GREEK AND ROMAN CIVILIZATION
In the days of ignorance, prior to the advent of Islam, women in many cultures throughout the world were considered little more than commodities, objects of desire to be bought and sold like livestock. According to Prof. Wil Durant, "In Rome, the man alone had any rights before the law in the early republic; he alone could buy, hold or sell property, or make contracts. Even his wife's dowry in this period belonged to him; if his wife was accused of a crime she was committed to him for judgement, and he could punish her by condemning her to death for infidelity or for stealing the keys to his wine cellar. Over his children he had the power of life, death and sale into slavery... Birth itself was an adventure in Rome. If the child was deformed or female, the father was permitted by custom to expose it to death".'
Neither did the Greek philosophers show a great deal of concern for females. Aristotle stated: "... We may thus conclude that it is a natural law that there should be naturally ruling elements and elements naturally ruled ... The rule of the freeman over the slave is one kind of rule; that of the male over the female another... The slave is entirely without the faculty of deliberation; the female indeed possesses it, but it is a form which remains inconclusive".'
The Greeks considered women to belong to the third (lowest) rank of society. If a woman gave birth to a deformed child, it was common practice to kill her. In Sparta, which was acknowledged as an elite society, a woman who could no longer bear children was put to death. The Spartans also took women away from their husbands to be inseminated by "brave and strong men" of other communities. The Greeks in general considered women to be insignificant creatures who could not be dear to the "gods".
Hippolytus' invective against women, in the tragedy by Euripides, sums up the Greek view:
"O Zeus, whatever possessed you to put an ambiguous misfortune amongst men by bringing women to the light of day? If you really wanted to sow the race of mortals, why did it have to be born of women? How much better it would be if men could buy the seed of sons, paying for it with gold, iron or bronze in your temples, and could live free, without women in their houses".2
Orthodox Jews who have held on to the classical teachings of Judaism have come under great strain from within as their practices are seen as sexually oppressive. The Talmud, a book pertaining to the Jewish civil and ceremonial law, states, 'It is impossible for there to be a world without males and females. Nevertheless happy is the man whose children are males and woe to the man whose children are females'.3
Superiority of the male child is further emphasized by several customs. On the birth of a male child the parents invite guests to a Kiddush, a celebratory meal after Sabbath, where there is no such custom after the birth of a female child. In education, it is not considered appropriate to educate the females beyond what is necessary to learn regarding the practices ordained in the Jewish scriptures to the women.' When a boy reaches adulthood a ritual called, her mitzvah, ‘son of the commandment’ further celebrates his maturity. The boy who has now become a man can be counted to make up a quorum, (minyan), which is needed for certain prayers and for public worship in the synagogue, for which ten free male adults are required. Whereas women cannot be counted to make up a quorum (minyan).2 There are no parallel celebration for women in Jewish custom. The inequality and injunction towards female oppression is further to be found in the law relating to divorce. A woman has no right of divorce. Even if her husband disappears without trace, without the evidence of his death, she can not remarry3. A man has the only right of divorce, and many men have abused this right by abandoning women but not divorcing them, thereby restricting them to remarry.
According to Le Bonn the male Orthodox Jew solemnly recites, "Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, that I was not born a female".
The inequalities in Jewish scriptures and traditions is experiencing pressure for change, from within, to be more equitable. The liberating ideologies have brought many changes to Judaism. There has been a recent introduction for the celebration of a girl attaining puberty called: bar mitzvah (compared with boys called bar mitzvah). In education, despite the ruling of Zohar, that the Torah was meant only to be given over to males,4 the girls education has become an established feature. In divorce, today the law has been changed so that the couples first turn towards the state courts for separation and then gain a religious divorce.
Women fared little better in other belief-systems. In Hinduism, the perfect woman is the pativrata, the devoted wife whose entire existence is dedicated to her husband. The very word pativrata says it all: "she whose vow ( vista) is to her husband ( pati) ". During her lifetime, the good Hindu wife is expected to regard her husband as her own personal god, for the man ordained to be a woman's husband is regarded as far more than a man: he is the incarnation of the supreme law in her life, the definition and summation of her religious duty. After a blameless life, such a woman should ideally die before her husband. If by some mischance she does not, then she may put that right by taking her own life on her husband's funeral pyre. This horrific rite, known as satee, was until very recently still being practiced in India, and the government has had to intervene to abolish it. Nevertheless, for devout Hindus a woman who is satee is worshipped as a goddess, the perfect example of the self-sacrificing wife.'
