By Asma Anjum Khan
Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, a feminist? I can see a few eyebrows raised, several harsh glances thrown and some hands lifted. Relax. Let me explain.
Here comes his story, though it is possible that you might not have heard it from this angle or were just misinformed, as is often the case.
Being a woman is hard work.
Says the Black American writer Maya Angelou, it is indeed hard [and lots of it!] work to be a woman and stay that way! Should I add being a Muslim woman is more difficult, at least in the eyes of the Western world?
The popular image of the suffering Muslim woman is orientalist in nature. The West and its media are obsessed with the false perception of the alleged suffocation of Muslim women. This image suggests that these veiled souls can’t speak for themselves and need to be, ‘saved’. We do not need, saving, and this liberty is forced upon us.
Also we must do away with despite-being-a-Muslim woman kind of rhetoric. It is too patronizing an attitude and instills dichotomy.
To begin with the story, he began with the banning of female infanticide. It was a hugely revolutionary step. Imagine how difficult it must have been to convince a people, to not be killing their daughters, who had the habit of burying them alive?
Once he wept uncontrollably to hear one such confession. He had not one or two but four daughters and was an exemplary father to them. He had informed his people that they should not prefer their sons over daughters, and they should bring them up with utmost care and never ever subject them to discrimination of any kind. If they succeed in doing so, they were assured, they will be rewarded immensely in the afterlife. We all know how this charity of discrimination with us begins at home; with mothers expecting their daughters to be perfect and contributing in the household work while the sons are spoilt to the hilt.
Discrimination begins with this attitude where sons/boys are preferred for exceptional treatment. He never was one for this. According to his wife Aisha RA, he would be at his happiest best when his youngest daughter Fatima RA came visiting. His face would lit up and he would be at his warmest best towards her and happiest in her company.
When it comes to the issue of women and Islam, everyone is familiar with the commonplace perceptions and stereotypes as to how Islam exploits women, curbs their freedom and condemns them to domestic existence in their homes.
The fact of the matter is that if we look closely, it is actually Muslim men who should be complaining about not being favored as much as women. I am illustrating my case here.
The Prophet said that a woman has the freedom to choose her spouse, to spend her money where she wants to and has the right to own property. That was some 1400 years ago!
Furthermore, without her explicit consent, she can’t be married off; she can demand divorce if she is not happy in her marriage. The Prophet was most concerned about widow remarriage and asked for avoiding any delays regarding this. In those times a woman could even send her own marriage proposal to a man!
Can you imagine such a thing today? They could earn their living, why his first wife Khadijah RA was a business woman and had employed him to help her. Financial freedom is the true freedom. In Islam it is binding on the male relations of a woman to take care of her expenses. Irrespective of whether she earns or not, she is not obliged to or does not need to spend on herself, from her own pocket.
If she earns, her money is her property entirely; any male relation, has no right to stake a claim on it, directly or indirectly. The argument that this creates inequality among the genders does not hold water. Does granting of privileges of some special kind, means we are unequal? Why not then ban the special reserved seats for women in buses or even refrain, from offering a woman your seat?
While my case is, if you are given a privilege, a concession, without your asking for it, then just grab it and make hay. Of course the sun shines bright on us the Muslim women. There is no scope for a Muslim man to take a single penny from a woman relative [especially wife] without her unambiguous and happy consent.
This way, the concept of dowry is also automatically rendered un-Islamic. He knew the importance of educating women and had asked the believers to learn teachings of Islam, also from his wife Aisha, who was groomed by him with special care and attention.
I wish to share a few slices of his wonderful life where he shows how cool he was with the women. He understood them, loved them, respected them, cared for them and most of all he showed that he cared. He said it as it was. He was never shy of expressing his love for his wives. They were bestowed with lovely nicknames; were listened to patiently, never taunted, criticized or made fun of by him.
If reprimanding them was necessary, he did so privately and in a very gentle and considerate way. His wives would even stop talking to him if they were miffed for some reason and could even reply back! He was there for them, when they needed him.
Talking to them, narrating the day’s happenings, asking for their opinion, never hurting their sentiments, sharing caring and loving….You have to be a wife [woman] to know how precious this feels!
He was also not one among those scores of men who order around their women. He would wash his clothes himself, mend his shoes, serve himself and did whatever other ordinary workmen do.
The popular perception calculatingly enforced in the media is that Islam is a bad religion for women. [Oh! You have four wives! They forget to mention 4, 5 or 6, girlfriends for some!]
When it comes to the matter of rights, there is justice and equality among men and women, no prejudice no favoritism to him or her. Yes, due to their characteristic traits, there are bound to be specifications about their dealings with the world and hence a different set of instructions for them to follow.
This is what the critics of Islam must understand; attributing individual and communal follies, [be it against educating women or their driving cars] to Islam and the Prophet’s teachings is like blaming Taliban for the fly sitting on your pretty nose. Thank you.
This champion of women’s rights practiced what he preached. He never hit any of his wives, and severely reprimanded the men who resort to violence. Once when Aisha RA angrily smashed a bowl filled with food from another of his wife Safia RA; he dealt with it astutely. He sat down and picked up the shreds of glass with his own hands, uttering the words, Oh, she got angry!
Imagine in his place a typical husband and you know the difference. This slice from his life makes it clear that he was not unaware of the psychology of women, her natural jealousies with a co-wife and, hence his maturity and wisdom of demeanor.
The matter of breaking a bowl was resolved finally when the guilty party was asked to procure a similar bowl with similar filling, and that was that. The matter was over within seconds, no hard feelings and no grudges. He understood a woman’s mind perfectly well.
Yes, he was a feminist, a fierce one at that. He was feminist enough to accept his weakness and proclaim that it was his wife Khadija who helped, consoled and supported him when he was emotionally wrought at the time of the first divine revelation. Talking of the Prophet’s equation with her, Dr. Gary Miller makes an interesting observation:
As a matter of fact she [Khadija] must have been quite a woman because when the first revelation came to him, he ran home to her, afraid. Certainly, even today one would have a hard time trying to find an Arab who would tell you, “I was so afraid that I ran home to my wife,” They just aren’t that way. Yet Mohammad, pbuh, felt comfortable enough with his wife to be able to do that.–The Amazing Quran.
How many men can admit to their wives that they were afraid and needed their support? He was courageous and man enough to acknowledge his wife’s contribution and gave her the credit where it was due. Stressing the importance of treating a wife in the best way possible, he had said,
The best of the believers are those who are best in their manners and kindest to their wives.
Elsewhere, he said,
The best one of you is the best to his family and I am the best one of you to my family.
The Prophet also famously said that Jannah or heaven lay at the feet of a woman–one’s mother.
‘Treat women kindly, Fear Allah concerning women’ were his last words.
With his model life before us and his noble words to guide us, being a woman is not hard work.
Asma Anjum Khan is Assistant Professor of English and a community activist based in Maharashtra, India