Islam, the Trailblazer of Women’s Rights


Islam cleansed the pre-Islamic Arab society of its unjust man-made dogmas. It commanded its followers to shun all the discriminating rules against women, writes AMATUL HAKEEM.

Show your pretty faces and let your beautiful hair fly in the wind”, was the slogan of a campaign introduced by the Chinese government in 2011 called project beauty. This was mainly to win over or lure the Uighur women. Uighur is a Muslim community of Chinese-Turks, and this was an attempt made to discourage them from wearing veils and head scarves. Chinese officials claim the campaign promotes female empowerment while nurturing a local fashion and cosmetic industry, which is estimated to be $480 million worth. The campaign also used films, fashion shows and state controlled media to drive the message of gender equality along with the hidden message that veils cause depression and scare children.

In yet another attempt recently, they have banned men with beards and women with head scarf and veils from riding the public buses. However, despite all these propaganda they have never been able to empower women in the real sense, and this has been true with all the other countries of the world as well, where women are being used as a tool for achieving long set goals.

The status of women in the society has always been one of the most complicated and controversial issues. Barring the early Islamic epoch and the rule of righteous caliphs, throughout history she has been oppressed. Any attempt to revive the position of women, both by the modernist and the conservatives, has been futile. This has been so because one group (the modernists) burden women with extra responsibilities in the name of empowerment and emancipation, while the other (the conservatives) assumes the position of woman to be confined within the four walls of her house which, in turn, deprives her of educational opportunities curtailing her intellectual growth.

Like jumping from the frying pan and landing in the fire, when a woman works her way out towards exit from the clutches of her conservative home, she falls prey to the bait laid by the modernists in the name of empowerment, which, in fact, is just a pacifier in the mouth of modern feminists. According to Dr. Usman Mohammad Bugaje the Secretary-General of – “Islam in Africa Organization”, the globalization of gender equity was a campaign started by United Nation in 1975, by declaring that year as the International Women’s Year. Subsequently they declared the decade 1976-1986 as the ‘Decade for Women.’During this time, many conferences were held to discuss the women’s issues. These conferences, conventions and activities even extended into the next decade which involved a host of international agencies. However, it was in the famous Beijing conference of 1995 that the topic of women’s empowerment took a strong hold and was made an indispensable condition for world progress and development. Apparently it was during these two decades that the UN was a tool more than ever in the hands of Western powers, which were using UN to achieve their own selfish political motives.

This vicious campaign has had many serious repercussions all over the world since then, leading to many social problems, and political unrest especially in the developing countries. It not only prevents the assimilation of the practicing Muslim minorities with the mainstream, by marginalizing them as ignorant and victims of repression but has also lately been proved as a wrong mantra for progress.

Morphology of the term ‘Empowerment’

Analyzing the term empowerment in connection with the women’s issue, Dr. Usman Mohammad Bugaje said:

“The word ‘empowerment’, seems to be of very recent etymology, it became widely used and popularized by the ‘Draft Platform of Action’ of the Beijing conference of 1995. Though the etymology appears recent, the morphology of the word betrays a deep root in the psyche of a civilization which had been born out of conflict and remains ridden with conflict. For empowerment suggests the giving of power to someone who has been deprived of it, someone who will remain vulnerable without that power, someone whose hope for justice and fairness seem to hinge on the possession of that power. This power, which is held to be the solution to all the problems, has to be wrested from some despot, presumably, in this case, man.”

Therefore, setting women against men in competition for wealth and power in the name of equality, is similar to the communist ideology were every human being is mistakenly perceived to be the same. Moreover, here the focus is only on materialistic growth – i.e., making money and pleasure the only objective of life. The inevitable repercussions of this ideology have already been noticed in the West, with their family system crumbling like the proverbial house of cards. This notion as it has been conceived in the society only aggravates the war of the sexes as women are made to compete with men in all respect, and they are kept away from complementing the roles they are supposed to play for a healthy society. The followers of this ideology are obstinate to acknowledge that other social issues like confusion of roles leading to identity crises which in turn give way to violent crimes, depression, mental illness, increased suicidal cases and lack of ethics among the youth sprout from this very perception of life.

Where Do We Seek the Solution?

