In the west, the common picture of a Muslim woman is the stereotype of a woman hidden behind a veil, a voiceless, silent figure, bereft of rights. It is a picture familiar to all of us, in large part because this is invariably how the western media portrays women in Islam.
Islam covers many lands with many diverse cultures. From the borders of Arabia to the coasts of Africa, from Bosnia to Indonesia, large groups of people practice Islam. Islam is growing in European and American countries. Each one of these Islamic nations has its own distinct culture; there is a great diversity of cultures within Islam. One cannot bring all these cultures, political systems, national heritage, belief systems, geographical locations, historical backgrounds, and the peoples who embody them under one uniform category or think of them as one system. Islam is practiced in each nation according to those nations characteristics. And nations are, by existing as nations, distinct and different from one another. No two cultures are alike.
Nations in the Middle East, among many other Muslim countries, have long been notorious for their unequal treatment of women especially among the Western nations. Catching a glimpse of a special on Middle Eastern women while channel surfing or reading from the Middle Eastern chapter in history books is the furthest most people have gone to research the role of women in Islam. Images of submissive, timid women covered in black veils are there to be found — and, with such a unanimity of popular information, what point could there be in understanding the subject more thoroughly? What I will provide here is just an outline, a brief summary, as Islam is, in fact, more than just a name, a religion, a social movement. It is recognizing the essence of Divine permeating all there is; it is timeless, priceless, beyond cultures, traditions, and all human limitations. There are few scholars who have described women in Islam without prejudice or some inclination towards either side of the extreme. In order to understand the role of women in Islam and to learn how the rules of Islam apply to them, we need to become familiar with Islam, apart from politics practiced in Muslim nations, and to examine the place of women in the pre-Islamic era, the rules and regulations of Islam, and the cultural backgrounds of the countries that are the base of our research, and finally to compare the position of women in the Muslim world with the position of women in western cultures.
Position of Women Before the Advent of Islam
Islam was born in the Arabia Peninsula, now Saudi Arabia, in the seventh century AD. The pre-Islamic era dates back to more than 1400 years ago. Many cultures, nations and countries, other than Arabia, existed during that time. Let’s begin with a review on the Arabian culture. In that era, in the tribal culture of Arabs, women were not equal to men with respect to many social and personal conditions and systems, such as marriage, inheritance or education, among other areas. Women did not have businesses, own property, or have independent legal rights. Even though we read about Khadijeh (who later became a wife of the Prophet (swa), and the first Muslim woman) who owned her own business, which is an indication that there are always exceptions in any recorded history. In Arabia, female infants were often abandoned or buried alive; and the practice of polygamy was common. The position of women, in countries other than Arabia, in the 7th century, was not much different. In Europe, it was not until the turn of the century (13 centuries later) that French women became legally able to sell property without the permission of their husbands. In many nations, sons would inherit the name, wealth and position of the family and daughters were hoped to marry rich. In many western or eastern countries, women could not chose their husbands, and, widows were expected to mourn for their husbands until the end of their lives (still practiced in some countries).
Standards Set by Islam
One cannot emphasize enough the influence of the teachings of the Prophet (swa) and the verses of the Qur’an upon the advancement of civilization. In the history of humankind, none worked so much to protect human rights, especially women’s, with such integrity, strength, strategic genius, beauty and divinity, or to honor humanity, by freeing it from the chains of prejudice, manipulations, personal and social injustice. His teachings regarding education, social and political rights, property rights, and ultimately human rights, are among the most valuable chapter in the book of civilization. Education: “The pursuit of knowledge is a duty of every Muslim, man and woman”, said the Prophet (swa). With this instruction it became a religious duty of Muslims to educate themselves, their families, and their societies. Education and learning became a religious duty, no Muslim could prevent another human being from the pursuit of knowledge. Gender or race, culture or tradition could not become the cause for prohibiting a person from educating one’s self. Pursuit of knowledge became a religious law, therefore necessary to attain. With such instruction, the Prophet (swa) not only created an equal right to education, but also opened the door to a better understanding.
Social and Political Rights
“Paradise lies under the feet of mothers”, announced the Prophet (swa). With this instruction, a Divine law, it became a religious responsibility, a praiseworthy act, to respect and honor women. “Men are support for women,” “Among the praiseworthy acts to Allah is to treat your mother with honor and respect,” “Be just among your children, daughters and sons, provide them good education and proper upbringing.” Narrated from the Prophet (swa). With these Divine laws, it became religious duty for every Muslim, male or female, to honor women, treat sons and daughters justly, and for male to provide support, not obstacles, for women and their achievements.
There are many recorded historical references that at the beginning of Islam, at the time of the Prophet (swa), Muslim men or women chose to join the Prophet’s army to fight against his enemies, leading wars after his passing. There are also recorded in the history of Islam that men and women, equally, would take bayat (agreement) with the Prophet, voting and choosing him as a political leader. Such positions, rights and equality among all were the result of the support and the teachings of the Prophet (swa). Women could take part in social, political, and military affairs. The result of his teachings was not only promoted human rights but also encouraging individuals to stand for their own rights.
Fatima, daughter of the Prophet (swa), was well educated and highly respected. It is said that whenever Fatima entered the room, the Prophet would stand and give his seat to her. Her sacrifices to protect and support human rights were among the most praiseworthy acts.
