Myths and Realities about Muslim Women: Part I

While negative stereotypes of Muslims in the U.S. media are perpetuated, they ultimately contribute to skewed perceptions about Islam, and more specifically, Muslim women. The effects of Islamophobia are also being seen in Europe, as many nations are acting on their misdirected understanding of Islam by moving to ban burqa and niqab in the hopes of liberating Muslim women from the “oppression of Islam”.

But what negative media portrayals of Islam have also contributed to are myths that hold no factual basis. For example, the idea that Muslim women are unequal to men, is untrue. On the contrary, Islam extends similar rights to women that are equal to those of men. The general idea that Muslim women have no right to lead and direct their own lives is completely false. In actuality, Muslim women have the right to possess property, gain education, seek employment and participate in both political and social life.  They can also keep their maiden names after marriage. It’s also important to consider the fact that while when Western women had to earn equality after suffrage, Muslim women were given these rights from the beginning without any struggle.

This article is the first in a two-part series that dispels common myths about Muslim women that skew the general public’s perceptions. The aim of these articles are to challenge and point out the inaccuracy in the deeply held beliefs about Muslims, and Muslim women in particular, and to provide facts based on quotes from the Qur’an itself.

1. Myth:  Hijab is a form of women’s subjugation

To dress appropriately and cover one’s body is obligated for women, so that they will not be sexually objectified and looked down upon.  They should be respected for their intelligence, etiquettes and other aspects of their personalities.  Hijab also encompasses modesty and chastity:

“O Prophet!  Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks (veils) all over their bodies (i.e. screen themselves completely except the eyes or one eye to see the way).  That will be better, that they should be known (as free respectable women) so as not to be molested.  And Allah is Ever Oft Forgiving, Most Merciful.”  [Qur’an 33:59]

This type of modest dress has been worn by righteous non-Muslim women throughout history. Prominent examples are traditional Catholic Nuns, Mother Teresa and the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus.  Hijab is also mandatory for men, so that they can preserve their chastity.  Men are also obliged to dress modestly.  Another form of hijab for them is to lower their gazes and avoid looking at women lustily.

“Say to the believing men that they should lower their sight and guard their private parts; that will make for greater purity for them.  Indeed Allâh is well acquainted with all that they do.”  [Qur’an 24:30]

2. Myth: Women hold a lower status in Islam

Islam holds women in highest regard in every phase of her life: “when she is a daughter, she opens a door of Jannah (Heaven) for her father.  When she is a wife, she completes half of the Deen (Religion) of her husband.  When she is a mother, Jannah (Heaven) lies under her feet.”

The men are required to treat women with honor and respect in all circumstances.

The Prophet (P.B.U.H.) said, “None but a noble man treats women in an honorable manner, and none but an ignorant man treats women disgracefully.”

The status of the mother is three times higher than of the father:

A man came to the Messenger (P.B.U.H.) and asked, “O Messenger of God! Who among the people is the most worthy of my good companionship?  The Prophet (P.B.U.H.) said: ‘Your mother.’  The man said: ‘Then who?’  The Prophet (P.B.U.H.) said: ‘Then your mother.’  The man further asked: ‘Then who?’  The Prophet (P.B.U.H.) said: “Then your mother.’  The man asked again: ‘Then who?’  The Prophet (P.B.U.H.) said: ‘Then your father.’”

Allah has honored women greatly.  He has honored them as daughters, mothers and wives and given them rights and virtues and has enjoined good treatment in ways that are not shared by men in many cases.

A Muslim woman also has the authority to voice her opinions.  The Prophet’s wives would debate with him, and this set an example for the wives in all generations.

It is narrated that the women of the Sahaabah used to argue and debate with them, and indeed this is the way in which the Mothers of the Believers [i.e., the Prophet’s wives] used to act with our Prophet (P.B.U.H.).  As ‘Umar ibn al-Khattaab said to the Prophet (P.B.U.H.):

“We Quraysh used to control our women, but when we came to the Ansaar we found that they were a people who were controlled by their women.  So our women started to adopt the ways of the Ansaari women.  I got angry with my wife and she argued with me and I did not like her arguing with me.  She said, ‘Why do you object to me arguing with you?  By Allah, the wives of the Prophet (P.B.U.H.) argue with him…’”  [Narrated by al-Bukhaari, 4895; Muslim, 1479]

3. Myth: Education is forbidden for women

To gain knowledge is an obligation for every Muslim man and woman, so that they can fulfill their religious and social responsibilities.   Plus, it is the husband’s responsibility to have his wife educated if this was neglected at her parents’ home.

