Are men and women equal in Islam?

So I finished reading Khan’s book that I have been talking about for a week. Strange as it may sound, I agree with him on many points. But there are also areas in his book where he completely disappointed me.

He is an old man, and a South Asian Muslim which means his views are highly predictable. But I was looking for some change. Never mind!

Where I agree him is that women and men are physiologically different (no rocket science there!) and that this difference can also affect their emotions. Men are aggressive, women are calmer; men are physically stronger than women; women can bear more trauma and have higher pain threshold; men can’t take mental stress as well as women can who are biologically programmed to give birth and look after the young with little food and sleep. Men are generally better at Mathematics whereas women are linguistically superior (just a thought – if women are linguistically superior, shouldn’t it be us interpreting what God tries to say?).

But I wish Khan had pointed out all this. He keeps on harping that men are stronger and women are weaker; and that women “fall prey to emotion” and so “must be aware of her natural shortcomings.” Page after page, Khan asks women (who are “liable to err because they are more emotional by nature” – p. 130) to “stay at home” which is their domain but where the husband is the “leader” and trains women to behave properly.

Another revelation that I suddenly had by reading Khan is that I have finally figured out the disparity between the common but contradictory Muslim phrases: “Men and women are equal in Islam” but that “men are more equal than women.”

According to Islam men and women are equal in religion, but not in the sociological, economic and political spheres. This calls for lengthy future discussions on every aspect and I like to come to my own conclusions through Quran, hadith and sunnah.

Inshallah I hope to discuss every aspect in detail together with you but here I want to point out very briefly what I mean in the above paragraph. From a single verse in the Quran, it is clear that Muslim men and women are completely equal in religion:

For Muslim men and women, for believing men and women, for devout men and women, for true men and women, for men and women who are patient and constant, for men and women who humble themselves, for men and women who give in Charity, for men and women who fast (and deny themselves), for men and women who guard their chastity, and for men and women who engage much in Allah’s praise, for them has Allah prepared forgiveness and great reward. (Yusuf Ali’s translation of 33:35).

All these edicts relate to religion. Sociological, economic and political areas include:

  • Marriage, divorce and remarriage
  • Leadership in religion and politics
  • Inheritance
  • Witness in a court of law
  • Dowry
  • Travel, business and work
  • Dress and clothing

In these areas, Shariah gives men greater rights and choice than it gives to women. However, this is not always supported by Quran and hadith and if God wills it, I will talk about these issues at some point.  From my study of Islam (which has taken me longer than I expected!) so far (I am open to change of mind), I gather from the practical application of Quran and hadith that the rights Muslim men and women were given by Islam were standard so, in some cases they were greater than those enjoyed by some heathen Arab tribes and in other cases they were lesser than the ones enjoyed by some other tribes. Before Islam, laws, traditions and practices varied from one tribe to the other, but after Islam every Muslim tribe had to follow the same laws and rules. This may be a reason why not every heathen woman was willing to accept Islam because in the case of powerful Arab women the rights offered by Islam were lesser than they were already enjoying in their tribe.

Good news is that we are equal in religion, which is the non-negotiable and unchanging part of any faith! The other areas are not static and change, or should change with time (they have little bearing on one’s faith and didn’t arise out of religion to begin with), so we can at least negotiate  rights and choices in those areas without feeling afraid of entering disbelief. That is the area cut out for Muslim feminists.

What do you think?

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28 thoughts on “Are men and women equal in Islam?

  1. mariam says:

    salam, 🙂
    “after Islam every Muslim tribe had to follow the same laws and rules. This may be a reason why not every heathen woman was willing to accept Islam because in the case of powerful Arab women the rights offered by Islam were lesser than they were already enjoying in their tribe.” so why hazrate khadijeh was the first person who accepted Islam??
    mariam-Iran

  2. Metis says:

    Salaam Mariam,

    Good question! I think most women and men found great inspiration from Islam and found it to be laying great emphasis on morals and betterment of society. That can’t be denied. I am trying to understand the views of some feminists like Merssini, L. Ahmed and Al Fassi who argue that heathen women had more rights than Muslim women. I think some tribes may have been giving women more rights than in Islam but these tribes were 1) highly influential and 2) often matrilineal. I was thinking about women like Hind for example.

