Does Islam oppress the woman? (Part 1)

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“These are facts: The more Islamic a state is, the more its women are shrouded and confined…” – Peter Hitchens – Mail on Sunday

“The Hijab…immediately suggests a belief system in which women are inferior to men which is intolerable here.” – Minette Marrin – The Times

“(Regarding the Islamic dress)…the values these outfits imply are repulsive and insulting to me. I find these clothes to be physical manifestations of outdated traditional practices…that oppress and victimize women, sometimes in the most degrading, cruel and barbaric of ways.” – Deborah Orr – The Independent

For decades if not centuries, the “Muslim woman” has been the poster-girl representing the oppression of women globally. The term “Shariah” when coupled with the word “Women”, often conjures up images or phrases such as: second-class citizen, discrimination, injustice, violence, inferior to men, patriarchal, insignificant in society, and enslaved to men. However, the fact that globally, female converts to Islam outnumber male converts (in some Western countries by 4:1); or the fact that there has been an exponential growth of women adorning the hijab and jilbab, even in the West; or the fact that poll after poll of the Muslim world in recent years show increasing numbers of Muslim women wishing to see the application of the Shariah in their lands, should at least question the soundness of this perception of the treatment of women within Islam.

So, does Islam oppress the woman and if not then from where do such perceptions regarding its treatment of women arise? In this, the first of a two part article, we will explore two arguments often presented by the West as proofs of Islam’s oppression of women: (1) The current injustices facing women in the Muslim world and Muslim communities in the West; (2) Islam’s restriction of the freedom of choice of the woman in her dress, relationships and lifestyle.

(1) Injustices facing women in the Muslim world and Muslim communities of the West:
Undoubtedly, the current reality facing millions of Muslim women in the Muslim world as well as hundreds here in Britain is a dark one – forced marriages; honour killings; thousands of women in the subcontinent hospitalized each year from nitric acid thrown onto their faces for refusing a marriage suitor or over dowry or marital disputes. Islam has often gained recognition as the common causal factor to all these injustices against women but even a brief study of its rules would highlight that such actions are abhorrent in the religion. They result from non-Islamic tribal or traditional cultural practices of communities. In addition, these practices have been provided fertile ground to grow and flourish by dictatorial, incompetent regimes that currently plague the Muslim world. These governments have turned a blind eye to these heinous traditional customs, allowing many such crimes to go unpunished. Furthermore, they have directly instigated injustices against women – rape victims languish in jails, women face dire poverty, poor access to education, healthcare, employment opportunities and political rights. Some of these states have been associated with Islam but a close look at their ruling structures, laws and constitutions show them to be monarchies, tribal systems, secular dictatorships or republics – structures that all place sovereignty of the law in the hands of human beings and hence are at complete odds with the Islamic ruling system, the Khilafah that places sovereignty in legislation in the hands of the Creator with laws extracted purely from the Islamic texts.

In contrast, the rights prescribed to women within the Islamic texts are clear: the right to education, employment, the vote, political participation, choice in marriage and the right to divorce, the rights of citizenship on par with the men of society and importantly, the right to respect and protection of her life and honour. However, unlike Western societies where women often had to battle the system to secure their rights, the rights afforded to women in the societies of Islamic history were dependent upon Islamic rule: the Khilafah system. When the application of this system weakened or worse still was removed from existence in 1924, then these rights could not be guaranteed and Muslim women fell prey to the grave injustices of these tribal customs, autocratic regimes, and incorrect interpretations and misapplications of the Islamic texts.

(2) Islam’s restriction of the freedom of choice of the woman:
One of the arguments presented by the West as to why the Shariah oppresses the woman is that the laws are restrictive towards the woman, do not secure for her, her personal freedom or sexual freedom and deny her choice – they quote the dress code, the segregation and prohibition of socialising between the sexes, and the severe punishments for fornication or adultery.

