Gender Equality in Islam
“I shall not lose sight of the labor of any of you who labors in My way, be it man or woman; each of you is equal to the other (3:195)”
Spiritual equality, responsibility, and accountability for both men and women is a well-developed theme in the Quran. Spiritual equality between men and women in the sight of God is not limited to purely spiritual, religious issues, but is the basis for equality in all temporal aspects of human endeavor.
Adam and Eve: Gender Equality
The concept of gender equality is best exemplified in the Quranic rendition of Adam and Eve. The Quran states that both sexes were deliberate and independent and there is no mention of Eve being created out of Adam’s rib or anything else. Even the issue of which sex was created first is not specified, implying that for our purpose in this world, it may not matter.
“O mankind! Be conscious of your Sustainer, who has created you out of one living entity (nafs), and out of it created its mate, and out of hte two spread abroad a multitude of men and women. And remain conscious of God, in whose name you demand your rights from one another, and of these ties of kinship. Verily, God is ever watchful over you! (4:1)”
Quranic translators disagree on the meaning of “nafs” in the above verse which Muhammad Asad translates as “living entity.” Many claims that “nafs” translates as “person,” that is, Adam. But according to Asad and other scholars, God created humankind and its sexual counterpart out of its kind. The Arabic word referring to mate (zawj) in the above Quranic verse is grammatically neutral and can be applied both to males and females interchangeably.
So it is not clear, nor should we conjecture, that Adam was created first, Eve was created out of Adam, or that Eve/woman is innately subservient to Adam/man. The fact that this Quranic verse does not specify one specific sex over the other is proof of gender non-bias and equality. It is commonly (and mistakenly) argued that Adam was created first and that by this gesture God finds the male dominant and superior to the female; however, the wording of the Quran in the aforementioned verse does not support this claim.
The Quran describes how Adam and Eve were told to avoid a specific tree, which they both approached. For this act of disobedience to God, they were consequently banished from the garden; however, later both repented and were forgiven by God. The Quran does not allude to Eve tempting Adam to eat from the tree and is responsible for their downfall. In the Quranic version, both were held accountable and both paid the price for their choices, proving that gender equality is an intrinsic part of Islamic belief. (See Quran 2:30-37)
Accountability, Independence, and Freedom of Choice
Women are independent individuals, as exemplified by the fact that all human beings will be accountable for their intentions and deeds on the Day of Judgment when “no human being shall be of the least avail to another human being” (82:19) If men were ultimately responsible for women (fathers for their daughters, husbands for their wives, etc.), then this accountability would be solely on men’s shoulders to bear until the Day of Judgment. But this is not the case: “And whatever wrong any human being commits rests upon himself alone; and no bearer of burdens shall be made to bear another’s burden…” (6:165)
Consequently, we cannot be judged according to our deeds unless we have the freedom of choice to do so. This free choice carries with it the responsibility to make the right choices or pay the consequence for wrong ones, best exemplified by Adam and Eve.
Equality in Practice
In the Quran, reference to men and women is through attributes and deeds, by which we will be judged. The most pious of us, or those who follow God’s commands, are referred to as “believers” or “mu’mineen” (pl.) in the Quran. In many references, the Quran resonates this equality by eloquently repeating “men and women” with ethical and practical qualities throughout the verses, and even emphasizes this ten times in the following verse:
“Verily for all men and women who have surrendered themselves unto God, and all believing men and believing women, and all truly devout men and truly devout women, and all men and women who are true to their word, and all men and women who are patient in adversity, and all men and women who humble themselves before God, and all men and women who give in charity, and all self-denying men and self-denying women, and all men and women who are mindful of their chastity, and all men and women who remmber God unceasingly: for all of them has God readied forgiveness of sins and a mighty reward.” (33:35)
It is paramount to understand that the Quran equates being a “mu’min” (sing.) with actual practice so that it is not enough to just have faith in principle; we must put our faith into practice. The same applies to our belief in the equality of men and women; gender equality as outlined in the Quran must also be put into practice. About the above verse, modern scholar Laila Ahmed in “Women and Gender in Islam” says that “the implications are far-reaching. Ethical qualities, including those invoked here–charity, chastity, truthfulness, patience, piety–also have political and social dimensions.”