Thursday, November 30, 2006
  Men and Women in Islam: Complementary or Equal?
Since the election of Ingrid Mattson to the presidency of the Islamic Society of North America there has been a lot of discussion in some Muslim circles about her contention that men and women are seen as completmentary in Islam, not equal. While she draws a mild line between the two, her basic contention is that men and women aren't alike, they have different roles to play in society, the family, etc.

This is fine as far as biology goes -- yup, the women birth the babies, the men hold their hands through it. Yup, men have greater upper body strength, while women have greater lower body strength.

But once you get past reproductive and muscular systems and into the intellectual, the emotional, spheres of operation (inside or outside the home) we rapidly plunge into a abyss where biology is far from determinative and nurture plays as much a role as nature, where women and men,, from my observations, really aren't that different. Where the differences within each gender are far greater than the differences between the genders.

Anyway, here are some of my thoughts about gender equality and gender complemntariness within Islam:

I see the Qur'an as aiming towards equality, much as it aimed toward the abolishing of slavery without getting there. (Note: the latter is generally accepted by the Muslim masses while the former is not, but I see them as being the same.)

We have the famous verse 33:35 (to believing men and believeing women, to devout men and devout women, to men who pray and women who pray, to men who fast and women who fast, etc. Allah has prepared a goodly reward.) which sets up spiritual and mundane religious equality between men and women. Same duties, same values/ethics, same rewards.

We have verses which say, "to men a share of what they earn, and to women a share of what they earn" (referring to the fact that men and women both need to pay charity out of their money.)

We have verses which describe muslim men and women as protecting friends of one another.

We have verses which describe muslim spouses as protecting garments for one another.

Those verses are balanced by others which show a lack of equality - the inheritance regulations, the modesty regulations, the one about getting two women witnesses, and so on.

I see a qualitative difference between these verses. The first set speaks to theory, to the ideal of what men and women are supposed to be. The latter one speaks to the conditions on the ground in 7th century Arabia and practical solutions to problems facing that community in particular.

I think that it makes sense that Islam is pragmatic and acknowledges on the ground realities, but it is clear to me that in God's eyes we are all the same.

The question is, as societies change, shouldn't the details of that pragmatic approach also change? If women can no longer expect to have a right over their brother's inheritance should they need it, then should they still get a smaller portion? If women as a group are now as sexually aggressive as men, should men start being a bit more modest in how they dress (say on the sporting ground or at the beach)?

I think so. The ideal does not change, but the consessions to practicality may.

As far as complementary roles go - I think we go way overboard in this, turning what might have some potential benefits in certain circumstances (division of labor within the family for instance) into a downright evil.

People like to see things in black and white, but reality is always, always gray. Thus we like to divide humanity into men and women, rational and emotional, intellectual and instinctive, dealing with the outer world and dealing with the inner world.

Of course, the reality is far, far more complex than that. Men and women both are emotional creatures. We are both rational creatures as well. We all have intellectual, artistic, inner and outer interests. To say that men are one and women are the other is simply to do injustice to both men and women, and to say something that is patently false. We can all observe with our own eyes, extremely intellectual women and extremely non-intellectual men. We can see men expressing deep emotions (whether it be rage, or sadness at the loss of a parent, love and joy at the shenanigans of a child, etc, etc, etc) and women being icy cold (like that NC woman who drowned her boys because her boyfriend didn't want to be bothered by them!) Claims that women aren't interested in certain topics are clearly wrong, as women, when given the chance, have shown they are interested in everything, whether it be politics, business, science, art, etc, etc, etc.

Generally speaking, I believe that the full spectrum of personality, interests, and capabilities is present in both genders and (as said above) that the differences between the genders are far smaller than the differences within the genders.

In order to prop up false oppositions in their depiction of men and women and the roles that they would like to assign men and women in greater society and the family, people say all sorts of ridiculous things like when a woman's pregnant she can't work. Poppycock! Women have forever been working up till the moment they go into labor, (mostly in backbreaking field work or home chores like hand washing laundry...). Similarly we hear ridiculous claims about women not being able to function normally during their periods. Again, poppycock! The vast majority of women in the work force have demonstrated that women can and do function perfectly well during their periods.

So, as you can probably see, I don't buy into a priori complementarity between men and women.

At the same time, I believe that division of labor can at times be useful.
Especially within the family. By this I do not mean, women cook and men sit around waiting to be served. (I was appalled at a family camp I recently attended where one of the women was bragging how she had taught her daughter to serve her son - to heat him up food and bring it to him when he got home from school. What's wrong with him that he can't heat up his own plate of food in the microwave!!) Nor do I mean that men do the repairs and the women pretend not to be able to do things. (I once was advised by someone well-intentioned not to be so competent around the house, because if I did, my husband would end up doing nothing. Ha ha, fat chance that! I may fix the wiring and replace the ceiling fans, etc as needed, but he did his fair share of the diaper changing, dish washing, etc.)

By this I mean that it is a good idea to have a family set up where one parent is home with young children and the other is the primary breadwinner.
I do not think it has to necessarily be women who are at home, although I acknowledge that in certain aspects it is easier (such as nursing, which can be accomplished even if the woman is not home during the day, but that takes a lot of dedication).

But when people take that and turn it into the women's role is only to be a mother and a wife, and to observe the pillars of Islam (praying, fasting, etc), I think we have gone way too far. Women are not exempted from social responsibility - we have a duty to stand up for justice, to help those in need, to be involved politically, socially, and so on. We cannot do so if we are exclusively focused on our family.

