Question: Does Islam Restrict Women's Rights?
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Women's rights is a topic that is frequently brought up in discussions about Islam and Muslim countries. There is no doubt that this is a very important topic that must be addressed. There should be no doubt about it, and there should be no vagueness in addressing it. Muslim tradition teaches us that every human being has rights that no one is permitted to take away from them. In fact, among the reasons that God revealed Islam to humanity is to protect and defend human rights and to fight against oppression and transgression against people's rights.
As a starting point, let's distinguish between what is practiced in Muslim majority countries today, or even among Muslim communities around the world, and what the teachings of Islam actually are. Unfortunately, in many cases, Muslims do not live up to the ideals that Islam represents. There are many shortcomings and misconceptions among Muslims. Even those who are regarded as religious authorities or leaders may not fully and accurately represent the teachings of Islam. So we must not judge Islam as a religion based on how it is practiced by people, but rather based on authentic sources of the Quran and the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). In our world today, many Muslim communities and nations suffer from a lack of education, poverty, instability, violence and war. This reflects on how Islam is practiced in those communities. Tribal customs and ancient traditions frequently overpower the teachings of Islam and become the dominant force that determines how people live and how societies are organized.
A second important point to consider before delving into the topic of women's rights is that Islam should not be viewed as a typical religion. Most religions are practiced today as a set of moral guidelines and acts of worship that exist in parallel to the actual way that people live their lives. The common theme today is secularism where there is a separation of religion and state. Laws and regulations are established by institutions that are completely separate from any religious ideals or concepts. There is no doubt that religion still influences law making in most nations, but it is not a dominant force as it had been in earlier periods of human development. Therefore, today most religions are a private matter for each individual to practice, or for families and communities to practice together privately. Religion informs people's values and morality, encourages them to do good and avoid doing bad things, imposes certain restrictions on what they can or can't do, and this is all reinforced by performing certain acts of worship such as prayers, fasting, and celebrations.
Islam is distinct in that it is intended to be a complete way of life that combines the religious and the secular. It is not meant to be a set of morals, restrictions, and acts of worship that are applied in parallel to a secular system of laws. Rather, if Islam is to be practiced fully, it must inform every aspect of a Muslim's life. This is because Islam goes beyond the normal topics covered by typical religions such as beliefs, morals, and rituals. Islam actually contains a comprehensive system that guides how we deal with everyday life issues such as rights and responsibilities in business contracts, leadership and governance, the judicial process, marriage and divorce, adoptions, solving disputes between people, and dealing with criminal activity.
Because Islam offers such comprehensive guidance for every aspect of our lives, it is not strange in that context that Islam would offer teachings about the rights and responsibilities of people as individuals, as children, as parents, as siblings, as spouses, as neighbours, and even more generally as citizens of the world. The Muslim tradition confers rights and responsibilities on all people, including both men and women. These rights and responsibilities entail that there are some restrictions that go along with them in order to build a fully functioning system. So while Islam does teach women to avoid certain things, it also confers rights on women that men must fulfill in the context of an Islamic environment. Similarly, Islam teaches men to avoid certain things, while giving them certain rights as well. But what is the purpose of this Islamic framework for life?
The purpose of Islamic teachings is to enable us to have healthy, happy, peaceful, successful, and comfortable lives, and to do this within a fair and just system. A system that gives equal opportunity to everyone whether they are male or female, rich or poor, healthy or sick, strong or weak, and regardless of their racial, cultural, or tribal status. Islam also recognizes that this will not always be possible to achieve in this life, and that there is always injustice and unfairness that will exist no matter how hard we try to eliminate it. Therefore, Islam teaches us that after death there is an afterlife where everyone will get what they deserve. Anyone who has transgressed against others will have to pay for their transgression, and anyone who has been transgressed against will get compensated for what they lost. Those who do good in this life and help others will be rewarded in the afterlife in multiples to recognize their efforts in making life better for everyone.
