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