03/02/2010, 00.00
Send to a friend

Women, equality and Islam: Rethinking the faith to meet the expectations of modern man

by Samir Khalil Samir, SJ
It is the only way to overcome the contrast between the verses of the Koran and sayings of the Sunna (tradition) of Prophet of Islam that sometimes do not point in the same direction. Some praise women or speak neutrally about them, others say they are temptresses and that hell is populated by women. Also, some verses speak of equality between men and women, some of inequality. Today the question is a juridical rather than cultural one.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – On February 20 last, the University of Italian Switzerland, located in Lugano, organized an international meeting on the situation of Muslim women. They had invited a certain Dr Huda Himmat as chair of the debate, who developed the following title: "Submissive ... to whom?! Muslim women speak for themselves".

Who is Huda Himmat? She is a freelance entrepreneur, has a Masters in International Law from the University of London, and until recently was the vice-president of FEMYSO (Forum of European Muslim Youth and Student Organizations) whose headquarters is in Brussels.  She is the daughter of Ali Ghaleb Himmat, who was born in Damascus in 1938, a naturalized Italian since 1990 and resident in Campione d'Italia.  He is co-director of Taqwa Bank, the Bank of the Muslim Brotherhood and head of Islamic Gesellschaft in Deutschland, founded by Sa'id Ramadan, the father of Tareq and Hani Ramadan. Huda Himmat grew up in Campione d'Italia, and for some months, is a spokesman of the "Islamic Community of Ticino”.  

The Chairwoman has insisted that discrimination against women in Islam does not depend on the Koran or the Sunna, but how they are interpreted, and is due to ignorance of the poor and the machismo of some men. Muhammad never hit a woman, and many Koranic verses speak of the dignity of women. There are problems, but also in Europe, where domestic violence is the leading cause of death for women. However, in Islam there is the subjugation of women, as St. Paul says.

We often hear these reflections from the mouths of Muslims in Europe. Moreover we often hear that Islam has liberated the Arab woman. These apologetic speeches include elements of truth but others that are not accurate. I think it useful to take stock of the situation, to bring some clarity. What is more, my goal is to affirm the ability of Islam to evolve and to help change society, provided they agree to reconsider their faith in depth. Since this work is very difficult, we must do this together, Christians and Muslims and others, in friendship and fraternity.  

The "International Women's Day," which will celebrate the March 8 and that is unfortunately becoming more and more a connotation of mere trade, is an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of equality between women and men, and too real inequalities in many countries of the world, Islamic and non Islamic.

 * * *

 There are verses of the Koran and sayings of the Sunna (tradition) of the prophet of Islam that sometimes do not point in the same direction. Some praise women or speak of them in neutral terms, others say they are the temptresses and that hell is populated by women. Also, some verses speak of equality between men and women, some of inequality. What is the correct attitude to adopt?  

Muslim authors generally tend towards apologetics: if they want to justify a concept choose the verses that best support their argument. But this is an unacceptable method, because it is selective. We must always keep in mind the overall vision of the Koran on the issues that are raised, giving the pros and cons. If not, we risk distorting the text of the Koran.

Need to reinterpret the Koran in every age  

In the Koran there is plenty of discrimination. More specifically there is no equality in principle, that men and women have equal rights. This is not surprising. In the Bible we find, perhaps even greater, inequality between men and women. It is normal, because God speaks to men according to their language and their mentality, but it is up to men to understand the intent of the revealed text.  

In Islam, there is the same principle that consists of finding "the purpose of the Sharia" (maqâsid al-shari'ah). Muslims who read the Koran as if it were an immutable text literally applicable to all times and in all places, create the problem. It is their way of understanding the Koran, and of applying laws, which poses problems.  

Is it possible to reinterpret the Koran?  Of course! But it is easier said than done. We must establish criteria for interpretation, ie a "hermeneutics." This is what exegetes of the Koran are lacking today. The reason? For at least seven centuries, no one has done so: thinking has been blocked. The more time passes, the more difficult this task becomes. Today, some Muslims are trying to do so academically, but are immediately accused of ignorance in religious matters or indeed, of heresy. As for the learned in religious matters (the ulamâ ' or "ulema"), they only serve to repeat the comments of the ancient classical interpretations (tafsîr).

Only a cultural problem?  

It is often said that the problem is not the Koran, which is perfect. The problem is the ignorance of the faithful, ancestral traditions, or the culture of the various Islamic countries. Which is also true. But the question, without resolving the problem, results in another: where does this ignorance, these traditions, this culture come from? Why do so many Muslims attribute to these traditions and this macho culture an Islamic religious value? But if the problem is the traditions and cultures in which it is interpreted, then by what right are they transformed into divine laws?  

