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The place of women in Islam
By Abbas Ali Baig
One of the severest criticisms against Islam is that it has treated women unjustly. It accords them half of the share in the inheritance of property as compared to men. It does not give them the right to divorce. It treats them inhumanly by allowing their husbands to keep four wives simultaneously while they are forced to content with one throughout their lives. It enjoins upon them to cover their bodies from top to toe, not only in front of the strangers but even before their first cousins and thus force them to confine themselves behind the four walls of their homes, thereby, making them a kind of virtual prisoner who should be always available to pander the carnal appetite of their husbands as they are not allowed to move out of their houses without the permission of their husbands. Not only this but they are also liable to be beaten up by their husbands in the event of conjugal infidelity.
But before criticizing Islam, one should also consider the pathetic tale of woes with which the woman was passing in non-Islamic societies prior to the advent of Islam. Female offsprings were regarded as blots to the parents and they were buried alive immediately after their births. Women were not treated as human beings but were considered as chattels to gratify the needs of their owners. They were openly traded in marketplaces like goods. Widows were abhorred, their heads were tonsured and they were forced to sit on the pyre of their husbands to be burnt alive. At the backdrop of this scenario, Islam came to rescue them, and gave them those honourable rights fourteen hundred years ago, which were unbelievable even in the beginning of Twentieth Century even in most modern societies.
But this is not the answer to the criticisms levelled against Islam with respect to women. It is true that Islam has put forth certain restrictions on women but at the same time it has given her enough freedom, which is more than sufficient to bring out her overall development in a civilized society.
The purpose of Islam is to build a civilized society where each one could live in a harmonious way. It cannot be achieved if the mankind is left unbridled. Therefore, it has laid down certain rules and regulations for the overall development of mankind. These rules are based on the principle of justice. And justice demands that each one should get according to one’s need, and not according to one’s own sweet will, because our desires are unlimited which cannot be fully satisfied without infringing the rights of others. That is the reason why Quran states: "If the truth follows their low desires, then surely, the heavens and the earth and all those who are therein would have perished." (23:71). Islam, therefore, wants to save humanity from destruction, so it has based its rules on wisdom and justice not on human desires.
Islam opines that as far as spiritual development of the two sexes is concerned, there is no difference between man and woman. Both are equal and will be rewarded equally for their good deeds. But in so far as their physical development is concerned, the two sexes are entirely at variance with each other. Therefore, what is good for one cannot be good for the other. So Islam has assigned rights to both the sexes according to their needs.
Islam has assigned half share to women from the parental property as compared to men because they are not obliged to look after anyone from their property. It is their sole property. Whereas on the other hand, men are duty-bound to maintain their families which include wives, children and even their aged parents. It would have been utterly unjustified if both men and women were treated equally in the inheritance of property. Moreover, women get a handsome amount of money at the time of their marriage as Mahr (bridal money), which is their own property. So if one seriously tries to look at the wisdom behind the Islamic Law of inheritance, one would find that women are in no way treated unjustly but on the other hand, are adequately compensated.
The other objection is that women are not given the right to divorce. This is also wrong. In fact, Islamic marriage is a kind of contract between two adult and sensible human beings of the opposite sex for a happily wedded life. The women are at liberty to have this clause included in the marital contract (Nikah Nama) that in the event of unbearable circumstances, they would be obliged to seek divorce. For example, women can include this clause in the marital contract that if their husbands contract another marriage, they would seek divorce. Even if this clause is not written down in the marital contract, Islam grants women the right to seek divorce in the form of Khula. If women are not satisfied with their marital life, they can seek divorce from their husbands by making them agree to divorce by financially compensating them. This is known as Khula. One might object that this is a kind of bribery to husband. But it is not so, because those women who want to seek divorce through civil courts, have to spend much more amount in the form of court fees and lawyers’ fee etc. So it is much more convenient if they agree to pay a little compensation to the husband for seeking divorce.
Islamic divorce is a well-orchestrated decision, taken with a cool and sensible mind by both the partners, and not a decision taken in haste or out of impulse. Since women are impulsive by nature, Islam has not given this right to them directly but to say that it has denied this right to women is nothing but ignorance from the wisdom of Islam.
Some modernists believe that Islam has done injustice to women by granting men the right to have four wives simultaneously while compelling them to be content with one husband at a time.
It is true that Islam grants men the right to have four wives simultaneously, but with certain conditions that they have to keep justice among them, and if not then they are not allowed to have four wives at a time, but be content with one.
The wisdom behind the permission to allow four wives at a time is that man by nature is promiscuous. Mostly, he is not satisfied with one partner. He wants change. It is evident by the fact that those societies, who consider second marriage as some kind of an evil practice, have provided many other outlets to satiate the carnal passion of man outside marriage. The presence of prostitution world over, the mushrooming of sex outlets in commercial centers, and the rising demand of the sex industry is proof enough of man’s promiscuous behavior. Islam considers all these things as illegal, and not to speak of Islam, even right-minded civilized people consider it illegal. So Islam has provided a sensible limit of four wives, because Islam wants to eradicate corruption from the society and not to pave way for it.
In-so-far as women are concerned, they are by nature monogamous. They are fully satisfied with one partner. It is, therefore, foolish to send a woman to different men for satisfying her biological needs. The female physiology is so designed by nature that it cannot accommodate more than one partner at a time. Therefore, Islam has strictly forbidden this kind of alliance. Islam is so careful about the health of the woman that it does not allow her to contract another marriage immediately after divorce or after the death of the husband unless a specified period, which is known as iddat, is passed. The philosophy behind this idea is that all traces of previous alliance are cleared, and her body is once again hygienically prepared to accept the fresh process of creation. This is not possible unless she is protected from all kinds of corruption.
Very few people know this medical fact that if a woman is visited by different partners during her single monthly cycle, she is bound to be inflicted with horrendous sex diseases which might not only harm her own self but may pass on the germs to others members thereby polluting the whole society. Islam, being a divine system, knew this fact much before medical science discovered it, and that’s why it had instituted the system of iddat in the Islamic Shariah so that the Islamic society could be saved from filth and diseases.
Islam, therefore, enjoins upon women to protect their chastity by keeping themselves aloof from the lascivious eyes of man so it has enjoined upon her to at least cover those contours of her body, which arouse passion in the opposite sex. Islam never tells women to cover themselves from top-to-toe. It only suggests a decent and civilized dress code for her own benefit and safety. Islam does not approve of that culture that wish to parade women naked in the marketplace to boost their commercial success. Islam wishes to see her in the honorable roles of daughter, sister, mother and wife, and not only as playing dolls that are available only for the carnal thirst of man.