Women in Islam: veiled oppression or stigmatised misconception? - Part 1
Created | Updated Jul 22, 2007
Due to the broad spectrum of women's rights in Islam1, this entry will examine the issue in three separate sections. This, the first section, is a short introduction to Islam and women's rights and will look at women's rights in several different Muslim countries, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Indonesia. The second section will look at what the Qur'an says about women with the role of an Islamic society and the last section will examine the reasons behind the current treatment of women in Muslim countries.
Current Views of Women in Islam
The subject of women in Islam has often been the centre of much debate. Western eyes tend to see Islam's portrayal of women as a poor one. Many people, when they think of women in Islam, have a vision of a woman tied to a sink at home, having to do whatever her husband commands her to do. This vision is usually accompanied by the idea of a woman who is not allowed to choose who she is to marry and who is beaten by her husband, hidden from the world by a niqab2 or a burqa3 — a woman with no rights who at any moment could be divorced with no notice, a woman who has had her genitals mutilated as a baby and cannot leave the house without a male relative's presence and/or permission.
These views are usually based on things picked up from what westerners see in the papers or on TV and what has been told to them. People with these views tend not to have really looked into Islam or read books on the subject, or even spoken about these issues with a Muslim. It is a great shame to hear people speaking badly about Islam when they have not, themselves, read the Qur'an4 or Ahadith5. Many of them may have never really spoken to a Muslim properly, or asked a Muslim woman about her life.
Though a lot of the reasons for western conceptions are easy to blame on the media portrayal of Islam and a lack of knowledge about Islam, it does not mean that it can all just be put down to ignorance on the part of non-Muslims. Muslims themselves can also be blamed for this negative image, due to the silence that prevails after women's rights are abused and this abuse is brought to light. For example, much good would come from having an Alimah6 or an Imam7 appear publicly to point out that this is not a universally Islamic standpoint. Most countries that are considered to be 'Islamic' are lead by regimes or governments that say they are following the true Islamic way of life, but are actually drawn to the power of being in charge of people. An easy way to prove this is to look at all the world's Islamic countries and spot the differences between them. In some of these so-called Islamic countries, it is acceptable for women to not cover their faces, while in other countries they are not allowed to do so. Another example can be found by looking at Iran and Saudi Arabia: In one country, women can drive; in the other, they cannot.
If all these countries' rulers are following the Qur'an and Ahadith as they say they are, then surely they would all have the same (or at least very similar) laws - this, however, is not the case. That being said, there are other issues to take into consideration before blaming Islam for female abuse and lack of rights. Here is a short list of some key points:
Is what is seen on TV or in the papers balanced and authentic? It is important to consider whether the word 'Islamic' has been used because the person in question happens to consider themself Muslim, or because they are following the specific teaching of the Qur'an and Ahadith. For example, while female circumcision is not condoned by the Qur'an, it is still practised in some predominantly Muslim areas in Africa. So while it would be accurate for the media to say, 'In some areas of Africa, Muslims circumcise women,' it would be more accurate for them to say, 'While Islam does not condone female circumcision, some Muslims in parts of Africa — along with Christians and observers of other religions in the area — still perform these mutilations.'
Is this violence towards and lack of rights for women part of what Islam specifically teaches, or is it something passed on through culture in that part of the world?
Are the leaders of so-called 'Islamic' countries really following the Qur'an and Ahadith, or are they simply acting in accordance with their own views?
These are all important questions and issues that have to be considered before someone can label Islam as a religion that teaches the oppression of women. This entry has been written to examine these questions and show how women are meant to be treated in Islam. To do this, we will be looking at what Muslims would term the best evidence of all: the Qur'an and the Ahadith.
Women's Rights in Muslim Countries
To ease us into the flow of things, let's take a look at some modern-day Islamic countries and their laws regarding female Muslims.
The beginnings of women's rights in Egypt can be traced back to the 1950s, when the Women's Rights Union8 started to have an impact on the ruling class of Egypt. After mounting pressure and a long struggle, the Egyptian government finally signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) bill in 1981. This act and subsequent legislation have given women equal access to education, employment and work opportunities, equal pay for equal work and social security. Egyptian civil law, in accordance with Islamic law, gives women the right to possess, control and inherit property. Unfortunately, women's rights are still not being fully implemented there, due to the restrictions of tradition, the government's lack of interest in enforcing the laws and women's own lack of awareness of their rights. Unfortunately, as Egypt has an inadequate public education system and a population largely disengaged from political life, men and women are poorly informed about women's rights. However, an ongoing media revolution led by the growth of satellite television is helping to better inform Egyptians of women's rights.
