We have been used to thinking that women have been created for the family life and for raising children, and thus their natural place is in their homes. Nothing in the Quran or Sunna clearly supports such a view or assumption. Such a division of labor between the husband who earns the living of the family and the wife who stays at home doing housework is a societal experience, which has occurred for a very long time throughout history in so many societies, including the Arab society at the time of Islam, and the subsequent Muslim as well as other societies until recent times when change has come out. Women learn and work equally to men, and the family responsibilities are requiring more financial resources. Caring about the home has to be reviewed, and the Prophet's traditions indicate his assistance to his wives.
However, such a modern experience of women's work and the consequent need for husband's help in the housework in so many countries does not necessarily mean that it is an eternal natural law. Social change never stops; and norms are introduced, maintained or abandoned according to their practical benefit.
In English, the verb form "to husband" denotes the mastery and management of the house, and "husbandry" may mean the control of resources and careful management or the or production of plants and animals. The word "groom"-used in bridegroom-is related to feeding. This may merely reflect a societal tradition that has existed throughout history. The Arabic language, however, differently uses the same word "zawj" meaning mate or companion of the other, for both husband and wife. Some may add the feminine suffix "h" to "zawj" to indicate that the word in a particular context means wife, but this is not a linguistic rule or obligation, and the Quran uses the word "zawj" and its plural "azwaj" to mean wife and wives respectively [e.g. 2:35, 102, 232, 234, 240, 4:12, 20, 6:139, 7:19, 13:38, 20:117, 21:90, 23:6, 24:6, 26:166, 33:4, 6, 28, 37, 25, 50, 53, 59, 60:11, 66:1, 3, 5, 70:31, as well as for husband and its plural [e.g. 2:230, 232, 58:1]. One may argue whether a woman's work is better from various angles for the family than her stay at home or not. I may go further to say that some Muslim women, and non-Muslim as well, may prefer to stay at home, but this does not mean that this is God's law that is explicitly spelled out in the Quran or the Sunna. The discussion has to be moved from theology to sociology, or from the divine laws to the human thinking and experience.
Moreover, the Arabic word "qawwamun", with its preposition "'ala" which describes the relation of men to women in the Quranic verse 4:34, does not imply any superiority, but simply means "taking full care of". The verse reads: "Men take full care of women, for what God has granted some of them distinctively from the other, and what they may spend out of their possessions". The distinctiveness between men and women is related to the woman's pregnancy, delivery, and nursing, which make it necessary that the man should have the responsibility to provide for her needs and the needs of the children, at least when she is hindered with such a distinctive natural function of reproduction. This hindrance is not permanent, and it cannot be a reason to keep the women at home all her life, and neither does it hinder her intellectual and psychological merits. She is not supposed to bear children or raise them all her life, and at a certain age children have to go to school. Further, suppose that a woman may not marry or bear children, what, then, should keep her at home?
It is time to look to the woman as an equal human being, not just as a bearer and raiser of children, a cook, a home-cleaner, or a dishes and dirty-laundry washer etc. The family life and raising children require a join-effort of both the man and the woman. Since the woman has her right and obligation in obtaining an education according to the guidance of Islam, it is good for her personality and for the society, just as it may be good for the family itself to support the woman's right to work, and as long as this right is beneficial for all parties, it should be secured.
The woman's right to inheritance is stated in the Quran, and an addition can be supplemented by writing a will which has priority over the mandatory distribution of inheritance stated in the Quran [14:11-12]. The Muslim should feel his/(her) responsibility to write his (her) will as the Quran urges, even when one realizes suddenly that she (he) is on the brink of death without having it prepared [2:180, 240, 5:106-8]. In the society, men and women are equally and jointly in charge of and responsible for one another in fulfilling their collective obligations towards the public as a whole [9:71]. A woman has the right to vote, to be a member of parliament, a minister, a judge, and even an officer in the army. Which jobs may or may not be convenient to her should be decided-by women themselves not imposed on them, according to their own conviction and interests. In a modern state bodies rule not individuals, and women in executive, legislative and judiciary positions are included in bodies and are subject to a system. Laws are codified, and discretionary decisions are subject to be reviewed by those who have higher positions or by the courts. Not a single man or women has absolute power in a modern state.
