, a divorced woman, or a prostitute: The woman he (the high priest) marries must be a virgin. He must not marry a widow, a divorced woman, or a woman defiled by prostitution, but only a virgin from his own people, so he will not defile his offspring among his people (Leviticus 21:13-15).
According to the Qur'an, however, widows and divorcees have the freedom to marry whomever they choose. Also, the Qur'an attaches no stigma to divorce or widowhood: When you divorce women and they fulfill their terms [three menstruation periods], either take them back on equitable terms or set them free on equitable terms. Do not take them back to injure them or to take undue advantage. If anyone does that, he wrongs his own soul. Do not treat God's signs as a jest" (2:231); If any of you die and leave widows behind, they shall wait four months and ten days. When they have fulfilled their term, there is no blame on you if they dispose of themselves in a just manner (2:234); and: Those of you who die and leave widows should bequeath for their widows a year's maintenance and residence. But if they [the widows] leave (the residence) there is no blame on you for what they justly do with themselves (2:240).
Polygamy, a very ancient practice, is found in many human societies. The Bible does not condemn it; rather, the Old Testament and Rabbinic writings frequently attest to its legality. King Solomon and King David are said to have had many wives and concubines (1 Kings 11:3 and 2 Samuel 5:13). The Old Testament does contain some injunctions on how to distribute the property of a man among his sons from different wives (Deuteronomy 22:7). The only restriction on polygamy is that a man cannot take a wife's sister as a rival wife (Leviticus 18:18). The Talmud advises a maximum of four wives.36 European Jews continued to practice it until the sixteenth century, while Oriental Jews regularly practiced it until they arrived in Israel, where it is forbidden under civil law. However, it is permissible under religious law, which overrides civil law in such cases.(37)
What about the New Testament? According to Father Eugene Hillman in his insightful Polygamy Reconsidered:<em> "Nowhere in the New Testament is there any explicit commandment that marriage should be monogamous or any explicit commandment forbidding polygamy." (38) Moreover, Jesus did not speak against polygamy although it was practiced by the Jews of his society. Father Hillman stresses the fact that the Church in Rome banned polygamy in order to conform to the Greco-Roman culture (which prescribed only one legal wife, while tolerating concubinage and prostitution). He cited St. Augustine: "Now indeed in our time, and in keeping with Roman custom, it is no longer allowed to take another wife." (39)
The Qur'an also allows polygamy, but with certain restrictions: If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry women of your choice, two or three or four. But if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with them, then only one (4:3).
The Qur'an limits the number of wives to four under the strict condition that each wife be treated equally and justly. Thus it is not exhorting the believers to practice polygamy or representing it as an ideal, but only tolerates or allows it. For example, there might be times and places during which compelling social and moral reasons make polygamy more acceptable. As the above verse indicates, this issue cannot be understood apart from the Muslim community's obligations toward orphans and widows. Islam, which is a universal religion suitable for all places and all times, cannot ignore such compelling obligations.
In most human societies, women outnumber men. In the U.S. there are, at least, eight million more women than men. In Guinea, there are 122 women for every 100 men. In Tanzania, there are 95.1 men for every 100 women. (40) What can a society with such unbalanced sex ratios do? There are various solutions: celibacy, female infanticide (which still happens in some societies), or to tolerance of sexual permissiveness (e.g., prostitution, extramarital sex, and homosexuality).
For other societies, like most African societies today, the most honorable outlet is to allow polygamy as a culturally accepted and socially respected institution. People in the West often do not understand that women in other cultures do not necessarily consider polygamy to be a sign of women's degradation. For example, many young African brides, whether Christians or Muslims or otherwise, would prefer to marry a married man who has proven himself to be a responsible husband. Many African wives urge their husbands to get a second wife so that they do not feel lonely. (41) A survey of over 6,000 women, ranging in age from 15 to 59, conducted in Nigeria's second largest city showed that 60% of them would be pleased if their husbands took another wife. Only 23% expressed anger at the idea of sharing with another wife. In a survey conducted in Kenya, 76% of the women viewed polygamy positively. In a survey undertaken in rural Kenya, 25 out of 27 women considered polygamy to be better than monogamy and that it could be a happy and beneficial experience if the co-wives cooperate with each other. (42)
Polygamy in most African societies is such a respectable institution that some Protestant churches are becoming more tolerant of it. An Anglican bishop in Kenya declared that: "Although monogamy may be ideal for the expression of love between husband and wife, the church should consider that in certain cultures polygyny is socially acceptable and that the belief that polygyny is contrary to Christianity is no longer tenable." (43) After a careful study of African polygamy, the Anglican Reverend David Gitari concluded that polygamy, as ideally practiced, is more Christian than divorce and remarriage as far as the abandoned wives and children are concerned. (44) I personally know of some highly educated African wives who, despite having lived in the West for many years, have no objection to polygamy.
