The Status of Women and Men
Why make the case for complementary roles? On the one hand, there has been a general realization in the turn of the 20th century that fundamental interpretations of Islam have severely limited the status and inclusion of women to the detriment of Islamic culture and progress. On the other hand, the past few decades have seen a push-back from the rapid secularization and distancing from religion as Muslims lament “the erosion of a religious sensibility … crucial to the preservation of “the spirit of Islam” (ruh al islam). The middle path aims to find an interpretation of Islam that is compatible with concepts like human and women’s rights. The modernist or reformist approach to gender justice in Islam begins with analyzing the provisions of the Quran on women and gender, looking at their origins and historic contexts, and then exploring their potential adaptability to modern societies.
One way to view relations between men and women as relations of interdependence is through concepts of activity and receptivity. What this means is that there is a “give and take” between men and women. To frame this “give and take,” we must go back to the root concept of qawama that underpins the entire discussion on what are the expected roles and responsibilities of men and women. The original concept of qawama is at heart about labor division and responsibility and not about superiority. This means that whereas classical exegetes took this concept to be a general statement of men being superior to women, we can see this interpretation as nothing more than a historical bias due to the culture and norms of the legal formative period. The example of the female Companions and the early Muslim era clearly shows that the first generations of Muslims did not see the Qur’an as legislating the general superiority of men over women.
Instead of a man-woman dynamic, the concept of qawama should be understood only in its original limited husband-wife dynamic. This means the only stipulations on the couple is that women should fulfill marital and maternal responsibilities, and men should be financial and administrative stewards of their families. Moreover, this qawama should be actualized withing the universal ethical vision of the Qur’an that promotes affection, mercy, and gentleness. The emphasis is on the husband’s role to protect and maintain and the wife’s complementary role to safeguard and support. Muslim feminists generally argue that the source texts if understood properly would somehow reveal progressive or more gender-egalitarian meanings. This of course is met with resistance from traditional scholars as a veiled implication that Muslim scholars were wrong in their interpretations. For most scholars and many lay Muslims, this is an untenable position to hold, because as Mohammed Fadel mentions, it turns a legal question into an almost theological one: could the early generations of Muslims have been so blind as to grossly misrepresent the source text and teach gender injustice and therefore propagate improper understanding to future Muslims generations?
Like Fadel, we do not question the historical understanding of those previous scholars and interpreters, instead we question the hermeneutical relevance of those interpretations. In this way we can break the chain of binding precedence so that modern interpretations may deviate from traditional interpretations without doing violence to the validity or credibility of those traditional interpreters. The result is an interpretation that can be accepted by progressive circles without alienating the Muslim traditionalist base. This methodology is well-known to anyone working in the Islamic outreach or reform movements. In one sense, it is a revisionist approach that tries to show that the core teachings of Islam and first-order interpretations of Sharia should support women’s equal status to men. In other words, the texts do not need to be challenged or apologized for, merely our interpretations need to be updated. This is good in the sense that it does not cast doubt on the primary texts of Islam. However, its weakness is that it begs the question of how all previous interpreters and scholars could have gotten it “wrong” for all these centuries. How plausible is it that these generations of scholars were misogynistic and myopic but this generation of scholars has the right outlook? The answer to this is to note that there were other voices in Islamic classical scholarship that refuted the idea of the intrinsic inferiority of women compared to men. For example, in contrast to the Abbasid era scholars, Ibn Rushd claimed that women were equal to men in all respects and possessed equal capacities to shine, citing examples of female warriors among the Arabs, Greeks and Africans to support his case. During medieval times, the labor force in Spanish Caliphate included women in diverse occupations and economic activities such as farming, construction workers, textile workers, managing slave girls, collecting taxes from prostitutes, as well as presidents of guilds, creditors, religious scholars.
Many women who joined various Islamic revival movements did not see any problem with the hierarchy inherent in Islamic culture and religion. Rather, they found stability and clearly defined expectations that satisfied their inner moral compass. Their goal is not to challenge the gender roles that has been handed down to them from their Islamic and cultural heritage; instead, their goal is to improve their own religious and moral validation WITHIN their own gender roles and heritage. The unmistakable presence of an ethical egalitarianism explains why Muslim women frequently insist, often inexplicably to non-Muslims, that Islam is not sexist. Muslim women hear and read in its sacred text, justly and legitimately, a different message from that heard by the makers and enforcers of androcentric Islam.
As the history of Western feminism shows, there is no intrinsic connection between the issue of women and the issue of culture. Although the Western legacy of androcentrism and misogyny has its own peculiarities, it has not been on average any better than that of other cultures, including Islamic cultures. Western feminists do not advocate to completely abandon their Western heritage and the adopt some other culture as a solution for Western women. Instead, they engage their heritage on its own terms critically and constructively. Likewise, Muslim feminists and women’s rights advocates are not required to overturn their Islamic culture or history; critical and constructive engagement within the tradition of Islamic legal thought can catalyze real change in women’s lives and bring the ethical vision of the Qur’an to reality.
Sharia is usually defined as the Divine will as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Fiqh (jurisprudence) is the human effort to discover and derive legal rules from the sacred texts of Islam. Sharia is sacred, eternal, and universal, whereas jurisprudence is human and mundane, temporal, and local. The only hierarchy we find in Islam that cannot be relegated to historical or contextual biases are those related to the marriage bond and defined by the concept of qawama. Even if we concede this set of gender-differentiated rulings that have to do with marriage rights and responsibilities, there is no justification for secluding women from public life. There is no justification for preventing women from traveling without a male escort or driving their own car. There is no justification for not allowing women access to the mosques or to schools or the workforce. There is no justification for most of the egregious examples of misogyny in the Muslim world or in Muslim communities. The central aim of religion in general and Islam in particular is the fulfilment of justice in society. That is the collective injunction to command the good and forbid the evil that the Prophet (pbuh) taught. The motivation behind jurisprudence is to secure the common good maslaha for all members of a community.
Gender justice does not have to mimic the secular Western paradigm, nor is it something to be condemned as some sort of “religious innovation” to be avoided. Islam’s cosmological worldview points to a complementarity of functions: like everything else in the universe, humanity has been created in a pair – neither can be complete without the other. There are many examples – both in the early history of Islam and in the Middle Ages – of Muslim women who have played prominent roles in public life, including being sultanas, queens, religious authorities, and wealthy businesswomen. In light of complementary gender roles, we argue that the existence of gender hierarchy and male authority in the Qur’an does NOT preclude women from roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege, and control of property. The ethical vision of Islam mandates that Muslim strive to establish justice in their societies and to reclaim their lost heritage of dynamic social justice and empowerment.
 (Mahmood 2005, 43)
 (Bakhshizadeh 2018, 13)
 (Shaikh 2012, 151)
 (Fadel 2011)
 (Ahmad 1994)
 (Shatzmiller 1994)
 (Mahmood 2005, 77)
 (Ahmed 1992, 128)
 Sūrat al-Dhāriyāt, 51:49