Are Women Lesser Than Men?
In most Islamic societies, women are presented as beings who are incapable in many ways. They’re raised as if they’re inherently weak, unable to bear responsibility, constantly in need of protection, and needing a man to guard their well-being and chastity at all times.
It is believed that women can not be in a particular setup because of their genetic predisposition. Thus, they’re told to sit at home while the men do things on their behalf. Women are also not allowed to be financially independent or politically active.
Thus, knowingly or unknowingly, Islamic societies paint a picture that women are lesser than men. But is this picture correct?
The Verse of Surah Nisa:
Whenever the question of gender equality and women empowerment comes up, people readily cite the Quran (verse 34 from Surah Nisa), to back their claim, implying that men are superior to women.
However, that’s not the meaning of the verse. The verse does not mean that men are superior to women. It rather means that men are in the service of women. Men are there to be at the behest of women — not to usurp or coerce, not to exercise power over women.
The Quranic Point of View:
The paradigm that the Quran has set out in terms of what a woman’s role constitutes is very different from how Muslims have historically perceived it. In verse 11 of Surah Tahrim, even though Allah has addressed believers in general, He has given examples of women. One could ask why did Allah give examples of women to men?
It’s like Allah knew the mindset of the men of that era — and every era. Therefore, Allah lowered their ego by giving brilliant examples of women. So when they look at a woman, they treat her as an individual endowed with capability and intellect.
Example of Steadfastness and Independence: Lady Aasiya
In Surah Tahrim, Allah has given the parable of Lady Aasiya bint Muzahim.
“Allah draws an[other] example for those who have faith: the wife of Pharaoh, when she said, ‘My Lord! Build me a home near You in paradise, and deliver me from Pharaoh and his conduct, and deliver me from the wrongdoing lot.’”
In the above verse, when Allah says “Aamanu” (those who have faith), it includes both men and women. Lady Aasiya was the wife of the Pharaoh of Egypt, a corrupt man. Allah has cited her example because she lived in the midst of corruption. Yet, she upheld her faith and protected it. It shows that a woman can live in the midst of corruption but not be tainted by it.
Example of Chastity and Independence: Lady Maryam
“And Mary, daughter of Imran, who guarded the chastity of her womb, so We breathed into it of Our spirit. She confirmed the words of her Lord and His Books, and she was one of the obedient.”
In verse 12 of Surah Tahrim, Allah has given the example of Lady Maryam bint Imran, how she protected her chastity and honour despite living in a society that was known to be promiscuous. One may ask why Allah has highlighted the issue of Lady Maryam’s chastity. Perhaps because He knows that the community she was raised in was a promiscuous one. But she proved herself a role model by rejecting that particular kind of life.
Lady Maryam stood out in the crowd; she came out with flying colours without having a man by her side. Despite that, many Muslims today think that a woman needs a man by her side to protect her.
Example of Empowerment and Independence: Prophet Shoaib’s Daughter
This lady was a working woman. She was a shepherd. Her father was a prophet, the highest religious authority of his time. Didn’t he know that a woman couldn’t work? The Holy Quran narrates her encounter with Prophet Musa in Surah al-Qasas, how she was a working woman with dignity and honour, and how she maintained modesty at work.
“Then one of the two women approached him, walking bashfully. She said, ‘Indeed, my father invites you to pay you the wages for watering [our flock] for us.’ So when he came to him and recounted the story to him, he said, ‘Do not be afraid. You have been delivered from the wrongdoing lot.’
One of the two women said, ‘Father, hire him. Indeed the best you can hire is a powerful and trustworthy man.’”
And how Prophet Shoaib gave importance to her opinion when she told him about Prophet Musa. She asked her father to hire Prophet Musa. Taking it as a sign, Prophet Shoaib asked Prophet Musa to marry her daughter. But even today, many Muslim parents fail to give the same kind of respect to their daughters’ choices when it comes to marriage.
Example of Leadership and Independence: Lady Bilquees
Surah Naml mentions the story of Lady Bilquees.
“I found a woman ruling over them, and she has been given everything, and she has a great throne.”
She was the Queen of Sheba and a very powerful leader. She was the Head of the State said to have a council of 313 advisors under her command. She was morally upright too.
“She said, ‘O [members of the] elite! Indeed a noble letter has been delivered to me. It is from Solomon, and it begins in the name of Allah, the All-beneficent, the All-merciful. [It states,] “Do not defy me and come to me in submission.” ’
She said, ‘O [members of the] elite! Give me your opinion concerning my matter. I do not decide any matter until you are present.’ They said, ‘We are powerful and possess a great might. But it is up to you to command. So, see what you will command.’”
She led a great kingdom and consulted her advisors in political decisions.
It is said that when Imam Mahdi reappears, his army will have 313 men and 57 women in positions of power. But even today, most Muslims opine that women are not fit to rule.
Example of Muslim Women:
The Islamic community needs to ponder the amazing examples of independent and powerful women the Holy Quran gives. But what about some examples from the post-Islamic era? Are there Muslim women who outshined men in the course of history? Absolutely.
We have the example of Lady Khadija, who was a business tycoon in 7th century Arabia. She was the one who provided crucial financial support to early Islam. We have the example of Lady Fatima fighting for her and her husband’s rights in the court of the first caliph. And we have the example of Lady Zaynab, who has left the finest example of leadership in the most difficult circumstances. She led in a situation where even men would shiver.
All these examples are enough to change the popular narrative on women. It is only naive to think that women are less than men in Islam. Blind adherence to cultural norms has perhaps formed a distorted picture of women’s capabilities – which needs to change.