And without proper understanding, the hadith certainly can give someone that impression. For instance, early in my days as a Muslim, this particular hadith gave me a lot of trouble--it upset me immensely, and made me want to reject hadith altogether because it seemed so wholly unfair. The injustice was not in the hadith, however, but in my poor understanding of it.
Once the hadith became sufficiently explained to me, it became more beloved to me than many other ahadith. It also taught me some valuable lessons--to not impose my own standards on the deen of Allah when I am without knowledge, and to trust in the wisdom of Allah.
Since I mentioned the hadith (some time ago), I received a comment asking me to discuss the hadith a little bit more in depth, so I would like to do just that. I'm sure it's possible to look up a good explanation of the hadith from a real scholar, I just want to add a few things that I think are especially interesting about it.
So first let's examine the hadith--it is authentic, related by Bukhari in Book 6, Hadith 301 (if you want to look it up, I guess.) Here it is:
So... it sounds almost like it's saying women are stupid and worthless in the religion. Almost. That's how it gets twisted anyway, but that's not what it says, and not even close to what it means.
Narrated Abu Said Al-Khudri:
Once Allah's Apostle went out to the Musalla (to offer the prayer) on 'Id-al-Adha or Al-Fitr prayer. Then he passed by the women and said, "O women! Give alms, as I have seen that the majority of the dwellers of Hell-fire were you (women)."
They asked, "Why is it so, O Allah's Apostle ?"
He replied, "You curse frequently and are ungrateful to your husbands. I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelligence and religion than you. A cautious sensible man could be led astray by some of you."
The women asked, "O Allah's Apostle! What is deficient in our intelligence and religion?"
He said, "Is not the evidence of two women equal to the witness of one man?" They replied in the affirmative. He said, "This is the deficiency in her intelligence. Isn't it true that a woman can neither pray nor fast during her menses?" The women replied in the affirmative. He said, "This is the deficiency in her religion."
The first interesting thing about this hadith, to me, is that the Prophet (saaws) is directing his statement specifically to a group of women. Imagine if the imam during a khutbah left the minbar and walked so he would stand just in front of the women--and gave them a special sermon, specifically for them. This hadith isn't so much a sermon, but is a statement directed exclusively to women, exhorting them to give in charity, and this is done while eliciting a fear of Hellfire. Basically, it reminds the women to give in charity to protect themselves from Hellfire.
Then he (saaws) mentions a shortage in the "intelligence" of women, and a shortage or deficiency in their religion. And that (in addition to the women being the majority in Hellfire part) is what sets people off, I think. So here the women are talking back to the Prophet (saaws)! Instead of seeing them bowing their heads in silence, we find them questioning his statement. They ask 'why?' and 'how come?' and 'what does that mean?' That itself is kind of beautiful to me, showing that the Prophet (saaws) was approachable and that the women were not afraid to speak to him, even to voice their concerns.
And in fact, their concerns are precisely the same as those which people today seem to have with the same statement. It sounds like an insult, after all. It's difficult to see in the translation the good-natured humor inherent in the statement, that it's almost like a joke. How can I say that? Because of the exaggerations and rhetorical devices.
But anyway, let's get to the two main claims--about a woman's intelligence and religion. The word for intelligence in this hadith is `aql which carries an important connotation. It's actually the word used for a rope used to hobble a camel to keep it from running away, so it has this connotation of tying something. Now maybe you're asking, what is supposed to be tied, with regard to intelligence? And the answer here is that a person must be able to tie his emotions, to control his emotions, to keep them from overpowering his judgment and his reason. So another way of saying that women have a shortage of 'aql is to say that women are emotional. Or, that they are more emotional than men, in general. I would like to find anyone to dispute that statement. It's so obvious, really. (And I'll add an interesting note, that Imam Al-Bukhari filed this hadith in the book entitled 'Menstrual Periods.' Ahem! Women being emotional? Ah, yes.)
So first we can see that the statement is not an insult at all, but it states merely a commonly accepted fact, in slightly different terms. It's also interesting that women do tend to be more emotional than men are, that they often make choices based on their feelings. It is not, however, a weakness, because without the immense emotional capability of women, how would they be able to raise children the way they do? So I would say it is a special quality of women, and that it is for the benefit of all mankind that men can think with more rationality and women with more emotion.
When it comes to the matter of a woman's religion, once again we must see what is being referred to--and again, this hadith is in the section on 'Menstrual Periods' for a reason. You see, women are actually excempt from performing prayers on days that they are menstruating. That exemption means that overall they will end up praying less often than men do. Not for any fault of their own, but that Allah has not required it of them. So in the end a woman will have a shortage (or deficiency) in the prayers she has performed (as she has to make up for fasts.) The man of course does not have that sort of exemption, but has to keep regular steady practice of these rituals. And even so could be led astray by these women. (That is also an example of an exaggeration, by the way.)
But what is the point of the hadith, let's remember? It is to remind the women to give in charity. Why? Because they are not the same as men--not physiologically, not emotionally, not mentally--and remember that women do not go and wage jihad either, not militarily. But women are also going to be held accountable for their actions--what they did in this life. And standing behind an excuse isn't the way to go.
So... give in charity.
That's why I think it's beautiful, that there is a lot going on and a lot to learn from it. It also helps me to remember when looking at Islam, to avoid the temptation to view it with the lens of modern feminism which in many cases does nothing at all to help the woman and only undermines the society as a whole. This hadith actually underscores the importance of women in the society, I think, the importance of women to hold fast to the religion as they will be held accountable for their actions just like men will be.
Bottom line? Give sadaqa!