We are equal BUT not the same
by: Hamid Waqar

The Islamic tradition states that men and women are equal but different in the eyes of God. The term equality is a loaded term that has been used by politicians and social activists to support their own personal agendas. What does it mean when Islam states that the two genders are equal? Is Islam overlooking the physical and psychological differences of the sexes and stating that in all cases women and men are to be treated the same?

These questions become clear when we examine Islam's stand on gender. Sexism was at its height in the Arab peninsula before the advent of Islam. During this period, rightfully termed the "Age of Ignorance," women were not afforded any rights whatsoever. They were considered chattels. One would count the women that he possessed along with his farm animals. For instance, if one was asked: "How many animals do you have," he might have answered: "I own two camels, three sheep, and four women."

In many cases, women were even denied the undeniable right of life. Fathers in this period would become extremely angry and ashamed when they realised that their new-born baby was a girl. Their faces would become red and they would storm out of the house carrying the baby and bury her alive. The Qur'an states: "When one of them is brought the news of a female [new-born], his face becomes darkened and he chokes with suppressed agony. He hides from the people out of distress at the news he has been brought: shall he retain it in humiliation, or bury it in the ground! Look! Evil is the judgement that they make." (16:58-59)

The Prophet Muhammad(s) effected a sea-change in how society viewed women. Over an incredibly short period of time women were given the right to life, inheritance, freedom, and were no longer regarded as property.

One needs to take a breath to ponder over this. Usually massive social change, such as the status of women before and after the advent of Islam, takes at least one full generation or longer to accomplish. Therefore, the noble Prophet of Islam was able to do more for women during his lifetime than anybody else in the history of mankind. Western feminists should idolise him; they should write his name on their walls. The professors of women's studies in universities should have entire courses about him.

It is important to compare the heroes of feminism to the Prophet Muhammad(s) in order to recognise how effective he was. One of the most famous pioneers of women's rights in America is Susan B. Anthony. Coins have been made with her portrait on them and centres have been named after her. What did she do? One of her biggest accomplishments was her contribution to securing women's right to vote. In her lifetime, women were denied this right in the United States.

In 1872 she broke the law and voted. She was arrested, tried, and fined for her actions. Her actions eventually led to women obtaining suffrage.

Compare her struggle to that of the Prophet(s). In his society women were buried alive. Women were literally considered to be farm animals. Women had no rights at all. He was able to change these harsh realities during just 23 years of his adult life. Susan B. Anthony simply helped the voting movement forward. There is no comparison.

When the feminists realise the greatness of the Prophet Muhammad(s) they will also realise that there are differences between their outlook on gender issues and the Islamic perspective. The word that is thrown around in universities and academic circles is equality. It is said that men and women are equal. Thus they should have the same rights, roles, and responsibilities.

Islam rejects this notion. First, it states that the term equality is being misused. It states that men and women are equal in humanity. A woman is no more a human than a man and a man is no more a human than a woman. God looks at members of both genders equally and judges them both according to their piety. But this does not mean that they must have the same roles and responsibilities. Rather, the Islamic view takes into consideration the physical and psychological differences of the sexes.

Although men and women are the same in most ways, they do have clear differences. The average woman enters puberty two years before the average man. Her life span is five years longer. She carries 70% more fat and 40% less muscle. She is also five inches shorter than the average man. Apart from the physical differences, women normally express emotion much easier, can smell fainter odours, and are helped more often. A woman is twice as susceptible to depression and anxiety as a man and her risk of developing an eating disorder is 10 times greater. Men on the other hand are more likely to become dependent on alcohol or drugs, diagnosed with autism or an antisocial personality.

Should these differences be overlooked? Should society conform to the theory that men and women must have the same roles and responsibilities? Islam states that men and women are equal in humanity and will be judged equally by Allah in the Hereafter. It also states that the genders have obvious differences in their creation, and thus, must have different roles and responsibilities. In His infinite Wisdom Allah has created a system where the differences between the genders complement each other and are used to improve society.

Originally published in islam today magazine UK, Vol. 1 No. 6 | April 2013. It has been republished here with permission.