Ronald Jennings described the prevailing stereotype of Muslim women as property. He said they were owned by their fathers or guardians, sold at marriages and denied inheritance to which the Qur’an entitled them. It is important to note that though Jennings criticises the treatment of women, he also acknowledges that Islam does give rights to them referring to the Qur’an and this constructive view is also shared by a nineteenth-century sound able Muslim jurist, Amir Ali. Today, unfortunately we still witness the poor status of women in majority Muslim countries. Muhammad Ahsan made a compelling statement when he stated, women make up about half of the world’s population but they are behind in the development process compared to their male counterparts.
It is also important to note that he said, this is common in developing and Muslim countries. This paper aims to provide evidence that indeed the poor status of women in Muslim countries have nothing to do with Islam and will further discuss and evaluate other factors that contribute to this condition. To achieve this result, this paper will look at the subject from different perspectives such as; outline rights of women pre and post-Islam, study negative discourses towards the poor status of women in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia. There are many however for the sake of brevity, it will study; poor education, domesticated duties and objectification of women; it will examine the rights of women in the seventeen century for comparison purposes. And lastly prove that if all the evidence does not point towards Islam then perhaps what are the factors that contribute towards the poor status of women.
To fully understand this paper, we need to first glance at the position of women pre-Islam, known as the Dark Age and then post-Islam to draw a conclusion if Islam made it worse or better. Maulana Muhammad Ali explains that women occupied a low position in Arabia. They were rendered no better treatment than lower animals. Married women were allowed by their husbands to breed with other men for the sake of offspring. Furthermore, he states that women were looked upon as a mere chattel. She was entitled no share from her deceased husband but was part of the possession which the heir disposed of however he wished. The practice of divorce meant a husband could divorce his wife a thousand times and take her back within the prescribed period. With this background set, Islam brought about many reforms to raise women from the depths of degradation to an elevated state. It may come as a surprise to some people that the Qur’an dedicated a whole chapter which deals with giving rights to women. Abdullah Yusuf Ali explains that this chapter recognises the women’s rights in marriage, property and inheritance. Someone asked Prophet Muhammad, what are the rights that a wife has over her husband? The Prophet replied, “feed her when you take your food, give her clothes to wear when you wear clothes, refrain from giving her a slap on the face or abusing her, and do no separate from your wife, except within the house”. You do not need to fetch far to work out that the Qur’an passed laws to protect the civil rights of women which subsequently improved their wellbeing.
Today, contrary to the teachings of the Prophet, an article was written by human rights watch that women’s rights are severely restricted in Iran. It further stated that women face serious discrimination on issues such as marriage, divorce, and child custody. This paper will aim to address a few criticisms against women beginning with education in Afghanistan. The western journalist states that Taliban mistreats women by denying them education for the sake of preserving traditions and further stated that some Islamic scholars believe that the Taliban have distorted the Qur’anic teachings to deny education. It is important to note, Taliban came to power in Afghanistan in 1994 nevertheless, before them, mosques were used as an education centre for boys and girls who were taught; reading, writing and poetry. The global media blames Islam for Taliban’s brutal treatment of women and blasting off girls schools. Rukhsana Kosar, a Muslim activist argues that this has nothing to do with Islam but local culture and tradition labelled as Islam. She explains the western media fails to distinguish between culture and religion. From this we can infer that Taliban denies education for girls because they rather preserve their culture. Prophet Muhammad said, “The seeking of knowledge is obligatory upon every Muslim” and very fittingly, Holy Qur’an settles this matter when it unequivocally asks the believers to increase them in knowledge.”…My, Lord increase me in knowledge.
