There is a widespread stereotype among many non-Muslims that Islam oppresses woman and deprives her of her basic rights. This line of thought is fed by wide media coverage and focus on some acts of injustice which women face in some Muslim countries. Yet, when it comes to investigating whether Islam oppresses woman or not, one should not depend solely on some manifestations of injustice towards women committed by people who are largely influenced by their local and traditional customs and culture. If every religion is judged only by the practices of some its followers at a certain time, then all religions will be portrayed as evil and non-applicable. But the fact of the matter is that reference here should be made to the Qur’an, the main source of legislation for Muslims, and the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), the second source, in order to explore the status of woman in Islam.
In order to present how Islam views woman, this article will focus on some points that highlight this aspect. Firstly, with regard to creation, the Qur’an clearly states that all human beings were created from a single pair of a male and a female (49:13) and (53:45). Here, Allah, Glory be to Him, speaks about man and woman as two fully respected entities. They both constitute the origin of the whole mankind, with no distinction of one over the other. This clearly proves that, contrary to earlier philosophies and faiths which considered woman as inhuman spirit, sinister creature, or a source of shame and disgrace, Islam addresses woman in the same way as man, with no privilege for any of them over the other except for doing good and being mindful to Allah (The Qur’an, 49:13).
As two separate entities, each is held responsible for what he or she does. This is the second point to be discussed here, i.e. woman’s eligibility for Shar‘i responsibility (ahliyat al-taklif). The Qur’an explains that whatever one does will be recompensed for, regardless of one’s sex (5: 124). Accordingly, this is an acknowledgment by the Qur’an that woman is spiritually and intellectually qualified to be obligated by Shar‘iah to discharge the legal and Shar‘i duties, unlike earlier philosophies which questioned woman’s eligibility to worship Allah.
Thirdly, some may argue that woman is inferior to man in Islam as man is given Qiwaamah over her according to the Qur’an. Yet, if we come to consider the meaning of Qiwaamah, we find that it is bound by some regulations which preserve the dignity of both men and women. Qiwaamah obliges man to take care of his mother, wife and daughter, and provide them with all necessities and protect them. This signifies that under this concept man is charged to fulfill some duties towards his dependents and it is not an honor given to him to distinguish him or give him privilege or superiority over woman.
Fourthly, Islam commands Muslims to seek knowledge. This is a general command for all Muslims, men and woman alike. During the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) many women conveyed his hadiths and became known as hadith narrators. Moreover, some of them were experts in fiqh issues and used to respond or reply to opinions of some male companions of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in case they believed that those male companions were mistaken in quoting Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The mother of believers, Sayyidah ‘Aishah, who was Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) wife, is a very important case in point in this regard. It is also reported that Imam al-Shafi’i (d. 204 AH), the renowned scholar of Islamic Jurisprudence received knowledge from Sayyidah Nafisah bint al-Hasan (d. 208 AH), whose lineage goes back to al-Hasan ibn ‘Ali –the grandson of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
To conclude, in Islam, women are equal to men. Nothing gives superiority to men over women or to women over men except for doing righteous deeds and being dutiful to Allah, the Almighty. Therefore, we should distinguish between the real stance of Islam on woman and the practice of some Muslims who violate the Islamic teachings and follow their own domestic and local customs and traditions, which have nothing to do with Islam.