A brief look at how Islam have always provided rights for women long before western cultures introduced them - By Mrs Mansoora Hyder Muneeb, UK. [ From the Archives, The Review of Religions ]
Islam is for the modern woman and she actually came into existence with the advent of Islam some 1500 years ago. It may surprise you that it is through Islam that a woman can become modern and attain her full rights, rights which unfortunately others are still fighting for even today.
The common image of a Muslim woman is that of a suppressed woman, forced into a marriage she did not agree with, tied to the whims and dictates of her masterly husband and extended family, not allowed to be educated nor allowed to voice an opinion, nor allowed to leave the home without the veil and makeup totally forbidden. But let me clarify, this is not the true image of a woman of Islam.
What attracts a woman to Islam is simply that Islam is the only religion that gives true equality, true freedom and rights.
As far back as the ancient history of the Greek and Roman Empires, women were considered far inferior to men and enjoyed no freedom. Even the religious laws that were to follow centuries later gave little relief to the women of that time: Genesis 3:16 states ‘Your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you.’
Again up until the 6th century conditions declined and worsened.
‘In pre-Islamic Arabia, and the rest of the world, their (women) condition was equal to that of slaves and chattels with no rights. Women could neither own nor inherit property. In domestic affairs, they had no rights over their children or themselves; in fact they could be sold or abandoned by their husbands at will. If they were abused by their husbands, they had no recourse to divorce. They had no real status in the society, not being respected as wife, mother or daughter. In fact, daughters were considered worthless and were often killed at birth. Women were given little or no education, and had no say in religious matters, being regarded as limited in spirituality and intellect.’ (Pathway to Paradise)
Whereas many of these conditions still remained in the West up until the 19th and 20th Century, with the advent of Islam the modern woman came into existence.
Islam is a religion of peace. The name Islam itself means peace and submission – submission to the Will of God. This religion is a complete code of life for the whole of mankind, for all times to come. A person who follows these laws and guidelines is a Muslim. A Muslim believes that God has created us for a purpose and given us His direction and guidance so that we can strive to worship Him, obey His commands and to serve humanity. The Holy Qur’an states:
I have not created the Jinn and the men but that they may worship Me. (Ch.51: v.57)
A Muslim believes that God will judge his/her deeds and actions in this life and he/she will be rewarded and dealt with accordingly in the life after death. God has provided the guidance for this life in the form of a Holy Book, the Qur’an, and in the teachings of Holy Prophet of God, Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him).
To understand the role of a Muslim woman in modern society one must understand the concept of equality between men and women in Islam. The Qur’an categorically declares the equality of men and women even as far back as their point of creation.
He has created you from a single being; then of the same kind made its mate. (Ch.39: v.7)
The Qur’an states that women are equal to men in spiritual capabilities as well:
But whosoever does good works, whether male or female, and is a believer, shall enter Heaven, and shall not be wronged even as much as the little hollow in the back of a date-stone. (Ch.4: v.125)
In Islam a woman is equal in status, however, diversity still does exists, and these differences arise as a result of their design. If this diversity is not taken into account then there should not be discrimination: in sporting events, for example, a man should be allowed to compete against a woman, and a woman should have the right to compete against a man. For that matter a female boxer should be allowed to fight with a male boxer and a female football team. But we will not find any such examples. And it is not possible as nature has created men and woman with different designs, functions, and capabilities and with different needs. Thus their tasks and roles in society would differ too. The Holy Qur’an states:
And follow the nature made by Allah – the nature in which He has created mankind. There is no altering the creation of Allah. (Ch.30: v.31)
One of the examples of differing functions and capabilities is that a woman can bear children whereas a man cannot. It is only she who has the physiological and psychological design to do so. She also has the additional qualities of patience, tenderness and a unique bond established during the pregnancy that makes her more suitable for the upbringing of the children. Islam therefore encourages a woman to stay at home and take care of her family.
Men however are designed physically and emotionally stronger and therefore are better equipped to sustain the rigor of the outdoors and as such Islam assigns them the role of a guardian, protector and provider: responsibilities in line with their needs. As a husband, man is a guardian over his family and regarded as the head of the household. It is not a matter of man’s superiority or a woman’s inferiority; it is about natural capacity and proper functioning. It is about the role assigned to men and women by nature.
Many Muslim women who follow these guidelines confirm that they enjoy a dignity, stability and fulfilment in their lives – factors which are often missing from societies of today.
Islam has established the economic position of a woman and given her the rights to possess her own wealth and property – a right only achieved by women in Europe in 1882 some 13 centuries later as before this any property she had would automatically become her husband’s.
Islam provides economic security to the woman and has freed her from bearing any sole responsibility of being a breadwinner. Nevertheless, a Muslim woman can work if she so desires as long as it is within the perimeters of the teachings of Islam and as long as her functions and her duties towards her home and family are not affected. If she chooses to work, then her entire earnings are solely hers to do whatever she wishes. Should she wish to contribute to the running of the household then it is seen as an act of kindness on her part. This right for a Muslim woman gives her absolute financial freedom, peace of mind and comfort, a right that many women of today’s societies would cherish to have.
Again at the time of marriage Islam further protects the economic status of a woman by the system of the dowry. Here a husband is instructed to give a certain amount of money to his bride.
Marriage is perhaps the most important institution, as the family is the basic unit in a society. The Holy Prophet of Islam, Hadrat Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said: ‘Conjugal life is our way, he who turns aside from our way is not one of us.’ In the absence of marriage a woman can be misused as a mere instrument of indulgence. And thus Islam ensures that through marriage a bond of commitment is formed which provides a woman with rights that no other form of friendship or partnership can replace. The Holy Qur’an describes husband and wife as garments for each other, that is to say a means of security, dignity and ornament for each other.
