INTRODUCTION The position of women in society has often been the subject of much debate. Islam’s position regarding this has usually been presented to the Western reader with little objectivity. This paper is intended to provide a brief and accurate explanation of the Islamic stance, drawing upon the authentic sources of the Qur’an (God’s final revelation) and Hadeeth (sayings, actions and approvals of Prophet Muhammad, (P). The paper begins with a look at the position of women in pre-Islamic societies. It then focuses on some major questions: what does Islam teach regarding the position of women in society? How does this stance differ from,or resemble, the position of women in the era in which Islam was revealed? Finally, how does this compare with the rights gained by women in recent decades?
II HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES In order to assess if Islam made any notable contribution to the restoration of woman’s rights, it may be helpful to briefly review how women were treated in former faiths and cultures, especially those which preceded Islam. (Pre-610 C.E.).1 WOMEN IN ANCIENT CIVILISATION Describing the status of Indian women, the Encyclopaedia Brittanica states: “In India, subjection was a cardinal principle. Day and night women must be held by their protectors in a state of dependence says Manu. The rule of inhertance was agnatic, that is, descent traced through males to the exclusion of females” 2 And according to the Hindu scripture, a good wife is described as “... a woman whose mind, body and speech are kept in subjection; acquires high renown in this world and, in the next, retains the same abode as her husband.”3 In Athens, women were not better off than Indian or Roman women: “Athenian women were always minors, subject to some male - to their father, to their brother or to some of their male kin.”4 Also, a Greek woman had no right to consent to marriage because: “...she was obliged to submit to the wishes of her parents, and receive from them her husband and her lord, even though he were a stranger to her.” 5
Similarly, a historian commented that a Roman wife was: “... a babe, a minor, a ward, a person incapable of doing or acting anything according to her own individual taste, a person continually under the tutelage and guardianship of her husband.” 6 The Encyclopaedia Brittanica, sums up the legal status of women under Roman civilisation7: “In Roman Law a woman was, even in historic times, completely dependant. If married, she and her property passed into the power of her husband...the wife was the purc hased property of her husband, and like a slave, acquired for his benefit. A woman could not exercise any civil or public office.... could not be a witness, surety, tutor, or curator, she could not adopt or be adopted, or make a will or contract.” Turning to the status of Scandinavian women, we discover that they were: “...under perpetual tutelage, whether married or unmarried. As late as the Code of Christian V, at the end of the 17th Century, it was enacted that if a woman married without the consent of her tutor he might have, if he wished, administration and usurp of her goods during her life.” 8 According to English Common Law, a woman’s rights were equally suppressed: “...all real property which a wife held at the time of a marriage became a possession of her husband, He was entitled to the rent from the land and to any profit which might be made from operating the estate during the joint life of the spouses. As time passed, the English courts devised means to forbid a husband’s transferring real property without the consent of his wife, but he still retained the right to manage it and to receive the money which it produced. As to the wife’s personal property, the husband’s power was complete. He had the right to spend it as he saw fit.” 9 Only by the late 19th Century, the situation started to improve: “By a series of acts starting with the Married women’s property Act in 1870, amended in 1882 and...
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