The Status of Women in Islam


By Roszeen Afsar (posted March 2014)



This is the transcript of a talk delivered by Sister Roszeen Afsar in Newcastle at the interfaith group ‘Voices of Faith’ about the status of women in Islam.


I begin in the name of God the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.


When I was invited here to talk about the status of women in Islam, or the way Islam looks at women, the first thought that came to my mind was that I should give an example of a woman in Islam. I thought immediately about who the greatest examples are in our tradition and I thought about the women that our Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) named as the four greatest women in history, and what is interesting is that two of them are also recognised in Christianity and Judaism. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said: ‘The best women that ever lived are four: Maryam (the mother of Jesus), Assiyah (the wife of Pharaoh, the same Pharaoh from the time of Moses), Khadeejah (the wife of the Prophet) and Fatima (their daughter).’

The main argument or issue people usually have with religion’s place for women is a woman’s agency within the faith. Is she acting of her own will? Or is she a victim of a patriarchal society that functions under the title of some religion or another?

Within these four cases we have examples of women who have acted outside and against the natural course of their societies, recognising a higher principle, that of their belief in and worship of God.

With Mary we have an example of a woman who God gave a great test to in the form of having a child although being a virgin, and bringing that child up in a society that she feared most certainly would question her purity and could persecute her.

In Assiyah is an example of a woman who despite being married to a tyrant, a man who believed himself to be god, continued true to her belief in God and accepted the message of the Prophet Moses. She declared her submission to God despite the wrath of Pharaoh, and stayed strong within till death, death which was at her own husband’s hands.

Khadeejah is a woman that all Muslim women look up to as a wise figure, an independent woman who was financially successful and supported her husband the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) when he began to spread the message of Islam.

It is said that ‘Islam began in the arms of a woman’ – and what is meant by this is that when the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) received his first revelation it was to his wife Khadeejah who he ran to in order to find comfort and she was the first person to accept his message, the first person to declare Islam as her religion and dedicated her life to worship until she passed away after illness.

And finally Fatima, who witnessed and supported the prophethood of her father, stuck with him during hardships when the society tried to persecute her father, and later became a teacher and a guide, knowing her rights as a Muslim woman and carrying forward the principles of Islam as a role model to all Muslim women.

These are the examples we have as Muslim women, our role models of how we should be.


Jahiliyyah: legislative differences

I would like to turn to the situation of women prior to Islam in Arabian society. The society that Khadeeja and Fatima came from was very different prior to the message brought by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). In regards to women, I found a lot of my research regarding pre-Islamic Arabia very familiar to the way things are even now in many parts of Pakistan where I am originally from – and when occurring today, these are examples of the ways in which people have really deviated from the message of Islam. pre-Islamic Arabia, unless a woman was of a high social class, her position in society was anything but an active and free agent.

I have some examples here of this:

-          Women were not given the right to own property, neither were they recognised as financially independent unless – again – they were of a higher class.

-          Female infanticide was a common practice, something the Qur’an alludes to and strongly warns people against, situating the daughter as the key for her parent’s entry into heaven.

-          Also, women could not choose who they would be married to; this was a decision made by the tribe they were in.

-          To give an idea of this, I have examples of the different types of marriages that took place at the time: marriage by agreement (by agreement that would mean the agreement of the man to be married and the family of the woman not the woman herself); marriage by capture (which was mostly related to war time when women were captured and placed in the slave trade, and then sold in markets to the highest bidder – in this kind of marriage women had no right to divorce and were solely the property of their husband unless they were able to buy their freedom which was near impossible because they had no means to their own wealth); another type of marriage was by purchase (where the family of the woman would sell her on to a man, again the highest bidder); by inheriting (in which a deceased man’s wife would be passed down to another male in the family); and mot’a or temporary marriage which has been recorded to be no different to prostitution for women.

In contrast to this the Qur’an recognises a woman as a full legal person. Within the 500 or so Qur’anic verses touching on legal subject-matter, a woman’s rights are stated, ensuring the financial security of a woman and her right to her own wealth which no one can interfere with.

The Qur’an states: ‘O you who believe! You are forbidden to inherit women against their will, and you should not treat them with harshness, that you may take away part of their mahr that you have given to them (bridal money given by the husband to his wife at the time of marriage)…’ (An-Nisa 4:19)

With the access women had to Islamic legislation, their knowledge of their own rights was significant, so much so that during the Ottoman empire – the time when the court system was at its most highly developed and most true to scholarly developments of shari’ah – women frequently took their cases to the court for justice and received justice without discrimination – and not just women, but receivers of justice via Islamic courts included Jews and Christians as well as people from all social and economic classes.

