In honour of this month’s International Women’s Day (8th March), I felt it was time to turn my attention to the often largely overlooked and misconceived liberation of women within the Islamic faith.
The first time I ever stepped foot in an Islamic country was coincidentally during the same month that I picked up the Qur’an for the very first time. I was in Istanbul, Turkey, and it was here I was introduced to a friend of a friend of a friend whose name I forget, but whose words have stayed with me. She was a big lady, in build and in character, was very political and strong-minded, and had rejected her mother’s Muslim faith and chosen Buddhism instead. When she heard that I had just started reading about her country’s religion, she turned to me and told me, “There is nothing for women in Islam.”
I didn’t know enough to retort with any substantial argument. I wasn’t even certain at that moment whether her statement was right or wrong. All I knew was I had just picked up the Qur’an and wasn’t likely to put it down any time soon; my heart was filled with light, my ears were filled with the call to prayer from the Sultanahmet Mosque, and every time I saw a Muslim woman in a headscarf, I turned into The Little Mermaid singing Part of That World.
Alhamdulillah, it was less than a year later that I took my shahadah, completely ignoring the discouraging comment I had heard that day just a few kilometres from the very first mosque I ever stepped foot in (albeit as a tourist). The statement I had heard might not have deterred me from following Islam, but it did influence me in that I didn’t want to find myself unable to respond to such a claim ever again. It is certainly not rare for a confident, educated Western woman such as myself to be choosing to convert to Islam; although, unfortunately, the statement made by my Turkish friend is not a rare opinion either. Even just the dress code for Muslim women is seen by many as the absolute epitome of oppression. My own father worries that I have turned my back on a liberal upbringing in exchange for a set of ‘rules’ he doesn’t recognise.
So why does Islam have this misogynistic reputation?
“For men and women who are devoted to God – believing men and women, obedient men and women, truthful men and women, steadfast men and women, humble men and women, charitable men and women, fasting men and women, chaste men and women, men and women who remember God often – God has prepared forgiveness and a rich reward.” [Qur’an 33: 35]
Through the sacred words of the glorious Qur’an, we are told that in the eyes of Allah, men and women are no better or worse than each other in terms of gender; He judges us only by our behaviour and acts of worship. When you find Islam and truly feel it is the truth, your mind is appeased with the realisation that your reason for being and your sole purpose in life is to worship Allah, and no matter what you yearn for in this world, your priority is your fate in the life yet to come.
As a believing woman, I was happy (and not surprised) to discover that my opportunities and abilities to gain closeness to my Lord are no less than that of a man. I want to meet my Maker in Jannah, and according to Islam, I have the exact same opportunity to earn this right as every other believing male and female. But if I was talking to someone who didn’t necessarily even believe in God, telling them that my religion says men and women are ‘equal in faith’ is not going to be enough. So what are Muslim women still perceived to be denied?
“Husbands should take good care of their wives, with [the bounties] God has given” [Qur’an 4: 34]
Islam places men as the protectors and maintainers of their wives, which some women and feminist men don’t like to accept. Let’s face the facts: men are generally stronger than women. Men are physically broader, stronger, and braver than the generally weaker female sex. This isn’t to say that women are weak, and it isn’t to say that all men are always strong, which is why when Islam talks in further detail about marriage it very clearly directs men and women to work as a team, helping each other and strengthening each other in different aspects of life and religion.
It is becoming more and more ‘normal’ for women, particularly in Western societies, to want to compete with men in terms of wealth and societal status. Blindly competing with men in this way is never going to raise the status of women; all it does is place men on a pedestal as though they are the standard to which women should live up to. Instead, us women should be celebrating ourselves for everything that we are, for everything Allah (SWT) has blessed us with.
I’m not saying there is anything wrong with women seeking a high quality education, or pursuing a career – and there is nothing in Islamic scripture, whether in the Qur’an or in authentic Hadith, that prohibits or forbids a woman from doing so. I also agree that men and women doing the same job should be on the same wage, and I agree that a woman should have the same opportunity to become a doctor, lawyer, politician, etc, as any man. We need female doctors, nurses, and gynecologists; we need female teachers, lawyers, politicians; we need females! What I don’t like, however, is the effect this has had on women who choose not to work and are therefore referred to as ‘just a mum’. How can such a crucial and significant role ever be so undervalued?