The problem of the unbalanced sex ratios becomes truly problematic during times of war. Native American Indian tribes used to suffer highly unbalanced sex ratios after wartime losses. Women in these tribes, who in fact enjoyed a fairly high status, accepted polygamy as the best protection against indulgence in indecent activities. After the Second World War, there were 7.3 milliion more women than men in Germany (3.3 million of them were widows). There were 100 men aged 20 to 30 for every 167 women in that age group. (45) Many of these women needed a man not only as a companion but also as a provider for the household during a time of unprecedented misery and hardship. Many young girls and widows had liaisons with members of the occupying forces in return for cigarettes, chocolate, and bread, and children were overjoyed at the gifts these strangers brought.(46) Today in places where ethnic cleansing has been conducted, like in Bosnia, there is 1 man for every 10 women; in Kosovo, there is 1 man for every 5 women. We have to ask our own conscience at this point: What is more dignifying to a woman? An accepted and respected second wife as in the native American Indians' approach, or a virtual prostitute due to her and her children's starvation?
Interestingly, participants in an international youth conference held in Munich in 1948 discussed the problem of Germany's highly unbalanced sex ratio. When it became clear that no solution could be agreed upon, some participants suggested polygamy. The gathering's initial reaction was a mixture of shock and disgust. However, after a careful study of the proposal, participants agreed that it was the only possible solution. Consequently, polygamy was included among the conference final recommendations. (47)
Today, the world possesses more weapons of mass destruction than ever before. Father Hillman has thoughtfully recognized this fact: "It is quite conceivable that these genocidal techniques (nuclear, biological, chemical) could produce so drastic an imbalance among the sexes that plural marriage would become a necessary means of survival.... Then contrary to previous custom and law, an overriding natural and moral inclination might arise in favor of polygamy. In such a situation, theologians and church leaders would quickly produce weighty reasons and biblical texts to justify a new conception of marriage."(48)
Even in our own time, polygamy continues to be a viable solution to some of modern society's social ills. The communal obligations that the Qur'an mentions in association with the permission of polygamy are more visible at present in some Western societies than in Africa. For example, in the United States today there is a severe gender crisis in the black community. One out of every 20 young black males may die before reaching their twenty-first birthday. For those between 20 and 35, homicide is the leading cause of death. (49) In addition, many young black men are unemployed, in jail, or on dope. (50) As a result, 25% of black 40-year-old women have never married. (51) Moreover, many young black women become single mothers before the age of 20 and find themselves in need of providers.
The end result of these tragic circumstances is that an increasing number of black women are engaged in "man-sharing," (52) which means that they are involved in affairs with married men. The wives are often unaware of the fact that other women are "sharing" their husbands. Some obser-vers of this crisis in the black community strongly recommend consensual polygamy as a temporary answer to the shortage of black men until more comprehensive reforms in the American society at large are undertaken. (53) The problem of man-sharing in the black community was the topic of a panel discussion held at Temple University in Philadelphia on January 27, 1993.(54) Some of the speakers recommended polygamy as a potential remedy. They also suggested that polygamy should not be banned by law, particularly in a society that tolerates prostitution and mistresses.
In his Plural Marriage for Our Time, Philip Kilbride, a Catholic American anthropologist, proposes polygamy as a solution to some of the ills of American society at large. He argues that plural marriage may serve as a potential alternative for divorce in many cases in order to obviate the damaging impact of divorce on many children. (55)
In 1987, a poll conducted by the student newspaper at the University of California at Berkeley asked students whether they agreed that the law should allow men to have more than one wife in response to a perceived shortage of marriageable men in California. Almost all of the students polled approved of the idea. One female student even stated that a polygamous marriage would fulfill her emotional and physical needs while giving her greater freedom than a monogamous union. (56) In fact, this same argument is also used by the few remaining fundamentalist Mormon (57) women who still practice polygamy in the U.S. They believe that polygamy is an ideal way for a woman to have both a career and children, since the wives help each other care for the children. (58)
In Islam, polygamy is a matter of mutual consent. No one can force a woman to marry a married man. Moreover, a wife has the right to stipulate that her husband cannot take a second wife.(59) On the other hand, the Bible sometimes resorts to forcible polygamy. For example, a childless widow must marry her husband's brother, even if he is already married (see the "Plight of widows" section) regardless of her consent (Genesis 38:8-10).
Billy Graham, the eminent Christian evangelist, has recognized this fact: "Christianity cannot compromise on the question of polygamy. If present-day Christianity cannot do so, it is to its own detriment. Islam has permitted polygamy as a solution to social ills and has allowed a certain degree of latitude to human nature but only within the strictly defined framework of the law. Christian countries make a great show of monogamy, but actually they practice polygamy. No one is unaware of the part mistresses play in Western society. In this respect Islam is a fundamentally honest religion, and permits a Muslim to marry a second wife if he must, but strictly forbids all clandestine amatory associations in order to safeguard the moral probity of the community." (60)
Many Muslim and non-Muslim countries have outlawed polygamy. Taking a second wife, even with the first wife's free consent, is a violation of the law. But cheating on the wife, without her knowledge or consent, is perfectly legitimate as far as the law is concerned! What is the legal wisdom behind such a contradiction? Is the law designed to reward deception and punish honesty? This is one of the unfathomable paradoxes of our modern "civilized" world.
Finally, let's shed some light on what is considered in the West as the greatest symbol of women's oppression and servitude: the veil or the head-covering. Is it true that there is no such thing as the veil in the Judeo-Christian tradition?
