“Sexes’ being anatomically and physiologically different is a natural fact; from observation of their differences are drawn abstract notions of which the prototype is the opposition identical/different, on which are shaped so many other conceptual oppositions used in our discourse of all sorts.”(Héritier, 1996, p26).
This binary opposition between femininity and masculinity is the cornerstone of a hierarchical social order where women continue to be excluded from highly regarded social positions and undergo discrimination, mainly because of unaltered mindsets maintaining the traditional patriarchal system. Robert Hertz believes that “every social hierarchy claims to be founded on the nature of things, physei,ou nomō: it thus accords itself eternity, it escapes change and the attacks of innovators. Aristotle justified slavery by the ethnic superiority of the Greeks over barbarians, and today the man who is annoyed by feminist claims alleges that woman is naturally inferior” (Hertz, 1973, p3). Hertz went on to make then the radical proposition that what appears to be ‘the testimony of nature’ may well be the result of social definitions(Callaway, 1978, 163), which is the same approach of Simone de Beauvoir when she inquired about the woman’s nature in terms of what justifies her placing at lower social positions in comparison to man and asked if the feminine beings were born women or rather became (De Beauvoir 1949); thus distinguishing sex or biology, the inborn nature, from the social construct, the acquired attributes of femininity.
This paper raises the question whether the Islamic tradition connotes feminine biology with meanings of defect, constituting thereby a hindrance to women’s playing crucial social roles. Verse 36 from Surat 3, The Family of Imran seems to hold some answers to this question as it clearly sets a comparison between males and females
And the male is not like the female
walaysa alththakaru kaalontha
and therefore can be particularly insightful when the objective is to highlight differences between men and women. Some of these differences might be biological while others are rather cultural connotations related to social conventions which reinforce social cleavage between males and females and justify for a different social role and status for both of them. This verse, which relates the story of the wife of Imran’s vow to dedicate her child to the service of God describes how the events developed as she gave birth to a female baby; instead of the male she was expecting; especially that only males could undertake this honorable role according to the community customs.
A reading of “walaysa alththakaru kaalontha” in various commentaries of the Qur’an, in addition to some references which report stories of prophets, may enable a better understanding of the differences between males and females as depicted in this verse, with focus on whether it is related to social identity or essence. Commentaries of this verse reveal a juxtaposition-opposition of some of the essential characteristics of the feminine related to biology and other social conventions which determine a person’s behavior, possibilities of action and social status.
These two verses tell the story of the wife of Imrān. Most of Qur’an commentaries provided an analysis for this part of the verse, trying to clarify the position of Maryam, as a female, with regard to the role her mother had dedicated her for. The recurring explanation is that Maryam was in the impossibility to fulfill the task she was dedicated for as a servant in the temple of Jerusalem, being a female. Most of commentaries provided justifications for the female new born baby’s inadequacy to the role she was vowed for, some of which are but social conventions. A sociological analysis of the circumstances and social environment in which this story took place can help rethink the differences between males and females and get some answers from the Islamic register to this question at the core of the debate in the sociology of gender research field.
Verse 36 of Surat Al-Imran understudy comes within a number of verses which relate the story of the wife of Imrān who, in a vow of thankfulness, promised to dedicate her yet to be born son, mūharraran, means free from earthly life concerns, devoted, to the worship of Allah and service of the Holy House. It was a custom in most families, during that time, to give one of their sons over to the baytū-Allah-Alharām in Jerusalem for service. Daughters were not suitable to take this responsibility, that’s why, when unexpectedly she gave birth to a female baby, she felt perplex that her child couldn’t fulfill her promise to Allah.
The Qur’an says:
Behold a woman of Imran said: O my lord I do dedicate unto thee what is in my womb for thy special service: so do accept this of me: for Thou hearest and knowest all things
When she was delivered, she said: O my lord behold I am delivered of a female child and Allah knew best what she brought forth and no wise is the male like the female. I have named her Mary, and I commend her and her offspring to thy protection from the Evil one, the rejected
In other translations of the meaning of the Qu’ran, the verse under focus has been translated as following:
And the male is not like the female; the male is not as the female; And no wise is the male like the female
Exegetes of the Qur’an commented on this verse trying to shed light on the reasons why a female couldn’t take the position of servant in baytū-Allah-Alharām and stressed on the fact that females, having to undergo menses and postpartum periods, cannot be present all the time in the sanctuary. Furthermore, being awra, women cannot stand contact with people (implicitly men) because they could be subject to all sorts of prejudices either to their moral reputation or substantial physical harm, mainly in a place where they could be seen by everybody.Finally, women are weaker, in bodily terms, in comparison to men and consequently will not be able to fulfill this mission in the same way a man would. However, Al-Razī stresses on the fact that the first obstacle to name, facing Maryam, was that only sons were dedicated to the sanctuary. He adds that the wife of Imran’s vow, implicitly, was an invocation to have a male offspring or a personal predisposition to have a son because by no means could a female undertake this role.