This is a value that, alhamdulillah, is in no way forgotten in Islam. An authentic Hadith describes: “A man came to the Prophet and said, ‘O Messenger of God! Who among the people is the most worthy of my good companionship?’ The Prophet said: ‘Your mother’. The man said, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said: ‘Then your mother’. The man further asked, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said: ‘Then your mother’. The man asked again, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said: ‘Then your father’.” (Bukhari, Muslim). The father’s role is also shown to be of great value, as his importance is placed above anybody else in society. But the mother is placed three times above to recognise the incredible strain and effort placed on her throughout pregnancy, childbirth and beyond. I love how much honor Islam places in the role of the mother and homemaker: her status is so high, in fact, that Paradise is said to be at your mother’s feet. We are so blind and preoccupied that we compete to earn a status that is higher than man’s, while ‘just’ a mother’s is already higher than heaven!
“We have commanded man to be good to his parents – his mother struggled to carry him and struggled to give birth to him” [Qur’an 46: 15]
The way Islam concentrates on the woman’s role within the home has a lot to do, I think, with the way the religion is seen as ‘backward’ and old fashioned. How often do we hear claims that Islam needs to be updated to fit in with modern society? Us Westerners think that the feminist movement and the fight for women’s rights is something very recent and modern – after all, less than only one hundred and fifty years ago, women in Britain didn’t even have the right to their own money: everything they earnt, inherited, or were gifted, was in fact the legal possession of their husband. Even property they had acquired before getting married couldn’t be rented out, mortgaged, or sold without their husband’s permission. To put it bluntly, women’s property was the property of their husbands, just like women themselves were the property of their husbands. It is still expected today for Western women to adopt their husbands’ names in marriage.
So when did Islam start giving women the right to their own earnings, their own property, their own identity? Over one thousand four hundred years ago. Rights bestowed upon women by Islam are not even just limited to only their marital life, but are also extended in the event of divorce in a way that is unheard of in Western law. Islam doesn’t need to be updated to match the progression of society; society has regressed since the advent of Islam – particularly in Muslim-majority countries, which has a lot to do with why Islam has come to be so misunderstood and tarred by the misrepresentation of deviated culture.
“By the fading day, man is [deep] in loss, except for those who believe, do good deeds, urge one another to the truth, and urge one another to steadfastness.” [Qur’an 103: 1-3]
Women’s rights were non-existent before Islam, to such an extreme that female infanticide was commonplace as the birth of a baby girl was seen as burdensome and worthless (much like what happened in China in very recent history). Women were considered as equal to a pet goat or sheep – nothing more. Islam changed this completely, newly giving women the right to choose their husband, the right to seek divorce, the right to custody over their own children, the right to inherit and the right to earn their own income, among of course, the right to be considered human. Looking again at Western society, even some of the most talented women have up until only the last couple of centuries been totally unrecognised, recorded as ‘Anon’, seen the credit for their work given to somebody else (such as pioneering scientist Esther Lederberg), or felt they had to work under a male pseudonym (such as authors Mary Ann Evans/George Eliot, and the Brontë sisters/Bell brothers). A quote from Charlotte Brontë said, “we did not like to declare ourselves women, because we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.”
Looking right back through the history of Islam to its beginnings in the 7th century, there are multiple women who are recorded and celebrated to this day, with many Muslim parents still proudly taking them as inspiration for the names of their own daughters:
- Khadija bint Khuwaylid (RA) was the first person ever to convert to Islam. She was the first wife of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), who is reported in an authentic Hadith to have said of her, “God Almighty never granted me anyone better in this life than her. She accepted me when people rejected me; she believed in me when people doubted me; she shared her wealth with me when people deprived me; and God granted me children only through her.”
- Sumayyah bint Khayyat (RA) was the first person ever to be martyred for Islam. She faced days and days of torture for her faith at the hands of the pagans, and was martyred shortly before her husband, Yasir, and her son, Ammar. This pious family of three were the first Muslims who Muhammad (PBUH) gave the tidings that they would enter Paradise.
