Farhan Iqbal, Canada
A lot of discussions take place nowadays about gender equality in Islam. Much is criticized in Islam regarding the treatment of the genders. Quranic verses and Ahadith are pointed out where the tone in which the two genders are addressed is different and in cases like inheritance or giving testimony, the practical teaching is pointed out to be differentiating between the genders. In this article, I will explore these issues in a broad light, assessing what the Islamic teachings regarding men and women are, without going into any specific commandments, phrases, or teachings. In essence, I will address the general question: Does Islam discriminate against women or men in its teachings?
Ex-Muslims and atheists, particularly, raise the allegation that Islam discriminates against women, and they have done so in numerous online posts, YouTube videos, and podcasts. In fact, this is one of their main points of contention regarding Islam.
It should be clear from the outset, the Islam champions the equality of men and women. The Fifth Caliph, His Holiness Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba) unequivocally states in light of Qur’anic teachings,
‘where the Qur’an says “created therefrom its mate” it signifies that Allah Ta’alah [God the Exalted] has made men and women in the same way and it cannot be said that one is dominant over the other.’[i]
Why are rights sought from men?
It is indeed strange to see that some women who seek such rights are asking mento grant such rights. Commenting on this, His Holiness (aba) once said:
‘Further, another characteristic of this era, is that women have sought their rights from men and, as a result, some men have also formed groups in order to promote the rights of women. However, Ahmadi women should ask themselves that, who are men to bestow rights upon them when their Creator, Allah the Almighty, has Himself bestowed upon them all that they need and desire? They should understand that Allah has granted them true equality based on logic and wisdom. Indeed, the way in which women have been described in the Holy Qur’an, and the way in which it has established their rights, is completely unique and not found in any other religious scripture.[ii]
What is equality?’
In order to understand this issue, we also have to determine what it really means to be equal? Are we talking about absolute equality when it comes to gender relations? If we are talking about absolute equality, it must be clear that many (perhaps, all) atheists, secularists, and feminists do notpropose absolute equality of genders. Virtually everyone concedes that the two genders need to be treated differently in at least some life activities. Take sports for instance. If absolute equality was the goal in sports, we would be having tournaments with men and women playing together or against each other. But this is not the case at all, as sex verification tests take place to ensure there is no inequalityby having a man pretending to be a woman playing in a given sport. Here, “equality” would be defined as women playing against women for a level-playing field. Had equality been absolute, such tests would not have existed. Their existence shows that all of us are agreed that nature has given different tendencies, aptitudes, strengths and personalities, to men and women.
Now, let us take a more specific example that is also related to sports: Physical strength. In this regard, it would be wrong to say that all men are stronger than women, but it would be correct to say that men in general are stronger than women, given that the term “strength” here is being used to refer to physiological, muscular strength and not to other kinds of strengths like dealing with trauma, surviving illness, etc. where women are in fact stronger. Hence, if men entered into sports competitions against women, they would have an unfair advantage. The issue is not then one of gender equality in the absolute sense. Instead, it is an issue of gender equality in the best sense.
What that means is that it must be acknowledged that each gender has strengths and weaknesses that may or may not overlap. In certain respects, one gender has an advantage over the other, while in other respects, the other gender has the advantage. As one psychiatrist, Dr. Neel Burton, puts it, ‘biological advantages and disadvantages are more or less equally distributed between the sexes.’[iii] In spite of these differences, God declares in the Holy Quran:
وَ مَنۡ یَّعۡمَلۡ مِنَ الصّٰلِحٰتِ مِنۡ ذَکَرٍ اَوۡ اُنۡثٰی وَ ہُوَ مُؤۡمِنٌ فَاُولٰٓئِکَ یَدۡخُلُوۡنَ الۡجَنَّۃَ وَ لَا یُظۡلَمُوۡنَ نَقِیۡرًا
‘But whoso does good works, whether male or female, and is a believer, such shall enter Heaven, and shall not be wronged even as much as the little hollow in the back of a date-stone’ [4:125]
In other words, as far as one’s spirituality and relationship with God is concerned, there is indeed absolute equality between the genders.
His Holiness (aba) explains:
‘Whether due to a superiority complex or an inferiority complex, at times, men have considered themselves to be intrinsically different to women or women have considered themselves inherently different to men. However, the Holy Qur’an has categorically refuted this concept by saying that men and women are of the same kind. It has clarified that men and women have the same feelings and emotions, similarly as each man will be accountable before Allah for his deeds, so will each woman also be held accountable for her acts before God.’[iv]
Understanding Gender Roles
What many see as inequality between the genders in Islam is actually equality in the best form. Due to the fact that women are born with the ability to give birth to children, and are naturally better equipped to care for a newborn’s needs, Islam has assigned them a more central role in terms of the upbringing of children. This does not mean that men do not have any role in this regard. It only means that the father has a supportive role while the mother has the primary role and responsibility in taking care of young children.
Conversely, Islam assigns the role of supporting the family financially on the husband/father, and the husband bears the heavy responsibility of ensuring that the family is well taken care of. This is laid out in the following verse of the Quran:
وَ لَہُنَّ مِثۡلُ الَّذِیۡ عَلَیۡہِنَّ بِالۡمَعۡرُوۡفِ ۪ وَ لِلرِّجَالِ عَلَیۡہِنَّ دَرَجَۃٌ ؕ وَ اللّٰہُ عَزِیۡزٌ حَکِیۡمٌ
Explaining this verse, the Fourth Caliph Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad (rh) writes, ‘And they (the women) have rights similar and equal to those (of men) over them in equity; (i.e., for women, there are exactly equal rights as for men, as men have rights upon women. There is thus total equality and there is no difference whatsoever between the fundamental human rights of women and men.) But men have a degree of advantage over them. And Allah is Mighty and Wise’ [2:229].[v] What is that advantage? That is in terms of their responsibility as breadwinners, as the Quran says, ‘Men are guardians over women because Allah has made some of them excel others, and because they (men) spend of their wealth’ [4:35]. This teaching does not give any special privileges or rights to men as their responsibilities are greater. If anything, this teaching seems to be harsher for men, and makes life easier and more convenient for women.