Just like education, another common misconception about Muslim women is that Islam denies them employment because it puts them in the way of temptation and endangers motherhood. Anne Kershen explains in Bangladesh, it is customary for the new bride to move in with the in-laws and to undertake her share of domestic responsibilities. She quotes an interview with a Bengali woman who said, “My duties are at home and my husband’s duties are at work”. In consonance, a study was conducted by United Nation in 2007 to compare women’s unemployment rate with a Muslim (Qatar) and non-Muslim (Spain) country with similar GDP per capita. The report uncovered that unemployed in Qatar was three times higher than Spain in which Sidra Nadeem, a female British Muslim intellect argues that the comparison is not like for like because Muslim women though educated, can choose not to work because their husbands can maintain them alluding to the Qur’an injunction, men are maintainers of women. She explains that this behaviour could also be more cultural where the wife nurtures the children, supports the husband or is busy taking care of the elders. After examining the case in Bangladesh and Qatar, two factors could be at play here but to describe them, the word “qawwamun” (maintainer) in chapter Nisa verse 34 of the Qur’an needs a closer look. Zainab Chaudhry explains that this verse is erroneously interpreted since it can come across as men being superior to women. She clarifies that this passage is about the financial role men play and not superior.  In the case of Bengali women, the factors are cultural and freezing of Islamic law, where misogynist clerics misunderstand the word “qawwamun”, promoting that men are superior to women or are perhaps oblivious that women today can also financially help. On the flip side, I agree with Sidra Nadeem about unemployment in Qatar where women may choose to stay home because their husbands can financially take care of them though they may be educated and able to work. There are many cases recorded where women worked during the Prophet’s time. Women repaired mosques; fought in battles; looked after the sick and wounded; helped husbands in the field of labour; carried on business and traded with men and Caliph Umar appointed a woman as the superintendent of the market of Madinah. Today women in Muslim and non-Muslim countries handle similar roles and if Islam prohibited women to work then a single case would not have been recorded during the Prophet’s time.
This paper has thus far demonstrated that there are factors and not Islam which contribute to the poor status of women. Another factor worth mentioning is that women are objectified to illustrate reforms. Al-Baadi, Hamad Muhammad explains how women are used to delivering social and economic reforms in Arabia due to the sudden influx of oil money. He further explains how these reforms aim to break old cultures and traditions centred on the role of women. He states that there are two opposing sides; western educated secular Arab men and traditionalists. The secular side wants women employed to replace foreign labour but traditionalists views are to keep women indoors for domestic duties. In recent times the Saudi King; Salman passed a new social reform to lift the ban for women to drive. This reform was not welcomed by traditionalists and a cleric openly said that women should not drive because their brains are smaller than men. In both examples, Saudi Arabia uses women to illustrate economic and social reforms. This appears to be a paradoxical situation where one hand these changes will emancipate women, and on the other hand, women are used as an object whether it favours westernisation or Islamisation. We can infer here that the factors are social and economic reforms.
To position everything into perspective, in the seventeenth century, women during the Ottoman Empire had more rights compared to women in some Muslim countries today. Haim Gerber’s investigation indicates that women shared the same statutory right as their male counterparts. Women were able to settle disputes in court against anyone including their family. One case worth mentioning is when a woman took her husband to court because he proceeded to add an extension to her house without her consent. The judge ordered the husband to demolish the extension. Another case worth mentioning is that even non-Muslims willingly solved their disputes in Islamic courts because they found the results equitable and fair.
In summary, the objective of this paper is to provide evidence that the poor status of Muslim women has nothing to do with Islam. For the sake of brevity, it looked at this subject from different perspectives outlined in the introduction. Women in pre-Islam had no civil rights and Islam lifted them from the depths of degradation. It looked at the poor education standards in Afghanistan and why women are being domesticated in Bangladesh. In both cases Islamic traditionalists prefer preserving their traditions by not allowing their women to work however some women prefer to stay home and look after the family though they may be educated and able to work. It is required that the word “qawwamun” must be properly understood and applied since women can be the financial maintainers. In the case of Saudi Arabia, women are being used as an object to make social and economic reforms by breaking down old cultures. Again this has nothing to do with Islam and more with political ideology. And in the case of Ottoman Empire, Muslims today should study their Islamic legal framework and find ways to apply it where it fits.