I mentioned in a previous post that I think that men and women are equal in religion – even though women menstruate and are thus not allowed to pray or fast while menstruating[i].
However, the social injunctions in Islam (Quran, Sunnah and Hadith) may not treat women and men equally even though the treatment of women was still very progressive for its time. In the eyes of Allah, all believers whether they are men or women are equal, but in the eyes of human beings there is always social hierarchy. I would like to deal with some aspects of social life between men and women in separate posts and would like to learn from you how you, feminists who are Muslim, deal with those issues.
The first important aspect I thought is marriage. I will not go into details which you already know, but will simply point out why I felt that there is equity in Islamic marriage but not necessarily equality (please correct me if I am wrong). Support for my conclusions is provided in footnotes.
From a sexual point of view, men and women are called each other’s garments (2:187) which is a wonderful thought and one that puts them on an equal level in terms of sexual enjoyment. There are numerous hadith that tell men to be kind towards their wives and treat them with love and dignity. There are also hadith that women have rights over their husbands (Sahih Bukhari, Vol.7, No. 127).
However, in social hierarchy there are always some rights given even to those who are ‘maintained’ by the ‘maintainers.’ The point to note is the vocabulary that is used in Quran and Hadith to refer to the relationship between men and women. As Khan also noted in his book, men are asked to treat women with ‘kindness’ (Quran 4:19; 2:231), whereas women are told to be ‘obedient’ in the Quran (4:34) and in hadith.[ii]
In Muslim marriage one ‘partner’ can marry up to four times while the other can’t in which case it is not a partnership. Muslim men can also marry Jewish and Christian women (although at least a hadith of Ibn Umar in Sahih Bukhari Volume 7, Book 63, Number 209 bans it). Men were also allowed to keep as many female slaves as they could financially afford, with whom they were allowed to have sex. This practice continued openly well up to the 20th century and even now there are Muslim men in some countries where slavery persists (like Sudan) who cohabit with their slaves and consider it permissible under Quranic law. Men also don’t have to seek permission from or inform their existing wives before marrying again.
Muslim women the other hand can have only one husband at a time. That husband has to be Muslim. They can own male slaves but can’t cohabit with them or mingle with them. Only eunuchs were allowed to enter the women’s sections of the houses in the past.
There is evidence that multiple marriages were based on social status so for example the female section of a ruler’s house (called the Harem – meaning, an area out of bounds for strangers) was always busy. There is also historical evidence that Muslim rulers did marry more than four times at a time and also had several concubines.
This also has effects on the crime of adultery since if a man is influential he will have ample access to women through multiple marriages and concubines and will not feel the need to commit adultery hence he is protected and helped by a system not to sin. (I recall explaining to a feminist friend once that men too must guard their chastity except from their wives and female slaves which left her yelling out at me in exasperation – “what is left of chastity after so much sex?!”)
Adultery then becomes the crime of the poor men, and married women because on the flip side allowing men to keep so many women makes women more vulnerable to look for attention elsewhere if their husbands are always busy with other women.
However, since women are advised to veil, stay at home and not mingle with strangers that possibility is reduced and a system is in place to ensure that they do not err. Similarly, Mahr creates a feeling of obligation in women not to cheat. There are other rules in place to minimize the chances of women cheating on their husbands[iii].
Mahr is the dowry that a man gives a woman upon marriage in Islam. Mahr was also called Sadak in early times and in pre-Islamic Arabia it was a payment given to the bride’s guardian as a bridal price. After Islam and the migration to Medina the law was passed that even though marriage contract (ahd) was still (at least in theory) between the groom and the wali (bride’s guardian) Mahr would only be given to the bride and not her wali. However, the basic meaning of Mahr did not change which was the price for sex:
Sahih Bukhari – Volume 7, Book 62, Number 81:
Narrated ‘Uqba: The Prophet said: “The stipulations most entitled to be abided by are those with which you are given the right to enjoy the women’s private parts (i.e. the Mahr).”
