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Women’s Rights in Islam (Part 2)

Written by: Hoda Team

Published on: September 23rd, 2019


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Continued from Part 1.

This is the third segment of the Youtube interview “Women’s Rights in Islam“, conducted by Sajid Sajidi with Shia scholar and thinker, Dr. Kazem Mesbah Moosavi, the founder and president of Islamic Iranian Centre of Imam Ali. Dr. Mesbah Moosavi is a graduate-researcher from Elmiyeh Seminary in Qom, Iran and received his PhD from McGill University. He has taught for many years as the professor of Islamic studies, theology and philosophy at Elmiyeh seminary, as well as in a number of universities, including McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. He has authored many published and unpublished articles in psychology, philosophy, and Islamic studies. There are hundreds of videos of his lectures available for researchers.


What about women’s rights of marriage?

A marriage is based upon two foundations, spouse’s consent as well as dowry. If one of the pillars is missing, the marriage is null. The wife, of course, is entitled to waive her dowry upon completion of the marriage, if she wills it. Accordingly, forced marriage in Islam has no validity. It is the basic right of a woman to be able to choose her partner.

When a couple moves in together after marriage, there is household work left to do. Who is responsible for them? Does Islam acknowledge the unpaid work of women done at home?

In contrast to non-Muslim’s understandings on this issue, from the beginning, Islam explicitly states that women have no obligation to do any chores at home. It is forbidden for a man to impose upon his wife to clean, cook, or to any other chores at home, including feeding and taking care of their baby.

 

I am sure this is a surprise for many people who think that Islam imposes all these chores on women.

Yes, that is right. When we talk about Islamic laws, we are not referring to books that are written in the modern era. Rather, we refer to the holy Quran and the Hadiths from 14 centuries ago. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) tried to lift such burdens from the wife’s shoulders. In today’s western society, we sometimes hear that both the man and woman work outside of their home, and when they return, it is up to the woman to do the cooking and cleaning. In Islam, none of these are mandatory for women. Women have no obligation in marriage except for marital intimacy, which is a mutual right incumbent upon both the man and woman.

Now you may ask that if it is not compulsory for women to tend to the children or the house, then whose responsibility for them? According to Islam, all of these are the responsibility of the husband. Even when the mother gives birth, it is the husband who has to take care of the baby from the time of birth. For example, he has to feed and nurse the baby, and change the diaper.

 

How can a man nurse a baby? It is the woman who can breastfeed.

That is a valid question and a critical point can be made here. Islam knows that men cannot feed the baby. Hence, Islam wants the man to be appreciative of his wife for her services. When a man cannot feed his baby, he would ask his wife, kissing her hand, pleading with her to help him in this regard. Islam knows that women have a compassionate heart and would not be indifferent to her crying child. She would not say, “I am not going to do anything.” In this way, Islam promotes kindness, mercy, and compassion. Additionally, Islam lightens the burden from the wife’s shoulder, ensuring that she does not feel obliged to do everything while the husband is free to play or in today’s society, watch TV. Islam wants the man to appreciate his wife in such a way that when she does something, the husband would say, “Thank you for doing this voluntarily.”

 

Could you please elaborate on what stance Islam has on the unpaid works of women at home?

Sociologists discuss unpaid works of women, meaning women who work without a salary at home, a concept which stemmed from Marxism. Conversely, the men who work outside make increasingly more money. If the marriage ever comes to a divorce, the woman is left with no capital while the man owns all this income. Now Marxism consideration of unpaid work of women is not something novel. Islam has deliberated it from before. Islam says that if a woman works at home, she could ask to be paid for it. She can request her husband to split his income with her for the tasks that she does. Moreover, she can set her salary and ask for more should she want to be compensated for the time spent on the children or other house chores. So Islam already acknowledged unpaid work of women from early on.

