Quranic teachings and women’s rights

Published: May 14, 2010
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The writer is Professor Emerita at the University of Louisville, US, and a scholar of Islam and Iqbal.

The writer is Professor Emerita at the University of Louisville, US, and a scholar of Islam and Iqbal.

It is a profound irony and tragedy that the Holy Quran, despite its strong affirmation of human equality and the need to do justice to all of God’s creatures, has been interpreted by a number of Muslims as sanctioning various forms of human inequality and even enslavement. For instance, even though the Quran states clearly that a man and a woman were made from the same source, at the same time, in the same manner, and that they stand equal in the sight of God, they are manifestly unequal in virtually all Muslim societies, in which the superiority of men to women is taken to be self-evident.

Undoubtedly one of the most important issues which confronts the Muslim ummah in the 21st century is that of gender equality and gender justice. The Quran, because of its protective attitude towards all downtrodden and oppressed classes of people, appears to be weighted, in many ways, in favour of women. However, a review of Islamic history shows that many of its women-related teachings have been misused in Muslim culture which is still largely dominated by patriarchal values. Since the 1970s, largely due to the pressure of anti-women laws which have been promulgated in a number of Muslim countries, women with some degree of education and awareness have begun to realise that religion is being used as an instrument of oppression rather than as a means of liberation from unjust social structures and systems of thought and conduct.

Many of the issues are not new issues but the manner in which they are being debated today is something new. Given the fact that there is more Quranic teaching on the subject of how to maintain justice in the home, preserving the rights of all members of the household equally, it is deeply disturbing that even in the 21st century many Muslim women are subjected not only to physical and economic subjugation, but also to moral, intellectual and spiritual degradation through a misrepresentation of the essential message of Islam.

Having spent more than three decades doing research in the area of women in Islam, I have concluded that the Quran does not discriminate against women. In fact, in view of their disadvantaged and vulnerable condition, it is highly protective of their rights and interests.

It is important to point out that today an increasing number of Muslims are realising that if the ummah is to become worthy of being the ‘khalifah’ (or vicegerent) of God on earth and to actualise its highest potential, it will have to make a strong commitment to establishing gender-justice and gender-equality in all spheres of life. No society can claim to be truly Islamic unless it identifies, in word and in deed, that a man and a woman are equal before God and that each has an equal right to develop his or her God-given capabilities to the fullest.

Published in the Express Tribune, May 14th, 2010.

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Reader Comments (5)

  • Kipi
    May 14, 2010 - 5:16AM

    I want to hear your point of view on Islamic inheritance laws. Thanks.Recommend

  • Malang
    May 14, 2010 - 3:04PM

    “Having spent more than three decades doing research in the area of women in Islam, I have concluded that the Quran does not discriminate against women”.
    Frankly, such blanket apologism regarding the treatment of women in Islam, the Quran and Sharia does no one any good. There is no evidence in this article at all to support how the Quran has a ‘protective’ attitude towards all downtrodden peoples.
    Certainly, it is true that at the time the text has been said to be revealed it did support the cause for women, considerign that women were viewed as almost sub-human back then. However, the texts’ inherent cementing of the status of women as that below men ‘and they are a degree above them’, etc (hadith referring to how if the Pophet (pbuh) could command anyone to bow down to an entity besides Allah, it would be a wife bowing down before her husband(Sunaan Abu Dawud 11.2135), does women no service in today’s modern times.
    If Muslims are determiend to read women’s rights from within the religious framework then they atleast need to acknowledge that there are major inconsistencies with the portrayal of women’s rights in the Quran and Hadith (regarding a woman’s inherent role as a home maker, issues pertaining to the veil and a woman’s inherticance, divorce etc) when set against modern definitions of human rights.
    This article takes no notice of the modern individualism v ancient collectivitist debate, nor does it provide any,any evidence to back up such grand sweeping generalisations.
    While, I accept that Islamic feminism and its scholars have oft provided good arguments for working from within the religious framework (even if this is trialsome in the international human rights quotient) this article does not draw upon any sources to support its generalisations. It is shoddy, to suggest that Islam inherently supports women’s rights (according to their modern definitions)without providing any evidence to back that up.
    Its like saying ‘Islam is good for women.” why? “Because Islam says so”. You seriously need to do better than that.Recommend

  • Nighat Dad
    May 14, 2010 - 9:17PM

    The Law of inheritance in Pakistan is governed by the Muslim Personal Law, which assigns women a differential status. The general principle of the Muslim Personal Law with regard to allocation of shares in both Hanafi and Shia law is that the womensharers receive half the share of a male sharer.
    The Constitution of Pakistan under Article 227 declares that religion is to dictate all the laws of the State. Thus, the provisions of law that discriminate against women regarding inheritance of property have not been challenged legally or constitutionally,nor has any reform been proposed.
    The courts enforce the Personal Law in favor of women and in order to protect women have passed some principles to ascertain that the other legal heirs cannot deprive women of their religious rights of inheritance.
    However, at the same time the courts accept the concept of Tanazul, whereby a woman would have the right to relinquish her share of inheritance. The courts usually do not question the surrender of inheritance or dower by a woman on the suspicion offamily pressure, which falls short of coercion but simultaneously sabotages independence in decision-making.
    The differential inheritance rights for women have often been justified by the formal legal system and religious scholars on the basis of arguments like ‘the compensatory property regime’ provided by Islam for women, whereby women are said to be entitled to obtain property through alternate avenues like gifts, will, dower and maintenance in marriage.But it is not easy every time to claim such properties.
    Customary laws that have been considered valid by courts to decide issues related to the inheritance of agricultural land also discriminate against women and allow limited Rights of ownership for a woman during her lifetime. Due to these limited rights, a woman cannot gift or alienate the land, nor can she easily obtain rights related to landownership like demanding access to water and having her name on the revenue record etc.
    The strong link between ownership and access to land and poverty has led to a number of international conferences and Declarations on this matter, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms ofDiscrimination Against Women, The Cairo Conference and the 4th World Conference onWomen in Beijing in 1995. Each Conference highlighted the link between access to landand poverty, and emphasized every woman’s right to economic opportunity.Pkistan is the signatory of these conventions.
    Now government is working towards the Millennium Development Goals. Goal 3focuses on promoting gender equality and women’s employment. However government programs do not seem to address women’s access to land or their property rights in anyway even though these are critical to achieving gender equality.Recommend

  • rehan
    May 15, 2010 - 1:07PM

    Another attempt in sensationalizing “human rights””women right””downtrodden females”…intent?Mullah bashing.Which Quran was being ‘misinterpreted’when even till mid of last century,blacks and women were not allowed to vote in the US,when western women properly covered themselves up,….Please don’t drag the Quran/religion into the woes of humanity.Recommend

  • Jun 7, 2010 - 11:26AM

    Completely agree with Malang. The writer could have been any lay person – there was no scholarship evident in the article. A blanket statement that ‘ I have concluded that the Quran does not discriminate against women’ does not advance the case for women’s rights in an Islamic society when verses from the Quran and other sources are being used to subjugate women.

    In my personal view, all law should take into account the simple equality of men and women and rule accordingly with regard to property, marriage, divorce, abuse, custody and so on. The question that the likes of Dr. Riffat should be answering is why is it that a woman’s evidence is half that of a man, why does the man have the right to divorce just by uttering a word three times, why is polygamy still practiced, why does the woman not have equal rights to property etc. Dont take the easy way out Doctor – otherwise your scholarship is as good as Dasti’s fake degree.Recommend

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