In verse 24 of chapter 4 as well the word used for Mahr is “ojoorahunna” meaning wages/alimony/fees given to the women because men have “istamtatum” (enjoyed/used/benefitted from) them. According to another hadith quoted in E.J. Brill’s first encyclopaedia of Islam, 1913-1936, Volume 2 (page 137) is that “every marriage without Mahr is null and void.” If a groom does not have money to pay the price for what he “enjoys”, he cannot consummate his marriage[iv].
Mahr is only given to free women who own their “private parts” before marriage; Mahr is not required to be given to slaves whose private parts are the property of the masters. And women who gave themselves to men didn’t necessarily receive dowry either.
Men, on the other hand, are not paid by women for access to their ‘private parts.’
Age at marriage
In Islam the ‘official’ age of puberty for boys is 15 years and for girls it is nine years. This means that a boy younger than 15 years cannot enter into a bond of marriage (and there is actually no record of teenage boys getting married) where as girls as young as nine or even younger were allowed to be married off by their guardians. This is also confusing since in Islam a girl is supposed to give consent to her marriage whereas such age is quite young even for girls to give sound consent. There is ample evidence[v] that Umm Kulthum (daughter of Ali and Fatima) was a very little girl when she was married to Umar Ibn Khattab.
Divorce laws differ from one Muslim community to the other. In early Islam divorce was a very simple and a straightforward procedure. Technically a man can divorce a woman by simply uttering (or smsing!) “I divorce you” three times whereas a woman does not have that right. Moreover, if the divorced couple wants to get together after their final divorce they cannot do so if the woman is married to another man unless that man first has sex with her and then divorces her. If the woman is not married to another man then she cannot return to the first husband.
The temporary marriage is also a system that satisfied the sexual needs of men and financial needs of women since it is not a system for the gratification of women but for the gratification men.[vi] If women are abundant and men are scarce, then men are allowed polygyny. If men are abundant and women are scarce, Mutah is allowed.
Death of a spouse
If a Muslim man’s wife dies he is to mourn her death for three days after which he can resume his life normally and even remarry. Whereas not only is a Muslim woman not allowed to marry for up to four months after the death of her husband, she also must mourn for four months[vii].
Implications for Muslim Feminists
There are Muslim countries where polygyny is banned – Tunisia, Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey, and Indonesia. There are other countries where there are heavy restrictions on it like in Morocco, Syria and Egypt.
In South Asian Muslim communities Mahr has taken a completely new meaning. It is used as a ‘maintenance fund’ in case the husband dies or divorces the woman. Usually the Mahr is exorbitant in such marriages and is not given to the woman but exists as a huge sum on the marriage contract and is given only if the man divorces the woman. This does prevent some men from divorcing their wives without reason. It also helps a woman to survive for a while if she is divorced or widowed.
Many Muslim countries are now banning marriage of young girls. Yemen however is one Muslim country where majority of the girls are married off very young and the government is reluctant to ban child marriage.
Muslims are also getting stricter about allowing men to arbitrarily divorce their wives and most Muslim countries now demand that the couple go through proper court procedure to get divorced. Khula (divorce initiated by women) is still difficult in most Muslim societies. In Egypt, at least, khula is granted to a woman only if she returns the Mahr even if her husband has “enjoyed her private parts.”
Mutah is now practiced only in some Shia communities. Ismaili Shias strictly prohibit it. In Iran it has taken a new form where men ‘marry’ women for as little as 10-20 minutes for quick sex. They settle on a price for sex, a few verses are recited from the Quran and the couple proceeds to have sex. After that the couple can go off their own ways.
In some Muslim communities, women are finding it hard to commit to the four months iddah (waiting/mourning period) after the death of their husbands especially if they are working women and have little or no support from family. With scientific advancement women can know very early if they are pregnant and a long waiting period after divorce of widowhood makes little sense in today’s world. But there are still traditional families who insist that a woman stay indoors and does not even come in front of strangers for full four months.
My questions to you are:
- How much do all these Islamic laws affect you personally? How much value do you see in them today in the 21st century?
- Do you think these are religious commandments that are carved in stone or were these social laws that need to change with time?
- Which of these laws are you happy to follow without change and why? Which laws do you think need to change and why?