Considering two women equal to one man in witnessing a documentation of a credit is connected with a certain practical consideration that is explicitly mentioned in the Quranic text: "so that if one of them [the two women] might make a mistake, the other could remind her" [Quran 2:282]. Women might not in general be familiar with business matters and their financial and legal requirements, especially in Arabia at the time of the Prophets message, but this does not mean that a woman who has had the necessary education or business experience cannot be equal to a man in this respect. Classical jurists pointed out that this is not a general rule for the testimony of a woman, and that the testimony of one woman is sufficient if she knows what she is witnessing and is reliable. In our times, should not a woman who may be a lawyer or an accountant be equal to a man in witnessing a documentation of a transaction? How can some prominent jurists allow a woman to be a judge with full jurisdiction on all matters, if she cannot be a full witness in the first place? Is it not obvious that the limitation regarding her witnessing a document of credit is understood as only conditional and related to certain circumstances?
Monogamy Not Polygyny
What goes with nature and fulfills the "solemn pledge" of marriage is the general rule of marriage in Islam (Quran 4:21). A normal man cannot split his own self into parts, each for a different woman and his children from her. However, Islam allowed - not ordered or recommended - that a man may have another wife exceptionally when this may be necessary. A wife may be seriously and incurably ill for all her remaining life, and her husband may be sincerely committed to take care of her, but he, their children and the ill wife may need badly a woman to take care of the family. It is up to both of the initial wife and the suggested co-wife to accept or reject freely such a second marriage, and no one can impose on any of them a marriage against her will, according to the Islamic law. Each should know that she would be a co-wife, for a legal marriage cannot be mutually based on or maintained on fraud and deception. It is required to register in such a marriage that both the previous and the new wives-know precisely the situation and have no objection.
Islam did not establish polygamy in Arabia nor in the world. Polygyny - the form of polygamy in which a man marries more than one woman - alongside with the reversed form of polygamy: "polyandry" (in which a woman marries more than one husband) still exists in every part of the world, but it is not frequent among African peoples" according to the Academic American Encyclopedia. It is known that polygamy prevailed in the patriarchal age, and was permitted in principle under the Mosaic law, and continued to later times - according to Smith's Bible Dictionary. The Bible mentioned that Solomon had many wives [I Kings 11:3].
According to the Quran, the permission of marrying more than one wife has several restrictions, as it reads:
"And if you fear that you may cause the orphans injustice, then marry women of your choice who are lawful to you, two, or three, or four, But if you have reason to fear that you may not be able to deal justly with them, then marry only one... This makes it more likely that you will not deviate from the right course for have a family whose maintenance exceeds your ability"' (Quran 4:3)
A ceiling was put to polygyny, restricting the maximum number of legitimate co-wives to four.
It is related to an injustice suffered by the orphans, and widows may be added; a suffering which may refer to after-war circumstances, when many women became widows and have to take care of their orphaned children, including girls in the age of marriage.
Fairness in treating the co-wives is a pre-condition for having more than one wife; otherwise one wife is, the general rule and normal situation "so that you may not deviate from the right course," through unfair treatment or a lack of due material and moral care for a big family of co-wives and numerous children.
Another Quranic verse shows how almost impossible it is to maintain such an equal fairness among co-wives, and how difficult it is to be even close to such equal fairness (4:129). Injustice would be suffered not only by the co-wives but also by their children who have to live as half brothers and sisters. The required spousal "love and tenderness" (30:21) would certainly be undermined in such complicated "partnership."