    So why did Khadijah accept Islam? Some reasons:

    1) She was actually the one who first believed that the Prophet had met Gabriel and she was the one who insisted that he was indeed a prophet of God.
    2) She was his wife and trusted, loved and believed him unlike other women who were strangers and didn’t know him well enough.
    3) This is not the reason why she converted – but all rules related to women: hijab, divorce and iddah, polygamy and sex with slaves, inheritance, veiling of prophet’s wives from strangers, and even ban on his widows from marrying again were all laws that were laid down after her death in Medina.

    I suspect it wasn’t easy for women in those days to convert. If they were rich and powerful they liked their lives too much to change and if they were poor and weak their husbands/masters wouldn’t let them convert. That is why it was largely men who converted to Islam in the early period and women either came with them or in the booty. What intrigues me more are the two women from the Prophet’s household (Raihana and Mary) who refused to accept Islam and instead chose to spend their lives as his slaves rather than his wives. I assume their reasons had more to do with their religious loyalties than with issues related to women.

    What I want to understand from you, Mariam, if you don’t mind is why do you think most feminists and even other Muslim women and men use Khadijah’s example when discussing the higher status of women in Islam? This is an aspect of feminist argument that I want to understand.

    • mariam says:

      salam 🙂
      from being a child I was told that how Khadijeh sacrificed all she had for prophet and Islam, maybe because of that all muslims always example her.but another issue which is important for me is that ,she was the first person who felt,sensed or undrestood(I dont know which word is proper!!) truthness of him,she was the first person who felt his difference.there is a celebrity poet which say : قدر زر زرگر شناسد، قدر گوهر گوهري ( only Goldsmith know exactly value of Gold) she was truth because of that found truth:-)
      I cant accept this claim ” that heathen women had more rights than Muslim women”. I think this claim is a big insult toward wisdom of Khadijeh,Aisha, Fatemeh,Zeinab and so many other prominent female figures of Islam in early years.rich women (and men) like Hind didnot like core values of Islam( equality of people in front of God no matter of tribe,gender,race,culture,tribe……).she had no worry toward laws concerning women:-)
      high profil of Merssini, L. Ahmed and Al Fassi in Wiki dont convice me to accept their argument:-):-)
      there is a big lesson for me about life of Raihana and Mary , there was on need for them to become muslim(sacrifice their loyalties to their faith) to be more respected as a wife,they were already respected.
      and about capabilities of women and men in math or science, who has said that math is suprior to literature , who has said that being an engineer is suprior to being a writer.we have made everything ranked and now we force ourself to climb to reach first place in our ranking,it is not clear that how much true is that ranking!
      mariam-Iran

      • Metis says:

        Dear Mariam

        Thank you so much for taking out time to answer my question. I really appreciate it.

        I liked what you said in the last few lines that we have even decided which subjects are better than the others and hence given more importance to Mathematics for example over literature. Very good point. Spoken like a true feminist!

        Regarding heathen women having more rights – I don’t believe that was a general standard. But I do believe that it was not unheard of in ancient Arabia or in fact even your own country. I read an archeological study that perhaps I’ll link to soon which showed that Persian women were very strong and independent in pre-Islamic Iran and were actually a source of inspiration for heathen women of Arabia. How comes we don’t hear that more often from Islamic resources? Al Fassi’s study was done on Mesopotamian women and again she used archeological data to prove her point. These women are not talking in the air though most men would claim it to be so and as a woman I want to read them at least and give them a chance before dismissing their argument as bogus because it clashes with what I have grown to believe that actually is not based on any archeological studies but on traditions.

        However, my aim is not to prove that heathen women had rights; my aim is to understand why and how Muslim feminists would use that information to fight for their rights. It seems that there are some who will actually dismiss those facts and that is more interesting to me.