Our contemporary world is similar to the period of Jahiliyyah (the pre-Islamic period) in many aspects. During both these periods there is absence of balance between the mundane and the spiritual life, money and pleasure form the only purpose of life, human rights are violated either due to ignorance or to fulfill the selfish motives, and women are treated as mere objects present to gratify the lust of men, blanketed in the name of modernity in the present world. However, when Islam rose amidst Jahiliyyah, it expounded balance in every aspect of life, be it mundane or spiritual. It obligated both men and women to recognize the rights of each other on them and live by it. This is when people began to recognize that women are a part of human race. It further exalted the position of women in the society and prescribed a set of rights which governed their welfare and security. To begin with – it condemned, threatened and declared female infanticide as a punishable crime. Women were given financial rights, educational rights; they had the right to be treated with dignity and honor. They were given right to choose their husbands and had freedom to express their opinion in all spheres of life – religious, social, political, and economical.

Financial Right

This one of the most crucial and important rights which Islam vouch women. No other religion or law of the state upholds it as Islam does. In accordance with this right, the basic requirements of a woman like food, shelter and clothing has to be provided by her guardians, which includes her father, brothers and other close Mahram in absence of her father before marriage, and after marriage, it is the responsibility of the husband to provide her with food, shelter and clothing. Guardians have to fulfill this responsibility with due respect without considering it to be a burden on them. The details of this have been well documented in the books of Islamic jurisprudence. Apart from their maintenance, women have a share in the property of their father, brothers, husband and sons. They enjoy the sole ownership of Mehr, or dowry, which they get from their husband at the time of marriage. They can utilize the Mehr amount as they desire, they are free to invest their wealth in a business venture or they themselves can under-take the business dispositions using the wealth. Many western scholars have acknowledged this Islamic right of Muslim women. Dr. Gustav Le Bon, who is a social psychologist comments in his book, Civilization of the Arabs:

“Islam developed the social position of women a lot. For example, the law of inheritance introduced by the Qur’an as compared to that of Europe, is more useful for women.”

Right of Dignity, Honor and Self-Esteem

Imam Bukhari has recorded a narration in his Sahih, [hadith (#5843)], where Umar (ra) has said:

“We would regard women as mere objects in the pre-Islamic period of ignorance. With the advent of Islam and Allah Almighty’s commands concerning women that we realized the rights of women over us.”

Islam, indeed, cleansed the pre-Islamic Arab society of its unjust man-made dogmas. It commanded (commands) the followers of Islam to shun all the discriminating rules against women. It commanded men to respect women and consider them as a trust from God, this instilled a sense of fear in the hearts of early Muslim men, they were very careful even while interacting or talking with their women folks, so as not to say anything which would hurt or disrespect them. During the period of Jahiliyyah any mistake from the woman was not tolerated nor was any leniency shown, whereas Islam urged Muslim men to appreciate women for the good qualities they possessed instead of focusing on their weakness, since nobody in this world is error-free. This has been very well explained by our beloved prophet when he said [narrated by Abu-Hurairah, Sahih Muslim (hadith #1469)]:

“No believing man should curse a believing woman, for she must have some good qualities, if she possesses some undesirable ones.”

This attitude evinced by Islam towards women was not just restricted to the wife, but it did cast an overwhelming effect over all relations involving women like sister, daughter and mother.

The Companions of our holy Prophet competed with each other to adopt orphan girls, they took good care of them and kept them under their guardianship until the girls got married. They did this not to extract favors from the orphans later on, or to exhibit their piety, but to please Allah (swt) and get reward from Him alone. Islam made brothers legal guardians of their sisters in the absence of their parents. The responsibility of upbringing education, moral training and maintenance of an orphan girl is on her brother.

There are many injunctions in the holy Qur’an establishing good treatment and kindness towards parents as an obligation over their children, but the relation of mother has been high-lighted for special honor in the Hadith.Abu Hurairah (ra) narrates that someone asked the Prophet, “O Messenger of Allah, who deserves my good treatment the most?” The Prophet replied, “Your mother.” he asked again, “And then?” The Prophet said, “Your mother.” On repeating the question the third time he got the same reply from the Prophet. However for the fourth time, the Prophet said, “Your father and then those who are nearer to you.”[1]

Right of Education

Narrated by Abdullah b. Masood [Takhrij Mishkatul Masabih lil Albani, hadith #268], the Prophet said:

“Acquire knowledge and teach it to others, learn the Ilmul Faraid and teach it to others and learn the Qur’an and teach it to others, for I’m destined to leave”.