Mai Nabil Mohamed Dawoud, a 23-year-old Muslim girl living near Alexandria, says: 'No I never did learn or know my rights while at school, but I know we [women] have the right to own property and [the right] to ask for divorce from the government.' On the subject of female genital mutilation9 she says that, to her knowledge: 'Nobody does that at all here anymore; the practice is haram10.'
As for women's rights to work, take the case of Hayat Samir, a 26-year-old Egyptian woman, who is a university graduate with a law degree, yet works as a cleaning lady. This is what she has to say about her rights in Saudi Arabia: 'Here I am with a law degree and I am cleaning bathrooms. Even if they are the bathrooms of a decent organisation, they are still bathrooms. If I were a man, I would have had a much better job as a sales assistant or a cashier in a store, at least11.'
This lack of education has led to women being refused ownership of property and the right to divorce, despite legally being allowed to own property and divorce their husbands. At the moment, continued pressure by women's rights groups and Islamic scholars is slowly changing this.
Women in Saudi Arabia, whether Saudi Arabian or foreign, emerge time and again as victims of discrimination and human rights violations because of the gender bias in law, social mores and traditions. While women have gained some ground in terms of economic rights, their civil and political rights are systematically violated. Equal treatment for women and men is a fundamental principle of international human rights standards. Yet in Saudi Arabia discriminatory practices against women are not only prevalent, they are also in some cases required by law.
- An Amnesty International report on Saudi Arabia.
Women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive, leave the country without authorisation from their husband or father, leave the house in unsuitable attire12, hold high-ranking jobs or be involved in the government. In fact, it was not until 2000 that Saudi Arabian women were allowed their own ID cards; they had previously been registered on their husbands' or fathers' cards. Laws, such as those against adultery, that are applicable to both men and women seem to only allow women to be punished. When investigations against women are carried out they are often conducted improperly and make use of unreliable evidence.
Pakistan is sometimes viewed as one of the worst offenders of women's rights in the Islamic world. Pakistan is a vast country with many laws in place to protect women's rights. Unfortunately, outside of the big cities, Pakistanis are generally ruled by tribal law rather than governmental law and this is where abuse of women's rights takes place. Most laws prohibiting the mistreatment of women are ignored: for example, in the case of 'honour killings'. These involve a man killing his female relative on suspicion of an immoral act, such as a girl being seen in the company of a boy to whom she is not closely related. One particular case involved an eighteen-year-old girl who was suspected to have had sex with a seventeen-year-old boy, simply because they had said 'hello' to each other. She was then killed by her father and brother. Honour killings are officially illegal under Pakistani law. Unfortunately, these crimes still happen, and when they do there are three basic responses:
- The crime is not reported or 'goes unnoticed' by the authorities.
- The crime is ignored by the police, due to the claim that it is a 'personal issue', not a state issue.
- If the case does reach court, the guilty party is given a minimal sentence.
Not all girls are punished with death, though. Some have acid splashed into their faces instead, scarring them for life and sometimes causing blindness. You can decide which punishment is more barbaric:
[Zahida] Perveen's eyes are empty sockets of unseeing flesh, her earlobes have been sliced off and her nose is a gaping, reddened stump of bone. Sixteen months ago, her husband, in a fit of rage over her alleged affair with a brother-in-law, bound her hands and feet and slashed her with a razor and knife. She was three months pregnant at the time.
- (Constable, 'The Price of "Honour"', Montréal Gazette, 22 May, 2000
This on its own is bad enough, but it gets worse. Pakistani legislation, for example, defines both adultery13 and rape14 as 'sexual intercourse without being validly married' and does not draw the distinction that one is forced while the other is not. Under current Pakistani law, if a women is raped and reports the crime or becomes pregnant, she has to prove that she was raped. What constitutes proof in Pakistan is the man's admittance of the crime, or four witnesses who saw the man force her into having sex. If she can not prove this, she is charged with having an illicit sexual relationship with someone and is punished. Because of this policy, rape victims are punished for reporting the crime, and because men can get away with it, there has been an increase in rapes every year.
