Woman's role in contemporary society

Presented at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa, on the occasion of the Islamic Week organised by the Muslim Students Association in 1994


I would like to thank the Muslim Students Association for giving me this opportunity to speak with you on the issue of women which is close to my heart and which is, I believe, one of the biggest challenges facing us today as we move towards a better and just society.

The role of woman, her position and status in society, and her nature have been issues of debate and discussion informed by religion, tradition and culture, misogyny, feminism and - many times - downright ignorance and bigotry.

I am a Muslim and Muslims seek guidance from Allah through his book, the Qur'an, and His messenger Mohammed (pbuh). Muslims believe that the word of Allah is supreme and takes precedence over all traditions cultures.

The Muslim Youth Movement in its struggle towards realising its goals of establishing a just order based on the Divine Will and promoting the values and principles of Islam felt that the area of gender needed redressing. We therefore established the Gender Desk.

As the head of the MYM Gender Desk and on the many campaigns we undertake - like getting women to the mosques, struggling for a just Muslim Family Law system or simply insisting that the woman's voice be heard - I am often asked by people who are not Muslim why I do what I do; why struggle for the rights of women -  and particularly Muslim women. What happened in my past that drove me to this?

The answer is simple: we respond to the injunction of the Qur'an to “enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong”, as we did when faced with the terrible injustices of apartheid and oppression on the basis of race and class.

In discussing the role of women in contemporary society I have divided my talk into three parts:

1.       The perceptions of woman within contemporary Muslim societies.

2.       The status, position and role of woman in the Qur'an and in early Islam from where we derive our aspirations.

3.       Some of the challenges facing us in contemporary society - more specifically, in South Africa.

You might have heard at some time or the other that Islam teaches that women are "inferior" and "unequal" to men. Women are described as weak, inferior, inherently evil (it is the nature of woman to promote fitnah (mischief)), we have deficient intellectual capabilities and are spiritually lacking. Furthermore, these evaluations have been used to claim that women are unsuitable for performing certain tasks, or for functioning in some ways in society.

Thus women are barred from mosques and excluded from other Muslim institutions. The "intermingling of the sexes" is frowned upon on the basis that women create fitnah. The Muslim identity of a woman is restricted and limited to her dress code.

Specific functions and roles have been attributed to each sex; the function of woman is often confined to her reproductive ability. It is known that her primary function is to be mother and wife. And that she would be lacking in her Islamic duty if she in any way did not fulfil this role in accordance with how society defines it.

Since it is the responsibility of males to provide for females, women are liberated from all social, political and economic obligations. They are freed from all these burdens so they can enjoy the joys of housework and child-bearing and caring. And this is regarded as the special status that Islam has accorded woman, thus liberating her from oppression and suppression over 1400 years ago.

Some traditionalists are of the opinion that "according to strict Islamic injunctions, it is not obligatory for a woman to cook food for her husband or children or wash their clothes or even suckle the infants. A woman may refuse to do all these things without this being made ground for legal complaint against her. If she undertakes these duties it is out of sheer grace." Nevertheless, they stress that man and woman's roles are complementary and the most important role the women plays is in the family unit.

The same traditionalists also believe that her primary role is that of a mother and wife and that she needs not venture from the home and the darkest corners of her home are best for her. They also limit her freedom to exercise her will and choice.

It is ironical that all of them claim that Islam liberated women 1400 years ago. They claim that Islam gave women the right to equal education and civil and economic rights, but at the end of their analysis they come to the conclusion that a woman's place is in her husband's home and that she should be obedient to him and the male elite.

How on earth can she enjoy any liberty if she lacks knowledge, is confined to her home and has minimal control over her life.

We need to ask: Are these the teachings of Islam or have they been concocted by some people in order to maintain control over a sector of society so that they alone can benefit optimally. It is our duty as Muslims to refresh people's memories and look to our Glorious Qur'an and our glorious past. Let us look at the status and position and role of women in Qur'an and early Islam.

The fundamental principle of Islam is Tauhid - the unity of the human race under the sovereignty of the One and Only, Universal Divine Allah. Islam's message of peace affirms the equality of all human beings, and rejects all discrimination on the basis of race, class and gender.

Yes, Allah is the Sovereign and we succumb to Him and put aside our preferences, prejudices, and traditions and culture which are secondary to Allah's injunctions.

The Qur'an declares the absolute moral and spiritual equality of men and women.

