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The True Role of Muslim Women

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The role of Muslim women in the unfolding events of the Middle East, should inspire all Muslim women around the world to fulfill their Islamic duty to excel in every field and to contribute to the progress and advancement of the Ummah and humanity. Women protesters have emerged as a force in the Arab Spring.

Muslim women should increase their contributions in science, business and political activism. There are prime examples of Muslim women who are doing outstanding work, like these Muslim women who are fighting extremism and this Muslim doctor who opened a free clinic for the poor of South Carolina.

As a Muslim woman, I feel that the image of a Muslim woman in the west depicts a prototype of Islam that perpetuates an image of a veiled victim, who is resigned, apathetic, passive and in need of rescue from Muslim men.

However, this issue of mistreated Muslim women is multi-faceted and pertains to firstly, how the West has portrayed a Muslim woman in relation to Islam and secondly how the patriarchal cultures of some parts of the Muslim world have projected the image of a Muslim woman. It seems ironic that the West seems to apply a rational and a logical reasoning when someone commits a wrong and blames the individual and not the faith of the wrong doer, but in dealing with Islam, it’s the faith that takes the brunt of individual actions of Muslims.

Islamophobes seem to promulgate selective information, that equips them with a justification to cast Islam as a fundamentalist religion, especially in its treatment of women. It seems to be a deliberate omission on the part of Islamophobes and the West in general, to disregard the historical fact that the advent of Islam enabled women to achieve unparalleled status, individuality and respect in an Arab society, at the time when Christian and Jewish women were considered the property of their husbands.

This hostility against Islam may be as ancient as Islam itself, but it peaked during the time when Islamic civilization was spreading its wings across Europe and was seen as a threat to Christianity. However, the so-called plight of Muslim women was only taken up when the Europeans started to establish themselves as colonizers in Islamic states in the 19th century and began not only their political subjugation, but also promoting the Victorian ideals of feminism to ascertain their perceived cultural superiority, coupled with their bigotry towards Islam since the crusades.

Non-conformity to the western ideals of womanhood, was ensued by propaganda to project an image of helpless Muslim women to defame Islam. The West has always adopted a paternalistic attitude to justify the imposition of their own moral paradigm considered to be universal and applicable to all, without any due regard for cultural or religious diversity.

Moreover, the frame of reference used by the West to refer to the rights of Muslim women only focuses upon the veil, equating it with ignorance and subservience. She is judged by what she wears, not what she has to say or what she is capable of achieving. It seems ironic that the West seems to assume the role of a spokesperson for a Muslim woman, yet becomes deaf to what she has to say.

The West gives no credence to the rights that were given to the Muslim women more than 1400 years ago, e.g. the right to seek divorce, right to earn an income, pursue education, right of inheritance, right to have a political voice etc, which the western woman struggled with, until hundreds of years later. Islamic history testifies that women were equal partners in shaping the history and spread of Islam. The role of Khadija RA, as a business woman and a confidant to the Prophet PBUH, or A'isha RA with her political astuteness and scholarly narrations, are few of the many examples that contradict the notion of a Muslim woman being a voiceless and a faceless entity.

Now, what the Muslim world has done to contribute to such an image has much more serious implications, since they deal with the derogatory treatment of women in some Muslim societies, ranging from wide spread illiteracy, oppression, dependency and killings in the name of honour or religion.

These are the images that the West uses against Islam to project an image of Islam that cannot adapt to the modern world. The treatment of Muslim women in traditional, patriarchal societies seems to be a reflection of how Islam is perceived and misunderstood by the West and why they fail to isolate what is cultural from what are religious sanctions.

Part of the problem is that most of the societies formed in some Muslim countries feel that they have the religious endorsement to follow the scriptural sources, interpreted by men, to formulate their societal norms and social practices, never questioning the incompatibility of their practices to the egalitarian core of Islam.

This pattern of circulating misconstrued fundamental scriptural interpretation never breaks, because there is no accountability of the proponents of such interpretations. If we are to believe that Allah is just and Islam believes in the fundamental equality of humans, then these pseudo-Islamic traditions regarding how Muslim women are treated by their patriarchal societies need to be addressed. We need to challenge the patriarchal and cultural interpretations of Islam that infringe upon the basic human rights of women and legitimize their oppression.

