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Who ‘Liberated’ Women – Islam Or The West?

Islam is forever being accused by it’s antagonists of oppressing and ill-treating women. However, the truth of the matter is that Islam liberated women 1400 years ago, while the west, until just 140 years, had treated its women like slaves and cattle.

The Caroline Norton (1808-1877) case mentioned hereunder clearly highlights this. The Caroline S. Norton case attracted attention to the severe economic penalties which women endured when they separated from their husbands. Mrs. Norton was a popular poet, novelist, and a beautiful English socialite who attempted to separate from her husband in 1836. After leaving her marital home, her husband prevented her from seeing their three sons and severed her financial support. After her husband’s unsuccessful attempt to prove her guilty of an adulterous affair, Caroline filed for divorce on the ground of cruelty. Her claim was rejected, as English law did not recognize cruelty as a just cause for divorce.

Caroline Norton had no rights to sue for divorce, and could not force her husband to maintain her financial support. She was also unable to gain access to any of the marital property. Abandoned financially by her husband, Caroline Norton began writing to support herself. However, because she was still married, her husband was legally able to secure much of her earnings for himself. According to Dorothy M. Stetson, Mrs. Norton “suffered all of the worst fates of a feme coverte as a result of her separation. Her husband exercised his legal Right to deny her visits to her children”. The Caroline Norton case spotlighted the injustice of married women’s property Rights in England.

In 1855, Caroline Norton published her most important pamphlet: A Letter to the Queen on Lord Chancellor Cranworth’s Marriage and Divorce Bill, in which she reviewed the position of married women under English law:

  1. A married woman has no legal existence whether or not she is living with her  husband;
  2. Her property is his property;
  3. She cannot make a will; the law gives whatever she possessed to her husband despite her wishes or his behaviour;
  4. She may not keep her earnings;
  5. He may sue for restitution of conjugal rights and thus force her, as if a slave to return to his home;
  6. She is not allowed to defend herself in divorce;
  7. She cannot divorce him since the House of Lords, in effect, will not grant a divorce to her;
  8. She cannot sue for libel;
  9. She cannot sign a lease or transact business;
  10. She cannot claim support from her husband, his only obligation is to make sure she doesn’t land in the parish poorhouse if he has means;
  11. She cannot bind her husband to any agreement.

In short, as her husband, he has the right to all that is hers; as his wife she has no Right to anything that is his. Mind you these atrocities were perpetrated in England that was the then ‘Superpower’ of the world.


If you fear that you will not act justly in case of the orphan girls, then marry other women who seem good to you two, three, four; but if you fear that you will not do justice to them, then only one you  should marry, or a captive that your right hands possess. In this it is likelier that you will not bend towards one side.                                    (S.4. : V.3)

Prior to the advent of Islam the weaker sex were subjected to many injustices. Islam slowly, but surely, liberated the fairer sex granting them various rights that were hitherto unheard of. According to the following narration of Bukhari this verse was revealed to remove some of the oppression against women.

Hazrat Aaishah Radiyallaahu Anha reports that during the period of Prophethood an orphan girl, who had a share in a garden, was in the custody of a man who himself made nikah to her (married her) and, instead of giving her ‘mahr’ (dowry) took control of her property. (Bukhari)

This was the custom in the days of Ignorance that the Guardians of orphan girls either married them personally or got their sons to marry them if they were pretty or possessed wealth so that they could acquire their wealth. Furthermore, those poor girls, having no fathers to fight for their Rights, were deprived both of their mahr (dowry) and other Rights due to them. Moreover their Guardians did not see to their welfare when marrying them off, unlike a father who would have studied every aspect of the prospective husband to ensure that his daughter enjoyed a blissful marriage.

The Question of an Immature Girl’s Marriage:

“Orphans” in the Verse 3 of Surah 4 refers to girls and in Shariah an orphan is an immature person whose father has passed away. Therefore, from this Verse it is established that a Guardian has the right to give away his ward in marriage even though she is still not mature. However, it is the responsibility of the Guardian to keep the welfare of the child in mind and to ascertain whether there would be compatibility in the match, whether the minor girl has been educated sufficiently to fulfil the Rights of a husband and that there is no major difference in the ages of the couples as is prevalent in certain “third world” countries. The preferences of the girls have also to be considered. Their liking or disliking any individual for the purpose of marriage should not be ignored. This applies even to the mature girls whose fathers have passed away.

Although mature girls are “masters of their own destinies” in that they have the right or option of accepting or rejecting, i.e. the marriage is dependent upon her acceptance or refusal, one notices generally that modesty prevents them from saying anything on the question of marriage and they may remain silent. Therefore, it is necessary that Guardians exercise the greatest caution in this regard and not indulge in any action which would usurp the Rights of orphans. The protection and implementation of these Rights of the orphan girls have been placed upon the Muslims after reminding them to fear Allah. However, this does not rule out any State intervention, for if the government authorities discover wrongs being committed by any Guardian it becomes its duty to act and rectify the matter.


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