The rights of Muslim women are so many and are so thoroughly laid out in the Quran and so well- documented in the hadith (prophetic practices), that it is impossible to contain them in an introductory essay. The following is only a brief overview of the rights of Muslim women, which may come as a surprise to those who believe that women are oppressed, downtrodden, or generally regarded as lesser beings in Islam. Such a belief system exists not only among non-Muslims, but also among Muslims who are not familiar with the position sanctioned to women in Islam, with the result that cultural practices are confused with true religion. Various discrepancies (i.e. women should not be educated or that they must be subjugated by men) are actually against Islam, but are regarded erroneously as Islamic.
- The right to live
This is the most basic and necessary right for a woman to even come into existence. Female infanticide was common in many societies before the advent of Islam, and female babies were buried alive in sand in Arabia. At present, it is a problem of catastrophic proportions in countries like India, where the ratio of men to women has reached 1000 to 888 in some parts due to female infanticide and abortion of female fetuses. The killing of girls and women is considered a major sin leading to eternal hellfire, and was made ‘haram’ or outlawed in the Quran when it was revealed 1437 years ago.
- The right to education
It is the duty of both men and women to pursue knowledge. It is not permitted for anyone to restrict women from gaining an education, skill or profession. It is their God-given right and they will be questioned on the day of judgment regarding the utilization of their potential.
- Equality and equity
Equality between the sexes is overrated and cannot ever be truly achieved. Equality is not regarded as fair to women. Western feminists’ struggle with this concept is well documented in their own literature. For example, true equality would be achieved when men and women bore and raised children, underwent childbirth and nursing, experienced the biological and hormonal changes women do, and also worked equally at home and at work. As this is obviously impossible, Islam recognized 1437 years ago, that women need equitable, not equal rights.
- Religious rights
Women are given equal spiritual rights as men in Islam. They are not considered evil or satanic; neither is Eve blamed for enticing Adam into sin for which they were thrown out of paradise. Instead, women are titled ‘mohsina’ which translates as ‘one who calls to good deeds while admonishing evil’. Men and women are both referred to in the Quran as clothing for each other (chapter 2 verse 187). The metaphor of course refers to the proximity of clothing as well as its function to conceal, protect and cherish the person, which is how spouses are instructed to be with each other. Women are equally entitled to paradise depending on their deeds and faith. In some religions, men benefit spiritually from their wives’ good deeds, charity or chastity. This is not the case in Islam, where men and women’s souls will be permitted into eternal paradise depending solely on their own merit.
- Social and political rights
The status of women is higher than that of men, coming right after Allah and Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him). The status of a mother is regarded as three times higher than a father’s. Muslim women have the right to choose their husband, they are not choice-less victims in the matter. They have the right to seek divorce and to remarry. Widowed and divorced women can also re-marry, an option not available in religions where divorce is not allowed or where women are burnt alive with their dead husband. Politically, Muslim women have always had the right to vote, to choose their representative and to voice their opinion. They are not the disenfranchised minority in Islam.
- Economic rights
Muslim women can own property, conduct business dealings, demand to be given a marriage gift (‘Mehr’) of money or property by their husband at the time of marriage to do what they want with it. They can inherit property from their own parents, relatives, as well as their husband. They are financially provided for by their father, brother, husband or son; but if they choose to engage in paid employment, their earning is their own, not the husband’s or the family’s. Islam forbade the trading of women as chattel or commodities dispelling the ignorance and primitiveness with which women were treated before it was revealed.
These rights, and various others which have not been included above, are useful and meaningful in women’s lives only when they are applied. Otherwise, they become a theoretical construct. It is incumbent that a) Muslim women themselves become educated about the rights they have been divinely given which cannot be contested, b) men become familiar with these rights so they do not let cultural precedence overshadow them and c) the media do not portray incidents which show the oppression or subjugation of women as representation of the rights of Muslim women; rather the media need to be responsible and diligent about what they report and verify the accuracy of their reporting to distinguish between true Islam and that which is practised.