The status of women in Islam in particularly relevant in these times, due to the perceptions currently prevalent in western society. Muslim women are sometimes portrayed as ‘oppressed’ or as ‘second class’ to men. Nothing could be further from the truth, women have been given an equal status to men in Islam. In some cases, rights which were given to women 1400 years ago by Islam have only relatively recently been enjoyed by women in the West.
We must make a clear distinction between what Islam teaches, and cultural practices in some Muslim countries and societies, where historically a patriarchal culture dominates and women are denied their rights.
The rights and responsibilities of women are equal to those of men, but they are not necessarily identical. This difference is understandable because men and women are different, in their physiological and psychological make-up. With this distinction in mind, there is no room for a Muslim to imagine that women are inferior to men. Thus it is perhaps more apt to refer to the Islamic approach on gender relations, as one of “equity” rather than the commonly used word “equality”, which could be misunderstood to mean equality in every minute aspect of life, rather than overall equality.
Islam also recognises that women have precedence over men in certain situations, for instance as a mother. Thus when a man asked Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him): “Who is most entitled to be treated with the best companionship by me?”, the Prophet replied, “Your mother.” Again the man asked, “Who is next?” The Prophet repeated, “Your mother.” The man asked for a fourth time, “Who is next?” The Prophet then replied, “Your father.”
Islam therefore recognises that man and women have different but equally important roles to play in building a cohesive and successful society.