many people think of islam as a chauvinistic religion that demeans women, and the stereotypical image of the completely secluded and oppressed muslim woman is all too common. they cite the condition of women in some muslim countries to emphasize the point, but their error is that they fail to make a distinction between the practices of those people and the true teachings of the religion that they profess.
although women have been oppressed by muslims in some cultures, this should not be understood as coming from the religion; rather, it reflects customs that are inconsistent, if not completely contrary to islamic teachings. and it is true that some muslim men still oppress women; but then, so do many non-muslim men. when muslims are at fault, it is either because of cultural habit or their ignorance about islam. in actual fact, islam expects its adherents to uphold the rights of women, protect their social status, and prevent their degradation in any way.
the status of women in earlier civilizations was so low that they were denied basic human dignity. prostitution was a regular practice, and many considered women to be basically evil, subhuman and inferior to men. before islam, the arabs disdained women, and often when a female child was born she was buried alive. islam uplifted women and gave them honor and equal status; and it requires that this status be upheld and maintained.
islam secured for the woman her intellectual, religious, social, economic and political rights, including the right to an education, the right to own property and to use it at her own discretion, and the right to work. a muslim woman is a completely independent personality. in addition to her right to think and believe as she likes, islam considers her to be an active member of society who can make a valuable contribution.
from the dawn of islam, women engaged in many occupations such as commerce, agriculture and manufacturing. a muslim woman can make any contract or bequest in her own name. she is entitled to inherit in her position as mother, a wife, a sister and a daughter. it is not permissible for anyone to take a woman's wealth without her consent. and there is consensus among the scholars of islam that all economic activities of a woman, like buying, selling, leasing, giving gifts, and giving collateral, are legally valid and that she has a completely independent economic existence.
women have the right to a decent life, without facing aggression or being wronged. women have the right to be educated, to express themselves, to give sincere advice, to enjoin what is good and forbid what is evil, and to invite people to islam. none of these basic principles have changed, but regarding their application, there can be no doubt that the weaker religious commitment has grown among muslims the more these rights have been neglected.
modern western societies claim to have improved the condition of women but have actually demoted them to the level of slaves in the hands of pleasure seekers and sex marketers by convincing them that they should be freed from religious and social restrictions. the united states of america is one of the leading advocates of women's "liberation," but it also has one of the highest rates of rape and sexual harassment in the world. a woman's proclaimed right to seek employment and climb the ladder of success is seldom without compromise. but much is overlooked in the quest to be "equal" with men.
as a fundamental principle, islam holds that women are indeed equal to men in their origin, their humanity, their honor and their accountability before god. they are also equal in their need to fulfill their physical and material needs, to possess property and dispose of it as they wish. both sexes are required to obtain knowledge; in fact, it is the religious duty of every muslim man and woman. women used to seek knowledge at the mosque and in the home of prophet muhammad. they even asked him to set aside a day for teaching them, and he did so. there were many excellent scholars, jurists and writers among women during the era of the prophet's companions and their students, as well as in later periods of islamic history.
the notion that islam makes women second class citizens worth half a man is no more than a myth. over 1,400 years ago islam elevated the status of women by declaring them sisters of men, giving them the right of education to the highest level, the right to choose a husband, the right to end an unhappy marriage, the right to inheritance, and in general, the rights of a full citizen of the state.
under islamic law it is unlawful for a woman to be married off without her consent or forced into a marriage. she has the right to initiate a separation from marriage if her rights are not being granted or she cannot bear the husband. prophet muhammad is known to have annulled marriages of women who had been unwillingly coerced. widows and divorcees have the right to remarry and are in fact encouraged to do so. when a muslim woman marries, she does not give up her family name and keeps her distinct identity.
in muslim marriages the husband is required to give a dowry to his wife which becomes her private property and is not subject to the dictates of her male relatives. similarly, any money she earns or receives, whether she is married or not, is her own to use in any way she sees fit. islam places on men the obligation of protecting and maintaining all of their female relatives, and a man must provide for his wife even if she has money of her own. she is not obligated to spend anything in maintenance of her family and is thus relieved of the need to seek employment. however, she may work if she prefers to or if circumstances warrant it.
the family, like any other organization, requires order and leadership. the qur'an has given the husband a "degree" of authority over the wife, which means responsibility, guardianship and accountability. it is in no way a license to practice tyranny within the household; rather, it is the burden of responsibility to care completely and conscientiously for one's wife and children. in turn, obedience is due to him, but only pertaining to what is right and fair according to the islamic shari'ah. the qur'an states:
"and due to [women] is what is similar to that expected from them."1
not only are material and physical rights specified, but those of kindness and consideration are equally significant in islamic law.