In todays day and age, there is a general perception that womens rights reached its momentum with the start of the Womens Liberation Movement of the 20th century, specifically between the 1970s-1980s. However, from the Islamic point of view, women’s liberation was not started by some radical political groups of the West, but was revealed by Allah to Prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H) in as long ago as the 7th century. The Qur’an and the Traditions of the Prophet (Hadith and Sunna) guarantee every Muslim woman certain rights and duties.
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II. Women in Ancient Civilizations
In order to get achieve a better insight of the status of women today, it is worthwhile to preview how women were treated in previous civilizations and religions that precede Islam (Pre-610 C.E).
India: During the era of the Aryan civilization (2500 B.C), women were accorded almost the same status as men. Women were educated, had a say in their marriage decisions and own their own properties. Even prostitutes were admired for their expertise in the art of music and dance and widows were allowed to remarry. This trend took a nose-diving turn with the start of the Medieval era (1500 B.C) and unfortunately resulted in practices like Satti( dying with the husband at the funeral pyre), Jauhar (wives immolating themselves when they realized that their husbands were going to die in enemy hands) and child marriages.
Rome: was a typically male dominated society; so much so that in the Roman Republic a man could legally kill his wife or daughter if they questioned his authority. Women were also kept out of positions of power. They were not allowed to be senators, governors, lawyers, judges or any of the other official positions involved in running the Roman Empire. Women were also not allowed to vote in elections.
Athens: In the 5th century women in ancient Athenian societies were given no legal rights and were allowed to leave the house only for short distances with a chaperone. It was a common belief that women were emotional creatures who were dangerous to themselves and needed to be taken care of by men. Although women might own some personal items and have charge of a slave or two, they could not own property or enter into contracts.
III. Rights of a Muslim woman
In the Qur’an Allah frequently addresses both the man and the woman. In one passage Allah reveals:
“For Muslim men and women, for believing men and women, for devout men and women, for true men and women who are patient, for men and women who humble themselves, for men and women who give in charity, for men and women who fast, for men and women who guard their chastity, and for men and women who engage much in Allah’s praise – For them all has Allah prepared forgiveness and great reward.” (33:35)
i) Social Status:
As a daughter
-In Pre-Islamic Arabian tribes, the practice of female infanticide was a norm. However, according to the Quran, this practice is prohibited in Islam:-
“And when the girl (who was) buried alive is asked, for what sin she was killed.” (81:8-9).
-Moreover, the Quran even rebukes the unwelcoming attitude of some parents:-
“And when one of them is informed of (the birth of) a female, his face becomes dark, and he suppresses grief. He hides himself from the people because of the ill of which he has been informed. Should he keep it in humiliation or bury it in the ground? Certainly, evil is what they decide”. (Quran 16:58-59).
-Parents of a daughter are expected to treat her with justice and equality:-
“Whosoever supports two daughters until they mature, he and I will come on the Day of Judgment as this (and he pointed with his fingers held together).”
-The education of girls is supported:-
“Seeking knowledge is mandatory for every Muslim.”
As a wife
Islam views marriage as an equal partnership. When a person gets married they neither marry a slave nor a master. It is the basic, fundamental ideological fundamental of a Muslim that servitude belongs to God alone. Hence the Quran states:-
“And among His signs is this: That He created mates for you from yourselves that you may find rest, peace of mind in them, and He ordained between you love and mercy. Lo, herein indeed are signs for people who reflect.” [Quran 30:21]
To foster the love and security that comes with marriage, Muslim wives have several rights: the first one is to receive ‘mahr’ from the husband, which is a gift as part of the marriage contract A wife has the right to kind treatment. The Prophet (P.B.U.H)) said:
“The most perfect believers are the best in conduct. And the best of you are those who are best to their wives.”
As far as divorce is concerned, God provides general guidelines for the process of divorce with emphasis throughout on both parties upholding the values of justice and kindness in formalizing the end to their marriage:-
“And when you divorce women and they have [nearly] fulfilled their term, either retain them according to acceptable terms or release them according to acceptable terms, and do not keep them, intending harm, to transgress [against them].” (Surah 2. 231)
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God encourages the husband and wife to appoint arbitrators as the first step to aid in reconciliation in the process of divorce. If the reconciliation step fails, both men and women are guaranteed their right to divorce as established in the Qur’an, but the question lies in what is the procedure for each. When a divorce is initiated by the man, it is known as talaq. The pronouncement by the husband may be verbal or written, but once done, a waiting period of three months (‘iddat) must take place in which there are no sexual relations even though the two are living under the same roof. The waiting period helps prevent hasty decisions made in anger and enables both parties to reconsider as well as determine if the wife is pregnant. If the wife is pregnant, the waiting period is lengthened until she delivers. At any point during this time, the husband and wife are free to resume their relationship, thereby stopping the divorce process. At this time, the husband remains financially responsible for the support of his wife.
The divorce initiated by the wife is known as khu” (if the husband is not at fault) and entails the wife giving her dowry to end the marriage because she is the “contract” breaker. In the instance of talaq where the husband is the “contract” breaker, he must pay the dowry in full in cases where all or part of it was deferred.
As a mother
Mothers have greater right and deserve more kindness, help service, good treatment and companionship than the fathers because the mother is the first one to care for the children and she suffers more directly with daily hardships in their upbringing. This tradition indicates that a mother has three times the rights of that of a father due to the sufferings she experiences during the various stages of her child’s life; in pregnancy, delivery, nursing, and raising the child.
