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Role of Muslim Women in Contemporary Society

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The role of women in society is neither new nor is it fully settled. Throughout the corridor of time a myriad of fallacies and misconceptions have surrounded the sensitive issue of women's role in society. This article, therefore, attempts to shed new light on this issue which has been a bone of contention for it considerable time. The theme of the article is to highlight the major causes of dissension between what Islam actually, prescribes for women and how this has been distorted. The importance of women in the social, economic, political, spiritual as well as academic perspective will be discussed. An analytical approach has been adopted using the Qur'an and Prophetic traditions as a basis. Extensive use has been made of the example of the wives of the Prophet (SAW) - whose pioneering efforts and great intellectual calibre serve as a beacon for women throughout the world.


Often the theme of women is dealt with in a trite, cliched, superficial and stereotypical manner. The attitude with which the issue is approached is often chauvinistic, patronising, apologetic or downright condescending. Therefore, unfortunately, nately, the occasions of observing the hallmark of genuine Islamic scholarship in relation to this theme is indeed quite rare. It should be borne in mind that Islam as a comprehensive and universal way of life has been relevant and will continue to be so, for all times and periods of history.This is critical as we find ourselves in an age where the fields of science and technology spawn new inventions virtually by the minute, while social progress travels at an alarming snail's pace. The Qur'an is permeated with an equal treatment of women and non-discrimination on the basis of gender. Lamya' al-Faruqi mentions that Islam specifies a differentiation of male and female roles and responsibilities in society. The rights and responsibilities are equal to those of a man, but  are complementary to each other in a multi- function organization rather than competitive with each other in a uni-function society. (Faruqi, 1994:26).

During the time of the Prophet (PBU.H.), women were present in all spheres of the soci¬ety, be it business, leadership, social welfare, educational and spiritual, Often we are reminded that more than half of the reported sayings and teachings come from a woman, in the form of 'Aisha (R.A.). Let us also recall the role of Khadijah d anti (R.A). These are only some of the more spoken of women in Our history. (Noordien-Hendricks, August 1995:46) The logical question that arises is why the upheaval when women want to reclaim their tradition and custom.
"0 Mankind, keep your duty to your Lord who created you from a single soul and from it created its mate (of the same kind) and from them twain has spread a multitude of men and women." (Qur'an, 4:1).A scholar who pondered about this verse states: 'It is believed there is no text, old or new, that deals with the humanity of the woman from all aspects in such an amazing brevity, eloquence, depth and originality as this divine decree.' (Badawi, 1980:135)If the Qur'an is understood in its wider context and not tinged by prejudice one would conclude that women are revered therein and no discrimination against them exists in any form. It is therefore upon women themselves to reclaim their integral role as an indispensable, vibrant and dynamic part of society.

Women's participation in social activities has been a controversial issue in many societies. Although Islamic teachings clearly encourage women to participate in various arenas of social activity, unfortunately certain sectors of the society are opposed thereto. Firstly, women play an important role in the society as wives. In this capacity they are essential for the perpetuation of human life
and ensuring a stable society free from promiscuity. A woman also serves as a pillar of strength and support for her husband. Fida Hussain states: "A woman plays an important role in sustaining her husband through the turmoil of life which Muhammad, as evangelist of it new faith, faced in an overwhelming degree, and Khadijah seemed to be out for this role." (1983:93)
From the very beginning she stood faithfully by him. Whenever he was downhearted and in despair, she inspired him with fresh hope and renewed courage. (Hussain, 1983:106)
Islam lays emphasis on the family as the building block, cornerstone and fundamental unit of society. The greatest duty of it woman is, therefore,to lay, the foundations of a virtuous society in her role as a mother. It is the mother who with patience brings children into the world, and whose love and proper grooming is so essential for society. (Shahbaz, May 1994:27)
The mother is entrusted with the important task of rearing children in order that they may become valuable assets of society. The role of women in their capacity as mothers can never be over-emphasized. "Her role is that of an educator of an upright, complexfree and carefully reared child. Such a noble and vital role, which largely shapes the future of nations, cannot be regarded as mere 'idleness'." (Badawi, 1980:141).The pivotal role which women play as mothers could possibly best be demonstrated by the following Prophetic tradition.
A man came to the Prophet (SAW) asking, '0 Messenger of Allah, who among the people is the most worthy of my good company? The Prophet said, 'Your mother.' The man said, 'Then who else?' The Prophet (SAW) said, 'Your mother.' The man said, 'Then who else? Only then did the Prophet (SAINT) say, 'Your father.' (Bukhari & Muslim) It may therefore be deduced that women as mothers are held in great esteem and this is as a direct result of the prestigious role which they play in this regard.Another of the Prophet (SAW)'s wives, Maymunah, was fond of reforming women and exhorting them to be good and virtuous. (Hussain, 1983:162).It is therefore clear that the role of women extends beyond the domestic sphere - as wife and mother. They play a pivotal role in the society as reformers, which requires their active participation in society.

