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Does Islam discriminate against women? Part 3

Due to some recent events that we have heard about in the media, regarding girls being attacked by fanatics for going to school, some people have begun to think that Islam does not allow females the right to education.  Actually, that couldn’t be further from the truth. In Islam, seeking knowledge is an obligation  on both men and women alike. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said “Seeking knowledge is an obligation on every Muslim” He even hired a tutor for his wife, Hafsa, to teach her to read and write. In the time of the prophet, Muslim women were not just students, they also taught others. Aisha, the mother of the believers, was considered one of the main teachers of the Muslim nation. She was one the most knowledgeable scholars of Islam and she had many debates with other knowledgeable companions of the prophet regarding Islamic jurisprudence. She was also narrated over 2200 sayings and traditions of the prophet, which represent many of the teachings of Islam.

Egypt was one of the first countries to become a Muslim country. In those first years, most Muslim Egyptians were taught their religion by a woman from Mecca named  Umm Al-khair Al hijazia. She used to sit in the mosque of Amr ibn al ‘as and give her lessons while men were on their knees scribing.

In the golden ages of Islam, which were ironically the dark ages of Europe, Muslims were the leaders of every branch of science. At that time there were many universities in the Muslim world, but the first university to issue degrees was one founded by a woman named Fatema Alfehry, in Morocco.

Islam doesn’t tolerate misogyny or sexism.

Umar a great companion, and also the father-in –law of prophet Muhammad, returned home one day and his wife began to argue with him. He asked his wife “why do you argue with me, woman?” and his wife retorted “why do you get angry at something that doesn’t anger the prophet?” Astonished, he asked “does Hafsa argue with him?” Hafsa was his daughter, and was married to the prophet. And his wife confirmed, saying “yes, she told me that she argues with him”. So Umar went to ask some of the prophets wives to ask them if they argue with the prophet, and they told him that they do indeed. He then went to his daughter’s house and asked her the same question, to which she responded that she did indeed also. He became very upset at this and asked permission to meet with the prophet to discuss the matter. When he entered, the prophet received him, smiling, invited him to sit down and asked casually, “what’s the problem between you and the women of Medina?”. Umar said “o, prophet of Allah, we were men who used to rule our houses. But when we came to Medina, our women were influenced by the etiquettes of the women of Medina, and we are not used to that” The prophet wanted to deal with his sexism, so he asked him “and who are women Umar? Isn’t your mother a woman?” and Umar said “yes, O’ prophet of Allah”. Then the prophet asked him “isn’t your elder sister a woman?” in that time, Meccans held elder sisters in high regard, like mothers. So Umar said “yes, O’ prophet of Allah”. So we see here that the prophet did not tolerate any misogyny and Umar changed so dramatically, that when he eventually became the ruler of the Muslim nation, he appointed a woman named Al- Shifa’ as the supervisor of the market place. This role gave her the authority to judge between traders, and mete out punishments for fraudulent or dishonest traders.

Umar was giving a speech one day in the mosque, and a woman stood up objecting and challenging a statement that he had made. Realizing that she was correct, Umar announced “I am wrong, and the woman is right”

Are women efficient in mind and/or religion?

Another common misconception among Muslims and non-Muslims alike, is that the prophet didn’t have respect for women, because he once said that women are deficient in religion and mind. To answer this, we need to first understand the context. This statement is connected to the story I just mentioned about the Meccan men being unhappy about the change in attitude of their womenfolk after migrating to Medina. Islam is holistic and therefore deals with both parties in solving problems. For example, the Quran encourages wealthy people to generously spend in charity. At the same time however, it encourages poor people not to beg. Regarding this matter of men and women, since the prophet had already tackled the sexism of Umar, he then asked all of the women to come to the Eid prayer in order to have a meeting with them. After leading the prayer and giving the Eid speech, he went to where the women were gathered and spoke to them exclusively, except for one male companion whom he brought with him. He said “I have seen none lacking in common sense and in religion but (at the same time) robbing the wisdom of the wisest man, besides you”. We have to understand that to these women, the prophet was like an uncle or a father. When he said these words to them, he was teasing them, and actually complimenting them by saying that they have power over men. Yet these words didn’t sound like the normal words or teachings of the prophet, and for that reason, the women enquired “How can you say that we are lacking in common sense and religion?” Had it been the norm for the prophet to say such things about women, surely they wouldn’t have questioned him. On the contrary, he was known for saying that women are the counterparts of men. He elaborated that women take time off from praying while they have their monthly periods, and that two women are needed in the place of one man as a witness on a contract. Now we must understand this answer: First of all, we must understand that the prophet said these words not in the presence of men, but specifically away from the men, so that they wouldn’t be misunderstood and used against the women. Second, we know from other narrations of the prophets sayings that it was his style of humor to joke in this way. And third, we can conclude that his statement was a joke because his justification as to why women are deficient is not completely literal; by this I mean, that although women don’t pray when they are menstruating, they don’t receive less rewards than men for their prayers  and are not held accountable for the fact that they are physiologically different to men.

