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Customs and Culture >
Are women second-class citizens in Islam?

The status of women in Muslim countries has long been looked to as evidence of “Islam's” oppression of women in matters ranging from the freedom to dress as they please to legal rights in divorce. The true picture of women in Islam is far more complex.

The revelation of Islam raised the status of women by prohibiting female infanticide, abolishing women's status as property, and establishing women's legal capacity. This includes granting women the right to receive their own dowries, which changed marriage from a proprietary to a contractual relationship, and allowing women to retain control over their property and use their maiden names after marriage. The Quran also granted women financial maintenance from their husbands and controlled the husband's free ability to divorce.

The Quran declares that men and women are equal in the eyes of God; man and woman were created to be equal parts of a pair (51: 49). The Quran describes the relationship between men and women as one of “love and mercy” (30: 21). Men and women are to be like “members of one another” (3: 195), or like each other's garment (2: 187).

Men and women are equally responsible for adhering to the Five Pillars of Islam. Quran 9: 71–72 states, “The Believers, men and women, are protectors of one another; they enjoin what is just, and forbid what is evil; they observe regular prayers, pay zakat and obey God and His Messenger. On them will God pour His mercy: for God is exalted in Power, Wise. God has promised to Believers, men and women, gardens under which rivers flow, to dwell therein.” This verse draws added significance from the fact that it was the last Quran verse to be revealed that addressed relations between men and women. Some scholars argue on the basis of both content and chronology that this verse outlines the ideal vision of the relationship between men and women in Islam—one of equality and balance.

Most Islamic societies have been patriarchal, and women have long been considered to be the culture-bearers within these societies. Prior to the twentieth century, men interpreted the Quran, hadith (traditional stories of the Prophet), and Islamic law. These interpretations therefore reflect this patriarchal environment. Women were not actively engaged in interpreting the Quran, hadith, or Islamic law until the twentieth century. Since then, however, reformers have argued that Quranic verses favoring men need reinterpretation in light of the new social, cultural, and economic realities of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Often Muslim scholars have interpreted Quran 4:34 as indicating that women have been assigned second-class status in Islam, “Men have responsibility for and priority over women, since God has given some of them advantages over others and because they should spend their wealth [for the support of women].” However, contemporary scholars have noted that the “priority” referred to in this verse is based upon men's socioeconomic responsibilities for women. It does not say women are incapable of managing their own affairs, controlling themselves, or being leaders. Nowhere in the Quran does it say that all men are superior to, preferred over, or better than all women. God's expressed preference for certain individuals in the Quran is based upon their faith, not their gender. Thus, the noted Quran expert and translator M. Abdel Haleem has therefore rendered this verse as “Husbands should take good care of their wives, with [the bounties] God has given to some more than others and with what they spend out of their own money.”

Quranic interpretation is at the center of many debates. Some note that the Quran itself specifically distinguishes between two types of verses: those that are universal principles and those that were responding to specific social and cultural contexts or questions and were subject to interpretation (3:7). They believe that those verses that assign greater rights to men (such as 2:223 and 2:228) reflect a patriarchal context in which men were dominant and solely responsible for supporting women. Today, rather than being interpreted literally, these verses should be reformulated to reflect the interests of public welfare. Reformers further argue that gender equality is the intended order established by God, because God does not make distinctions based upon gender in matters of faith.

However, Muslims who advocate a literal interpretation of the Quran believe that the gender inequalities it prescribes apply to every time and place as God's revealed social order. Biology is often used as a justification; because only women can bear children, they argue, the man must provide for and maintain the family so that the woman can do her job of bearing and raising children.

Another apparent example of second-class status for women appears in the Quranic stipulation (2:282) that two female witnesses are equal to one male witness. If one female witness errs, the other can remind her of the truth: “And call to witness two of your men; if two men are not available then one man and two women you approve of, so that if one of them is confused, the other would remind her.” Over time, this was interpreted by male scholars to mean that a woman's testimony should always count for one-half of the value of a man's testimony. Contemporary scholars have revisited this question also, offering several observations about the socio-historical context in which the verse was revealed.

First, the verse specifies that witnessing is relevant in cases of a written transaction, contract, or court case. At the time the Quran was revealed, most women were not active in business or finance. A woman's expertise in these fields would most likely have been less than a man's. Another interpretation argues that the requirement for two female witnesses to equal the testimony of one man was based upon the concern that male family members might pressure a woman into testifying in their favor.

Some contemporary female scholars have argued that the requirement of two female witnesses demonstrates the need for women to have access to education, both secular and religious, in order to receive the training and experience to be equal to men in a business environment—something that is not prohibited by the Quran. In light of the right of women to own property and make their own investments, this interpretation is in keeping with broader Quranic values.

One other area in which gender discrimination has been apparent historically is the matter of divorce. Women have had little right to initiate divorce, whereas men did not have to provide any justification or reason for declaring a divorce. However, the Quran counsels compassion and tolerance as well as mediation in divorce and stresses that spouses “be generous towards one another” (2:237). Ideally, divorce is a last resort, discouraged rather than encouraged, as reflected in a tradition of the Prophet, “Of all the things permitted, divorce is the most abominable with God.” Historically this ideal has been undermined and compromised by the realities of patriarchal societies. This situation has been compounded by the fact that women have been unable to exercise their rights either because they were unaware of them or because of pressures in a male-dominated society. In many Muslim countries, modern reforms have been introduced to limit a husband's rights and expand those of women. However, these reforms have been limited and challenged by more conservative and fundamentalist forces.

The Quran has also served as a reference point for restricting the practice of polygamy. Quran 4:3 commands, “Marry women of your choice, two or three or four; but if you will not be able to deal justly [with them] only one.” A corollary verse (4:129) states, “You are never able to be fair and just between women even if that is your ardent desire.” Contemporary reformers have argued that these two verses together prohibit polygamy and that the true Quranic ideal is monogamy.

The twenty-first century has brought numerous significant reforms for women's rights in both the public and the private spheres. In the overwhelming majority of Muslim countries, women have the right to public education, including at the college level. In many countries, they also have the right to work outside of the home, vote, and hold public office. Particularly notable in recent years have been reforms in marriage and divorce laws.

Among the most important of these reforms are the abolition of polygamy in some countries and its severe limitation in others. Women have received expanded rights within marriage as well; they can participate in contracting their marriage and stipulate conditions favorable to them in the marriage contract. Reforms also increased the minimum age for marriage for both spouses, prohibiting child marriage. In regard to divorce, women have the right to financial compensation, to require that the husband provide housing for his divorced wife and children as long as the wife holds custody over the children, and to have custody over their older children.

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