According to Rabbi Dr. Menachem M. Brayer, a professor of Biblical Literature at Yeshiva University and author of The Jewish Woman in Rabbinic Literature, it was the custom of Jewish women to go out in public with a head covering that sometimes left only one eye free. (61) He quotes some famous ancient rabbis who said that: "It is not like the daughters of Israel to walk out with heads uncovered" and "Cursed be the man who lets the hair of his wife be seen ... a woman who exposes her hair for self-adornment brings poverty."
Rabbinic law forbids the recitation of blessings or prayers in the presence of a bareheaded married woman, since uncovering the woman's hair is considered to be nudity.(62) He also mentions that: "During the Tannaitic period the Jewish woman's failure to cover her head was considered an affront to her modesty. When her head was uncovered she might be fined four hundred zuzim for this offense." Dr. Brayer also explains that a Jewish woman's veil was not always considered a sign of modesty. Sometimes, it symbolized a state of distinction and luxury, for it personified the dignity and superiority of noble women. It also represented a woman's inaccessibility as a sanctified possession of her husband. (63)
The veil signified a woman's self-respect and social status. Women of the lower classes would often wear it to give the impression of a higher standing. Given that the veil was the sign of nobility, prostitutes were not permitted to cover their hair in the old Jewish society. However, they often wore a special headscarf in order to look respectable.(64) Jewish women in Europe continued to wear cover their hair until the nineteenth century, when their lives became more intermingled with the surrounding secular culture. The external pressures of nineteenth-century European life forced many of them to go out bareheaded. Some Jewish women found it more convenient to replace their traditional head-covering with a wig as another form of hair covering. Today, most pious Jewish women only cover their hair in the synagogue.(65) Some of them, such as the Hasidic (66) sects, still use the wig.(67)
What about the Christian tradition? Catholic nuns have been covering their heads for hundreds of years. But there is even more, as we learn from St. Paul's very interesting statements about the veil: Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head. It is just as though her head were shaved. If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or shaved off, she should cover her head. A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head (I Corinthians 11:3-10).
St. Paul's rationale for veiling women is that the veil is a sign of the authority of man, who is the image and glory of God, over the woman, who was created from and for man. In his famous treatise "On the Veiling of Virgins," St. Tertullian wrote: "Young women, you wear your veils out on the streets, so you should wear them in the church, you wear them when you are among strangers, then wear them among your brothers..." Among the canon laws of the Catholic Church today is a law that requires women to cover their heads in church. (68) Some Christian denominations, such as the Amish and the Mennonites, still retain a head-covering for their women today. (69)
From all the above evidence, it is obvious that Islam did not invent, but rather endorses, the head-covering. The Qur'an urges believing men and women to lower their gaze and guard their modesty, and urges believing women to cover the neck and bosom: Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty.... And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what ordinarily appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms (24:30-31).
The Qur'an is quite clear that such covering is essential for modesty, and that modesty is important: O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters and the believing women that they should cast their outer garments over their bodies (when abroad) so that they should be known and not molested (33:59). This is the whole point: Modesty is prescribed to protect women from molestation or simply, modesty is protection. Thus, its only purpose in Islam is to offer protection. Unlike its status in other traditions, such covering is not a sign of man's authority over woman, of woman's subjection to man, or of luxury and the distinction of some noble married women. It is no more than a sign of modesty designed to protect women. The Islamic philosophy is that it is always better to be safe than sorry.
In fact, the Qur'an is so concerned with protecting a woman body and reputation that a man who dares to falsely accuse a woman of unchastity will be severely punished: And those who launch a charge against chaste women and do not produce not four witnesses (to support their allegations), flog them with eighty stripes and reject their evidence ever after, for such men are wicked transgressors (24:4).
Some people, especially in the West, tend to ridicule the whole argument of modesty for protection. Their argument is that the best protection is the spread of education, civilized behavior, and self-restraint. We say "Fine, but that is not enough." If civilization is enough protection, then why do women in North America dare not walk down a dark street alone or even across an empty parking lot? If education is the solution, then why does a respected Canadian university like Queen's have a walk-home service mainly for female students on campus? If self-restraint is the answer, then why are cases of sexual harassment in the workplace reported on the news media every day? A sample of men recently accused of sexual harassment includes naval officers, managers, university professors, Supreme Court justices, and even the top officers.
I could not believe my eyes when I read the following statistics, written in a pamphlet issued by the Dean of Women's office at Queen's University: "In Canada, a woman is sexually assaulted every 6 minutes; 1 in 3 women in Canada will be sexually assaulted at some time in their lives; 1 in 4 women are at the risk of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime; and 1 in 8 women will be sexually assaulted while attending college or university; and a study found that 60% of Canadian university-aged males said they would commit sexual assault if they were certain they wouldn't get caught."
Something is fundamentally wrong in the society in which we live. A radical change in the society's life style and culture is absolutely necessary. A culture of modesty is badly needed_ modesty in the dress, speech, and manners of both men and women. Otherwise, the grim statistics will grow even worse day after day and, unfortunately, women alone will be paying the price.