The Islamic teaching about treatment of women is one of the most misunderstood. Western women generally view Muslim women as repressed and deprived of their rights. The media portrays the stereotypical Muslim woman as fully covered and dominated by her husband, with little more status then a slave. You may be amazed to find, that for 1400 years, Muslim women have been enjoying rights for which western women are still struggling.
Islam provides guidance for a peaceful and ideal society. For such a society to exist, there must be a social system which upholds the rights and responsibilities of each individual. Such a system would provide a balance in the role and status of men and women, thus putting the status of women on an equal footing with that of men. Such a society was in fact created over 1400 years ago by the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be on him), through the guidance of Allah in the Holy Qur’an.
TREATMENT OF WOMEN IN ISLAM
Before discussing the position of women in Islam, it is important to understand what the condition of women was before the advent of Islam. In pre-Islamic Arabia, and in the rest of the world, their 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.
These abusive conditions existed well into the 19th century in most parts of the world, even in the United States, where some basic rights were given to women only in the beginning of the 20th century. But in Arabia, in the 6th century, with the advent of Islam the condition of women changed dramatically. Almost overnight, women were endowed with equal rights and put on the same level with men. In the Holy Qur’an, Allah makes it clear that He created men and women as equal beings. He says:
“He has created you from a single being; then of the same kind made its mate.” (39:7)
This single verse removes any taint of inferiority leveled at womankind by men, as in some other scriptures. The Holy Qur’an further ensures woman’s equality on the spiritual, intellectual, social and economic level. In addition, women’s rights were safeguarded by the Holy Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be on him), as he himself carried out the commands of Allah and treated women with great honor, kindness and dignity.
SPIRITUAL STATUS OF MUSLIM WOMEN
The most important change that Islam brought for women was to raise their spiritual status. Allah has clearly declared in the Holy Qur’an that woman has a soul, that she has the same spiritual capacity as man, and that she can attain equal spiritual rewards by her own efforts. The Holy Qur’an says:
“But whoso does good works, whether male or female, and is a believer, such shall enter heaven…” (4:125)
The Holy Qur’an is unique amongst all scriptures in that it repeatedly emphasizes this equality by addressing both men and women in many verses. It leaves no doubt as to the spiritual level of women. It says:
“Surely the men who submit and the women who submit, and the believing men and the believing women, and the obedient men and the obedient women, and the truthful men and the truthful women, and the humble men and the humble women, and the almsgiving men and the almsgiving women, and the fasting men and the fasting women, and the men who guard their chastity and the women who guard their chastity, and the men who praise God and the women who praise God, Allah has prepared for all of them forgiveness and a mighty reward.” (33:36)
INTELLECTUAL STATUS OF MUSLIM WOMEN
Another area where you will find that Muslim women have the lead over other women is in the field of education. Islam stresses that education for men and women is of equal importance, and the Holy Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be on him) laid down that education is compulsory for both. He said:
“It is the duty of every Muslim man and every Muslim woman to acquire knowledge.”
He also exhorted both to “seek knowledge even if you have to go to China,” and to “seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave.”
The Holy Qur’an says:
“He grants wisdom to whom He pleases, and whoever is granted wisdom has indeed been granted abundant good; and none would take heed except those endowed with understanding.” (2:270)
In other words, only those who ponder can understand the signs of God and come closest to him. The Qur’an further teaches us a short prayer which simply says:
“O my Lord, increase me in knowledge.” (20:115)
In keeping with these commands, you will find that Muslim women, and especially Ahmadi Muslim women are well-educated. The Holy Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be on him) encouraged his wives to seek knowledge and once stated that “half the religion of Islam could be learned from Hadhrat Ayesha (his wife).” Indeed, after his death, the advice of his wives was sought by the entire Muslim community. Now a days you will see Muslim women active in many professions, such as medicine, nursing and teaching.
It is interesting to note that at the time Islam brought enlightenment for women, in Europe a woman displaying any kind of knowledge was in danger of being burnt at the stake for being a witch! Furthermore, most universities, even in the United States, did not admit women to higher learning until this century.
ECONOMIC STATUS OF MUSLIM WOMEN
Never before was woman given the economic freedom such as given her by Islam. Islam makes it clear that she is entitled to possess wealth and property of her own, whether it is inherited or earned, and has full rights over it. The Holy Qur’an states:
“Men shall have the share of what they have earned, and women shall have the share of what they have earned. And ask Allah of His bounty. Surely, Allah has perfect knowledge of all things.” (4:33)
This verse established the equality of men and women in so far as their works are concerned. Woman has the right to manage her own wealth. A married woman is not even required to spend out of her own wealth, as it is the duty of her husband to provide for her.
The Holy Qur’an also states that:
“…men are guardians over women, because Allah made some of them excel others and because they spend of their wealth” (4:35)
This means that the husband is responsible for his wife’s needs and her protection, and he is to supply the money for the maintenance of his wife and their home.
