A REFLECTION ON WOMEN AND THEIR ROLES

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INTRODUCTION

The modern human society today battles with several issues ranging from poverty, diseases, racial discrimination, social stratification, gender inequality,  corruption to insecurity occasioned by terrorism and bad governance. The multiplicity of these problems and the complexity of the challenges they pose have revived discussions on issues of identity and selfhood. Pragmatic minds however see beyond these and have realized that the solution to these entire crises, as complex and multi-dimensional as they are, lies in restoring the dignity of womanhood through a realization of woman’s role as the maintainer of the moral balance of the World.

It is a well known fact that there is hardly any challenge in men’s world which is not directly, remotely, overtly or covertly connected with women. Because of the centrality of the feminine in human affairs therefore, I thank the organizers of this workshop for giving me the opportunity to reflect with you on the topic which I have reframed as ” My Body, My Pride: Woman’s Dignity between Acceptance and Rejection”. Before entering into the main discourse, I think that it will not be out of place if we briefly reflect on the position of women in history.

WOMAN IN HUMAN SOCIETY

The most ancient human societies honoured woman as man’s equal partner. For almost two million years, man and woman lived by hunting and gathering food for themselves. While man hunted the wild animals, woman gathered the wild plants. Ten thousand years ago, when the Neolithic age began, man began to domesticate the animals he hunted and woman began to cultivate the plants she gathered. Hawkes and Woolley write:

It is generally accepted that owing to her ancient role as gatherer of vegetable foods, woman was responsible for the invention and development of agriculture. Modern analogies indicate that so long as the ground was prepared by hoeing and not by ploughing, woman remained the cultivator.

From the above, it is obvious that woman has always been relevant in the human society, not as a passive subject of history but as an active agent in the construction and re-construction of the human world. The valuable contribution of the woman in the Neolithic age must have informed the position of pre-eminence she occupied then. This matrilineal structure however was not common among the great civilizations of the world.

According to E. E. Evans Pritchard, all the known great civilizations were patriarchal. This is particularly true of the ancient Greek civilization at its early stage. The Greek woman at the time had no legal rights; she was an outcast morally and socially. Her fate was conditioned by the myth of Pandora, the woman who, according to their belief, brought evil into the world. Since her kind was the cause of all ills and misfortunes, she must be treated as a sub-human being. This image of the woman is akin to the image of woman in Judeo-Christian traditions which was also conditioned by the story of Eve. The negative influence of this story was what prompted the diatribe of Tertullian; one of the early fathers of the church against her that:

She opens the door to satanic temptations leads man to the forbidden tree, breaks the law of God, and corrupts man, the image of God.

In a similar outburst, St. John Chrysostum, one of the Greek fathers of the church also describes woman as:

“An inevitable evil, an eternal mischief, an attractive calamity, a domestic risk, a charming and decorated misfortune”

The natural result of such a view was an unprecedented hostile treatment of woman in the Western world, while the poor woman too had to bear it in silence or adjust to it with masochistic indulgence. With the coming of the Greek enlightenment, the status of woman improved. However, the patrilineal structure persisted among them and the western to the early Middle Eastern civilizations, two images of woman persisted through the ages. One is of the woman the goddess, while the other is of woman the giver of pleasure. The veneration of woman as goddess was particularly common to all of the civilizations that congregated along the banks of the three great rivers, the Euphrates, Tigris and Nile. In Babylonia and Egypt, religious activities revolved round the fertility cult where offerings were made to the mother-goddess.

Among the Phoenician, the mother-goddess was Astarte, in Egypt she was Isis and in Babylonia, she was Artemis. Goddess Artemis of the Ephesians was indentified with the Roman Diana, the huntress, who roamed the woods and mountains, reveling in music and dancing. She submitted to no man and was seen in their mythology as the symbol of the freedom of women.

Worthy of mention is the code of Hammurabi, king of Babylon, which he claimed to have received from Marduk, the Babylonian Zeus, as Moses, Muhammad and other Prophets claimed to have received their laws from a Deity. Under this code, a woman could be judge, secretary, elder and witness to important documents. More important however is the opportunity allowed women to serve as priestess, abbess and holy sister. Those women thus consecrated to religious office, held equal positions with men.

However, in the marriage contract, wife purchase was common, a custom still very much alive in different hues in many countries of Western Europe and Africa and was common throughout the ancient Semitic world. One thing that distinguishes this practice of wife purchase is that the bride price, however high, belongs to the wife. If a woman happened to be childless she allowed one of her maids to share her husband’s bed in order that he may not be childless. If out of jealousy, she does not allow this, the man had the right to choose a concubine who usually was a slave but who must be set free and elevated in status so that her children could be treated as legitimate heirs of the man. Though, sensible this may appear, we must not lose sight of the fact that the childlessness of a couple may not necessarily be the fault of the woman. Several times, the man has been found to be unable to produce enough fertilizing spermatozoa.

