The past century has witnessed enormous victories in the struggle for egalitarianism. At this point, women in the Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform movements enjoy complete equality with men. These developments are clearly reflected in liturgical revisions. For example, the traditional blessing men recite for “not having been created female” has been dropped or modified. Prayers that invoke the patriarchs have been supplemented with references to the matriarchs. In varying degrees, a similar spirit infuses the official Haggadot published by these movements. The Reform Haggadah (2002) includes a Hebrew option for a blessing formula that refers to God in the feminine gender. Both the Reconstructionist (1999) and Reform Haggadot include narratives that recognize the role women played in the Exodus. They also feature the relatively new ritual of Miriam’s Cup that celebrates the life-giving well — associated with Miriam — that sustained the Israelites on their 40-year journey through the wilderness. Likewise, the Conservative Movement’s Haggadah (1982), the text of which is mostly traditional, makes key innovations in bringing women into the story.
In the Orthodox world, egalitarianism has not been embraced, although there have been many encouraging changes. There is a greater willingness in some Modern Orthodox circles to find ways of giving women greater roles while still remaining true to their interpretation of Jewish law. One of the most fundamental developments involves the commitment in many Orthodox quarters to give girls a solid Jewish education, including Talmud study. Involvement in study has not only empowered the ranks of Orthodox feminists, but has led to the beginnings of a development once thought inconceivable — the ordination of women as Orthodox rabbis. As mentioned above, a Modern Orthodox yeshiva in Jerusalem has launched a program that now ordains women.
Opponents of these developments argue that the traditional limitations upon women do not imply inferiority, but reflect different roles. They decry the rush to egalitarianism as embracing a false god that is fundamentally at odds with Judaism. Thus, the traditional daily morning blessing “for not having been created female” does not signify a woman’s second-class status, but a man’s privilege in being required to carry out all God’s religious commandments, including those from which women are exempt. Traditionalists also note that the custom of reciting “A Woman of Valor,” (Proverbs 31:10-31) on Friday night, is not just a paean to a woman’s conventional domestic role, but recognizes her strength and intelligence.
“A woman of valor? Her price is far above rubies. The heart of her husband safely trusts in her, and he shall have no lack of gain . . . She considers a field, and buys it: with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard. She girds her loins with strength, and she makes her arm strong. She perceives that her merchandise is good; her candle does not go out by night. . . . She stretches forth her hands to the needy . . . She makes garments, and sells them; and delivers girdles to the merchant. Strength and dignity are her clothing . . . She opens her mouth with wisdom; and on her tongue is a Torah of steadfast love . . .”*
Given the diversity of Christian churches, the status of women varies significantly. Certainly, in developed countries, women generally are better educated than at any previous time; combined with wider societal recognition of the contributions of women, more women are in positions of ecclesial leadership than ever before.
Many Christian denominations ordain women, both as priests or ministers, and increasingly as bishops or equivalent offices. For example, the current Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church is Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori—the first woman to be elected to that high office. In contrast, the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, does not ordain women, maintaining that although “both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” While holding that husband and wife are of “equal worth,” the text continues that women are to “submit graciously to the servant leadership of their husbands.”*
Neither does the Roman Catholic Church ordain women, though that issue remains as the preeminent symbol of the “lack of the presence of women in the official life of the church, a symbol of women’s exclusion from all significant decision making and practical policy formation, a traditional exclusion that is historically based on the inferiority and subservient status ascribed to them.* Nevertheless, Catholic women exercise vital leadership in church and society across a range as professionals (most church positions are held by women) and volunteers. Women increasingly constitute membership in and play significant roles in organizations such as the Catholic Theological Society of America and the Catholic Biblical Society. Similarly, women across the range of Christian denominations fill the ranks of comparable organizations, such as the Society of Christian Ethics, the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion.
The Muslim society is as divided over the role of woman today as are Jewish and Christian communities. The Western media present the Muslim woman as oppressed and deprived of fundamental rights and veiled in Burqa (all covered, including the face). This image is inaccurate. It comes from some mountainous areas in different Muslim countries where the literacy rate as well as living standards are very poor and both men and women live in miserable conditions. They live in a centuries-old tribal tradition and lifestyle. My own parents (may God bless their souls) lived like that.