Regardless, in no way does Islam determine that the specification of responsibilities is a means for determining superiority or inferiority between genders, as His Holiness (aba) elaborates,
‘Both men and women have been given differing roles, however, this should not be misunderstood to mean that women are incapable of understanding the responsibilities placed upon men. This idea of differing responsibilities is entirely normal and according to nature. Even amongst men, there are differences that exist, whereby people have differing skill-sets and abilities. For instance, some men are trained as doctors, others become engineers, teachers, scientists or a range of other professions and jobs. Yet, no matter how skilled a doctor is, he is not superior to the other professions and in other fields as well and vice versa.’[vi]
Islam grant true equality
Not only has Islam brought to light teachings on gender equality, it has championed them in every respect. For example, at the time of Nikah [the Islamic marriage ceremony] it is incumbent upon the man to give a fair dowry to his wife. Further to that, whereas the rights to inheritance for non-Muslim women is a relatively new concept, it was a right explained by Islam 1400 years ago. Yet, even further to any sort of monetary equality is equality with regards to a commodity which is far greater, as His Holiness (aba) states,
‘at a time when girls were generally deprived of education, Islam championed their right to learning and categorically stated that every girl should be provided education and the means to better herself.’
But perhaps the greatest beauty of Islam’s teachings on gender equality is in the finer matters; the intricacies of it’s teachings. His Holiness (aba) elaborates,
‘Islam has even guided us on the smallest matters and turned our attention towards true equality in all matters. For example, Islam teaches that if a mother is breastfeeding her child, it is for both her and her husband to decide together when is the right time to transition away from breastfeeding. No other religion has guided its followers and enlightened them in the way that Islam has.’[vii]
Who serves whom?
Further to its establishment of gender equality, the Holy Qur’an, in fact, places an esteemed responsibility upon men to provide for, and take care of women to every extent of their ability. It is stated in the Holy Qur’an:
وَ عَلَی الۡمَوۡلُوۡدِ لَہٗ رِزۡقُہُنَّ وَ کِسۡوَتُہُنَّ بِالۡمَعۡرُوۡفِ
That is, it is the responsibility of the husband to provide allthe needs of his wife in terms of clothing, food, welfare, etc.. The Promised Messiah (as) elaborates that while the man has been bestowed certain abilities that lay this responsibility on him, he is also taught to treat his wife with the utmost kindness. He writes:
‘The Holy Qur’an enjoins that if a man has given his wife a mountain of gold as a gesture of his affection and kindness, he is not supposed to take it back in case of divorce. This shows the respect and honour Islam gives to a woman; in fact, men are in certain respects like their servants. They have been commanded in the Holy Qur’an:
وَ عَاشِرُوۡہُنَّ بِالۡمَعۡرُوۡفِ
i.e., consort with your wives in such a manner that every reasonable person can see how kind and gentle you are to your wife.’[viii]
In light of this quotation, it can easily be deduced that the Promised Messiah (as) is essentially arguing that the biological differences between men and women give them certain advantages and disadvantages over the other gender, not unlike what biologists and psychologists already acknowledge. However, at the end of the day, those advantages and disadvantages even out and each is treated equally, in the best possible sense.
It is of interest to note that the Promised Messiah (as) has pointed out that the responsibility that Islam lays on the husband is so heavy that it makes him like a servant of his wife. What greater honour could Islam have given to women? Which religion or philosophy places the woman on such a high pedestal? The original wording of the Promised Messiah (as) is:
اس سے ظاہر ہے کہ اسلام میں عورتوں کی کس قدر عزت کی گئی ہے ایک طور سے تو مردوں کو عورتوں کا نوکر ٹھہرایا گیا ہے
In other words, this teaching of Islam shows the tremendous amount of respect and dignity that is granted to women in Islam. In one way, the men are taught to be like servants of women. If anything, this teaching can be argued to have placed men at a disadvantage, a far cry from suggesting that women are being mistreated here. In essence, Islam respects the different capacities and abilities of men and women, and provides them roles that are best suited for them.
The man’s role then is to be the breadwinner and provider of the family, while the woman’s role is to ensure the family unit is strengthened and children are brought up in the best environment. These are the primary roles of men and women, which of course does not mean that their other roles should be completely dismissed. As their primary roles are being fulfilled, women can work in a profession of their choice if they wish to earn a personal income. Similarly, men should play their part in the proper upbringing of children and providing their family the best treatment, as the Holy Prophet (sa) said:
‘The best among you is the one who is best in treatment of his family’
About the Author: Imam Farhan Iqbal is a missionary of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. He received his degree in Islamic Theology and Comparative Religions in July 2010 from Jamia Ahmadiyya Canada (The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community’s training seminary for missionaries.). He has served as an Imam for the Baitul Islam Mosque in Vaughan, Canada, for 5 years. He is currently serving as Imam of the Baitun Naseer Mosque, Ottawa, Canada. Imam Farhan has represented the Community in various interfaith events, radio programs discussing various matters of faith, and is co-host of the podcast The Conviction Project. He has also hosted several live and recorded programs on MTA (Muslim Television Ahmadiyya). He has co-authored 3 books, namely, Understanding Islam, The Quest of a Curious Muslim and With Love to Muhammadsa, the Khatam-un-Nabiyin.
[v]Islam’s Response to Contemporary Issues, pages 93-94
[viii]Ibid, pages 315-316