Prophet Muhammad ﷺ was faced with an uphill task of establishing the rights of women in a society, and at a time in history, where they were considered far inferior to men. The Prophet ﷺ elevated the status of women in two broad ways. First, he emphasized the rights of women through his sermons and preaching, reminding people that men and women are auliya (allies or supporters) of one another (Quran 9:71) and that the best among men are those who are “best towards their wives” (Tirmidhi). Secondly, he exemplified what he preached through his conduct, treating the women around him with utmost fairness and dignity, and demonstrating the highest regard for the rights of women in the cases brought to him for judgment.
The Prophet’s ﷺ emphasis on the rights and equitable treatment of women is perhaps one of the reasons why many of the earliest converts to Islam were women. Here are ten oppressive practices against women that Islam outlawed and sought to eradicate from society.
1) Female infanticide
In pre-Islamic Arabia, some men would bury alive their newborn or infant daughters in order to save them the “trouble” of having to raise a daughter. Although this cruel practice was restricted in scope, it was nevertheless prevalent and accepted as a cultural norm – with no discernable voices raised against it. The Quran alludes to this custom as follows: “And when one of them is informed of [the birth of] a female, his face becomes dark, and he suppresses grief. He hides himself from the people because of the ‘ill’ of which he has been informed. Should he keep it in humiliation or bury it in the ground? Unquestionably, evil is what they decide.” (Quran 16:58-59)
The Prophet ﷺ completely outlawed female infanticide and managed to wipe it out from Arabia. He further informed people that the daughters treated with love and fairness shall act as a “shield” for the parents against Hellfire on the Day of Judgement (Bukhari). Unfortunately, a variant of this evil practice continues to this day in the form of abortion of female fetuses upon discovery of the gender. According to the State of World Population Report 2020 published by the United Nations, there are at least 1.2 million “missing female births” each year due to selective abortion, mostly accounted for by China and India.
Prostitution and sex trafficking are a stark reality of the modern world, against which Islam adopts an uncompromising stance. As narrated by Muslim, two female slaves once came to the Prophet ﷺ, complaining that their master – a man named Abdullah Ibn Ubayy – forced them to earn money for him by serving as prostitutes. In response, the following verse of the Quran was revealed, “And do not compel your slave girls to prostitution, if they desire chastity, to seek [thereby] the temporary interests of worldly life.” (Quran 24:33) The same verse goes on to promise forgiveness for the women forced into prostitution who repent from it. The Prophet ﷺ also narrated an incident about how a prostitute was forgiven her sins merely for saving the life of a thirsty dog, as reported in Bukhari.
3) Inheritance of Women
When a man died in pre-Islamic Arabia, his wife would often be inherited by his legal heirs. This was particularly true for women in the middle and lower classes of society. Thus, the widowed woman would literally be treated as a commodity, without having any say in how she wished to lead her life. Islam prohibited this practice through the following verse of the Quran: “O you who believe, it is not lawful for you to inherit women by compulsion.” (Quran 4:19) The widowed woman was thus provided the freedom to decide if she wished to remarry or not, and if she did, to choose her husband. Even today, widows in certain cultures may face immense social pressure to marry a particular individual or to live in a certain way – something clearly forbidden by the Quran and Hadith.
4) Denial of Property
Women in pre-Islamic Arabia were typically barred from inheriting or possessing property. Islam affirmed this right of women in no uncertain terms: “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.” (Quran 4:7) While Allah has made the husband responsible for providing for his family, the wife is not obligated to spend her wealth and earnings on anyone. Despite these clear teachings of Islam, it is considered a norm in many cultures to deprive Muslim women of their share in inheritance. Moreover, many working women are coerced into handing over their earnings to their husbands, which is totally prohibited in Islam.
5) Forced Marriages
The Prophet ﷺ completely outlawed forced marriages, and declared, “Seek the permission of women regarding marriage.” (Nasai) There are various recorded instances where the Prophet ﷺ revoked the marriage because the bride had been forced or pressured into wedlock. For instance, a woman named Khansa Bint Khidam complained to the Prophet ﷺ that her father had married her off against her will. The Prophet ﷺ immediately annulled the marriage without asking for any evidence of the absence of her will at the time. Khansa then married a man of her choice named Lubabah Ibn Abdul-Mundhir (Nasai, Ibn Majah). A forced marriage is simply considered baatil (invalid) in Islam, implying that it never occurred; hence, there is no need for a formal divorce in such an instance.
Unfortunately, forced marriages are a reality in many parts of the world even today. Women are routinely forced into wedlock through abduction, in return for a “bride price”, as a means of resolving disputes, or after being displaced due to war or human trafficking. Cruel practices such as vani in rural Pakistan and baad in tribal Afghanistan, where young females are given away in marriage as compensation for a crime by a family member, continue to exist despite being outlawed in these countries.