More than a millennium after Islam, on October 24th, 2013, the United Nations acknowledged the unpaid works of women. According to a United Nations independent expert, cooking, cleaning and caring for children and the elderly should be a social and collective responsibility, rather than falling entirely upon the woman. She warns that unpaid care that is not shared ingrains poverty and social exclusion for women.

“I call on States to recognize unpaid care work as a major human rights issue,” UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty, Magdalena Sepúlveda, told the UN General Assembly’s main social, humanitarian and cultural body (Third Committee) in New York. “Unpaid care work is at the foundation of all our societies, and crucial for economic growth and social development,” she noted. “However, it has been mostly overlooked or taken for granted by policy makers. This has an enormous impact on women’s poverty and their enjoyment of rights – as they do the majority of unpaid care.”

According to UN News Centre,  Ms. Sepúlveda, who is among a host of independent experts at UN Headquarters this month to brief the Committee, noted that women in developed and developing countries work longer hours than men when unpaid work is taken into account, but receive lower earnings and less recognition (UN News Centre).

As far as Islamic laws and Sharia are concerned, women are not obliged to do the chores at home; they may ask for compensation from the husband for all the tasks they have chosen to do at home.

The family environment that we see today is more like a competitive environment. Everyone is asking for their rights and the opposing party is refusing to honor them. So what sort of environment does Islam endorse within the house?

Islam is promoting two things. One is regarding its legal aspect. Here, Islam is very adamant, saying: “Man has no right to impose upon his wife any chores at home.” This is a very strict one. Yet at the same time, Islam is trying to facilitate a peaceful and loving environment, encouraging both the man and woman to forgive and reach out to each other with love and mercy. The holy Quran states in chapter 30, verse 21, “And among His signs is this, that He created for you mates from among yourselves, that you may dwell in tranquility with them, and He has put love and mercy between your hearts. Verily in that are signs for those who reflect.” Thus, family foundations should be based upon love and mercy.

Islam attempts to illustrate that although tending to the house is not a woman’s responsibility, it is our moral obligation to help each other. According to Islam, if a stranger needs help, we must assist them, more so for one’s life partner. There must be an environment of peace, love and mercy within the family. For example, when the Quran states, “Compete each other in doing good,” when it comes to cooking, both the man and woman should race each other in preparing the food. The same goes for cleaning or doing the laundry; they should compete in doing the chores. Therefore, cooperation in completing house works in the hopes of gaining more rewards from God should be the goal.

In a family environment, the woman does not sit and demand, “I am not going to touch anything, you do everything while I just watch!” Such behaviour is not in accordance with Islamic teachings. Islam does not support indifference towards people’s affections and needs. The environment which Islam is calling for is one which involves competition in doing good deeds in order to receive God’s satisfaction and gain more rewards from Him. In short, in a family based upon Islamic values, it is both cooperation and the willingness to assist one’s partner that facilitates family warmth.

 

How does Islam view women working outside the house?

Islam attempts to ensure financial security for women; however, working is not considered an obligation for them. Women should not have to deal with the stress of having an occupation and the responsibility of paying the bills. Islam wants women to feel peace because when a woman is at peace, she can transfer her tranquility to the family and thus foster love and calmness to the rest. The purpose of marriage is to reach tranquility, as we have quoted the Quran earlier, saying that marriage is there to bring about tranquility. From an Islamic perspective, if a woman works, she does not have to share her income with her husband. According to Islamic Jurisprudence, the man has to work and continue to support his family and spend his income on his wife, children, and parents. However, if a woman works, she can keep the income for herself.

We have discussed women’s right of marriage. A related issue would be divorce. Do women have the right to divorce?

In history, many countries in Europe had prohibited divorce, as it is not permitted by the Catholic Church. Sometimes citizens travelled to other jurisdictions in order to obtain a divorce. No Catholic Church will remarry divorced persons, unless they previously have their marriage annulled, which is only possible in certain circumstances.

