A POPULAR belief in the West is that Islam subjugates women and that the rights afforded to women in the ‘Judeo-Christian’ West are incompatible with Islamic laws. Many Western commentators portray the status of women in Islam as the lowest amongst all religions and much lower than what it is in their own faith. Perhaps no other widespread belief in the West is further from the truth.
The belief is rooted in the fact that today many Muslim-majority countries lag behind the West in many indicators of social progress, including the status of women in society. However, for centuries, the Islamic world led the West in almost all social indicators including the status of women.
Islam declared in the seventh century that all men and women are born equal. However, for most of history, Western society was a feudal one in which equality of even all white men was an alien concept, much less equality of all men and women. It was only in 1789 that the French government issued a declaration recognising that “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.” The declaration excluded women. In a direct response, the French women’s rights activist Marie-Olympe de Gouges published a declaration in 1791 that started with, “Woman is born free and lives equal to man in her rights.” She was executed two years later, partly to warn other women’s rights activists.
For most of Europe’s history, fathers were the legal guardians of children. Even after the husband’s death, a mother could not be a guardian of her own children. In comparison, Islam gives mothers a higher status than fathers. Yet, at the 1893 Congress of Women in Washington, DC, a women’s rights activist, Mary Greene, condescendingly stated, “In England a father may appoint by his will a guardian to act conjointly with the mother. The Asiatic and African colonies of European and English nations are slowly receiving the benefit of their laws, as civilisation and Christianity advance.”
Many Western notions about Islam need to be corrected.
Islam has made the husband responsible for financially supporting the wife regardless of her financial status. Islam also does not require the wife to spend her wealth or earnings on her husband or children. Moreover, Islam requires the husband to give a part of his wealth in dowry (mehr) to his wife. The Holy Quran also says that a husband cannot unilaterally take back mehr nor withhold it in the event of divorce. The Quran even urges a husband to give his divorced wife parting gifts in addition to mehr.
Moreover, the Holy Quran clearly spelled out the share in inheritance of wife, mother, daughters, sisters and even half-sisters. In comparison, throughout most of the West’s history, after marriage, a woman lost her separate legal status as feme covert and husband and wife became one legal person (‘coverture’). Hence, in Western culture, the wife still takes her husband’s name. A married woman had to give up all rights to property. The husband enjoyed total control of his wife’s property and could sell her property without her consent or even knowledge. A widow could not even inherit her own property after her husband’s death. Mary Greene admitted in her 1893 speech that under the Belgian and French laws a widow “only receives the husband’s property when all heirs to the twelfth degree have failed”. It was only in 1882 that England passed a law that permitted married women to own properties.
Until the second half of the 20th century, many leading Western universities prohibited women’s admission. Until recently, many ultraorthodox Jews prohibited women from studying the Torah and religious texts. In contrast, the Holy Quran exhorts all men and women to acquire knowledge. It is little known that one of the world’s oldest universities, Al Qarawiyyin, was founded by a Muslim woman named Fatima al-Fihri in Morocco in the ninth century. It admitted women as well as students of other faiths. A famous alumnus of Al Qarawiyyin was said to be Pope Sylvester II (946-1003 AD).
Many Western commentators point out that Islamic law requires two women as witnesses but only one man in financial transactions. However, they fail to mention that, for most of history, women in the West could not be witness to any legal document, could not testify in courts or become lawyers, and married women could not sue or be sued. Until recently, Orthodox Judaism did not consider women competent to attest or testify. It was only in 2001 that the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which represents conservative Judaism, formally recognised that women can be accepted as witnesses just as men are.
It should be clear to any critic of Islam that any subjugation of women in the Muslim-majority countries is not really based on religious laws. It is generally a result of politicians using religion for political gains.
The writer is a finance professional based in the US.
Published in Dawn, December 25th, 2020