Women's rights in Islam

By Dr Fazlur Rahman

Islam favours women far more than men. An ethological study of the religion reveals that whereas men have been legally and morally encumbered with responsibilities and duties, women have been, instead, favoured with privileges and rights on such occasions.

This distinctive peculiarity is the foundation stone of Islamic ethos around which revolves its entire socio-cultural system. Deliberate negligence or ignorance thereof distorts the Islamic weltanschauung beyond recognition.

In the case of worship (ibadat) men, for example, are required to pray in congregation especially on Fridays and the two Eids, but women are not. However, if they choose to join Jama'ah they may not be disallowed to do so according to the Prophet's (PBUH) instructions.

Nevertheless, for obvious reasons, it is better for them to pray at home as indicated by the Prophet (PBUH) himself. In no case is a man absolved of the duty to pray, and is duty-bound to perform the missed prayers. Women are not required to do so regarding the prayers they miss every month or during other occasions like childbirth.

Man is under strict obligation to go on pilgrimage to Makkah if he can bear the expenses of the journey back and forth and make financial provisions for those whom he leaves behind and is legally bound to support for the duration he is away.

Women, even if they are able to bear the expenses of pilgrimage, are not required to perform Hajj unless accompanied by a close male relative who can protect her against any possible odds, assist her in fulfilling her daily needs and help her in cases of emergency. Moreover, she is not burdened with any responsibility to make financial arrangements for any one during her absence.

Jihad, fighting in the way of Allah, is enjoined on men only. Women are exempt from this duty. According to the Prophet, their Jihad is the performance of Hajj. It means that a woman would get the same spiritual benefits from Hajj which a man is expected to receive from Jihad.

However, on several occasions, during the Prophet's regime and afterwards as well, women have directly participated in Jihad activities and fought alongside men. Nonetheless, they are not legally bound to do so.

Regarding maintenance of the family it is the man who is solely responsible for all financial expenses. He has to maintain his wife even if she is rich enough to maintain herself but yet she is not required to do so.

Her husband has to maintain her along with minor children, and unmarried daughters who are no longer minors. After her marriage, a woman's main concern is her husband. She is not legally bound to look after her own parents or her husband's parents.

The parents are the responsibility of the sons, not that of daughters especially after the daughters marry. The wife, the children and the needy parents have legal claims to a man's earnings, wealth and property so far as financial maintenance and support is concerned.

There are no such claims on the wealth and property of a married or unmarried woman who is at liberty to acquire or dispose of property provided she, like a man, has attained majority.

Likewise she has the right to enter into a business, take part in any lawful economic activity, the benefits of which are hers exclusively. Besides maintenance, the husband is required to pay her dower, or mehr, as and when demanded. The wife has an initial right not to let him touch her unless the dower is paid.

Moreover, women have the first charge over a deceased person's property as they form part of the Dhawil Furudh who are never excluded from inheritance according to Quranic provisions.

As a wife, a woman is not under any legal compulsion to cook or sew. Her husband has the responsibility to provide her with cooked food and stitched clothes. A wife who gives birth to a child is not legally bound to suckle the newborn. If she refuses to do so the husband is under obligation to make alternate arrangements to get the child suckled. The mother can claim payment for suckling the child if she so decides.

Islam gives the woman maximum possible freedom to choose her life partner. She is at liberty to marry the man of her choice without any reference to the consent of a wali, provided that the moral norms of Islam are not trampled upon. Moreover, none can give her into marriage without her consent.

Even those jurists who stipulate the consent of a wali for a valid marriage concede that if the wali obstructs the marriage by declining to give his consent, the matter would be referred to a court of law which would allow the woman to marry the man of her choice.

Notwithstanding the reciprocal rights and duties of a man and a woman, a basic sociological principle of Islam is never to be lost sight of. The Quran enunciates "Verily Allah commands to do 'Adl and Ihsan, and to give to the relatives; and prohibits to indulge in obscenity, to commit what is reprehensible and to outrageously violate the limits."

'Adl is a legal concept. It consists in giving what one legally owes and taking what is legally owed to one. Ihsan far surpasses 'Adl inasmuch as it means giving more than one owes, and taking less than what is owed to one.

The rationale of this divine command is that no human society, and more so a family, can afford to maintain its existence for any appreciable duration of time on an exclusive practice of and insistence on legal rights and duties.

