At a recent Islam Awareness Week organized by the Muslim Student Association of The College of William and Mary (located in Williamsburg Virginia), Professor Tamara Sonn gave an enlightening presentation on "Women in Islam: Tradition and Change". Tamara Sonn is the College's Kenan Professor of Humanities, Religious Studies. She tackled many misconceptions about women in the Islamic faith.
Generalizations about Women in Islam
Lecture by Tamara Sonn
Sonn introduced her topic with a complaint. "Everyone is always coming up to me and saying, 'I don't really know much about Islam, but I sure don't like how they treat their women,'" she said. "People always want to hear about 'women in Islam,' so I usually turn it around and say, OK, but first, you tell me about 'women in Christianity.'"
Sonn explained that "there are very few things you can say about all Muslim women. How can you characterize one half of one fifth of the world's population?" she asked.
Women in the Quran
But then, diving into the true subject of her talk, she explained that "the Qur'an has a great deal to say about women-and it has a great deal to say that is positive about women." Sonn spent the remainder of her lecture explaining the truly progressive nature of the Qur'an in the context of the highly patriarchal society within which it developed.
She mentioned some of the practices common at the time, including female infanticide and sons inheriting their father's wives-"just imagine hearing that added bonus at the reading of the will," she said.
The Qur'an is progressive because at a time in which females were devalued, it explicitly insists on equality between the sexes. Sonn cited Chapter 3, which claims that whoever does good deeds, male or female, whoever believes, male or female, etc. will be favored in the eyes of God.
The Qur'an also gives women the right of inheritance, which was historically forbidden, and which women in Western societies did not attain until the late 19th century. It also specifies that a woman's marriage dowry was to be given to the individual woman, not to her family.
Sonn went on to explain that the Qur'an provides several examples of strong, powerful, dominant female figures. She used the prophet's wife and one of his first followers as an example. "She was a successful business woman whom he actually worked for, and who proposed to him," Sonn said. "People were not afraid to put forth women as models for believers-and not just for women believers, but for all believers."
Patriarchy and Misogyny
Muslim women have a leg-up on women in many other religions because the scripture, itself, gives them rights ..
Sonn also emphasized the difference between patriarchy, and misogyny. She explained that many of the Islamic practices that feminist complain about, such as hijab (meaning both the headscarf worn by Muslim women and the institution of separating the sexes) was introduced as a protection for women and not out of hatred toward them. She explained that hijab is introduced in the Qur'an during the prophet's wedding, when guests rudely wandered into the private quarters of the house. In response to this transgression, they were told that when they ask something of a woman, they must do so behind a curtain in order to protect the privacy and privilege of the woman.
Sonn reminded her audience that "most authorities on the Qur'an would agree that to describe it as demeaning to women would discredit its overall teaching of equality." She explained that the trouble comes not from the scripture itself but from interpretations of the Qur'an which date mainly to the medieval period.
Both Adam and Eve share the fall from heaven
"In the Qur'an's creation story, it is Adam, or Adam and his wife, who are to blame, but it wasn't just the wife's fault. Why do I stress this? Because women are always being blamed for everything! This is a common tradition, but it does not originate from the Qur'an ... . Then the medieval commentators in the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries give us more details, and reveal that, 'Oh, it was all Eve's fault,'" Sonn explained. "I don't know where they got this stuff!"
Human interpretation, Quran and Shariah
Reformers today are looking back to the text of the Qur'an and are saying there is something unique about the scriptures: the absolute moral equality of men and women. The inequalities are just a matter of deviation by human beings creating legislation.
Sonn then explained the distinction between shari'ah, or Islamic law given by God, and fiqh, or the science of legislation enacted by human beings. Sonn claimed that we now have a responsibility to revisit shari'ah and develop legislation that is more in line with contemporary moral society, remembering that the basic ideology of the Qur'an treats women and men with equality. She went on to state that, "with such strong language about equality between the sexes, reformers claim it is unthinkable that the Qur'an would envision a society that marginalizes women.
During the question and answer portion of the lecture, one student asked about the logic of women inheriting only half as much as men. Sonn reminded her audience of the context of the verse. "We have to understand that the right to inheritance of any level was an enormous improvement for women at that time ... But yes, there's pre-Islam patriarchy, and the residuals of this seeped into the legislative derivation." Sonn explained that there is certainly some human engineering involved in many contemporary laws, such as women not being allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. But she joked, "I think I'd prefer a chauffeur. I'm not necessarily a fan of equality in that case."
Sonn concluded by asserting her belief that as education increases, and people learn their rights, there will be a greater equality for women throughout the Muslim world. "And Muslim women have a leg-up on women in many other religions because the scripture, itself, gives them rights," she said.
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