The role of Muslim women in the Islamic world is one that is prone to much discussion and assumptions; unfortunately the discussion is more often than not a negative one. The most common perceptions are of women living under the oppressive dictatorships of their husbands and fathers, forced into marriage, and of course suffocated under the veil. In terms of her contribution and role in society the caricature is one of the woman restricted to five metres away from the kitchen sink.
The discussion of Muslim women and their roles is an important one for every Muslim, firstly because it's an area in which there are many misconceptions by non-Muslims which need to be corrected and secondly some Muslims treat women unjustly in the name of Islam when in actual fact their actions are often a result of cultural or tribal customs and not Islam.
Misconceptions surrounding the treatment of Muslim women arise from two sources; from Muslims who may justify their oppression and mistreatment of women on the basis of Islam. Also, some non- Muslims who have an agenda to take the Islamic teachings and want to depict Islamic civilisation as backward and oppressive. In recent times the treatment of women in Afghanistan has been used to present the picture of Muslim women being oppressed and abused and then blame the Shar'iah texts. An apt example of the former is the recent murder of Banaz Mahmood in the United Kingdom killed by her father and uncle for the sake of ‘honour'. There is also the example of Mukhtar Mai in Pakistan who was gang raped as a punishment due to her brother allegedly having a relationship with a village elder's daughter. Even though these actions are not from Islam the western media have linked this crime to Islam.
The role of the Muslim woman is clearly defined and outlined in Islam. In short her primary role is with the upbringing of her children and in being a dutiful wife. She is encouraged to carry out all the duties she takes up with devotion and enthusiasm. The following Ahadith remind her of the rewards and merits attached to undertaking her primary duties.
A woman came to ask the Prophet (saw) about some matter, and when he had dealt with it, he asked her, "Do you have a husband?" She said, "Yes." He asked her, "How are you with him?" She said, "I never fall short in my duties, except for that which is beyond me." He said, "Pay attention to how you treat him, for he is your Paradise and your Hell."
(Reported by Ahmad)
Abu Huraira narrated The Prophet (saw) said, "The righteous among the women of Quraish are those who are kind to their young ones and who look after their husband's property."
However the women's role of being a mother and a wife are not her only roles. Islam permits the women to perform Hajj (pilgrimage), to exercise the vote, engage in politics, to take up employment and even run her own business.
Allah (swt) mentions that Men and Women are equal in his sight. He (swt) mentions that the only difference is that of piety, of gaining reward and of obeying Him (swt). It is not physical equality. To state the obvious, Allah (swt) has made Men and Women different and in terms of roles he has made the means to gain reward different.
"Men are the protectors and maintainers [qawwamun] of women, because Allah has given the one more [strength] than the other, and because they support them from their means. . ." (Qur'an 4:34)
Certain commands in Islam are general and are applied on all Muslims irrespective of being male or female, certain duties fall specifically on men whilst others only apply to women.
The activities she can engage in are varied and in some cases duties upon her which she must not compromise. The notion that Muslim women cannot be educated or work is an absurd one. A basic understanding of the life of Muhammad (saw) and knowledge of the wives of the Prophet (saw) show examples of women excelling in their fields of knowledge.
The Prophet (saw)'s wife, Khadijah (ra) was not only a businesswoman but also a successful one at that. His (saw)'s wife Aisha (ra) is widely renown to have been an authority of hadith who related a large number of hadith.
Muslim women are not only allowed to receive an education and work but should be given and will be given opportunities under the Khilafah State to excel in their areas of expertise. The need to acquire knowledge is an obligation upon every Muslim whether male or female and the Khilafah State is obligated to provide women an education to the highest level. Women are seen as valuable citizens of the state who not only offer their knowledge but also educate, nurture and instil the Islamic personality in the next generation. In every way the Muslim woman contributes to and has a vital and honourable role to play in society.
From amongst the many activities that the Muslim woman is able to engage in, one of the most important is her right to enjoin good and forbid evil and discuss the affairs of the Ummah.
With the growing resurgence and political awakening of Muslims worldwide, the political voice of Muslim women in contributing to this must not be ignored. Indeed, examples of such activism exist from the time of the Prophet (saw) to the present day. Islam defines politics as taking care of the affairs of the Ummah, Muslim women do not live separately but live amongst and are part of the Ummah, they feel the problems that exist in society and the world at large, they feel the absence of Islam, and see the injustice of the oppressive regimes.
Muslim women engaging in politics is not a new phenomenon, an early example of this is at the time of the Prophet Muhammad (saw) when the leaders of Yathrib (Madinah) sent a party of Bani Khazraj to pledge their allegiance to him (saw). This group consisted of sixty-two men and two women who pledged allegiance; the pledge of Aqabah is well known to have had both spiritual and political implications. The pledge was not only a declaration of accepting Islam but was a promise of political support and military protection. Later examples continue to support the idea of women in politics. In the early fourth century A.H, Um Muqtadir Billah, the mother of the Abbasid Khaleefah set up a tribunal for the purpose of settling people's petitions and lawsuits and placed one of her female courtiers as judge.
A recent publication of Zainab Al Ghazali's book shows her commitment to the responsibility of carrying the dawah for Islam and working to establish the system of Islam. As a consequence she was imprisoned and tortured. She talks about this commitment in her book when reminding her husband of their duty to Allah (swt) "In the event of any clash between the marriage contract's interest and that of da'wah, our marriage will end, but da'wah will always remain rooted in me… I know that it is your right to command me and that it is my duty to obey you, but God in our souls is greater than our souls, and His da'wah is dearer to us than ourselves…" she goes on to explain the focus of her da'wah "…Those who have assumed the difficulties of this way and know -God willing- the secret behind the teachings of the Quran and Sunnah will never deviate from truth, good deeds and da'wah until the Ummah is re established and all humanity is under the banner of Allah."
Muslim women have for too long been told they are worthless and not capable of expressing themselves on a political platform, the tide however is changing more and more women in Pakistan, Indonesia, Egypt are expressing their views and concerns in a public arena; accounting rulers, having an opinion on educational and health matters, calling for Khilafah in the Muslim world. Muslim women are part of society; hence they have a key role to play in the development towards a truly Islamic society and beyond. In Islam a women is seen as an honour and an invaluable part of the Ummah. The role of the Muslim woman is that of being obedient to Allah (swt) to not worship man but to submit to the One that is worthy of worship.
Allah (swt) says:
"The believers, men and women, are protecting friends (Awliya) of one another; they join the ma'ruf (that which Allah commands) and forbid people form munkar (that which Allah prohibits); they perform salat, and give the zakat, and obey Allah and His Messenger. Allah will have mercy on them. Surely Allah is All mighty, All wise" [TMQ At Taubah: 71]
Allah (swt) had ordained upon us this Ummah the noble task of enjoining the ma'ruf and forbidding the munkar. The Muslim woman must undertake this duty as seriously and with as much enthusiasm as she undertakes the other duties ordained by Allah (swt).