"Treat your women well and be kind to them for they are your partners and committed helpers." (from the last sermon of Prophet Mohammed) (Women in Islam)
There is a generally common perception in the West that the ethical treatment of women in Islam amounts to gender discrimination, oppression and a transgression of basic human rights. Notwithstanding the issue of the way different cultures treat women, this is not a perception that is endorsed by many within Islamic communities and it certainly does not concur with actual Islamic teachings. This can be seen for the very outset in the way that the Koran describes the creation of women. In the Holy Scriptures there is no implicit difference made in terms of status or intrinsic value between male and female. In ethical terms, while there are differences between men and women, these biological differences do not impact or affect ethical values and treatment of women. Men and women are seen to be essentially the same in terms of relative value and status. Women are not seen to have any limitations when compared to men.
Despite the distinctions between the treatment of men and the treatment of women when the Qur'an discusses creation of humankind, ... that there is no essential difference in the value attributed to women and men. There are no indications, therefore, that women have more or fewer limitations than men. (Wadud 15)
The author of Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman's Perspective emphasizes the inherent equality between the sexes as stated in the Qur'an. "Man and woman are two categories of the human species given the same or equal consideration and endowed with the same or equal potential. Neither is excluded in the principal purpose of the Book, which is to guide humankind towards recognition of and belief in certain truths." (ibid)
The author goes on to state that, in terms of religious belief, there is no difference between men and women in an ethical sense. "The Qur'an encourages all believers, male and female, to follow their belief with actions, and for this it promises them a great reward. Thus, the Qur'an does not make a distinction between men and women in this creation ... Or in the reward it promises." (ibid)
This view is reiterated in many studies and interpretations of religious law. Qur'an 3:195 tells us: Their Lord responded to them: "I never fail to reward any worker among you for any work you do, be you MALE OR FEMALE, YOU ARE EQUAL TO ONE ANOTHER ... " (Are men and women equal in God's judgment? )
Therefore there is no male and female stereotypy which infers necessary or prior inferiority or superiority in the creation myth in Islam. There are however different roles ascribed for men and women -- such as social and cultural roles which relate to both women and men in society. However, these roles are not seen to be intrinsically inferior or superior to one another. In religious and ethical terms the action and functions of men and women are exactly the same in terms of value.
It should be noted that in different cultures there have been signs of a misinterpretation to basic and foundational ethics of Islam which has resulted in many instances of unfair and discriminatory gender bias. However, in terms of the ethics of Islam as laid down in the Islamic scriptures, there is no evidence of any bias. In fact the opposite is true and there is certain irony in the fact that, while much of the criticism of Islam has come from Western sources, Christian scriptures often reveal much more bias and discrimination against women than can be found than the Qur'an.
Islamic scriptures attest to the equality of the sexes in a number of ways. With regard to the creational myth of humanity, the "Qur'an emphasizes the single origin of all humankind: 'He created you (all) from a single nafs' (4:1) (Are men and women equal in God's judgment?) There is also no distinction between male and female in terms of their growth and development during their period on earth. "Allah does not change the condition of a folk until they (first) change what is in their anfus' (13:11)" (ibid)
2. Woman as an individual
The foundation of an ethics of equality is the recognition of the individual as a person in their own right, free to act and not subservient to any other human being. This implies that no prejudicial treatment may be ethically applied. There is a common perception from some quarters that women in Islam are only considered from a social and cultural perspective; as mothers, home makers etc. In other words, they only have value in these terms and not as individuals per se. This is another stereotypical assumption about Islam which is not supported by the scriptures. The Qur'an is in fact very specific in its insistence on the fully-fledged individuality of the woman with the same essential rights as the man in society.
For the most part, the Qur'anic consideration of woman on earth centres on her relationship to the group, i.e. As a member of a social system. However, it is also important to understand how the Qur'an focuses on a woman as an individual because the Qur'an treats the individual, whether male or female, in exactly the same manner: that is, whatever the Qur'an says about the relationship between Allah and the individual is not in gender terms. With regard to spirituality, there are no rights of woman distinct from rights of man. (Wadud 34)
In other words, in terms of ethics and treatment of women, the Qur'an does not place any emphasis of either male or female in terms of an individuals capacity or ability. "There is no distinction between the male and the female with regard to individual capacity. " (ibid)
There are many instances when the actual teachings of Islam are contradictory to commonly held assumptions about the treatment of women in Islamic counties. One of these is that Islamic women are bound in marriage against their will. While this might be the case in certain countries and cultural contexts, it is not the part of the ethos of Islam. "Indeed, Islam insists on the free consent of both bride and groom, so such marriages could even be deemed illegal under religious law." (Maqsood, Ruqaiyyah Waris)
The Qur'an makes it clear that women "were created of a single soul," and are moral equals in the sight of God." (ibid) According to Islamic religious law women have the right to divorce as well as inherit property and the right to education and knowledge. The Qur'an also states quite clearly that women are just as vital and important to life as men and she is not "inferior to him nor is she one of the lower species." (Hammuda Abdul-Ati)
At the same time it should be pointed out that while ethically the rights of women are equal to men, the rights and responsibilities of men and women are not identical. "The rights and responsibilities of women are equal to those of men but they are not necessarily identical with them. Equality and sameness are two quite different things."(ibid)
Therefore for this reason there are differences is the responsibilities of women as well as in the expectations of her role in the home and society -- but these differences do not necessarily imply inequality.
In many ways the situation of Islamic women, in terms of the religious ethics, is doctrinally better to women in a Christian context. For example, there is no association made of women with evil and deception. "Unlike other popular beliefs, Islam does not blame Eve alone for the First Sin." (ibid) Islamic texts make it clear that the blame for temptation in Eden was shared by both Adam and Eve.
The Qur'an makes it very clear that both Adam and Eve were tempted; that they both sinned; that God's pardon was granted to both after their repentance; and that God addressed them jointly. (2:35-36); 7:19, 27; 20:117-123) (ibid)
There are a number of other aspects that point to the equitable ethical view of women in Islam. Women are recognized as full and equal partners of men and as such her role is as significant and important as his. Importantly, women are allowed freedom of expression and are encouraged to become educated.
It is reported in the Qur'an and history that woman not only expressed her opinion freely but also argued and participated in serious discussions with the Prophet himself as well as with other Muslim leaders (Qur'an, 58:1-4; 60:10-12). (What are women's rights in Islam? Islamic Org)
The following is a brief summary of some of the rights relating to the ethical status of women in Islamic society.
In a truly Islamic society women have the following rights: