By Nidaa Shahid
July 18, 2014
The general perception worldwide about women in Islam is that they are oppressed and without rights. It is widely believed that the Muslim men make all the decisions and hold authority both in and outside the home and that women are not allowed to work outside the home. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although there are women in many Muslim societies who are oppressed and do not have a say, trends are changing for the positive.
My reason for writing about this issue is not to preach that women in Islam are given the highest of social freedom to do as they please, but rather to provide a picture for the world of what the roles and status actually are for women in Muslim culture. Being a Muslim woman from a Muslim country, I can provide an insider account of women’s experience in an Islamic society.
Pakistan, which is one of the most talked about Muslim countries in the world, is a fast changing society. Only 20 years ago one would see very few or no women in a professional environment, but today there are thousands of women in seats of power and privilege. According to a survey conducted in 2013, women comprise 22.88 percent of the labor force in the urban areas of Pakistan and 20.8 percent in the rural areas. In another survey conducted by UNICEF in 2013 the literacy rate of women in Pakistan in the 15 to 24 age group is 61.5 percent.
There are plenty of women in Pakistan who have thriving careers and are working for different causes of which they are proud. Women like Ambreen Gul, a fighter pilot in the Pakistan Air Force; Benazir Bhutto, the first woman Prime Minister of a Muslim country; Arfa Karim, a 9-year-old girl who became the youngest Microsoft Certified Professional; Nasreen Hameed, an athlete and a gold medalist in the South Asian Federation Games; Sughra Solangi, entrepreneur and women’s rights activist from rural Pakistan; and Fatima Jinnah, one of the leading founders of Pakistan in 1947 are just a few of the many thousands of women from Pakistan who are, as some would say, breaking Islamic traditions and going out into the world to make a name for themselves.
But are they really breaking Islamic traditions? That is the million-dollar question. Many of the norms when it comes to the status of women in Islam are not Islamic norms at all. They are societal norms mistakenly seen as the Islamic culture. For example, the assertion that Muslim women are not allowed to work outside their homes is completely nullified if you look at Khadija bint Khuwaylid, who aside from being the first women to convert to Islam was also the wife of the Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W). She was a merchant by profession. If it was against the norms and traditions of Islam for women to work professionally then why would the wife of the prophet who first preached Islam be a merchant? It is here that the lines between Islamic culture and societal culture become blurred. The Holy book of Muslims, the Quran, the words of which are considered to be above reproach, states in numerous places that women hold equal status to men. For example in one Qur’anic verse it states that:
“…And they (women) have rights similar to those (of men) over them… [Quran 2:228]
The Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W) has also said that:
“Acquisition of knowledge is binding on all Muslims (both men and women without any discrimination)”. [Narrated by Ibn Maja in al-Sunan, 1:81 §224.]
The Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W) was a huge proponent for the education of both men and women and he made special arrangements for the education of women wherever and whenever possible.
These are just a few of the many places where the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W) give importance to the rights of the women alongside those of men.
One argument that many people offer to the above examples is that the trends for Muslim women are only changing in the urban areas of countries like Pakistan, and that the rural areas of Pakistan and other Muslim countries still oppress women. According to author Sadaf Zahra, in the rural areas of Pakistan “women are like slaves subject to drudgery.” She makes the assertion that women are forced to obey their fathers and husbands and have no right to decide their lives and spend their entire lives at home. Although much of what she says sadly is true in some regions, it is not the case everywhere. Just because a woman stays at home does not necessarily make her oppressed. In many Muslim households, especially in the rural areas, the women of the family hold much of the power inside their homes. They make all of the financial decisions, the familial decisions, as well as hold the sole responsibility for the well-being of the entire family.
The matriarchs in a Muslim household are the power centers of the family. According to one source Abu Huraira, who was a companion of the Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W), narrated that the The Prophet (S.A.W) once said, “The righteous among the women of Quraish (an ancient Arab tribe) are those who are kind to their young ones and who look after their husband’s property.” Thus the Prophet himself has asserted that women have a powerful role to play as property in olden times was a man’s major asset.
Even though much of the oppression that women in Muslim societies are facing today is more societal than religious, women are breaking the shackles that bind them. They are fighting for their rights and for the rights of women both in Pakistan and other Muslim societies. There is a need for people in the West to understand and acknowledge the efforts of these women. Western societies need to understand the true norms and culture that are a part of a Muslim society and the role women play in these very societies every day.
Nidaa Shahid is a visiting fellow at James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at MIIS. She is a Radio Journalist from Pakistan. She has been working for the Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation (PBC) which is the official radio channel of Pakistan for the past five years. Apart from that she is also an MPhil Graduate in Defense and Strategic Studies with a focus on Media Studies, Information Warfare and Psychological Warfare.