Divorce laws under Hammurabi’s codes were also simple and realistic. If a man wanted to part with his wife, he had to pay for the maintenance of their children who must remain in the custody of the woman unless she lets go. Similarly, a woman could request divorce on the grounds of inhuman treatment and cruelty. If on the other hand a wife was unfaithful to her husband or neglectful of her duties to him and their children, she could be deprived of her freedom and relegated to slavery.

WOMEN IN ISLAM

In Islam, the position given to woman is very special. Islam sees woman as man’s partner in life. Unlike in the Judeo-Christian tradition, Islam places the responsibility of the first act of disobedience upon the shoulders of man and woman. The Qur’an does not accuse the woman of leading man astray. It rather says that man and woman were led astray by Shaytan. It was this equitable approach to the story of the fall of the first human family that shaped the attitude of Islam to issues relating to women.

It is however necessary to draw a line between divinely ordained qualitative distinctions and human quantitative egalitarianism. While Islam does not discriminate against a woman in her essence, it assigns to her a role different from the one it assigns to her male partner. These roles are complementary and mutually indispensable. Physically tasking duties are given to man while the emotionally tasking ones are given to woman.

Islam proclaims that in God’s eyes there is no difference between man and woman. Each is a precious soul. What makes people stand out from one another is their excellence in virtue, piety, reverence, spiritual and ethical qualities. It is open to both men and women to achieve this type of excellence. At doomsday each soul will be judged, regardless of sex, according to the fruit of their actions, by the above criteria. As it is written in Sura 16: Nahl v 97 : “Whosoever works righteousness, male or female- while he or she is a true believer, verily, to him We will give a good life {in this world} and We shall pay them a reward in proportion to the best that they used to do”

Many women posses such personal excellence and intelligence that they attain great heights of true humanity and happiness .Many men, alas, fall to the lowest depths because they flout reason and abandon themselves to their passions.

It is related that on one occasion Second Caliph, Umar , said from the pulpit in the presence of a large crowd :”I will fine any man who gives his bride 500 dirhams or more as dowry. He shall be made to give the same amount as that by which his dowry exceeds the Mahr-as-Sunna (traditional dowry) to the public treasury.” At this, a woman who was in the congregation cried out in a loud voice, her objection to Umar’s statement saying: ”Your proclamation contradicts God’s law: for does not the Sura 4 Nisaa : v 20 say : But if you decide to take one wife in place of another ,even if you have given the wife you put away a talent of gold as her marriage dowry, take not the least bit of it back.? How can you, then, in contradiction of the Divine law which has stated that it is permissible to give more than the legal minimum marriage portion, make your proclamation thus?” Umar could not deny this and he withdrew his proclamation saying: “It was a man who erred and a woman who uttered the truth.”

Fourteen centuries ago Islam had decreed women’s total financial independence ,their right to own and dispose of property without the restriction or control of any man, to conduct business, trade and all the transactions concerning their profit and loss, including the execution of deeds of gift, without having to check with anyone. Allah says in Sura 4: Nisa’a-“”, verse 32: “And wish not for the things in which Allah has made some of you to excel the other. Whatsoever a man earns is his own. Whatsoever a woman earns is her own. Pray to Allah for the bounty of His providence for He knows all things.”

Besides property rights, Islam bestowed dignity, liberty and freedom on women. This is very true in the matter of marriage. Marriage is one of the most important and sensitive steps in a woman’s life. Islam gives her the freedom to choose her spouse from among the believers. She cannot be forced into marriage against her wish, neither by her parents nor by the state. Seldom before in history had she been accorded such privilege.

DIGNITY OF WOMAN IN ISLAM

According to Islam, the essence of a human being depends on his body and soul. The dignity of a woman is therefore reflected on how she nurtures these two components. The essence of a woman’s being lies in preparing her for her role as the true moral authority of the world. Though the contemporary society, in the name freedom, seeks to enslave woman by making her an object of man’s sexual gratification, Islam insists that true freedom lies in a woman’s acceptance of her God-given roles and developing them for the well being of humanity. She should be subservient to her Creator and not to man. Her subservience to man at any time must only be within the purview of what Allah has enjoined.

Modern Public Relations and Advertising practice exploit the tenderness of women and the sensual instincts of man. Woman is therefore seen as bait for entrapping man. This is why women are often used either as receptionists or as ‘roving marketers’ in the corporate world. The intention behind this is that their physical charm will captivate men to patronize such outfits. This is why nudity is being promoted with millions of dollars all over the world because of the link between sensuous images and consumer behavior. Woman’s body is thus a weapon for profit making for the materialistic wolves of the world.

 

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