Islam has never asserted that woman is inferior to man: it has only made the point that woman is differently constituted. If all the laws relating to man and woman in Islam are based on this fundamental reality that men and women are two different sexes, it is because distinctive differences between man and woman are established biological facts.
This distinction between equality and sameness is of paramount importance. Equality is desirable, just, fair; but sameness is not. People are not created identical but they are created equals. With this distinction in mind, there is no room to imagine that woman is inferior to man. There is no ground to assume that she is less important than he, just because her rights are not identically the same as his. Had her status been identical with his, she would have been simply a duplicate of him, which she is not. The fact that Islam gives her equal rights – but not identical – shows that it takes her into due consideration, acknowledges her, and recognises her independent personality.
All the revealed scriptures have held the same concept of woman, and thousands of years have passed without its ever having been doubted. It is only in modern times that it has been challenged by the women liberation movement, which holds that men and women are alike in every respect and that both should, therefore, be considered same entity.
Even after a struggle of almost 200 years, women have failed to achieve a status equal to that of men. They are almost as backward today as they had been before launching of the “women’s lib” movement. The only practical result has been that women have come out of the home, and are to be seen everywhere in the company of men. By degree they have lost their femininity without having achieved the goal of equal status with men in every domain for which they paid this very high price.
Now the question arises as to why it is that once science has supported the religious concept of man and woman as being the right one, the allegation continues to be made that Islam has ‘degraded’ woman. The main reason is that the results of differences between man and woman have remained only an academic finding and have not yet formed the basis of a popular intellectual revolution.
It is not the tone of Islam that brands woman as the product of devil or the seed of evil. Nor does the Qur'an place man as the dominant lord of woman, who has no choice but to surrender to his dominance. Nor was it Islam that introduced the question of whether or not woman has any soul in her. Never in the history of Islam has any Muslim doubted the human status of woman or her possession of soul and other fine spiritual qualities.
Unlike other popular beliefs, Islam does not blame Eve alone for the First Sin. The Qur'an makes it very clear that both Adam and Eve were tempted; that they both sinned; that God’s pardon was granted to both after their repentance; and that God addressed them jointly (2:35-36; 7:19, 27; 20:117-123).
Another area in which the Muslim Society was guided by the teachings of its religion that set a precedent was equality between men and women with regard to rights and duties. Islam made them equal in terms of religious obligations, personal rights, human dignity and civil rights having to do with personal interactions and wealth.
Islam gave women this high status at a very early stage, before women attained anything of the sort in other nations.
At the early stage, Islam proclaimed that women were the twin halves of men. At a time when the west was entertaining doubts as to whether women were even human, what their nature was and whether they had souls, the Qur'an proclaimed:
“So their Lord accepted of them [their supplication and answered them], Never will I allow to be lost the work of any of you – male or female. You are [member] one of another….” (3:195)
The status of woman in Islam is something unique, something novel, and something that has no similarity in any other system. The rights of woman of modern times were not granted voluntarily or out of kindness to the female. Modern woman reached her present position by force, and not through natural processes or mutual consent or Divine teachings. She had to force her way, and various circumstances came to her aid. Shortage of manpower during wars, pressure of economic needs and requirements of industrial developments forced woman to get out of her home – to work, to learn, to struggle for her livelihood, to appear as an equal to man, to run her race in the course of life side by side with him. She was forced by circumstances and in turn she forced herself through and acquired her new status.
Whether all women were pleased with these circumstances being on their side, and whether they are happy and satisfied with the results of this course is a different matter. But the fact remains that whatever rights modern woman enjoys fall short of those of her Muslim counterpart. What Islam has established for woman is that which suits her nature, gives her full security and protects her against disgraceful circumstances and uncertain channels of life. We do not need here to elaborate on the status of modern woman and the risks she runs to make her living or establish herself. We do not even need to explore the miseries and setbacks that encircle her as a result of the so-called rights of woman. Nor do we intend to manipulate the situation of many unhappy homes which break because of the very “freedom” and “rights” of which modern woman is proud. Most women today exercise the right of freedom to go out independently, to work and earn, and to pretend to be equal to man, but this, sadly enough, is at the expense of their families. This is all known and obvious. What is not known is the status of women in Islam and Islam itself.
