Women’s Rights in Islam, By Sayed Mumtaz Ali

Translated by Masood Ashraf Raja


In these few pages I have explained the crux of my thoughts about the rights of women, a subject upon which I have often thought and reflected. Although my thoughts have gone through slight changes over a period, my views on all- important aspects of this subject have neither weakened nor changed too drastically. In fact, I believe that these reflections have strengthened my resolve and bettered my character. I am hopeful that my expression of these thoughts and the attendant practice of these ideas would enhance the cultural development of our nation. And that is the reason I am daring to share my thoughts openly.

I am aware that my thoughts would be given various unsavory names: emulating English values will be one of the charges brought against me and my views. A hundred pens will write against me and numerous lips will criticize my attempt. But those true souls who find the way of the Prophet (peace be upon him) better than their own family values will find some truth in my thoughts and will, I hope, attempt to live according to the example of the Prophet. And the barbs of the critics, I am sure, will not deter these true souls.

If my this humble attempt enables, in any way, the rights of one lone old woman to be upheld in Hindustan, I would consider it a worthwhile reward of my efforts.

The False Preference of Men Over Women

Men and women are both part of the human race and cannot, therefore, have any essential preference of one over the other. A few characteristics that privilege men over women are strictly related to the societal role played by men while using those [gender-specific] characteristics. Other than these existential differences, all other differences that fix a male essence and a female essence are just arbitrary and unreliable. These existential differences are always caused by the material conditions such as the differences in one’s regional abode, climate, difference of age, or cultural differences. I will prove that the gender differences that have been normative in our current culture, a difference that should have been based in natural division of labor, are highly accentuated and are based in myth, prejudice, and male ignorance. Thus, our current explanation of gender roles is harmful and based on uncivilized and prehistoric barbaric ideas.

The entire edifice of our culture is based on this false premise: Men are rulers, women the subjects, and that the women are created for men’s comfort.

From this it is construed that men have the same rights over women as they have on other things that they own and in such a relationship women can never be considered men’s equal. Now if men had considered this unclean principle only as a product of their male prejudice, I would have had no problem with it. But the tragedy is that men consider this claim to be rational, just, and divinely inspired. To refute these claims and to prove them wrong is the main purpose of this book.

I will conduct this discussion in five parts. In Part 1, I will refute the evidence used to prove privilege of men over women; Part 2 deals with the question of women’s education and Part 3 with Purdah. In part four I will discuss the rules of marriage, and in part 5 the cultural norms for marriage.

The Arguments Offered in Favor of Men

Following are some of the reasons offered by those who believe that men are better than women:

  1. God has granted more physical strength to men, therefore they are privileged in all those spheres that need physical prowess and mastery. From this it is construed that governance, as it depends on physical power, is a male prerogative.
  2. Men’s mental capacities, just like their physical strength, are also relatively stronger than those of women. That is why historically women have always thought to be less intelligent and their superstitious ways, shortsightedness, and infidelity are all rooted in their weak intellect.
  3. Just as kingship is the most important institution in the material world, the Prophethood is the greatest human role in the spiritual realm. God has always appointed men as prophets but never a woman.
  4. Theologically, one verse of the Qur’an (Al Nisa) is mobilized to claim that men are “rulers over women.”
  5. Another argument offered in favor of men is that God created Adam first and then Eve as his companion. Therefore, it a woman’s role is to be a comfort to man, to obey his rule, and to prefer his comfort over her own in order to be true to her divine purpose of creation.
  6. The Qur’an equates testimony by two women to that of one man and gives half of a male share of inheritance to women. Both these statements are also used to prove that men are superior to women.
  7. As God permits men to have four wives but does not grant the same tight to women, this also is used as an argument for the divinely inspired superiority of men over women.
  8. Another argument in favor of male superiority is that the Qur’an promises them female companions in the afterlife, while women are not promised male companions in heaven.

Besides these rational and Qur’anic arguments, there are also a few other irrational mythological reasons that are offered to prove male superiority [which Munshi Inyatullah mention in his book], but I do not consider worthy of consideration.

In a nutshell these are some of the reasons-you may call them intellectual or religious, that are used by many to render one half of human population as inferior to the other half. As a result the women are reduced to a condition of obedience to men that is even worse than slavery. These arguments have made it so that even the worse kind of sinful men can still consider themselves better than women.

I will now analyze these arguments to see whether they are based in any logical reasoning or are they just falsehoods mobilized by the proponents of the status quo in order to keep the male dominance intact.

Refutation of the Male Superiority Arguments

I will now analyze these arguments to see whether they are based in any logical reasoning or are they just falsehoods mobilized by the proponents of the status quo in order to keep the myth of male superiority intact. Anyone who selflessly and objectively analyzes the above cited arguments would reach the conclusion that these are just base argument without any basis in the shariah or in reason.

First Argument: Men are superior to women because of their higher physical strength. Their higher physical strength also grants men the right to govern.