Under the laws of Islam, women have obtained the right to sell and buy properties, own business, take legal actions, vote, and participate in political affairs. Inheritance law was/is also among the most important rights. According to Islam, a woman inherits, half the share of her brother. At the same time a daughter, can chose but has no the obligation to support her parents or children, while her brother does. A man, a brother, has the obligation, by the rules of Islam, to support his mother, wife, children, sisters, and the children of his sisters if necessary. If a woman, a mother, a sister did not have the wealth or the desire to support her children, it would become the duty of her brother to support them. The Prophet (swa) has introduced the rules and the laws for humanity, some honor the rules and some chose not to. Under Islamic law, women also have control not only over their property but also dowry claims. Once she is married, she may demand her dowry from her husband at any time, and in the case of divorce, she would receive her share of the property.
Marriage and the Right to Divorce
According to the laws of Islam a man and a woman have the right to choose their partner and they should not be forced into marriage. Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter was educated, beautiful and respectful. It is narrated that when Amir al momenin Ali asked for Fatima’s hand in marriage Prophet (swa) did not respond to Ali until he asked Fatima for her decision. Divorce is permitted in Islam under specific terms and conditions. According to the laws of Islam one may end a marriage by divorce if there is a definite cause for such an action.
Polygamy is a tradition practiced in many cultures, yet Islam restricted it by setting regulations. These regulations are very severe, and a very few can practice it. Quran (IV:3) reads: “If you feel that you will be able to deal justly with orphans, marry the women of your choice one, two, three, or four. But if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with them, then marry only one.” The verse emphasize being just not only to the women but also to their children, who would, otherwise, remain fatherless after their mothers became widowed — a frequent occurrence during the early centuries of Islam, when men were often killed in wars. “Deal justly” refers to equal treatment, not only emotionally but also financially. The particular historical context of polygamy in Islam followed one of the harshest wars, where many men were killed, leaving a multitude of women widowed, fatherless, and without support. Also a Muslim man cannot marry a second wife without the permission of the first wife. With all these restricted regulations, according to the Islamic law, polygamy is possible but rare in practice.
Post Islamic Expectations Set by Political Entities
A few centuries after the Prophet (swa) many of these rules changed into cultural, national, or political regulations.
Islam entered different cultures and each culture embraced it according to its own traditions. Even in its homeland, rules and regulations changed according to the political rulers and the traditional culture of the land within one or two centuries after the passing of the Prophet (swa). Let us examine a few of these changes: Prophet had said (Quran, XXIV:30, 31): “Tell believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty, that will make for greater purity for them and say to the believing women to lower their gaze and guard their modesty and they should not display their beauty and ornaments….” In the course of time, this law changed into the rule that women should wear veils, covering themselves from head to toe. Being modest changed into a dress code. Yet this dress code was not applied to the “believing men”, and did not become a cause for their social or economical oppressions. Women, who at the beginning of Islam, were leading armies and making political decisions, were now, a few centuries later, expected to sit separately from men in mosques and in prayer ceremonies. A similar situation also obtain in non-Islamic countries. For example a century ago, when the World Anti-Slavery Association met in England, the women delegates were refused seats. They had to sit silently behind the curtain in the balcony. That, of course, led to Seneca Falls Convention that eventually gained a few rights for women such as becoming able to sell properties, the right to education, and the like. The Prophet instructed that women have the right to own property, to choose their own partners, and have equal rights to education. In accordance with prevailing culture, these rights became transformed into the duties of women to take care of children and remain in the house. This is not all that different than a century ago in America where women were expected the duties of “Republican Motherhood,” which did not take them beyond the household sphere.
To justify the prejudice held against women, we can blame a religion, we can blame a culture, we can blame a system, and we can even blame women themselves. Yet these superficial “making you feel better” justifications will not remove the responsibility from generations of humanity. While it is true that the media misleads people, political leaders mislead people, and superficial ideology misleads people — yet people remain in a state of being misled. The guilt of the oppressor is not lesser that the guilt of the oppressed, said the Prophet.
Islam is a religion where the standard for superiority is the level of ones knowledge, where human being was created in the best figure, and thus where advancing knowledge is a duty. According to Islam, the human being has the potentiality to ascend to the level of the Divine, knowledge of the law of the existence is the right of every human being.
Islam is a religion where your temple is not a building but your heart; your preacher is not a priest but your intellect; and if your religion is founded upon mere imitation, you are a blasphemer. In Islam, ignorance is an unforgivable sin, so is your evasion of responsibility for yourself as well as towards all the members of the living world, past and present. It is incorrect to blame such Islam for the shortcomings of its followers, which are the failings of most of mankind. A religion that is centered on the rights of human being, and sets both men and women free from the chains of bondage should not be used in propaganda for the sake of condemnation.
It is not Muslim women as such, but women everywhere who have been imprisoned by prejudice and cruelty. This form of prejudice that goes beyond simple racial or national boundaries, is sexual in nature. Whether women are constantly being held to an impossible standard, or subject to discrimination solely based on the fact that they are not equal to men, they are, by far, the group most affected by this form of prejudice. Depending on the society women may be seen as having the wrong weight, the wrong height, the wrong level of intelligence, or the wrong religion. We can conclude that women have yet to be welcomed with open arms into countries that they have been a part of from the beginning. True equality becomes a characteristic of Utopia and seems almost impossible to achieve in the society in which we live in. The question that remains is one of personal morals. Do we, as small pieces of society, have the capacity to interlock and form a beautiful mosaic? I have to say it takes more than just a few to fulfill a dream that is centuries old.
Special thanks to Seyedeh Sahar Kianfar for providing much of the above information and ideas.