This verse can have two different interpretations depending on the speaker position, maqam al-mutakallim( Al-Shatwī, 2011, page192). Al-Razī comments that if we consider Ibnu-Amir and Abu-bakr ibnu Yacub reading: “Allah knew best what I brought forth” Wa Allahu aalamu bima wada’tu, therefore the following “walaysa alththakaru kaalontha” would be the wife of Imran’s words. Al-Razī comments that Hanna does not mean, by these words, that she would prefer a male over the female she got. In fact, it is as if she were saying: I wanted a male but Allah has awarded me this female and the male I had wanted would never equal this female awarded by Allah, who is therefore better. He concludes from what was said by the wife of Imran that this mother had a deep knowledge of Allah and faith that whatever Allah decides for his servant is better than what the servant wants.
This is refuting any possible wrong understanding that this baby was subject of contempt, scorn or thought of as inferior to males. Still, according to the wife of Imranmales are different from females in term of their respective suitable functions; which implies that she believed males and females had different natures and roles; making it impossible for her daughter to fit the position she had dedicated her for. The wife of Imran, living in an environment with specific socio cognitive norms around femininity and masculinity, was conditioned by these norms and could not see any possibility for her daughter to fulfill the role she had vowed her for. Therefore, this statement by the wife of Imran “O my lord behold I am delivered of a female child”, as comments Rashid Reda, is not meant to inform but to express regrets, sadness and apologies.
With the second reading of this verse: “Wa Allahu aalamu bima wada’t”, then the mutakallim, speaker, here would be Allah. Therefore, we can understand that Allah replies to the wife of Imran’s: “O my lord behold I am delivered of a female child” with “Allah knew best what she brought forth”. This reply, explains Al-Razī, means that Allah knows best what this new born baby was to be in the future and that Maryam, and her son afterwards, were to be signs ayat to the world; however, the wife of Imran had no idea about that, as she was considering facts with a human knowledge which holds social conventions as compulsory rules, and that was why she was feeling regrets. The Qur’an says:
But the God of you all is the One Allah. There is no god but He: all things He comprehends in His knowledge
Allah knew best the value and special position of this new born female who is indeed better than so many males, comments Rashid Reda. “walaysa alththakaru kaalontha” would then reveal that though the wife of Imran thought that only a male could be up to the privilege of the service of Baytū-Allah-Alharām a female was to be up to this honor, fulfill her mother’s vow and be accepted by Allah as His servant, with no consideration to all the obstacles which were set by the community and assumed as compulsory codes. We can thus conclude that Allah, by accepting Maryam does not acknowledge these social norms which differentiate males from females and reinforce a cleavage between men and women in terms of roles and possibilities.
An approach of the denouement of this story might be very relevant to the issue of both biological and social differences between males and females.
Right graciously did her Lord accept her: He made her grow in purity and beauty: to the care of Zakaria was she assigned
Es-sa’adī comments that Allah allowed Maryam an unusual upbringing combining religion and morality, which made her have a perfect behavior and had a direct effect on her deeds and sayings. Furthermore, Allah put her in charge of Zakaria’ who was a righteous man, and it was a mercy for her to have such a man as an educator.
Rashid Reda explains that Allah accepted the wife of Imran’s dedicated daughter, and was pleased with her as a servant of Baytu- Allah. Maryam was raised in the benevolence, sustenance, care and favorable support of Allah. Her education was good and comprehensive of both body and spirit as would have been raised a tree in a fertile soil till it grows and bears its good fruits, not altered in their initial nature; the verb anbata (to spring) nabātan (germination) being a metaphorical image drawn from the world of plants. This metaphor, adds Reda, is stressing that the upbringing of Maryam was in complete harmony with her fitra, the natural aptitude. This can shed light on the particular preparation of Maryam for the role she was dedicated for which took shape in preserving her fitra unaltered and undistorted. Allah accepted Maryam as a servant in spite of her being a female who possesses all the biological attributes of femininity. Yet, she was raised in piety, religion and faith under the supervision of Zakaria’, which enabled her to be up to the honor she was vowed to and to serve, differently, as a female, in a way no man would ever be able to do.
