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Introduction

To hear groups like the Council of American-Islamic Relations or the Islamic Society of North America, Islam holds women in high regard. Indeed, Souad Saleh, a female professor at Al-Ahzar University in Cairo and a vocal proponent of women’s rights in Egypt, recently stated, “Islam is pure and simple, and it holds women in high esteem.”  For example, she says, “Muslim women were the first to be granted the right to inherit property and conduct their own private business affairs. This was so at an age when the women of Europe and Asia were not allowed to own property, inherit wealth and in some instances were treated as chattel.”  When addressing the issue of women being mistreated by their husbands, she states, “guardianship over women … does not give male members of the family license to oppress their female counterparts. Islam enjoins men to protect, love and care for their women folk."

Another scholar has noted that Islam abolished the horrible practice of female infanticide prevalent among the pagan Arabs. Muhammad gave clear directions leading to the restriction of polygamy, restrained the unlimited rights by men over their wives, and gave woman both spiritual and material equality with man.

A recent Gallup survey polled a significant percentage of Muslims worldwide. The findings are highlighted in the book Who Speaks for Islam, edited by John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed. The findings of the poll paint a picture of women in Islam that is in stark contrast to the oppression many in the West believe exists. For example, the authors note, “Majorities of women in virtually every country we surveyed say that women deserve the same legal rights as men, to vote without influence from family members, to work at any job they are qualified for, and even to serve in the highest levels of government.”  Concerning the ability of Muslim women to obtain an education, the poll demonstrated that Muslim women were often able to pursue post-secondary educations, particularly in Iran (52%), Egypt (34%), Saudi Arabia (32%), and Lebanon (37%).

Pro-Islamic websites love to proclaim how Islam elevates the status of women. For example, at the website of the Muslim Student Association at the University of Southern California, one can find the following regarding Women in Islam:

  • Islam declared women and men equal.
  • Islam condemned pre-Islamic practices degrading and oppressing women.
  • The same injunctions and prohibitions of Islam equally apply to both sexes.
  • Islam gave woman the right of inheritance and the right of individual independent ownership unhampered by father, husband, brother, son or anyone else.
  • Islam gave women the right to accept or reject a marriage proposal free from pressure, and by mutual agreement to specify in the marriage contract that she has the right to divorce (if she misses that option she has the right to seek court divorce if she deems the marriage to have failed beyond repair).
  • Islam does not require woman to change her name at marriage.
  • Islam protects the family and condemns the betrayal of marital fidelity. It recognizes only one type of family: husband and wife united by authentic marriage contract.
  • "Heaven is at the feet of mothers", is a basic Islamic teaching.
  • "The best of you are the kindest to their wives and I am your best to mine", is a teaching by prophet Mohammad.
  • Islam enjoins sounds morality in thinking, behavior and appearance. Dress fashions and social patterns that reduce woman to a sex object and exploit her as such are not acceptable to Islam.
  • The observance of chastity and moral standards is equally demanded by Islam from both men and women. "Women are the siblings of men", is a saying of prophet Mohammad.

However, as with any area of study within Islam, one must separate out the current reality from the ideological underpinnings. If women are treated equally in Islam, is there justification for it in the sacred writings of Islam, or is this equal treatment in conflict with sacred directives? What does the Qur’an say about women? What does Muhammad say about women as recorded in the hadith, and what kind of example did he set in the way he treated women that were part of his life? Do the reports we hear of women being oppressed accord with sacred scripture, or are they rather anomalies having no foundation in Islam? What have women from an Islamic background actually experienced – what are their stories? These are some of the issues I will be addressing in this article.

Does Islam Protect Women?

A couple of verses of the Qur’an would seem to suggest that Islam holds a high view of women.

Sura 4:19 – O ye who believe! Ye are forbidden to inherit women against their will. Nor should ye treat them with harshness…except where they have been guilty of open lewdness; on the contrary live with them on a footing of kindness and equity. If ye take a dislike to them it may be that ye dislike a thing, and Allah brings about through it a great deal of good.

