No single topic presents the outside observer of Islam with a greater mystery and contrast than the Muslim role of women. We see images of women dressed in the burkah, the head to toe covering of female in layers of fabric that cover even the eyes; we also see women in roles and garb of varying degrees of conformity with this radical, militant ideal:
- We see Muslim women in flowing black robes, the chador, where the face may be exposed, but the rest of the body is covered.
- We see Muslim women who may adopt the veil while largely wearing more traditional - albeit modest - western attire.
- We see Muslim women who are fully westernized, having adopted western customs and dress.
Extremes also exist in the role of women in Islamic society and culture:
- There is the radical, militant ideal - Here, the primary function of the woman is to bear children. All other activity beyond it and the attendant duties at home were sinful and forbidden by the Qu’ran and the tradition as it is embodied in the hadith. "Over the centuries, as the segregation of women in the home spread to every stratum of society, it had unforeseen and deleterious effects. Poorer women were confined to small houses with limited social contacts. They were effectively barred from community life. Since the mosque served as the center of community life, they were cut off from social and educational activities." JL Esposito
- Conversely, one can travel to several large, urban areas in the East where Islam prevails and find women in every strata of business and culture, wearing fashions from Hong Kong and Paris and New York. Yet many of them would (somewhat hesitantly) affirm they were good Muslims!
What is it in Islam that accounts for the wide variety of practice we observe? What does the Qu’ran teach about women, and how does it differ from what the Bible and Christianity teach about them? Do not underestimate the power and significance of the question treated here. It has implications for your relationship with everyone from your spouse and family members to your relationship with God. "In this matter of status of women lies the greatest difference between Muslims and the Christian world." (Alfred Guillaume, Islam, p. 71-2) In the past, I used to think that this sentence was hyperbole, but over the years, I’ve come to see it as a remarkably frank and open statement of the truth!
There are two things we must observe concerning Islam’s teachings on women, with several sub-points:
1. Islam teaches the inherent inferiority of women - instructively, the Qu’ran, in sura’s 4 and 7, accounts for the creation of Adam at the hand of God, but not Eve, personally, as woman! “The woman” just suddenly appears at his side in various places and mentioned as his wife. This is in stark and utter contrast to the biblical understanding of the creation of the woman, Eve: “When God created man, he created him in the image of God. Male and female he created them, and blessed them and named them Adam when they were created.” (Genesis 5:1,2) Christianity has always held out for the intrinsic equality of male and female, precisely because they are indispensably two halves of the same, whole image. The image of God in man is incomplete one without the other.
This was a radical idea in the pagan world in which the Judeo-Christian tradition took root. Especially in the 1st century, in the life of the church, women were accounted of equal value before God. It revolutionized religion and helped to spread the appeal of Christianity throughout a pagan world where women were manifestly inferior as “the weaker sex,” where, in Roman culture, “might makes right.” To say, with the apostle Paul, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:27,28) To say this kind of thing was liberating to a degree unheard of in the ancient world. In fact, from biblical Christianity we have the seeds for the kinds of human rights that form the basis for western law and culture. That place from which a culture and society “launches,” or begins, will determine where it lands. This is a culture’s trajectory.
This is an important principle for how a culture develops! If we assume in our origins that men and women are two halves of the whole image of God, our behavior will be thus guided; if we assume - as Muslims do - that woman is an “afterthought” and anomaly in the plan of God for man, then our behavior will be thus guided. Note the consequences of Islam’s account of our origins:
a. Women are primarily for the bearing of children - Male children, that is! “Your women are a tillage for you, so come to your tillage as you wish, and forward for your souls.” (Sura 2:224) Women are the bearer of children for men. As you have seen from newspaper headlines out of Saudi Arabia with the case of the US mother and a Saudi father, men have custody rights over children without question, they are his property, to do with as his right.
b. It is male children who are valued above all else - Women are a shame in Arab culture. “The overwhelming desire of all parents is to have sons, and on the very wedding day the friends and relatives of the couple wish them many sons. Once the wife becomes pregnant, she hopes and prays that she will be graced with a boy. If indeed a boy is born, he is greeted with exuberant joy. If a girl - the mother is ashamed and the father’s face darkens with displeasure.” (Raphael Patai, The Arab Mind, p. 28) Although the practice has largely passed from custom, the father had the right of exposure to his children, and girls were often the victims of this practice. “The custom of female infanticide survived in some localities for many generations, and according to scattered reports, was practiced in a few remote and conservative areas as late as the beginning of the 20th century.” (Patai, p. 28) However, the failure of a wife to bear a son remains ground for divorce in many Arab cultures. In contrast, Christianity single-handedly made abhorrent and taboo the exposure of children - as well as abortion - in the ancient world. People who did either were considered by Athenagoras and his contemporaries as “murderers of children.” In biblical Christianity, the souls of all - male or female - are regarded as of equal value before the living God.
