Islamic scholars claim that when Muhammad received his revelations, specifically regarding women, he instituted changes for the status of women which elevated women far above what they experienced in prior, non-Islamic society. This may indeed be true, but the question to be answered is this: Does Islam elevate women according to 21st century standards, providing equality in all respects, or does Islam trap women with 7th century practices? We will look at just five examples of the view of women in Islam from the Qur'an and hadith.
1. A husband can beat a wife he suspects of disobedience.
Sura 4:34 - Men have charge of women because Allah has preferred the one above the other and because they spend of their wealth on them. Right-acting women are obedient, safeguarding their husband's interests in his absence as Allah has guarded them. If there are women whose disobedience you fear, you may admonish them, refuse to sleep with them, and then beat them. But if they obey you, do not look for a way to punish them. Allah is All-High, Most Great.
Muslim apologists will assert that the term "and beat them" speaks only metaphorically. Others insist it means only a simple strike, as with hitting them with a feather or toothpick. Yusuf Ali adds the word "lightly," which never appears in the Arabic. Yet, a simple observation of the text shows any of the above to be erroneous.
The text presents a series of progressive disciplinary measures if a man suspects disobedience from his wife: 1) Admonish her. Give her a verbal warning regarding her behavior. 2) sleep in separate beds from her. This humiliates the woman, for in Islam a woman's worth is measured, in part, by her ability to reproduce offspring, particularly male offspring. Sleeping in a separate bed from the wife dishonors her by limiting her ability to reproduce a male child. 3) Beat them. This is the third, most significant step of the progressive discipline process and is expected to be the one that produces the desired result if the first two failed. So the idea of hitting the woman "lightly" with a toothpick as the most severe disciplinary measure loses the argument based simply on the text alone.
Ibn Kathir elaborates what constitutes ill conduct: It is "the woman from whom you see ill conduct with her husband, such as when she acts as if she is above her husband, disobeys him, ignores him, dislikes him, and so forth. When these signs appear in a woman, her husband should advise her and remind her of Allah's torment if she disobeys him. Indeed, Allah ordered the wife to obey her husband and prohibited her from disobeying him, because of the enormity of his rights and all that he does for her."
According to the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences, over 90% of married women report being kicked, slapped, beaten or sexually abused when husbands were dissatisfied by their cooking or cleaning, or when the women had failed to bear a child or had given birth to a girl instead of a boy. Another organization stated that one woman is murdered and one woman is kidnapped in Pakistan every day. See the report from Amnesty International here.
2. Women are mere possessions: bought, sold, traded.
Narrated Ibrahim bin Sad from his father from his grand-father: Abdur Rahman bin Auf said, "When we came to Medina as emigrants, Allah's Apostle established a bond of brotherhood between me and Sad bin Ar-Rabi'. Sad bin Ar-Rabi' said (to me), 'I am the richest among the Ansar, so I will give you half of my wealth and you may look at my two wives and whichever of the two you may choose I will divorce her, and when she has completed the prescribed period (before marriage) you may marry her.' (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 3, Book 34, Number 264)
This is the reality in many Islamic societies. This author remembers years ago in Algeria, when my father was offered the wife of a Muslim man for the night out of courtesy. For more similar stories, read Karin in Saudia Arabia by Sami Alrabba.
3. Women are deficient in intellect
Narrated Abu Said Al-Khudri:
On 'Id ul Fitr or 'Id ul Adha Allah's Apostle (p.b.u.h) went out to the Musalla. After finishing the prayer, he delivered the sermon and ordered the people to give alms. He said, "O people! Give alms." Then he went towards the women and said. "O women! Give alms, for I have seen that the majority of the dwellers of Hell-Fire were you (women)." The women asked, "O Allah's Apostle! What is the reason for it?" He replied, "O women! You curse frequently, and are ungrateful to your husbands. I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelligence and religion than you. O women, some of you can lead a cautious wise man astray." Then he left. (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 2, Book 24, Number 541)
4. Women are the inhabitants of hell
Narrated Ibn 'Abbas:
The Prophet said: "I was shown the Hell-fire and that the majority of its dwellers were women who were ungrateful." It was asked, "Do they disbelieve in Allah?" (or are they ungrateful to Allah?) He replied, "They are ungrateful to their husbands and are ungrateful for the favors and the good (charitable deeds) done to them. (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 1, Book 2, Number 28)
5. Woman's testimony equal to half that of a man
Narrated Abu Said Al-Khudri:
Once Allah's Apostle went out to the Musalla (to offer the prayer) o 'Id-al- Adha or Al-Fitr prayer. Then he passed by the women and said, "O women! Give alms, as I have seen that the majority of the dwellers of Hellfire were you (women)." They asked, "Why is it so, O Allah's Apostle ?" He replied, "You curse frequently and are ungrateful to your husbands. I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelligence and religion than you. A cautious sensible man could be led astray by some of you." The women asked, "O Allah's Apostle! What is deficient in our intelligence and religion?" He said, "Is not the evidence of two women equal to the witness of one man?" They replied in the affirmative. He said, "This is the deficiency in her intelligence. Isn't it true that a woman can neither pray nor fast during her menses?" The women replied in the affirmative. He said, "This is the deficiency in her religion." (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 1, Book 6, Number 301)
Islam confines women to a 7th century standard regarding social status: unintelligent, mere possessions, in complete bondage and submission to her husband, without an equal voice whether it be in court or in the public square. While Muhammad may have given women more rights than they had previously, the status given women in the Qur'an and hadith does not accord with the 21st century.
Christianity, on the other hand, does provide women honor, dignity, and respect, even though the Bible was completed 600 years before the Qur'an. The Bible has a universal message that applies to all mankind for all time; the Qur'an has a medieval message that applied well to medieval times but is not applicable today. For that reason, we should reject the Qur'an and give women the equality they deserve as one created in the image of God, able to approach God just as a man does, protected and loved by her husband; a view of women that comes from the Bible alone.