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The Holy Prophet of Islam ﷺ told the world that God had especially entrusted to him the task of safeguarding the rights of women. Islam gave women rights that the non-Islamic world has given to women only within the past 200 years: the right to inherit property (from their husbands, their parents, their next of kin), the right to own, keep, and manage their own property, the right to ask and get a divorce in case of ill treatment or abandonment from the husband, the right to remarry, the right to obtain an education. The responsibility for the maintenance of the wife and children was placed on the husband (only recently have child support laws been made and enforced in this country). Remember that Islam was revealed to the Holy Prophet Muhammad (saw) by God 1500 years ago. In the United Kingdom, it was only in late 1882 that the first Married Women's Property Act was passed by Parliament, and before that, a woman could not hold property on her own, independently of her husband, and in Italy as late as 1919. Misconduct was accepted in English law as cause for divorce only in 1923. Abandonment was accepted as cause for divorce in New Zealand only in 1912. In Tasmania, 1919, in Victoria, 1923, in Cuba, 1918, in Mexico, 1917, in Portugal, 1915, in Norway, 1909, in Sweden, 1920, in Switzerland, 1912, divorced was allowed for various forms of mistreatment. But Islam had proclaimed and enforced the rights of women since approximately the year 600 only through revelation from God, not as a result of women having to fight for their rights. As American Justice Pierre Craibites had rightly observed:
Muhammad (saw), 1300 years ago assured to the mothers, wives, and daughters of Islam a rank and dignity not yet generally assured to women by the laws of the West.
A principle of change which has been discovered recently is that change in organisations takes place effectively only when the change is directed at the entire organisation rather than at individuals. Islam takes this very view. The dictates of Islam that have to do with men and women and children will change the entire society, not just the individual. You will agree that it is better to raise a good child in a good neighbourhood, isn't it? Would any of you want to spend a lot of time raising your child and then would you go and live in a gang-infested environment? Of course not!
Another paradigm which I ask you to lay aside at this time is that, as a society, you have all the answers. The society in which we live presently, with increasing number of broken homes, single parent homes, drugs, murder, illegitimate births, child abuse, general lack of morality, certainly lack of spirituality, should be a source of shock to all of us. Is this the ideal society? Is this the environment in which we want to leave our future generations? Are conditions improving or getting worse? If indeed we believe in God and an afterlife, is the society around us conducive to the achievement of this goal? If what you have is not so great, stop hanging on to the belief that you are the only one who can find solutions. Now, let's stop putting money into government funded programmes to prevent child abuse, use of drugs, unwanted pregnancies, murders. These programmes do not work. Listen to a different alternative, one that works.
Islam's approach is proactive (not waiting for problems to occur then trying to find solutions). Islam's approach is positive. There are more than 700 commandments of positive things to do in the Holy Qur'an and a few things not to do. Islam's approach is systematic. It addresses change in the entire society, not just in the individual. These three conditions make Islam educationally sound. Islam gives a system for producing maintaining a social climate in a society that is conducive to allowing human beings to achieve the real goal of their creation which is the worship of God (Allah is the same God that people of all faith understand to be the Creator and Supreme Being):
O ye men! worship your Lord Who created you and those who were before you, that you may guard against evil. (Ch. 2, v. 22)
The dictates of Islam create a good moral individual but in addition, Islam which is from God Who, of course, understands the nature of the humanity He has created, realises that this good individual must be placed in a very moral society so that his energies are not spent fighting off evil, but instead, are spent in progressing in nearness and communion to God in preparation of the life to come. If you believe in God and in an afterlife, then a great portion of your time should be spent in preparation for that next life. When you want to prepare for a race or a championship fight or for an exam or for getting a job, you spend years, hours in preparation, don't you? I asked someone at work what she did to prepare for the next life. She answered 'I go to church on Sunday.' Is it really enough?
For the individual, Islam prescribes a minimum of five daily prayers which progressively bring human beings closer and closer to God, and a recipe of spiritual foods contained in the Holy Qur'an. When you do weight lifting, don't you follow a strict programme of regular exercise coupled with a diet rich in nourishing foods? Islam then tells human beings how to regulate their relationships with one another within the content of the family, the society, and humanity.
The great and noble quest that, we as human beings undertake in this life in search of our Creator, must approach it as brothers.
Surely, all believers are brothers.
