Question: Some people claim that in Muslim societies, women are confined to their home and they are oppressed. Is there any truth in this claim? What is the position of women in family life and in society according to Islamic disciplines?
A: Islam saved women who were exploited, enslaved, and regarded as second class in the darkness of the pre-Islamic Age of Ignorance from the position of a poor creature and elevated them to a new status as a blessed being. Islam freed women from being treated as a tool of pleasure and laid Paradise under their feet. If the essential sources of religion and the exemplary lives of the first two generations of Muslims who lived after God’s Messenger are carefully studied, it will be seen that Muslim women were absolutely not confined to their home and they were never oppressed. If those who come up with such claims are not prejudiced and are not making deliberate assertions, then these ideas stem from being ignorant of the essential principles the religion set on this matter and from attributing misconceptions and misapplications-which originate from interference of local customs-throughout history to Islam.
Islam is the only religion which has given women such extensive rights; when we look at the Qur’an, practices of the Prophet, and the history of Islam, except for some abuses caused by individuals’ mistakes, it will be seen that women gained the most exalted status in Muslim societies. Yes, women have a unique position in Islam, which can never be found in other systems. Even the societies considered as the most developed in our time are backward on this issue and they cannot be compared with Islam.
In these modern societies, even though women seem to have a certain freedom, it is rather a freedom to satisfy certain carnal desires, and such a freedom, whether for men or women, cannot be welcomed by primordial human nature and sound intellect; it cannot be acceptable in any divine religion. In recent centuries, the difficulties of making a living brought by bloody wars between states and the pressures of economic needs pushed women into the workforce and out of their homes. After this emergence, women started to earn their own livelihood and to some extent they gained economic freedom as individuals, but in many cases they were not saved from being exploited by capital holders, who wish to benefit particularly from their physical attractions. Unfortunately, especially in Western societies, women have found superficial and artificial love only at a particular moment of their lives in proportion to their contribution to the market, to material values, and to their serving men’s carnal desires. However, they have mostly lost the respect and love they previously experienced in social life as daughters, sisters, wives, mothers, and grandmothers, and this can never be replaced by anything else. In the long run, under the guise of freedom this time, they got to be exploited on and on with modern techniques (!), they were deprived of most inalienable rights, and become a victim of abuse equivalent of the dark ages.
As a reaction to all the injustice done to women (such as their lack of civil and property rights and the absence of justice toward women in family law) a movement to claim women’s rights emerged, particularly in the West. Even though this movement is considered an awakening of women, it occurred as a reaction and was doomed to imbalance like all other reactionary movements and ended up in extremism. Although the starting point was to defend women, in time it deviated from the original aim to the degree of being full of hatred towards men and to feeling a grudge against them. The movement named feminism, which was born from the idea of protecting women and providing them with rights equal to those of men, has only left behind longing, sorrow, and wreckage as a movement of discontentment. Nevertheless, the representatives of feminism, which now has different varieties, have pursued very different demands and the movement has frequently deviated from protecting the rights of women to the excess of trying to establish their dominance.
God has created woman as a partner to man, not as anything else. In this respect, he cannot be without her and she cannot be without him. According to Muhammed Lutfi Effendi, the Sufi scholar and poet (d. 1956), even though Adam was in Paradise, he lived in sorrow during the time when he was without Eve. Had Eve been created first, then at that time she would have lived in sorrow without Adam, since they could not do without one another with respect to their creation. They were like two bodies and a single soul and represented the two different faces of one truth. God has created women and men in relation to each other as He created the electron in relation to the proton, the negative pole in relation to the positive one, the female seed in relation to the male one. As He composed a whole from these pairs, He willed woman and man to make couples. Yes, as the positive is joined to the negative, the electron is joined to the proton, night is joined to day, summer is joined to winter, and the earth depends on the sky, to the same extent woman and man are created dependent on one another. God’s Messenger expressed this truth as follows: “Surely, women are the other half of men.”
In this respect, women and men are equal halves in terms of their humanity, but neither of them is ever the same as the other. They hold certain differences in their primordial nature, physical potentials, spiritual worlds, and psychological structures; but men are not a biologically mature form of women, nor are women a less or more developed form of man. Both are individual human creatures and they are in essential need of one another. In accordance with this balanced understanding, women were granted the lofty status they deserve at the time of the Prophet; they undertook responsibilities to suit their nature, and the vital position of women in society was reestablished. This great revolution took place at a dark period when the world was immersed in savagery and when it was being discussed whether women had a soul or not.
Islam did not deprive women of anything; it just kindly granted them exemption from certain liabilities. For example, Islam does not hold women responsible for attending congregational prayers and sermons, fasting or praying at certain times, or undertaking paid work to support themselves or their family. However, Islam does not prevent any woman’s voluntary attendance at a congregational prayer, such as Friday Prayer. In the reference books on the sayings and life of the Prophet there are reports that women attended different congregational prayers including the prayer for rain.
Not making women liable for everything men are responsible for is an expression of Islam’s kind approach towards women. This manifestation of divine Mercy is based on the following essential: Women are generally more compassionate and merciful than men. As a compliment to her vast compassion, the All-Merciful Creator who is the sole owner of true mercy honored women with a different aspect of His blessings and freed her from certain liabilities.
According to Islam, women’s role in this world is not only restricted to doing the housework and raising children. In fact, as long as it does not conflict with her primordial nature or with observing religious requirements, she is responsible for carrying out the duties that befall her in every area of society and making up for shortcomings where men fall short in social life. However, this reality was ignored in time, even among Muslims; rough understandings and crude thinking upset this system based on women and men’s mutual assistance. After this upset, both family life and the social order were also upset. Different peoples’ perception of their own historical heritage as a part of Islam, their seeing and reflecting their folklore and traditions as essentials of religion, and making judgments pertaining to this issue at certain periods all resulted in the usurpation of women’s rights; they were pushed into a more restricted area day by day, and in some places they were totally isolated from life without consideration of where this issue leads. However, the source of mistaken thoughts and deviations in this matter is not Islam whatsoever. The mistakes belong to those who misinterpret and misapply the religion. Such mistakes in practice must definitely be corrected.
On the other hand, while correcting these mistakes, approaching the issue from a feminist standpoint will upset the balance again and an opposite extremism will replace the former. For instance, just as it is very ugly to see women as merely child-bearing objects and is insolence towards them, it is equally unbecoming and unnatural to build a society where women are unable to bear and bring up the children they wish for, or for a woman to feel a need to rebel against marrying and to avoid bearing children in order to show that she is not a machine. As a woman is not a dirty dish, her place at home is not confined to the kitchen with the dirty dishes. However, a woman who claims to have no household responsibilities and thereby turns her home to a quarters for eating and sleeping is far from being a good mother, a good teacher, and a good spiritual guide to her children.
Besides all this, it is another form of oppression to make women work under difficult conditions, such as mining and road-building. It contradicts human nature to push women into heavy tasks like agricultural manual labor, or military field operations, and other harsh pursuits, just for the sake of proving their equality with men; it is nothing but cruel torture. It shows ignorance of women’s qualities and conflicts with their primordial nature. Therefore, just as an understanding which imprisons women at home and takes them completely away from social life is absolutely incorrect according to Islam, likewise, depriving women of financial support, preventing them from bearing and raising children in security, and forcing women into the labor force to do uncongenial work is also oppressive. A woman, like a man, can have a certain job as far as her (and his) physiology and psychology are taken into consideration; but both women and men should know that a good life consists of sharing and division of labor. Each should assist the other by doing tasks in compliance with their nature.