Is a male witness equal to two female witnesses in Islamic law?

This leads us to discuss another widely held misconception about Islam; The question of whether two women are needed to act as a witness in the place of one man. The source of this misconception is the misunderstanding of the verse of the Quran called The Verse of the Debts. This verse happens to be the longest verse in the Quran, and therefore I will only quote the first part of it, which deals with this point, the verse says: “You who believe, when you contract a debt for a stated term, put it down in writing: have a scribe write it down justly between you. No scribe should refuse to write: let him write as God has taught him, let the debtor dictate, and let him fear God, his Lord, and not diminish [the debt] at all. If the debtor is feeble-minded, weak, or unable to dictate, then let his guardian dictate justly. Call in two men as witnesses. If two men are not there, then call one man and two women out of those you approve as witnesses, so that if one of the two women should forget, the other can remind her.”

Firstly, I want to mention that this verse gives us the message that Allah loves us. If you’re traveling somewhere and somebody packs your bag for you, and you arrive at your hotel, and open your suitcase to find that in it is everything you need; your clothing, deodorant, toothbrush, even a snack in case you get hungry… this person clearly loves you. And likewise, when I see a verse that is so detailed, it is evident that God loves us, because He even whilst dealing with financial matters, He concerns Himself with social relations between people. In this instance, He does so by telling us even which party should dictate to the scribe of the contract- that it must be the borrower, not the lender, because if the lender were dictating, it could cause the debtor to feel belittled, especially when there is mention of penalties for not paying, etc. Another of the details mentioned is who the witnesses should be, and how many there should be. We have to understand that in some cases, two men are not acceptable as witnesses, and there must be four. This doesn’t mean that the sharia doesn’t trust men, but rather, it means that the severity and the nature of matter determine the proof needed. The more serious the repercussions, the more proof that is required.

This verse is talking specifically about financial dealings. In some cases men may not be accepted as witnesses at all while one woman is accepted. These can be extremely serious matters such as determining who a maternal mother is in cases where two women claim that they are the mother of one baby. In such a case only the testimony of a woman is acceptable because a male would never have been a midwife. Another example is the testimony of a woman who claims that she witnessed that two people who are married were both breastfed by the same woman at least five times each. According to Islam, that would make them foster-siblings, and as such, their marriage would be prohibited. So this is a situation where marriages can potentially be ended, and families torn apart, yet only a woman’s testimony can be accepted, since it’s not reasonable to assume that any male were present, watching a woman breastfeed on many separate occasions.

Financial contracts deal with number and amounts of each installment, and many other detailed, complicated factors. Although the Quran is not suggesting that women are deficient in dealing with such matters, it is probable that whilst a woman is experiencing pms, her ability to focus, and her ability to remember, can be affected. If you go to Google Scholar and type in the words “pms” and “memory”, you will find numerous articles – roughly 36000 results until the day I wrote this article- all dealing with the affects of premenstrual syndrome on female memory. I know that radical feminists will not like what I’m saying, but we are talking about science here, and when they see that men are discredited in certain cases as witnesses, when it was unjust to accept their testimony, then they should accept that the coin has two sides. The verse does not discredit women in this case, nor does it even say that two female witnesses are needed in the stead of one male. Rather it says that the female witness should have a female companion with her in order to remind her if she were to err.

Interestingly, we find that in Canada, Australia, and the UK, there have been several court cases where female perpetrators have had their sentences reduced when their lawyers were able to prove that the women were suffering from pms at the time they committed crimes. So, it is not only Shari’a law that acknowledges this physiological condition in order to uphold justice.

To be continued