This is an excerpt from a new book by Aisha Bewley called Muslim Women: A Biographical Dictionary that I thought was quite excellent and quite relevant.
As my gantsta G Imam Suhaib Webb says… yo women were not made to be biryani marathon makers and slave away in the kitchen, son! (rephrased by me from his MOB (Mothers of the Believers) audio set)
As regards the present, it is clear that there is a need to re-assess all our preconceptions and misconceptions about women’s role and realise that women are a vast resource for the Muslim community — in all spheres of action. After all, women comprise more than half of the community. If half the community is neglected, what will be the state of the community as a whole?
There is too great a tendency among many Muslims to relegate and restrict women’s roles to that of a mother and housewife, but as we can see from the historical record, this is a fairly modern convention. Indeed, housework is not part of the duties included in the marriage contract unless specified – at least in Maliki fiqh. A husband should appreciate the fact that the woman does the housework because it is the equivalent of a gift on her part. This is not to say that there have not been women who were only housewives, but certainly up until modern times there has been far more diversity among Muslim women than in other cultures, this being ensured by the fact that in Islam a woman is recognised and accepted as a distinct spiritual and legal entity. A woman controls her own wealth and does not automatically share it with her husband. Ultimately she – like her husband – is only answerable to Allah. Only ignorance limits the realisation of a person’s full potential, man or woman.
The problem with the modern stereotype is that it seems to force a necessary choice: either be a wife/mother or pursue a career. Doing both has always been an option, especially where there is an extended family including servants both male and female, in marked contrast to the single parent/nuclear family – limited, confined and enslaved by its own situation. Quite clearly Islam has always allowed women to expand their scope according to their needs, aspirations and ability. A Muslim woman may have a career or a wider social role, but is not forced to do so.
The education of women is crucial to the well-being of society. We know the oft-quoted saying, “Al-umm madrasa.” “The mother is a school.” If the mother is lacking in knowledge, what is the school going to be like? What are the children going to learn? If she is lacking in knowledge, then they will be lacking in knowledge. The importance of women’s education is self-evident.
Men are women are a mutual help and support. They should both appreciate and inspire one another. There has always been the possibility in the human situation of the truly collaborative couple – in contrast to the imprisoning daily drama of alternate chapters of war and peace.
We see, for instance, the example of the relationship of Fatima of Nishapur with Dhu’n-Nun al-Misri and Yazid al-Bistami, of Rab’a al-’Adiawiyya and al-Hasan al-Basri, and numerous other examples. They inspired one another to greater achievement and greater devotion to Allah. We find women learning from men and men learning from women throughout Muslim history.
Looking at the past, it is evident that we need to re-assess our view of women in general and Muslim women in particular. In fact Islam has always provided an incredibly flexible environment in which women may flourish and achieve their true potential, spiritually, economically, and, when necessary, politically. This is clearly an area which Western orientalists have either ignored or avoided and dismissed and which urgently requires re-examination, especially since it appears that many Muslims have accepted the Western assessment of women’s roles in Islam and then have defended and perpetuated it.
The history of the spread of Islam has always been like this: dynamic and positive. Although subject to decay and deterioration – as is everything and everyone in creation – Muslim communities have always repeatedly experienced new growth and re-vitalisation. This has always been the proof of the din of Islam. It inevitably transforms the lives of those who embody it and by this means knowledge and civlisation are established.
The negative stereotype of the role of Muslim women which is often trumpeted in the media stems from ignorance of the reality of the position of women in Islam and is coloured by cultural imperialism. How, for example, can a system of law which purports to guarantee freedom of belief and religion – and yet bans the wearing of hijab as an expression of that freedom – be regarded as enlightened or just?
Looking back to the time of the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, women were extremely active in all areas of life and the Prophet did not discourage them. It is this quality and taste of Islam which permeated the lives of most of the women described in this book, in a manner which is far beyond mere verbal descriptoin – and it is this quality of Islam, sustained as it has been by direct transmission of the prophetic wisdom from its source, which sincere Muslims seek to establish and taste now – in their own life times.
Since Islam is a filter of culture, let us hope that some of this dynamism translates into our lives today – and that while the haram aspects of modern culture are dispensed with as the practice of Islam is established, so also its best aspects will be retained and enhanced, including a clear recognition of the true worth, potential and capacity of women – to be truly liberated worshippers of Allah.