The first argument offered in favor of men declares them superior to women because of higher physical prowess of men. This is a rather strange argument. I do not deny that men are usually physically stronger than women. But how can one construe from this argument that simply because men have more physical strength, they are, as humans, superior to women.

A division of physical labor corresponding to one’s physical strength is only natural. No one denies that men can perform more labor-intensive tasks. Men can labor freely: they can carve mountains, cut trees, and, if they so desire, chop off heads of other men. The question, however, is that how does this physical prowess make them superior to women? One can see the sad poverty of this argument, if one were to compare physical prowess of men not with that of women but with that of beasts of burden. Most beasts of burden are blessed with more physical strength than men. So if physical strength is the only criterion for one’s superiority over another, then why are not the laboring animals considered superior to men? Would it be logical to state that since a donkey can carry a heavier load than a man it is, therefore, superior to man? Naturally, we cannot make such a claim nor can we, thus, claim that a man is superior to a woman because he is stronger.

We must also question the very nature of this comparison of physical strengths between men and women. We know that men and women have the same animal essence. We do not designate them as “male human animal” and “female human animal.” The term human animal, in fact, designates both men and women. The term human is a combination of two faculties: animal+speech. Thus, it is the capacity of rational speech that makes humans better than other animals. The humans therefore have evolved beyond their animal nature, and if they have, then how come men are considered better evolved than women. And if the brute strength is a cause of superiority, doesn’t it amount to privileging the very animalistic part of human beings that they have left behind as humans?

We know that human beings are an evolved form of animals; they are humans because God imbued their animalistic spirit with an angelic essence. This new creation–a combination of animal and angel–He named human. Thus the comparison between men and women should not be based in their animalistic qualities but rather their angelic qualities. To prove man superior in animalistic attributes is, in fact, a denigration of his angelic qualities.

Secondly, if for a moment we do accept male superiority on the basis of physical strength alone, does it mean that men are essentially and naturally stronger or is this difference in their relative strengths based in existential material reasons? A realistic observation reveals that this difference in male and female physical strengths is not natural but is temporary and caused by environmental and cultural factors over thousands of years. This difference appears even in men depending on their regions of abode. Looking at men alone, why is it that the Afridis from Kabul are so physically strong and vital while the Baboos of Bengal are dark and weak? Why is it that we consider the Punjabi Sikhs as lions, but find the Bunyas effeminate and less manly? The causes of physical weakness of women are even older than the ones that have caused the Bunyas and baboos to be weak and are mostly environmental. Even if women live in different regions, their physical prowess is strongly connected to the civilizational aspects of their particular cultures. This civilizational difference becomes quite obvious if one were to compare the physical strength and vigor of the women of Ghazni and Hirat with the begums of Lucknow and Delhi. Obviously, the relative differences in their physical prowess are not based in their gender [in which case both these female groups would display the same degree of physical prowess] but in the culture in which they live. The relative physical weakness of women is, therefore, produce over a long period by keeping the women away from the kind of activities that would have made them physically stronger.

The second assumption of the first argument in favor of men is even more ridiculous. Governance and rule are never always a result of physical prowess. This rule of might is right might have applied in the earlier stages of human development when human being lived a savage and unorganized state. During this stage it might have been possible to assume that the strongest amongst men shall be the ruler. But as soon as a rudimentary social order was established, the rule of power and brute strength no longer remains the sole justification for individual rule. Thus, as the social systems develop, the ruler no longer governs through brute force but rather relies on the good will of his friends and allies. This rule [working through the collective hegemonic influence of ones allies] has remained a central tenet of governance in all ages. The mere fact that the ruler must work in concert with like-minded people presupposes that governance is not necessarily dependent upon brute strength f men. In fact, if alliances are important to rule, then, other than the normalized privileged position of men, there is no reason one could not imagine women being a part of such alliances and may even become rulers themselves. Info fact, in every culture women have been known to become rulers at one point or other and in most cases have proven to be great and respected rulers. In India the rule of Razia Sultana, though brief, was a relatively more peaceful and prosperous rule. Similarly, Jahangir’s rule is in truth reign of Noor Jehan, the queen. Currently, one can see how grandly does the Queen of England run this empire. Is there any reason for us to think that governance belongs only to men?

Furthermore, to think that governance is dependent only on force is based in faulty reasoning. Development of knowledge, rise of civilization, and mastery of India by Britain has taught us that knowledge is the most powerful force in the world. And those who posses knowledge, whether male or female, have the right to govern over those who lack in knowledge. Thus, we hope that men would no longer use their physical strength as the sole reason for their right to governance and for their superiority over women. It is, in fact, a preposterous argument.

(More later)

By M R

Originally from Pakistan, Dr. Masood Ashraf Raja is an Associate Professor of Postcolonial Literature and Theory and the editor of Pakistaniaat: A Journal of Pakistan Studies.
Raja tweets @masoodraja

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