Are men and women considered equal?
When replying to this question, we must first define what is meant by "equal" and identify the aspect which worries us in terms of gender equality. Islam regards women as spiritual and intellectual equals of men. For a Muslim the important issue is who can become closest to God and earn the greatest reward. The Qur’an answers:
"Whoever does deeds of righteousness, whether male or female, while being a believer – those will enter Paradise, and not the least injustice will be done to them."[4:124]
"For Muslim men and women, for believing men and women, for devout men and women, for truthful men and women, for patient men and women, for humble men and women, for charitable men and women, for fasting men and women, for chaste men and women, and for men and women who remember God often – for them has Allah prepared forgiveness and great reward."[33:35]
There is no difference between men and women as far as their relationship to God is concerned. Both are equal before God, and they are both accountable before Him. Women, like men, are commanded to worship God, and both are promised the same rewards and punishments according to their intention and conduct.
Economically, every man and woman is an independent legal entity. Both men and women have the right to own property, engage in business, and inherit from others. Both have the equal right to receive an education and enter into gainful employment. Seeking knowledge is an obligation upon every Muslim, and to prevent women from getting an education is contrary to the teachings of Islam.
However, one fact mentioned in the Qur’an and now recognized is that all things are created in pairs. Had there been a similar function for all, the creation of two counterparts would not have been necessary. To ignore inherent physical and psychological differences is surely unrealistic, but there is no reason to assume that one sex is superior to the other. The creation of male and female means a natural division of function, meaning distinct roles for each, which are both complementary and collaborative.
Thus, absolute equality between men and women in all matters is neither possible nor reasonable. But this does not mean bias in favor of men to the detriment of women. While some rulings may be seen to favor men, many others favor women. However, most Islamic rulings apply to men and women equally, and both are bound by their obligations towards one another. The main distinction between the two sexes is in the physical realm, based on the equitable principle of fair division of labor. Islam allots the more strenuous work to the man and makes him responsible for the maintenance of the family. It allots the work of managing the home and the upbringing and training of children to the woman, work which has the greatest importance in the task of building a healthy and prosperous society.
It is also true that sound administration within any organization requires a unified policy under a just executive. For this reason Islam expects the husband, as head of the household, to consult with his family and then have the final say in decisions concerning it. This degree of authority in no way means that the Creator prefers men over women but is simply the logical way of apportioning responsibilities in a household. Men and women are two equally important component parts of humanity, and the rights and responsibilities of both sexes in Islam are equitable and balanced in their totality. Although their obligations might differ in certain areas of life in accordance with basic physical and psychological differences, each one is equally accountable for his or her particular responsibilities.