By Maria Hanif Al-Qassim
Dec 10th, 2017
Over the years, feminism has become a term largely associated with being both female and liberal, and that has especially been the case in the Arab and Muslim worlds. It is a term that clerics and preachers have shunned and dubbed a Western concept, a conspiracy to destroy the region’s social fabric and exploit women, among other things. However, it is my belief that Islam is in fact the cradle of feminism, and possibly one of the very few religions that recognizes the important role of women, making them equal in every sense to their male counterparts.
Throughout his life, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was surrounded by strong, opinionated and intelligent women, and that fact is quite telling. His aunts, wives and daughters each played crucial roles in preserving and spreading his teachings, in addition to taking part in battles and political life. The Prophet sought their guidance on many occasions, spoke highly of them in public and, most importantly, gave them the space to become the strong women they were.
The woman who played the most significant role in the Prophet’s life was perhaps his first wife, Khadija bint Khuwaylid.
The marriage of Khadija to the Prophet was unusual, even by modern standards. She was the one who proposed to him, she was at least two decades his senior, had been married before marrying him, and was far wealthier. Despite their obvious differences, theirs was a marriage of equals, and they had a monogamous life together for 25 years, until her tragic death in what came to be known as the “Year of Sorrow.”
Having lost his mother at a very young age, Khadija was likely the first female figure who left a significant mark in the Prophet’s life. It is perhaps because of Khadija that the Prophet treated women with such high regard (contrary to common practice during those times), even many years after her passing. Her strength, wisdom and humanity showed him that a woman is in fact an equal, and so the Prophet lived his entire life urging men to recognize that equality, while at the same time encouraging the women around him to claim it.
If the Prophet is the perfect role model for how men should treat women, Khadija is the best role model for modern-day women, whatever path they may choose in life. She was a savvy merchant whose trade caravans were worth more than those of the entire Quraysh tribe combined. Yet she was a woman with a conscience, and one who gave generously to those in need. It is said that she fed and clothed the poor, assisted her relatives financially and provided marriage portions for poor relations. She was a devoted mother and a supportive, loyal wife. Khadija was the first person to convert to Islam. To the Prophet, she was both a wife and mentor, offering invaluable support during his most trying times.
It is high time the average Arab man followed in the Prophet’s footsteps and supported his female counterparts in reaching their potential — our society depends on it.
For those of us living in the Arabian Gulf, the year 2017 could not have had a better start. Not only does the UAE now have ministries dedicated entirely to promoting tolerance and ensuring the well-being and happiness of citizens and residents alike, but the Cabinet today includes nine highly qualified, ambitious women, who represent a source of pride and inspiration to women around the region. In Saudi Arabia, women have won the battle and will soon be able to drive; another step toward leading their own lives.
With all the advancements of the GCC in every possible sector, specifically in issues related to female empowerment, it can be shocking to hear of people still being sceptical about the role women can play outside the house. I for one never thought I would have to address an issue I genuinely believed was no longer pressing. Emirati women are making strides every day and putting the Arab world on the map in a wide variety of fields, proving that, given the right tools and with the crucial support of both their families and the government, nothing is out of reach.
From winning the Expo 2020 and IRENA bids to leading air strike missions against terrorists, Arab women are clearly pushing the envelope, holding true to Khadija bint Khuwaylid’s example. As such, it is high time the average Arab man followed in the Prophet’s footsteps and supported his female counterparts in reaching their potential. Our society in its entirety depends on it.
Full female empowerment is quite necessary to the rise of our societies. Over the past few years, Plan International has campaigned extensively for the empowerment of girls and specifically stressed on the important role men and boys play in pushing the agenda further. We cannot hope to achieve a well-balanced and equitable society without girls and women, and we cannot empower women without the involvement and buy-in of men. It is high time we followed in the footsteps of the Prophet and the strong women he surrounded himself with.
• Maria Hanif Al-Qassim is an Emirati from Dubai who writes on development, gender and social issues.