Therefore, Islam not only commands to acquire knowledge but also emphasizes on teaching the acquired knowledge to others, and apparently it makes no distinction between man and woman in the process of learning and teaching of the Ilm or knowledge. During the early Islamic period women acquired knowledge and were on equal footing with men, some even excelled in jurisprudence of Islamic Shari’ah. According to Majma’uz Zawajid lil Haithimi [9/245], Urwah b Zubair (ra) says:

“I did not find anyone with more knowledge about the Qur’an, the Qur’anic law of inheritance, ordinance and prohibitions, Islamic jurisprudence, poetry, medicines, history of Arabs and lineage than Ayesha (ra).”

Umm Salmah (ra) has been mentioned in Isabah as: “A woman of perfect wisdom and sound judgment.” Allamah Ibn Qayyim writes in his I’lamul Muwaqq’een, “If her judicial verdicts were to be complied, a booklet will come out of it.”

Apart from Prophet’s (saws) wives there were many women who were highly knowledgeable and cognizant. There was a custom of being well-read among the early Islamic women; therefore, many of them could read and some had mastered the art of writing.

Right to Live and Choose

Islamic law allows the adult woman irrespective of whether she is a virgin, widow or a divorcee, to choose her life-partner staying within the limits of the Shari’ah. According to the directives of the Shari’ah, the girl’s guardians should seek her permission and consult her for her choice of groom for the marriage. Narrated by Abdullah b. Abbas [Sahih Muslim, #1421]:

The Prophet said, “A grown-up woman who is not yet married or who is a divorcee or a widow, has more right over herself than her guardian. And a virgin’s permission will be sought in matters concerning her, and her silence will be considered as her permission, if she does not speak up.”

If the girl is forcefully married to a man against her will, she has the right to reject the marriage. If for some valid reason the marriage does not work, the wife has the right to end the marriage by following the directives prescribed by the Shari’ah, which are ‘Khula,’ ‘Tafreeque’ and ‘Faskh.’ These are similar to the divorce rights which the man possesses. Clearly Islam does not force a woman to uphold the relationship of marriage if she is undergoing endless sufferings, inflicted on her by her husband, just because she has no other means of livelihood and protection.

Nevertheless, it does not imply that woman should seek divorce on every trivial matter. This is why the Prophet (saws) said:

“Any woman who demands divorce from her husband on every trivial matter will not smell even the fragrance of the Jannah.” [Sunan Abu Dawood, # 2226]

Right to Freedom of Speech and Action

Women of early Islamic period were well-aware of their rights, be it financial, social, political or one governing their freedom of expression. They used them diligently and at right time. Once, Umar (ra) said: “O people! Do not determine the Mehr of your wives excessively, because if it were a matter of greatness in the world and piety before Allah, then the Prophet (saws) would deserve it more.” On hearing this, a woman interrupted Umar right in the assembly and said, “How do you say this, O Umar, while Allah says in the Qur’an: ‘And you have given her plenty of wealth, then do not take any of it back [HQ, 4: 21].’?”

The courage and freedom to express their opinion was not just confined to free men and women of the early Islamic period, even the maids and servants had the right to express themselves. Women had the freedom to take appropriate action when in need. Islamic history has innumerable stories of brave and courageous women who took strategic action against the danger to save themselves and others. The brave and courageous act of Safiyah (ra) in the Battle of the Trench, where she successfully defended hundreds of Muslim families is worth reading. The early Islamic women were tough enough to volunteer in battles. They encouraged the soldiers, provided them with water and nursed their wounds. They even carried the martyred and wounded soldiers back to Madinah.

The psychological processing which happened in the minds of early Muslims with the advent of Islam has to be emulated by all the Muslims in every age. Islam made the early Muslim women confident and brave; it enhanced their inherent virtues of compassion and love. It made them sincere in their devotion towards Allah (swt) and made them appreciate His mercy on them.

