If we examine the Western tradition we see a quite disturbing portrayal of women. The Aristotelian view, whereby women were not full human beings, was carried on into the early tradition of the Catholic Church. A millennium on and Saint Thomas of Aquinas proposed that women were the cause of the downfall of humanity. The writers of the Enlightenment were no better. In his book Emile, Rousseau proposed a different form of education for women based on the ‘fact’ that women were unable to understand in the way men could.
Finally, in the 1800’s we find the first writings appearing to call for change, resulting in the first feminist movements. The first laws that allowed women to own property in the United States or in Europe emerged only in the last decades of the 1800s. It took almost another century for women to achieve equal pay and voting rights.
From the late 20th century however, the matter has gone to the other extreme. Now it is proposed that there is no inherent difference between the sexes, that the traits that define ‘maleness’ or ‘femaleness’ are determined by such things as upbringing, culture and the environment, and hence any difference between the two is discriminatory and wrong.
The Islamic concept
Islam does not jump from one extreme to another. It is based on divine revelation. Its principles and ideals are constant. God knows best that which He created and He decrees that which is best for humanity. As far as Islam is concerned, the only thing that distinguishes people in the sight of God is their level of God-consciousness or piety. Men and women share a single humanity and the same human nature. Thus, a woman is an independent entity and a fully responsible human being. Islam addresses her directly and does not approach her through the agency of males.
More specifically a Muslim woman enjoys the same capacity and freedom enjoyed by a man. She too can propose to a man for marriage, freely choose her spouse, reject a suitor or obtain divorce from an estranged husband. She can own property and dispose of it in any manner she wishes.
Notwithstanding the equality of the two sexes, there are some regulations where a natural distinction is drawn between them. The male and the female, although equal as humans, are not identical. They are biologically and psychologically different. Hence the divine Law gives consideration to these differences and through this enables both males and females to give a genuine expression of their faith in accordance with their respective human natures.
The sense of perspective
The advent of Islam occurred 1400 years ago. At a time when Europe was discussing whether or not the female was a human and whether or not she had a soul, Islam unequivocally gave women rights which in the West have only been given in modern times.
If women in the Muslim World today do not get their rights, it is because alien traditions have come to overshadow the teachings of Islam, through ignorance on the one hand and through the impact of colonisation on the other. Islam is not applied in any Muslim country so cannot be held responsible for the prevailing situation.
The first person to believe in the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was his wife Khadijah. She, being the wealthier of the two, supported him in his efforts financially and morally. One of the first martyrs in Islam was Sumaya, a female. She gave her life for the cause. After the demise of the Prophet, Islam was spread, in terms of knowledge, by four or five individuals who were the most learned in it. One of them was Aisha, another female. Compare this with any other civilization in the history of humanity; you will not find a woman playing a key role in its establishment. The Greek philosophers were all men. The early church fathers, the French writers in the revolution, the founding fathers of the United States, all men.
God ordered Muslim women to wear the veil as a means of recognition and protection. Thus, the very basic answer to ‘why Muslim women wear the veil’ is that they are instructed to do so by their Lord, and not because their husbands force them. It is an expression of their spirituality.
The hijab does not apply only to clothes. It is a state of mind, a behaviour and a lifestyle. It celebrates the desirable quality of modesty and a deep concern for preserving one’s dignity. It liberates women from slavery to ‘physical perfection’ and the pursuit of superficial ‘beauty’.
Dr. Katherine Bullock, from the University of Western Australia, nicely sums up, “The point to covering is not that sexual attraction is bad, only that it should be expressed between a husband and wife inside the privacy of the home. A public space free of sexual tensions is seen as a more peaceful place for human beings, men and women, to interact, do business, and build a healthy civilisation.”
Increasingly, people in the West are realising the efficacy and correctness of the Islamic way of life. With increasing numbers of converts to Islam every year, tellingly, the majority of these are women!
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