Islam further protected the economic status of woman by requiring a husband to give her a dowry at the time of marriage. This becomes part of her exclusive wealth, and her husband has no right over it, unless she wishes to share it with him. The Holy Qur’an states:
Interestingly, this is addressed not only to the husband but also the woman’s relatives. They have no right over it. The common practice found in some Islamic countries today where the groom demands that his bride bring a dowry of gold and household items to the marriage is totally un-Islamic.
Finally, Islam gave woman the right to inherit. She is entitled to inherit from the deceased in her role of mother, wife, daughter or sister. The Holy Qur’an makes clear that:
“For men there is a share of that which parents and near relatives leave, and for women there is a share of that which parents and near relatives leave, whether it be a little or much — a determined share.” (4:8)
SOCIAL STATUS OF MUSLIM WOMEN
The social status of women changed dramatically with the advent of Islam. Great changes took place in the lives of women. Society was given clear guidance by the Holy Qur’an and the Holy Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be on him) for the treatment of women in their roles as daughter, wife and mother.
The pre-Islamic practice of killing infant girls at birth for fear of humiliation or poverty was totally abolished by Islam. In the Holy Qur’an, Allah says:
“…Slay not your children for fear of poverty, it is We who provide for you and for them, and approach not foul deeds, whether open or secret…” (6:152)
“… He creates what He pleases, He bestows daughters upon whom He pleases, and He bestows sons on whom He pleases.” (42:50)
After forbidding the killing of children, Islam goes on to teach a father that he must raise his daughters in the same way as his sons. In fact, taking good care of a daughter opens the door to Paradise for a Muslim. The Holy Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be on him) said:
“He who brings up two girls through their childhood will appear on the Day of Judgement attached to me like two fingers of a hand.” (Muslim)
Thus it is clear that Islam raised the status of a daughter from that of being despised and unwanted to being loved and cherished.
Islam changed the role of wife from being little more than a servant to being an equal with her husband on all levels. The Holy Qur’an makes it clear that in marriage women have rights similar to men. It says:
“Of His signs is that He created mates for you of your own kind that you may find peace of mind through them, and He has put love and tenderness between you. In that surely are signs for a people that reflect.” (30:22)
Marriage is a harmonious union of two souls, with the object of marriage to seek comfort from each other. The Holy Qur’an beautifully defines the equality of the relationship with this verse:
“..They are a garment for you and you are a garment for them.” (2:188)
This shows that Islam regards husband and wife equal in providing support, comfort and protection for one another, fitting each other like a garment fits the body. Islam further teaches that the woman be treated with kindness and generosity and be given equal rights in marriage and divorce. Before Islam a woman could not initiate the divorce process even if she was seriously mistreated. Islam permits her to seek divorce if absolutely necessary. (The Islamic Marriage system is discussed in more detail in Chapter 3).
In her role as mother, Muslim woman achieves her highest social status, because the mother is revered in Islam unlike any other individual. The Holy Qur’an repeatedly directs Muslims to care for their parents, especially the mother. Allah says:
“And We have enjoined man to be good to his parents; his mother bears him in weakness upon weakness, and his weaning takes two years….” (31:15)
The Holy Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be on him) emphasized the love and respect due to the mother by saying:
“Paradise lies at the feet of the mother.”
In another hadith, he is reported to have stated when asked to whom a man should be kind: “to your mother.” When asked a second time, again said: “to your mother.” He was asked a third time, again the reply was: “your mother.” Only upon being asked a fourth time did he reply: “your father.” Thus he emphasized three times how important it is for a Muslim to take of his/her mother and to give full consideration and respect to her needs and wishes.
HIJAB (THE VEIL)
The teachings of Islam concerning hijab (the veil) and segregation of the sexes is probably the most confusing and difficult to accept for Western society. This is because of the widespread and erroneous notion that observing hijab is a heavy restriction imposed on Muslim women. In fact, the very opposite is true. You will find that hijab is a means of protecting women, and providing them with freedom from many social ills. The word “purdah” is also used to describe the concept and the practice of hijab.
Islam provides guidance not only for individuals, but also lays down rules for the good of all society. In this case, the institution of hijab/purdah guards the moral condition of society. Muslim women not only have responsibilities as wife, mother and daughter, they also share with men the responsibility of upholding the moral standard of society. The Holy Qur’an has laid down that one of the methods that men and women are to use to achieve that goal is hijab. It says:
“Say to the believing men that they restrain their eyes and guard their private parts. That is purer for them. Surely, Allah is well aware of what they do.” (24:31)
“Say to the believing women that they restrain their looks and guard their private parts, and that they display not their beauty or their embellishment except that which is apparent thereof, and that they draw their head coverings over their bosoms…..” (24:32)
The verse goes on to list close relatives from whom observing hijab/purdah is not necessary.