- A’isha bint Abu Bakr (RA) is the undisputed greatest ever scholar of Islam. She was the second wife to the Prophet (PBUH) after the death of his beloved Khadija (RA). She narrated more Hadith than any other person, and it is thanks to her great intelligence that later scholars have been able to draw up the Sunnah of our Prophet for us to follow.
- Hafsah bint ‘Umar al-Khattaab (RA) was the first ever custodian of the Qur’an. She took it upon herself to memorise each ayah as it was revealed, but the palm leaves, slates, and other materials that the Qur’an were inscribed upon when they were first revealed were also stored trustingly in this noble woman’s home. She was honoured with this duty because the Companions of the Prophet revered her as worthy and trusted. ‘Hafsah’, translates as ‘young lioness’, and it is reported that her strong personality lived up to her name.
- Nusayba bint Ka‘b al-Ansariyya (RA) fought for Islam in the Battle of Uhud, sustaining many injuries, including one by which she had bravely thrown herself in front of the Prophet (PBUH) to protect him.
One thing I learnt early on as a new Muslim is that there are so many amazing, strong Muslim women throughout the history of Islam for us to take as our role models. But you don’t hear about these women until you start to dig into the mountains of treasures that make Islam the incredible religion that it is.
Sadly, from the outside, Islam is too often represented by people who are ignorant, blinded by their upbringing and culture, or by their own selfish desires, who ‘follow’ Islam selectively, in that they only seek to fulfil their wants and then abuse the Qur’an by quoting verses to apparently justify their behaviour. There are some very misogynistic people, for example, who think the Qur’an allows them to beat their wives. Domestic violence is a very serious issue which we unfortunately see too much of in various countries around the world, including Western and Islamic countries. It is undeniably wrong, and Islam in no way condones it. Allah has placed men as the protectors of women – how can they fulfil the role of protector if it is by their own hands that the women are harmed? Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), a man who never hit any female, expressed his repulsion for violent behaviour towards women in the Hadith, “How does anyone of you beat his wife as he beats the stallion camel and then embrace (sleep with) her?” (Bukhari). As an extra point on this matter, in Islam it is a major sin to strike anyone across the face, even if it is an opponent in battle, let alone your wife.
“Another of His signs is that He created spouses from among yourselves for you to live with in tranquility: He ordained love and kindness between you. There truly are signs in this for those who reflect.” [Quran 30: 21]
The more I study the Qur’an and the more I read about the teachings of our Prophet (PBUH), the more and more examples I find of husbands being consistently told to respect their wives, to treat their wives with kindness, and to be helpful and considerate to their wives. In a popular Hadith, the Prophet is recorded to have said to his companions, “The best of you are those who are best to their wives” (Tirmidhi).
Somehow, the thought of Islam as being a religion that honors women still gets snubbed by many. Sometimes the truth gets lost in translation, sometimes innocently misconstrued, or, sadly, sometimes just intentionally distorted. The unfortunate truth is, if a person of little compassion wants to oppress, belittle, or abuse a person, they will do it, and they will scrape together whatever justification they can to excuse their behaviour. As said by Shirin Ebadi, the first female judge in Iran and now a lawyer and human rights activist, “It is not religion that binds women, but the selective dictates of those who wish them cloistered.”
This is why it is so obligatory for us as Muslims to constantly seek knowledge about Islam, not only to protect ourselves from people who will try to put doubts into our hearts, but also to protect our religion. When we see the teachings of Islam being misused, or see abuse being hurled at what we know to be the Truth, we want to have the confidence to stand up and defend it; we don’t want to be like I was three years ago in Istanbul, faced with a statement I was totally ill equipped to respond to. Alhamdulillah, I now know the truth about Islam and its very high regard for both men and women. In fact, whenever I’m made to feel inferior or undervalued by either a misogynistic culture or an ignorant individual, I seek solace in my religion; I read about the teachings of our Prophet (PBUH) and I read the words of Allah in the glorious Qur’an, and my sense of self-worth quickly becomes renewed.
So I have to tell my Turkish friend, and anyone who shares her sentiment: if you have found nothing for women in Islam, then you haven’t been looking at Islam.