A problem with third-world countries is that most of their educational, health and other living facilities are concentrated in urban areas. Villages and especially the mountainous regions are deprived and some do not even have clean drinking water. I remember my childhood when I used to drink rainwater or bring drinking water for miles on our donkey.
The Muslim women living in urban areas are mostly educated, working and playing an active role in social, political and religious life. For example, in Bangladesh both the ruling and the opposition leaders are women. In Pakistan the House speaker is a woman and similarly in many democratic Muslim countries including Indonesia and Turkey, women play an active role. As in America, today there are more young women than young men in professional colleges in many of the Muslim countries.
The third world, including some Muslim countries, needs to develop rural policy and spend money on education, basic living facilities and infrastructure including roads and hospitals. This will not only help reduce pressure on big cities, but will change the living conditions as well as the thinking and decision-making process of men and women in rural areas.
Overall, the Qur’an treats women mostly equal to men, but there are certain verses that are subject to debate and interpretations. Some of these are: “Men shall take full care (Qawwamun) of women with the bounties which God has bestowed more abundantly on the former than on the latter, and with what they may spend out of their possessions. And the righteous women are the truly devout ones, who guard the intimacy which God has [ordained to be] guarded. And as for those women whose ill-will you have reason to fear, admonish them [first]; then leave them alone in bed; then beat them (Wadribuhunna); and if thereupon they pay you heed, do not seek to harm them. Behold, God is indeed most high, great!” (4:34). The word Qawwamun is a subject of dispute and has been translated as meaning “in charge of woman,” “superior to woman” and others have translated it to mean taking care of a woman monetarily. Similarly, the translation of the word Wadribuhunna is disputed, as some translators say it does not refer to physical beating because the Prophet never did that.
Another verse, 4:3, deals with numbers of wives. The Qur’an says: “And if you have reason to fear that you might not act equitably towards orphans, then marry from among [other] women such as are lawful to you – [even] two, or three, or four: but if you have reason to fear that you might not be able to treat them with equal fairness, then [only] one – or [from among] those whom you rightfully possess. This will make it more likely that you will not deviate from the right course.” Fazlur Rahman and some other commentators on the Qur’an argue that monogamy was the order of the Qur’an and the permission of four wives was limited to orphan women for their protection and well-being.*
There are also many positive references in the Hadith literature to women’s rights and duties. Once a man came to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) asking, “Who is most deserving of my care?” He said, “Your mother.” The man asked, “Then who?” He said, “Your mother.” The man asked, “Then who?” He said, “Your mother.” The man asked (the fourth time), “Then who?” He said, “Your father. [Transmitted by Bukhari and Muslim on the authority of Abu Huraira in the chapter “The Pearl and the Coral” (Al-Lu’lu’ wal-Marjan) Hadith number 652)] To be good to her means treating her well, respecting her, humbling oneself in front of her, obeying her without disobeying Allah.
Some religious laws before Islam neglected the mother’s relatives, making them insignificant. With the advent of Islam, they recommended caring for uncles and aunts, both on the father’s side and the mother’s. A man approached the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and said, “I committed an offense, could I atone for it?” He asked, “Have you got a mother?” The man said, “No.” He asked, “Have you got a maternal aunt?” The man said, “Yes.” The Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “Be good to her. (Transmitted by Termidhi in chapter “Righteousness and Relations” Hadith number 1905)
There are some Hadith that placed women in a negative light. The Qur’an does not say that Eve was created out of the rib of Adam. However, there are some narrations from the Prophet saying that Eve was created from the rib of Adam. It is reported that he said: “Treat women nicely, for a women is created from a rib, and the most curved portion of the rib is its upper portion; so, if you should try to straighten it, it will break, but if you leave it as it is, it will remain crooked. So treat women nicely.”* The Hadith raise questions about what the Prophet meant by saying this.
This Hadith and some others together with the positive Hadith supporting women’s rights keep alive the debate over the role of woman in modern Muslim society. However, I stress education for both male and female. Higher literacy rates will eventually lead to better lives, a healthier environment and sound interpretation of Qur’an and Hadith resulting in overall human prosperity.