Prophet Muhammad emphasized clearly the general rule and normal situation of monogamy, when he heard that his cousin Ali was to take another wife beside the Prophet's daughter Fatima, underlining the rights of the wife and her family to know about the other marriage and to reject it. From a practical viewpoint, a woman would never accept to share a man with another woman, unless women outnumber men in certain circumstances, and it may be better to accept the reality temporarily until the balance is restored, rather than to have them suffer psychologically and socially. If the family has to be a model for the whole society in its harmonious relations and fulfillment of all responsibilities (25:74), one man and one women only can establish such a strong and balanced nucleus that can provide such a model in the mutual relations within the family and with the whole society. Polygyny has been permitted with restrictions, exceptionally and temporarily, while men and women were educated and persuaded to develop a monogamous society, which is prevalent now in many Muslim communities. In some Muslim countries, there are laws that control having more than one wife.
The teachings of Islam about the religious and social importance of marriage and the necessity of justice, tranquility and pleasance within the family, have developed in recent times an attitude on monogamy among the Muslims, similar to what occurred before among the Jews, of whom many today may not be aware that polygyny was allowed in their Scriptures and practiced by their ancestors for a longtime time. To this day, cases of polygamy occur among the Yemenite Jews and the Sephardi Jews of the near East.
Modesty Not Segregation
The social role of women requires mixing with men. As Islam does not permit any discrimination between men and women, nor does it advocate a segregation between them as it may be widely understood because of long-standing socio-cultural practices or views. What Islam forbids actually is that one man and one woman stay together in seclusion and privacy (khalwa), if they are not married to each other but they are marriageable according to Shari'a. "Khalwa" cannot apply to a public place, or a place in which others may enter any time such as small offices and shops.
Modesty is required in the outdoor dress for both Muslim women and men. However, there is no specific uniformed dress recommended for a Muslim woman. Purda, chadour, 'abaya, quftan or hayik are local fashions preferred by women in particular places, and may be changed in any time according to the change of taste. However, various designs or fashions should comply with the basic and permanent requirements of an Islamic dress. The Quran underlines such requirements for a woman's dress in the following verse:
"O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters as well as all [other] believing women that hey should draw over themselves some of their outer garments [when in public]: this will be more conducive to being recognized [as decent women] and not annoyed." (Quran 33:59)
Moreover, certain decent behavior has to be observed beyond the dress:
"Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and to be [mindful of their chastity and] guarding their private parts, this is more conducive to their purity. ...And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and to be [mindful of their chastity and] guarding their private parts, and not to display their charms [in public] beyond what may [decently] be apparent thereof; hence let them draw their head-coverings over their bosoms... and let them not tap [the ground] with their legs [in walking] so as to draw attention to their hidden charms..." [Quran 24:30-31].
Muhammad Asad comments: "Khimra" denotes the head-covering customarily used by Arabian women before and after the advent of Islam. According to most of classical commentators, it was worn in pre-Islamic times more or less as an ornament and was let down loosely over the wearer's neck; and since the fashion of the time [made] a wide opening in the front of the upper part of a woman' tunic, this allowed her breast to be bare. Hence, covering the bosom by khimar does not necessarily relate to the use of khimar as such, but is rather to make it clear that a woman's breast [should be covered and] is not included in "what may decently be apparent" of her body.
In this light, Islam allows any dress that fulfills the required modesty for a decent woman, and the creativity of fashion designers has to combine elegance and modesty in women's dresses since one does not negate the other. The attractiveness and respectability of a woman - the same as of a man - are due to one's personality as a whole, with all intellectual and psychological dimensions, and not to what is physically exposed of one's body. It is against the human dignity and equality to focus on the physical attraction of a woman, in her social performance with men, the same as this is required from men when they associate with women. In an open society, men and women are equally responsible in "enjoying the doing of what is right and good and forbidding the doing of what is wrong and evil" (Quran 9:71).
Fathi Osman was a prominent Muslim thinker born in Egypt in 1928 and died in Southern California in 2010. He studied the development of contemporary Islamic thinking since 1947. He has written extensively about the process of change in Islamic concepts, human and gender rights in Islamic and Western perspectives, the Islamic approach to pluralism, the analysis of Islamic history and its interpretation. He has published more than 30 books in Arabic and English which represent new approaches in Islamic thinking. Many of his books, including "Reflections" in "Arabia: the Islamic World Review" published in London 1981-1987, have been translated into several languages.
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