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The issue of women in Islam, is topic of great misunderstanding and distortion due partly to a lack of understanding,
but also partly due to misbehavior of some Muslims which has been taken to represent the teachings of Islam. We speak here about what Islam teaches, and that is that standard according to which Muslims are to be judged. As such, my basis and source is the Qur'an--the words of Allah, and the sayings of the Prophet, his deeds and his confirmation. Islamic laws are derived from these sources. To facilitate our discussion we can discuss the position of women from a spiritual, economic, social, and political standpoint.
From the spiritual aspect, there are seven points to remember:
If that appeal does not succeed, and problems between the husband and wife continue, there are measures that can be applied. Some of these measures are done privately between husband and wife. Some of them might appear harsh, but there are qualifications to restrict excessive or abusive use of these measures. These measures are considered an attempt to save a marriage rather than break a family apart. If the situation does not improve, even with the limitation and prevention of excesses, the next step is a family council. One arbiter from his family and one from her family should sit together with the couple and try to resolve the problems.
If a divorce becomes necessary, there are many detailed procedures in Islamic law that really knock down the common notion that divorce in Islam is very easy and that it is the sole right of man. It is not the sole right of man alone and neither is it true that all you have to say is: "I divorce you three times," and that's it. Islam also has laws regarding custody of children. I was very surprised to see newspapers making the false claim that in all cases custody goes to the father. Custody involves the interest of the child, and laws often favor the mother of young children.
Polygamy has become so mythical in the minds of many people that they assume being Muslim means having four wives. This is a false notion, of course. A very renowned anthropologist, Edward Westermarck, in his two-volume work, "History of Human Marriage," notes that there has been polygamy in virtually every culture and religion, including Judaism and Christianity. But the point here is not to say, "Why blame Islam?" Actually, Islam is the only religion even among Abrahamic faiths, that specifically limited the practice of polygamy that existed before Islam and established very strict conditions for guidance. The question, "How could any man have two wives? That's terrible!" reflects ethnocentrism. We assume that because we're living in the West and it seems strange, and we assume it must apply to all cultures, all times, under all circumstances. This simply isn't true. Let me give you one current-day example. In the savage attack on Afghanistan, genocide was committed on the Afghani people. It is estimated that 1-1.5 million people lost their lives, a great majority of whom were men of a marriageable age. Now, with a great shortage of men, what will happen to their widows, their orphans and their daughters of marriageable age? Is it better to leave them in a camp, with a handout? Or better a man is willing to take care of his fallen comrade's wife and children?
It is obvious that monogamy is the norm for Muslims. If we assume that having four wives is the norm, then we assume a population of 80% female and 20% male, which is an impossibility on the aggregate level. The only verse in the Quran that speaks about polygamy, speaks about limiting not instituting polygamy. The verse was revealed after the Battle of Uhud in which many Muslims were martyred, leaving behind wives and children in need of support. This verse shows the spirit and reason of the revelation.
The Quran placed obedience to parents immediately after worship of God. "We commanded mankind to be kind to his parents" [Noble Qur'an 31:14] And then speaks of the mother. In a very succinct statement, Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said, "Paradise is at the feet of mothers." Once a man came to him and asked, "O, Messenger, who among mankind is worthy of my kindness and love?" The Prophet answered, "Your mother." "Who next?" "Your mother." "Who next?" "Your mother." Only after the third time he said, "And your father."
As a sister in faith, in blood, we find the Qur'an speaks about men and women, that they should cooperate and collaborate in goodness. Surah 9:71 speaks about men and women as supporters and helpers of each other, ordaining the good and forbidding the evil, establishing prayers and doing charity. Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) echoed what the Qur'an said, "I command you to be kind to women." In one of his last commands in his farewell pilgrimage before his death, he kept repeating, "I command you to be kind and considerate to women." In another hadith, he said, "It is only the generous in character who is good to women, and only the evil one who insults them."
On the question of attire, the Qur'an and the sayings of the Prophet did not say women must adopt a particular dress of a particular country. It only gives basic boundaries, and for a committed Muslim woman, she doesn't follow this simply because her father or husband tells her, but because Allah already stated that as a requirement in the Qur'an, and was explained through revelation given to Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) that this was not to restrict woman, but to provide a virtuous society where sexual attraction is not the main obsession of everyone. This forces everyone to respect the woman for what she is as a human being, as an intellectual and a spiritual being, rather than being diverted to her sexuality.
Finally, a few words about political involvement. The verse quoted earlier, Surah 9:71, which speaks about men and women being supporters and helpers of each other was taken by some jurists to mean that it involves also public life. How could they ordain the good and forbid the evil without women being active in the affairs of their society? According to the Qur'an, I'm not talking about the practices of Muslims, in Surah 60:12, we read about Muslim women making "bayy'ah" to the Prophet. Bayy'ah as an Islamic term is somewhat analogous, to a degree, to what we would call an election, or oath of allegiance. And that was given in his capacity not only as a Prophet, but as a head of state, as he was already the head of state in Medina.
During the rein of 'Umar, women participated in law making. 'Umar made a proposal of a certain regulation concerning marriage. A woman in the mosque stood up and said, "'Umar, you can't do that." 'Umar did not tell her, "Shut up, you are a woman, you have nothing to do with politics, etc." He asked, "Why?" She made her argument on the basis of Quran. In front of everybody, he stood up and said, "The woman is right and 'Umar is wrong," and he withdrew his proposal. That was the spirit in the early days of Islam.
In the most authentic collection of Hadith, Hadith Bukhari, a section is devoted to the participation of women, not only in public affairs, but in the battlefield, too, and not only as logistical support. Women carried arms, and when there was great danger to the Muslims, they volunteered to participate even in the battlefield.
The problems presented here are not the problems of Islam. They are problems of a lack of commitment, lack of application, or misapplication of Islamic teachings by Muslims themselves. The topics I have tried to cover here represent and exemplify the big gap that exists between the true teachings of Islam as derived from its original sources and its projected image in the West and the way some Muslims behave in the disregard of those noble teachings.
There's no question that the Western media has played an important role in perpetuating these misconceptions. But in fairness, we should not blame the media alone. Western culture, in writings about other religions, in particular Islam, have distorted images. From books, novels, even in the academic circle, and sermons from the pulpit in places of worship, these kinds of prejudices are perpetuated.
There are fair and honorable people in the media who are receptive to correction of inaccuracies, and who present the facts, when the facts become manifest, as we have seen in the coverage of the barbaric and cruel treatment of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. What I would suggest to the media is instead of depending on the distorted information about Islam, they should keep in touch with educated Muslims, and remember, the U.S. has between 5 and 6 million Muslims. Only through correct representation and open communication with Muslims in America can the media give a fair analysis of current events, given the background of those conflicts, and provide a great service to society.