Are Men and Women Equal?

by Dr. David L. Johnston

You know from my last blog that large majorities of Muslims worldwide believe that women should have the same civil, political and professional rights as men. Many of you are thinking, "but doesn’t 'Islam' oppress women?" Let’s unpack that statement and see 1) what’s behind this perception, and 2) why Muslims themselves fiercely disagree with one another on these issues.

For my Intro to Islam class every semester at St. Joseph’s University, I take my students to visit the mosque next door. The imam, a 60-year old white American convert, is a jovial host whose answers to my students questions are disarmingly simple, honest, and often funny. Yet he always makes sure before entering the precincts that none of my female students are having their period. “It’s like in the Old Testament,” he adds, "it’s about ritual purity – menstruating women were not allowed in the Temple."

He’s right. Leviticus 12 tells us a woman is ritually unclean for 33 days after the birth of a son. When she gives birth to a daughter, it’s 66 days. This was the patriarchal context of the ancient Near-East. Vows were serious matters, but a husband could nullify his wife’s vows at any point. The same applies to a woman still living in her father’s home. But a widow or divorcée is bound to her vow no matter what (Numbers 30). Polygamy was acceptable, and divorce was a one-way affair – the husband sends the undesirable wife away with a divorce letter in hand (Deut. 24:1).

You might object that Jesus affirmed monogamy and banned divorce entirely, except (in Matthew) for infidelity; also that Paul in the New Testament taught clearly that men and women are spiritually equal; that he recruited several female colleagues, including Junia, a female “apostle” (Rom. 16:7). Yet in one passage, he argues, like the rabbi he was trained to be, that women in church should be quiet and submissive, because Eve was the one deceived by the devil, not Adam. Then he adds, “But women will be saved through childbearing, assuming they continue to live in faith, love, holiness, and modesty” (I Tim. 2:15).

All I am saying is that these sacred texts come to us within a specific cultural context. Patriarchy was the norm. This is certainly the case with the Qur’an. Let me list just a few teachings that jar current norms of human rights:

  • A man may have up to four wives, on the condition that they all be treated with equal care (Q. 4:3).
  • Having tried everything from separate bedrooms to patient reasoning, a husband may in the end hit a “rebellious” wife physically (most translations add “lightly”) (4:34).
  • A sister inherits half the amount her brother does.
  • The witness of a man in court is worth that of two women.

Having said that, the qur’anic Adam and Eve equally shared the responsibility for their
disobedience. Three times you read that “whoever does a righteous deed, whether male or female,” God will reward. Then this oft-quoted verse which came to Muhammad about a year before he died, “O mankind, We have created you male and female, and appointed you races and tribes, that you may know one another. Surely the noblest among you in the sight of God is the most godfearing of you. God is All-knowing, All-aware” (Q. 49:13).

So gender equality is there, where it counts. Or is it? In any case, for a majority of Muslims worldwide, their understanding of Islam assumes men and women are equal before God.

So what do you do with the Taliban who banned girls from going to school and even working? What do you make of the many cases in various Muslim societies (even in the West), when a brother or father kills his sister or daughter because she is perceived to have violated the family’s honor?

Two quick answers and I’ll close for now. First, culture and religion have been conflated in most cases (honor killings happen in Arab Christian families too). People read their sacred texts through the prism of their own societal norms. Honor killings are nowhere in the texts. Further, the Taliban were the only Muslim state in modern history to impose those laws on women (they also banned all forms of music!).

Second, no two Muslim countries are alike. Tunisia banned polygamy in the 1960s. Morocco’s 2004 family law gives equal rights to husbands and wives in divorce and makes taking a second wife all but impossible. Turkey in this area is ready to join the EU. By contrast, countries in the Gulf have made precious little change in the last millennium. And in places like Pakistan, increasingly, the fight between the modernists and the arch-conservatives on this and many other issues could turn into a civil war – with geo-political implications for us all. It’s best not to generalize. And not to blame religion. The oppression of women, sadly, has a long human pedigree.

So what about the “veil”? That’s for next time.