Thinking about the words “equal” rights

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?


25 thoughts on “Thinking about the words “equal” rights

  1. sana says:

    Excellent post. I have read after so many days.
    I didnt know women had so many rights and benefits within a marriage. Though many times people refuse to recognise these rights and give the women the advantage, even if it is clearly stated in ‘Islam’. All boils down to the culture in the end. As you said above, women can refuse to cook 🙂 and demand a domestic help but she may not get it. Because of the culture. She can refuse to take care of her in laws but many cultures esp. in south asia they are forced to look after them, in extreme cases , to be a maid to them unfortunately. And the major problem, polygyny, against her wishes. And the divorce afterwards and the rights and conditions pertaining to it. So I feel Islam has very limited role many times while giving a person his or her rights. Mostly, it’s deep down in the culture. And again as you say that educating people appropriately may help a lot, if not entirely.

    • Metis says:

      Sana, thanks for your comment. I was thinking about various cultures while writing this and the problems you discuss about Indian culture also exist in Arab cultures that I am aware of. Rights are certainly there in the religion but sadly individual cultural practices are stronger.

  2. Zuhura says:

    “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.”

    And as just equal, not different, by still others.

  3. Zuhura says:

    “Within Islam, all women are equal whether they are queens or beggars”. Are you talking about within the Qur’an or within Islam as it was practiced? Because we know that, for example, slaves didn’t have to cover in the same way as upper class women.

    • Metis says:

      That did cross my mind and I even searched my notes to make sure that even Muslim slaves were banned from veiling but all I found was this:

      “Abu Hanifah informed us from Hammad that Ibrahim said concerning slave women, ‘They pray without head-covering or veil, even if they reach a hundred years and have children by their owner.’”

      “Abu Hanifah informed us from Hammad from Ibrahim that ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab used to beat slave women if they covered their heads, saying, ‘Do not try to emulate free women.’”

      (From Kitab al-Athar of Imam Abu Hanifah as narrated by Imam Muhammad ibn al-Hasan ash-Shaybani).

      It is a little vague – even non-Muslim slaves prayed according to their religious requirements. So I’m not sure if Muslim slaves were also banned from veiling. I think at least according to the Quran all Muslim women are equal, but then there are also specific verses about the Right Hand Possessions but we don’t know if they are regarding only non-Muslim slaves or include Muslim slaves as well (those who converted).

  4. Anonie says:

    Hi and Salaam,

    Very nice article. Not all Muslim women had equal rights. THere were plenty of slave Muslm women who had very few rights. They are no less “Muslim women” than the non-owned ones.


    • Metis says:

      Hi and salaam to you too Anonie (that sounded cute :D) and welcome to Metis!

      That is the problem. I don’t know if at least in early Islam the slaves were Muslim and if all slaves (Muslim and non-Muslim) were treated the same while all free Muslim women were treated better. I think if a slave accepted Islam she was married to the master or some other Muslim man and freed and so became part of the ummah. Now as I type this I recall Aisha’s old servant/slave who was beaten up by Ali in the Prophet’s presence to bear true witness about Aisha’s conduct during Ifk and I’m not really sure if this woman was Muslim and beaten or was a kafir and was beaten. I don’t think a Muslim woman would have been beaten by a Muslim man. The hadiths give the impression that all servants and slaves were either pagan or Jewish.

      I know that in later Muslim empires there were Muslim slaves and concubines who were treated differently and had fewer rights.

  5. Lat says:

    I loved it,Metis! I’m glad to know that there were powerful Muslim women in history who we can look back and admire,and even take them as role models or archtypes. And the rest of the post is simply wonderful!

    The qoute by Ali Etarez is interesting.That’s should be in Medina,right?
    “..gave a social exile a place to belong”

    You mean that this ‘marriage’ was binding to Muslims then even when they were no longer exiles? I mean when Muslims were in exile in Medina,whatever rights and laws that they practiced,did they remain doing so even after the exile? what about abrogation? I think I read something to that about in inheritance.I’ll be back!

    • Metis says:

      I think by exile Eteraz was referring to the abstract noun that the Prophet changed his exile and his lack of family into the greatest tribe through brotherhood in religion and his marriages. He neither had parents nor siblings and because of his prophethood mission he was outcast by his own tribe so his marriages ensured him several families and strong ties. But what I thought by reading that was how important the concept of ummah was for the Prophet and how it must have been very important to keep every new member into the ummah happy and satisfied which equality in rights ensured.

      I think most laws and edicts were formulated during the exile. Did I answer you correctly? I’m sorry if I didn’t understand something.

  6. LK says:

    Wow. You would never know a woman was not required to cook and clean. When I was with a Muslim man he wouldn’t touch a thing while I made dinner and he told me he expected that I clean the house. That in Islam the woman takes care of the house and the husband works so I’d have to do that. Maybe these men need a lesson :).

  7. Coolred38 says:

    My muslim husband was the same…the womans job is to cook, clean, and provide more Muslims. Period.

  8. mariam says:

    very interesting article, specialy last part.
    after reading your article and watching pictures of Iranian women in north part of Iran here :
    (just 13$ per day for more than 11 houres for a work like that)

    I think with myself, why there is such a big gap between rights of women on paper and in reality? who is responsible?when these” princess like” rights will come true for muslim women?

