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Women in Society: Economic Rights

Muslim Women's League
September 1995

This chapter addresses economic rights of Muslim women. These rights are derived from the Quran, however the interpretation of these rights as well as their application (or lack of application) in some Muslim countries often results in some controversy.

The interpretation of verse 4:34 and the latter portion of verse 2:233 could prevent a women's participation in the job market or promote justice and harmony.

Men shall take full care of women with the bounties which God has bestowed more abundantly on the former (men), than the latter (women) and with what they may spend out of their possessions. (4:34)

No human being shall be burdened with more than he is well able to bear: neither shall a mother be made to suffer because of her child, nor, because of his child, he who has begotten it. And the same duty rests upon the [father's] heir. (2:233)

An article titled "Islam and Women's Work" published in ALJUMUAH magazine is an example of the interpretation of these verses to prevent women from entering the job market. This article analyzes a woman's development in stages and finds that in each stage she should be in the care of an adult male. These stages are:

  1. While she is a child, she is under the care of her father.
  2. After she marries, the responsibility falls on her husband.
  3. If she has neither a father nor a husband, the responsibility of her care falls on her brother.
  4. If she has no male relative, the obligation falls upon the Muslim community.1

When articles as such are published what is our responsibility as Muslim women? Obviously it is to challenge this view with research having the whole context of the Quran in mind. Upon reading the above one questions why a woman requires a male to take care of her. If one assumes that the above scenario is Islamically correct then one can conclude that:

  1. Males are naturally superior to females.
  2. It is a obligation for a male to be financially responsible for his family.

However these conclusions are at odds with other verses of the Quran.

Amina Wadud-Muhsin in her book Qur'an and Women studies verse 4:34 in relation to other verses in the Quran. Since there is no verse in the Quran that speaks about male physical or intellectual superiority, Wadud-Muhsin believes that the part of the verse "God has bestowed more abundantly on the former (male)" pertains to inheritance. This interpretation is derived from verse 4:11 "the share for a male is twice that for the female." This "preference" in 4:34 therefore is related to inheritance or a material gain.
2 Thus, the male is not naturally superior to the female.

Is the male obligated to be financially responsible for the female? The interpretation of verse 2:233 in the context of all the other verses of the Quran is about mutual respect and harmony. The initial part of this verse states:

And the mothers may nurse their children for two whole years, if they wish to complete the period of nursing; and it is incumbent upon him who has begotten the child to provide in a fair manner for their sustenance and clothing. (2:233)

This verse reveals that the decision of weaning the child for two years is an option for the mother not a command. This decision is based on the wife and husband's mutual respect for a harmonious relationship. In a situation in which both of the married couple's financial contribution is needed to maintain an existence, a wife's insistence that the only husband should provide for their livelihood would jeopardize the harmony of marriage described in the Quran:

And among His wonders is this: He creates for you mates out of you owen kind, so that you might incline towards them, and He engenders love an tenderness between you: in this, behold, there are messages indeed for people who think. (30:21)

Thus, the males responsibility to financially care for the women applies to a specific situation (when the mother weans her child) and the premise that a women should be cared for by a male throughout every stage of her development is false and not supported by the Quran.

A conflict arises when the interpretation of verses 4:34 and 2:233 are limited to these verses alone without consideration for the whole Quran. In this case it is viewed as the superiority of males over females or a gender-based division of labor. This division of labor entitles the male to be the "provider" and "protector" and the woman to lead a private life and solely be the source of love, affection and care.
3 This interpretation is not consistent with other verses of the Quran:

Whereas anyone-be it man or woman-who does [whatever he /she can] of good deeds and is a believer withal, shall enter paradise, and shall not be wronged by as much as [would fill] the groove of a date-stone. (4:124)

Men shall have a benefit from what they earn, and women shall have a benefit from what they earn. (4:32)

These verses address men and women in equal terms. Wadud-Muhsin concludes that, "The Quran does not strictly delineate the roles of women and the roles of men to such an extent as to propose only a single possibility for each gender."
4 This analysis is supported by a Bukhari hadith from Kitab al-nafqat: Aswad bin Yazeed narrates that: I asked Ayesha: What was the norm of the Prophet at home? She (Ayesha) replied: he used to work for his family at home. Then, when he heard the adhan (call to prayer) he would step out.5 The hadith supports the fact that there is no gender-based division of labor for a married couple. The couple mutually decides what is best for their household having the harmony of their family in mind.

Even though there is no command for a division of labor in the Quran, in today's global economy, as men's horizons and occupational choices widen, women's in some Muslim counties remain comparatively narrow.
6 What has prevented women from moving into the new activities opened by the global economy? In some Muslim countries political instability coexists with extreme conservative ideologies regarding women. Afghanistan is an example where once women were allowed to contribute to sustaining economic growth and development. Afghan women in small numbers joined public life in the 1920's with the support of King Amanullah and Queen Soraya. Queen Soraya addressed a gathering of women in the celebration of the 7th anniversary (1926) of independence stating:

"Do not think, however, that our nation needs only men to serve it. Women should also take their part as women did in the early years of Islam. The valuable services rendered by women are recounted throughout history from which we learn that women were not created solely for pleasure and comfort. From their examples we learn that we must all contribute toward the development of our nation and that this can not be done without being equipped with knowledge..."