        “there is a big lesson for me about life of Raihana and Mary , there was on need for them to become muslim(sacrifice their loyalties to their faith) to be more respected as a wife,they were already respected.”

        That is intriguing! Why do you think they were already respected as slaves and rejected the honour of being wives? Also, if Islam was giving women so many rights and was shiningly progressive why were these women willing to live as slaves than as wives who definitely received freedom and honour which slaves didn’t have even if they were the slaves of the Prophet?

  3. Sara says:

    “Men are generally better at Mathematics whereas women are linguistically superior (just a thought – if women are linguistically superior, shouldn’t it be us interpreting what God tries to say?).”

    LOL. This made my day! I love you!!

    I’m very skeptical of arguments that go “women & men are equal but men are more equal” – what the hell does that even mean?

    It’s impossible (I think) to say that men and women have the same roles and responsibilities in the Qur’an, so if one defines equality as sameness, then no, Islam does not espouse gender equality. However, if you define gender equality in other ways, then arguments can be made, especially if one sees gender equality as gender complementarity.

    • Metis says:

      Oh that’s simple. See, it’s like – men and women are from the species but men are more men than women but women are not more women than men. Simple! LOL

      “However, if you define gender equality in other ways, then arguments can be made, especially if one sees gender equality as gender complementarity.”

      Exactly! And my argument is that gender complementarity is not static; it changes with time. We are not, cannot be, and will not be the women from another era, another time, another race, another culture. It is impossible. I can even prove it from the Quran that it was not the initial intent either:

      all verses where men and women are treated the same and equal begin with “all believing men and believing women” – very general, for all those who believe in God, whereas social injunctions always begin with “if they ask…”, “those among you…”. “they ask you…”, “from the men among you…” and refer to specific people of specific time not all of the ummah of all times.

  4. Zuhura says:

    I recommend the book Pink Brain, Blue Brain which debunks many of the myths about males’ and females’ different strengths and weakness, showing how there may be extremely small biological differences between the sexes but that in almost all cases these are amplified by socialization (and thus differ from culture to culture and can be changed). The idea that males are inherently better at math and females at language is one of these myths.

    I loved your final paragraph.

  5. Becky says:

    I believe in complementary equality too.

    However, that also means that why I’m a firm believer that a lot of gender roles are cultural and determined by how you’re brought up, I do not believe it explains all the differences. I think the female brain and the male brain are vastly different.
    E.g., an experiment took place where they took 1-1½ year old boys and girls, separately, and placed them in a room with various toys such as dolls, trucks etc.
    Pretty much all the boys exclusively played with the other toys, and if they did pick up a doll or a soft toy, they did not treat it like a “real being”. The girls however, would go for the dolls and the soft toys, pick them up, look at their faces etc. For kids at such a young age, I don’t believe it can all be taught, there is some basic things wired in our brains as to how we act.

    • Metis says:

      I think boys and girls are different but also that they become “more different” (I am sounding like equal but more equal!) because of gendering.

      I think complimentary equality is fine as long as we are talking about human physiology and biology – a woman will always bleed and bear children, can’t do much about that. Men will be able to stand and pee! Can’t do much about that either. Other than such cases I don’t think there is anything that one gender can do and the other can’t.

      • Becky says:

        I agree that apart from a few basic and obvious exceptions, I do believe that both genders can do pretty much the same things.

        I do however think, that there are things that men are naturally more drawn to than women and the other way around. I do also think, that a large part of this IS because we’re cultured to feel this way, but I do think that it’s also to do with our different biologies. However, I don’t think EITHER sex should be limited, in what they can and cannot do. Majority of women might prefer to be nurses rather than mechanics, that’s fine by me, we shouldn’t force them to do different – but we shouldn’t think less of the girl who wants to be a mechanic either. Rather we should support everyone (of either sex) in achieving their goals and dreams, whether they’re gender stereotypical or not.

      • Metis says:

        Totally agree with you Becky!