- How hard do you think it is to talk to clerics and make them understand that society is not static; how do you think a change in these laws can be brought about?
- Finally, do you think that a set of revised and standardized universal Islamic laws for gender equality for all Muslims of the 21st Century will serve the community better? If yes, who should revise and lay down those laws?
[i] Sahih Bukhari, Volume 1, Book 6, Number 321:
Narrated Aiyub: Hafsa said, ‘We used to forbid our young women to go out for the two ‘Id prayers. A woman … once asked the Prophet, ‘Is there any harm for any of us to stay at home if she doesn’t have a veil?’ He said, ‘She should cover herself with the veil of her companion and should participate in the good deeds and in the religious gathering of the Muslims.’ When Um ‘Atiya came I asked her whether she had heard it from the Prophet. She replied, “Yes. I have heard the Prophet saying, ‘The unmarried young virgins and the mature girl who stay often screened or … the menstruating women should come out and participate in the good deeds as well as the religious gathering of the faithful believers but the menstruating women should keep away from the Musalla (praying place).’ ” Hafsa asked Um ‘Atiya surprisingly, “Do you say the menstruating women?” She replied, “Doesn’t a menstruating woman attend ‘Arafat (Hajj) and such and such (other deeds)?”
[ii] Volume 7, Book 62, Number 128:
Narrated Ibn ‘Umar: The Prophet said, “All of you are guardians and are responsible for your wards. The ruler is a guardian and the man is a guardian of his family; the lady is a guardian and is responsible for her husband’s house and his offspring; and so all of you are guardians and are responsible for your wards.”
[iii] it is the Prophet’s tradition that if someone marries a virgin and he has already an older wife then he should stay for seven days with her (the virgin) and then by turns; and if someone marries a widow/divorcee and he has already a virgin wife then he should stay with her (the widow/divorcee) for three days, and then by turns (Volume 7, Book 62, Number 141)
[iv] In the History of Al-Tabari: Biographies of the Prophet’s Companions and Their Successors, translated by Ella Landau-Tasseron [State University of New York Press, Albany 1998], Volume 39, pp. 171-173, there is a narration that the Prophet had married Aisha but was postponing consummating their marriage so Abu Bakr asked the Prophet, “O Messenger of God, what prevents you from consummating the marriage with your wife?” The Prophet said “The bridal gift (sadaq).” Abu Bakr gave him the bridal gift, twelve and a half ounces [of gold], and the Prophet consummated his marriage. In the footnote it says, “It is not clear whether Abu Bakr pays him this sum as dowry (from guardian to groom) or gives the Prophet the money to pay the bridal gift because the Prophet was short of cash.”
[v] (see Al Istiab Volume 4 page 492; Tareekh Baghdad Volume 6 page 182; Asad al Ghaybah fi Marifathul Sahaba Volume 5 page 367; Tareekh Khamees Volume 2 page 384 Dhikr Umm Kalthum; Tabaqat ibn Sa’d Volume 8 page 463 Dhikr Umm Kalthum; Zakhair al Akba pages 168 and 169; Sawaiqh al Muhriqa page 94; Al Isaba Volume 4 page 321; and Asaaf al Ghaneen page 162)
[vi] Sahih Bukhari, Volume 7, Book 62, Number 51:
Narrated Abu Jamra: I heard Ibn Abbas (giving a verdict) when he was asked about the Mut’a with the women, and he permitted it (Nikah-al-Mut’a). On that a freed slave of his said to him, “That is only when it is very badly needed and women are scarce.” On that, Ibn ‘Abbas said, “Yes.”
[vii] Sahih Bukhari, Volume 1, Book 6, Number 310:
Narrated Um-‘Atiya: We were forbidden to mourn for a dead person for more than three days except in the case of a husband for whom mourning was allowed for four months and ten days. (During that time) we were not allowed to put kohl (Antimony eye power) in our eyes or to use perfumes or to put on colored clothes except a dress made of ‘Asb (a kind of Yemen cloth, very coarse and rough). We were allowed very light perfumes at the time of taking a bath after menses and also we were forbidden to go with the funeral procession.