Islam has given women the right to earn a living. In fact, the Prophet (SAW)'s first wife, Khadijah ( ' R.A) was an astute businesswoman. Especially in this modern era, where the standard of living is exorbitant, women play a vital role in improving the standard of living of their families., which enables them to provide their offspring with an education which is extremely important for the future generation - the leaders of tomorrow.
Through women entering this field - once an exclusive male preserve - they can ensure that the voice of the Muslim woman is heard. By occupying prominent positions, from which they were conspicuously absent in the past, women can establish their independence and this could contribute towards the reduction or possible elimination of fallacious and stereotypical ideas that a woman's role, is confined to the home. Islam does not dichotomize between Islamic and secular education, therefore women have a right, rather the%., have a duty to pursue an education allowing them to occupy important positions in the fields of commerce, medicine, law, etc. and in this way serve their society to the best of their ability.One writer affirms: "No state can afford to have its women lag behind because, as 50% of the world's population, their progress and development is essential not only for their sex, but also for the healthy growth of their respec¬tive countries." (Zamani, June 1994:27)

Muslim women often do not wish to be involved in the political sphere. The reasons postulated for this may be: a lack, of incentives provided in their education, a lack of interest and relegation to the periphery where their only concern is within the domestic sphere.Sheriff states that "for too long Muslim women have been in the shadow: voluntarily or by habit or because their menfolk have put them there." (Shaheda, September 1991:30)With respect to the wives of the Prophet (SAW) Margoliouth remarks: "Of the entire number of inmates, 'Aisha alone by force of character and keenness of wit won for herself a place in the political and religious history of Islam .From the time of her emergence from childhood till her death at the age of sixty six she exhibited a degree of ability which should earn her a place. beside Aggrippa and Elizabeth of history. (Hussain, 1983:124).Women played an important role in the early centuries of Islam, even achieving power in state affairs. 'Aisha (R.A.), one of the wives of the Prophet (S.A.W.) is a case in point. Not only was she very active in the political disturbances following the murder of the third khalif 'Uthman, but in the famous Battle of the Camel in 656, she cheered on and led the troops opposing 'Ali from the back of a camel at the head of the foray. There is also a famous story about a woman who held a heated debate with the khalif 'Umar over the reduction and limitation of dowries. After she rose in the mosque and presented her views, the khalif bowed to the lady in admiration and declared his acceptance of the validity of her case. (Faruqi, 1994:8-9).It is said concerning Khadijah (R.A) that "her vast influence won many converts to the new faith." (Hussain, 1983:106) Muslim women should take their cue from the examples of these dynamic, spirited and charismatic paragons of virtue and participate directly and actively in the political arena.

The honour of being the first Muslim goes to Khadijah (R.A.); the honour of being the first martyr of Islam goes to Sumayah and the hon-our of the first recognised saint goes to Rabi'ah - all three women. (Safodien, April 1996:32)Anti-Islamic propaganda is rife in contemporary society. Muslims are faced with a vicious onslaught by the media attacking all their cherislied beliefs. It is therefore essential that Muslims - both male and female remain aware and strive to become informed on matters relating to their spiritual well-being and the Islamic view oil current events.
After the attendance at 'Madrasah,' women often have no regular source of input. This could possibly be remedied by encouraging women to attend evening classes introduced in many mosques in order lo upgrade Islamic knowledge and raise Islamic consciousness. A feeling of involvement with the Muslim community enhancing a positive sense of identity is conveyed through participation in the congregational prayers and other activities held at the Mosque. This is important in promoting commitment ment to Islamic objectives as well as reinforcement of values both in the individual and others they meet. (Shaheda, February 1991:21) An effort should be made to once again transform the Mosque into the focal point of Islamic activity and learning.Rabi'ah al-'Adawiv , yah, in the second century of Islam, was one of the most famous Sufi poets. (Firtiqi, 1994:9) The height of her spirituality could probably best be demonstrated by tier well-known prayer: "Oh God, if I worship Thee for fear of hell, burn me in and if I worship Thee in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise, but if I worship Thee for Thy own sake, grudge me not Thine everlasting beauty." (VVaddy, 1991:67). We should follow the lead of these exemplary women and become the spiritual forerunners of our time as patrons of Islam, dedicating ourselves to its defence by regarding it as our chief crusade.


