The position of women in the Islamic society continues raising interesting debates among scholars who have variously discussed this topic with both objectivity and subjectivity. Various changes have taken place with regard to the place of women in the Islamic society from the time before its inception, during the reign of Prophet Muhammad and thereafter. It is, therefore, not surprising that these social transformations have attracted efforts of various scholars. Thus, this paper is focused on exploring the transformations that have taken place in relation to the role, position and voice of women in the Islamic society before, during and even in the post-Islamic era.
The position of women in the Pre-Islamic Arabia
Women in the Pre-Islamic Arabia became the victims of despicable injustice and subordination. This was primarily because of the Islamic doctrines that were effectively in operation and were largely developed with a bias towards institutionalization of gendered hierarchical and authoritative messages. These gender biased hierarchical voices became effective and succeeded in silencing the prospects of the voice of equity and justice for all humanity. During this period, Islam became a religion for the dominant class, consisting exclusively of males. The Arab women neither had any rights entitled to them nor could participate in the affairs of the society.
Before the inception of Islam, Arab women were subjected to great humiliation in the public as well as in the private spheres (Ahmed 43). In most cases women were treated more or less the same as one would treat a slave at that time. Since they were required to be submissive to men, women had no rights for justice or equity in the eyes of men. They were rendered very vulnerable to manipulation, violation and oppression from men. Having no rights, the pre-Islamic Arab women were not considered even a human and as a result could not even occupy any political, social or religious positions. In fact, they could not have absolutely any right in the religious aspects of their society and were considered unworthy for prayer. In the foregoing conditions, a woman was subjected to a passive retroactive position in which their opinions, own beliefs about issues even related to their marriages were considered futile, weak and inappropriate.
At the family level, the position of women was absolutely passive. The woman had no bound by any contract, either a marriage or custodianship of children. Ahmed (43-44) cited that on a general note, men and not women were entitled to the right to marry as many wives as they wanted without any set limits. The subordinate position of women rendered them vulnerable to the exploitation by men since legal systems for claim of justice were non-existent. As a result, men could commit injustice acts against their wives without being held accountable by law. Further, in the pre-Islamic era, women were treated like one of the ordinary and useless properties that a person could own. In the same manner like one can dispose property that is rendered redundant, women were at the mercy of men who could decide and throw them out anytime they felt like doing so (Armajani 44).
Women were considered to be the property of men. They had not right to inherit any property, whether from their parents or their husbands. The cultural beliefs of the Arabs in the pre-Islamic era, and especially before the coming of Mohammed was that property can only be inherited by those who could ride horses, fight in wars, get war booties and guard the clan and its territory against external attack (Nashat, and Tucker 114). These martial abilities were preserved for men. Because women lacked these martial abilities, instead of inheriting property from their parents or husbands, they were themselves inherited and sold like as any other ordinary commodity especially after the demise of the husband. Female infanticide illustrated the climax of devalued status of women in the Arab society before the establishment of Islam. Birth of a female child was considered a disgrace to the man.
The position of women during the Islamic era
The period leading to the onset of Islamic religion coincides with the coming of Prophet Mohammed. This period witnessed a rise of the feminists’ insurrections. Prophet Mohammed is considered to be the women liberator. This is because his era saw the termination of female infanticide, entitlement of rights for women and the elevation of women to the position of equality with men. These were the transformations that were realized especially through the doctrinal teachings of Islamic Qur’an and the Sharia (Armajani 54). According to Islam and the teachings of Prophet Mohammed, men and women are equal beings before God. This declaration out-rightly granted women the right to inherit property from their husbands and their parents.
The social, property and marriage rights of women that were considered until now to be irrelevant in the pre-Islamic Arabic society, were enforced including the rights of a woman to denounce the proposed terms of marriage and to launch divorce against the husband. Armajani (54) cited that Mohammed actively campaigned for respect, fair and just treatment of women by men. He counseled and implored Muslim men and the society to treat women and daughters with dignity and not as property as was the case before his coming. In one of his teachings, Mohammed is quoted to have said that women had rights over their men as much as men had the same rights. This marked the beginning of the elevation of the position of women in the society.
Mohammed and the entrance of Islamic religion led to a sudden change in the perception of the position of women in the society. He once said that heaven was at the feet of women and that if men treated their daughters well they would speak well of them on the Judgment Day and would thus enter paradise. From this time on, women started to play active role in religion and society as a whole. Thus women had occupied a dignified position in society in the era of Mohammed.
The writings and teachings in the Qur’an entrenched and sealed the rights of women to political, economic and social equality with men (Meriwether, and Tucker 47). This implies that in the era of Prophet Mohammed, women reclaimed their lost positions and rose from the level of being considered as passive properties and slaves of men to become equals. Women were lifted to the position of equality before the law, entitlement of political rights including participation in public affairs. This period saw women gaining access even to nomination and election in political offices that were once the preserve of men. Mohammed and the onset of Islam therefore marked the period of emancipation and empowerment of women from the repressive and enslaving patriarchal society that silenced the voices of women and projected the voices and rights of men (Armajani 54).
