There exist a number of misconceptions regarding the stance of Islam on women. Before these misconceptions and misperceptions are discussed, it seems essential that some space be devoted to an age old question regarding women: What exactly is their role in the society? Many religious scholars argue that women should be confined to their homes and they should stick to serving the needs of their husbands and rearing the next generation. Modernists argue that women are seen to be simply wasting themselves in a typical eastern society. They have nothing to do except indulging in gossip and meaningless household problems.
In this regard, it needs to be appreciated that the role of women in the society can be understood if the following aspects are kept in consideration:
1. The sharī‘ah (divine law) revealed by the Almighty is very brief and succinct. The thesis is that human intellect can itself discover the way out in most affairs. It is only at certain crossroads where it is likely to falter that Islam intervenes to guide it. In the sphere of gender and social interaction too – the sphere which one comes across so often – only certain guiding points have been given. In this regard, as far as the sharī‘ah is concerned, broadly speaking, Islam has given principle guidelines in matters such as the formation and dissolution of a family, its organization under a head, the dress code and behavioural conduct in social contact.
2. While stating this sharī‘ah, there is a directive which the Qur’ān gives in this regard in its lofty style, the brevity of which touches sublimity. It says:
وَلَهُنَّ مِثْلُ الَّذِي عَلَيْهِنَّ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَلِلرِّجَالِ عَلَيْهِنَّ دَرَجَةٌ وَاللَّهُ عَزِيزٌ حَكِيمٌ (2 :228)
And just as according to [society’s] norms these women have obligations [towards their husbands], they also have rights, although men [as husbands] have a status above women.(2:228)
This divine directive – a mere few words – covers a world of wisdom and sagacity. Evidently, it ends once and for all the debate regarding the role of women. What is implied is very clear: it is the sound conventions and traditions of a society which govern the responsibilities and rights of women. In other words, it is the collective conscience of a society that determines them. Also, since the conventions and customs of different societies can be different, these rights and responsibilities can be different in different societies. Who should raise children and look after them, who should cook the food and who should clean the house are all matters in which we must look towardstraditions and customs of a society. If they do not contradict the sharī‘ah and are also not against morality and universal norms of sense and reason, they should be adhered to.
3. Consequently, women have before them a whole arena of activities. They can do everything which is not against the healthy conventions of their society. They should educate themselves as far as they can and contribute positively to the society through their intellect, talent and ability. Earning for themselves is certainly not prohibited. They can pursue careers just as men can. However, as pointed out, they should always give due respect to the precepts of the sharī‘ah.
We now turn to the general misconceptions and some nagging questions that have arisen regarding Islam and women.