When Imam Al-Ghazali, a noted educationist of the Muslim world during the thirteenth century said the following, he was quite right:

“In every age, there are women who are talented and advanced in learning, who are well-read and endowed with knowledge who can turn their homes into much visited places of worship, abundant with goodness.”

Even in this era of Jahiliyyah where ignorance and inconsideration form the two important characteristics of men and women alike leading to their ruin, we do find a few exceptions. These women have not only been enlightened, but have also helped and inspired others to assert their Islamic rights. Candidly, there are many more in this league but the limitation of my knowledge has rendered me to pick a few from the list.

Zainab al-Ghazali (1917-2005): Born in Cairo to an Azhari scholar, she was a strong, devoted, knowledgeable and courageous woman who swam against the Jahiliy currents of her times. She founded Jama’ah al-Sayyidat al-Muslimat while she was barely 20 years old. The association she made gave rise to a new generation of Muslim women who fought against poverty, caring for the orphans, widows, divorced and other weak elements of the society, besides having been groomed to become best mothers, sisters and daughters of their respective families. She strongly supported the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt in its effort to establish an Islamic state. She refused to accept the ministerial post offered to her by the agents of the West in return for a favor which they demanded from her.

Maryam Jameelah (1934-20012): Born as Margaret Marcus in New York, she was a fourth generation American with German Jewish roots, her conversion to Islam was the West’s gift to Islam in the middle of the 20th century. After having read many books on Islam, including Qur’anic translations, she became a vocal spokesperson for the faith, defending Muslim beliefs against Western criticism. She also campaigned for the Palestinian causes which lead to much tension in her personal life, but nevertheless, she pursued her campaign. She saw Islam as the most comprehensive and satisfying religion. There are about seventeen books written by her which have been published.

Yvonne Ridley: A British journalist who wrote for the Sunday Times, the Independent on Sunday, the Observer, The Mirror and The News of the World. She worked as Chief Reporter with Sunday Express when she was sent to Afghanistan after 9/11.She converted to Islam after her release from the Taliban. While the West relates her conversion to ‘Stockholm Syndrome,’ she invariably denies it. She converted to Islam after having read the Qur’an and its teachings. Since her conversion to Islam, she has been defending the rights of Muslim women and supporting the Islamic dress code. She has been very outspoken about Western polices towards the Middle East by criticizing them openly and has been actively participating in uplifting the Muslim community all over the world.

Locally too, we have a number of Muslim women who have dedicated their lives for a noble cause:

Dr. Rokhiya Jaferi is the founder of ‘Bazm-e-Swalihaat’ a multi- purpose organization for Muslim ladies. She gave up her career as a doctor and devoted herself fully to the social cause of Muslim community, in general, and women, in particular. She is also the editor of ‘The Reforms’ an e-magazine. This organization also caters to the improvement of the vocational skills of women apart from teaching them Deen. Many deserving women have benefitted from this organization.

Mrs. Sophia runs an NGO called Rifa Home for Destitute and Orphan Girls. The Rifa Home provides a loving and caring environment to the resident girls apart from educating and training them to live a decent and respectful life, under the motherly supervision of Mrs. Sophia. Since girls are often in their pre-teens when they get into Rifa Home, it’s sometimes challenging to mould these girls to adopt a decent life. However, Sophia herself being the mother of three daughters, has handled it quiet efficiently. Many of the ‘Rifa Home’ girls are happily married and well-settled in their respective homes, while many others are pursuing their dreams of being well-educated.

Oasis International School is one of the first Islamic schools with an international curriculum. To have a school of this standard was a vision which a group of mothers shared. It did not take long for this dream to become a reality with their undeterred determination. The perception took off with Mrs. Maimoona Maqsood Ali, Nishwan Junaid and Shahtaaj as pioneers, and later it was taken further ahead with persistent endeavor of Dr. Amber Qayyum, Mrs. Azeeza and Ayesha Masood. This school is now at the 34th position among the best day-schools of India and at the 16th position among the South Indian schools.

[1] Narrated by Abu Hurairah, Sahih Bukhari, Hadith No. 5971.

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