“I CAN’T believe how many black men are becoming Muslim in London… after the way they treat their women.” I once heard this statement being made one evening a long time ago, before I knew anything about Islam. The above statement makes an assumption about Islam, even though it does not assert that assumption directly. ‘They’ is supposed to refer to Muslims; the statement suggests that if a man becomes a Muslim he must accordingly treat women in a way which is presumably poor.
This reasoning ignores the way in which we consider our own history. A fair question to ask, for example, would be, “Do Christians treat women better (if they do; if we can really generalise) because of their Christianity or despite it?” The fact is that the results of the modern women’s liberation movement did not originate from Christianity. The fact that British (Christian) women now have basically the same rights as men, in theory at least, would never be attributed to Christianity. So is it fair to apply this kind of reasoning to Muslims and Islam? I would argue no, for Muslims as individuals and societies have a history just like any other person or society.
Do Muslims treat women badly (if they do; if we can really generalise) because of their Islam or despite it? I would argue that people are generally influenced by the behaviour of the society in which they live. Religion may teach a certain way of life, but individuals will not necessarily comply; indeed religion may prohibit certain behaviour, but people have the freewill to do as they please. This applies in many spheres. The Ministry of Transport of a given country may set the speed limit as 70mph on the motorway, but this does not mean that everybody will drive at or below this speed.
In 1870, British married women were granted the right to own property for the first time. This right was obtained not because of Christian teachings, but because of a social movement within the society of the time. That British Christian women have benefited as a result does not mean that it should be attributed to their religion. Similarly, Islam categorically prohibits the ‘forced’ marriage of Muslim women; the fact that there are cases where Muslim women do face this situation should not be attributed to Islam. The truth is that the teachings of any religion are usually something quite different from the practice of adherents. Paul of Tarsus, after all, from whom much of the Christian Church’s teachings derive insisted that women must not ask questions in church, but we would be hard pressed to find people in this age considering this acceptable. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that I wish to separate the teachings of Islam from the cultural practices of Muslims.
Islam is a religion which has something to say about the rights and roles of women in society. This is not the place to engage in apologetics or to argue that what has been achieved for women in Britain over recent years is what Islam teaches. A Muslim society is centred on seeking the pleasure of God, to whom all praise is due, which is in stark contrast to one of the main, if unstated, aims of life in contemporary Britain (i.e. the pursuit of personal happiness). Islam sets out a way of life for its adherents, male and female, such that it is not difficult to determine what it actually teaches in this regard.
The fact is that Islam attracts all sorts of people, both male and female, to believe in it as the Truth. If it were the case that Islam (the religion) did indeed command a certain poor treatment of women that the above statement portrays, it would be hard to imagine that so many people would embrace it as a way of life. Writing in The Times in 1993, Lucy Berrington highlighted this point.
“It is even more ironic,” she wrote, “that most British converts should be women, given the widespread view in the west that Islam treats women poorly. In the United States, women converts outnumber men by four to one, and in Britain make up the bulk of the estimated 10,000 to 20,000 converts, forming part of a Muslim community of 1 to 1.5 million.” (Lucy Berrington, The Spread of a World Creed, The Times, 9/11/93)
To understand how exactly Muslims (and not necessarily those who are male) should treat their women, it is only necessary to examine what the Qur’an and the Prophet said on this matter.