  6. Sophia says:

    I recently had this comment left on my blog:
    “We all know woman have more emotions than men. That is why kids side up with mothers than their fathers since it is the mother that loves the child more than the father does.”
    ??? I still haven’t decided how to respond to this, I’m somewhat aghast.

    I think the Quran addressed many aspects of society that were secular in nature, and was moving in a progressive direction for its time. I don’t think these secular considerations were meant to remain static, but were intended to improve the lives of the believers in practical ways. Using that same practicality and that same sense of progressive improvement of our daily lives today would bring about very different results – essentially, if the Quran had been revealed in our time, some of these secular rules would have been quite different, but the spiritual message would be consistent.

    • Metis says:

      Isn’t there a difference between love and emotion?? Duh!

      I once read a wonderful article that ended with something like – Islam was progressive for Arabian women even if women in other parts of the world had already been enjoying greater rights than what Islam gave Arabian women. For the 7th century Arabs, it was way ahead of its time. But we need ijtihad, we need to keep progressing and moving forward and we need to revise gender roles, duties and rights.

      I thought it was very well put.

      Sadly, we believe that even in the 21st century those rights are enough and suit or should suit the lives of all Muslim women in every country, from every culture. And we are constantly told that no other people were enjoying the rights Islam gave Muslims. Of course when we read and learn otherwise there is a lot of confusion, but I don’t think that was the initial purpose of Islam. Like you pointed out, it never taught that secular laws should never be revised.

  7. mariam says:

    Metis I realy enjoy reading your comments. 🙂
    ” Regarding heathen women having more rights – I don’t believe that was a general standard. But I do believe that it was not unheard of in ancient Arabia or in fact even your own country. ”
    yes, it is not heard from mouth of scholars but if you be a faithful muslim woman in Iran and living in this society you will hear it in street,school,cyberspace… that Iranian women were progressive ,had so many rights and suddenly backward arabs atacked Iran and forced Iranian people to accept their backward and barbaric Islamic laws(specialy laws about women) and you dont know what to do ,answer them or just sit and cry 😦
    I promis that I dont want to dismiss any fact 🙂
    my last paragraph was on base of my undrestanding of prophet until this time and before reading your comment. this issue that slaves had lesser freedom and honour than wives even in house of prophet is new for me!I am confused !!!??? how it is possible that in house of prophet who is Rahmatan Lil-‘Alamin discrimination be a norm!!!???
    mariam-Iran

    • susanne430 says:

      Mariam, I met an Iranian guy on Skype one time and he told me something similar about Arabs bringing their backward ways to his country. I’d forgotten about that until I saw your comment. I didn’t realize that view was present in your country, but then I’ve never had Iranian friends. I’ve enjoyed your comments!

      • mariam says:

        thank you susanne for your comment 🙂 yes this view has so many strong advocates in Iran,they have forgotten that Islam had a great influence in thrive of Iranian civilization.
        I will be happy to be your first Iranian friend :-):-)
        mariam-Iran

      • Metis says:

        What I have read is that the Persian culture was in reality far superior to the Arabic culture even after Islam had been established in Arabia and the Muslim Iran has in fact (according to that reading) gone backward many centuries because of the influence of the Arabic culture. I think from your comment now that that is the general feeling among Iranians.

    • Metis says:

      “I promis that I dont want to dismiss any fact”

      If you promise, I shall believe you!

      Slaves generally had lesser rights. That was and still is part of the sharia whether the slave belonged to the Prophet or any other Muslim. In fact, all Muslims had to treat their slaves kindly by observing the treatment the Prophet gave them. Now certainly if there are wives and there are slaves (with whom men are sleeping and having babies) then if they were at the same level, why have two different groups with two different names for them – “ Legal Wives” Vs “Those that the Right Hand Possesses”?

      • Free women had to veil, slaves didn’t (and historically were told not to veil);
      • wives received Mahr, slaves didn’t;
      • wives had the right to remove themselves from the husband through divorce, slaves didn’t;
      • wives were free women, slaves were bonded unless they gave birth to the master’s child and even then they were bonded until his death;
      • wives received equal treatment and the husband had to spend equal time between them; men weren’t required to spend equal time with slaves or treat them all the same;
      • wives were to be given their own separate accommodation; slaves didn’t get their separate accommodation.