The argument that it is only a problem of some countries and some cultures is not correct: it is a very general problem in the Islamic world. Taking Tunisia and Syria as examples of equality between the sexes, is rather the anti-demonstration. Indeed, in Tunisia or Syria if there is more freedom for women and more equality between the sexes, it is not because of Islam, but for the fact that these two countries have made moderate secular choices. In the 1950’s under the influence of President Bourguiba, Tunisia adopted secular law to solve this problem, and Syria did the same with the secular ideology of the Baath.  

In fact, where there is a secular, not Muslim, system there is a certain freedom. Every time a country tries to be more "Muslim", to "return to authentic Islam," it is the woman who pays the consequences! However, where Sharia law is not enforced, there is more freedom.

The theological problem, that of hermeneutics  

Ms Himmat is right to argue that the problem is in interpretation, but why can you not change the interpretation of the past? Because behind it there is a rigid conception of revelation, which does not allow the uniform development of exegesis. If I say that the text of the Koran is revealed by God, that it "descended from heaven to Mohammed" and is not be touched, then the possibility of interpretation no longer exists. We must have the honesty to interpret the Koran, saying that revelation passed through men of a specific culture in a specific context of space and time.   

Instead, what we do in our Arab world is say that the Koran and Sharia are perfect, but we and our societies are bad and we are not eager to apply the Law of God. Let me mention an episode: three years ago an Iranian student couple came to see me in Beirut to do a PhD with me. The husband, who spoke better Arabic, explained that his wife wanted to do her thesis on "The Role of Women in Islam and Christianity", to show that Islam had freed woman. We went to the library and I showed them some fifty books written in Arabic all of them with the single purpose: to show that Islam has liberated women and the Koran, Shariah and Islam are innocent in relation to discrimination!

Legal inequality in the name of Islam  

But in fact and principle this is not the case: the legal differences are numerous. To cite some examples:

- A woman's testimony in court is worth half that of a man;

- The female (daughter, sister, etc..) inherits half the amount of the male (son, brother, etc..). But in the Shiite giafarita school, which represents about 13% of Muslims, there is no difference between male and female;

- A woman has no right to travel without the permission of the husband or father, or brother, or son, in short, of a male. In Egypt, for example, this principle also applies to Christians and I personally have refused to give permission to travel to my mother, explaining that for us Christians, the child has no authority on the mother ... and I finally obtained an exception!

- A man does not need a woman’s permission, not even his wife’s, to travel; some law schools forbid a wife to leave the house without the permission of her husband (also in the West), while reciprocity is not supported by any school;

- A male can marry up to four wives simultaneously, if he has the ability to maintain them, while the female can not marry more than one man;

- Men can buy all the concubines he desires, according to the Koran, while the woman can not have a concubine;

- The husband can divorce his wife even without a trial in court, while the wife can only ask him the favour of being repudiated;

- A Muslim man can marry a Christian or a Jew, even if they remains such, and do not convert to Islam, while Muslim women can not marry a Christian or a Jew who remains such, unless they convert to Islam;

- The children belong to the father, the mother can only care for them until the age of 7;

- Children must take the religion of the father nor the mother, even if they want to.  

Note that these points are not derived from traditional or liberal culture, they are all legal, considered Muslim and are derived from the Koran or the Sunna (the tradition of Muhammad), accepted by most Muslims. The male chauvinist tradition adds to customs that restrict the space for women and increase inequality between the sexes, such as the terrible “honour killings" widespread in Muslim societies.  

An important legal issue is the question of impurity of women due to physiological menstruation or childbirth. When the woman has her period she is ritually impure. She can not do the five daily prayers, because her prayer is invalid. She can not touch a Koran. She can not practice the fasting of Ramadan and has to recoup for her impure days after Ramadan. For this reason a man can not touch a woman at risk of becoming impure as if she was already unclean; he can only hold her hand if she is wearing a glove or something similar to prevent direct contact that transmits impurities.  

This conception of impurity of the woman belongs to the Semitic culture and is found in Judaism as well as in ancient Christianity and other religions and cultures. The characteristic of Islam is to legalize this cultural dimension to this day (in this, Islam is close to Orthodox Judaism). The psychological and sociological consequences for women are severe.  

Inequalities based on the Koran and the Sunna  

The inequality between man and woman has a basis in some passages of the Koran, and in many sayings attributed to Muhammad, the most frequently quoted saying: "The woman is deficient in mind and religion" (al-Mar’ah nâqisah ‘aqlan wa-dînan).  

