It is often alleged that Islam suppresses women and they are treated as “second-class citizens” in Islam. This could not be further from the truth. Critics and observers confuse culture with Islam and is one of the largest religions with 1.6 billion people and 25% of the world’s population it is easily misinterpreted.
We see many images of Islam are dreadfully and deliberately distorted by a hostile mass media.As for this image of women in Islam, it has been the target of negative narratives for some time. This is not only due to prejudice, but also due to the ill practices of ignorant Muslims, who unfortunately validate such a negative image.
This article provides some evaluation of how Islam contributed to woman’s dignity and rights and how it has protected those rights through Prophetic practice.
Status of Women pre-Islam
Before the advent of Islam, women were treated like slaves or “property” and were openly bought and sold in the market. Women’s consent to affairs relating to them was not considered important – were not even treated as party to marriage contract. They were neither allowed to own property nor to inherit assets.
Birth of a daughter not celebrated but seen as a humiliation.[Qur’an6: 58-59] Female infanticide – the practice of burying baby girls – was rampant. “When the female (infant), buried alive, is questioned, for what crime she was killed.” [Quran 81:8-9]. In some cultures, the female was expected to burn alive on the funeral pyre of her husband after his death (“sati”). She had no right to live without him.
Status of Women in the West
Women only acquired equality with men in the West in 19th century. Any money earned by a woman either through a wage, from investment, by gift, or through inheritance automatically become the property of her husband once she married. Married women were not recognised as separate legal beings. The UK Married Women’s Property Act of 1870 provided that wages and property, which a wife earned through her own work, would be her separate property. In 1882, this principle was extended to all property, regardless of its source or the time of its acquisition.
In terms of shaping the affairs nationally and locally, women only got the right to vote in the UK in 1918 (Representation of the People Act) and only got the same voting rights as men in 1928 (Equal Franchise Act). Women got the right to vote in 1917 in Soviet Russia and in 1920 in the US.
Men and Women Equal in sight if Allah
In Islamic law a woman is an independent, unique individual in her own right. She has the same responsibilities towards herself, towards Allah (SWT) and towards other human beings as the male, and will be treated in the Hereafter without discrimination towards her female gender.
The Qur’an [Qur’an 4:1] states that men and women were created from a single soul (nafs wahidah). One person does not come before the other, one is not superior to the other, and one is not the derivative of the other.
Woman is not created for the purpose of the man. Both are created for the mutual benefit of each other [Qur’an 30:21].
Allah, the Most Just, makes it clear in the Qur’an that men and women are equal: “Their Lord responded to them: “I never fail to reward any worker among you for any work you do, be you male or female – you are equal to one another.”[Qur’an 3:195]
In addition, the Glorious Qur’an states “Anyone who works righteousness, male or female, while believing, we will surely grant them a happy life in this world, and we will surely pay them their full recompense (on the Day of Judgement) for their righteous works.” [Qur’an 16:97]
These, and many other verses, show women have the same spiritual level of men and can attain every quality that is accessible to men.
Status of Women in Islam
Each woman is someone’s mother, daughter, sister or wife. Islam has provided specific injunction highlighting the status of each of those roles so that women’s status and position could never be abused.
No religion or ideology in the world gives as a high as status to mothers as Islam does. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: “Your heaven lies under the feet of your mother” [Ahmad].
Islam has strongly encouraged Muslim men to treat their wives in particular – and women in general – with the utmost respect and chivalry. “The most complete of the believers in faith are those with the best character; and the best of you are the best in behaviour to their wives.” [Tirmidhi 1162] “I enjoin upon you good conduct toward women”, says the Prophet (peace be upon him) [Bukhari 3153]
Daughters have as much rights as the son in educational, physical, spiritual and mental uplifting as sons. They must receive love and best maintenance. It is reported that whenever Prophet Muhammad would see his daughter, Fatima al-Zahra, coming, he would welcome her by saying “marhaba”, stand in respect to her and kiss her on the head. He would then take her by the hand and seat her in his own place. [Al-Bukhari].
Rights granted to Women in Islam
One crucial, unequivocal verse in the Qur’an lays the ground for the concept of equality between men and women: “The believers, men and women, are allies (awliya) of one another. They enjoin the ‘common good’ (al ma‘ruf) and forbid the bad (al munkar), they observe prayers (salat) and give charitable alms (zakat) and obey God and his Prophet”; Qur’an, 9:71. Munkar refers to all that is rejected by all members of a given society; a set of morally unacceptable practices. In Qur’anic etymology it is considered as the antonym of ma‘ruf or ‘common good’.
It is quite surprising to note that some very explicit verses such as the one above, which exhort equality between men and women, have been marginalized in Islamic thought; they are rarely cited, and are even at times completely overlooked in favour of other verses that are more difficult to interpret or whose application was contingent on the time of revelation.
The term awliya in this verse means alliance, mutual assistance and mutual reinforcement.
- Islam sees women whether married or single as individuals in their own right and not the possessions of men. O believers! You are forbidden to inherit women against their will…” [Qur’an: 4:19)
- Right to vote and voice political opinion over granted to them at the same time as men -more than 14 centuries ago. Right to acquire knowledge, implement it, spread it and use it for the benefit of society was given to them at the same time as men: “The seeking of knowledge is obligatory for every Muslim.” [Al-Tirmidhi]
- Right to own and dispose of property and earnings applied irrespective of gender divide:“And do not covet that by means of which Allah has raised some of you above others; for men shall have (the benefit) of what they earn, and women shall have (the benefit) of they earn…” [Qur’an 4:32].
This verse also shows that women have the right to “earn”. Further, “marriage dowry” is given by the groom to the bride for her own personal use and cannot be taken away from her by anyone without her will.
- Freedom of Opinion – Women are not “entrapped” individuals; they have full freedom of opinion and speech and entitled to make their own decisions, including the right to choose their husbands. A girl approached the Prophet (peace be upon him) stating her father forced her into marriage. The Prophet gave her the choice to either accept the marriage or invalidate it immediately due to the duress involved. [Abu Dawud]
In conclusion, having objectively considered the position set out in Islamic teachings, it is impossible for anyone to cancel, reduce, or distort the clear-cut status and legal rights of women given in Islamic Law. The Muslim history is rich with women of great achievements in all walks of life from as early as the seventh century (A.D.). This has only been possible because of the clear status granted to women and preserved by Islam.
We often confuse the beautiful religion of Islam with cultural practices. The allegation made against Islam regarding the status of women are, at best raised due lack of awareness about the teachings of Islam, and at worst there seem to be deliberate attempt to misrepresent Islam.