"For Muslim men and Muslim women, for believing men and believing women, for devout men and devout women, for true men and true 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."(Sura 33:35)

This passage makes a clear statement about the absolute equality of the human moral condition and identical spiritual and moral obligations placed on all individuals regardless of sex. Incidentally, this is one of the passages that addresses women directly. It is related that the women asked the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) about why the Qur'an addressed only men when women too accepted God and His prophet. This question occasioned the revelation of the Qur'anic verses explicitly addressing women as well as men - a response that unequivocally shows Muhammad's (pbuh) and Allah's readiness to hear women. Thereafter the Qur'an explicitly addressed women a number of times.

I would like to read Sura 3:195 to you:

"And their Lord has accepted of them, and answered them: 'Never will I suffer to be lost the work of any of you, male or female. You are members, one of another: Those who have left their homes, or been driven out therefrom, or suffered harm in My Cause, or fought or been slain, verily, I will blot out from them their iniquities, and admit them into gardens with rivers flowing beneath. A reward from the presence of Allah, and from His presence is the best of rewards.'"

Allah clearly tells us here that we are members of one and the same human race, and therefore equal to one another.

We read in the Qur'an that taqwa (God-consciousness) is the only distinguishing factor between human beings.

"O humankind! We created you from a single (pair of a) male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (not that you may despise each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous (or God-conscious) of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things)."(Sura 49:13)

And taqwa - "God consciousness" - is definitely not determined by gender!

Another interesting fact about women in the Qur'an is that Allah relates instances when woman received wahy (revelation). Oftentime the assertion is made that there has never been a female prophet. To that I say that there is no conclusive evidence that there did not exist a woman prophet. And yes, women have received wahy. Allah sent a messenger who carried Allah's message to Mary (pbuh):

"She placed a screen (to screen herself) from them; then We sent her our angel, and he appeared before her as a man in all respects. She said: 'I seek refuge in The Most Gracious from you: (come not near) if you are conscious of Allah.' He said: 'No, I am only a messenger from your Lord, (to announce) to you the gift of a holy son.'"  (Sura 19:17-19)

Allah also "spoke" to the mother of Musa:

"And We revealed to Musa's mother, saying: 'Give him suck, then when you fear for him, cast him into the river and do not fear nor grieve; surely We will bring him back to you and make him one of the messengers.'"(Sura 28:7).

And, in the Qur'an we read the story of Bilqis, the Queen of Sheba. Most Muslims hold leadership as improper for women. The Qur'an uses no terms to imply that leadership is inappropriate for a woman. On the contrary, the Qur'anic story of Bilqis celebrates both her political and religious practices:

"But the Hoopoe tarried not far: he (came up and) said: 'I have compassed (territory) which you have not compassed, and I have come to you from Sheba with tidings true. I found (there) a woman ruling over them and provided with every requisite; and she has a magnificent throne..."(Sura 27:22-23).

These verses and the verses following them  tell us of a wise woman; a woman who recognises the goodness in the Propeht Sulaiman (Solomon) just from his letter to her; a woman who rules her people through consultation; a woman who readily recognises and accepts the Truth when Solomon presents it to her.

What is interesting is that Allah, The Most Wise, has not specified any particular role for all men or all women. The Qur'an does not propose or support a singular role or single definition of a set of roles, exclusively, for each gender across every culture.

This thus allows individuals the freedom to decide on their functions and roles best suited to their contexts. This must, of course, be done by maintaining fairness and equality through mutual consultation, mercy, consideration and compassion between those affected by the decision.

Women do have a special and exclusive function; and that is procreation. The Qur'an elevates this special function in Sura 4 Verse 1:

"O humankind! Reverence your Guardian-Lord... reverence Allah, through whom you demand your mutual (rights), and (reverence) the wombs (that bore you)."

Another aspect that engenders the equal worth of individuals is that the Qur'an does not set value for particular deeds between men and women. Note verse 195 in Sura 3:

"Never will I suffer to be lost the work of any of you, male or female. You are members, one of another

In contemporary society this is not so. Much more value is attached to the work that men do. Domestic work is not less of a good deed than going out of the house to work. I believe that there is space in Islam to actually attach monetary value to domestic work done by  wives. Indeed, some classical scholars have stated that women should be paid even for breastfeeding their own children! And if the criteria for valuing any function is monetary value then we should insist that all these functions should also have monetary values attached to them.



Let us now take a step back into our history and look at the various roles our sheroes played in the societies they lived in. I admit I will be focusing on and emphasising the active and assertive roles they played. We have been taught well about what is traditionally considered to be pious about our early Muslim sisters. But what about the other roles they played?

Women were actively involved in warfare.

Umm 'Umara was known for her effectiveness with weapons. The Prophet (pbuh) commented that she was better than many men. Umm 'Umara fought in many battles and she lost her hand in one of them.