c. The woman and all she has is at the disposal of the husband - While the Qu’ran does make allowances inheritances bequeathed to the wife and other properties which may be given her, in the main all things (property, children, and indeed her own life) are in the hands of the husband. “Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. So good women are obedient, guarding the unseen parts because God has guarded them. And those whom you fear may be rebellious, admonish. Banish them to separate beds, and beat them. If they obey you, look for no further way against them, Allah is all high, all great.” Sura 4:38
Your theology has implications for behavior! If the woman is intrinsically inferior to the man in your philosophy of life, then she will be treated as we see them treated throughout the Muslim world in reality! Another example that presents itself is that of her status in the courts of sharia, the law courts based upon Qu’ranic law. She cannot bear witness in a court of law; her testimony is not valid. In the eyes of sharia, property, children, and even the child yet in her womb belongs to the husband who may divorce her for any reason. In theory, she may initiate divorce in the courts for impotence, insanity, or desertion on the part of the husband; in reality, this is rarely practiced in fundamentalist Islamic societies, precisely because of the perceived intrinsic inferiority of the woman and her lack of credibility before the courts of sharia.
The husband may divorce for the slightest fault or perceived indiscretion, without having to resort to the courts. He need only pronounce the words, “I divorce you,” to take effect after a three month waiting period, not to cool off and see if they might not reconcile, but to see if she is not pregnant with a child he may then claim.
In contrast, the Bible does not countenance divorce, except for the bond breaking sins of adultery and desertion. “Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:9) The modern ideas of “no fault divorce” and grounds of “incompatibility” and “irreconcilable differences” are pagan notions for divorce. Such lame and sinful causes are hated by God. When Jesus’ opponents confronted him with Moses’ allowance for divorce with the issuance of a certificate of divorce without regard for specific causes (much like we have today), Jesus hammered them with the reason: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives.” (Matthew 19:7)
God values his image in husband and wife, man and woman, pictured in the institution of marriage, to the point he hates to see it broken by the sin of divorce. Woman, your safety and salvation are in Christ, that safety and salvation is guarded and protected in the Christian religion and in the institution of the Church.
d. The inferiority of women is implicit in the practice of plural marriage - “Marry such women as seems good to you - two, three, four…” (Sura 4:2) Once again, Islam’s inability to recognize the image of God in man (a product of Islam’s seeing God as radically transcendent and mistaking “the image of God” for idolatry) leads them to discount the souls, bodies, and uses of woman, he may multiply their number for his own ulterior motives. Biblical religion recognizes the one to one relationship between man and woman: the soul of one husband plus the soul of one wife = the one image of God in man! The mathematics of Islam is out of order with God’s created universe and is manifest in the sad, dour oppression of Muslim culture, wherever it flourishes.
Some have protested: “What about the Bible? The Old Testament is full of examples of plural marriage: Abraham, David, and Solomon. We are merely restoring ancient, biblical practice.” Here we would like to make three points:
i.) The mathematics of God formulates one man + one woman = one image of God - as noted above, the biblical model of creation is the image of God resident in the picture of one man and one woman. God created Adam and Eve - not Adam and Eve, and Sherry, and Susan, and Becky!
ii.) God condemns plural marriage by example - Those who cite Old Testament saints as positive models to follow fail utterly to read and interpret biblical narrative in its context. Plural wives were an endless source of grief and sin in the lives of those who practiced plural marriage. Where were the lives and souls of women ever ennobled in the Old Testament Narrative under the aberration of polygamy? Sarah was demeaned and almost lost in the harems of Pharoh and later Abimelech; Abraham saw the sinful competition between Sarah and Hagar; Hagar was demeaned, not ennobled, in being cast out by a jealous Sarah; Abraham sinned in tempting God by bearing an heir through his handmaid Hagar and he and his off-spring paid dearly the consequences of it; Leah was demeaned, not ennobled, by being the scorned wife of Jacob, at the expense of Jacob’s favorite, Rachel; David caused endless grief in his taking Bathsheba into his harem; she was demeaned, not ennobled, in being taken in as one of his wives; eventually, it led to murder and incest within his own house and caused the division of the Kingdom! Approved by God, indeed! What are we to say of Solomon’s practice of plural marriage? His was just the logical outworking of this sin in the line of Abraham: “His wives turned away his heart. For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other Gods, and his heart was not true to the Lord his God.” (1 Kings 11:3,4) Those who cite the biblical history of plural marriage as a positive example miss the point entirely: the narrative means to demonstrate by the negative consequences which result from plural marriage that it is not the ideal for man. The mere presence of an institution in an narrative is not a God given stamp of approval of that institution. Is slavery a God given institution merely because it exists in the text? Is murder, gluttony, and rape God sanctioned just because it occurs in the biblical narrative? Just because plural marriage was practiced by the patriarchs and God continued to use and bless them is no reason to conclude that plural marriage is therefore approved and commanded by God! Quite the opposite: God condemns polygamy by narrative example. It demeans women and men, and is very far from ennobling women!