It has to be supplemented by the moral concept of Ihsan which is the lifeblood of a healthy, humane and livable society. The most outstanding characteristic of an Islamic society and an Islamic family is that both of them are based upon a proportionate blend of 'Adl and Ihsan.

It appears that the attitude of Islam with regard to women and legal proceedings is that, except under unavoidable circumstances, they must be protected from being dragged unnecessarily to courts of law.

For this purpose, grievous crimes involving the loss of limbs or life, which are usually committed and witnessed by men, and are mostly not witnessed by women, have been kept out of the purview of women's evidence.

Moreover, evidence according to Islamic principles is not a privilege. It is a legal responsibility and a religious duty. False evidence or suppression thereof is a grave sin. Thus inadmissibility of women's evidence under the laws of Hudood, Diyat and Qisas should be deemed a boon for them instead of being interpreted as a mark of inferiority and discrimination on the basis of sex.

However, under extraordinary circumstances and exceptional situations where the dictates of justice demand, and where there is every probability that grave violation of justice and rule of law is sure to ensue, the admissibility of female evidence may be considered.

Nevertheless, as financial matters directly concern the day to day life of women, they have been given the right to depose as witness in cases concerning financial transactions. In this regard, they have been given a privilege that no other legal system of the world, has ever accorded them.

While appearing as a witness, a woman, according to the Quran, is accompanied by another woman who would assist her during the course of deposition, support her when she falters, correct her when she makes a mistake and remind her when she forgets.

Moreover, in matters where male witnesses, in the nature of things, are not usually available, the evidence of only one woman is sufficient to establish a claim. For example, paternity, legitimacy, and fosterage are established by the evidence of a single woman.

Islam gives special importance to the protection of a woman's honour and dignity. On the one hand, the Quran exhorts women to preserve their self-respect, behave in a dignified manner and shun and avoid behaviour which could arouse even remotely unbecoming hopes and base sentiments.

She must be very particular not to project herself as a sex object when going outside her home. On the other hand it warns the vulgar elements of society that if they continue to harass respectable women exemplary punishment would be meted out to them.

A society like ours, which denies women their due, tramples upon their legal and moral rights, behaves towards them in an undignified and reprehensible manner, cannot in any sense be termed Islamic. The remedy, however, does not lie in the abolition of certain laws which would make matter worse.

Nor will the lot of women improve if in the name of empowerment, emancipation and rights they are given duties and responsibilities which will harm the very texture of Islamic ethos. The only remedy is the inculcation of a sense of accountability before Allah and an all-pervading belief in the life hereafter.

Anxiety over Kashmir

By M.H. Askari

Despite all the goodwill generated by the unprecedented people-to-people contacts, coupled with visits of various delegations and, perhaps more than anything else, the cricket series, the Kashmir issue appears to continue to be an eternal stumbling block in the way of normalization between India and Pakistan.

Even after an agreed roadmap seems to have emerged after several rounds of formal talks between officials of the two countries, a mood of intransigence appears to be overtaking the peace efforts.

Coinciding with the issue of a somewhat obnoxious document reiterating India's contention that the whole of Kashmir is an integral part of the country, President Pervez Musharraf, in a somewhat admonishing tone has called for an early movement on the settlement of the Kashmir dispute.

India's ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is apparently anxious to fortify its position vis-a-vis other political parties in anticipation of the general elections due to be held shortly.

The president of Pakistan is evidently getting impatient with the seemingly unending stalemate over the Kashmir question. His Tuesday's statement on the subject was earlier reported as the setting of a deadline for settling the issue, but that impression has since been dispelled. The official spokesman, clarifying the president's observations, has said that what the president wants is for both Pakistan and India to move forward on Kashmir and resolve the matter.

There is no denying that in their negotiations on Kashmir the two countries have been going round and round in circles and there is very little of positive outcome to be shown for the 55 odd years since the dispute came to light.

The contentious Vision Document 2004, issued by the BJP on Tuesday as its manifesto for the impending elections, is not in keeping with the open-minded approach to India-Pakistan problems which was otherwise seen in Mr Vajpayee's recent statements on Kashmir as well as other matters of dispute.

It not only reiterates that the disputed state is an integral part of India but stresses that the unity of the country is "sacred" to the BJP and "a paramount commitment" on its part.

