Role of Women in the Society

    Question: Recently, a friend of mine raised some questions in my mind about a woman’s role in the society. I would like to ask you about the role a woman is required to play in the society in the eyes of Islam. Though understood that responsibility of earning livelihood lies with men, but does this mean that women have to keep homes and are not supposed to work. The real confusion in my mind emerges because women are seen to be simply wasting themselves in a typical eastern society. They have nothing to do save indulging in meaningless household/family problems. The majority have virtually killed their intellectual prowess. When we talk of boys, we discuss their careers; but in case of girls, we talk about their marriage.
    Answer: The role of women in the society is an age old issue, as far as Islamic literature is concerned. It has attracted much debate and controversy over the years. Personally, I have the following observations to make in this regard:
    1. The Shari‘ah revealed by the Almighty is very brief and succinct. The thesis is that human intellect can itself discover the way out in most affairs. It is only at the crossroads where it is bound to falter that Islam interferes to guide it. In the sphere of gender and social interaction -- the sphere which one comes across so often -- too only certain guiding points have been given. In this regard, as far as the Shari‘ah is concerned, broadly speaking, Islam has given principle guidelines in matters such as the formation and dissolution of a family; its organization under a head and the dress code and behavioral conduct in social contact.
    2. Besides this Shari‘ah, there is another general directive which the Qur’an gives in this issue in its lofty style, the brevity of which touches sublimity. It says:

Women have rights just as they have responsibilities according to the good conventions [of a society]. (2:228)

    This divine directive -- a mere few words -- covers a world of wisdom and sagacity in it. In my opinion, it puts to an end once and for all the debate regarding the role of women. What is implied is very clear: it is the sound conventions and traditions of a society which govern the responsibilities and rights of women. In other words, it is the collective conscience of a society that determines them. Also, since the conventions and customs of different societies can be different, these rights and responsibilities can be different in different societies. Who should raise and look after children, who should cook the food, who should clean the house are all matters in which we must look towards traditions and customs of a society. If they do not contradict the Shari‘ah and are also not against the universal norms of sense and reason, they should be adhered to.
    3. Consequently, women have before them a whole arena of activities. They can do everything which is not against the healthy conventions of their society. They should educate themselves as far as they can and contribute positively in the society through their intellect, talent and ability. Earning for themselves is certainly not prohibited. They can pursue careers just as men can. However, as pointed out, they should always give due respect to the precepts of the Shari‘ah.
    In case you want to know the details of these precepts, let me know – for most of these have already been discussed in detail in the various issues of this journal.