In order to eradicate and eliminate these injustices towards women, we need to seek knowledge in religion and fiqh and engage in a scholarly discourse to understand and assess the Qur'anic verses that are taken out of context and misinterpreted, with utter disregard for the fundamental values of the Islam. The Quran is replete with verses that are addressed to both men and women, not only in terms of their religious responsibilities, but also to address the temporal aspects of this life. Islam undoubtedly emphasizes modesty for both men and women, but not to restrict one from fulfilling his/her responsibilities or from achieving to one’s full potential. As is clear from the following verse, the Quran does not discriminate between the two genders or designate the role of the khalifa (trustee) to a man to the exclusion of a woman.

“Both men and women are appointed by Allah as His khalifa (trustees) on earth.”

In this debate of mistreated Muslim woman, however, the role of many conservative Islamic scholars cannot be discounted, who dismissed any attempt to highlight the rights of Muslim women and saw it as a conspiracy to implant western ideas to corrupt women and argued for a more gender-specific representation of the rights and responsibilities of women. However, the Qur'an provides clear proof that a woman is an equal partner with man in terms of her rights, roles, responsibilities and rewards. The following verses illustrate that a reward has been promised, regardless of the gender, based on their individual attributes and actions.

"And their Lord hath accepted of them, and answered them: "Never will I suffer to be lost the work of any of you, be he male or female: Ye are members, one of another… A reward from the presence of Allah, and from His presence is the best of rewards." (Translation by Yusuf Ali: Surat Al-Imran 3: 195).

“Whoever works righteousness, man or woman, and has faith, verily to him will We give a new life that is good and pure, and We will bestow on such their reward according to the their actions.” (http://www.multimediaquran.com/quran/016/016-097.htm)

“If any do deeds of righteousness- be they male or female - and have faith, they will enter Heaven, and not the least injustice will be done to them.” (Translation by Yusuf Ali : Sūrat l-nisāa 4:124).

As Muslim women, we need to redefine our identity according to the roles and responsibilities assigned to us by Allah, not assigned by our societies, to actualize our abilities to be productive members of our societies. Contrary to the general belief, the identity of the Muslim woman may be in perfect harmony with her religious identity, since Islam provides a model of egalitarian society, under which a woman can flourish in her various roles and responsibilities. What sets a modern woman apart from her traditional counterpart is not a veil, but her education, the role she plays in society, her social, emotional and intellectual growth and in return, her contributions to her ummah. We have been entrusted with this responsibility from Allah and being Allah’s trustees, we will all be, regardless of our gender, accountable for how we contribute towards the betterment of our societies and spend our time, wealth, knowledge to empower our Ummah.

As Muslim women, we have to realize that we have a crucial role to play in the development of societies through participating in educational, social, economic and political arenas to become agents of change in our societies. Traditions tell us that during the time of the Prophet PBUH, women would consult with him on matters concerning religion, economics and social issues. In the Qur'an, Allah clearly states the roles and responsibilities of both men and women without any particular distinction.

“And the believers, men and women, are protecting friends one of another; they enjoin the right and forbid the wrong…As for these, Allah will have mercy on them. Lo! Allah is Mighty, Wise.” (Surah At-Tawba (9:71) Translation by Pickthal).

It is very clear from the verse that both men and women have been referred to as friends/helpers/allies and hence expected to be equally contributing members of society. However, despite the equality, Islam fully acknowledges and appreciates the physical differences and psychological make-up of men and women, not to undermine their roles or devalue their work, but to not impose upon either, what is beyond their capacities. Women in Islam have been granted control over their finances and the right to earn money, to own property and the freedom to control all of her assets and conduct her business.

In Surat I- Nisaa (4:32), the Qur'an states:
"And covet not the thing in which Allah hath made some of you excel others. Unto men a fortune from that which they have earned, and unto women a fortune from that which they have earned. (Envy not one another) but ask Allah of His bounty. Lo! Allah is ever Knower of all things." (Quran 4:32)

Islam gave women a right to express her political allegiance and opinions and take part in politics, yet our representation in politics is next to nothing. Therefore, we have no influence over the issues that may have a direct impact on us or disadvantage us. The Quran states:

“O Prophet! If believing women come unto thee, taking oath of allegiance unto thee …then accept their allegiance and ask Allah to forgive them. Lo! Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.” (sūrat l-mum'taḥanah: 60:12)

The above verse shows the right of women to choose their leaders, without any discrimination in terms of limiting women to be active in the political arena. It is our religious responsibility as women to contribute to the communities that we live in and avail educational and employment opportunities, to become a strong voice and play a greater role in civic life to enable us to have a say in issues that affect our lives as Muslim women. Our representation should be at all levels to serve as positive role models for our youth.

Romana Khan

Further reading:

Appreciating Women

A brief summary on Women in Islam

A library of free downloadable books in many languages on Islam for Muslims, New Muslims and Non Muslims

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