6) Payment of Dowry
Dowry typically refers to the goods brought by a woman to her husband’s home at the time of the wedding, which has been an integral part of many cultures. The family of the bride is often placed under imense financial burden to provide a dowry of acceptable value, and failing to do so is considered a matter of great shame and humiliation. Violence linked to dowries is a major problem in places such as India, where thousands of women are killed each year over dowries, according to UNICEF. Many others are driven to suicide over dowry-related pressures.
Islam rejects the concept of dowry. In contrast, it prescribes the payment of a gift called mahr by the bridegroom to his bride. The mahr is meant as a symbol of love for the bride which the bridegroom must pay according to his means. In pre-Islamic Arabia, the mahr would normally be paid by the bridegroom to the family of the bride as a form of “bride price”. Islam, however, ended this custom by declaring that the mahr can only be paid to the bride herself, with no one else having any share in it. The Quran states, “And give the women [upon marriage] their [bridal] gifts graciously.” (Quran 4:4)
7) Domestic violence
Domestic violence has become a menace in modern society. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 27 percent of women worldwide have suffered domestic abuse. In the United States alone, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports over 1,500 deaths annually from domestic violence. The Prophet ﷺ, while recounting the rights of the wife, said, “…And do not beat her.” (Abu Dawud) He also advised Fatima bint Qais not to consider the marriage proposal from a man who was “very harsh with women” or “a beater of women” (Muslim). Moreover, he expressed disgust at the arrogance of a man who hits his wife, saying, “Could any of you beat his wife as he would beat a slave, and then lie with her in the evening?” (Bukhari)
8) Pronouncement of Zihar
Zihar was a form of divorce prevalent in pre-Islamic Arabia where a man would say to his wife, “You are to me like my mother’s back.” The wife would thus become unlawful for him to approach, but she would not have the freedom to detach herself completely from him and marry someone else. Zihar was thus a form of confinement – an infringement upon the basic rights of a woman. This unfair practice was explicitly prohibited by Islam when a woman named Khaulah Bint Thalabah brought her complaint to the Prophet ﷺ regarding her husband who divorced her in this manner. Allah revealed the following verses in response.
“Certainly has Allah heard the speech of the one who argues with you, [O Muhammad], concerning her husband and directs her complaint to Allah. And Allah hears your dialogue; indeed, Allah is Hearing and Seeing. Those who pronounce zihar among you [to separate] from their wives – they are not [consequently] their mothers. Their mothers are none but those who gave birth to them. And indeed, they are saying an objectionable statement and a falsehood. But indeed, Allah is Pardoning and Forgiving.” (Quran 58:1-2)
9) Denial of Right to Divorce
In pre-Islamic Arabia, the wives had no power to end the marriage or obtain freedom from their husbands. Islam introduced the process of khula under which the wife initiates the divorce proceedings by applying to a court or other relevant authority. The wife’s right to seek divorce is established through several incidents during the life of the Prophet ﷺ. For instance, a woman named Habibah Bint Sahl came to the Prophet ﷺ, and declared, “O Messenger of Allah, I do not blame Thabit for any defects in his character or religion, but I cannot endure to live with him.” The Prophet ﷺ asked her if she was willing to return the mahr, to which she agreed. He then effectuated the divorce between them (Bukhari, Abu Dawud). This gives the woman the power to end an unhappy or abusive marriage even if the husband does not consent to the divorce.
Casting aspersions on a woman’s character is considered a major sin in Islam. The Quran states, “Indeed, those who [falsely] accuse chaste, unwary and believing women are cursed in this world and the Hereafter; and they will have a great punishment.” (Quran 24:33) Moreover, the Quran prescribes legal punishment for such slander: “And those who accuse chaste women and then do not produce four witnesses – lash them with eighty lashes and do not accept from them testimony ever after.” (Quran 24:4) The severity of this punishment is explained by the fact that, throughout history, women have been subjected to abhorrent crimes based on false accusations. From the notorious “honor killings” of South Asia to the atrocious “witch-hunts” historically conducted in Europe, violent crimes against women are often prompted by senseless charges and false accusations.
These are just ten among many oppressive and unfair customs against women that Islam obliterated from society. The Prophet ﷺ, in particular, strove hard to end all such activities during his time. However, as pointed out, many of such abhorrent practices are continuing to this day all over the world. In Muslim societies, their prevalence can be attributed to such factors as a lack of education, weak enforcement of the law, and prevalence of worthless age-old customs.
It is also true, however, that Muslim religious authorities have largely failed to educate their followers about the rights of women in Islam or to sufficiently condemn the abuse and oppression of women frequently witnessed. Turning a blind eye to such injustices is not enough; all members of society must make a conscious effort to fulfill the rights of women and cast aside biased cultural influences in order to create a safer and more equitable environment for females.