Clarification of a Misunderstanding
AN anthology of the Quran prepared by English orientalist Edward William Lane (1801-1876) was published in 1843. It carried a foreword by way of introduction to Islamic teaching, which inter alia, stated that “the fatal point in Islam is the degradation of woman.”
This ill-considered observation gained such currency that it was commonly repeated as if it were an established fact. Almost a century and a half has elapsed, but this conviction has only deepened. It has even been quoted as if it were gospel truth by a prominent person in one of the court cases.
Suppose a doctor tells his patient that his eye is a very delicate organ of the body, to be treated gently and with great care, unlike his fingernails, which can be cut and filed if necessary. The doctor’s instruction does not mean that he is degrading the eye vis-a-vis the nail. He is only pointing out the difference between the nail and the eye.
Islam has never asserted that woman is inferior to man: it has only made the point that woman is differently constituted.
If all laws in Islam are based on this fundamental reality that men and women are of two different genders, it is because their distinctive differences are established biological facts. This being so, male and female spheres of activity cannot be one and the same, whether in family or in social life. There must necessarily be differences in the kind of work that they do, and also in their places of work.
All scriptures have held the same concept of women without its ever having been doubted. In modern times it has been challenged by the women’s liberation movement, which holds that men and women are alike in every respect and that both should, therefore, be given equal opportunities.
This movement first reared its head in Britain in the 18th century, later spread across Europe and America. In 1772, the momentum increased with the publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, written by Mary Wollstonecraft. The author asserts that women should receive the same treatment as men in education, work opportunities and politics, and the same moral standards should be applied to both genders. Such was the zeal and fervour with which this movement was launched that it spread far and wide. Both men and women participated, and differences between man and woman were brushed aside as being a sign of backwardness. By the beginning of the 20th century, this trend established its hold all over the world, and laws were made or modified accordingly. All doors were to be thrown open to men and women alike.
In practice, however, this experiment has been a failure. Even after a struggle of almost 200 years, women have failed to achieve equal status to that of men. The situation is the same today as it was before the launching of the "women's lib" movement. The only practical result has been that women have become a part of every field and work side by side with men. This has given rise to new problems and society is paying a heavy price for it.
The failure of women’s liberation has led to wide-ranging research being carried out, employing strictly scientific methods. Finally the patent biological differences between men and women have been scientifically proven. These differences have all along been a reason for women’s failure to find an equal place in every department of life. Where philosophers had doubted the religious concept of women erroneously—scientific findings have now reestablished this concept’s veracity.
“We are not doing women—and specifically women’s health—any favors by pretending that things are the same if they are not” .
For instance, the following research though specifically related to the medical field, which can draw our attention to understanding the facts that the differences between the genders are a part of nature and not a creation of society. They are real and one cannot just wish them away.
Catherine Woolley is the William Deering Chair person in Biological Sciences, professor of neurobiology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and a member of the Women’s Health Research Institute at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. This is what she has to say:
“The importance of studying gender differences in the brain is about making biology and medicine relevant to everyone, to both men and women. It is not anyone who studies about things such as who is better at reading a map or why more men than women choose to enter certain professions.”
Male and female brains operate differently at a molecular level, the research team reports in a new study of a brain function involved in learning and memory, responses to stress, etc.
For 20 years, Woolley actively avoided studying gender differences in the brain until her own data showed her that differences between females and males were real.
“Being a scientist is about changing your mind in the face of new evidence,” Woolley said. “I had to change my mind in the face of this evidence.”
“We are not doing women—and specifically women’s health— any favors by pretending that things are the same if they are not,” Woolley said.
Currently a lot of research is focusing on these differences. Science has supported the religious concept of men and women being different, as being the right one. Still the allegation continues to be made that Islam has ‘degraded’ woman. The Islamic concept of womanhood considers the two genders as “equal in respect but different in roles”.
Anyone who studies the Islamic concept of womanhood will know that Islam considers the two genders as “equal in respect but different in roles” .
It is very unfortunate that well-read people have said that religious laws pertaining to women were socially reactionary. Such remarks are made so indiscriminately and so frequently that it is time one considers the possible root causes. One of the root causes is that the results of research on the differences between man and woman have remained only as academic. These findings need to be transformed into a popular intellectual revolution. The social penetration of these ideas will have to take place on a very large scale. This is not far fetched since modern science has provided all the arguments in its favour. It is only a question of engaging wholeheartedly in the dissemination of those findings.
Men and Women Equal in Respect, Different in Role
The term ‘gender equality’ was used for the first time in Europe in the late nineteenth century. To begin with, it was used only to argue for women’s right to vote. However, it later came to be adopted for general use to describe the equality of both sexes in every respect.
This term then spread rapidly all over the Western world, as an expression describing the ideal status of men and women. In the second half of the twentieth century, extensive research was carried out on this subject, and this concept began to be doubted. The latest study done on this is by an IIT-Delhi alumnus, which has been extensively covered by the media.
A study team led by Ragini Verma, associate professor of radiology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, has revealed that there are stark differences between men and women in the structural connections linking different regions of their brains. Verma and her colleagues are among the first to demonstrate differences in the brain’s hardwiring to support long-standing observations of gender differences in functional tasks.
