What is the Concept of Gender Equality in Islam?
To be treated equally, or justice, does not always mean that each is the same. Many people who speak about equality presume that this should be reflected in treating two groups exactly the same. However, this is manifestly not always the proper thing to do. People’s needs, strengths, abilities, and disabilities need to be accommodated and considered as opposed to subjecting all to a single standard that may only be suitable for a few.
Thus, we need to make a distinction between the superficial procedural equality and the substantive equality, which is justice. Human beings favor substantive equality over procedural equality because we recognize that the former allows for justice.
Substantive Equality of Men and Women:
Islam recognizes that while men and women have some physical differences, spiritually they enjoy absolute equality before God. The Quran and Sunnah are unequivocal in stating that one’s gender will have absolutely no bearing on their reward or punishment in the next life.
“If any do deeds of righteousness, be they male or female – and have faith, they will enter Heaven, and not the least injustice will be done to them.” (Quran 4:124)
“Whoever works righteousness, man or woman, and has Faith, verily, to him will We give a new Life, a life that is good and pure, and We will bestow on such their reward according to the best of their actions.” (Quran 16:97)
Therefore, Islam openly declares that men and women have an equal status and value before God, and piety alone differentiates one individual from another.
Equal yet Different:
In legal and practical aspects, the general rules are the same for men and women. Both have the same acts of worships, the same Islamic etiquette, and manners, and are subject to the same legal penalties. But there are also many cases where the rulings are different.
Women are exempted from fasting and prayer during their period. Men are prohibited from wearing gold and silk while women are allowed. Friday prayers are obligatory for men but optional for women. Men must spend their money on the family, but a woman’s money is entirely her own to spend as she chooses. There are differences in clothing requirements as well, since the physical appearance of men and women is dissimilar.
All of this is reflective of the natural differences between men and women. So, in lesser jurisprudential matters, Islam treats men and women according to their inherent differences as per substantive equality and in the interest of justice.
Aside from external and internal anatomical differences, scientists know there are many other subtle differences in the way the brains of men and women process language, information, and emotion, just to mention a few.
A socio-biology expert, Edward O. Wilson of Harvard University, said that females tend to be higher than males in verbal skills, empathy and social skills, among other things, while men tend to be higher in independence, dominance, spatial and mathematical skills, rank-related aggression, and other characteristics.
It would be foolish to treat both genders the same and to ignore their differences. Islam teaches that men and women have complementary, yet different, roles because it is best suited to their nature. God says: “And the male is not like the female.” (Qur’an 3:36)
“Does not the One who created, know? And He is the Most Kind, the All Aware.” (Qur’an 67:14)
Islam affirms the absolute spiritual equality of men and women and assigns both an equal rank before God. In jurisprudential matters, Islam promotes the substantive equality of men and women, recognizes their unique strengths and capabilities, and rules accordingly protecting the rights of both.
For those who would like to know more about Islam: