Status of women throughout the ages
Women in the pre-islamic societies and civilization
Women suffered great injustices in the pagan Arab society and were exposed to diverse kinds of humiliation prior to the mission of the Messenger of Allah (s). They were treated like material property to be disposed of at the whim of the male guardian. They were not entitled to inherit from their parents or husbands.
Arabs believed inheritance should only be granted to those who had martial abilities, like being able to ride a horse, fight, gain spoils of war and help protect the tribe and clan territory. Since women in the pagan Arab society did not generally have these qualities, they were themselves inherited like any moveable commodity after the death of an indebted husband. If the deceased husband had adult sons from other marriages, the oldest son amongst them had the right to add her to his household, just as a son inherits other chattels of his deceased father. She was unable to leave the house of her stepson unless she paid a ransom.
As a general practice, men had the freedom to acquire as many wives as they desired with no set limits. There was no system of law that would forbid a man from committing any injustice towards his wives. Women had no right to choose, or even consent to being chosen as a partner for marriage; they were simply given away. Women were forbidden to remarry if a husband divorced them.
In the pre-Islamic era of Arabia, fathers commonly became extremely angry and disgraced with the birth of a female child into their family. Some considered it an evil omen. Allah, the Exalted, describes the father’s reception of the news about the birth of a daughter: 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? Unquestionably, evil is what they decide.” [16:58-59]
Women were not given even the most natural of rights. For instance, eating certain types of foods was allowed only for males. Allah, the Exalted, records this in the Qur’an: “And they say: ‘What is in the bellies of these animals is exclusively for our males and forbidden to our females. But if it is [born] dead, then all of them have shares therein.’ He will punish them for their description...” [6:139]
The hatred of female babies prompted Arabs to bury them alive. Allah, the Exalted, states in the Qur’an with reference to the Day of Judgment:“And when the female buried alive shall be questioned: for what sin was she killed?” [81:8-9]
Some fathers used to bury their female children alive if the child was leprous, lame or with a birth defect. Allah states in the Glorious Qur’an:“And kill not your children for fear of poverty. We provide for them and you. Surely, the killing of them is a great sin.” [17:31]
The one honor afforded to women during the pre-Islamic era was the protection of her person, family and tribe, and the revenge against any who humiliated or dishonored her. But even this was more for male pride, dignity and tribal honor than a concern for the female gender.
This situation of women in the Arab society led Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second Caliph of the Muslims to say, as reported by Muslim:“By Allah, we didn’t use to think that women had anything until Allah revealed about them what He revealed in the Qur’an, and distributed to them what He distributed…” [Bukhari & Muslim]
Women in different societies
- Indian society
- Chinese society
- Greek society
- Roman society
- Jewish society
- Chrisitian society
Women in indian society
In Indian society, women were treated generally as maids or slaves as if they had no will or desire of their own. They had to follow their husbands in all matters. Women were given as payment for loss to a gambling opponent. To show devotion, they were forced to burn themselves alive by jumping onto the funeral pyre of their husbands after his death. This practice, called “sutti” continued until the end of the 17th century when this custom was outlawed in spite of the dismay it caused the Hindu religious leaders. Although outlawed formally, sutti was widely practiced until the end of 19th century and still continues in some of the remote areas of India. In certain regions of India, women are offered to the priests as concubines, or as prostitutes to be exploited. In others, they were sacrificed to the Hindu gods to please them or seek rain. Some Hindu laws even declare that: “The predestined patience, the blowing wind or tornadoes, death, hellfire, poison, snakes and fire are no less evil than women”.
It is also stated in Hindu religious books, that “When Manna [the Hindu god of creation] created women he imposed onto them the love of bed, seats, decoration [make-up], filthy lust (of all types and kinds), anger, rebellion against honor and dignity and evil attitudes, behavior and conduct.
In the teachings of Manna Herma Sistra concerning women, one can read: A woman may live without a choice regardless of whether she is a little girl, a young lady or a mature woman. A young girl is under the command and choice of her father. A married woman is under the command and choice of her husband. A widow is under the command and choice of her male children, and she may never become independent [after the death of her husband]. A widow may never remarry after the death of her husband, but rather, she must neglect all that she likes in terms of food, clothes, and makeup until she dies. A woman may not own or possess anything, as whatever she may gain or acquire shall go straight and immediately to the ownership of her husband.