“And We have enjoined on man to be dutiful and good to his parents. His mother bore him in weakness and hardship upon weakness and hardship. The duration of carrying him (in the womb) and weaning is two years. So thank Me and to your parents; unto Me is the final destination.” [31:14]
ii) Economic Aspect
a) Woman’s Right to Property (Inheritance):
“From what is left by parents and those nearest related there is a share for men and a share for women, whether the property be small or large, a determinate share.” (Surah 4, Ayah 7)
b) Financial Security and Inheritance Laws: Financial security is assured for women. They are entitled to receive marital gifts without limit and to keep present and future properties and income for their own security, even after marriage. No married woman is required to spend any amount at all from her property and income on the household. The woman is entitled also to full financial support during marriage and during the “waiting period” (iddah) in case of divorce or widowhood. Some jurists require, in addition, one year’s support for divorce and widowhood (or until they remarry, if remarriage takes place before the year is over). A woman who bears a child in marriage is entitled to child support from the child’s father.
c) Employment: Whilst women carry the heavy burden of bearing and rearing children, they may still be at par with men, that is, they have the right to seek employment as long as this does not interfere with her primary role as a wife and a mother. In Islam, however, the value and importance of women in society and the true measure of their success as human beings, is measured with completely different criteria: their fear of Allah and obedience to Him, and fulfillment of the duties He has entrusted them with, particularly that of bearing, rearing and teaching children.
iii) Political Rights
Any fair investigation of the teachings of Islam into the history of the Islamic civilization will surely find a clear evidence of woman’s equality with man in what we call today “political rights”.
This includes the right of election as well as the nomination to political offices. It also includes woman’s right to participate in public affairs. Both in the Qur’an and in Islamic history we find examples of women who participated in serious discussions and argued even with the Prophet (P) himself
During the Caliphate of Omar Ibn al-Khattab, a woman argued with him in the mosque, proved her point, and caused him to declare in the presence of people: “A woman is right and Omar is wrong.”
Although not mentioned in the Qur’an, one Hadeeth of the Prophet is interpreted to make woman ineligible for the position of head of state. The Hadeeth referred to is roughly translated: “A people will not prosper if they let a woman be their leader.” This limitation, however, has nothing to do with the dignity of woman or with her rights. It is rather, related to the natural differences in the biological and psychological make-up of men and women.
According to Islam, the head of the state is no mere figurehead. He leads people in the prayers, especially on Fridays and festivities; he is continuously engaged in the process of decision-making pertaining to the security and well-being of his people. This demanding position, or any similar one, such as the Commander of the Army, is generally inconsistent with the physiological and psychological make-up of woman in general. It is a medical fact that during their monthly periods and during their pregnancies, women undergo various physiological and psychological changes. Such changes may occur during an emergency situation, thus affecting her decision, without considering the excessive strain which is produced. Moreover, some decisions require a maximum of rationality and a minimum of emotionality – a requirement which does not coincide with the instinctive nature of women.
Even in modern times, and in the most developed countries, it is rare to find a woman in the position of a head of state acting as more than a figurehead, a woman commander of the armed services, or even a proportionate number of women representatives in parliaments, or similar bodies. One can not possibly ascribe this to backwardness of various nations or to any constitutional limitation on woman’s right to be in such a position as a head of state or as a member of the parliament. It is more logical to explain the present situation in terms of the natural and indisputable differences between man and woman, a difference which does not imply any “supremacy” of one over the other. The difference implies rather the “complementary” roles of both the sexes in life.
In this report, the status of women in Islam has been described as purely given in the Quran and revealed by the Prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H). However, the role of women has not only been shaped by Islamic text but also by the history and culture of the Muslim world. Moreover, the issue of women in Islam has been viewed as highly controversial through the centuries. While it is believed that these revelations on women’s liberation in the Quran made major improvements in the oppressed status of women in pre-Arab societies, the deterioration of this status took place soon after the death of the Prophet (P.B.U.H).
With the growth of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the West, many feminist writers came to view the practice of wearing the ‘veil’ as a symbol of women’s oppression and subservience to men. The hijaab in Islam is given as a way for women to conceal their attractiveness and appear dignified so that attention is drawn more to their character than physical beauty. Islam enjoins modest dress for both men and women, and in a Muslim society, the men as well as the women typically dress conservatively. The Qur’an tells them to dress modestly and cover their hair in all public situations, others insist that their whole body including hands and face are to be covered, yet others understand the guidance to mean a more general attitude of modesty both in dress and attitude. Many Muslim women freely choose to dress modestly in order to avoid the public scrutiny, judgments, and social dynamics associated with physical appearance. By dressing in ways that do not draw attention.
Additionally, polygamy is seen as a sign of inequality amongst men and women. This concept is clarified stating that polygamy was introduced as a means to protect women and children who may otherwise be taken advantage of. Moreover, there are strict conditions placed on men to provide equal time and money to all their wives. The rights of divorce are also open to the wife if she is unfairly treated. The Prophet Muhammad was married to his first wife, Khadijah, for 25 years, and he did not take other wives until after her death. His marriages to several widows and divorcees in later years were primarily contracted for political and humanitarian reasons, as was expected of a man in his position. His home life was characterised by love, consideration, kindness and respect.
Despite all these teachings in Islam it is no secret that some brutal traditions are still prevalent in many Muslim societies. In many parts of Pakistan, female infanticide is still on the rise. According to the Edhi Foundation, some 1000 babies were found dead in different parts of Pakistan in the year 2011. Even though the Hijaab is meant to be a symbol of modesty and social identity there are innumerable societies where the purdah is more of a cultural restriction than a matter of choice. Domestic violence against women is almost a norm in many societies where women don’t come forward to claim their rights.