Many misconceptions surround women’s rights in Islam. The prevailing view by people in the West, and especially what is portrayed in the media, is that women in Islam are oppressed, subordinate to men, and have no say. Is that really true? How have people reached these assumptions?
One reason why the status of women in Islam is misconstrued is that people tend to mix cultural practices with what they think are Islamic practices.
The religion of Islam and people’s cultural traditions are two very different factors. For example, the ban on driving in Saudi Arabia is a socio-political edict, and not necessarily an Islamic law. Women used to ride horses and camels during the time of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
We hear news reports of young girls in a remote Pakistani village who were banned from going to school, and people falsely claim that Islam bars women from education. Again, this is a cultural problem and has no basis in Islam whatsoever.
Preventing women from education is an un-Islamic practice. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) gave lectures to women which he held at the mosque, and women were encouraged to learn. Aisha, the wife of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was one of the most knowledgeable authorities on Islam. She has transmitted over 2,000 Hadiths, or sayings of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), which she has memorized by heart. She was educated in Hadith, jurisprudence (Islamic law), poetry, and the Arabic language. On many occasions, great men such as Umar ibn Al-Khattab asked Aisha for her opinion on certain rulings.
Women of knowledge were highly revered and valued in the days of early Islam. A woman, Hafsa, the daughter of Umar ibn Al-Khattab, was chosen to be the safe-keeper of the first complete written copy of the Holy Qur’an (the only one at the time). What an immense responsibility but also privilege to have in her possession the only copy of the Holy Qur’an in the world at the time. That shows the high status of women in Islam.
British researcher and author of women’s history books, Helen Wojtczak, said that in Europe, during the so-called Renaissance, education was revered by society. Famous literary salons became centers of intellectual debate and educational lectures but women were excluded from them. At the time, merely teaching girls to read and write would suffice. Some aristocratic women did receive better education, but even then, a woman who was highly accomplished feared being labeled as “mannish” or even accused of witchcraft.
The problem is that many people have forgotten history. British laws were far more oppressive to women than Islamic laws. Islam granted women rights that European women at the time only dreamed of; including financial, social, familial, and political rights.
Islam rescued the women in Arabia from the appalling situation they were in; they were treated as property, as inferior to men, as prostitutes, with no legal rights, until Islam liberated her and granted women their God-given rights.
Annie Besant, a prominent British women’s right activist, speaker, and writer shed light on women in Islam.
“I often think that the woman is more free in Islam than in Christianity. It is only twenty years that Christian England has recognized the right of women to property, while Islam has allowed this right from all times. Look back to the history of Islam, and you will find that women have often taken leading places – on the throne, in the battle-field, in politics, in literature, in poetry,” she wrote in 1932 in her paper, The Life and Teachings of Muhammad.
That is the problem; people do not look back to the history of Islam, they look only at the scarf or hijab on a Muslim woman’s head and cry, “Oppression!”
Women in Islam, as far back as the time of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), more than 1,000 years ago, were politically active and they held important roles in public discourse and decision making. When Umar ibn Al-Khattab was the Caliph, the ruler of
Makkah, he informed the public of his plan to set a ceiling (or limit) to the amount of money a woman could ask for as dowry from her husband-to-be.
A woman in the crowd openly opposed him and stood up in public to voice her opinion. She stated that the right of women was given to them by God and that the Caliph should not limit or restrict what Allah had kept liberal.
Omar ibn Al-Khattab agreed with the woman, admitted that he had made a mistake, and withdrew the ruling that he had proposed.
In his famous statement, he said, “The woman is correct and Umar is wrong.”
He was the ruler at the time, yet he found no fault in accepting the political opinion of a woman over his own.
he political landscape was much different for the women living in the same era in Europe. Women continued to be excluded from
politics during which Muslim women were active in politics.
Up until the late 1800s, women spectators were allowed to attend hearings of the House of Commons in British rule, on the condition that the women remained silent; they were not allowed to speak up.
According to Wojtczak, in 1884, when women began fighting for their rights to participate in debates and to be represented in government, the men in power argued, “Women are by nature and also according to God and the Bible meant to be subordinated by men. Politics is none of women’s business; they know nothing and indeed should know nothing about it.”
Islam gave women the right to a divorce, whereas in Western societies, divorce was unfathomable; it would only be considered in rare cases and usually if the man initiated it.
Although divorce is permitted in Islam, it is the last resort, because divorce leads to breaking up of families, which will have a negative impact not only on the children involved, but also on society as a whole. Nonetheless, divorce was an option that women or men could use as repose from a failing marriage.
In Islam, hundreds of years before the feminist movements of the West, a woman could get a divorce if she was being mistreated, or abused. Most women in the West prior and up to the 19th century did not enjoy that privilege. In the year 1670, only 4 British women were able to obtain a divorce in the courts, compared with 318 British men who successfully initiated divorce.
Wojtczak wrote, “Until 1923, the sole ground for divorce [for a woman to petition for a divorce] was adultery. This meant that even if her husband beat her daily for 50 years, starved her, locked her in the house, or jumped on her belly until she miscarried, no working class wife could get a divorce.”
That was not the case in the early days of Islam. Not only could women obtain divorce on grounds of mistreatment, the husband was also responsible for paying child-support.
Imani Jaafar-Mohammad, a practicing lawyer in the US, wrote in the Journal of Law & Practice, “Divorce existed before Islam, but the advent of Islam made the divorce process much more favorable to women. Women’s property is not divided during a divorce. Whatever a woman earns or is given before and during the course of the marriage remains her property if the marriage ends. This prevents men from taking advantage of women’s property or wealth through marriage.”
In Islam, a woman’s earnings and properties remain hers and hers alone, and the husband has no right to usurp any of it.
Financial rights were granted to women centuries before it was granted to their counterparts in the Western world.
In an era as early as the 600s, Islam allowed women the right to inherit estates and own property under their names. Women in the West were struggling to obtain rights that Muslim women enjoyed.
The article, Women’s rights and their money, in The Guardian, reports that in the 1100s in England and in the Americas a common law called ‘coverture’ was the norm, which is the belief that married men and women are one financial entity. This meant that married women could not own property, run businesses, or sue in court.
Not until the year 1839 did American woman gain the right to own property in their own names; the state of Mississippi was the first. Not until the year 1900 did a woman in England become able to enter contracts on her own, collect rents or receive an inheritance in her own right. Finally, for economic purposes, she became an individual.
Taking off the headscarf, letting her hair down, and exposing a woman’s body are not signs of liberation of women.
Finding no better words than the one’s Annie Besant spoke, I leave you with her words,
“One phrase in it that you should never forget if you hear that Islam is unfair to women is his saying [Prophet Muhammad]: “Heaven lies at the feet of mothers.”