Before the arrival of Islam, women were leading miserable life completely devoid of free will, independent existence, and social and economic rights. They were considered inferior to men. They were treated as an object of pleasure or as slaves born only to serve the men.
In pre-Islamic Arabia, it was a common practice that newly-born girls were buried alive because they were considered a disgrace to the family. Women were sold to others as an object for sexual gratification. There were no social or economic rights for women.
If any woman enjoyed rights, she was one belonging to the upper class of society. The women belonging to the upper class could own and inherit property.
With its arrival, Islam has liberated women from all kinds of social and economic oppression. Islam clearly defined women’s rights and granted them a respectable status in society.
In his book “The Cultural Atlas of Islam”, the author Ismail al-Faruqi writes:
The Islamic approach to gender relations is based on “equity” rather than equality. As women and men are different in their psychological and physiological makeup, their responsibilities and roles are also different from each other. But, that does not mean that women are inferior to men.
Islam has categorically mentioned the rights of women as a daughter, a wife, a mother. It has elevated the status of women in all their roles and relations in society. We will discuss these rights in great detail.
Rights of Women in Islam
Islam has provided various rights to women and made it obligatory for men to provide them with their rights. We will discuss them in detail below.
1. Social Rights of Women in Islam
Islam has given multiple social rights to women and placed them in positions of great prestige.
1.1 Women’s Right to Education
The Holy Prophet (PBUH) said: “Seeking education is incumbent upon every Muslim man and woman.”
The equal importance of knowledge for both men and women can best be exemplified by the life of the Prophet (PBUH). Whenever he (PBUH) received verse(s) of the Quran, he (PBUH) would first recite those before his male companions (RA) and then in a gathering of female companions. This reflects what extent he (PBUH) was concerned for the education of Muslims, both males and females.
1.2 Right to Freedom of Expression and Decision
Islam has given women the right to accept or reject marriage proposals. This clearly delineates women’s right to marry as per their choice.
We can better understand it from the incident of Hazrat Ali’s (RA) marriage proposal for Hazrat Fatima (RA). When Hazrat Ali (RA) asked for Fatima’s hand from the Prophet of Islam (PBUH), the Prophet (PBUH) went to Fatima (RA) (his daughter) and asked about her wish or acceptance. When she (RA) accepted it, only then Prophet PBUH also accepted the marriage proposal for her daughter.
This incident best highlights the right of women to make important decisions of choosing spouses/life partners. It also highlights that women are free to make important decisions in their life.
Just like men, Islam has also given freedom of expression to women. Among the early Muslims, women participated in public life, especially in times of emergency. Women not only expressed their opinion freely but also argued and participated in serious discussions with the Prophet (PBUH) himself as well as with other Muslim leaders. They were not shut behind iron bars or considered worthless.
‘Hazrat Abdur Rahman al-Salami (RA)’ has reported that once a woman argued with Hazrat Umar (RA) on a certain issue. When proved wrong, Hazrat Umar (RA) accepted that he was wrong, and that woman was right. It proves that Islam has given women freedom of expression and speech. It also suggests that women are equal in reasoning to men.
2. Economic Rights of Women in Islam
Islam has given women the freedom to earn money and own property. A woman’s life, her honor, and her property are as sacred as those of a man.
Islam has also given women a share of the inheritance. Whether a woman is a wife, a mother, a daughter, or a sister, she is entitled to receive a certain share of the deceased kin’s property. However, the share is dependent on her degree of relationship to the deceased and the number of heirs. No one can take her share away from her. Even if the deceased wished to deprive her of her share of the inherited property, Islamic law will not allow this.
It is often pointed out that the sister’s share in the inheritance is less than the brother’s; or, the daughter’s share is less than the son’s. Critics of Islam often highlight this aspect as an injustice to women. Here, the basic point is that Islam has exempted women from all financial liabilities. After her father, it is her husband who has to provide total maintenance for her. Thus, in Islamic law, the share of inherited property to a son or brother is greater than a daughter or sister so that he would be financially stable enough to be able to sustain the whole family.
3. Spiritual Rights of Women
In rewards and punishment with respect to deeds, both men and women are equal. Both have to perform the same Islamic rituals (prayers, fasting, zakat, hajj) with equal rewards for both.