An example of women knowing their rights is in the case of marriage. Women commonly inserted conditions into their marriage contract to be able to dissolve the marriage if say their husband took another wife, if he did not provide sufficient financial and child support and if he treated her with harshness, for example if he ever raised his hand against her.

The Islamic principles do not differentiate between social classes, and in fact the Islamic faith brought about a different kind of respect to a woman – perhaps unrecognised in modern day society; this is when she enters into studying theology and fields of knowledge enlightened by her understandings of Islam. Islamically, women are commanded to seek, despite headline news of what is going on in ‘the East’. This is a concrete duty for Muslims as the Qur’an says: ‘to seek knowledge is obligatory upon every Muslim.’


Spiritual sameness and agency and seeing all as souls

Not only in seeking knowledge, but in their very essence the equality of men and women is clearly stated by the Prophet (pbuh): ‘Assuredly, women are the twin halves of men.’ (Sahih, Abu Dawood)

In their potential to attain God’s favour and become close to Him through good deeds, men and women are the same in Islam.

The Qur’an addresses women directly just as it does so for men. It calls upon women as independent moral beings. Even though in Arabic men and women can be addressed with a plural, for example, ‘tell the believers to do so and so…’, it specifically states in places ‘tell the believing men and women to do so and so…’, thereby addressing both genders although it does not need to.

In our daily conduct in Islam, men and women have been given tools and morals to build the character, deepen our spirituality and make the most of this life – and this is the case for all Muslims.

If anyone were ever to ask what the role of a woman is in Islam, it is simply to worship God and attain closeness to God. However, we have means to help us achieve this end and realise our own humanity. God has given us means which are sanctified, the highest of which is the role of a mother.

The Prophet (pbuh) stated that ‘paradise is at the feet of your mother.’

A prominent Islamic scholar, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, has also profoundly written ‘In Islamic tradition, women have always been associated with the Divine. Women are an apotheosis of divine mercy in the world, particularly embodied in the mother.’ Islam lifts up the characteristics of the woman, the feminine characteristics which are found in some of the names of God, such as the Merciful, Ar-Rahman, from which is derived the word rahm which means womb.

I am not embarrassed to talk about the feminine characteristics given such a high status within my faith, and feel that the image of the gentle woman can also be found in the other Abrahamic religions.

One of the contentions that modern day thought has with Islam’s women is the practicing of hijab or the veil which is believed to be part of a patriarchal system which Islam is thought by some to represent. Along with this there is a great deal of criticism regarding men’s behaviour towards women – and for this individuals usually cite the backwards cultural practices of societies seen as following Islam. For this I would just like to read out a short extract from Shaykh Hamza Yusuf which, in my opinion, eloquently explains the nature of men and women:

‘Chastity and purity have always been the greatest virtues that come naturally to women, but which men must learn. The Qur’an uses Mary, the mother of Christ, as the great paragon of chastity and purity of the heart and describes her as an ideal…’

By this Hamza Yusuf is referring to her character, her veil and to the maternal aura she personifies.

‘[…] it is from women then, that men learn chastity and purity, which in turn protects the sacred nature of women, alluded to in the Arabic word for women, ‘hurmah’, which means “what is sacred”. The failure of men in imitating women in their natural virtue has resulted in women rejecting the double standard and imitating men in their natural vice.’

‘The Arabic and Hebrew word for womb (rahm) is derived from the word mercy (rahma) and is an expression of the creative power of God in man. In degrading women, we degrade the highest qualities of our human nature; in elevating her, we elevate our highest nature. When her natural virtues – compassion, kindness, caring, selflessness and love – predominate in men, men are able to overcome their natural vices and realise their full humanity.’

I would also just like to share a few lines connected to this, written by the great poet and Islamic theologian Jalaluddin Rumi, from his magnum opus, the Mathnawi:

‘The Prophet said that women totally dominate men of intellect and possessors of hearts,

But ignorant men dominate women, for they are shackled by the ferocity of animals.

They have no kindness, gentleness, or love,

Since animality dominates their nature.

Love and kindness are human attributes, anger and sensuality belong to animals

She is the radiance of God, she is not your beloved.’


Roszeen Asfar