Women's equality in Islam
According to Muslims, the first religion to give women their rights was Islam. While that part is correct, rights are not the same as equality.
To understand the rights, honor, dignity, and status of women in Islam, we must analyze the position of women before the advent of Islam. In the pagan society of pre-Islamic Arabia, the role of women was like slaves who had no rights and dignity. Women would not get a share from either their parents' or spouses' inheritance. At that time, they were like slaves, and most often, their positions were worse than animals. Before the arrival of Islam, the pagan Arabs used to bury their female children alive, make women dance naked in the vicinity of the Kaaba during their annual fertility festivals, and treated women just like slaves or chattels. They used women only for their sexual contentment or unpaid labor. Women possessed no rights, dignity, honor, or position. It was like that in almost every religion at that time.
Under original Hindu law, women were treated like slaves who had no rights of inheritance. If the woman's husband died during her lifetime, she had to burn herself alive when the dead body was cremated. Widows, who had no right to remarry, had to bear intolerable pain in her daily life. In Chinese culture, there were many humiliating customs for the woman who bore a baby girl. A male heir was treated as an immense gift of God, but a female offspring was an unacceptable degradation. In Greek society, women were treated as incarnations of evil and had no right to inheritance, education, or divorce. Women were considered as material goods who had no feelings and free will. In ancient Rome, cruelties towards women were unbearable. Women had no rights, dignity, or honor, and the position of the women was like a slave. Men had the authority to sell or send her into exile; even a husband had the power to summarily put his wife to death for acts like drinking, poisoning, and substituting a spurious child. In Jewish society, women had no right of inheritance and were considered as an object owned by the male protector.
Pre-Islamic tribal cultures allowed such types of marriage as may be treated like fornication, prostitution, adultery, or polyandry. Men could marry any number they liked and could afford; there were no specific rules concerning marriage; they could marry even two real sisters at one and at the same time. Islam abolished inhumanity, inequality, discrimination towards women and gave a complete code of conduct for males and females. At this time in history, this was a big step up for the rights of women.
The sacred writings of Islam, like those of the other Abrahamic faiths, Christianity and Judaism⎯has been interpreted in ways that support patriarchal social relations. Until the last two decades, Western observers of the plight of Muslim women have portrayed Islam as uniquely patriarchal and incompatible with women's equality. Most scholars now see Islam as no more inherently misogynist than the other major monotheistic Traditions.
Fourteen hundred years later, when we compare women's rights to western standards, the Islamic religion fails to meet even the lowest bars of equal rights. The problem is that Muslims believe the rules and standards established by Mohammad are timeless; that is, they are still as good today as they were in the years of Muhammad's death, 632.
In a nutshell, there are three levels of equality for Muslim women. 1) As mothers, they have an elevated status over men. A woman as a mother has immense respect in Islam, more than any other person. The holy Quran, in many verses, commands Muslims to demonstrate respect to their mothers and serve them well. The Prophet states insistently that the rights of the mother are supreme. Raising families is the prime purpose of a woman. Everything else is secondary. 2)Women are considered equal with men on Judgment Day. Allah will judge men and women alike on their good works versus their flawed efforts. If the good outweighs the bad, then welcome to Paradise. While this sounds like a good rule of thumb, part of the good works that women must achieve is subservience to their husbands. It says in the Qur'an (4:34), "If they obey you, you have no right to act against them." 3) Women are to be subjugated by men. This previous verse and verses that restrict inheritance and legal testimonies indicate that women have rights, but not to the degree that men have rights. Men have superior rights, which can be found in polygamy (4 wives), divorce rights, increased share of an inheritance, and the value of their witness in a court of law. Most people are fully aware that the Qur'an allows a man to strike a woman in disagreement. However, no verse allows a reciprocal reaction.
Women in Muslim societies and communities face gender-based inequalities associated with the so-called "patriarchal gender system." The system, regardless of religion, features kin-based extended families, male domination, early marriage (and consequent high fertility), restrictive codes of female behavior, and the linkage of family honor with female virtue. In Muslim areas, veiling and sex segregation form part of the gender system. Many cultural practices associated with Islam and criticized as oppressive to women are misidentified as "Islamic." Controversial or egregious practices such as female circumcision, polygamy, early marriage, and honor killings are not limited to Muslim populations. Among Muslims, such methods are geographically specific or otherwise far from universal.
Fortunately, the legal systems under which women live in Muslim countries are mostly dual systems. They consist, on the one hand, of civil law, which is indebted to Western legal systems. On the other hand, of family or personal status law, which is mainly built upon Sharia, Islamic religious-based law. The civil law, as well as the constitutions of many Muslim states provide for equal rights between women and men. However, as variously manifested in Muslim nations, Islamic family law poses obstacles to women's equality.
Islamic family law, which addresses marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance, has long been a target for reform. Many state elites have pressed for family law reform to further community interests by removing hindrances to women's full participation in the labor force and politics.
In many Muslim states, the substance of family law and its actual implementation somewhat mitigate the gender imbalance. Women are able and sometimes officially encouraged to exploit rules and loopholes to circumvent discriminatory provisions in the law. Women can, for example, write clauses into marriage contracts that make taking another wife grounds for divorce and post-divorce division of marital assets. A growing form of feminist activism at present aims to educate women about such strategies and available loopholes.
In conclusion, Islam did bring rights and privileges to women. Because Islam is rooted in Muhammad's teachings in the seventh century, women's rights have not been up to western standards. Some women prefer Islam because it stipulates their role as being a mother to a large brood of children. Not often voiced but assumed is the woman's place to be submissive to their husband. Again, some women like that position, and for them, Islam is their religion.