As I flip through CNN channels and watch different documentaries, I can’t help but cringe and become mortified by the sights of Muslim women in Afghanistan and other areas of the Middle East who are either sprawled on the floor begging for food and money, abused by their husbands, uneducated, illiterate, oppressed, and subjected to humiliation and degradation.
Islam, of course, is then blamed for all of this. The widespread misconception in the West is that women have no rights in Islam and are nothing but mere objects. Sadly, there is lack of awareness within some Muslim communities, as well.
Many Muslims themselves, men and women, are still bound by the confines of traditions, rather than Islamic values. This is evident in countries in which women aren’t allowed to receive an education, drive, work or voice their opinions. It is in these countries that traditional practices, instead of Islamic principles, continue to represent the model behavior.
This is abhorrent and can impose a heavy burden on women. It also, unfortunately, only perpetuates the inaccurate stereotypes and misconceptions. Thus, it is urgent to differentiate between traditional cultural practices and the religion of Islam.
What many people, even some Muslims, are unaware of is the considerable number of rights Islam has awarded women. It also may astonish people to learn that 14 centuries ago, Islam granted women all the rights that the West has only recently acknowledged. In order to thoroughly understand these teachings of Islam regarding women, one must turn to the words of God and the Muslim holy book, the Quran, which highly stresses the principle of equality between men and women.
God emphasizes that the only criterion for judging people is not their gender, race or color, but rather, only piety. He states: “O mankind! We have created you from a male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another. Verily, the most honorable of you with Allah is that (believer) who has piety” (49:13).
There are numerous other Quranic verses proving that Islam treats males and females on the basis of equality regarding their religious duties, responsibilities and reward, such as: “If any do deeds of righteousness, be they male or female, and have faith, they will enter Heaven, and not the least injustice will be done to them” (4:124).
In regards to specific rights for women mentioned in the Quran, I cannot even come close to covering them all in one article. However, there are some grave misconceptions that have always disturbed me, so I feel the immediate urge to cover those particular ones.
One common misconception is that Muslim women have no rights when it comes to marriage. In Islam, a Muslim woman has the full right to choose her husband. There is no such thing as an “arranged marriage” — her approval of the marriage and of the groom is a must. Her free, unforced consent, as a matter of fact, is an essential condition for the validity of the marriage contract.
Moreover, marriage in Islam is not the sale of a bride to her husband. On the contrary, in Islam, the bride is dignified and it is the groom who must present her with a dowry, as a sign of respect toward her. The payment of the dowry by the husband is an admission of his wife’s independence, for she becomes the owner of it immediately upon her marriage and retains this marriage gift even if she later becomes divorced.
Furthermore, contrary to common misconceptions, women in Islam are accorded full rights to knowledge and education just as men are. It is actually incumbent upon all Muslims, male and female, to seek knowledge. One of the aims of acquiring this knowledge is to be more God-conscious and to increase the welfare of the community.
Islam honors women and thus, they are encouraged to become educated in order to help them develop their character. Education is also significant because it helps women become more capable and efficient mothers who will accordingly be able to play their roles in raising strong, well-educated generations to come.
Islam additionally encourages women to pursue their own careers, if they so choose, as long as the woman’s integrity is safeguarded and she fulfills her primary obligations toward her husband and children (if married). Islam further dignifies a woman by arranging for her to be maintained always and financially supported by her closest male guardian (father, brother, husband, etc).
So, going out to work is a choice and not an obligation, as the man is the financial head of the household. This specifically means the man is responsible before God for the welfare and protection of his family. Therefore, even if the woman does work, her right to her own money, real estate or other properties is fully acknowledged.
As women, we have total economic independence and have the right to own, buy or sell property, and invest or donate our money without our husband’s approval or permission.
Lastly, Islam gives women many more rights, which are covered in the Quran. I truly feel honored, proud, and fortunate to be a Muslim woman and have the blessing of Islam in my life. I implore Muslims and non-Muslims alike to turn to the primary sources of Islam to learn the truth about the roles, duties and rights of women in Islam. Only then, will the ill-founded misconceptions, stereotypes and practices dissipate.
Marwa Elkelani, who has her Master’s Degree in TESL/Linguistics from Oklahoma State University and teaches at the Intensive English Institute at the University of Maine, resides in Brewer with her husband and three young children.