The purpose of marriage in Islam is:
‘1. To enable a man and a woman to live together and experience love and happiness, fulfilment and contentment within Islamic law;
2. To produce children and provide a stable and righteous environment for their upbringing;
3. To provide a legal union which safeguards society from moral and social degradation.
Islam regards marriage as the means by which man’s natural urges and needs, both physical and emotional are controlled and satisfied at the same time. Uncontrolled and uninhibited satisfaction of physical desire is simply not permitted in Islam. Adultery and fornication are a grave sin. A Muslim man cannot go to any woman and merely satisfy his physical desires; he has to do so through a legal contract of marriage, which carries with it the additional responsibilities, duties and liabilities of family and children for the rest of his life’. The result of this restriction is a creation of a society whose morals and stability is safeguarded.’
(Pathway to Paradise)
On the issue of divorce Islam gave a woman the right to seek a divorce. Nowhere else in the world had any woman enjoyed such independence at this time and it was not until as recent as the 19th century that women in France and the UK were able to gain this independence.
Islam permits plurality of wives but restricts the number to only four whereas in many other societies and religions the number of wives is not specifically prohibited. The current misconception surrounding polygamy that is merely for lust and fun is incorrect. In fact, Islam permits polygamy only under certain conditions and restrictions and a man has to undertake full moral and financial responsibility for any woman and subsequent children he may have. The Holy Qur’an states:
And if you fear that you will not deal justly with them marry only one. (Ch.4: V.4)
Thus Islam prevents the unofficial polygamy that is practiced in the modern societies of today where a man may have any number of mistresses, one-night-stands, and affairs etc. In the absence of moral restraint, monogamy is abused.
The two world wars led to a moral degradation in Europe and America where the ratio of men and women at some places was reduced to 1 man to 3 women. With the system of polygamy, Islam, therefore, safeguards the moral and spiritual values of a woman and society as a whole.
In Islam, acquiring knowledge is compulsory for both men and women. The Prophet of Islam, Hadrat Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said: ‘it is the duty of every Muslim man and every Muslim woman to acquire knowledge’.
Knowledge enables one to think with logic and reason. Through knowledge one gains understanding which enhances wisdom. In fact education is very important for a woman, as she is responsible for the upbringing of the future generation. While education was being promoted amongst the women of Islam, if a woman in the West displayed any type of knowledge, she was labelled as a witch and hundreds of thousands were burnt alive at the stakes.
In fact it was not until 1866 that any woman could sit on the Cambridge Exam Board and not until 1948 that she could attain a degree from Cambridge. Most of you would be surprised to learn that no woman was admitted in Oxford University before 1920. Until 1953, women teachers were paid less as compared to their men counterparts working in the same faculty for the same period of time. And until 1955, an educated woman working in the civil services was paid less than her male counterparts and such battles are still continuing today.
Nothing generates more discussions than the piece of cloth that a Muslim woman wears over her head. There is a misconception that the veil is a sign of repression and restrain but to a Muslim woman it is a sign of protection, respect and dignity. The veil is not a sign of man’s authority over a woman. It is meant only for her protection and to guard her against the harms of society. The Holy Qur’an states:
And say to the believing women that they restrain their eyes and guard their private parts and that they disclose not their natural and artificial beauty except that which is apparent thereof, and that they draw their head coverings over their bosoms… (Ch.24: v.32)
Islam provides the precautionary measures so that a woman is not misused. Prevention is the better cure. The guidelines on adopting modest dress and coverings helps to reduce the attraction and temptation of a man towards a woman and consequently she is protected from a host of problems that today’s society is facing, for example, victims of rape and date rapes, early pregnancies, abortion, AIDS etc.
Also, the veil provides peace of mind for both partners. As gatherings are segregated, women do not have to worry as to who may be making advances at their husbands and vice versa. The aspects of segregation and the veil reduces the jealously and inferiority complexes between women which otherwise arise naturally in the presence of men.
History and facts have led me to believe that Islam is a modern religion and it is the society which keeps on drifting away on a trial and error basis and then finally keeps reverting back to what Islam had advised centuries ago.
What seems modern to us in fact was given to us 1500 years ago. So contrary to modern beliefs a Muslim woman has dignity, fulfilment and contentment and is not stopped from pursuing a career or any form of healthy activity. She can play sports, run marathons, run businesses, large co-operations, become a doctor, lawyer, engineer, diplomat, she can even stand for president. She has the right to choose a partner of her choice, who is bound to provide for her and her family needs, she can choose to divorce, she can marry again, she can come and go as she pleases and can partake in anything her heart desires - as long as she remains within the limits of the veil and abides by the teachings of Islam. She can just choose to relax at home and enjoy her economic freedom.
I am a British born Muslim. I am not suppressed. I am not restrained. I am not backwards. I have complete freedom and liberation through Islam and thus I conclude: that Islam is for the modern woman and she came into existence with the advent of Islam some 1500 years ago.
1. The Holy Qur’an. Arabic Text and English Translation by the late Maulavi Sher Ali. 1989 Islam International Publications Ltd. UK.
2. The Holy Bible. New King James’s Version. Thomas Nelson. USA
3. Pathway to Paradise. A guidebook to Islam. Lajna Immaillah U.S.A. Women’s Auxiliary. Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam.
4. Al-Fazal. 18th January 2002: Address on Status of Women in Islam by Hadhrat Kahifatul Khalifatul Masih IV at Jalsa Salana on 26th July 1986.
5. Review of Religions. ‘My Role and Rights as a Muslim Woman’ by Mrs Aziza Rahman. September 1999, pp. 29-45.
6. Woman in Islam. Sir Muhammad Zafrullah Khan. Islam International Publications Ltd.