      There are other differences in their rights. Certainly their treatment was good under Islam and from Muslims but it didn’t mean that slaves were the same as free people. That is why I wondered why a woman would refuse to accept Islam and hence decline the offer to become a free woman and a legal wife than live like a slave in bondage.

  8. Sumera says:

    Although men and women are deemed to be equal on a spiritual level, within social, familial and economic spheres the men are given the “upper hand” due to their supposed physical strength in Islam. Thats my understanding of it, though this isn;t set in stone – on an intellectual level there is no argument that men are better and women are defunct and seeing as how most jobs in this day and age don;t require physical manual labour there is no reason to not hold men/women to be equal in this regard.

  9. Lat says:

    I like what you said in the last para,

    “Good news is that we are equal in religion, which is the non-negotiable and unchanging part of any faith! The other areas are not static and change, or should change with time (they have little bearing on one’s faith and didn’t arise out of religion to begin with), so we can at least negotiate rights and choices in those areas without feeling afraid of entering disbelief. That is the area cut out for Muslim feminists”

    I agree with progressive thoughts regarding muslim women rights as opposed to being written in stone in 7th century Arabia.The late Fazlur Rahman did mention about the qawwamun status of men as mentioned in Quran as not being static for all times.I can’t quite remember much now,got to check my notes 🙂

    I’ve once read a tamil Islamic book on this topic that said that women compared to men had weaker bone structure and thus disintergrate easily,presumably referring to physical makeup as a point against why women are considered inferior! I must have been practically blowing smoke everywhere! 😀

    Just to show how weak women are,men stoop to everything in biology they can find to prove their point! Really don’t understand their reasoning.Is it because they don’t like women to take over their roles that they bombard with such reasonings to make their case? Men should act like men first,not the 100% power driven macho man all the time.It’s their failure to do so that has lead to what it is now.

    Many jobs previously occupied by capable men are now done by machines.And machines can be controlled by both men and women.I wonder if machines will come under fire one day by such reotoric if they overpower biologically and phyically superior men! That’ll be some fun to watch 🙂

    • Metis says:

      Lat, please do return with that note from FazalurRahman. It is very interesting.

      Women have weaker bones so men are superior??? Haha! That was my laugh of the day! How about no man can ever give birth so women are superior?!

      i-Robot is superior to Terminator!

  10. susanne430 says:

    I remember Reza Aslan said the Quran standardized Arabic and from this post it seems Islam standardized the rights of the people. Some women had greater rights (I recall Aslan saying some Arab women married more than one man at a time which Islam did away with). Some had fewer. But Islam standardized it for ALL who became part of the “new tribe.”

    I don’t think math is greater than language. They both have their places in society! And remember from your post about that kasrah power, the pen is pretty powerful! Math and science are needful and fantastic, but the pen is VERY influential!

    As for this — “women & men are equal but men are more equal”

    Were you thinking of “Animal Farm” when the pigs were corrupted by absolute power and the 7th commandment that all animals are equal, was changed to “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”? I think the key phrase there is “corrupted by absolute power” because I think any scholar who says “women & men are equal but men are more equal” has let the power go to his head. What’s that saying — power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. So there. Man-interpreted religion in a nutshell.

  11. Lat k says:

    I had the same thought about that phrase connecting to animal farm too! Just forgot the title!
    Oh God! My memory bank really needs serious recharge! 😀

  12. Metis says:

    No, I wasn’t think about the Animal Farm (should have!) but I have really heard people use that phrase – men and women are equal but men are more equal than women!

    I agree with your power corrupts statement.

  13. Becky says:

    I can’t believe people have actually been using that phrase to you!

    I thought of Animal Farm straight away, and totally thought you were referencing it on purpose! I really love that parallel, cause it’s so true!

  14. Sana says:

    Thank god for civilization and human rights and “government”!
    The whole idea of right hand possessions (sleeping with slaves) puts me off:(

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