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Does Islam Oppress Women?

Fourteen hundred years ago Islam gave women rights; rights that could not have been imagined by European counterparts.  Bold words!  Words that have been spoken repeatedly, especially in the last two or three decades by Muslim converts, and Islamic writers, academics and educators across the globe.  Women’s rights, responsibilities, and choices have been the subject of books, articles, essays, and lectures.  Sadly however, convincing the world that Muslim women are not oppressed by Islam is a message that is just not getting through.  Media headlines scream oppression and the words Muslim, women, and oppression seem to have become inextricably linked.

No matter what Muslim women do or say to try to convince the world otherwise, words like hijab, burka, polygamy, and Sharia seem to do little but convince people that Islam oppresses women.  Even educated, articulate women fulfilling the modest conditions of hijab can do little to dispel the myths.  Women who conduct themselves with decorum and grace and function effortlessly in the modern world have their achievements and successes celebrated.  However, if a woman wears a scarf, covers her hair or puts her religion above worldly pursuits she is immediately labelled oppressed.  One wonders if this is the case for women of other religious persuasions.  Are modest religious women of all faiths labelled oppressed?  Alternatively, is it just Islam?

The most visible sign of a Muslim woman’s faith is the headscarf or hijab; it is also the garment that leads people to believe that Islam oppresses women.  Although Islamic scholars unanimously agree that modest dress and head coverings are obligatory in Islam, for the majority of Muslim women around the world, to cover, or not to cover, is a freely made choice.  The women who chose to wear hijab view it as a right, not a burden and many describe wearing hijab as liberation from the need to conform to unrealistic stereotypes and images dictated by the media.

What exactly do Muslim women say about themselves in relation to the issue of oppression? In 2005, a World Gallup Poll[1] entitled, What women Want: Listening to the voices of Muslim Woman, revealed that the majority of women polled, in predominantly Muslim countries resented lack of unity among Muslim nations, violent extremism, and political and economic corruption.  The headscarf or hijab, or any garment covering the face and body, often depicted as a tool of oppression was not even mentioned.

The report concluded that “…most women in the Muslim world are well aware that they have the same capabilities and deserve the same fundamental rights as men.  Majorities of females in each of the eight countries surveyed said they believe women are able to make their own voting decisions, to work at any job for which they are qualified, and even to serve in the highest levels of government.”

Islam raised the level of women, they were no longer chattels being passed from father to husband.  They became equal to men, with rights and responsibilities that take into account the nature of humankind.  Unfortunately across the globe, Muslim women are victims of cultural aberrations that have no place in Islam.  Powerful individuals and groups claim to be Muslim yet fail to practice the true principles of Islam.  Whenever the media reveals unconscionable stories about honour killings, genital mutilation, forced marriage, the punishment of rape victims, women being confined to their homes or women being denied education they are revealing a tale of men and women who are ignorant about the status of women in Islam.

“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 the bridal money you have given them. And live with them honourably.  If you dislike them, it may be that you dislike a thing and God brings a great deal of good through it.” (Quran 4:19)

The religion of Islam demands that women be treated with respect, honour, and justice.  It condemns oppression of any kind.  In Islam women, like men, are commanded to believe in God and to worship Him.  Women are equal to men in terms of reward in the Hereafter.

“And whoever does righteous good deeds, male or female, and is a true believer in the Oneness of God, such will enter paradise; and not the least injustice, even to the size of a speck on the back of a date stone, will be done to them.” (Quran 4:124)

Women in Islam have the right to own property, to control their own money to buy and sell, and to give gifts and charity.  It is not permissible for anyone to take a woman’s wealth without her consent.  Islam gave women formal rights of inheritance.  Women in Islam have the right to an education; seeking and acquiring knowledge is an obligation on all Muslims, male or female.

Muslim women have the right to accept or refuse marriage proposals as they see fit, and married women are completely free from the obligation of supporting and maintaining the family.  Working married women are free to contribute to the household expenses, or not, as they see fit.  Women have the right to seek divorce if it becomes necessary.

Prophet Muhammad, may God praise him, said, “A matron should not be given in marriage except after consulting her; and a virgin should not be given in marriage except after her permission.”  The people asked, “O God’s messenger!  How can we know her permission?”  He said, “Her silence (indicates her permission).”[2]

A women was given by her father gave her in marriage when she was a matron and she disliked that marriage.  So she went to God’s Messenger and he declared that marriage invalid.[3]

The religion of Islam declares that women are worthy human beings deserving of respect, and the right to be free from oppression.  Women have the right to a decent life, without facing aggression or abuse of any kind.  They have the right to pursue a life that is pleasing to them within Islamic boundaries.  Nobody has the right to force women to be less then they want to be.  The true teachings of Islam, declare that women should be held in a position of high regard.

Sadly, it is true that some Muslim women are oppressed, but across the globe, some women are treated badly by some men, of all religious persuasions and ethnicities.  It is possible to say that such and such a government oppresses women, or that Muslim men in such and such a country think it is acceptable to beat women, however,  it is not correct to say that Islam oppresses women.  If women were given their God given rights, as set out in the religion of Islam, the global oppression of women could be trampled into oblivion.

