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Islam grants men, women equal status

Signs of equal status between men and women in Islam goes back to the era of the revelation of the faith. Several prophetic traditions narrate the social and political engagement of the Prophet’s wives as leaders in decision-making, and pioneers in commercial activities.

Prominent among these women were Khadija, a well-known merchant and the first wife of the Prophet (PBUH); and Ummu Salama and Aisha consulted by men for their knowledge in theology, law and the Prophetic traditions, with the latter known for being a strong combatant.

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Whiles Islam pegged women at equal status with men in the early stages of the faith, the patriarchal Arabian norms that prevailed few years after the death of the Prophet became enshrined into religious interpretations, altering such a progressive ideal.

Therefore, between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, a first characterisation of feminist ideology appeared in Muslim majority countries, combined with modernity and Islamic reformism.

The debate over the emancipation of the Muslim woman originated among leading Muslim scholars who felt the real position of women had suffered, not through the commands of original Islam, but through a misinterpretation of the Qur’an and infusions of the Arabian culture in the faith.

The pioneer in this project was Rifā’a at-Tahtāwi (d. 1873), the Egyptian scholar who emphasised the need to refer to the other schools of Islamic laws to find solutions to the status of women in Muslim societies.

He explained that although rules of Sharia are immutable, their interpretations in terms of social conventions can be modified according to the needs of time and place. The Persian scholar, Jamālu-d Dīn al-Afghāni (d. 1897) and another Egyptian scholar, Muhammad ‘Abduh (d. 1905) supported this course, calling for a renewed thought of the status of Muslim women, and demanding an end to men’s unilateral right to divorce and confronting the problem of patriarchal excesses committed in the name of Islam.

Despite these struggles, the reality of the Ghanaian Muslim woman looks bleak as many scholars in the country have cleverly used the ‘woman question’ to their own interests, never challenging the patriarchal structures and promoting conservative social discourse in the name of Islam.

Nature

The idea that men and women are different by nature, and as a result men are far superior to women, has been a dominant discourse among many Ghanaian Muslim scholars. The scholars see this difference as one created by God, which makes their distinction divinely revealed and thus part of Shari’a.

Many of the scholars have argued that not only are women physically weak, but also mentally weak, as compared to men, or as some of them prefer to put it, the physical weakness caused the mental weakness.

The position of many of the scholars is that the differences in the nature of men and women meant both sexes were not created with the same status. As one Ghanaian Muslim scholar once put it, “equating two unequals is tantamount to injustice”. The implications of this kind of thinking are enormous, especially when these scholars wield enormous influence over their communities.

Inheritance

The current ‘laws’ of inheritance in Ghanaian Muslim communities are based on ‘Islamic Law’, which accords men and women unequal shares in virtually all cases. So, sons receive double the share of daughters and wives inherit less from their husbands than husbands inherit from their wives.

Many Muslim scholars have cautioned that matters of inheritance must be based on Qur’an 4:11–14, the same verses that are drawn to prove the superior status of men over women.

However, the justification for the female to be given half the share of a male brother is because Islam adopted the pre-Islamic Arabian culture where women wield the rights to be financially maintained by their male relatives (father, husband, brother, etc), while they are not under such obligation, unless they willingly wish to support.

So, as the change in the structure of the modern world does not lend to this utopian ideal and a large number of Muslim households are taken care of by females or are two-income based, where husbands and wives share the family financial burdens, the Qur’anic principle of justice, which is the basis of all Islamic regulations, automatically renders the two to one ration of inheritance null and void.

In fact, inheritance law in Islam is not a simple formula, where men always get twice as much as women and that there are many instances where the female’s share is equal or more than that of her male brother.

Testimony

Many Ghanaian Muslim scholars hold the view that there should always be a distinction between the testimony of men and women, as that is in accordance with the Sharia. They express the view that the testimony of two women equals, that of a man or that Islam made women half a man when it comes to matters of testimony […and if there are not two men then a man and two women so that one of them can remind the other] Qur’an 2:282.

The distinction between the testimony of men and women is also used as another proof of women’s inferior mentality, and by extension, lower social status, referring back to the Qur’anic verse [ … so that one of them can remind the other].

However, the basis for the Qur’anic injunction of a male’s testimony equals two female testimonies is completely at variance with what the scholars are alluding to.

The injunction of the verse in question hinges on the pre-modern Arabian social realities, where movements of women from their homes and within the society were highly restricted because of the prevailing patriarchal structures, and the protracted tribal conflicts where women were frequently kidnapped and used as bargaining chips. As a consequence, women had less information about unfolding social events compared to men.

But because the Islamic legal process requires witnesses to testify to only issues they have personal knowledge about, the Qur’an focused on the testimony of men whose movements were not restricted, and who participated in the activities of varied social groups.

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Balanced information

So, in the absence of a second man to testify in a trial, then the testimony of two women from different households may give a relative balanced information a man may have given. This situation does not fit in the modern world where Muslim women are daily commuting to and from markets, schools, hospitals, workplaces, and are actively engaged in social activities.

In fact, on matters specifically related to women such as childbirth and breastfeeding, a woman’s testimony supercedes that of a man, because presumably, a woman would be more credible as witness in such cases due to her assumed superior knowledge of these issues, and as a result no male witnesses would be needed and the testimony of two women is even preferred.

There are also circumstances under which a man or a woman’s testimony may not be accepted at all. And in the case of fornication or adultery, all the four witnesses required to testify can be (all) males or (all) females.

Therefore, the issue of women being inferior to men is a fiction with no basis in Islam. Changing the ideal to fit the social realities would jeopardise the whole binary system, and snuff out men’s megalomaniac tendencies that make them overlook the fact that Islam grants men and women equal status.
See you here next Friday

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The writer is the Founding President of the Centre for Islamic Thought and Civilisation.
[email protected]

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