International Women’s Day (March 8) is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women, with a view to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.
Empowering women is as much a man’s responsibility, as it is a woman’s aspiration. Women’s empowerment cannot be imposed on a country or a culture from the outside. Men and women within a conservative community must first find their own reasons and their own justifications to allow women a fuller role in society. Like men, women also deserve to be free. Societies that invest in and empower women are on a virtuous cycle. They become richer, more stable, better governed, and less prone to fanaticism. Countries that limit women’s educational and employment opportunities and their political voice get stuck in a downward spiral. They are poorer, more fragile, have higher levels of corruption, and are more prone to extremism.
Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w) has said: “Seeking knowledge is a mandate for every Muslim.” “Every Muslim” means every Muslim man and woman. Many Muslim women have embodied this and shown the world what it means to be an active achiever. Every possible effort should be exerted to highlight the true teachings of Islam regarding women rights and they must take precedence over the misogynist customs, patriarchal dominations and widely-spread bias against women.
It is crucial for Muslim women to start studying Islam for themselves. Undoubtedly, they can better understand the Islamic notion of gender justice than many men. It was essentially due to Muslim women’s educational backwardness, particularly in the realm of religious scholarship, that it became easy for them to be exploited by Muslim men, including the religious class, the reason being that if you do not know your rights, others will naturally exploit you. By becoming scholars in their own right, Muslim women will be able to challenge the deeply-rooted notion that a husband is his wife’s lord and he can treat his wife the way he wants, that a wife must be forever subservient to her husband, regard him as her lord, consider her the dust of her husband’s feet as the path to heaven for her and even treat him almost like a demi-god, these being widely-held conceptions in Muslim society which, however, have no Islamic basis at all. Obviously, if Muslim women were themselves to study Islam and contemporary social demands and challenges, it would be much more difficult for men to exploit them in the name of Islam.
No doubt, today efforts are being exerted to safeguard the rights of women by providing them better education and employment opportunities. But we need to do more concerted efforts to establish the broader Quranic notion of gender equality in certain Muslim societies. It is a wholly untrue and baseless misconception that Islam endorses misogynist and vile social customs like forced marriage, women’s confinement to the home and other vicious customs and abhorrent norms that pose great threat to the entire existence of womenfolk today. It is about time the intelligentsia, political leaders, scholars and other Muslim religious leaders came forward to uproot the evil of misogyny from Muslim societies by pointing out the clear violations of the Quranic views of women’s status and rights. They should work to reform the traditionally conservative Muslim societies, where women rights are violated. Every possible effort should be exerted to highlight the true teachings of Islam regarding women rights and they must take precedence over the misogynist customs, patriarchal dominations and widely-spread bias against women. It is, indeed, a massive irony that women’s constructive role is being undermined today and their basic rights are violated in many Muslim societies in the name of the very religion that has granted women great rights.
It cannot be denied that before the advent of Islam, in most parts of the world, women were treated as valueless objects. It took long decades for womenfolk to acquire status equal to men. Nevertheless, the age-old struggle for gender equality and women’s empowerment is yet to be accomplished in its true sense. Unfortunately, many people engaged in this struggle wrongly perceive Islam as a roadblock in the achievement of women empowerment. Yet, when we look into the verses of the Quran regarding women, we find the reality just the opposite. Gone are the days when the birth of a son was often seen as greater cause for pride and honour as compared to daughters.
From the Quran (4:1), we learn that men and women are equal to each other. Women’s position is no less than that of men. Their relationship with each other and duties towards the Creator go hand in hand.
Hence, Islam granted rights of inheritance to women twelve centuries before they were granted to women even in European societies. The fact is that Islam was revealed in a society in which women themselves had been inherited as property. Islam denounced this anti-women custom and brought a revolution for women to have their own inheritance rights recognised.
Much effort is being done in the Muslim world in this respect. Women in Saudi Arabia have been granted the right to drive, overturning a cornerstone of Saudi conservatism that had been a cause for activists demanding reforms in the fundamentalist kingdom. Increasing numbers of women are working in a growing number of professions, and women were allowed to vote and to run for seats on the kingdom’s local councils.
In order to honour the rights and duties of women and appreciate their pivotal roles in the building of a humane society, Muslims need to educate themselves. Islam laid great emphasis on acquiring education and made the pursuit of knowledge mandatory for both men and women. Islam believes that only education can propel people from being beast-like and for an uncivilized tribe to become a progressive and enlightened society.
The Quran, therefore, poses a question to all humankind: “Are those who know, equal to those who do not know?” (39:9)