Majority of the critiques on the position of women in Islam as well as the opinions of the general public on this matter suffer from a significant flaw. These debates take place in a wrong frame of reference i.e., the comparisons are made based on the 20th century expectations and standards. However, an objective discussion must take into account the historical contexts because if you compare the status of women based on today’s standards, even many of the improvements in those times would seem horrendous injustices.
In order to understand how Islam improved women’s lives, we would need to see how women were treated in the Arab society before Islam as well as the status of women in the two major religions before Islam, i.e. Judaism and Christianity. This comparison is not being made to put any faith down; it is just to help understand the historical context.
Women before Islam
In the Arab society before Islam, women were treated as property rather than as human beings. Save a few exceptions, most women were subjugated in almost all aspects of life such as inheritance, education, property and marriage. Female infanticide was a common practice and men felt great shame if they had a female child. When a man died and had sons from other marriages, the oldest of them could take the wife of his father as his own. This snapshot of the situation clearly shows the status of women in the pre-Islam Arabia.
Status of Women in the Judaic and Christian Traditions
Lets us see what Judaic and Christian texts say about women.
“No wickedness comes anywhere near the wickedness of a woman…..Sin began with a woman and thanks to her we all must die” (Ecclesiasticus 25:19, 24)
“A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I don’t permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner,” said St. Paul (Timothy 2:11-14).
Other people like St. Tertullian had a similar opinion, “Do you not know that you are each an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the Devil’s gateway: You are the unsealer of the forbidden tree: You are the first deserter of the divine law: You are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert even the Son of God had to die.”
“What is this you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” To the woman he (God) said, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” To Adam he (God) said, “Because you listen to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you,( Genesis 3:6-17)
“let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law, and if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for woman to speak in the church.” (Corinthians 14:34-35)
Two Major Areas of Criticism
One of the things about Islam that draws the most criticism is the modesty of Muslim women. Western media and literature have made women believe that their liberation depends upon shedding clothing and foregoing modesty. The male dominated world of media and consent manufacturing has ingrained this belief in women that more skin they expose better are their chances of success. Let’s stop for a minute and think it through. When a woman exposes herself who does it really benefit? Is it not the men who very conveniently fulfill their voyeuristic desires through the exposed women? We try to keep everything of value behind closed doors and under wraps so that no one sees it and gets any ideas. Our cash, jewelry, important documents and everything else that has some value is protected from prying eyes. Yet when it comes to women, men don’t mind letting them display it all for everybody. They have made women a commodity that sells and built multibillion dollar industries like pornography industry that is primarily for the pleasure of men.
In contrast, Islam considers women very valuable and worthy of high respect. Women are asked to cover themselves so that they are not bothered by men.
“O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters and the believing women that they should cast their outer garments over their bodies (when abroad) so that they should be known and not molested” (33:59).
The image of Muslim women wrapped in burka and with their face covered by a veil has been a topic of contempt and ridicule for a long time. However, the concept of veil is an ancient tradition and not something Islam invented. Ancient Jewish traditions put a lot of emphasis on veil. Dr. Menachem M. Brayer states in his book, ‘The Jewish woman in Rabbinic literature’ that Jewish women went in public with their heads and most of the face covered. He further elaborates that uncovered hair was considered nudity in the Jewish tradition.
“Young women, you wear your veils out on the streets, so you should wear them in the church, you wear them when you are among strangers, then wear them among your brothers…,” wrote St. Tertullian in ‘On the Veiling of Virgins’.
It is important to note that modesty is not required only from Muslim women, Muslim men are also instructed to follow suit, “Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty……And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what ordinarily appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms....” (24:30, 31)
Polygyny, according to Webster’s dictionary, is the practice of having two or more wives at the same time. The term commonly used in this context is Polygamy which means the same but applies to both men and women. Therefore, when discussing Islam, the correct term is Polygyny which is considered to be one of the most hotly debated charges against Islam. However, it would be interesting to note that it is an ancient tradition which has been practiced for centuries before Islam. It wasn’t until a few centuries ago that Polygyny became a ‘sin’. Monogamy was never a condition in any of the major religions. Before Islam there was practically no limitation on the number of wives a man could have. Islam limited the number of wives to four and also placed conditions of fairness, justice and equal treatment that must be fulfilled. “If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry women of your choice, two or three or four; but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with them, then only one” (4:3)
The husband is required to be fair and just to his wives and treat them equally well. “He who has two wives and is not just between them, he will come on the Day of Resurrection with one of his sides fallen.” (2133 Abu Dawood & 1141Tirmidhi)
In many parts of the world, women have outnumbered men throughout history due to various reasons like wars and other feuds etc. Polygyny addresses the problem of these women as it provides them a legal and secure future with a man. There are other reasons such as if the wife is incapable of having children and the husband desires to have children, marrying another woman can help the man continue his lineage.
Infidelity has plagued the western society, according to Atwood & Schwartz, 2002 – Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 50-60% of married men engage in extramarital sex during their marriage. This is not a shocking revelation, is it? It’s because infidelity has been accepted as a fact of life in the western society. Wouldn’t the mistresses be better off if men were urged to marry them rather than using them?
One of the staunchest opponents of Islam in our times, Billy Graham, said, “Christianity cannot compromise on the question of polygamy. If present-day Christianity cannot do so, it is to its own detriment. Islam has permitted polygamy as a solution to social ills and has allowed a certain degree of latitude to human nature but only within the strictly defined framework of the law. Christian countries make a great show of monogamy, but actually they practice polygamy. No one is unaware of the part mistresses play in Western society. In this respect Islam is a fundamentally honest religion, and permits a Muslim to marry a second wife if he must, but strictly forbids all clandestine amatory associations in order to safeguard the moral probity of the community.”