Umm Hakim single handedly disposed of seven Byzantine soldiers in the battle of Marj al- Saffar.

In one expedition against a Persian seaport the women, led by Azdah bint al-Harith turned their veils into flags, marching in martial array to the battlefield. They were mistaken for fresh reinforcements, which struck fear into the hearts of the enemy, and this contributed - at a critical moment - to the victory of the Muslims.



Women of the first Muslim community attended the mosque, took part in religious services on feast days, and listened to Muhammad's (pbuh) discourses. They were not just passive listeners and docile followers, but actively participated in discussion and questioned, confronted and challenged.

This practice continued even in 'Umar's time - when he was caliph. It is reported that when 'Umar attempted to limit the dowry in a khutbah in the mosque, a woman challenged his ruling and 'Umar conceded that "the woman is correct and 'Umar is wrong".

Talking about the mighty 'Umar, strong-headed and strong-willed... He never forbade his own wife to attend the mosque because he knew that this was a betrayal of the Prophet's teaching. In fact, he tried some dubious means to discourage her. He once hid in an alley and frightened her to illustrate the danger of women being harassed by the hypocrites while they were going to mosque. He was not successful; his wife continued on her way to the mosque!

Woman participated in political activities.

When Makkah was recaptured by the Muslims (Fath Makkah) many woman came to give their allegiance to Islam. They refused to offer their allegiance to 'Umar and insisted that they wanted to give it to the Prophet (pbuh) himself. The Prophet conceded and this was at a public assembly of men and women.

Women like Asma bint Abu Bakr were active in the workforce. She shared the responsibility of supporting her family with her husband by working away from her home.

Women were given the responsibility of running the affairs of state. A woman - Shifa bint 'abd Allah - was appointed controller of the market of Madinah by the Prophet. She was reappointed by 'Umar when he became caliph.

The Prophet left it in the hands of his wife Umm Salamah to advise the Muslims to forgo the haj and to rather sign the treaty of Hudaibiyya.

'Aisha, the prophet's wife, was a reporter of many of the Prophet's traditions. She also addressed the congregation at the mosque and led an army in battle.

In the private domain women also exercised their rights.

They enjoyed the freedom of stipulating their demands in their marriage contract. An illustrious example is the story of Sukayna, the great-grand-daughter of the Prophet, daughter of Husayn. In her marriage contract she stipulated that she would not obey her husband and denied her husbands had the right to practise polygamy. She brought a case against one of her husbands who had violated her rule of monogamy. The judge was obliged to hear her case.

Yet when we attempt to assert ourselves as Muslim women we are accused of being influenced by the West, and attempting to cause divisions and putting Muslims and Islam to disrepute.

The renowned author Fatima Mernissi, says in Women and Islam that such a person is "one who misunderstands his own cultural heritage. The vast and inspiring records of Muslim history so brilliantly completed for us by scholars such as Ibn Hisham, Ibn Hajar, Ibn Sa'ad and Tabari speak to the contrary.

"We Muslim women can walk into the modern world with pride, knowing that the quest for dignity, democracy, and human rights, for full participation in the political and social affairs of our country , stems from no imported Western values, but is a true part of Muslim tradition.

"Women fled aristocratic tribal Mecca by the thousands to enter Medina, the Prophet's city in the 7th century, because Islam promised equality and dignity for all, for men and women, masters and servants. Every woman who came to Medina when the Prophet was the political leader of the Muslims could gain access to full citizenship, the status of sahabi, companion of the Prophet. Muslims can take pride that in their language they have the feminine of that word, sahabiyat, women who enjoyed the right to enter into the councils of the Muslim umma, to speak freely to its Prophet-leader, to dispute with men, to fight for their happiness, and to be involved in the management of military and political affairs. The evidence is there in the works of religious  history, in the biographical details of sahabiyyat by the thousands who built Muslim society side by side with their male counterparts."

Lastly, let us look at some of the challenges facing us as we aspire towards the realisation of our goals of justice and a better society.

(Unfortunately, this section was not completed by Shamima in the paper version we have, although she did present it at the meeting. And no recording exists to be able to complete it. Thus we simply reproduce here the points in her notes. - editor)

1.       Addressing the misrepresentation and misemphasis in Islam (which is contrary to what we see in the Qur'an and in History).

2.       Realising what the position and roles of men and women are.

3.       Addressing the problems of gender relationships in Muslim communities and outside, gender imbalances.

4.       Muslim Personal Law

5.       Muslim women and the Muslim public domain.

6.       Campaigns.



Journey of Discovery:
A South African Hajj

by Shamima Shaikh and
Na'eem Jeenah


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