A book on the ancient discipline of Sanskrit religious law, Draramasastra, includes a chapter on "the religious status and duties of women," stridharmapaddhati. The author (or, more accurately, the compiler) of this work, Tryambaka, was an orthodox pandit living in Thanjavur, in what is now the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The ruling on women generally places them at the level of a subordinate citizen. For example: a wife has no right over her husband's property. Property owned jointly by the wife and husband may be distributed by the husband alone, but the wife needs his permission. Even with various kinds of 'women's property', such as gifts from her husband or her own family, a woman still needs her husbands permission to exercise her rights of ownership.
Tryambaka's stark message is defined in three ways. Firstly, a wife should have no regard for her own life. Secondly, she should even allow herself to be sold, if her husband should wish it. Thirdly, obedience to her husband takes precedence over all other duties, including religious ones. In essence, however, this law contains only one point: that a woman's highest duty is to her husband.
ARABIA PRE ISLAM
Prior to Islam, in Arabia, the Arabs treated women with contempt: it was customary for infant gals to be buried alive at birth. Men could have as many wives as they wished, and all were effectively enslaved, and would be inherited as possessions when the husband died. Among the pre-Islamic Arabs, when a man died, his eldest son or other close relative had the right to possess his widow or widows, marrying them himself if he so desired.
Before and during the time of the Prophet Muhammad Hi, Persia was ruled by the Sassanids who practiced Zoroastrianism. Their faith demanded total obedience of the wife to the husband. A wife was required to declare, "I will never cease, all my life, to obey my husband". Failure to do so would lead to divorce. A wife had no say in any matters and her husband could lend her, for a fee, to others. If a woman did not produce any children, she would be abandoned, if she was lucky; more often than not, a barren wife would be killed.
Britain and most of Europe, in the same period was just recovering from the lengthy Roman occupation, which was followed by the arrival of Christianity. European society was a highly fragmented one, in which tribal wars and kingly struggles to gain control over the land and people were commonplace. With very few exceptions, women had little or no active role to play in such affairs. As the dawn of Islam was starting to illuminate the long shadow of oppression on women, the French in the same period (586 CE) were claiming compassion and civility by passing a resolution, after great deliberation and controversy, that woman can be classified as a human being, however she is created for the sole purpose of serving man.'
The title of this section, by definition, is somewhat ambiguous, since the term 'Christianity' covers such a varied set of beliefs and practices. As one commentator put it, "Christianity is always adapting itself into that which is believable". (Or not, as the case may be). The apparent flexibility of this religion creates immediate problems for discussions, since it is easy for anyone to counter what is said about Christianity with the latest amended pronouncements of the Vatican, or Anglican Synod, or of other Churches. It is very much like trying to describe a desert landscape controlled by moving sand. The broad nature of Christian division must also be kept in mind: what holds true in one sect, such as the Church of England (Anglicanism), may not be true in another, such as Roman Catholicism. Nevertheless, if we look to the supposed sources of Christianity, the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, and the scholarly work produced elsewhere, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that women have, over the centuries, received a raw deal from the Mother (!) Church.
According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, "Christianity did not bring a revolutionary social change to the position of women". Indeed, "in the world of the early church, women were held in very low esteem, and this was the basis for divorce practices that put women practically at men's complete disposal". This is in keeping with the "Old Testament view of marriage as an institution primarily concerned with the establishment of a family, rather than sustaining the individual happiness of the marriage partners", a view which has "strongly influenced" Christianity.