iii.) Plural marriage is implicitly condemned by the biblical model of Christ and the Church - “A man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church.” (Ephesians 5:31,32) In a very profound and spiritual way, the union of husband and wife - one man, one woman - pictures the union of Christ and his church. There are not two peoples of God, or three or four or five peoples of God, but one people of God, the Church. The model to be a true model must correspond to the reality. Plural marriage does not correspond to the reality of the one people of God. It is a false model and a travesty. Marriage was intended to be a joyous union of one man and one woman as a foretaste and encouragement to point to the ultimate union and joy of Christ’s union with his bride, the Church. To multiply brides in this union is a model of idolatry rather than biblical faithfulness. Plural marriage is implicitly condemned in the model of Christ and the Church.
What we have in Islam, then, is the inherent inferiority of women as they fail to acknowledge the image of God in man, diminish the place of Eve in creation, assign the primary role of women in childbearing, that male children are valued above females, that all that she is and has belongs to the male, and that the very practice of polygamy demeans rather than ennobles female and male.
2. Islam places the onus of sin in female sexuality - the Fall in the Qu’ran was due to sex, not shear rebellion, as in Christianity. “Then Satan whispered to them, to reveal to them that which was hidden from them of their shameful parts.” (Sura 7:19) Islam proceeds to cast the burden of this sexual transgression upon the woman. It is the woman who is the temptress and must be tightly controlled. After all, she is the one who tempted man in the garden and made him fall through lust. One Arab mullah sage has written: “Women are like animals, highly sexed and willing to have intercourse with any man. That is all they care about.” (R. Patai, The Arab Mind) Therefore, as the instigator of sin in the world her sexuality, she must bear the burden of restraint and subjugation.
From hence do we see all of the repressions and corruptions of Muslim practice regarding female sexuality:
- The complete covering of the female form - To show any part of the female physique - especially the face - is shocking and sinful. Men and women have no self-control and the exposure of the body will inevitably - like a bull in heat and a cow in heat - lead to sexual intercourse. Thus, we find adopted the veil and the burka.
- Female circumcision - since woman is driven by her nature toward uncontrollable lust, she must be deprived of any means of pleasure to discourage her from tempting men and causing both to fall into sin. Therefore this barbaric surgery (a removing of the vaginal labia) is performed to guarantee that even when she does have sex, it will be without the pleasure that drives her to it.
- The male sense of honor is invested in the sexual purity of his females - The males of the clan traditionally watch out for the sexual purity of the females in the clan . This is not only for their benefit, but also because their status in the community and before Allah also depends upon the sexual purity of mother, sister, wife, aunt, and niece. Everything from the ancient law of vendetta and feud come in here.
We find within the heart of Islam the paradox that in banishing sex from its consciousness, sex becomes the very thing of obsession. Raphael Patai calls it the “Pink Elephant Syndrome” of the sorcerer’s apprentice. That is, the more we attempt to eliminate and stamp out a thing of such strong, constitutional presence and reality in our being, the more it multiplies! If you are commanded to stop thinking about pink elephants at all costs, what is the first thing that floods the mind’s eye? Pink elephants!
Christian, biblical religion stands in stark contrast to Islam; they are not the same! In fact, in this area of Christianity, Islam, and women, Christianity has provided the founding principles for the flowering of women in the West! In what other nation and culture but Christian culture does one find the kinds of benefits and opportunities found for women to fulfill themselves according to a biblical model? It would be a dangerous and destructive step to try and blur the distinctions between Islam and Christianity in regards to women. There are ways to insure that these two mutually exclusive religions can co-exist in a fallen world, but trying to “make nice” by pretending that there are theological or religious bridges between the two when there are none is foolish. Those who do will pay the consequences for their foolishness: they will step into empty space and fall! Remember the observation of Mr. Guilliaume: “In this matter of status of women lies the greatest difference between Muslims and the Christian world.”