I would like to inquire about the status of women in Islam.
Before answering your question, I would ask you to consider two distinctly separate views regarding the humankind: According to one, all men (including women) are equal, and therefore a sound social system is one that is based on the principle of absolute “equality”. According to the other, men (or women) are different – they are different in their mental, physical and emotional qualities and abilities, they are different in the opportunities life gives them and they are different in their natural strengths and weaknesses – and because they are different, a good society is not the one based on the principle of equality, but the one based on the principle of “justice”. Just for the sake of further clarification, “equality” means that all persons should be dealt with equally, irrespective of their needs, abilities or strengths and weaknesses. In other words, according to this principle, a sound society is the one that places equal responsibilities and gives equal privileges and authorities to its members. On the other hand, “justice” means that a person should be dealt with on the basis of what he deserves. In other words, according to this principle, a sound society is the one that places responsibilities and gives privileges and authorities to its members according to their abilities and qualities.
Islam has based its teachings on the “presumption” that even though all human beings should be considered equal in the eyes of the law or as human beings, yet their responsibilities in the family or, on a broader scale, in the social setup, should be coherent with their separate respective abilities, strengths and weaknesses. In other words, Islam after accepting that all human beings are equal, and should be dealt with according to the principle of equality, wants the society to give only two exceptions to this principle. These exceptions are:
Because human beings are different in their inherent abilities, a person (man or woman) with more abilities should have the opportunities to progress further in life as compared to a person (man or woman) with less abilities. The system adopted to insure “justice” in this sphere is quite a simple one. Islam simply advocates that there should be no artificial hindrances in the progress of a person (man or woman) with more abilities.
In this sense, Islam although allows a differentiation among individuals, but this differentiation is not based on the sex of the individuals, but on the basis of their respective abilities.
Because a sound social setup is possible only through strengthening the basic unit of this setup, (i.e. the family) Islam wants the family to have a well-defined authority/responsibility relationship.
According to the Qur’an , man and woman are two units of a pair. When both are taken independent of each other, there are certain obvious vacuums in the mental, physical and emotional personalities of each. God has created the two in such a way that they complement each other in various ways, so that these vacuums are generally removed to a great extent. For this purpose, God gave different mental, physical and emotional qualities to the male and the female. These different mental, physical and emotional qualities, on the one hand, complement man and woman and, on the other, establishes for them different spheres of activity in their interpersonal relationships.
According to the Qur’an , man, for two reasons, should be the head of the family: One, because he is given the responsibility of earning the livelihood for the family (i.e. he is to strive for the provision of the financial requirements of the family); and two, because he is given the mental, physical and emotional qualities that are more suitable for this responsibility; just like women are given certain qualities that make them more suitable for responsibilities in a number of other spheres. It is only in this sphere (i.e. in the relationship of husband and wife) that God has given the man a degree of authority over the woman. Besides this sphere, both are considered equal.
If the above explanation is clear, you shall then be able to see that Islam does not assign a lower status to the womankind, as compared to the mankind, it is only in a particular relationship that one is given a degree of authority over the other, and that too for fulfilling the responsibility assigned to him from the perspective of this life as well as that of the hereafter. In this sense, it is the same thing as saying that:
The parents (both male and female) are responsible for the well being of their children (both male and female) and therefore should be given a degree of authority over them; or
The teachers (both male and female) are responsible for the well being of their pupil (both male and female) and therefore should be given a degree of authority over them; or
The head of the state (whether male or female) is responsible for the well being of the citizens (both male and female) and therefore should be given a degree of authority over them.
I hope it is clear from the above explanation that Islam does not differentiate between the status of a man or a woman. It is only in the particular relationship of husband and wife that Islam gives a degree of authority to the husband. It would be as wrong to say on this basis that Islam gives women a lower status in the social setup as compared to men, as it would be to say that Islam gives men a lower status as compared to women on the basis of the degree of authority that a mother has over her male child.
24th April 1998