  9. almostclever says:

    In response to Mariam,

    Ultimately knowing what our rights are comes down to us. Women don’t complain when they don’t know. Women don’t organize or get pissed if they don’t know it’s their right and ability. It really is that simple.

    Education is highly important. An educated woman is a strong force. These rights will come true for women when they snatch it and demand it and yell and make a big deal about it. That is the absolute only way.

    You know why women are treated unequal when compared to the ideals of Islam? Because we allow it.

    Men are responsible for creating it, women are responsible for keeping it.

  10. Coolred38 says:

    Almostclever…I would agree for the most part…except that when women do begin to learn their rights….do start attempting to take a proactive stance in their own lives…what is the first thing that happens? She is labled as westernized…brainwashed….influenced by forces against Islam..blah blah blah.

    There is a strong voice ready to stand up against any woman who speaks up in defense of the rights of women in general…much less for her ownself specifically.

    For instance, knowing that I had the right to ask for divorce and the right to demand it as well, from my Muslim husband while I lived in a Muslim country….did NOT sway the Sharia Judge that completely ignored my presence while asking my husband if HE wanted to grant me a divorce. Husband said no. Judge said go home.

    Knowing your rights is not the same as having them, as is commonly known. Who do you “organize and get pissed” too in a Muslim country? Who do you snatch it and demand it” from in a Muslim country? Men? They are the ones keeping it from you…the ones who do it on purpose…and the ones who cant be bothered to change it even if they dont necessarily agree with it.

    it is the only way….but what a long way it is…which is a sad state of affairs considering how well it started out…and how wonderful it sounds on paper. 1450 plus years later…Muslim women are worse off then ever before…

    • almostclever says:

      With each other Coolred, you organize with each other. Female solidarity. It is like when blacks all stood together and demanded an end to segregation in the 60’s. Acts of defiance. Collective defiance. Look what Egypt did to topple a leader they didn’t want. Why is this issue any less important? Why is it women are not able to all come together and make a demand?

      It is something to live and die for, not some simple fix – you are right.

      It starts with learning your rights, because when one learns their rights they start to see, and start to get pissed. That’s where it starts.

      It is a cause, and a dangerous one – but that’s the reality.

  11. almostclever says:

    Look at Rosa Parks! Her one act of defiance brought the entire black community to her in support, and started the entire civil rights movement! Of course, blacks knew they were being screwed over by whites – do Muslim women know that? Or does my question make me a western imperialist white feminist pushing my values and judgments on others?

    That is the million dollar question 🙂

  12. marketka3113 says:

    I am very impressed by this post! A lot of this is not actually known in the wider public..
    Thank you for broadening my knowledge

  13. susanne430 says:

    I didn’t know all this! What exactly do Muslim women have to do then? Just breed and sexually satisfy one man her whole life? It sounds like they are princesses! I think work is actually a good thing so I don’t know that my rights to not do anything is a good thing for society. How many women back then had the opportunity to go back to school and take classes for fun? Maybe some of them enjoyed working outside the home? Did they have to raise their own children or did the wet nurse do this as well?

    So how come Islam has devolved over the years to such an extent when other groups are evolving into having more rights? And if your answer is men, then why are the men in such a good religion worse today than they were back then? Can Islam not change men’s hearts and lives so they champion their women’s rights? You know, out of love and respect for those other people the Almighty created.

    • Metis says:

      OK, I had to think for a minute here before replying. I am thinking about the Arabs I know – they would actually LOVE to do nothing! Many Arab women go to university to socialise and they keep failing and repeating courses because their aim is not to gain education but to socialise – meet friends and gossip. So if a man gave his wife money, a maid, a wet nurse and a comfortable home here, she would be very happy. This is now when women’s roles have changed so much. Back then I guess women wouldn’t even know they could have careers or education etc. The wet nurses did raise the children completely as well as in the case of the Prophet who was sent to live with his wet nurse for years.

      I believe rights depend on culture and time. To say that women in 7th Century Arabia wanted the same rights women have today is erroneous, I suppose. I think where Muslims are going wrong is that Muslim men are still championing the rights women had in early Islam and are not progressing with today’s times.

  14. Sana says:

    Hello Metis,
    Recently one discussion among family and friends prompted me to come back again and again to read this post. It’s a long story, but it’s reflects desi attitude and culture. There is a wedding between a pakistani(groom) and Bengali (the bride). The bride is a phd. And earns well and the groom isn’t as qualified as her, somehow the families agreed but the bride’s mahr( 60,000$) and her wish to live separately with her husband only (away from the in laws) became the topic of discussions, so my Indian family and friends are blaming her parents and her for being unislamic and how can she do that. Why is sh getting married in the first place! A woman should live with the in laws, the mahr should only be 786 and such a large amount is like prostitution , she is so dark, she doesn’t deserve that much amount, if she’d been like a supermodel then….. The marriage is doomed. Blah blah blah. My head will explode!

  15. […] in cases such as domestic violence or lack of care for the family by the husband. Additionally, Metis’ blog on Muslim feminists has an excellent overview of some of the rights granted to women: Some rights women are promised in Islam are incomparable. […]

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