An analysis of these marks of difference, which were put forward by commentators of the Qur’an as justifying the impossibility to both the implementation of Hanna’s promise and Maryam’s fulfilling the role she was dedicated for, may clarify some attributes of femininity as revealed by the various commentaries of this verse; some of these attributes can possibly be inborn characteristics of the female and others related to how the feminine is perceived socially or, in other words, the cultural connotations of femininity.
Hence, a female is perceived as inappropriate for the service of the temple for reasons related to:
1. Female’s biology, inevitably different from a male’s, whose biology is socially normalized as the appropriate, making any female therefore seem unsuitable for the temple service.
2. Females’ reputation and honor, considered as fragile, which remains a main reason for not allowing women some social roles; at a moment when women’s honor monopolize the community’s concern.
3. Patriarchal social systems where direct access to some social positions is possible to men for the only reason of their maleness. In the community where Maryam was born maleness was put on top of the required attributes for some social roles, in this verse the temple service; excluding automatically all the feminine beings.
All these factors are at the source of a social convention where women were considered as inappropriate for temple service. The social convention or social fact according to Durkheim is “every way of acting fixed or not, capable of exercising on the individual an external constraint; or again, every way of acting which is general throughout a given society, while at the same time, existing in its own right independently of its individual manifestations.” (Durkheim, 1938, p.13) Therefore, the fact that only males could be dedicated to the sanctuary is a social fact, probably built on the various justifications previously mentioned; however, it is also a conviction that has been maintained over time in a way that the arguments which built for its creation were no more subject to discussion, it started consequently to be a compulsory social code constituting the hardest obstacle to go beyond, as it was the case for Maryam’s fulfilling the honorable role to which she was dedicated to. Men, on the other hand, could enjoy institutionalized privileges and status.
A society is patriarchal to the degree that it promotes male privilege by being male dominated, male identified and male centered since patriarchy, rather than existing as a system merely resting in biological differences, is an institution strictly equivalent to racist or other oppressive institutions (M. Bennett, Judith , 2010, page 56) . In patriarchal institutions, where men are enabled by their only maleness, to take superior positions both at the private and public sphere, women are maintained at a lower social stratum, behind all males in society. This binary division of the masculine and feminine not only narrows women’s opportunities to enjoy all their rights and be present in society as fully autonomous empowered entities but also sustains an underestimation, even contempt towards all the feminine ways of being, procreative function and social roles. This can explain how the biological particularities of women are perceived as a defect which justifies excluding women from taking highly regarded social roles; as it was enhanced in commentaries of this verse.
In patriarchal societies whereas male’s biology is emphasized as the norm which would enable a man to take honorable positions, belonging to the female sex not only constitutes a reason for women’s exclusion but feminine bodies are also thought of as objects to be kept under community control. Women’s honor is often closely related to some sociological connotations around their biology and seems to justify for control over women’s sexuality and procreative activity. Fatima Mernissi has pointed out that female sexuality is sometimes represented as an active and insatiable force, which men must constantly strive to control, which justifies the social concern about female honor (Mernissi, 1975, page 114). She adds that “the whole concept of patriarchal honor was built around the idea of virginity, which reduced a woman’s role to its sexual dimension.” This explains how, in patriarchal societies much stress is put on women’s physical integrity, sometimes even in social and cultural environments where religion is not regarded as the frame of reference. Furthermore, societal honor is considered to rest on women’s chastity; “women’s honor had always been based primarily on issues of morality. Foremost, it depended on a reputation of chastity “[…] a chaste woman was a modest woman, true to the demand of passivity” instead of honor as a societal requirement which takes into consideration both men and women’s virtue, since nothing is said about men’s honor and its impact on societal ethical and moral values. “[…] for men on the other hand, the domain of sex originally meant activity: the protection of one’s own womenfolk, from predators and trying to seduce other’s womenfolk.”