In some rare cases, a woman had several husbands at the same time. No doubt this made her as a prostitute in society.
Women in chinese society
Women in Chinese society occupied a low and degraded status. They were customarily assigned the most despised and least important jobs and positions. The male child was looked upon as a “gift” from the gods, and treated accordingly. As for the female child, she had to endure multiple hardships, like the binding of her feet in order to cripple her from running and other customs. A Chinese proverb says:
“Listen to your wife, but never believe what she says.”
The status of women in the Chinese society was not much better than that of the pagan pre-Islamic Arab and the Indian societies.
Women in greek society
Among the Greeks, women were degraded to the extent that men claimed that women were nothing but the epitome of evil. There was no system to protect women in that society. They were deprived of the rights to education; bought and sold like any other commodity; deprived of the right of inheritance; and considered as minors with no rights to make any transactions in regard to possessions and wealth. Women were subjected to the will of men throughout their lives. Divorce was an absolute right of men. The common situation of women in the society led some Greek thinkers to say:
Woman’s name must be locked up in the house, as it is the case with her body.
Gustave Le Bon, the French thinker, stated about the status of women in the Greek society in his book Arab Civilization: “Greeks, in general, considered women to be the lowest creatures of the low. They were useful for nothing other than reproduction and taking care of the household affairs. If a woman gave birth to an ‘ugly, retarded or handicapped’ child, the man could take the liberty to kill the (unwanted or undesirable) child.”
Demosthenes, the Greek orator and thinker said: “We Greek men enjoy the company of prostitutes for sexual pleasure, ‘girl-friends’ and ‘sweethearts’ to care for our daily needs, and we marry to get ‘legitimate’ children.” From this licentious double standard, and depraved morality, we can see what fortune women had in such a society.
Women in roman society
A woman in Roman society was also looked upon as an inferior being that could not run her own affairs. All authority was in the hands of men who totally dominated all private and public affairs. Men even had the authority to sentence their wives to death in certain cases when accused of specific crimes. The authority of man over woman in the Roman society included the right to sell her, punish her with tortuous punishments, send her into exile or kill her. The woman in Roman society had to listen to and obey all commands given by the man. And they were deprived of the right of inheritance.
Women in jewish society
Women in traditional Jewish society were not more fortunate than those previously described. In the Old Testament women were described as follows: directed my mind to know, to investigate and to seek wisdom and an explanation, and to know the evil of folly and the foolishness of madness. And I discovered more bitter than death the woman whose heart is snares and nets, whose hands are chains. One who is pleasing to God will escape from her, but the sinner will be captured by her.” [Ecclesiastes (7:25-26)]
In the Septuagint, it says,“And if a man sells his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do. If she pleases not her master, who has betrothed her to himself, then shall he let her be redeemed: to sell her unto a strange nation he shall have no power, seeing he has dealt deceitfully with her. And if he had betrothed her unto his son, he shall deal with her after the manner of daughters. If he takes him another wife, her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish. If he does not do these three unto her, then shall she go out free without money.” [Exodus (21:7-11)]
Thus, if a Jewish woman got married, her guardianship was transferred from her father to her husband and she became as one of his possessions such as his house, his slave, his maidservant or his money or wealth.
Jewish teachings and laws deprived the girl of her father’s inheritance if the father had other male children. In the Old Testament, the Septuagint, it says: “And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, ‘If a man dies, and has no son, then ye shall cause his inheritance to pass unto his daughters.’” [Numbers (27:8)]
Moreover, Jewish men never slept in the same bed with a menstruating woman, or even ate and drank with her. Jewish men used to isolate themselves fully from a menstruating woman until she was completely free from her menses.
Women in chrisitian society
Christian priests went to the extreme of considering the woman as the cause of “original sin” and the source of all catastrophes from which the entire world has suffered. For this very reason, the physical relationship between man and woman has traditionally been labeled as “filthy” or “dirty”, even if it were officially done and performed within a legitimate marriage contract.
Saint Thomas Aquinas says: “The male sex is more noble than the female, and for this reason he [Jesus] took human nature in the male sex.” (Summa Theologiae III:31:4 ad 1)
Their history of misogyny is fact that the Catholic Church has tried, unsuccessfully, to hide. Tertullian, commonly known as the “father of Latin Christianity” and “the founder of Western theology”, is recorded to have said: "In pain shall you bring forth children, woman, and you shall turn to your husband and he shall rule over you. And do you not know that you are Eve? God’s sentence hangs still over all your sex and His punishment weighs down upon you. You are the devil’s gateway; you are she who first violated the forbidden tree and broke the law of God. It was you who coaxed your way around him whom the devil had not the force to attack. With what ease you shattered that image of God: Man! Because of the death you merited, even the Son of God had to die… Woman, you are the gate to hell."
One would think that the Protestant movement would have distanced itself from such views, but the historical record shows them to be equally misogynistic. The reformer Martin Luther is well known for his chauvinistic statements about the female gender: "The word and works of God is quite clear, that women were made either to be wives or prostitutes."
John Calvin, another pivotal Protestant thought leader, said: “Thus the woman, who had perversely exceeded her proper bounds, is forced back to her own position. She had, indeed, previously been subject to her husband, but that was a liberal and gentle subjection; now, however, she is cast into servitude.”
These views and related laws which subverted and restricted women remained in effect until 1938, when in Europe, for the first time, a decree was issued to abrogate all the laws that forbid a woman from conducting her own financial affairs directly and opening a bank account in her own name.
Europeans continued to discriminate against women and deprive them of their rights throughout the Middle-Ages. One particularly shocking practice was that of “wife selling” - where a husband would publicly auction his wife to the highest bidder - that surfaced in England in the late 17th century. This practice was accepted as a way of ending an unsuccessful, or even inconvenient, marriage. The financial challenges of getting a legal divorce certainly played into the evolution of this practice, but at the heart of it was the miserable status of women. Although “wife-selling” had no legal basis, there are numerous instances where authorities “looked the other way”, with some even saying that they did not have the right to prevent wife sales.
The rift between the sexes, men and women, continued to increase so much so that women became fully under the control of men. Women were stripped completely of all their rights and whatever they owned. All that a woman owned belonged to her husband. Until very recently, women, according to the French law, were not considered capable of making their own financial decisions in their private ownership. The two basic provisions of the French law dealing with status of the wife are articles 213 and 217. Article 213 reads as follows: “The husband owes protection to his wife; the wife owes obedience to her husband.”
Article 217 states: “The wife, even when she is separate in estate from her husband, cannot grant, alienate, mortgage, acquire, either by gratuitous or incumbered title, unless her husband concurs in the act, or yields his consent in writing.”
Many provisions follow from these principles. For example, in Article 214: “The wife is bound to live with her husband and to follow him wherever he chooses to reside …”
And Article 215 which states: “The wife cannot appear in court without the authorization of her husband, although she may be a public merchant, or possess her property separate from her husband.”
Despite all amendments and modifications, which occurred in these French laws, we can still see how these laws are affecting married French women. It is a form of civilized slavery.
Furthermore, a married woman loses her surname (family’s name) as soon as she enters into a marriage contract. A married woman shall carry the family name of her husband. This, of course, indicates that a married woman will only be a follower of her husband and she will even lose her personal identity.
Bernard Shaw, the well-known English writer, says: “The moment a woman marries, all her personal possessions become her husband’s in accordance to the English law.”
Lastly, there is one more injustice that has been imposed upon the woman in the Western society which is that a marriage bond is made to last forever, in accordance with legal and religious teachings. There is no right of divorce (according to Catholicism, at least). Husband and wife are only separated from each other physically. This separation may have contributed to all sorts of social decay and corruption, such as having affairs, mistresses, boyfriends, girlfriends, as well as possibly prostitution, and so forth. Moreover, a surviving widow was not given the chance to remarry and lead a normal married life after the death of her husband.
These practices have only recently changed in the last century in much of the Western world, with some just in the past fifty years. Take, for example, Canada’s divorce laws. Canada did not have a federal divorce law until 1968. Before that time, the process for getting a divorce varied from province to province. In Newfoundland and Quebec, it was necessary to get a private Act of Parliament in order to end a marriage. Most other provinces incorporated the English Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 which allowed a husband to get a divorce on the grounds of his wife’s adultery and a wife to get one only if she established that her husband committed any of a list of particular sexual behaviours but not simply adultery. Some provinces had legislation allowing either spouse to get a divorce on the basis of adultery.(2) The abuses mentioned above collectively led, due to gradual and eventual effects of technological and social modernization, to the expected and natural reaction: movements demanding women’s rights in the society, led by thinkers, educators, lobbyists, and human rights and women rights’ activists.
The pendulum was set to swing in the other direction, and they demanded absolute equal rights and liberation from male chauvinism and abuses. In many of the modern secular societies, women are indeed given numerous equal rights, but at the same time, equality has exposed them to the molestation and double standards rampant in the immoral materialistic culture that markets her as an object of sexual desire, for sale, contract or rent.
The ensuing breakdown of the family unit, and the widespread sexual immorality, abortion, and criminal deviancy from sexual liberation, has led to some counter reactions in the society, especially from the religious conservatives, but apparently, the trends are too strong to turn the tide back.
In this global context, and from this historical legacy, we will present the salient features of women’s rights in Islam and shed light on some common misconceptions in order to show the superiority of following Allah’s guidance rather than that of men and women guiding each other by whim and desire.
WOMEN’S RIGHTS IN ISLAM IN GENERAL: AS CHILDREN, DAUGHTERS, SISTERS, WIVES, MOTHERS, AND AS KINFOLK AND NEIGHBORS
Islam deals with women in a comprehensive way; in the context of her relationship with Allah, her Creator and Lord, with herself as a part of humanity, and with man, her partner and natural spouse in the family. While reading further, keep in mind the rights that other societies grant them in comparison to the rights to which Islam has entitled women, dating back approximately to the year 625CE. It is noteworthy that Islamic teachings are attentive to the needs and rights of the woman throughout her life: as a daughter, sister, wife, mother, and as a member of the society.
EQUALITY OF MEN AND WOMAN IN ISLAM, AND THEIR COMPLEMENTARY NATURE TO ONE ANOTHER
In one sense, equality between men and women is possible and reasonable because they are both human, with equal souls, brains, hearts, etc. In another sense, equality between men and women is less reasonable due to their natural differences in physical and emotional abilities and inclinations. Between these two we must tread to illuminate how they are equal, and how they are complimentary.
If total equality between all members of the same gender is illogical due to natural differences in strengths and other qualities, regardless of whether the gender is masculine or feminine, then it is definitely impossible between the two genders. Allah, the Exalted and Almighty, says in the Qur’an: “And of all things We created two mates; perhaps you will remember.” [51:49]
In many instances, Islam treats women as equals to men. Some of them are given below. In the coming sections, we will expand further on these themes
- Both the male and the female are equal in terms of their humanity. Islam does not categorize women, for instance, as the source of evil in the world for some “original sin” that caused Adam to be dismissed from Paradise, or to be the cause of evil in the world by setting loose a Pandora’s box of vices, as some other religious doctrines and fables teach.
Allah, the Exalted and Almighty, states in the Qur’an:“O mankind, fear your Lord, who created you from one soul and created from it its mate and dispersed from both of them many men and women...” [4:1]
Allah, the Exalted and Almighty, states in the Qur’an:“O mankind, fear your Lord, who created you from one soul and created from it its mate and dispersed from both of them many men and women...” [75:36-40]
Allah illustrated in these verses that He created both sexes from one single source. There is no difference between the two sexes in terms of humanity, and each complements the other as the two genders of the species. Islam has abolished and abrogated all the previous unjust laws that demoted women as inferior in quality and nature. The Prophet of Allah (s) said: “Verily, women are the complementary halves of men.” [Abu Dawood, Tirmidhi & others]
- Equal religious duties and rituals are required from both women and men. Testimony of Faith (Shahadah), Prayer (Salah), Obligatory Charity (Zakah), Fasting (Saum), and Pilgrimage (Hajj) are equally required of both genders. In some cases the requirements are a degree easier on women to alleviate their special cases of hardship.
For instance, in consideration of her health and physical condition, menstruating women or a woman in the state of postnatal bleeding and recuperation are absolved from the duty of prayers and fasting. She is required to make up the days of fasting missed due to menses and postnatal bleeding, but not her prayers.
- Both males and females have similar rewards for obedience, and penalties for disobedience in this world and the Hereafter. As stated by Allah in the Qur’an: “Whoever does righteousness, whether male or female, while he is a believer - We will surely cause him to live a good life, and We will surely give them their reward [in the Hereafter] according to the best of what they used to do.” [16:97]
And He says: “Surely for men who submit to Allah and for women who submit to Allah, for believing men and for believing women, for devout men and devout women, for truthful men and truthful women, for steadfast men and steadfast women, for humble men and humble women, for charitable men and charitable women, for fasting men and fasting women, for men who guard their chastity and women who guard their chastity, for men who remember Allah much and for women who remember Allah much, for all of them Allah has prepared forgiveness and a mighty reward.” [33:35]
- Women have the same moral obligations and are entitled to the same general rights as men in guarding chastity, integrity and personal honor and respect, etc. No double standards are allowed. For instance, those who falsely accuse a chaste woman of adultery or fornication are publicly punished, just as if a man is slandered. Allah, the Exalted, states in the Qur’an: “And those who accuse chaste women, and produce not four witnesses, flog them with eighty lashes, and reject their testimony forever. Indeed, they are those who are disobedient to Allah.” [24:4]
- Women are equally qualified and allowed to engage in financial dealings and property ownership. According to Islamic law, women can own, buy, sell and undertake any financial transaction without the need for guardianship, and without any restrictions or limitations - a situation unheard of in many societies until modern times.
- Islam indicates that a man who honors, respects and deals with women justly and integrally, possesses a healthy and righteous personality, whereas a man who mistreats them is an unrighteous and unrespectable man. The Prophet of Allah (s) said: “The most complete believer is the best in character, and the best of you is the best to his womenfolk.” [Tirmidhi and verified]
- Islam entitled women to the same rights as men in terms of education and cultivation. The Prophet of Allah (s) said, as reported and authenticated by the scholars of prophetic traditions: “Seeking knowledge is compulsory for each and every Muslim.” [Ibn Maajah & al-Baihaqi and verified]
Muslim scholars collectively agreed that the word “Muslim” when used in revealed scriptures includes both male and female. Thus, Islam entitles women to the same right of education in order to understand the religious and social obligations, and obligated them both to raise their children in the best manner, in accordance with the right Islamic guidance. Of course, women have certain obligations in bringing up their children that are commensurate to their abilities and men have complementary obligations to finance, protect and maintain according to their added responsibilities in the family unit.
The Prophet (s) said: “Whoever takes care of two girls until they reach puberty, he and I will come on the Day of Resurrection like this.” The Messenger of Allah then joined his fingers to illustrate this. [Muslim]
About female slave girls, the Prophet of Allah (s) said: “Whoever has a female child under his guardianship, and trains her in the best behavior, and teaches her well, and then frees and marries her, will have a double reward.” [Bukhari & Muslim]
- Men and women have similar obligations and responsibilities to reform and correct the society to the best of their capability. Men and women shoulder the responsibility of enjoining good and forbidding evil equally, as Allah, the Exalted, states in the Qur’an: “The believing men and believing women are allies of one another. They enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and establish prayer and give zakah and obey Allah and His Messenger. Those - Allah will have mercy upon them. Indeed, Allah is Exalted in Might and Wise.” [9:71]
- Men and women have set and determined rights to receive their fair share of wealth, just as they are obliged to give Zakah (Obligatory Charity) according to the set calculation. All Muslim scholars unanimously agree upon this. A woman has her set share of inheritance, as will be discussed in more detail later, which was a right unthinkable in many societies.
Allah says: “There is a share for men from what is left by parents and those closely related, and there is a share for women from what is left by parents and those closely related, whether the wealth be small or large: a legal mandatory share.” [4:7]
- A woman, just like a man, can give someone the right of seeking refuge and security among the Muslims. Allah, the Exalted, says:“And if any one of the polytheists seeks your protection, then grant him protection so that he may hear the words of Allah. Then deliver him to his place of safety.” [9:6]
The Messenger of Allah (s) said: “…and the protection of Muslims is one, and the least among them can give protection; and whoever usurps the right of a Muslim then the curse of Allah and His angels and all the people is upon him, and no repentance or ransom will be accepted from him…” [Bukhari]
This is also proven by the famous story of Um Hani’ when she gave protection to a polytheist who sought refuge with her on the day of the conquest of Makkah after her relative threatened to kill that person (for some past crime), so the Messenger of Allah (s) said: “We protect and give asylum to whomever you give asylum O’ Um Hani’.” [Bukhari]
These are just some of the rights, mentioned here as examples in a summarized way to indicate the comprehensive nature of the Islamic jurisprudence.