By Mitchell Hailstone
October 18, 2013
Many Westerners reel in disgust when they hear about how Muslim women are treated, but are Islam really a sexist religion? A closer look at the Qu’ran and historical context of the religion suggests that Islam is a liberating religion for the fairer sex.
A ridiculous “report” came out of Saudi Arabia earlier this month, where a Saudi cleric warned that driving negatively affects a woman’s ovaries. The report attempts to scientifically justify the Saudi law preventing driving for women.
Unfortunately, reports like this fail to surprise the Western audiences anymore. The general perception is that Mohammad and Islam promoted the modern, misogynist society that exists in most of the Muslim world.
Female genital mutilation, a grisly, barbarous practice where outer female reproductive parts are removed to deprive the women of pleasure in intercourse, is still widely practiced in Africa and parts of the Middle East. Traditional cultures in Iran, Afghanistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Morsi Egypt prevent women from practicing inalienable rights like owning property, doing business, or even going outside. Prostitution is legalized in Iran in the form of contractual, temporary marriages. Women who have premarital sexual relations are often killed by family members in an attempt to reclaim family honor. A TrustLaw poll published on Reuters concluded that Afghanistan, a land most known for its strict Islamist Sharia law, is the most dangerous country in the world for women. They ranked Afghanistan before Congo, where 1,150 women are raped a day.
Even in moderate Muslim cultures, women are sexually harassed, publicly groped, and denied individual autonomy outside marriage. Inside marriage, men beat their wives and dictate the amount of clothes they wear. The Qur’an explicitly allows polygamy and beatings.
With these accumulated atrocities, it’s not hard to conclude that Islam is sexist. However, the Qur’an and Mohammad’s influence liberated women from a brutal pagan Arab Peninsula.
The Jahiliya, or the “time of ignorance” before Allah made contact with his people, women were deprived of all rights. Abuses varied across tribes, but female infanticide was common, women were forced into marriages and temporary marriages, and often there was no way out of dangerous marriages. Mohammad certainly recognized a patriarchal society, but he revolutionized the Arab Peninsula by treating women with real dignity.
Mohammad’s love and first wife Khadija was an unusual woman – she was a wealthy merchant who actually employed Mohammad before their marriage. She conducted trade and was unmarried. Allah’s Prophet saw her fit for marriage, implying affirmation of her lifestyle. Critics quickly point out Mohammad had ten wives after Khadija, but these marriages were mostly political. Mohammad would take a marriage to unite clans, spread his message, or even to take on his deceased friends’ widows.
Many of the Suras have been misinterpreted by the liberal West — and Salafist Muslims — as justifications for oppression. Notably, the law prohibiting women from traveling alone — which Saudis use to forbid women from driving — was actually a chivalrous gesture to make sure they were safe visiting different towns. In Sura 4.3, Allah encourages polygamy. However, the verse’s purpose is to make sure women could have a nuclear family and material support, for marriage was the only way for a woman to have a livelihood at the time. And even then, the man could not take a wife if he knew he could not provide for her: ”If you fear that you will not deal fairly with orphan girls, you may marry whichever women seem good to you, two, three, or four. If you fear that you cannot be equitable to them, then marry only one…” And further, the Qur’an tries to curb men’s perverted intentions in marriage when Sura 4.24 tells men to pursue and “seek [women] in marriage, with gifts from your property, looking for wedlock rather than fornication.”
In Sura 4.34, men are told they can hit their wives. Obviously offensive, many non-Muslims scoff at the verse. But, physical punishment was not taboo in any culture at the time. More than that, the verse only allows such action when the wife is abusing her husband financially, and it follows a commandment for “husbands to take good care of their wives.”
Not only did Mohammad and the Qur’an take measures to protect women, the Qur’an took a radical, progressive stance to female equality in Sura 9.71: “The believers, both men and women, support each other; they order what is right and forbid what is wrong.” By including both men and women in moral commandments, Allah affirms a woman’s individual autonomy.
The heart of Islam, and the heart of the Prophet, was to liberate women from the tyranny experienced in the Jahiliya. Unfortunately, it seems the Qur’an’s message has been overlooked. In an attempt to follow the laws of Allah and please Him, many men in the Muslim world have missed the spirit of the instruction. The Qur’an’s words have been twisted.