In patriarchal societies and besides this control on women’s movement in the name of society’s honor, when a woman is promised to a higher status than it was decided by the patriarchal culture, she constitutes a threat to the social order which protects male privileges and breaks the binary opposition male-female at the foundation of this order. Due to the habitus(Pierre Bourdieu, 2001) both men and women do not reject social conventions since they assimilate them as natural and do protect in this way the social order, enabling its continuity. This explains how most of commentators of the Qur’an tried to understand the situation of Maryam from their own perspectives as males in patriarchal societies, which made their commentaries further emphasize the inferior status given to women by providing justifications for discrimination and sustaining thereby patriarchal social orders. Rereading these verses lets emerge an understanding which not only rejects these social conventions and encourages a critical thinking about various cultural customs that may be contradicting the essence of the Islamic message, but also categorically deconstructs any justifications for women’s exclusion from honorable positions in society. This understanding sets the platform for other questions related to the deconstruction of obstacles related to the self perception of both males and females which would, first of all prepare women for such roles but also smoothen the way for the materialization of this new social order by making men accept such change in their ways of being, away from patriarchal modes of thinking. The education and upbringing of Maryam is very relevant in this context as it was the means to help her achieve her spiritual and intellectual autonomy and escape the acknowledged social norms of femininity that usually mould women through social construct towards adopting passivity and dependence as forms of being. An appropriate education and upbringing of women is also the means, in every time and space, to break social perceptions about the feminine that trap women in social conventions, exaggerating the difference male-female and not allowing women thereby real opportunities of distinction. “It is only by exaggerating the difference between within and without above and below, male and female, with and against, that a semblance of order is created.”
We can assume that, social facts lead to the creation of stereotypes and presumptions about the abilities, possibilities and alternatives of being for each individual; all these prior convictions may prove to be unreal about a person and by no way justified by his or her essential nature. Since most of societies have been male dominated and patriarchal, the social construct of the feminine has been accordingly suiting the overriding social powers. Thus, most of women acquired attributes related to passivityand domesticity. Furthermore, due to alienating cultural mechanisms their opportunities to get knowledge and become more alert through public life experiences were restricted, as a result, most of women have lacked competencies, in comparison to men, which reinforced their being denied social roles where they could have taken critical decisions with an access to authority in all fields. Instead, they were restrained to the domestic sphere and forgotten in the official narrative of history; whereas men were associated with intelligence, strength even violence and allowed privileged responsibility roles.
Thus biology makes obviously a difference between males and females, however, cultural practices give rise to the existence of social constructs which impose the way women and men should behave in a determined society, their roles but also what is expected from each of them. An accurate preparation for females, as it was the case with Maryam, far from any alienating social constructs, can enable women to undertake important and privileged roles in their society, roles which may prove, as it was the case with Maryam, to be in total harmony with the female biological functions.
Maha Badissy: She is a student researcher and doctoral candidate at Mohamed Premier University, Morocco. She works on the cultural mechanisms that hinder the improvement of women’s status in the Arab-Muslim context and has a particular interest in Islamic feminism as a liberation experience inside the structure of identity of Muslim women. She has a BA in English language literature and holds a Master’s degree in Gender Studies. Currently working on a Ph.D. thesis entitled: Femininity in the Qur’an and attending an intensive religious classes on Islamic shariʽā at a religious traditional institution.
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Yusuf Ali, Abdullah; The meaning of the Holy Quran, translation, Beirut: Al-Aalami Publications 2007
 Françoise Héritier, Masculin Féminin la Pensée de la Différence, (Paris : Editions Odile Jacob, 1996) 26
 Robert Hertz, The Pre-eminence of the Right Hand: a Study in Religious Polarity, (HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 1909) Volume3 (2): 335–57) -Publisher’s note: This is a reprint of Hertz, Robert. 1973. “The pre-eminence of the right hand.” In Right and left: Essays on dual symbolic classification, translated by Rodney and Claudia Needham, edited by Rodney Needham, 3–31. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. The essay was first published in 1909 as “La prééminence de la main droite : étude sur la polarité religieuse.” Revue Philosophique 68: 553–80.
 See Helen Callaway, Defining Females, the Nature of Women in Society, ed. Shirley Ardener (University of Oxford. Women’s Studies Committee : Croom Helm 1978)163
 “One is not born a woman but rather becomes”. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex Trans. H. M. Parshley, (Vintage classics, 1997/ 1949.)
 Mohamed ali Habib Shakir’s translation, The Qur’an, 1970
 Surah 3, the family of ‘Imran, verse 36
 “Her name according to some commentators is Hanna Bint Faqūd, the grandmother of Issa, Jesus, peace be upon him” Abu ishāk Ahmad bnu Ibrahīm Al- Naissabūrī, Quasasū Al-Anbia’, Arāi’sū al-majālis, (Beirūt, Lebanon: Dar Alqalam )371
 Alhafith Ibnū kathīr, Quasasū Al-Anbia’( Fadae Al-fann Wa attakafa)352.