(Intellectuals & Educators)
Despite the Prophet Muhammad (SAW)'s command for the education of every male and female, less than half of the young women in Muslim countries receive more than the most rudimentary education. Until this deficiency is remedied, the insight and equipment to be independent will be weak in the Muslim woman, those rights and privileges granted to herby Islam will never be attained, and the fact of their existence will not even be realised. (Faruqi, 1994:16)
Concerning 'Aisha (R.A)'s intellectual capacity, it is stated that 'Aisha ranks with such leading traditionists of the school of Madina as Abu Hurairah, Ibn 'Umar and Ibn 'Abbas. She had a remarkable memory and had learnt two or three thousand traditions by heart . She dug more deeply and precisely into the significance of the verses of the  Holy Qur'an than any other person, and laid the basis of an important principle of coordination between the Qur'an and Sunnah . Her principle was later followed by Imam Abu Hanifals and Imam Bukhari, the former a top jurist and the latter a prolific collector of Hadith. Even today, jurists solve problems in the light of 'Aisha's dictum of harmony between the Qur'an and the Sunnah. (Hussain 1983:116-117)
It is through 'Aisha's incisive probing that conflicting points between the Qur'an and Sunnah were cleared. She is indisputably held ail authority onTraditions in Islamic jurisprudence. (Hussain, 1983:117)
'Urwah said of 'Aisha (R.A.) to his son Hisham: "I have never known anyone who had a greater knowledge of law, medicine, and poetry than she had." (Waddy, 1991:23)
According to 'Asqalani, Umm Salamah was a woman of uncommon beauty, very sound judgement, rapid powers of reasoning and unparalleled ability to formulate correct opinions. ('Asclalani, Isabah, vol.8, p.224) She was very fond of learning and her discourses attracted large audiences. Next to 'Aisha, she was the most talented of the Prophet's wives. (Hussain, 1983:141)
She was elected by the women of Madina to represent them, and it was to her inquiry - as to why melt mentioned in Qur'an and not women - that the following Qur'anic verses were revealed:
'For Ahishin men and woman, for believing men and women, for devout men andwomen, for men and women who humble themselves, for men and women who give in charitv. for men and women who fast (and deny themselves), for men find women who guard their chastity; and for men and women who engage in Allah's praise - for them has Allah prepared forgiveness and great reward." (Qur'an, 33:35)
One of the Prophet (SAW)'s wives, Maymunah, was a great authority in Fiqh. (Hussain, 1983:163) The wives of the Prophet (SAW) were intellectuals and educators and, as such, occupied prominent positions in their society. As Muslim women, we should strive to make our mark not only in the domains discussed, but the entire gamut which was once considered art  male bastion.

From the preceding pages of this article it has become manifest that women have a pivotal role to play in society. However, the contribution made by Muslim women to contemporary society remains inexcusably inadequate and is in staggering contrast to the dynamism, vibrancy and charisma displayed by the wives of the Prophet (SAW). The removal of all impediments and frustrations put in the path of Muslim women is, therefore, essential for the rectification of this appalling state of affairs. The first step in throwing off the yoke responsible for the regressive and passive trend followed by many Muslim women is to jar them out of their attitudes of complacency and indifference by educating them concerning Islam and their integral role in society. Through an improved understanding of their religion, women would realise the absurdity of hankering after the model of equality postulated by the west. Women's rights are inextricably linked to their roles. Unless and until they are made aware of their rights, all attempts at playing a positive and constructive role in contemporary society will be thwarted. The hope of fulfilling their roles as 'khalifatullah' (vicegerents of Allah) oil earth, and of establishing their indispensable functions in contemporary society, will be equally frustrated.
The root of the problem is thus a lack of education. It is often correctly stated that through education comes empowerment. It is as a result of our negligence of the first command of the Almighty - lqra'- which emphasizes the importance of literacy and education that we find ourselves in a society where females are denied their basic human rights and roles resulting in an identity crisis being suffered particularly amongst women and filtering down to the youth, portending serious repercussions for the succeeding generation. Is this the legacy we wish to pass on to future generations? The situation, however, is not irre-deemable. Perhaps in the rewriting of history and a sweeping away of the traditional cobwebs, the true position of Muslim women as active participants may be established. In the time of the Prophet (SAW), his wives may be seen as laudable examples of women very much involved in re-shaping pre-Islamic Jahillivali society to Islamic society. (Shaheda, September 1991:30) In fact, their achievements are so phenomenal that it is nothing short of revolutionary. By analogy we may thus draw a clearer picture as motivation for Muslim women to participate in all spheres of society. By following the lead of our illustrious pre-decessors, - with their towering personalities and outstanding character traits - in confronting the challenges of the modern age, we are assured success. *

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