‘Sexism’ in religion?

  • A concise rebuttal
Many Muslims and non-Muslims are critical of alleged discrimination or sexism in Islam. Ask one of them for instances of it, and he is likely to cite the following (all too familiar) examples: men being granted a higher status than women; bigger rewards for believing men in paradise; unequal share in inheritance; objectification of women; their unequal testimony in legal matters, and polygyny. These have been doing the rounds for centuries and have been addressed over those centuries many times over, but like the mythical phoenix, they manage to rise from their ashes with renewed vigour in each generation. Still, there’s no harm in making another attempt to respond to them.
There’s another complaint too, which is of a more recent vintage: that the pronouns used, and hence the general narrative sometimes seems to revolve solely around men. This is obviously a matter of the reader’s literary taste or lack thereof. By way of illustration of the point, just compare the classic phrases ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen!’ and ‘These are the times that try men’s souls,’ with their gender-neutral versions ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen and countrywomen!’ and ‘These are the times that try women’s (or men’s/women’s) souls,’ respectively. The Quran is not only a revelation but a literary masterpiece; therefore, those who are not trained to appreciate good literature are bound to find it problematic in this sense.
And now to the more perennial charges of sexism: Since many of these issues are husband-wife related – not man-woman related, in which terms they are often couched – it’s a good idea to first examine what marriage is in Islam. Once that is done, many of the criticisms can either be answered or it becomes clear how they are faulty in the first place. Marriage, in Islam, is not friendship as is so fashionable these days among the liberals. Nor is it legalisation of sexual relations, as even some conservative Muslims believe. It’s a contract between man and wife that creates an institution, which considering the future generations, is the most fundamental social institution of all. Now, like any institution, the authority must rest with one party: the husband in this case. But like all authority, it comes with responsibility: that of being the bread-winner for the whole family. And this is irrespective of whether the wife earns or not. (If the roles had been reversed, some would undoubtedly have complained of sexism against men.)
When the Quran talks about authority (2:228, 4:34) then, this has nothing to do with the authority of men over women. It’s merely talking about the relationship between a man and his wife. The same man has no authority over his mother (in fact, reverse is the case). He doesn’t even have any authority over his daughter any more than he has over his son. Seen in this light, the larger inheritance of the son as compared to the daughter (4:11) makes complete sense, because women, whether married or unmarried, are not required to bear the financial burden. Now, these are understandably difficult to accept for the West (and our own liberals), because they don’t necessarily agree with what constitutes marriage and a household. In all honesty however, they should at least refrain from presenting these as man-vs-woman issues.
As for the ‘half-testimony’ of women (2:282), it has nothing to do with testimony in criminal or even civil cases
Verse 4:34, which allows a man to beat his rebellious wife (as a last resort), is especially controversial in this age of political-correctness. The permission is indeed there, but it’s not for incompatibility, or even for infidelity (as usually believed). The Quran is very clear that it’s only for challenging the very authority of the husband (the Arabic word used can be translated ‘rebellion’). Of course, the right of divorce is always available to the wife, but she is not allowed to stay in marriage and at the same time flout the husband’s authority, something she recognised when she signed the contract.
Paradise and its (unequal) rewards are a source of much anxiety. Since, in addition to the charge of sexism, that touches on a larger criticism of Islam somehow being animalistic, the subject is large enough to warrant a separate piece – something for another day.
Much has been written on polygamy (polygyny to be more precise) in the Quran – the author too recently wrote on the subject, so it won’t be discussed here. As for the ‘half-testimony’ of women (2:282), it has nothing to do with testimony in criminal or even civil cases, where it’s a matter of chance who happens to be present at a certain time and place, and who is in the best position to share some relevant fact. It only pertains to financial transactions, where one is at liberty to choose witnesses of one’s choice. Where there’s a strong case for women not being temperamentally disposed or even interested in such matters, and therefore more likely to err. It’s unfortunate how from this Quranic recommendation it was inferred by some that the testimony of women in all matters was half, or worse, worth zero if there was no male eye-witness.
Verse 3:14 is an interesting one: ‘To mankind has been made to seem decorous the love of desires for women and children, accumulated piles of gold and silver, branded horses, livestock, and farms. These are the wares of the life of this world; but Allah—with Him is a good destination.’ This verse is cited (by different groups) for making two different cases. One objects to the listing of women among ‘things’ that are attractive for men (objectification of women); while the other takes exception to sons (not daughters) being on the list (gender discrimination). A little consideration will show that the arguments demolish one another.
In debates with people who criticise the Quran for being this, that or the other thing, one can’t help realising that with very few exceptions, these critics haven’t read the Quran themselves – their criticisms are all based on second-hand knowledge. The first step, then, is to encourage them to first try and understand the Quran and only then to attempt criticism. That would make for a much better dialogue.