The Role of Women

Under Islam, women are accorded respect and rights which, until relatively recent times, were denied to the vast majority of women in the West. Whether single or married, under Islam, women are considered individuals with their own inalienable rights. Their property rights are protected, even within marriage, and the woman keeps her own name after marriage.

In Saudi Arabia, girls enjoy a high level of educational opportunity. It is true that women are still restricted in career opportunities but even here the case is overstated. With at least some women holding leading positions in business and even in the state oil company, the obstacles to advancement are clearly no longer insurmountable.

Nevertheless, there is a significant difference between the view of the proper role for women in the Islamic world and that prevailing in the West. The family is still considered the basic social unit under Islam and it is widely believed by Muslims that, for the family unit to be stable and to provide full opportunities for all its members, it is necessary for most women to find a major part of their fulfillment by accepting and discharging a primary obligation to the family.

Western society seems to have rejected this view (although in only relatively recent times) but it is at least arguable (and is indeed argued by many of both sexes in the West) that this shift in attitude has not been an unqualified success. It is never easy to be sure of the precise causes of social change, but it seems most unlikely that the increasing social instability, the increased crime rates, the increasing materialism and the erosion of moral values widely noted by social commentators in the West are entirely unconnected with the undermining of the family as society’s basic unit. In many British and American cities many women and many of the elderly are “afraid to walk the streets at night”. Single parent families reliant on public or private social services struggle against the odds to provide the security of a two-parent unit within an extended family. We are told that crimes of violence (on the street and in the home) occur with ever increasing frequency, despite determined governmental efforts to deal with the problem.

None of this sounds, to the Muslim mind, to be an obvious social advance.

Of course a balance has to be struck between the legitimate aspirations of the individual for fulfillment and society’s duty to provide a social environment in which such ambitions can be fulfilled by as many citizens as possible. Precisely where that balance should be struck is open to debate.

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