Islam gave women their basic rights centuries before the West did.
Since International Women’s Day (March 8) is being celebrated this week, we decided to take a closer look at the “Muslim women are oppressed” narrative we hear so often.
But first some truths. Islamic law can be interpreted in a way that allows for child marriage, allots daughters half the inheritance of sons, considers a woman’s testimony in financial matters worth half that of a man’s…
However, there is more to Islam than that, and there is more to Islam than the way people and governments choose to apply it.
Here’s a look at the side of women’s rights in Islam that is often overlooked:
1. Islam gave women their basic rights centuries before the West did
“Women in 7th century Arabia had rights not extended to most women in the West till recent centuries over 1,000 years later,” writes Huffington Post’s Jim Garrison.
Women in pre-Islamic Arabia were reportedly barred from basic human and civil rights. They were considered inferior to men, and therefore treated as property. Women had very little control over their marriages and could not inherit property.
When Islam was introduced in the sixth century, women’s status improved substantially.
Islamic law made the education of girls a sacred duty and gave women the right to own and inherit property. Islam also imposed women’s consent as a condition for legitimate marriage contracts.
Islam was actually the first religion to give women rights of inheritance.
Meanwhile, women in America and Europe were denied the right to own and manage property until the 18th century.
2. Islam tackled female infanticide
In the pre-Islam pagan society, it was the custom to bury alive unwanted female newborns. Islam put an end to the barbaric practice and forbade it. Plus, it condemns parents who are disappointed with the birth of female newborns, which is unfortunately still a common attitude in current Muslim and Arab societies.
3. The Quran encourages women to learn and work
Muslims believe that the first verses revealed to Prophet Muhammed were the first five verses in Surat Al-Alaq (“The Clot”), which orders people to seek knowledge.
Seeking knowledge is thus obligatory for every Muslim, male and female.
“It is the duty of every Muslim man and woman to seek knowledge,” the prophet is quoted as saying.
It seems only fitting then that the University of Al Qarawiyyin in Morocco, the world’s oldest-standing universities, which has the world’s oldest library, was founded by a Muslim woman in the 850s.
The Quran also encourages women to work and earn money by entitling them to fair pay.
“…And their Lord responded to them, ‘Never will I allow to be lost the work of [any] worker among you, whether male or female; you are of one another’.” [Quran 3:195]
4. “For his day, the Prophet Muhammad was a feminist”
“For his day, the Prophet Muhammad was a feminist,” writes Lisa Beyer in an article for Time magazine. By laying down the Islamic doctrine that dictates women’s rights, the prophet was arguably the first feminist in history.
Countering the widespread exploitation of women, he ordered men to honor and respect them.
In one of his last commands before his death, he kept repeating, “I command you to be kind and considerate to women.” In another hadith, he said, “It is only the generous in character who is good to women, and only the evil one who insults them.”
He also frowned upon fathers who insult their daughters and favor their sons over them, saying the birth of a girl is a “blessing”.
Known for treating them kindly and helping with house work, the prophet led by example in his relationships with his wives, many of whom were working women.
He even decreed that women have a right to sexual satisfaction.
5. Men and women are equal in Islamic duties
“Whose acts righteously, whether male or female and is a believer, we will surely grant him a pure life; and We will surely bestow on such their reward according to the best of their work.” [Quran 16:9]
6. The Quran describes marriage as companionship
Several excerpts from the Quran describe the relationship between a man and his wife as one between partners and companions, refuting the misconception that Muslim women are their husbands’ servants.
Muslim men are obliged to respect their wives and treat them with kindness no matter the circumstances.
“Live with them (your wives) in kindness. For if you dislike them – perhaps you dislike a thing and Allah makes therein much good.” [Quran 4:19]
“And of His signs is that He created for you from yourselves mates that you may find tranquillity in them; and He placed between you affection and mercy. Indeed in that are signs for a people who give thought.” [Quran 30:21]
7. Having multiple wives was first allowed for the sake of women
Islam first allowed polygamy for the sake of widows and orphans who have no means of survival.
Islamic law allows men, unlike their female counterparts, to be wed to four spouses at a time. But, not so fast. People often forget that this is only permissible within a tight frame of conditions.
The Quran clearly states that men can marry more than one woman if and only if he treats them fairly. “But if you fear that you will not be just, then [marry only] one,” Surat An-Nisaa (“The Women”) states.
But, the surah then decrees, “You will never be able to be equal between wives, even if you should strive to do so”. This makes Islam-approved polygamy near impossible to attain.
8. Muslim women have the right to divorce
In Islam, marriage is seen as a mutually-beneficial contract, in which a man and a woman agree to the terms of the marriage.
While traditions do not endorse this practice, Muslim couples are free to sign a pre-nuptial agreement. In the agreement, a woman can dictate any terms and conditions she wishes for, just like in civil marriages.
She can set the amount of money she would receive in the event of a divorce, the right to continue her education, the right to be the only wife…
She can also stipulate the right to ask for a divorce herself because otherwise, a divorce generally cannot be completed without the husband’s approval.
So, how did the status of women in the Muslim world spiral downhill?
Well, we would need an entire book to answer that question, but here are some contributing factors:
Fundamentalist interpretations of Quranic verses, which are sometimes taken out of context, as well as long-standing patriarchal, lie in the heart of the problem.
The Quran can be seen distributing gender roles by depicting men as providers of the household and women as caregivers – as that was the social paradigm when the holy book was revealed. This is mainly the reason behind the apparent discrimination between genders, when it comes to matters of inheritance, for instance.
That distribution of gender roles has been exploited. Many men have hand-picked Islamic teachings and used them to assert their dominance over women, interpreting the Quran according to their own patriarchal interests. (Muslim scholars are mostly male – surprise, surprise.)
Meanwhile, crucial Islamic teachings, such as “There is no compulsion in religion” and the laws pertaining to women’s rights, are often disregarded.
Plus, over the years, the line separating religion from customs and traditions has been blurred, as societal norms are often mistaken for religious doctrine.
So, before bashing Islam for oppressing women, make sure to distinguish Islamic principles from norms and common practice.