The underlying problem here, has been the method of study of Islam. Some have examined individual Shariah laws in isolation of what the comprehensive Islamic system seeks to achieve for society. Others have judged the Islamic values and laws against the standard of Western secular values and laws. Any discrepancies are often labeled as oppressive by default without examining and comparing the overall impact of these values and laws upon society. In essence there has been a historical precedence of studying Islam through “Euro-centric” glasses. In this present argument regarding Islam and women, there are echoes of a colonial past: Lord Cromer, the British General Consul of Egypt during its occupation in the 19th century, once wrote, “The Egyptians should be persuaded or forced into imbibing the true spirit of Western civilization” and that to achieve this, it was essential to change the position of women in Islam, for it was Islam’s degradation of women, expressed in the practices of veiling and segregation, that was the “fatal obstacle” to the Egyptian’s “attainment of that elevation of thought and character which should accompany the introduction of Western civilization”.

However, these liberal values come wrapped in their own set of problems. For example, they have given license to the exploitation of the bodies of women through the pornographic, advertising and entertainment industries that have cheapened the status of women generally within society. When you cheapen the status of women, abhorrent actions such as sexual harassment, abuse, and even rape may become one step less abhorrent for some men as evident by the escalating rates of these crimes within Western societies. According to the British Crime Survey 2007, 230 women were raped every day in the UK. According to the British Crime Survey 2004, one in four women in the UK has faced some form of sexual assault since the age of 16. The US Department of Justice has reported figures regarding sexual assault in the US that indicate that a woman is sexually assaulted every 2 minutes. Within these societies, how much “Choice” does a woman really have to engage in basic actions such as travel, work, and education, without fear of harassment or harm?

In addition, sexual freedom has spurned a culture of promiscuity and spiralling rates of teenage pregnancies, abortions, STD’s and adultery, resulting in the breakdown of marriages and families. According to a government independent advisory group on sexual health, there has been a 63% increase in STD’s over the last decade. Furthermore, if a society nurtures a mindset of individual choice above all else then it must also understand the consequences – the “choice” of a man to father children from different women and take no physical or emotional responsibility for child or mother; the “choice” of a parent to neglect the upbringing of his or her child in order to pursue their own personal interests; the “choice” of individuals to neglect the care of an elderly parent or relative in order to focus on the desires of their own lives.

Islam does not believe in securing individual freedom but aims to protect other values within the society – values such as chastity, honour and respect of men and women alike, strong marriages, strong family units where every child is born within wedlock, knowing its father and mother and knowing who is responsible for its financial, physical and emotional welfare. It also believes in the cooperation of men and women within society – in education, economics, politics and societal life in general. It does not simply look at what will ensure maximum pleasure for individuals within society but what is best for the harmony, safety, and respect for the community as a whole. The Prophet (saw) said, “The example of those who maintain Allah’s limits (hudood) and those who surpass them is like the example of those who share a boat. Some would occupy its upper deck and some its lower deck. The occupants of the lower deck would have to go to the upper deck to have access to the water. If they said, why don’t we drill a hole in our part (to directly access the water) and do not cause any inconvenience to those above us. If those on the upper deck let them do what they wanted then all of the passengers would sink. However, if they prevented them from doing so then all would be saved.”

It believes that sexual freedom and the sexualisation of society produces a culture of promiscuity and adultery that creates an obstacle in their cooperation and harms the values it seeks to protect within society. It therefore sets down various laws, rules and limitations to regulate the relationship between men and women in society to try and ensure that the triggering of the sexual desire and sexual relations are restricted to marriage and kept away from public life. The dress code (the khimar (headscarf) and jilbab), the prohibition of the socializing between the sexes, the prohibition of a man and woman being in seclusion and the severe punishments for fornication, adultery and slander against the reputation of an individual are examples of such laws. It does not believe in the idea that a woman can be viewed in any manner according to the “freedom” or “choice” of the man but obliges society to honour her and view her with respect. The Prophet (saw) said, “The world and all things in the world are precious but the most precious thing in the world is a virtuous woman.” The use of the woman’s body to sell any product or service is therefore naturally prohibited.

The aim being to produce a society where women can interact with men and have an active public life that is productive but also safe and based upon mutual respect.

In Part 2 we will examine the argument that Islam discriminates against women and is a betrayal of gender equality due to it prescribing different rights, duties and laws for men and women in particular issues, e.g. roles and rights in marriage and family life, divorce laws, testimony and inheritance laws, dress-code, polygamy, and denying the woman the position of ruler of a state.

Source: Khilafah Magazine

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