The position of women during Abbasid era
The position of women in the era of Abbasid has greatly changed. The emancipation from the repressive rule and non-recognition of women as right-holders that had been advocated for by the Prophet Mohamed went into the swamps again. According to Ahmed, the freedom that women had gained during the time of Mohammed and their involvement in the affairs of the Muslim community underwent severe restrictions in the era of Abbasid (Armajani 55). During this period, women again reverted to their initial position of being conspicuously absent in virtually all the central affairs of the Muslim community. Armajani records Ahmed’s observation that most of the facts illustrate the declining participation of women in the central affairs of the religious life of Muslims, cultural life, warfare and production activities of the society during this time (Armajani 55).
A review of the literature on gender affairs during the era of Abbasid shows that patriarchal and misogynist perspectives regained dominance in the society. Men then championed their way to the positions of dominance as women sunk even further to a state of subordination and inferiority. The texts that were written during the period of Abbasid conveyed biased information rooting for a patriarchal society. These texts became the reference materials used by the Muslim community to further subject women to socioeconomic and political marginalization. Indeed in this era, women were barred from the active role they had taken up in central decision-making processes. Armajani (55-56) asserts Ahmed’s belief and position that it is during this time that the Muslim community that favored patriarchy endorsed several pre-Islamic values, mores and prejudices that subjected women to inferior and subordinate positions (Ahmed 67).
The laws and other legislations that were passed, functioned to the detriment of females in the Muslim society. In the Middle East and Arabia, legislations were even passed to support enslavement and sale of girls as slaves (Nashat, and Tucker 54). Slave markets were thus established with most slaves coming from Central Europe, Russia, Byzantine Empire, Italy and Africa. The position of women during this era thus retrogressed from the position of power, autonomy and independence to that of subornation and servitude (Nashat, and Tucker 54). Hence, during this time, women lost the battle against male domination in almost all the spheres of society. Men increasingly gained voice over issues relating to family, legislative decisions, leadership and production activities of the society.
Limitation of women’s role in the Abbasid era and the implication on Muslim women today
The participation of women in the central affairs of the ancient Muslim community underwent very stringent limitations during the era of Abbasid. There was a sudden decline in the active role that was played by women in the Muslim community including leadership, decision making and legislation. Ahmed asserts that during this time, the Muslim community supported patriarchal perspectives rooted for misogynist ideologies’. Latter were not only openly displayed but also led to publication of texts championing patriarchal ideologies. Armajani (54-55) notes Ahmed’s concern and comment that most of the texts that were produced during the time of Abbasid reflected the extent to which women were increasingly marginalized and discriminated contrary to the position of women during the time of Mohammed the Prophet. Thus limitation of the role of women was achieved through promotion of patriarchal perspectives and marginalization of women in the legislative decisions regarding education, religious practices, political activities and nomination into public offices (Armajani 55).
In order to effectively and successfully limit the participation of women in public affairs (Armajani 55) cites Ahmed’s conceptualization that the society’s perception of gender and women was particularly altered. The structures that governed the relationship between males and females in the society were also changed to reflect patriarchal ideologies. These were promoted and integrated into the societal mores and values. They manifested in the normal transactions of social life. Gender-based ideologies that appeared to support women involvement and participation in the transactions and affairs of the society were silently weeded off even as patriarchal texts gained momentum. These gender biased texts were used to form later the core prescriptive texts of Islam (Armajani 55). Since then, they have been constantly used by the Muslim community throughout history to entrench subordination of women and their subjection to positions of inferiority.
The eventual victory of the proponents of patriarchal gender ideologies during the era of Abbasid had far-reaching implications on the Muslim women in the society today. The endorsements of various pre-Islamic mores and prejudices towards women have left the Muslim community with subjective perception that women have no role to play in the public affairs of the society (Armajani 55). Therefore, women in the Muslim community have become victims of patriarchal manipulations since the endorsements deeply entrenched negative and debased perceptions of women. As a result of the limitations and active deliberate silencing of the voice of women in the family, community, religious and public affairs during the rule of Abbasid, several abusive uses of women got legalized and considered legitimate Muslim practices (Armajani 56). Some of them include the liberty of the man to marry as many wives as he pleases while women became submissive and passive members of the family with full authority and power to run the family and make decisions on its behalf.
The position of women in the Muslim community has undergone dynamic transformations from one era to another. Before the Islamic religion developed, the position of women in the society was equivalent to that of an object and property that can be disposed or sold at the discretion of the man. Later this has changed with the coming of Prophet Mohammed who declared that women had rights as much as men had. The position of the woman was then strengthened as women gained voice in the society. However, the limitation of the role of women in the society during the time of Abbasid drastically led women back to the initial position of inferiority and subordination. This brings them to the present subordinate positions that women are struggling with in a dominantly patriarchal Muslim community.