Ironically, 70 years after Queen Soraya's speech the struggle and efforts that the previous generation made to gain political and economic rights for women is threatened. Today, a woman's basic right to vote, to pursue an education, and to join the job force is threatened by the Taliban, a political group that gain the control of the country and run the government by their "Islamic" code. Noor Mohammed, a senior member of the Taliban's Centeral Committee states, "We categorically refuse to let women vote or participate in politics..."
8 Taliban's insistence on secluding women from public life is derived from Saudi Arabia's interpretation of the Quran. This interpretation is colored by Saudi Arabia's cultural ideology. To gain financial rewards Taliban emulates Saudi Arabia's orthodox view that restricts a women's right to vote and participate in public life. Taliban's political power depends on oppressing woman.

Similarly in Iran, in an attempt to balance the national budget both civil services and private sectors have excluded women from the job market by preferentially retiring female employees and not taking new staff.
9 The Head of the political and Ideological Section of the defense industries, Hojatoleslam Motbahri, explains his position: "In principle I'm against all employment for women outside their home...In my opinion basically the access of women to the factory floor is against the laws of nature...Besides if women are employed by industry and the public sector, they will displace men and close their employment opportunities."10 Economic growth requires the full participation of the labor force. Total exclusion of women from the job force means not utilizing half the energy that leads to economic growth. Interestingly enough, even with strong principles such as women work "being against the laws of nature," economic realities have taken their own path in Iran. In the city of Mazandaran, female workers spend long working hours at the local textile factory. The Director of the Cotton and Weaving factory explains, "Women's work is much finer. If you take thread winding men produce about 500 kg for every 650 kg produced by women."11 In this case women are hired because their service produces more profit and is an illustration of the impractical and unrealistic point of the "laws of nature argument."

Muslim men and women can apply the rights given by the Quran to revolutionize the status quo in Western societies. In the United States work at home is viewed as unproductive. According to the United Nations System of National Accounts (UNSNA) because no exchange of money takes place in a woman work at home, her work is not considered a value for the GNP (Gross National Product).
12 If a professional woman stays home with her children up to certain time, her choice is an "unproductive activity". Accordingly, if she does not accumulate enough credit toward her social security benefits, she will not qualify to receive such benefits in her old age or in case she is disabled. If her choice is to stay at home to raise her children and perform housework, it should be considered as a contribution to the GNP. This would entitle her to social security benefits. Such a view is consistent with the economic rights given to women in the Quran.

Women were given rights in the Quran to contribute to the economy by owning and selling property 1400 years ago. Verse 4:32 emphasizes the equality of men and women in the economical growth of a society.

Men shall have a benefit from what they earn, and women shall have a benefit from what they earn. (4:32)

This verse, aside from giving women the right to earn, supports the economic theory of "equal pay for equal work.'' The core of this theory is that women and men should be compensated by the work they perform regardless of gender. The Quran addresses this issue by referring to both genders and stating that each be compensated by their work. If it was intended that women receive less than men it would have been explicit. This is a concept that even in today's Western society has not completely been adopted. In a recent study Working Women magazine reported that although women's salaries in the United States are starting to catch up with men's in recent years, still women earn 5 to 15 cents less on the dollar than men working in a similar job.
13

The rights that are given to women in the Quran are not theoretical without any application. In Iran Islamist women activists used texts supported by the Quran to demand a law to provide wages for housework. Accordingly in 1991 a law was passed under which a man divorcing his wife must first pay her housework wages.
14 Furthermore, historically, the Quraish women such as Khadija bint Khuwaylid and Sawdah bint Zam'ah (wives of Prophet Muhammad) are examples of women who were mothers and nurturers as well as active participants in the economy of their society. Khadija was a business women whose wealth and business property gave the Prophet ease of circumstances and freedom from the cares of daily life to accomplish his mission.15 Similarly, Sawdah derived her income from her leather work industry.16 None of the Prophet's wives inherited anything from him so they were cared for by the state or they derived their own income.17 The examples of Khadija and Sawdah are important because they shed light on women's active participation in the economy during the Prophet's era.

Islamic texts and the information of the early Islamic society and the rights given to women in the Quran are strong tools needed to fight the misogynist views now promoted to serve political and cultural stereotypes that are at odds with the intentions of the Quran.

Footnotes

  1. Islam and Women's Work" ALJUMUAH, No. 2 & 3, p. 12
  2. Amina Wadud-Muhsin, Qur'an and Woman, (Penerbit Fajar Bhd, 1992), p. 70.
  3. Nizamuddim Ahmed, "Women and Isam," Al-Ittihad, Oct.- Dec, 1981, Volume 18, No.4 p. 40.
  4. Wadud-Muhsin, op. cit., p. 63.
  5.  
  6. Victoria Bernal, "Gender, Culture and Capitalism in the Islamic Revival (Sudan)" African Studies Center Boston University 1992 W.P. No 160 p. 7.
  7. Nancy Hatch Dupree, Women in Afghanistan.(Stiftung-Foundation) 1986 P. 46.
  8. Kathy Gannon, "Afghan Women Fear Losing Rights under Taliban Rule," Los Angeles Times, Sunday, March 17, 1996, p. A11.
  9. Hale Afshar,"Women in Iran" Capital & Class n37 (Spring 1989) P. 74.
  10. Zaneh Rouz, August 22, 1987.
  11. Zaneh Rouz, January 11, 1986.
  12.  
  13. Karen Schwartz, "Women's pay gaining, but still lags," Daily Bulletin, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 1996, p. B4.
  14. Women Laws Initiatives In The Muslim World, Dec. 11-15, 1994. Lahore, Pakistan. p. 40.
  15. Aboul Hameed Siddiqui, The Life of Muhammad, (Islamic Publication Ltd.,1989.) p. 53.
  16. Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam, (Yale University Press, 1992) p. 60.
  17. Ibid., p. 60.

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