Attitude towards girl child: By Dr Riffat Hassan

Courtesy to “Dawn”

BEFORE the advent of Islam, many girl children in Arabia were denied the most fundamental right to live. As stated by Muhammad Asad, “The barbaric custom of burying female infants alive seems to have been fairly widespread in pre-Islamic Arabs.”

The Quran itself refers to this heinous practice in two specific passages. The first reference is in the context of each person’s accountability to God on the Day of Final Reckoning. Surah 81, verses 8-9, affirm that on that Day “…the girl-child that is buried alive is made to ask for which crime she had been slain”.

The second reference is in the context of the prevailing beliefs among pre-Islamic Arabs. In Surah 16, verses 57-59, it is pointed out: “They ascribe daughters unto God, who is limitless in His glory — whereas for themselves (they would choose, if they could, only) what they desire: for, whenever any of them is given the glad tiding of (the birth of) a girl, his face darkens, and he is filled with suppressed anger, avoiding all people because of the (alleged) evil of the glad tiding which he has received, (and debating within himself:) Shall he keep this (child) despite the contempt (which he feels for it) or shall he bury it in the dust? Oh, evil indeed is whatever they decide!”

In the above passage the pre-Islamic Arabs were confronted with the fact that while they referred to their main goddesses, Al-Lat, Al-Uzza and Manat as ‘daughters of God’ and also regarded angels as females, they themselves desired to have only male offspring. Recording a pre-Islamic Arab’s highly negative reaction upon the birth of a girl, the Quran mentions two underlying reasons. Understanding these reasons is necessary for comprehending not only the attitudes towards girl children of pre-Islam Arabs, but also those of many contemporary Muslims. An analysis of both reasons follows.

Economics: The majority of the pre-Islamic Arabs or Bedouins lived in nomadic tribes in the desert where means of subsistence were extremely scarce and supporting many children would be a source of great economic hardship. The Quran sought to allay the Bedouins’ anxiety in 17:31: “… do not kill your children for fear of poverty; it is We who shall provide sustenance for them as well as for you. Verily, killing them is a great sin.”

The socio-cultural milieu: The lives of the Bedouins were highly precarious since they were engaged in a continuing struggle not only with the desert environment, but also with other tribes. In such conditions, the capture or molestation of a girl or a woman by a rival tribe was a likely occurrence. In the Bedouins’ mind the birth of a girl-child created a serious hazard not only in economic terms, but also, and perhaps more importantly, in terms of their sense of honour. If anything untoward happened to a girl-child, it would be a source of deep shame for them.

As pointed out by Muhammad Asad, the Quran regards both alternatives mentioned in 16: 59 as “Evil: to keep the child as an object of perpetual contempt, or to bury it alive,” as was frequently done by the pagan Arabs. This passage, containing as it does an utter condemnation of men’s attitude towards women in pre-Islamic Arabia, has, as is always the case with Quranic references to historical events or customs, a meaning that goes far beyond the specific social phenomenon and the resulting infanticide.”

The Quran abolished female infanticide, but many negative ideas and attitudes regarding girls have persisted in Muslim culture in which daughters are often discriminated against in favour of sons right from birth. Many Muslims do not see the ethical principle implicit in the Quran’s strong condemnation of the killing of daughters, namely, that daughters and sons are to be treated alike.

They tend to ignore the Quran’s protective attitude towards women and its oft-repeated injunction that women be treated with kindness. They also tend to ignore the essence of the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) as reflected in popular hadiths such as the following:

“Whosoever has a daughter and he does not favour his sons over her, God will enter him into Paradise.” (Ibn Hanbal:Hadith no. 1957); “Whoever supports two daughters (or two sisters) till they mature, he and I will come in the Day of Judgment on this (and he points with his two fingers).” (Ibn Hanbal: Hadith no. 2104).

Despite the normative teachings of Islam, the birth of a daughter is regarded by many Muslims not as a gift from God but rather as a responsibility, whereas the birth of a son is regarded as a sign of God’s favour and a blessing even though verse 68:14 censures a man who is arrogant on account of having sons. According to Quranic teaching, sons, like other boons granted by God, are a test of faith rather than an indication of merit.

The writer is professor emerita at the University of Louisville, US, and a scholar of Islam and Iqbal.