Lifting the Veil: Women in Islam
US President Barack Obama said, “You can judge a nation, and how successful it will be, based on how it treats its women and its girls.” In this regard Islamic societies are often found to be under the most scrutiny and it is commonly perceived, especially in non-Islamic circles, that the religion is misogynistic and patriarchal.
When we look at the history of Islam and the statements and actions of its prophet however, we find a very different story. Islam defined specific rights for women – in most aspects long before modern western societies did the same. For example, in the ownership and inheritance of property and personal wealth. The legal framework of Shariah, the body of Islamic law, when properly interpreted and implemented, ensures that these rights are upheld. Yet, in contemporary society where the demands of modernity are ever-changing, and the expectations of women are growing, Muslim women are faced with the challenge of remaining true to the core tenets of their faith whilst embracing all the best that modernity has to offer.
This article is not intended to represent a specific view of any particular denomination of Islam. Rather the aim is to elucidate the principles of womanhood which Islam embodies, as understood by this article’s authors. Furthermore, the authors have adopted, perhaps too boldly, a more normative approach than a descriptive one. Interpretations of various Islamic injunctions, whether in the form of verses from the Quran or hadith from the ProphetSA and other such sources, have been made and the authors have endeavoured to contextualise them in a contemporary framework.
Whilst some sources as well as interpretations may not meet with consensual endorsement from different branches of Islam, these are however what the authors earnestly believe represent the true spirit of Islam.
The Advent of Islam
In Arabia, where MohammedSA founded Islam, women’s rights were much like those that afflicted most contemporary societies and heinous crimes such as female infanticide were common. The Quran addresses this particular matter in the following verse:
“When news is brought to one of them of (the birth of) a female (child) his face darkens and he is filled with inward grief! With shame does he hide himself from his people because of the bad news he has had! Shall he retain it on (sufferance and) contempt or bury it in the dust? Alas what an evil choice they decide on!”1
A prophetic hadith further underpins the significance of this verse,
“It is of the good portents of a woman that her first born be a girl.”
In saying this MohammedSA portrayed both the mother of a first born girl child and the daughter herself as blessings to the household as opposed to the previously held attitude of girls being a burden and cause for shame. As we see here, Islam sought to redefine the patriarchal society of the pre-Islamic era. Even today, data revealing the glaring drop in the birthrate of the female child, points at the high prevalence of female foetus abortion, in countries such as China and India.
Marriage: Elevating Womanhood
Islam emerged at a time when taboos surrounding the idea of marrying widows or divorcees were rife. Even now, various communities frown upon or even outlaw the marrying of divorcees or widows but the Quran banishes any such taboos. In one verse it states,
“Marry those among you who are widows and the righteous…”2
Nothing can be taught better than by setting an example. Prior to his prophethood, Mohammed’sSA first marriage was to the widow Khadija bint KhuwaylidAS who was fifteen years his senior when he married her aged twenty-five. Although it is oft-mentioned that MohammedSA had several wives what is often overlooked is that his marriage to KhadijaAS was monogamous for the thirteen years they were together until her death. The immense sense of loss felt by the Prophet and mentioned often by him, is evidence of the esteemed position in which he held her. It was only after her death, that MohammedSA took his other wives.
The encouragement to marry women other than maiden brides in Islam, elevated the hitherto perceived status of women. The social upshot of this concept was that it created financial empowerment of women who otherwise would have had a very poor standard of living. In turn, this resulted in greater social stability and community cohesion. Marriages of this sort forged new alliances and helped in transcending pre-Islamic prejudices. Ultimately, what this signified was the recognition of the vital role women have in holding the fabric of society together.
Another widespread stereotypical view is that Islam somehow endorses forced marriage. Mohammed (sa) explicitly forbade that a woman be married without her express permission. The Caliph Ali (as) expands on this further by saying,
“No man should marry off his daughter before consulting her, for she is more aware of what she wants. If (when consulted) she declines then she should not be married.”
The right to choose freely is plainly accorded to women. It highlights the sanctity of marriage as an institution and a union between two people who come together equally in a mutual relationship, where each has a role and function to play. The institution of marriage, with all its guiding principles, can only work if both parties join willingly and freely, and thus an equal right to choose is accorded to both woman and man in Islam.
Rights to Ownership & Societal Participation
KhadijaAS was a woman who had her own wealth and property and managed a flourishing business that traded goods between distant cities. A woman’s right to earn and keep her earnings and inheritances is codified in the Quran, for example the Quran states that,
“To men is allotted what they earn and to women is allotted what they earn.”3
Whilst Islamic teaching emphasises the important role of women as homemakers, Islam does not limit them to it or stigmatise them for working outside the home.
