Understanding the Role of Women in Islam : Part 1

Northern Arabia, the birth place of Islam was historically inhabited by two distinct groups. The Bedouins on the one hand and the settled tribes on the other. The Arabic word for Bedouin, “Badawi” literally means “nomad” or “wanderer”. Consequently, the Bedouins were a nomadic tribe that mostly plied their trade as shepherds. The settled tribes on the other hand relied on subsistence farming and commerce for their livelihood and as opposed to the Bedouins, their spoken language was Arabic.

Idolatry and Polytheism dominated religious life. The object of worship was a trio of goddesses, Al Lat, Al Uzza and Manat, considered to be daughters of a deity called Allah. Arabia during this period was a land with few or no rules, the strong dominated the weak. Individual tribes were bound together by blood and kinship. Other tribes were viewed as enemies except for instances were alliances existed to protect one another. It’s not hard to imagine the subjugation of women within such circumstances.

Female infanticide was a common practice. Fathers ashamed or angered about the birth of a female child would bury the child alive. Women were deprived of the most basic rights, such as inheritance, the ability to choose their husbands or even divorce. Naturally laws and customs varied within the respective tribes, there have also been scholarly accounts of tribes were women were treated as equals, held high positions in society and wielded great influence. Nevertheless, this period is generally viewed as a time when women were systematically oppressed globally.

In India during the same period, the rule of inheritance was agnatic. What this essentially means is that men were allowed to inherit to the exclusion of women. In ancient Greece the Athenian woman was legally deemed a minor, who required the consent of her guardian for whatever she sought to do. This role of guardianship was transferred from the father to the husband once she got married. Her consent was not sought in order for her to get married. Roman law was no different, the wife was the purchased property of her husband and she has no property rights whatsoever. The English common law placed the wife and all her possessions at her husband’s disposal. In Mosaic law, divorce was a right only held by men. The woman being man’s property, his right to divorce her follows deductively from this legal construct.

The role of women in Islam is undoubtedly a bone of contention. Islam is viewed in some quarters as a religion that encourages the subjugation of women. It is criticized for treating women as inferior to men. Critics point to the fact that women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia or to the dress code (Hijab) that Islam prescribes for women to bolster their criticism. Islamic scholars on the other hand argue that Islam treats men and women the equally. They will point out the fact that Islam guaranteed property rights for women way before this was recognized in the west. That it abolished female infanticide. Islam required the woman’s consent to be sought with regards to marriage and allows her the right to divorce. In 2015, these are issues that may be taken for granted, nevertheless from a historical perspective these rights bestowed on women by Islam were viewed as revolutionary.

In the following extracts, the role of the woman in Islam shall be further explored. Ranging from her role within a marriage as opposed to a man. How inheritance is regulated in Islam concerning women. What does Islam say about women and their ability to work and engage in political and other socio-economic activities.

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