BEFORE the advent of Islam the position of women was not enviable, neither in Arabia nor in other parts of the world. In many of the older cultures women were looked down upon and treated as inferior beings.
The position was much the same in cultures that have made significant contributions to the intellectual and artistic wealth of mankind. In the ancient Greek civilisation a woman had almost the status of a slave: belonging to the father in her childhood, to the husband in adulthood and as a widow to her sons.
In the flourishing civilisation of ancient Rome too fathers and husbands had full control over their daughters and wives. Even in the Jewish and Christian religions — as they developed subsequently — the woman was supposed to be a source of pollution while some Hindu texts also considered women helplessly dependent on men.
Pre-Islamic Arabs often indulged in infanticide of girls, in whom they normally took no pride. To many of them women were not companions who participated fully in the lives of their husbands but merely objects of pleasure or slaves to carry out their commands. Women had no right to personal property and no safeguards against ill-treatment by their menfolk.
The first thing that Islam did was to declare that there is genuine equality between the sexes and no people or community could build upon the fabric of life when their mutual relations were not rightly ordered. Men must learn to treat women with respect and consideration as well as a sense of justice in economic and social relations.
As women have been the ‘weaker’ sex throughout history, men have been especially enjoined to see that they receive their due rights. In the final sermon before his passing the Holy Prophet (PBUH) said, “…He is the best of believers (before God) who is courteous and treats his dependents gently. …” The Prophet allowed women free disposal of their property and improved their position with regard to inheritance.
The laws of Islam cover a wide range of freedoms for women. These include the freedom for widows to remarry and to divorce the husband under certain conditions. This was aimed at discouraging slander and unpleasantness and to ensure a proper standard of social conduct between men and women. Says the Quran (2:229) “…The parties should either hold together on equitable terms or separate with kindness. …”
Islam also assured women of some economic independence through the right to inherit property, the obligation on the part of the husband to pay her the dower (mehr) at the time of the marriage and, last but not the least, by making the husband responsible for her maintenance.
Compassion for all God’s creatures is the basis of decent, civilised and God-fearing life in Islam. Any attempt by fanatical Muslims or prejudicial and ignorant non-Muslims to eliminate this essential element from the message of Islam is perhaps the biggest danger that the religion faces.
For example, some years ago a senator stunned the upper house, the nation and indeed the world when he reportedly defended as “part of our culture” the alleged burying alive of five women in Balochistan for wishing to marry of their free will.
Political life in Muslim states has been disfigured by dictatorial regimes, frequent coups d’état, political murders and, not infrequently, insensitiveness to the interests of all segments of society. Take, for instance, the banning of women voters from casting their ballots in certain areas of the country in the recent general elections.
It is well-known that the conservative clergy and sometimes genuinely misled scholars have taken the view that women should have no freedom and should not be permitted to participate in the life of a nation. In this case not only religious and sectarian parties but even mainstream parties, who will soon take over the reins of governance in the country, reportedly supported the decision of disenfranchising women voters.
Nearly one half of the population of the world consists of women. It is therefore necessary that any religion or social theory that concerns itself with the good of mankind should also be concerned with the welfare, rights and progress of women.
Islam has laid down in most social, economic and other matters the broad principles which should govern the relations of individuals and groups. If the Holy Prophet had proclaimed for women of the seventh century the kind of freedom which they enjoy today and the full participation which they have in national life, it is doubtful if it would have had a vivid impact or been understood at the time.
At the same time Islam indicated clearly enough the direction of advance and left it to the intelligence of its interpreters and scholars to redefine the position of women in the evolving pattern of society through later centuries. There is nothing in Islam or Muslim history to suggest that it is averse to change.
In fact the ease with which Muslim societies adapted themselves to new material and psychological conditions shows that they always possessed this adaptability.