Human society must provide internal support for its individual members:
And help one another in righteousness and piety; but help not one another in sin and transgression... (Ch. 5, v. 6)
We are all in this together, all of humanity! God, in His Infinite Wisdom, has created humanity in a wonderfully, diverse and complementary manner. Men and women are diverse in their respective faculties and capacities.
Our Lord is He Who has endowed everything with its appropriate faculties and then guided it to their proper use. (Ch. 20, v. 51)
God has fashioned mankind according to the nature designed by Him, there is no altering the creation of Allah. (Ch. 30, v. 31)
Men and women are equal in the sight of God, but in view of the differences in their nature, they have been assigned different roles for the smooth functioning of the human society. Women have the unique ability to bear children and to nurture them. Men are physically stronger. Look at the cover of the latest Newsweek magazine. This article discusses brain wave research which shows how differently men and women think and feel and how different parts of the brain are affected differentially for the same mental function. Women are one segment of humanity. In an Islamic society, women can occupy three positions.
First as a daughter, her importance is such that the Holy Prophet of Islam (saw) tells us: 'He who brings up his daughters well, and makes no distinction between them and his sons, will be close to me in Paradise.'
Secondly, a woman can be a wife. The character of men in an Islamic society is established in relationship to their treatment of women. 'The best from among you is one who behaves best towards his wife.' (Hadith)
Thirdly, in her role as a mother, Islam has placed women at a higher status than men. 'Paradise is at the feet of the mother.' Islam recognizes the great role that women play in upbringing of the children and that the future of mankind and of societies depends on mothers. The paradise mentioned by the Holy Prophet (saw) refers to both the social paradise that can be achieved in Islam and the heavenly paradise. Therefore, mothers have been placed at a position of the highest respect. As a covert, I can testify to the profound respect (almost unimaginable if you are not a Muslim) which is accorded to mothers in Islamic homes.
People who sell or teach, people who aim to effect behaviour changes in others, need to fulfill three conditions in order to be effective. First they must sell themselves, that is gain trust and credibility; for example real estate sales people are told that it is not the house that they must sell to their customers, it is themselves. Secondly, they must constantly model the behaviour which they want others to adopt. As a teacher trainer, I constantly tell my staff that they must 'walk the talk'. The third and most vital condition is that the teacher must have high expectations of the learners. Therefore, in order for mothers to effectively mould humankind in the highest mould of excellence required by God, they must share the high expectations of that God has for his creation:
Verily, We have created man in the best make. (Ch. 95, v. 5)
And they must become those fortunate beings under who feet paradise can be earned.
If an organisation such as an university entrusts the training of students to teachers, would you not expect that organisation to also provide adequate training for the teachers, good schools or places for the training to take place, and also, good job opportunities after the training is complete?
You would expect nothing less from God, the Almighty Creator. The dictates of Islam that have to do with behaviour of women are the training of this crew of teachers of mankind. The family unit provides the setting for this teaching to take place, but the society which is the workforce of life where the teaching is practiced must also be regulated and maintained in the best of ways.
Teaching is not effective unless the teacher has credibility and respect. Both need to be earned. Can you respect someone who does not behave in a respectable fashion? Can a child behave well unless you accompany your teachings with good modelling? Of course not. Therefore, the high respect which God commands us to hold for women in Islam also dictates that women have to behave with utmost dignity and piety in order to become the most respected and honoured segment of our society. It is sort of the 'Noblesse Oblige' concept of the French. Those of higher nobility are under constant obligation to behave in the best of ways.
Ask yourselves this question. 'Why did nuns used to dress very modestly and cover their heads?' Because they were supposed to be very noble and very pure. In both the Old Testament and the Bible, a head covering is prescribed for chaste women (Genesis: 24:64, 65; 1 Corinthians 11:5, 6). A paradigm which comes from misinterpretation of the Bible is that Eve was responsible to make Adam sin, therefore there is an implication in Christianity that women are impure and that association with them diminishes a man. That is why priest and nuns were told not to marry if they wanted to be close to God. Islam denies the theory of the original sin, and rejects monasticism as a human invention. God tells us in the Holy Qur'an that all human beings are created pure and that both men and women are capable of achieving the highest degree of spirituality (high expectations).