Sura 65:6 – Lodge them where you lodge according to your means, and do not injure them in order that you may straiten them…

So at least on the surface, Islam suggests women are to be treated as equals with men and be provided for economically by their husbands. But what does the rest of the Qur’an say, and what can we learn about women from the traditions?

Husband Can Beat a Wife He Suspects of Disobedience

Sura 4:34 – Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has made one of them to excel the other, and because they spend (to support them) from their means. Therefore the righteous women are Qanitat, and guard in the husband’s absence what Allah orders them to guard. As to those women on whose part you see [suspect] ill conduct, admonish them, and abandon them to their beds, and beat them, but if they return to obedience, do not seek a means against them.

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 records a hadith that states, “The best woman is she who when you look at her she obeys you, and when you are absent, she protects her honor and your property.”

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.”

Scholar Abdul-latif Mushtahiri: "If admonishing and sexual desertion fail to bring forth results and the woman is of a cold and stubborn type, the Qur’an bestows on man the right to straighten her out by way of punishment and beating provided he does not break her bones nor shed blood. Many a wife belongs to this querulous type and requires this sort of punishment to bring her to her senses!"

Muhammad Struck Aisha

Sahih Muslim, Book 004, Number 2127:
He (Muhammad b. Qais) then reported that it was 'A'isha who had narrated this: Should I not narrate to you about myself and about the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him)? We said: Yes. She said: When it was my turn for Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) to spend the night with me, he turned his side, put on his mantle and took off his shoes and placed them near his feet, and spread the corner of his shawl on his bed and then lay down till he thought that I had gone to sleep. He took hold of his mantle slowly and put on the shoes slowly, and opened the door and went out and then closed it lightly. I covered my head, put on my veil and tightened my waist wrapper, and then went out following his steps till he reached Baqi'. He stood there and he stood for a long time. He then lifted his hands three times, and then returned and I also returned. He hastened his steps and I also hastened my steps. He ran and I too ran. He came (to the house) and I also came (to the house). I, however, preceded him and I entered (the house), and as I lay down in the bed, he (the Holy Prophet) entered the (house), and said: Why is it, O 'A'isha, that you are out of breath? I said: There is nothing. He said: Tell me or the Subtle and the Aware would inform me. I said: Messenger of Allah, may my father and mother be ransom for you, and then I told him (the whole story). He said: Was it the darkness (of your shadow) that I saw in front of me? I said: Yes. He struck me on the chest which caused me pain, and then said: Did you think that Allah and His Apostle would deal unjustly with you?

Flogging One's Wife

Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 7, Book 62, Number 132:
Narrated 'Abdullah bin Zam'a:
The Prophet said, "None of you should flog his wife as he flogs a slave and then have sexual intercourse with her in the last part of the day."

The reality: 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.

Source (Click for PDF)

Video: MEMRI TV: Bahrain Imam on Wife Beating

Video: Egyptian Cleric on Wife Beating

Women – Social Status

Women Are Mere Possessions

Notice in the hadith quoted below one man trading his wives in a purely commercial transaction, as if wives are nothing more than another piece of property owned by the man.

Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 3, Book 34, Number 264:
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.'

Ibn-i-Majah vol.3 no.1918 p.157
When one is given a woman, servant, or cattle, one should seize its forehead and pray to Allah.

al-Tabari vol.9 p.113
Treat women well, for they are [like] domestic animals (‘awan) with you and do not possess anything for themselves."

Women Are Controlled By Their Husbands

Sura 4:34 – Men are the maintainers of women because Allah has made some of them to excel others and because they spend out of their property; the good women are therefore obedient, guarding the unseen as Allah has guarded…

Saudi feminist Wajeha Al-Huwaider describes the lives of many Arab women as similar to a prisoner. However, the Arab woman is a prisoner in her own home, has committed no crime, was not captured in battle, does not belong to any terrorist group.

In the book The Ideal Muslimah available on the MSAWest website, Dr. Muhammad Ali Al-Hashimi notes:

The true Muslim woman devotes herself to taking care of her house and husband. She knows her husband's rights over her, and how great they are, as was confirmed by the Prophet's words:

"No human being is permitted to prostrate to another, but if this were permitted I would have ordered wives to prostrate to their husbands, because of the greatness of the rights they have over them."

