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Does Islam Marginalize Women?

The following Op-Ed article attempts to investigate the possibility of having an active socio-political role for women in the Islamic point of view with special attention to the character of Lady Zaynab (pbuh) before, during, and after the Battle of Karbala.

For centuries the Western civilization has been banging on the drum for fighting against religion and religious traditions under the pretext of defending and reviving women’s rights; this is in the case that evidence attests that women’s rights have not been yet completely recognized there.

The history of political thoughts is replete with controversies over the extent and quality of women’s presence in politics and society. In the political philosophy of the West up to the 19th century, although sometimes in the works of philosophers such as Plato there is a reference to the equality of men and women’s rights[1], but the dominant approach stresses the female inferiority. Aristotle, in Politics, considers a woman as a subhuman being who is a second-class citizen[2], so she cannot maintain an active role in the political arena, and this view with almost the same trend continues in later philosophers. Describing this centuries-old misogynist history in his 1861 essay, The Subjection of Women, John Stuart Mill states that all relations and laws in societies are regulated by the logic of coercion and domination, and this system of domination forces them on people in the form of traditions and customs. These traditions and customs have historically made men the superior sex and women the inferior sex, and now if we want to achieve justice and equality between the two genders, we must fight against these traditions and customs. The liberal feminist movement, centered on this idea of ​​Stuart Mill since the nineteenth century, has embarked the fight against traditions and customs for the realization of women’s rights and their liberation from the historical subjugation by men.

However, these efforts have not yet succeeded. Susan Moller Okin in Women in Western Political Thought acknowledges that theories of contemporary politics, although accepting the equality of rights of men and women and having a neutral approach to traditions and customs, but the globalization of the economy and modern plans and developments, etc. all have resulted in the continued marginal role of women in society[3]. This result calls into question that solution.

Reviewing a tradition

The situation that has arisen for modern women as a result of the fight against traditions and the critique of religion casts doubt on John Stuart Mill’s solution. Has “tradition”, regardless of its cultural origins, been the main factor in making women inferior throughout history.

Islamic thinkers have a different view on this issue. In Islamic sources, in the stage of creation humans are valued equally regardless of gender. In other words, human beings have an intrinsic value as human beings, and being human by itself gives them the possibility of growth and excellence, and enjoying the same rights and duties as other humans, and in this respect, there is no difference between men and women. So, every individual has an equally active role in society and enjoys its benefits. The major social mission of humans, both men and women, is to build a world in which the monotheism and perfection of mankind are crystallized, and femininity and masculinity are containers in which this task is poured and takes various forms. This perspective on human beings is the basis for the philosophical foundations on which Islamic politics rest. It is to be emphasized that the said view on the essential equality of human beings is not limited to the theoretical spheres in Islamic principles and traditions and has had many practical instances throughout the history of Islam. In such scenes, women who were inspired by their religion, not at a lower status than men, but alongside them, have taken active and historical roles in politics and society.

One of the most representative examples of the active socio-political presence is that of the women of Ahl al-Bayt. As ones trained in the school of Islam and attached to the household of infallibility, they are real examples of the idea that Muslim thinkers have put forward in their views on the role of women. Lady Zaynab (s.a.) is a prominent example in the history who shows the active presence of a woman in one of the most important socio-political scenes of the history[4].

Women of Ashura, revolutionary activists

Shia identity is tied to Ashura culture; So that after the event of Ashura and the martyrdom of Imam Hussain (a.s.) and his companions, every socio-political movement formed in the history of the Shia has a relation, whether direct or indirect, to Karbala and benefit from its teachings. This close relationship between the socio-political currents of the Shia and the Ashura event shows that one of the most important aspects of this uprising is political. Now, the question is whether this historic and identity-making political uprising was formed by women or men? Is the movement a masculine or feminine or a human one? Certainly, the presence of the women of Ahl al-Bayt and the companions of Imam Hussain (a.s.) in Karbala is a known and unalterable fact in Islamic history, but was this presence a passive act only in following their men, or was it an active complementary role-playing alongside men? To answer this question, we should review the Karbala event from a feminine perspective.

Although the main hero of Karbala is Imam Hussain (a.s.), history cannot narrate the Karbala event without mentioning the name of Lady Zaynab (s.a.). The greatness of Lady Zaynab is as great as Ashura itself, but the source of this greatness is not being the daughter of Imam Ali (a.s.) or the sister of Imam Hussain (a.s.). The value and greatness of Zaynab (sa) is due to her great human and Islamic position and action based on the Divine duty. It is her actions, her decisions and type of movement that is so dignifying and that every human being, regardless of his/her relationships, can achieve it. The permanence of this character is the product of her choices before, during and after Ashura. Before the Karbala event, there were many men who lost their power of analysis and failed to accompany Imam Hussain, but Lady Zaynab, knowing what would happen, chose to go and took her children with her, too. On the Day of Ashura, which was the climax of the crisis, although she had lost her son, brother and relatives, she was supportive and a companion until the last moments[5]. But the culmination of Zaynab’s (s.a.) role is after the incident. When nothing was left of the relationships and she had the first role.

In Shia literature, it is often said that blood prevailed over the swords in the event of Karbala. The cause of this victory was Lady Zaynab; If it were not for Lady Zaynab, the blood in Karbala would have been forgotten[6]. On the Day of Ashura, a military confrontation ended with the apparent defeat of the forces of Truth; But what turned this apparent military defeat into a definitive permanent victory was Lady Zaynab’s role. The role played by Lady Zaynab was the continuation of the movement of Imam Hussain (a.s.), and if it were not for her, that uprising would have been lost in the history. This incident showed that women are not on the margins of history and subordinate to men. The Shia woman is at the center of important historical events. Relying on her faith and religion, a woman acts in a way to humiliate an enemy at the center of his power, while he has ostensibly won the military campaign and has crushed his opponents and leaned on the throne of victory; she put the eternal stigma on his forehead and changed his victory into defeat; This is the what Lady Zaynab has done. Lady Zaynab (s.a.) showed that women’s hijab and decency can be turned into an eternal honor[7].

Is not this example a perfect proof that women in Islam are in the context of politics and society and that the monotheistic tradition and religion do not want women to be inferior but it places them at the top of human peaks?



[1] Plato, Republic, Paragraphs 461 – 463.

[2] Aristotle, Politics, Book II, Paragraphs 1 – 13.

[3] Okin, Susan Moller. Women in Western Political Thought. Princeton University Press, 2013.

[4] Sayyid Ali Khamenei, Speech in the meeting with nurses, November 13, 1991.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Sayyid Ali Khamenei, Speech in the meeting with nurses, April 21, 2010.

[7] Ibid.


About Ali Teymoori

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