When the "Kingdom of God" is established, marriage which was understood to be a part of the old, passing, order will not exist. According to the Bible as it exists today, the risen ones will "neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven". (Mark 12:25). Similarly, St. Paul's understanding of marriage in the light of the coming kingdom of God was as follows: "... the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none... For the world in its present form is passing away". (1 Corinthians 7:29-30). The early Christians believed that the end of time was relatively near, so marriage was not deemed worthwhile, as it would involve what were regarded as unnecessary troubles: "I would like you to be free from concern" (1 Corinthians 7:32). So it was felt that the unmarried, widowers and widows would fare better if they did not marry. Celibacy was demanded, not only of ascetics and monks, but of increasing numbers of the clergy, as a matter of duty.
The Bible, a book which conclusive evidence proves to have been written by men and to contain only fragments of the original revealed Books given to Prophets over the centuries (including the Torah, Psalms and Gospel), contain many references to the position of women in society. For example:
"As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says". (1 Corinthians 14:33-34)
"... A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days... If she gives birth to a daughter, for two weeks the woman will be unclean....". (Leviticus 12:1,5) The ideology of the female being inferior is indoctrinated from birth:
"Wives, submit to your husbands... For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church". (Ephesians 5:22 23)
"Then the Lord God said to the woman, 'What is this you have done?' The woman said, 'The serpent deceived me, and I ate.' ... To the woman he said, 'I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain will you give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you'." (Genesis 3:13.16)
St. Paul said: "The head of the woman is the man ... for a man ... is the image and glory of God. I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence". '
Based on the Biblical image of Eve as a seductive temptress, Christian theologians have historically associated women with sexuality and viewed her with deep suspicion, loathing and fear. Throughout the history of Christianity and the Roman Church, theologians, moralists and ethicists have inveighed against women as corrupt, weak, lustful and evil "daughters of Eve", who are to be shunned and avoided at all costs.2 The post-Christian feminist Mary Daly insists that since the Genesis stories were written by men, and their conception of God is irrevocably androcentric, they cannot be applied to or by women.
Interestingly, in his 1988 Encyclical, Pope John Paul II stated his belief that mothers are more important than fathers when it comes to raising children. There is no connection between man's procreative role in conception and their social role as fathers, and it is only I mothers who are socially defined by their procreative role.
English common law stated that upon marriage, a woman lost the rights she possessed when single. All of her property transferred to her husband and both she and it fell under his complete control. He did not even have to account to her. She could not transfer her property, nor enter into contracts in her own name, nor could she sue or be sued. In effect, marriage meant civil death.
A court case in 1840, quoted by O'Faolain and Martines, highlights how insignificantly women were held in British society:
"The question raised in this case is, singularly whether by common law the husband, in order to prevent his wife from eloping, has a right to confine her in his own dwellings and restrain her from liberty, for an indefinite time... There can be no doubt the husband has by law power and dominion over his wife, and may keep her by force... and beat her, but not in a violent or cruel manner".'
As late as 1856, women in Britain were not allowed to keep their earnings, and had no rights of inheritance. In that year, women petitioned parliament, which was composed solely of male members, to allow married women to keep their own earnings and inherited property. In 1857, divorced women were granted the same rights as single women, but married women had to wait until 1893 to receive the same rights.
Throughout the nineteenth century, women became more aware of their lack of basic rights in society, and towards the end of the century, a significant movement for change developed, and the suffragettes campaigned for women's right to vote. The political franchise had for centuries been restricted to property owners only, and had only recently (in the mid nineteenth century) been extended to all males over the age of 21. Women had to wait until 1928 for this right to be granted to them. Equal pay for equal work took longer: This was not won until 1975. It is clear, then, that Western Europe in general, and Britain in particular, were very late in developing basic rights and equal status for women, contrary to what the moral high ground taken by critics of Islam portray.
This is the global context into which the Prophet of Mercy, Muhammad brought his message, and liberated women from the oppression of men and offered them the shade, mercy and equality of Islam. At a time when the entire world treated women with contempt, when women were unable even to question their status, let alone demand basic human and civic rights, Islam came like a beacon blazing forth in the darkness liberating and elevating them.
To discuss how Islam enhanced the role and status of women in seventh-century Arabia, without addressing present day issues would be a great disservice to the readers. Islam (submission to the will of the Creator, Allah) which all the Prophets called to, is the religion for all the people and for all times, equally applicable to all.