In the Koran, equality before God between a man and woman is total. The best of the two is the most devout. But the question is not "before God" or "in the eyes of God": it is in everyday life.  

Three verses are often cited that report as the "official" version of the UCOII:

2 / 223 "Your wives are as a field for you [to plow]. You may enjoy this privilege however you like"( Nisâ’ukum harthun lakum, fa’tû harthakum annâ shi’tum). Three words are important: Harth = "tilth" lakum = "that belongs to you"; annâ = how, many translations explain "how and when." The verse therefore means: "Your wives are a tithe that belongs to you. Come then to plow your field how and when you want".  From this we infer that the wife is often the sexual property of her husband, who is entitled to possess her how and when he wants".  For the "how", the English version of Saudi Arabia states: "have sexual relations with your wives in any manner as long as it is in the vagina and not in the anus”, while others do not recognize this limitation.

2 / 228, " The divorced women shall wait three menstruations, and it is not lawful for them to conceal what Allah creates in their wombs (arhâm = lit. uterus), if they believe in Allah and the Last Day. And their husbands (bu'ûl = lit. Lords) wishes shall supersede the wife's wishes, if he wants to remarry her. The women have rights, as well as obligations, equitably. Thus, the man's wishes prevail.  Allah is mighty, most wise".  The phrase "but men are superior" translates wa-li-l-rigâli ‘alayhinna daragah, which literally means "men supersede them by a degree."

4/34    “The men are made responsible (qawwâmûn) for the women, Allah has endowed them with certain qualities, and made them the bread earners. The righteous women will cheerfully accept this arrangement, since it is Allah commandment. If you experience rebellion from the women, you shall first talk to them, then desert them in bed, then you may   beat them. If they obey you, you are not permitted to transgress against them. Allah is most high, supreme.”.

It is the verse most often quoted. Qawwâmûn is often translated as "have authority". The reason given by the Koran for this predominance is twofold: the first is divine preference (faddala Allah), the second is of a financial nature. If the man fears the insubordination (nushûz) of the woman, he will use three means to bring her back to abeyance: exhortation, sexual deprivation (but he has other wives, as well as the slaves purchased, as the Koran specifies), and finally beatings.  

Obviously, at a human level, there is no equality between man and woman, husband and wife. This is no surprise to anyone: we are in Arabia, at the beginning of the seventh century. The Koran is addressed to specific people, using their culture. Like when it speaks of sentences (hudud) to be imposed on those who steal or commit adultery, etc.. What is surprising, in reality, is the fact that Muslims have not rethought the texts revealed by God to adapt them to the situation and culture of today.

A personal reflection to conclude  

Allow me a personal reflection. All religions are faced with this problem, not just Islam, like all civilizations should regularly rethink their constitutions and laws, to save the initial motivation by expressing them new concrete ways. This rethinking is not a betrayal, but faithfulness to the spirit.  

In my opinion, the Muslim world is in a difficult phase, experiencing a crisis of growth. The West exerts a strong attraction-repulsion in the Muslim world. The temptation is to entirely adopt or entirely reject the West. Both solutions are wrong. We must, we Arabs and Muslims, discern: Follow the great principles of Western humanities, to restore to the Arab and Muslim dignity and freedom, and reject all that degrades and debases humans (ie women and men) and their spiritual dignity, whether it is Islam or Christianity, modernity and tradition. Above all, it is hateful to establish any inequality among human beings (based on sex or religion, on  social status or race, etc..) basing it on religion, as it is odious to justify violence in the name of religion or God  

We must travel this path together, believers and non-believers, Westerners and foreigners, people of the "first world" and the "third world". Beyond faith or atheism, a true and deep humanism, soaked in spirituality - being the man of body, mind and spirit - will allow us to work together to find a certain harmony which appears today in the process of disappearing. Islam is not the enemy, not even Christianity, Judaism or other religions are. Intolerance and the excommunication of the other (takfîr) are the real enemies. The task of the believer is to rethink the faith to respond with depth to the expectations of today’s world.   

Send to a friend
Printable version
See also
For Fr Tom, abducted in Yemen, Holy Thursday prayer and adoration for the martyrs
21/03/2016 14:57
Debate on apostasy and political Islam
Mohammed Bin Salman attempts to reform Islam
08/05/2021 11:06
Tunis: Arab world's most modern constitution comes into effect
The resurgence of Islamic terrorism after the Arab Spring


Subscribe to Asia News updates or change your preferences

Subscribe now
“L’Asia: ecco il nostro comune compito per il terzo millennio!” - Giovanni Paolo II, da “Alzatevi, andiamo”