Added 5.7.16 (Original convo 5.5.16)
I’m concerned about systems that control women or keep them down. How does Islam regard women? Also, how does marriage work in Islam?
While there are simple and direct responses, so much of al-Qur’an and the lives of the early Muslims is at least relevant, if not key, to this broad question on women’s rights. As well, the question elicits a deep personal response on my part. Thus, I’ll only begin to broach the wealth of Islamic knowledge and thought around this topic.
Beyond systemic issues around equality in employment, political rights, etc., during my life before entering Islam, I had an extensive history of contact with women who had been abused or oppressed at least psychologically or emotionally, if not physically or sexually. I found that while this ought to be the rare exception and, ideally, should never happen, in reality, it is hard to find a woman in this society who has not been mistreated on the basis of her being a woman. It's something that's been etched on my heart very deeply, and this was a hot button for me that I was keen to examine, myself, around the time of my conversion.
I wish I could say Muslims don't have these problems, but, unfortunately, that wouldn't be true. What I can confidently say is that Islam, the religion, calls men to respect and safeguard women. Further, Islam values women as intelligent and capable. Women are actually incorporated intimately with the foundations of our religion in that one of the two key narrators of Saheeh al-Bukhari, Islam’s most significant book after Allah's Speech (al-Qur'an), is a woman. I am speaking of Aaisha, the wife the Prophet, peace on him, and one of the greatest scholars of Islam. As well, Khadijah (the Prophet's wife before Aaisha) was a wealthy merchant, and, more importantly, though she died about two years after the prophethood began, she supported and advised the Prophet, peace on him, in that very difficult initial period of his mission. Further, the stories of the companions and the struggles and efforts they did would not be complete, nor would be the example to us of that early society, without its female members.
On the Arabian Peninsula leading up to the time of the Prophet, peace on him, women were essentially property of men. They were married without right to refusal or right to divorce and they could not own property. Islam was revolutionary in that it defended a woman’s right to refuse marriage and to divorce and it safeguarded her right to own property apart from her spouse, such that her husband had no right over her property at all. Moreover, the guidance in Islam for spouses is that they uphold each other’s rights with kindness, and, further, there are many, many ayaat and ahadith specifically targeting men that they would treat their wives well. I’ll recount a few:
While there are many ahadith discussing the patient strength of women, there was a man whose wife used to argue with him. This was after the death of the Prophet, peace on him, and the leader of the Muslims in that time was Umar. So the man went to complain about his wife to Umar. As he approached he heard Umar’s wife yelling complaints to Umar yet Umar remained quiet just listening. The man was shocked to find Umar undergoing the same thing he had come to complain about and asked Umar how he could just tolerate that when he is the leader of the Muslims (and leader of much of the world at that time). Umar replied to the man that his wife protects him for ash-Shaytaan (i.e., by way of their legal intimacy), cares for his children, feeds him, etc., so shouldn’t he listen to her? The man gave up his complaint and went home. The point, of course, is not that women are complainers or that they should be complainers; the point is that they are worthy of respect and have a right to their own voices.
This is an example of a close companion of the Prophet, peace on him, fulfilling the Prophet’s statement, “The best of you are those who are the best to their wives, and I am the best of you to my wives.” [Narrated by al-Tirmidhi, 3895; Ibn Maajah, 1977; classed as saheeh by al-Albaani in Saheeh al-Tirmidhi.]
Allahu akbar. By saying this—and it is really a famous hadith stated over and over again to remind us—Allah, by way of His Prophet, peace on him, put good treatment of women at the peak of the competition in doing good and seeking reward from Allah.
That said, let me also very frankly get to the nitty-gritty to complete this picture. Because, as for the rights of women in marriage, they are not identical to men’s, though there is flexibility in accordance with how a husband and wife want to get along or arrange their affairs as an individual couple. And that's where care should be taken in choosing a good match. There are lots of evidences about this, but as a comprehensive backdrop to what I’ll explain, I’ll use Allah’s statement: “And they (women) have rights (over their husbands as regards living expenses) similar (to those of their husbands) over them (as regards obedience and respect) to what is reasonable, but men have a degree (of responsibility) over them. And Allaah is All-Mighty, All-Wise” [al-Baqarah 2:228]. What it boils down to is that A) the woman has a right on the man’s property while the man does not have a right on hers and B) if a husband and wife consult each other on a matter with regard to the needs of everyone in the household but do not agree, then, like a ship cannot be steered in two directions and remain one ship, the woman must relent to the man’s judgement. But if the woman’s concerns and needs are not recognized or considered or—and this is very important—if the man is directing the household in a manner opposed to al-Qur’an and the way of the Prophet, peace on him, then Islam gave the woman recourse by way of complaint, doing other than the husband’s bidding as obedience to Allah over a wayward husband, or divorce. And men who want a happy marriage must really remember that the Prophet Muhammad, peace on him, took advice from his wives and treated them as the intelligent, thoughtful humans they were.
The woman is not a toy for the man to play with, control, or limit. Rather, Allah says, “And live with them honorably. If you dislike them, it may be that you dislike a thing and Allah brings through it a great deal of good” [al-Nisa’ 4:19]. The marriage has give-and-take; the woman may be influenced or shaped by way of the man, but, likewise, the man may be influenced or shaped by way of the woman. In other words, a good marriage teaches people, both men and women. It’s not for either spouse to box in or make the other exactly as they like; rather, we have to seek out Allah’s wisdom in all matters and be humble.
Among Muslims, nonetheless, of course, there is a wide variety of ways of thinking and behaving, in part due to levels of knowledge and understanding, in part due to individual personalities, and in part due to cultural and family influences. Some of that variety, even if done in the name of religion, falls outside Islam across extremes that either violate the rights of the man or the woman or both. Likewise, some of that variety falls within Islam. For example, while many Muslim women focus only on the home and children, there are lots of well educated women who have careers outside the home; generally speaking, both can be good and acceptable in Islam. A one million dollar global prize for teaching just went to a female Muslim, there are lots female doctors and PhDs, a female Muslim just baked a cake for the Queen of England’s birthday and will now get her own cooking show, a Muslim woman will be a US flag bearer in the upcoming Olympics where she’ll compete as a fencer, a Muslim woman just recently got a perfect score on her SAT (done by less than .01% of test takers), etc. While there is guidance and various related scholarly and personal opinions on what is a good or allowable career or situation for a Muslim man or woman, Muslim women accomplish a lot outside the home and have been since and during the time of the Prophet, peace on him. As well, Islam honors and upholds the importance of the mother in building society. A man asked the Prophet, peace on him, who was most deserving of his good treatment after Allah and His Messenger, and the Prophet told him his mother. He asked who’s next and he said, his mother. He asked who’s next and he said, his mother. He asked who’s next, and, finally, he said, his father.
That’s probably enough to get started. Do realize that anything that doesn’t look beautiful above, then that is probably because of some weakness in me, not Islam. So please attribute any mistake to me, not Allah’s religion. Allah created us and knows better than we know. .