Never an item of clothing has been under such scrutiny and dispute as the Islamic clothing hijab. From the past few years persecution of hijab has increased manifold. Religious conservatives and Western lawmakers alike are responsible for turning the hijab into a potent political weapon. Its various merits and demerits have been discussed by all and sundry and it comes to no surprise that the most vocal critics of hijab have been the western leaders who leave no opportunity to disparage hijab. In 2006, a British minister was quoted as saying how he finds veil as a barrier in “forming positive relations between two communities.” The latest addition to this never ending list is the French President Nicholas Sarkozy who called burqa a “sign of subservience, a sign of debasement….”
The Western world which prides itself as the champion of democracy, human rights and women’s rights give free rein to nudity and skin show and no Muslim objects to the unnatural look. But when they take upon themselves the right to decide through laws what women should wear in public, then it is downright condemnable and blameworthy. Often forgotten is the fact that modern Western dress is a new invention. Looking at the clothing of women as recently as 70 years ago, we see clothing similar to hijab. These active and hard-working women of the West were not inhibited by their clothing which consisted of long, full dresses and various types of head covering.
Freedom, that is precious, cannot be one-sided. If freedom gives a licence to some women for wearing revealing dresses, knickers, bikinis and jeans then how does it stop some other women from wearing their chosen dresses?
Curiously, one voice which has been obfuscated is the voice of Muslim women herself. Muslim women are mature enough to understand the limits of their freedom. It cannot be denied that many are forced into wearing hijab but at the same time there are a large number of women who choose to cover themselves out of their own free will without any pressure from any male member of their families, and more so as religious obligation, contrary to the popular belief.
Dressing is an individual and private issue that does not need to come under public scrutiny. Muslims admire the cultural notion of Draupati when she declared at the time of vastraharan that she had never ventured in front of ghair mehram (men other than close relatives). Hijab was well described by Laxman when he had said that he never saw more than a toe nail of Sita.
Muslims also find in Mary an Ideal to follow. The Nuns all over the world wear a full dress covering their bodies as also a wimple, or white saree and full-length gowns, and similarly the Sikhs wear beards and turbans to strictly follow their religious rulings. Are these things next in the line to be legislated upon and banned in France or countries within the European Union? The hijab, the burqa, the niqab or whatever else a Muslim woman chooses to wear is not a political weapon to be used by governments and religious leaders to wage their battle of ideology.
Modesty and chastity, very important ideologies with Islam, are achieved by prescribing standards on behaviour and the dress of a Muslim. A woman who adheres to the tenements of Islam is required to follow the dress code called hijab, other synonyms are Veil, Purdah, or just Covering. It is an act of faith and establishes a Muslim’s life with honour, respect and dignity. The hijab is viewed as a liberation for women, in that the covering brings about “an aura of respect” and women are recognised as individuals who are admired for their mind and personality, “not for their beauty or lack of it” and not as sex objects.
Hijab is the dress that covers the adornment of the Muslim woman, on one condition that it won’t be adornment by itself. In other words, the Islamic definition of hijab is the dress that covers whatever might arouse instincts. It is what would keep a woman safe, not only in her own society but wherever she goes. It should be noticed that the way it’s worn does not arouse the sexual appeal for both men and women. Despite these points, hijab is not old fashioned as some might claim. On the contrary, a Muslim woman needs to be careful of her appearance. She needs not only to be neat, but very well dressed too. Hijab is not merely a covering dress but more importantly, it is behaviour, manner, speech and appearance in public. Dress is only one facet of the total being.
“And say to the believers that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; and that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what must ordinarily appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands...” (Qur’an 24:30-31)
Opening the eyes of the spirit takes certain courage and a moment of decision. The moment of realisation that maybe it is all real is where submission to God begins. It is not the end of the story by any means, but only the beginning.