If women are sometimes discouraged from taking up certain roles in Western societies, it is not so much that Islam prohibits them from doing so, but rather that local social norms and customs which, when forced to embrace them, undermine Islamic tenets. An example might be the banning of the headscarf. For many Muslim women it is just uncomfortable to go anywhere without a degree of veiling or head-cover – the extent of which varies among denominations. Many of them will wear it even about the home with family and this is in common with many eastern or traditional societies other than Islamic ones. When they are forced to abandon it in order to be in the workplace, they might end up choosing not to work even though they wish to. They end up being forced to choose between giving up on their beliefs or giving up on outside engagement. It is not the Islamic requirement to cover the head that’s stopping the woman from working, rather, a local regulation or stipulation that stops her from doing so while also staying true to her interpretation of her faith.
This is an important point of demarcation as Muslim women are often seen as an oppressed segment of society. However, what many fail to realise is that social structures do not allow women to freely embrace opportunities without forcing them to sacrifice certain Islamic values. Indeed it may be added that even some of the rights they should be entitled to as women, such as child rearing, are cast aside in the demand for women to work. This is undoubtedly true for many Western societies, but developing countries are not always much different. Having said that, many ‘Islamic’ societies also fail miserably in providing egalitarian structures which allow women to pursue ‘non-traditional’ careers. We believe that in an ‘ideal’ Islamic society, women would not just be free, but would be empowered to pursue paths outside the domestic realm.
Another example of women’s right to property is the concept of mahr. Contrary to the widespread practice of dowry, when an Islamic marriage takes place, mahr is given by the man to the woman The mahr is compulsory and without it having been handed over at least in part, the marriage cannot be consummated. The significance here in the context of property rights is that the sum of the mahr is wholly decided by the wife and it is hers to retain and the husband has no rights whatsoever over it. Similarly he does not automatically come to be the owner of any wealth or other property that a wife may have of her own when they marry. To put this into some historical context, we quote here from an encyclopaedia entry on women’s rights here in the West:
“In the early 19th century, the vast majority of married women throughout Europe and the United States still had no legal identity apart from their husbands. This legal status—known as coverture—prohibited a married woman from being a party in a lawsuit, sitting on a jury, holding property in her own name, or writing a will.”4
With such empowerment, women naturally become active participants in society, participation that is very much in accordance with Prophetic teachings. As Mernissi notes, “We Muslim women can walk into the modern world with pride, knowing that the quest for dignity, democracy and human rights, for full participation in the political and social affairs of our country, stems from no imported Western values, but is a true part of the Muslim tradition” 5
Islam then, has accorded many a privilege and opportunity to women as independent, capable and free agents. However, if such a notion fails to manifest in our society, it is society that must nurture and facilitate the emergence of women as such.
Contrary to popular stereotyping, Islam does not diminish the importance of women’s education, but upholds it. The ProphetSA made the seeking of knowledge obligatory upon Muslim men and Muslim women equally, and without distinction.6 Any potential ambiguity in women’s right to education is thus dealt with unequivocally. From an Islamic viewpoint, women’s education and women’s involvement in the educational process of human society is of paramount importance. It is seen in action in many Islamic countries where equality of education is seen as a given. Let’s not ignore the fact that of the limited number of countries in the world to have elected women as their leaders the list includes the likes of Pakistan, Bangladesh – both so often held up as the worst examples for women’s rights.
Considering that Islam was founded over 1400 years ago, the Prophet’sSA injunction that education is obligatory regardless of gender becomes particularly pertinent. Compared with the paradigms of Western pedagogy where women have only been granted equal educational opportunities relatively recently, Islam emerged as a religion and more so a society qua society which upheld the notion of equal access to education at a time when most of the world was imprisoned in patriarchal hegemony.
There is a lot to be said about women’s education in Islam. Education of course, is closely linked with class. Educated women are far more likely to display independence of thought and action. Thus the significance of the Prophet’sSA emphasis on education is that education in turn, cultivates women who are strong-willed and self-aware. Seen from this perspective, Islam seems hardly the doctrine of oppression which many make it out to be.
The objective of this article has been to correct flawed Western preconceptions about women in Islam whilst highlighting the high regard in which women are actually held. The veiling of women, regardless of the many ways in which it is done, has one basic principle that underpins it – the sanctity and respect of womanhood. Whether it is being a mother, daughter, wife or a member of the wider community, each woman is treated as an equally important and integral member of the community, with rights and aspirations, as any man. Any mistreatment of women is seen as sacrilegious. Syedna Mohammed BurhanuddinRA often said,
“A woman is like a flower, if you treat her harshly, you will be the one left bereft of her fragrance.”
In this way, the Muslim woman revels in the freedom she possesses in reaching as high as she possibly can, fine tuning the balance between clinging firm to her traditional values, and taking the best that the modern world can offer.
 The Bee (16) v. 58-59
 The Light (24) v. 13
 The Women (al-Nisaa) v.32
 Encyclopaedia Britannica
 The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam by Fatema Mernissie (1991)
 The Hadith states that “The seeking of knowledge is compulsory on every Muslim man and Muslim woman”