The document rules out the possibility of the dispute being settled even by the redrawing of the "national boundaries" (including the boundaries of Kashmir) as sometimes speculated. Although the Vision Document 2004 stops short of specifically identifying its ingenuous formulation, the boundaries of the disputed Kashmir state, that is clearly implicit in whatever has been stated.

It appears that in its manifesto the BJP is attempting to avoid being seen as making any concessions to Pakistan since that could make it appear weak in the eyes of the leaders of the rival parties.

At the outset of the present round of negotiations to resolve their differences, it was understood that while Pakistan would help to end what the Indian leaders perceive as cross border help received by the freedom fighters (described as terrorists by the Indians in the valley), India was expected to substantially reduce its military strength in the occupied state and put an end to the military operations against the freedom fighters conducted under the pretext of controlling terrorist activity.

While it is evident that the cross-border (west to east) movement of the so-called terrorists has been effectively checked, the military operations against the Kashmiri freedom fighters have lost none of their severity.

As the Pakistani high commissioner in New Delhi put it quite plainly the other day, India's rigid position on disputes such as Kashmir is a constant source of instability in the region and is also blocking India's own access to Central Asia -- a potential source of some of its most vital imports (such as oil and gas).

India's military operations in occupied Kashmir are resulting in the death of large numbers of Kashmiris while resisting New Delhi's occupation of their homeland. The Indian security forces also inevitably suffer casualties almost every day.

The All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), which is the umbrella organization for a number of groups of freedom fighters in the occupied state, has fully supported the efforts for peace between India and Pakistan.

The veteran Hurriyat leader, Abdul Ghani Bhatt, said the other day that a peaceful solution of the Kashmir dispute was the only guarantee of peace and progress in the region.

He seemed hopeful of an early end to the unrest in the Valley as he believes that there is a general global will that the issue of Kashmir should be peacefully settled. Inevitably the Kashmiris expect that the solution should be in line with the aspirations of the Kashmiri people.

There have been several attempts to find a way out of the Kashmir stalemate, mostly bilaterally but quite often with some help from the outside. It is generally believed that during the India-China war in 1962, when the US and Britain put their full weight behind the efforts for the resolution of the issue, India and Pakistan came closest to coming to an agreement. This was going to be on the basis of some redemarcation of the disputed state's boundaries. But the efforts ended without any tangible result.

Unfortunately India's attitude hardened even further after the failure of the 1962 talks. There has been a growing effort on the part of successive governments in New Delhi to tighten their grip on Kashmir.

This position has become more and more unbearable for the Kashmir people, not the least on account of the increasing centralization of powers in India and the gradual erosion of secularism as a result of the policies of those who have come to power in New Delhi.

The offer by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in April last year for renewed peace efforts was welcomed not only by Pakistan but also by the Kashmiri people. However, the efforts do not lead to anything substantive, there would inevitably be a further worsening of peace and stability in the region.

With elections in India only a few weeks away, Mr Vajpayee and his coalition colleagues perhaps feel somewhat nervous about their future. But New Delhi's persistent intransigence would in no way make things any better for them.

There is a vague feeling among some of Mr Vajpayee's colleagues that the rival Congress Party, led by Ms Sonia Gandhi, could be catching up. However, many of the recent opinion polls conducted by the Indian media indicate that for Mr Vajpayee and the BJP there is really no cause for panic.

Since the present round of peace efforts between India and Pakistan has resulted from a call given by Mr Vajpayee, Pakistanis would generally want to see him bring the efforts to a positive ending. Incidentally, in a poll recently conducted by a major Indian news journal, 60 per cent of the respondents said Mr Vajpayee was right in making the peace overture to Pakistan.

It was during his visit to Islamabad earlier this year that Mr Vajpayee and his close aides charted a course for peace in the region. The Indian prime minister during his visit also presumably made certain commitments that would lead to normalization of relations between India and Pakistan.

Pakistanis would generally want him to stay in power to meet his commitments. The BJP's pro-Hindutva orientation notwithstanding it is doubtful that any other political party in India would have the confidence to negotiate for peace with Pakistan and make a compromise on Kashmir acceptable to its people.

It is only when Pakistan has freed itself from tensions arising out of its difficulties with India that it would be able to "walk step by step along the long and winding road to peace", as the Pakistani official spokesman put it in his news briefing the other day.

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