According to Helena Hojtczck, in her article regarding British women’s emancipation, “Prior to 1670, people could only get a divorce if they could prove to the ecclesiastical courts that their marriage never happened legally in the first place. The courts followed canon (religious) law. The normal reasons for divorce were insanity, heresy, consanguinity and impotence.” She holds that “a man could get a divorce if his wife was unfaithful, even just once. No woman could get a divorce even if her husband had a different woman each night AND kept a string of mistresses. She had also to prove that he was guilty of incest, bigamy or ‘unnatural vice (www.historyofwomen.org).'”

Although it is not easy, in Islam, it is permissible to divorce. According to Islamic law and marital jurisprudence, divorce is permissible in urgent cases where the couple cannot continue to have a peaceful relationship with one another. Given that women are often emotional and may be more prone to considering divorce, Islam makes the process of divorce difficult. However, at the time of marriage when the contracts are being made, to some extent the bride can claim the right for divorce. At that time, the bride can tell her future husband that she accepts the marriage provided that he gives her the authority to act on her divorce if the husband is abusive, abandons her, doesn’t pay her expenses, or any other condition that she may consider as misconduct.

So according to this law, which is approved by all Islamic jurisprudence authorities, a woman may ask for the right of divorce at the commencement of the marriage. Of course, this issue is complicated and encompasses many other details which we may cover during another time.

What about the right for education? Are women permitted to educate themselves?

Unfortunately, women were not very lucky in history; they were denied even the right for education. Researchers tackling women’s literacy during the Middle Ages in Europe speak of women during that era. They hold that:
Women were considered to be inferior to men and were not formally educated. It was common for women to be unable to read and write in their own language. Even though some were fortunate enough to be taught how to read, some were still unable to write. Women were not usually taught how to read Latin, the language of male scholars and people of the Church, who also happened to be male. In the later Middle Ages, even most nuns were not able to learn Latin. (http://csis.pace.edu/grendel/WS1/object.html)

This was the case for European women during the middle ages. In contrast, Islam from the very beginning acknowledged the right of women to have an education. During the period of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), there were many educated notable ladies. For instance, Bibi Fatima (PBUH), the Prophet’s daughter, would respond to people’s questions and teach them. We have a hadith from Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) that says, “Seeking knowledge is the responsibility of both men and women.” He also said, “Seek knowledge from cradle to the grave.” Here, he does not exclude women. That is why lady Fatimah (PBUH), made herself available to educate women who were interested to advance in their knowledge.  As such, the right of studying and learning has been approved by Islam.

Allow me to add another point here. In certain cases, receiving an education and gaining knowledge could be obligatory for both men and women. It depends upon the needs of a society. If a community requires female physicians, it would be an obligation for women who have the means, to become a physician. If a woman is a surgeon, and people are in need of a surgery with their lives in danger, she must perform the job.

Now going back to education, women’s rights for education has been approved by Islam 14 centuries ago. On the contrary, the Bible indirectly discourages women obtain an education. It is mentioned in the Bible that if a woman has a question, she has to ask her husband only, “Because man has been created in the image of God, not woman” (Genesis Chapter 1, Verse 27).

 

Another issue is the right of women to vote. Does Islam acknowledge the right to vote?

From inception, Islam has given women the right to vote. For example, when the Prophet appointed his successor, he asked all the believers, both men and women to pay their allegiance to the successor. The men did so by shaking hands with the Imam. As physical contact between opposite genders is not permitted in Islam, a bowl of water would be placed for females where the women would place their hands in with the Imam as a sign of their approval. In comparison to Europe, women had no right to vote until the 20th century. In Canada, women got their right to vote in the 1960s, about 50 years ago! On the federal level, the vote was first given to the relatives of enlisted men in 1917. In 1918, it was then broadened to include most women. Other provinces followed suit by 1922, with the exception of Québec, where women were denied to vote until 1940. It was not until the 1960s, where the First Nations women received the right to vote (http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en).

 

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