Further, if women were only to stay at home, they why would there be verses about us earning money (and why would the Prophet's wives have earned money and then used their earnings for charity?) If women weren't out in society and involved with people, how could Hafsa have advised the Prophet regarding the pilgrimage that was cancelled midway and how to mollify his followers who he was afraid would rebel and go ahead with the Pilgrimage even though he had just made an agreement not to? If women were only to be interested in the home and family, how could a quarter of our hadith have come through Aishah? How could Nusaiba have defended the Prophet so brilliantly if she hadn't been out practicing with a sword? How could Aisah have led an army against Ali if she had no knowledge of warfare, tactics, military organization, etc. Why would the Prophet have said, do not prevent the handmaids of Allah from coming to the masjid, and allowed them to make itikaf in his masjid (like a hermitage in the mosque), leaving their homes for days and days during Ramadan? Why would he have ordered a woman to lead prayers, if our prayers in public spaces really are optional, and we are always to follow the men?

It's pretty clear to me that Islam does not intend vast gender separation or differentiation. It acknowledges some on the ground practicalities, without, I believe, insisting upon one set solution to those issues, especially as societies morph.

Islam, Feminism
I liked your write-up, its well researched and thought provoking.
wow. This is an awesome piece and I found myself just nodding right along with everything you said.

I can't add anything else to the discussion :) an awesome perspective and much needed discussion!
Well written and completely logical. Its a sorry state of affairs that men seem to have been given the upper hand not only in Islamic societies but in many cultures around the world. I just hope that the men who read your column are not so immature, self-centered and used to being considered as the 'nobler and more able sex', to not understand the clear logic portrayed.
I loved your article! Subhana Allah I was a bit confused about certain things in the women role in islam issue and alhamdullah your article made things clear for me.
I just had a small comment. When you said:
"the inheritance regulations, the modesty regulations, the one about getting two women witnesses, and so on.
I see a qualitative difference between these verses. The first set speaks to theory, to the ideal of what men and women are supposed to be. The latter one speaks to the conditions on the ground in 7th century Arabia and practical solutions to problems facing that community in particular."

I just wanted to comment on this point. I have studied some of the fiqh laws regarding this issue and actually the things you stated above as being a part of the condition in the 7th century Arabia are actually a part of Islam and they are obligations just like hijab and all that.

However, they do not aim to limit the freedom of women in Islam. As you mentioned, women are free to do whatever they want exactly like men. They can even participate in wars. However, these things will always remain optional for women but obligatory for men because of the different body abilities and all that. So, if a woman does choose to get a job, her earnings remain hers and hers only and she's not obliged to spend any of her money on her family and even her own life expenses. On the other hand, a man is obliged to take care of the life expenses of his family and his wife even if she's richer than him. That's why when it comes to heritage in some (not all) cases, women get a smaller share.

I hope I made that clear. Again thanks for posting your thoughts, I really have enjoyed reading them.
Salaam Alaikum,

I would like to comment on what Mrs. Alia'a have stated in her comments with all respects to you.

The Financial Rights of the Wife

The points outlined here are not recommendations but limits according to law, beyond which a stingy husband may not spend less.

1. The husband is obliged to provide his wife's sustenance day by day. He must provide her with the staples according to what is customary in the town where they reside. He must also pay for the expense for its preparation.

2. He must provide her with those things necessary for personal hygiene.

3. He must provide for the expense related to childbirth.

4. He is not obligated but recommended to pay for doctor's fees, medicine, cosmetics, etc.

5. He is obliged to clothe his wife in what is customary in the town to be worn by Muslim ladies.

6. The husband is obliged to house his wife in lodgings of the same quality as other women of her status. (Condensed from Reliance of the Traveler, pps. 542-545)

Conditions that Entitle a Wife to Support

The husband is only obliged to support his wife when she gives herself to him or offers to, meaning she allows him full enjoyment of her person and does not refuse him sex at any time of the night or day (without reason). She is not entitled to support from her husband when:

1. she is rebellious (meaning when she does not obey him) even for a moment;

2. she travels without his permission, or with his permission but for one of her own needs;

3. she assumes ihram for Hajj or 'Umra;

4. or when she performs a voluntary fast without her husband's permission. (Reliance, m11.9, pg. 545)

So much more can be written on this subject but it is too vast to deal with each and every legal point in this article. In closing, Allah, the Most High has established his preferences with respect to the male and the female, and the husband and the wife. The Qur'an and Sunnah have expounded on the rights and duties of the husband and the wife and the fuqaha (learned doctors of law) have worked out the fine details on the various subjects and issues. Close adherence to the Shariah of Islam will insure the best possible chance to secure a balanced marriage relationship, while enforcement of the Shariah when there is transgression will, insha Allah, insure justice.

Hazrat Aisha, may Allah be pleased with her, was the daughter of Hazrat Abu Bakr, may Allah be pleased with him, and the wife of the Prophet, (pbuh). The Holy Last Messenger loved her very much and it was in her house that he returned back to Allah. Unfortunately, when Hazrat Aisha got involved in the politics of the time, it ended in tragedy, with the death of thousands of Muslims at the Battle of the Camel. After the battle, Hazrat Ali sent her a letter: "Hereafter: You have stepped out of your house for a service from which you are exempted (which was not your responsibility). You, in your view are desirous of reformation of Ummah. Please explain what connection women have with forming armies. According to your conception, you are demanding the retribution of Usman's blood, although he belongs to Bani Umayya and you come from Bani Taim ibn-i-Murrah. I venture to say on oath that the person who has persuaded you for this venture and has pulled you out of the house is the biggest sinner. As such Oh Aisha! Fear Allah, go back to your house and stay behind the curtain. Wa sallam. (Al-Imamat wal-Siyasah, vol. 1, p. 55, reported in, Letters of Hazrat Ali Murtaza, ra, by M. Ayub Khan, p. 26)
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Progressive Muslim, feminist, mom, writer, mystic, lover of the universe and Doug Schmidt, cellist, theologian and imam.

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