He came home from the mosque and accused me of having a bad character .... I told him it was not true, but he didn't believe me. He caught me and tied me up, and then he started cutting my face. He never said a word except, 'This is your last night.'
- Zahida Perveen, quoted in 'The Price of "Honour"', Montréal Gazette, 22 May, 2000
You would think that the fact that reporting rape equates to being charged and punished or having sex outside of marriage would be enough, but sadly, it does not stop there. Say a rape victim knows who raped her and tells the police. If he does not admit to the crime and she cannot provide four witnesses, he will go free and she will face an additional charge of falsely accusing someone of having sex outside of marriage. This is partly due to the fact that Pakistan does not have the personnel or equipment to do a proper forensic examination, so it comes down to witnesses and confession. Unfortunately, this has led to women not bothering to report rape crimes and just hoping that they do not become pregnant — the only guarantee of a good life in the future. An example of this law's unfairness and brutality is the case of Safia Bibi. In 1985, this sixteen-year-old, nearly-blind domestic servant reported that she was repeatedly raped by her employer and his son and became pregnant as a result. When she charged the men with rape, the case was dismissed for lack of evidence, as she was the only witness against them. Safia, however, being unmarried and pregnant, was charged with zina and convicted on no evidence.
On top of all this is the 'blood feud', which is common within the suburbs and small villages. After one village or tribe has committed a perceived offence against another, the second village or tribe will try to gain 'compensation'. In some cases, this can involve the rape and mutilation of women or the murder of entire families. Girls from one of the tribes can be forced under threat of death to marry men from the other tribe, and violence towards the girls generally ensues.
Girls in Pakistan generally do not have much input as to when they get married and to whom they will be married. In fact, they are often married off to cousins or into families that will improve family image or cause the girl's family to attain a given political goal, regardless of the girl's wishes on the subject. In some cases of forced marriage, physical abuse is used, but the most common method is through emotional blackmail: the girl is made to feel that she is displeasing God by refusing to marry the man her parents wish her to. In some cases, death threats have been issued to stop girls marrying boys they wish to marry. In some cases, these threats are carried out under the honour-killing principle.
Women in Pakistan are generally only educated to a reasonable standard if from a wealthy family, and while around 87% of Pakistani men work, only 5% - 7% of women do so — the percentage is lower in rural areas. Only low-paid jobs are available to women, and men and women are kept segregated in the workplace.
When people think of Islamic countries they seem to forget about Indonesia, even though it has a higher population of Muslims than any other country in the world. Women in Indonesia are not as poorly off as in the other countries listed here. Indonesia is a moderate country by comparison, but it still has its problems with women's rights. Women in Indonesia have the right to own and sell property and livestock, to work, to choose to whom and when they get married and to divorce.
Hapsarina Dianti has lived in Indonesia all her life. She says about life as a woman in Indonesia: 'We have similar rights to those of the men,' and 'Indonesia is more cultural than Islamic. For example, in the Padang tribe, it's the women who propose marriage to a man, while men cannot propose at all. In the Java tribe, men are like gods, but it's modern times now and so women do not generally agree with it, those kind of rules are decaying now. Abuse does happen to women in the home though still, such as women being hit, and women are raped over here, but that happens in all societies. People who do rape and adultery will be in jail over here if caught by the police. Some people, especially families of rape victims, complain about the length of jail time a rapist gets. Men who have raped for the first time get less of a sentence that people who agree to have sex outside of marriage, it don't make sense. People here do not like that. If the rapist has committed the offence more than once, or has killed his victim then he will get a longer sentence. Rape victims over here are seen not to be blamed for what has happened and are free to go.' She goes on to say, 'Female circumcision does happen over here as well, but these days it's done very carefully by doctors, it don't make it right though.'
As has been demonstrated throughout this entry, women in Muslim countries are not exactly treated as equal members of society. By now many people will be thinking that it must be a problem within the teachings of Islam, but is that a fair accusation to make? At the moment, the situation could be likened to that of a detective finding the perpetrator of a crime. As such, we have viewed the evidence at the crime scene (that being Muslim countries) and spoken to some of the witnesses. But before we charge anyone with the crime, we have to question the suspects. So let's see what the Qur'an and Ahadith have to say about women in Islam as we move into the second section of this entry.