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Issues of Concern for Muslim Women

by Muslim Women's League
September 1995

Renewed interest in and enthusiasm for Islam as a means of change is emerging in many parts of the world. By implementing Islamic principles, Muslims are hoping to improve their condition on many fronts, be they social, political, economic or others. The Muslim world is comprised of people of a variety of nationalities and ethnicities which, combined with geographical realities, determine priorities of action for improving the lives of women.

Most Muslims are taught that Islam liberated women by giving them rights not previously enjoyed. Some examples include rights of ownership, decision-making in marriage, divorce and so on. Indeed, when reviewing primary Muslim sources of Qur'an and authentic Hadith (words and deeds of Prophet Muhammed), one is impressed by an overall image of men and women as equal partners as those who are expected by God to "enjoin the doing of what is right and forbid the doing of what is wrong" (9:71) in all spheres of life, and to act as His vicegerents in ensuring justice, freedom and equality for all.

The importance of developing a strong family as the major building block of a strong society is clearly expressed in Islamic literature. The family unit is solidified by mutual respect, understanding and compassion that applies within the family and among all members of society in general.

Unfortunately, over time, many of the original principles have been abandoned or modified to suit political agendas, thus presenting Muslims with laws and images that hardly resembled the original Islamic community led by Muhammad. Many of these laws were generated between the 10th and 12th centuries, long after the death of Muhammad, and are particularly reflected in legislation today related to marriage and divorce which often place women at a distinct disadvantage.

Muslims who live as minorities in non-Islamic countries are also affected by the sexist and authoritarian attitudes that pervade many communities and impact behavior in terms of marriage, divorce, abuse, exclusion of women from the mosques and decision-making bodies, double standards applied to male and female children and so on.

Because of a belief in a liberated, equitable and dignified position of women outlined in the Qur'an, many Muslims, men and women alike, are calling for reevaluation of attitudes and practices that, although done in the name of Islam, are actually contrary to the basic messages found in the primary sources. To question and possibly oppose entrenched positions that are based on archaic laws, weak Hadith, or cultural trends, requires courage and conviction on the part of religious leaders. But this is necessary and worth any risks in order to enable women to achieve liberation through Islam as originally intended.

Major problem areas that need to be addressed include the following:

bullet Family laws pertaining to marriage and divorce that reinforce the image of relationships based on a hierarchy with the rights of the husband superseding those of the wife and that prevent women from being in control of their lives.
bullet Violence against women which occurs in the home, community, and as a consequence of warfare which is claimed by some to be allowed by Islam when it is not.
bullet Abuse of certain Islamic practices that affect women negatively, such as polygamy and temporary marriage, when applied out of context and without abiding by Islamic restrictions.
bullet Excluding women from religious activities such as attendance in the mosque which has clearly been established as the Muslim woman's right.
bullet Failure to promote the importance of a woman's contribution to society beyond child-bearing.
bullet Failure to enable women to take advantage of rights of property ownership and inheritance outlined by Islam.
bullet Focusing on the behavior of women as a marker for morality in society and subjecting them to harassment, intimidation or discrimination.
bullet Lack of awareness of the important role of men in contributing significantly in sharing household responsibilities and child-rearing as exemplified by Prophet Muhammed.

Until recently, because of a pervasive sexist and oppressive presentation of women in Islam, Muslim women often felt the only way to be liberated intellectually, socially, politically and economically was by abandoning Islam. There appears to be a growing movement of Islamist women who are demanding that the rights guaranteed by Islam must be applied in their communities. In addition, women are joining the ranks of Islamic scholars, thus providing alternative points of view to what has heretofore been addressed by men. Reviewing Islamic history from an egalitarian perspective, recalling contributions of Muslim women over the centuries, exploring current practices and laws and criticizing them from an Islamic point of view, examining texts as they pertain to women specifically are a few examples of some areas addressed by women scholars today.

Muslims today are facing great challenges from within and without. Oftentimes, calls for change are seen as tools of an outside power that is seeking to undermine the efforts of Islam and Muslims. Certain geopolitical realities lend credence to this view. However, the current desire for change on the part of Muslim women is perhaps more borne out of the fervent belief in the image of the Muslim woman as communicated by God in the Qur'an of a liberated, vital human being who can work in cooperation with men on many levels to contribute to the betterment of society. They seek to expose this concept which has been buried by the persistence of attitudes that focus on competition and subsequent subjugation of one sex over the other in direct conflict with the spirit of the Qur'anic verse:

"And thus does their Lord answer their prayer: I shall not lose sight of the work of any of you who works (in My way) be it man or woman: You are members, one of another." (3:195).

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