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Less valuable than cattle: The status of women in Muslim society

Tuesday, 3 June 2014 - 6:45pm IST | Agency: dna
  • afghan-women-burqa AFP

All people are equal, as equal as the teeth of a comb. There is no claim of merit of an Arab over a non-Arab or a white over a black person: Only God-fearing people merit a preference with God. Thus men and women are equal.
– The last address of Prophet Mohammed to Muslims on the occasion of the Hajjat-ul-wida.

Islamic law or Sharia law is based on a combination of the teachings of the Quran, the Hadith (the teachings of Prophet Mohammad) and fatwas (the rulings of Islamic scholars). Sharia translates to ‘the path to a watering hole’. It dictates a way of life and encompasses all aspects of everyday life. The Hadith, or the teachings of the Prophet are a compilation by many people who knew him, and many were included after his death. No single verse of the Quran should be taken in isolation as it was revealed over a period of many years, a key point that was lost during the formulation of Sharia laws.

Human actions regulated by Sharia law fall under five categories: obligatory, recommended, permitted, disliked and forbidden. It is compulsory to perform obligatory acts. A forbidden action cannot be performed. Certain actions are recommended, while some are disliked and so should be abstained from. A permitted action is one that is neither encouraged nor discouraged. Most human actions fall in this last category. A point to remember is that new converts to Islam continued many tribal customs, which did not fall into ‘haraam’. Over a period of time, some of these acts acquired the status of permitted, and in some cases were even seen as obligatory. 

Sharia law has become widely criticised for its inhumane punishments, especially for women. According to Sharia Law, the witness of a woman is equal to half that of a man, “because of the deficiency of the woman’s mind”. In the Quran, this verse related to financial matters with regard to remembering and writing down matters of usury, lending and debtor dealings. This was to provide relief to a woman, given the physical demands and psychological effects on her because of menstruation, pregnancies, miscarriages, and child birth and bearing, so that the onus would not be on her as a single witness. Under the guise of helping women, these laws would eventually declare women mentally weak. 

The concept of the superiority of men over women stems from a verse in the Quran: “If you fear highhandedness from your wives, remind them [of the teaching of God], then ignore them when you go to bed, then hit them. If they obey you, you have no right to act against them. God is most high and great”. The word used is ‘dharb’, in the context of striking or smiting as well as separation or withdrawing or living apart. But it is interpreted as physical force and complete male domination over their spouses.

“Islamic law lends itself to a variety of interpretations that have far reaching implications for women’s human rights in Islam.” When Islam spread through the Arab states, the population was mostly tribal. The teachings of Islam had to be incorporated with tribal customs. Some scholars argue the practice of sex segregation and veiling of women are not mentioned in the Quran, but have been practised because it was not easy to improve the status of women in tribal practices. 

Scholars believe it is the interpretation of Islam by jurists and such traditions that have resulted in the low status of women. The tribes of 7th century Arabia resisted many of the rights granted to women since it was a radical change to their customs. As the centuries passed, these traditions became part of Islamic practice. For a far and forward thinking Prophet, it is surprising that the tribal customs that involved the subjugation of women were not forbidden from the beginning, as Islam preached the equality of men and women, considering their implications in the present world, especially as they are based on his teachings.

As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. While all the major religions were formed with the intention of helping mankind live better lives, they ignored the most basic aspect of human nature, the need for power. Islam was supposed to be for the masses till the end of days; however, the sacred text is ambiguous enough to legitimise multiple interpretations. The people who live their lives according to the guidance of the clerics subjugate, torture and kill women, believing it is their path to the kingdom of heaven. 

Similar practices have been prevalent throughout the world, from the rigid caste system of ancient India to the Crusades and the witch trials across Europe. The one aspect of this power humanity has experienced almost all throughout its history is the subjugation of women. Women are treated as the property of their male relatives. Historically, they were less valuable than cattle, now they are collateral damage. It is no wonder that cases like the stoning of Farzana Parveen and the death penalty for the woman in Sudan for marrying a Christian and converting to Christianity are so common.