 The Qur’an, Surah 3, the family of ‘Imran, verse 36
 Mohamed Ali Habib Shakir, Translation of the Qur’an(1970)
 Muhammad Marmaduke, William Pickthall, The Meaning of the Glorious Koran, (New York: Dorset Press 1930).
 Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The meaning of the Holy Quran (Beirut: Al-Aalami Publications, 2007)
 Al-Suūtī, Lubabu Al-nukul fi Asbābi Annuzūl, Hashiat Al-Sawe Ala Tafsīr Aljalalain (Beirut, Lebanon: Dar Elfikr, 2001) volume 1- 265
 « What one would be ashamed of in case it appear to the eyes”, Ibnu Mandur, Lisan Al-Arab( Beirut, Lebanon: Dar Sader, 2005) Volume10, page 333
 Al- Naissabūrī Abū-ishāk Ahmad bnu Ibrahīm, Quasasū Al-Anbia’, Arāi’sū al-majālis, (Beirūt, Lebanon: Dar Alqalam)371
 Essa’adī, Taysīr Al-Karīm Al-Rahman Fi Tafsīr Kalām Al-Mannān,(Cairo: Dar Al-Hadīth, 2005)121
 Al Rāzi, Altafsir Alkabīr Mafātīhu Alghaib, (Cairo Egypt: Al Tawfikia Bookshop) volume8- 25
 See Mohamed bnū Ali al Jiilani al- Shatwī, Attaghayyur Addalali wa atharuhu fī fahm alnass al Qur’ānī, (Maktabat Hassan Alasrian, Beirut, Lebanon, 2011)192
 Mohammed Rashid Reda, Tafsīr Al-Manār (Al Tawfikia Bookshop Cairo Egypt) volume3- 203
 Al Rāzi, Altafsir Alkabīr Mafātīhu Alghaib ( Al Tawfikia Bookshop Cairo Egypt) volume8- 25
 Mohammed Rashid Reda, Tafsīr Al-Manār ( Al Tawfikia Bookshop Cairo Egypt) volume3- 203
Al Rāzi, Altafsir Alkabīr Mafātīhu Alghaib,( Cairo Egypt: Al Tawfikia Bookshop) volume8-25
 The Qur’an, Surat 20, Ta-ha, verse 98
 Abderrahman Ben Naser Es-sa’adī, Taysīr Alkarīm Arrahmāne (Cairo: Dar Elhadith, 2005) 121-122
 “God accepted the offering even though the child was a female” Barbara Freyer Stowasser, Women in the Qur’an, Traditions and Interpretation (New York Oxford: Oxford university Press, 1994)
 Durkheim, Steven Lukes, ed. The Rules of Sociological Method and Selected Texts on Sociology and its Method. W. D. Halls (translator)( New York: Free Press, 1938)13
 Etin Anwar quotes Wael B. Hallaq and Fazlur Rahman to enhance how literal interpretation of this verse is embedded in Muslim unconsciousness reiterates and nurtures the common belief that male is generally superior to female and that the former is more perfect in every respect than the latter. This distinction serves multiple functions, and is one of the many means used to impose order in society. It is also imposed by such institutions as public perception of the truth and the economy, and is bolstered by the political regime. Etin Anwar, Gender and Self in Islam (London and New York: Routledge, 2006) 26
See Judith M. Bennett, History Matters:Patriarchy and the Challenge of feminism (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010)56
 Fatima Mernissi, Beyond the Veil, Male Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society, Revisited Edition, (Indiana University Press, 1987, first published 1975) 114
 Pieter Spierenburg, Men and Violence: Gender, Honor, and Rituals in Modern Europe and America, (The Ohio State University, 1998) 5
 Ibid, page 5
 “A kind of gentle, invisible, pervasive violence, Bourdieu calls symbolic violence, exercised through the everyday practices of social life enables masculine domination, shapes the social life and the hierarchical relationship between women and men.” Pierre Bourdieu, Masculine Domination, translated by Richard Nice, (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2001
 Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger ( London, Boston, and Henley: Routledge and Kean Pau 1969) 4
 See Sigmund Freud New introductory lectures, third lecture, Femininity, 1932