Their findings appeared in the US journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, December 2, 2013.
Islam says that men and women are different by birth, rather than being identical. Both are complementary to each other.
The researchers’ findings in this regard only confirm the Islamic position stated in the first quarter of the seventh century. Islam says that men and women are different by birth, rather than being identical. Both are complementary to each other. This fact is referred to in the Quran in these words:
You [men and women] are members one of another. (3: 195) According to the Quran, everything in this world has been created in the form of pairs:
We created pairs of all things. (51: 49)
In the material world, every atom consists of positive particles and negative particles. In the plant and the animal worlds, there are males and females. The human world consists of men and women. This pair-system in the world means that everything functions in a pair-fashion. In other words, nature functions on the principle of complementarity, rather than in an independent manner.
Observing this natural fact, one can say that using the term ‘gender equality’ to express the relationship between men and women is not natural. The right statement based on nature in this regard is: ‘Men and women are equal in respect and different in roles’.
The Role of Women in Society
Studies show that women have been specially gifted by nature with such qualities as fit them for the role of bringing about peace and harmony in society in times of conflict. These qualities are gentleness, selflessness, compassion, mildness and, above all, a spiritual approach to life. A study of history tells us that women have always played this role, albeit mostly on the home front.
It is a matter of common knowledge that women have always contributed greatly to normalizing conditions at home by relieving tensions and resolving conflicts. The softness of their approach to problems and their marked capacity for pacifying are clearly attributes which will eliminate stress.
When we look at Islamic history, the first instance we find of such positive feminine influence is that of Khadija, the wife of the Prophet. When the Prophet Muhammad received his first revelation from the angel in the cave of Hira, it was a totally new experience for him, and he trembled in fear at what he had seen and heard. He immediately set off for his home after the disappearance of the angel. When he had regained his composure, he related the incident to Khadija. She did her best to assure him that no harm would come to him as he always spoke the truth, helped the poor and those in distress, and invariably treated others with respect. With these reassuring words, she successfully calmed him down, employing all her natural gifts of gentleness, sympathy, understanding, and, above all, selfless love.
Science has supported the religious concept of man and woman being different, as being the right one.
After the Prophet of Islam left this world, great differences arose among Muslims in many matters. During his lifetime, all such issues had been referred to him for a solution. But after the demise of the Prophet, it was now left to his wife Aisha, who had been under his training for many years, to play the very positive role of guide and mentor. Having become fully imbued with the spirit of Islam, she used to give guidance to both male and female companions of the Prophet. In this way, she successfully resolved such differences.
However, in those days there was no platform from which her example could benefit the general public, nor was there the media—such as we have nowadays—to cover such roles and place them on record. In most of the cultures in ancient and medieval societies, women remained indoors and played their role within the confines of their own homes. That is why we know so little about the contribution of women in this arena.
Women have been specially gifted by nature with such qualities as fit them for the role of bringing about peace and harmony in society in times of conflict
The most prominent name of a woman within the Sufi tradition is that of Rabia Basri (713- 801). She was born in 713 CE. into a poor family in Basra, Iraq. She devoted her life to worshipping God and serving others. She lived a life of extreme asceticism, and a large number of disciples gathered around her. Her mystical sayings have become proverbial. In Rabia Basri’s times, Muslim society was rent with great religious differences. But her strong spiritual personality exerted such a powerful influence that people eventually forgot their doctrinal differences and rallied around her. She laid emphasis on pure divine love, which alone could minimize all these differences.
“Men and women are two equal halves of a single unit.”
The above teaching of the Prophet and many more teachings to this effect in the Quran and Hadith ushered in a new age of gender equality. With this new-found freedom, women were able to play a great role in society, particularly women who belonged to royal families. They were highly educated by the standards of their times, and, in royal circles, with greater social exposure, they had better opportunities to exert their influence.
One such woman was Maryam Makani, the mother of Akbar, the Mughal emperor of India. Once, Mullah Abdun Nabi, Akbar’s teacher, insulted the emperor before the entire court. Akbar was enraged and wanted to punish him. This could have meant even the death sentence for the offender. But Akbar’s mother intervened and successfully managed to calm him down. She told him that his pardon would go down in history, that history would remember that ‘an emperor, having all the power at his disposal, forgave an offender’.
Such incidents abound in history, but because the central figures were usually either a mother, like Maryam Makani, or a daughter or wife of an emperor—women who were already famous because of their royal kinship—people failed to perceive how their roles could go beyond this framework and become applicable to general situations in society./p>
The spiritual role of women has never been properly realized because of the failure to institutionalize their role in society.
Both biological and historical studies show that women have been specially gifted with qualities required for the establishment of social harmony. In the Muslim case, this potential of women has never been properly realized because of the failure to institutionalize their role in Muslim society.
Had Muslim women been trained to perform this task, they would have been able to play this role far more effectively, and on a far greater scale. The need of the hour today is to institutionalize this role and give proper training to women so that this capability with which women have been so abundantly endowed by nature may be fully harnessed. Once this feminine potential has been realized, the world will definitely be a better place for all to live in.