Islam as it was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad teaches the social, spiritual and economic equality of men and women. The Quran is very clear on this subject. Unfortunately, social norms that existed at the time of its revealing and in subsequent centuries have served in some parts of the Islamic world to marginalize women. Scholars and Muslims disagree on the extent to which Muslim women's lives are restricted, if at all, but there are some recurring themes in Islam that serve -- however inadvertently -- to reinforce the idea that women lack certain freedoms.
The Quran teaches that women are to be responsible for maintaining a harmonious domestic environment. Because they alone can give birth and nurse children, it follows that they would also be the primary caregiver for any offspring. Despite these abilities, however, women are not obligated to nurse their children or to stay at home with them. According to the Quran, women are free to pursue work outside the home and to spend as they wish any money that they earn. This contradicts the unfortunate image of Muslim women as veritable prisoners in their homes, however accurate that image may be in some parts of the world.
The popular image of the Muslim woman is one that shows her almost completely covered from head to toe. The hijab (traditional head covering) has become, particularly for the West, a symbol of the sartorial restrictions that Muslim women endure. In reality, and according to the Quran, the hijab is not required. In fact, no particular article of clothing is required. The Quran encourages Muslims to dress modestly in loose-fitting clothing to minimize temptation and inappropriate sexual urges, but it does not require that women cover themselves completely.
Muslim women are free to play as small or as large a role as they would like in public life. Nothing in the teachings of Islam forbids this. Centuries ago, it was feared that the presence of women in public places, particularly mosques, would lead to unnecessary temptation for men; thus evolved the practice of secluding women in the home and away from non-related males. The idea that women should stay at home has been promoted largely by ultra-conservative Muslims who take Quranic passages out of context to use as support for their views. For example, the Quran (33:33) says, "...And abide quietly in your home." It is directed at women, but at a very specific group of women -- Muhammad's wives, who obviously lived (voluntarily) under very special circumstances and restrictions.
In the Hadith, the Prophet Muhammad said, "To seek knowledge is an obligation on every Muslim, male and female." However, for centuries there was mass illiteracy among them, as women were not allowed to pursue any education. Even during the 20th century, when secular education was opened to both girls and boys, the quality of women's education lagged behind men's. Some Muslims even today hold to the belief that, no matter how educated she is, no Muslim woman can teach a man. This directly contradicts the teachings of Muhammad, whose wife Aishah was a leading authority in her time on subjects such as rhetoric and medicine. He is reported to have said that his followers could expect to receive half their religious knowledge from Aishah.
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