“Seeking knowledge is compulsory for each and every Muslim (i.e. both male and female).”

Islamic scholars have agreed that when the word, “Muslim” is mentioned in the Qur’an, it is in reference to both the genders. Seeking knowledge is not limited only on religious studies but it is encouraged for both men and women to learn worldly science as well.

In Islam, both men and women are equally encouraged and rewarded to educate themselves and learn what suit their needs and nature. The Prophet (P.B.U.H) used to fix a special day to teach women their religious matters apart from men.

The Messenger of Allah said: “…Whoever follows a path in pursuit of knowledge, Allah will make easy for him a path to Paradise.”

In fact, Islam gives knowledgeable people higher ranks and recognition than others who are not.

“Allah will exalt those of you who believe, and those who are given knowledge, in high degrees; and Allah is Aware of what you do.” [Quran 58:11]

4. Myth:  A Muslim woman has no share in Inheritance.

One of the misconceptions about Islam is that it is unjust because it gives men double the share of inheritance.  Actually, this is due to the fact that men are responsible for taking care of his wife, children, parents and other relatives.  Therefore, it is sometimes necessary that men are given higher preference.

“For men is a share of what the parents and close relatives leave, and for women is a share of what the parents and close relatives leave, be it little or much, an obligatory share.”  [Qur’an 4:7]

There are three types of shares for a woman’s inheritance:

1. A woman will have an equal share as that of the man.
2. A woman will have an equal share as that of the man, or a little less.
3. A woman’s share will be half of the man.

It is understood that the minimum inheritance willed to the woman should be half, and the bequest is hers alone and the husband has no say in it:

“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 Mahr (bridal-money given by the husband to his wife at time of marriage) you have given them, unless they commit open illegal sexual intercourse.  And live with them honorably.  If you dislike them, it may be that you dislike a thing and Allah brings through it a great deal of good.” [Qur’an 4:19]

It is clear from the aforementioned quote from the the Qur’an that women are to be given their rights to inheritance.

In this passage men are forbidden to take their partner’s assests at all unless a crime (adultery) is committed, and even then the portion to be taken is small in comparison.  Further, men must act honorably and justly with their spouses, as their relationship is from Allah and is inherently good.

5. Myth: Honor Killing is justified

The Qur’an does not talk about “honor killing”.  In fact, there is no Islamic evidence that would justify it. What has been termed as “honor killing” describes incidents that are inflicted on both men and women. Murders of innocents and civilians occur throughout every part of the world, however, the myth that is perpetuated is that murder is not only condoned in Islam, but that it is common practice. In actuality, there are Fatwas and political campaigns against murder of innocents across the Muslim world.

The Qur’an upholds the right and sanctity of life as the most basic form of human rights, and it condemns the killings of innocents:

“That if anyone slays a human being – unless it be [in punishment] for murder or for spreading corruption on earth – it shall be as though he had slain all mankind; whereas, if anyone saves a life, it shall be as though he had saved the lives of all mankind.”  [Qur’an 5:32]

Killing a Muslim unlawfully is a serious matter and a grave crime. Allah says that a person who commits cold blooded murder shall not be pardoned and will enter Hell:

“And whoever kills a believer intentionally, his recompense is Hell to abide therein; and the Wrath and the Curse of Allah are upon him, and a great punishment is prepared for him.” [Qur’an 4:93]

The Messenger of Allah (P.B.U.H.) said: “The believer will continue to be encompassed by the mercy of Allah so long as he does not shed blood that it is forbidden to shed.”

To sum up, Islam has given tremendous rights and protection to women, so they will not be ill-treated in the hands of men and/or society at large. The Prophet (P.B.U.H.) highly respected women and advised men to treat women kindly and generously. Men and women both are viewed equally in the eyes of Allah, but because they are two different beings, they are given separate responsibilities. Based on these principles, the man is not better than the woman or vice-versa in the Islamic way of life.