With today’s reading it looks like I have walked out of the jihad maelstrom and into the furnace of Islamic treatment of women.  Great! 

I would imagine that the visual many Americans get in their head of a Muslim woman is of a heavily veiled female of meek demeanor and few words.  Maybe she walks a few paces behind him, and that they have a marriage partnership is laughable.  She has a place in society: domestic and sexual, little more.  And should she dare to misbehave, we hate to think what will happen to her.  Don’t Muslims still stone women sometimes? 

Is there anything to these conceptions?  They wouldn’t be in our consciousness if they didn’t sometimes come true, but is this the norm?  No doubt, the status of women is going to be a recurring theme this year as we work our way through the Qur’an.  The fourth surah is even entitled “Women.”  The majority of today’s reading pertains to marriage, divorce and how gender impacts both of these.  

To say that men and women are treated with the same status in this passage would certainly be incorrect.  But there is a strong thread throughout all of this section (which reads a lot like a legal section of Leviticus) that both parties are to treat the other respectfully in matters of sexuality, divorce and remarriage.  A man was certainly not free to just brush off a woman as unwanted chattel.  The following points stand out here:

  1. Men are to restrain their sexual advances when a woman is menstruating, not simply because she was thought to be “unclean,” but because “menstruation is a painful condition” and the man ought to be compassionate, not only concerned with his own desires. (2:222)
  2. Commentator Abdullah Yusuf Ali highlights the dignity that is given to women by virtue of the simile in 2:223 comparing the wife to a farmer’s field.  No good farmer who wants to use the same land for some time exploits his field; he treats it respectfully so that it is as fruitful as possible.  So too should a husband treat his wife. 
  3. Ali also claims that the background to the four-month waiting period in 2:226 is the practice ancient pagan Arabs had of depriving their wives of conjugal fulfillment but not divorcing them, keeping them from remarrying.  That the Qur’an demands a man make a decision what he will do with his wife within four months of the end of romance seems to actually be driven by a desire to give freedom to women.
  4. This passage does indicate that men have more rights than women, likely due to their superior economic capabilities at that time, but 2:228 does acknowledge the wife retains rights consummate to her status as a woman. 
  5. If divorce is inevitable, the Qur’an provides economic protection to the woman by telling the man not to take back anything of worth he had given the wife.  (2:229)
  6. A time of four months and ten days must pass before a widow can remarry.  Part of the reason for the specified amount of time is so that a pregnancy caused by the deceased husband would be obvious, but part too seems to be a way to avoid an opportunistic wedding committed when the widow was emotionally vulnerable.  (2:234-35)  

So from this passage alone, I am not seeing the typical depiction of oppression.  I see a great amount of respect given to both parties, and a sensitivity to the vulnerability inherent in being a woman in the seventh century AD.  I am wondering at this point if some of the negative behavior we have seen regarding Islamic women doesn’t actually have more to do with the native cultures of the men involved, not their religion. 

What are your impressions?