Prophet Muhammad, may God praise him, said, “None but a noble man treats women in an honourable manner.  And none but an ignoble treats women disgracefully.”[4]


[1] The Gallup Organization, Princeton, USA.  The Gallup World Poll is the largest available source of global public opinion data, providing access to the voices of citizens in more than 130 countries and areas.

[2] Saheeh Bukhari

[3] Ibid.

[4] At Tirmidhi


A book, Perfect Madness by Judith Warner, published by Riverhead Books, tells us that during her research, Warner discovered that:

· “Seventy percent of American moms say they find motherhood today ‘incredibly stressful.’”

· “Thirty percent of mothers of young children reportedly suffer from depression.”

In the lands where all that glitters is somehow perceived to be gold and therefore desirable, women are discovering that playing roles that were not ordained for them by God is not all it is cracked up to be.

Women in the West, who have long been battling both themselves and the natural order to be “superwomen,” are finding that banging their heads on the glass ceiling is giving them more than a headache.  They are finding themselves on a merry-go-round that will not stop.  Their makeup and their hair must be perfect; their size must be unrealistically thin; their children must be perfect, talented, and high achievers; their houses must be spotless; and all this must be achieved in the stolen hours between working and sleeping.

This is more than just struggling against the glass ceiling in pursuit of career goals: It is banging your head against a wall on a relentless and ongoing basis. As Judith Warner states, “I have seen so many mothers banging their heads against a wall: treating their pain – the chronic headache of their lives – with sleeping pills, antidepressants and anxiety meds, and a more and more potent, more and more vicious self-and-other-attacking form of anxious perfectionism.”

The chronic headache of their lives …!  Is that a life?  This is mere survival in a life of stress and loneliness.  The superwoman goal is unachievable not because women are incapable, but because they fail to see that fulfilling natural and predestined roles is undoubtedly the real super achievement.  Playing mother, wife, and career woman all at the same time is not an enviable position, and, except in cases of necessity, the woman’s role as caregiver and homemaker should take precedence over career and outside activities.

Islam defines women as superwomen – but with a different meaning.  Islam recognizes that the role of wife and mother is of paramount importance.  Islam defines marriage as half of the religion.  Islam clearly states that Heaven lies at the feet of mothers.  Islam goes much further than just recognition; it clearly defines the roles that women play and states rights and obligations with clarity and common sense.

The role of a mother in bringing up children is greater than that of a father.  She is responsible for their emotional, behavioral, and intellectual development.  She is responsible for instilling the love of Islam in them, especially in their early formative years.  When a woman understands the teachings of Islam and her own role in life, she understands her complete responsibility for the upbringing of her children, as is referred to in the Quran:

“O you who believe! Save yourselves and your families from a Fire whose fuel is Men and Stones.” (Quran 66:6)

More than 40 years ago, Muslim women who were secure in their roles and their lives could see the damage being caused by a Western lifestyle.  In 1962 after observing her Western sisters, Salma Al-Haffar said in the Damacus newspaper Al-Ayyam,:

“It is truly a shame that women lose the most precious thing that nature has given them, that is, their femininity, and then their happiness, because the constant cycle of exhausting work has caused them to lose the small paradise which is the natural refuge of women and men alike, a refuge that can only flourish under the care of a mother who stays at home.  The happiness of individuals and society as a whole is to be found at home, in the lap of the family; the family is the source of inspiration, goodness and creativity.”

Nowadays, a woman is often forced to make choices that are not easy.  Often, she feels that she must work to help financially support the family.  Often, she is the family’s sole breadwinner.  However, before we focus blame on the stresses and demands of society today and blame them for the destruction of family values and the pain and anguish of failing supermoms, let’s recall how we have unrealistically idealized the lives women’s lives in the 21st century.

On the other hand, the lives of Muslim women must be guided only by the precepts of the Quran and the Sunnah.  We must not be fooled by slogans such as “times have changed.”

The Prophet Muhammad, may the mercy and blessings of God be upon him, was sent with a message for all mankind, in all times and in all places.  The guidelines sent down to us by our Creator, God Almighty, are perfect and cover all situations.  God made it clear that a woman’s first responsibility is to her Creator, then to her husband, and then to her home.  There is nothing in Islam that prevents a woman from continuing her education, from working or from pursuing outside activities.  Nothing, that is, except the well-being of her family.

The importance that Islam places upon marriage is clear.

“And among His signs is this that He has created for you mates from among yourselves, that you may dwell in tranquillity with them; and He has put love and mercy between you. Verily in that are signs for those who reflect.” (Quran 30:21)

The usual by-product of marriage is children, and these children are the future of society.  What greater role can there be than that of mother?  How can the women who fulfill this role be regarded as anything but superwomen?  Women who understand their religion are secure in the fact that God Most High knows what is best for His slaves.

Women must be vigilant, for our society’s future rests in their hands, and being burnt out supermoms achieves nothing but stress and anxiety.  Unfortunately, many non-Western women today are blindly rushing to follow a well-worn road.  It is a road of consumerism and excess, and it leads nowhere. That nowhere has no substance; it is merely a feeling of emptiness and loss. It is better not to follow such women into oblivion; let us learn from their mistakes.

As is evident from the research found in Perfect Madness, the Western lifestyle being clutched to so desperately is not a cure for what ails us. The motherhood that needs to be sought is compatible with God Most High.  That is it, nothing more.  If we achieve this, we are the real superwomen; the true supermoms.

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