From these verses it is made clear that both men and women are to conduct themselves with modesty and propriety at all times, and especially when in each other’s presence. This teaching is based on the fact that Islam recognizes that “prevention is the better part of a cure.” So segregation of the sexes is prescribed so that situations which cannot be controlled afterwards, are not allowed to develop in the first place. In this way, erosion of moral values can be prevented, and society is safeguarded from problems such as adultery, teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.
The Holy Qur’an requires that Muslim women dress modestly, cover their heads and wear an outer garment to conceal their beauty from strangers. However, you must understand that this physical covering is the only first step to developing hijab. The true and full observance of hijab/purdah is achieved when “veiling” extends to a man or woman’s mind and heart. This means that one should veil or shield his/her mind and heart from impure and immoral thoughts when in contact with the opposite sex. One’s thoughts, words and actions should reflect a sisterly love and respect towards fellow beings. This behavior leads to one’s own moral upliftment, and also creates an atmosphere where men and women, instead of resenting and degrading each other, treat each other with respect and understanding.
Another verse of the Holy Qur’an states:
“O Prophet! tell thy wives and thy daughters, and the women of the believers, that they should pull down upon them of their outer cloaks from their heads over their faces. That is more likely that they may thus be recognized and not molested. And Allah is Most Forgiving, Merciful.” (33:60)
A woman who is following the rules of hijab in her dress and actions is not likely to be treated in a disrespectful way by men. Thus hijab/purdah provides Muslim women with freedom from some of the problems that women in Western society are facing today. In Islam woman is not regarded as a “sex object,” nor is she exploited or harassed in this demeaning manner. As you are probably aware, various feminist movements are trying to deal with these issues today, sometimes with little success.
Islam has undoubtedly given woman dignity and honor through hijab/purdah, and has provided a protection for her so that she can pursue her activities more freely. This gives Muslim women peace of mind. You may have noticed that most Muslim women who follow the practice of hijab/purdah appear to be more relaxed and at ease with themselves. This is because Islam has reduced the importance of physical appearance as a mark of self-esteem. A Muslim woman is free to develop in herself other talents, and does not have to rely on her physical beauty to achieve what she wants. At the same time when a woman practices hijab/purdah in the true manner, she fulfills her responsibility to society and gains satisfaction in the knowledge that she is able to gain nearness to Allah.
THE ROLE OF MUSLIM WOMEN TODAY
This chapter has attempted to give you an idea of the position that Muslim women hold in society, and the rights given to them by Islam. As you can see, no other teaching so specifically addresses the needs of women. Muslim women have all the rights that Muslim men enjoy, and in some ways, have certain privileges which men do not enjoy.
To sum up, a Muslim woman’s primary duty is her duty to Allah, and then comes her duty to her fellow beings. Islam reminds her that her foremost responsibility is to her husband and children. However, it does not restrict her to that role; she has the right to go out and work if she needs to, but she is not obliged to shoulder the financial responsibility for the household. She is encouraged to seek higher education for her own improvement, and subsequently for her offspring. The institution of purdah provides her with an environment of respect and dignity. In no way does it limit her pursuit of a professional career, a business or other kind of profitable activity.
Some misconceptions concerning the role of woman in society are prevalent because unfortunately, some “Muslim” countries do not practice the teachings of the Holy Qur’an. In these societies, the education and training of Muslim women is very much neglected. This may be due to political reasons; or to the fact that some of these societies live in abject poverty, where women are deprived of their right to education. Lacking this tool, they are unaware of the status Islam has given them and are still submitting to conditions similar to the time before Islam was born.
However, within the Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam, you will find that women are well aware of the rights that were brought to them by the Holy Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be on him). Not only that, the men in the community are also conscious of their womenfolk’s rights. Hadhrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, the present Head of the community, repeatedly reminds his followers of their rights and duties. Most Ahmadi women are well-educated, and active in many spheres of life, while maintaining their dignity through Islam. One of the beautiful aspects of Islamic teaching is that by defining the role of women in society, and then by giving dignity to that role, Muslim women feel fulfilled in themselves. This is a great blessing from God Almighty.
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION
Holy Qur’an with commentary. Trans. and Ed. Malik Ghulam Farid. U.K., 1994.
Holy Qur’an with commentary. 5 volumes. Trans. & Ed. Malik Ghulam, Farid. U.K., 1988.
Gardens of the Righteous. Hadith (sayings of the Holy Prophet). Trans. Muhammad Zafrulla Khan. U.K., 1980.
Ahmad, Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmood. Muhammad, the Liberator of Women. Pakistan.
Khan, Muhammad Zafrulla. Women in Islam. Michigan, 1995.
See appendix for additional references.