A woman came to ask the Prophet (PBUH) about some matter, and when he had dealt with it, he asked her, "Do you have a husband?" She said, "Yes." He asked her, "How are you with him?" She said, "I never fall short in my duties, except for that which is beyond me." He said, "Pay attention to how you treat him, for he is your Paradise and your Hell."

How can the Muslim woman complain about taking care of her house and husband when she hears these words of Prophetic guidance? She should fulfill her household duties and take care of her husband in a spirit of joy, because she is not carrying a tiresome burden, she is doing work in her home that she knows will bring reward from Allah

One of the most important ways in which the Muslim woman obeys her husband is by respecting his wishes with regard to the permissible pleasures of daily life, such as social visits, food, dress, speech, etc. The more she responds to his wishes in such matters, the happier and more enjoyable the couple's life becomes, and the closer it is to the spirit and teachings of Islam.

"It is not permitted for a woman who believes in Allah (SWT) to allow anyone into her husband's house whom he dislikes; or to go out when he does not want her to; or to obey anyone else against him; or to forsake his bed; or to hit him. If he is wrong, then let her come to him until he is pleased with her, and if he accepts her then all is well, Allah (SWT) will accept her deeds and make her position stronger, and there will be no sin on her.”

It is a great honour for a woman to take care of her husband every morning and evening, and wherever he goes, treating him with gentleness and good manners which will fill his life with joy, tranquility and stability.

`Aisha urged women to take good care of their husbands and to recognize the rights that their husbands had over them. She saw these rights as being so great and so important that a woman was barely qualified to wipe the dust from her husband's feet with her face, as she stated: "O womenfolk, if you knew the rights that your husbands have over you, every one of you would wipe the dust from her husband's feet with her face."

Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 7, Book 62, Number 123:
Narrated Abu Huraira:
Allah's Apostle said, "It is not lawful for a lady to fast (Nawafil) without the permission of her husband when he is at home; and she should not allow anyone to enter his house except with his permission; and if she spends of his wealth (on charitable purposes) without being ordered by him, he will get half of the reward."

Women Must Never Be Alone in the Presence of Another Man Not a Relative

According to Amnesty International, women who walk unaccompanied or in the company of a man who is neither their husband nor a close relative are at the risk of arrest on suspicion of prostitution or other “moral offences.”

In February 2008, an American businesswoman of Jordanian descent was arrested in Saudi Arabia after being found by the religious police sitting in the family area of a Starbucks with a male business associate. They had been working together at their nearby office when power was lost, and they decided to go to Starbucks to use the wireless internet. She was released from jail a day later, bruised and crying. (Source)

Women Are Deficient in Intelligence

Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 2, Book 24, Number 541:
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.

Video: Women Created by Allah Different than Men

Women’s Testimony Equal to Half of Man’s

Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 1, Book 6, Number 301:
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."

Women Are the Inhabitants of Hell

Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 1, Book 2, Number 28:
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 6, Number 301:
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 2, Book 18, Number 161:
Narrated 'Abdullah bin Abbas:
The people say, "O Allah's Apostle! We saw you taking something from your place and then we saw you retreating." The Prophet replied, "I saw Paradise and stretched my hands towards a bunch (of its fruits) and had I taken it, you would have eaten from it as long as the world remains. I also saw the Hell-fire and I had never seen such a horrible sight. I saw that most of the inhabitants were women." The people asked, "O Allah's Apostle! Why is it so?" The Prophet replied, "Because of their ungratefulness."

Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 2, Book 24, Number 541:
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 7, Book 62, Number 124:
Narrated Usama:
The Prophet said, "I stood at the gate of Paradise and saw that the majority of the people who entered it were the poor, while the wealthy were stopped at the gate (for the accounts). But the companions of the Fire were ordered to be taken to the Fire. Then I stood at the gate of the Fire and saw that the majority of those who entered it were women."

Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 7, Book 62, Number 126:
Narrated Imran:
The Prophet said, "I looked at Paradise and saw that the majority of its residents were the poor; and I looked at the (Hell) Fire and saw that the majority of its residents were women."

Women Compared to a Dog