Muslims believe that Allah has given humans the rights that suit their gender which are seen as equal but different by some, and unequal but equitable by others.
History of pre-Islamic world shows that women enjoyed rights based on their social status and where they lived. Societies like the Egyptian and Persian gave women far greater rights than let’s say the Athenian and Indian societies. Even in India, women in the Southern region had more rights than those in the North. Upper caste Hindu women were treated better than women from the lower castes. In Greece, Spartan women were more independent than the Athenian women. Islam established a standard in Arabia. Whereas women in other communities differed in their rights according to their gender and social status, all Muslim women from all parts of Arabia had equal rights within Islam (obviously the Mothers of the Believers were different). This means that some of their previous rights were curtailed in some cases and new rights were given to them that some may never have enjoyed before.
I first thought about this standardisation of rights so that all women form a uniform ummah when I read Idolator Islam by Ali Eteraz some six years ago. In that essay, Eteraz writes this about the Prophet:
Where he was solitary, an exile from the Qureish, he made an Ummah, a brotherhood greater than all tribes. Where he longed for a family, he indulged in a family-making of the grandest proportion. To bring in by way of marriage — since the ways of blood-relations were absent — everything from mothers, to sisters, to cousins, to nieces, and, of course, lovers. All of them were to him different elements of a greater family, though he called them “wife.” Islam, it turns out, is simply that, which, as with Jesus, gave a social exile a place to belong. Is it, then, any wonder that Christianity and Islam have been the world’s great missionary faiths? Judaism and Buddhism have always been far more strict with who is let in, and it makes sense, as they were handed down by princes, men who had great followings.
Giving all women equal rights within the ummah could have been accidental or it may have been purposeful. But within Islam, all women are equal whether they are queens or beggars and it had amazing consequences for at least the pagan women who belonged to patriarchal tribes and came from oppressive backgrounds.
Some rights women are promised in Islam are incomparable. For instance (without going into details and references), in Islam it is the husband’s duty to foot the wedding bill. It is his duty to look after all the financial needs of the wife. She doesn’t have to work if she doesn’t want to; and in sharia she doesn’t have to cook if she doesn’t like it. Fiqh allows women the right to demand domestic help. In early Islam many households had slaves and women of a household only worked out of “kindness.” There are many references to the Prophet cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, sewing, and even mending his shoes despite having at least nine wives at a time and several slaves. In Islam if a woman works she has the right not to spend any of it on her family. This is the consensus of scholars although early Muslim women like Khadeejah spent their money on their families. Men are also entirely responsible for their children’s financial needs. A woman is not obliged to work to support the children although one can argue that it was easier in early societies when life was simple. In Islam a child must be breast-fed but a mother is not forced to breast-feed her child and she can demand the services of a wet-nurse for her child.
In Islamic fiqh a woman doesn’t have to live with her in-laws if she doesn’t want to; she doesn’t have to look after them either. If she lives with them or cares for them, it is again out of kindness. This is an interesting ‘right’ because Muslim societies are essentially collectivistic but it is also not from Sunnah since none of the Prophet’s wives had any in-laws to worry about. Islam gives women the right to stipulate in their marriage contract that they have the right to initiate divorce; demand custody of the children in case of divorce; and demand divorce in case of husband’s polygamy. The marriage contract is a ‘take it or leave it’ document. If a man is not comfortable with the stipulations a woman puts in her marriage contract he can back out very early on and save everyone the headache of a male-dominated marriage.
(Interestingly studies conducted on Muslim countries with the highest rate of divorce show that divorce in their communities is related to women realising and demanding their rights: initiating divorce because of polygamy; asking for enormous dowry; refusing housework and consequently demanding domestic help; wanting to work full-time; and delaying or refusing pregnancy. The last two points are not Islamic rights.)
Historically, Muslim women in the past held important leadership positions unlike we are told today that women can’t become leaders. Some prominent Muslim consorts and leaders are Khayzuran of Baghdad, a slave turned caliph-consort who made important political decisions for her husband; Empress Shulü Hatun of Qidan, who ruled Qidan until her son was elected as a successor; and Asma Bint Shibab al-Sulayhiyya of Yemen whose husband Sultan Ali al-Sulahi delegated much of the administration of the kingdom to her; Radiyya Altamish; Kassi of Mali; Oghul Qamish; and Dudu of Janupur. Almost all of these Muslim consorts and leaders are famous for sermonising at the Friday Khutbas, waging wars, setting up health and education programmes, improving state economy, and proved to be capable leaders. The Islam of their time allowed them all these honours.
Today scores of Muslim women pray behind a male imam in another room or from behind a curtain from where they cannot view the imam, but there is also the possibility that men do the same and pray behind a woman from behind a barrier so that the veiled woman’s figure does not “naturally arouse the instincts in men so as to divert their attention and concentration, and disturb the required spiritual atmosphere”! It shouldn’t be inconceivable.
I think that before Muslim women ask for equal rights; they need empowerment through education and understanding of their Islamic rights. Many contemporary Muslim societies that are largely patriarchal do not empower their women with knowledge. How can women be expected to gain equal rights when they don’t have the power to raise their voice? I once wrote on the history of status of women in Islam and I would like to end with the same quote I used in that article:
“…in order to survive and thrive, the Quran had to be addressed to, understood and accepted by the Arabs of the 6th century. This concept is crucial to understanding the status of women in Islam and the extent of their rights as well as their obligations. The rights of women established in the Quran, although progressive in their essence and content, were limited in their scope and implementation in order to suit the human society which received the divine message at the time. As we approach the end of the 20th century and taking into account the enormous socio-economic changes that have taken place since the time of the Prophet, women’s rights must be extended to the best of what they can mean in our modern time. Based on the Quranic teachings of what is fair (al adl) and what is generous and perfect (al-ihsan), we must go beyond the literal or interpretative limitations and examine the Quran’s underlying principles which promote the equality of men and women- morally, spiritually, intellectually, socially and politically. It is this general principle that should serve as our guiding light in defining women’s rights.”
Do you have any thoughts on this subject that you’d like to share?