Going back to the question of modest dressing, nuns dressed modestly because they did not intend to marry therefore did not want to attract the attention of members of the opposite sex. But Islam wants all women to be pure, and all men also, no double standards in Islam. What you wear affects both how you feel about yourself and how others view you. For example, at my school, which is not air conditioned, the principal always wears a suit, no matter how hot it is. Teachers and parents know that well dressed children feel good about themselves, and teachers subconsciously view them as well cared for and treat them better. Well dressed children do better in school. Many public schools are now adopting uniform policies for the students because wearing a uniform puts the student in a learning mood and makes the teachers view them as potential learners. This affects both the student and the teacher's behaviour so that the entire atmosphere becomes conducive to learning. Also, even in my childhood, women used to wear veils when they entered the church which points to the relationship between dress and attitude.
Islam prescribes modesty for both men and women in order to maintain a pure Islamic society. As a matter of fact, the responsibility to create and maintain this society starts with men:
Be chaste and your women will be chaste (Hadith).
It is a society in which the institution of marriage plays a vital part. The Holy Prophet Muhammad (saw) says, `Marriage is my way.' The Holy Qur'an describes the relationship between husband and wife in a beautiful manner:
They are a sort of garment for you and you are a sort of garment for them.
A garment embellishes, protects, safeguards, gives dignity and honour. It's a beautiful relationship based on love and respect and characterised by grace:
Consort with them graciously... (Ch. 4, v. 20)
In order to allow women the opportunity to fulfill the challenging obligation of producing these moral individuals who will become members of the Islamic society, the responsibility for providing for the family has been placed on men. They are appointed as protectors of the members of their household.
Men are appointed guardians over women... (Ch. 4, v. 35)
Wives have rights corresponding to those which husbands have, in equitable reciprocity, though, in certain situations, men would have the final word and thus enjoy a preference. Allah is Mighty, Wise. (Ch. 2, v. 229)
When you married, God appointed you trustees of those rights (of your wives). You brought your wives to your home under the law of God. You must not, therefore, abuse the trust which God has placed in your hands. (Hadith)
Just as in any system, different individuals are assigned different roles for the optimum functioning of the system, similarly, in the family unit, man is the head of the household. This does not imply superiority or inferiority in any way, just difference in roles because the functions men and women each play in the family unit are different. For example, in the school where I work we have the principal. The staff shares in decision making through committee work but the suggestions always receive the final approval or disapproval from the principal. No one would ever think of disobeying the principal because he has final accountability, therefore he must have the freedom to make the ultimate decisions. In the family unit, the men bears the ultimate responsibility for providing that pious and safe haven of love and comfort called the Islamic home within which paradise is formed under the feet of mothers during the course of the sacred task of the moral upbringing of the children. In return, men receive obedience and support from their spouse. God instructs parents to pray for the success of this sacred duty, because seeking God's help through prayer is a necessary precursor to every endeavour of a Muslim:
Lord, grant us of our spouses and our offspring the delight of our eyes and make us a model (family) for the righteous. (25:75)
Therefore, in order for a society to be a pure society, both men and women should think, dress, and behave in ways that allow pure thoughts and actions to dominate the way of life and create a social climate conducive to the achievement of the real goal of life, the achievement of communion with our God, our Creator. Physical attraction between men and women is good and pure only within the context of the sacred institution of marriage. In the Holy Qur'an, God tells us:
Of His Signs is that He has created for you of your own kind that you may find peace of mind through them, and He has put love and tenderness between you. In that surely are Signs for a people who reflect. (30:22)
To fulfill the natural need for love and comfort, God established the family unit as a safe and healthy place for the experience and manifestation of these normal needs. God also tells us how men and women should behave with people other than their immediate family:
Say to the believing men that they restrain their looks and guard their private parts. That is purer for them. Surely, Allah is Well-Aware of what you do. And say to the believing women that they restrain their looks and guard their private parts, and that they display not their beauty or their embellishment except that which is apparent thereof, and that they draw their head-coverings over their bosoms, and that they display not their beauty or their embellishment save to their husbands, or to their fathers, or their sons, or the son of their husbands, or their brothers, or the sons of their brothers, or the sons of their sisters, (all men that are not possible for a woman to marry) or women who are their companions (decent women), or those that their right hand possesses, or such of male attendants as have no desire of women, or young children who have not yet attained knowledge of the hidden parts of women. And that they strike not their feet so what they hide of their ornaments may become known. And turn ye to Allah all together, O believers, that you may prosper. (24: 31, 32)