However, in some cases, Islam has even exempted women from these obligations. During periods, women are exempted from prayers (Namaz) and fasting. Similarly, with newly born babies and enhanced responsibilities, Islam has again exempted women from these religious obligations.
In short, considering physiological makeup and enhanced responsibilities, Islam has eased the burden of women by giving them exemptions from various obligations and enhanced status (as discussed under the status of mother). On the other hand, there is no exemption for men who struggle and earn for the family even during hot Ramadan days. Hence, equity between both genders is the essence of Islam.
Status of Women in Islam
Islam has elevated the status of women in their different roles in society.
1. Women’s Status as Daughters in Islam
As we have already discussed that in pre-Islamic Arabia, newly born daughters were considered a shame and disgrace; thus buried alive. With its arrival, Islam has uprooted all those prevailing practices and trends of ignorance from society. Islam has elevated the status of daughters by making them a blessing rather than a disgrace to a family.
The Prophet (PBUH) has given good tidings of Paradise to those who would bring up their daughters well.
We can quote multiple Ahadees in this regard.
Narrated Abdullah ibn Abbas (RA) that the Prophet (PBUH) said:
Likewise, Hazrat Jabir ibn Abdullah (RA) has reported that the Prophet (PBUH) stated:
Furthermore, Hazrat Aisha (RA) reported, “A woman came to me with her two daughters. She asked me for charity but she found nothing with me except one date fruit, so I gave it to her. She accepted it and then divided it between her two daughters and ate nothing out of it. Then, she got up and went out.
When the Messenger of Allah (PBUH) came in, I narrated to him the story, and he said,
Similarly, Hazrat Uqbah ibn Aamir (RA) narrated, I heard the Messenger of Allah (PBUH) saying:
Further, Hazrat Anas (RA) has reported that the Prophet (PBUH) said:
Hence, all the above Ahadees verifies that the Prophet (PBUH) gave glad tidings to those who did not insult their daughters or favored sons over daughters.
2. Status of Women as Mothers in Islam
Islam has elevated the position/status of women in society and treated them on an equal footing with men. However, in some cases, Islam has given women precedence over men; as in the case of being a mother. We can best understand it from the following incident.
A man asked Prophet Muhammad (PBUH): “Who is most entitled to be treated with the best companionship by me?” The Prophet (PBUH) replied, “Your mother.” The man asked, “Who is next?” The Prophet (PBUH) said, “Your mother.” The man again asked, “Who is next?” The Prophet (PBUH) repeated, “Your mother.” The man asked for a fourth time, “Who is next?” The Prophet (PBUH) then replied, “Your father.”
On another occasion, a man came to the Prophet (PBUH) and expressed the desire to join a military expedition. The Prophet (PBUH) asked him if he had a mother. He replied that he had. The Prophet (PBUH) advised him, “Stay with her, for Paradise is at her feet.”
3. Woman Status as a Wife in Islam
Dr. Jamal Badawi, a Canadian Islamic scholar, states in his book Gender Equity in Islam:
Islam has laid great emphasis on the position of wife. In this regard, the Holy Prophet (PBUH) has stated:
A husband should always treat his wife with great honor. Imam Zayn al-Abidin (RA) illustrates this notion,
Furthermore, Islam has made it compulsory for the husband to provide a dowry (wedding gift) to his wife. It is a right of a wife and the husband must give it to her under all circumstances. In this respect, the Prophet (PBUH) has stated:
Furthermore, Islam has made it compulsory for men to provide all the necessities to wives so that they would live comfortable life. Islamic law calls this financial right of the wife “Nafaqah”. It should cover all her basic needs. The Holy Prophet (PBUH) has stated:
“A wife’s rights on her husband are that he should provide her with food, clothes, and not treat her with ill manners. When he discharges these duties, I swear by God, he has paid her due.”
In short, as a wife, Islam has exempted her from all financial obligations. And Islam has made it obligatory for husbands to take care of all the needs of their wives and provide them relief.
To cap the whole discussion, by giving multiple rights to women, Islam has elevated their status and brought them on equal footing with men. In some cases, even women have been given precedence over men. Islam has provided a respectful status and position to women in all roles and relations. It has provided more ease to women than men in multiple ways as discussed above.