The principles outlined in Islamic teachings must always be applied within a framework that ensures that these principles are applied justly and equally. Otherwise, the nature of human beings is that every person will cite a passage from the Quran or the teachings of the Prophet when it's to their advantage, and ignore everything else that goes against their interests. In modern nations, one cannot look into a nation's constitutions, laws and regulations, or even judicial precedents and decide to apply the law for themselves. The law can only be applied through a well established justice system that provides all concerned parties the opportunity to defend themselves. For centuries, the same applied in Muslim nations where Islamic law was applied fairly through a justice system that was fair and transparent, within the realities of the time period of course. Unfortunately, in modern times Muslim nations have had a crisis of identity that has established secular laws and legal systems that are often corrupt and not applied fairly, in parallel to Islamic teachings that are often deeply held by people but are only partially and sometimes unfairly applied. When not recognized by the modern state, people have unfortunately taken it upon themselves to try to practice their religious beliefs. But by stripping away the fairness of a system of knowledgeable and qualified judges who can apply Islamic principles fairly, we ended up in a place where principles that have their roots in Islamic law are used in an unfair manner. This is not an indication that Islam is not fair, but rather it is an indication that Muslims are not practicing Islam correctly.
With all this background, the question remains, does Islam restrict women's rights? The answer is clearly no. It is not Islam that restricts women's rights. Rather those restrictions are imposed by the patriarchal and tribal customs that Islam came to combat and replace. There is no basis in Islam for restricting women's education. Islamic teachings highly encourage seeking education, regardless of gender. Islam does not restrict women's ability to work, do business, invest, and manage their money independently of men. Islamic teachings require a woman's approval for marriage, and does not allow parents to force their daughters to marry if they don't want to. Islamic laws apply equally to both men and women. Islam does not permit "honour killing", but rather views adultery as an equal sin for both men and women. Islam certainly does not permit inflicting pain, misery and any sort of harm to women such as "female genital mutilation" or similar practices. Islam grants both men and women equal access to the justice system. Women who feel their rights have been infringed upon may access judicial support to regain their rights.
Islam teaches both men and women to dress modestly. Although the acceptable attire for men and women is different, which is in line with almost every other culture on Earth, there is nothing in Islamic teachings that indicates that modest dress is more of a requirement for women. A man who does not adhere to acceptable modest attire for men should be seen as equally unacceptable to a woman that does not adhere to acceptable modest attire for women. Islamic inheritance rules are quite complex and based on a framework where the burden of financial responsibility for a family is placed on the husband. Therefore, in many scenarios male relatives may get a larger portion of an inheritance. But there are scenarios where women receive more than men. This illustrates that the rules are not there to discriminate against women, but rather based on trying to be fair given the financial responsibilities of the individuals involved. For example, a married woman who receives a small portion of inheritance in one scenario will see her husband receive a larger share in another scenario if the system is applied to everyone, resulting in an overall fair distribution of inherited assets.
All other issues where women's rights are infringed upon are generally based on tribal or traditional customs of people, and are not part of Islamic teachings. People may cite certain passages or take a passage out of context in order to justify those restrictions on women, but these are not a core part of Islamic teachings. Islam must be taken as a whole, balancing all available evidence before determining what the correct Islamic teaching is about a certain topic. Unfortunately, with the lack of a sophisticate and trustworthy Muslim authority that can perform deep research on issues and examine authentic Islamic sources to determine what Islam really teaches, it has become easy for people to take passages from the Quran or the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and apply them incorrectly without understanding.
As Muslims, we are taught to stand up for justice and human rights at all times. We cannot accept the infringement of anyone's rights. Women's rights are human rights, and therefore as Muslims we must be at the forefront in defending women's rights. Islam recognizes that there are distinctions between men and women, and so while Islam does not see men and women as being the same, it certainly teaches that they are equal in the sight of God.