Each year both, Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, have designated annual themes. This year the theme for both dealt with empowering women.
We can use this theme to recognize women throughout the world and throughout history. Regarding the Muslim world, it seems that many are aware of the fact that Muslim women played vital roles throughout history and certainly during the early Islamic era. We often cite excellent examples, such as Aisha, Khadijah, and Fatima (may peace be upon all of them) - the Prophet’s wives and daughters. When we look beyond this circle, we also find other Muslim women during the Prophet’s times that were also very active and influential. As we move forward in history, we again find Muslim women who were businesswomen, philanthropists, leaders of tribes and nations, founders of educational institutions, and even scholars and jurists who taught some of the most famous figures in Islam, such as Imam Shafi’i and Imam Malik. It is also commonly known by most that Islam was the first system that brought women all these rights and opportunities.
Yet, in today’s times, in the 21st century, some of the worst violence against women takes place in the Muslim world. Unfortunately, when a Muslim woman advances, often it is argued that this is not due to Islam, but due to contemporary, modern views.
The fact is, a Muslim woman is given rights and freedoms. Therefore, the idea that her religion supposedly did not give her those rights and that she had to express them through a different medium (read: the West) should not be prominent. Rather she should be able, and be acknowledged by everyone, to freely practice and express her God-given rights; rights that no man, no community, no culture can take away from her; rights that were granted to her from God through her religion.
In a way, the Muslim world has been moving backwards, as modern critics of Islam like to proclaim. In the past, it was well beyond its times in progress and advancement, and now it is well behind. We hear more stories of oppression and torture against women coming from the Muslim world, similar to those from the Jahiliyyah, than we do of amazing feats and accomplishments similar to those of Muslim women of the past. The stories we hear today of acid burning, mutilation, and the philosophy of “guilty until proven innocent” – often leading to unjustified and cruel punishments- have become the face of plight of Muslim women in today’s world.
Of course, we are well aware of the fact that not all, and probably even the majority of Muslim women in the world, do not actually suffer as this image implies. However, unfortunately, many of the Muslim women who are able to live with the honor and dignity divinely-bestowed to them and find inspiration to do so through Islam, happen to live in countries where they are allowed to express themselves freely; and these don’t happen to be most Muslim countries. This again, proves a point of modern critics. It is unfortunate that the reality is not as clearly expressed in these countries, since it was in the past when these same geographic areas, which were predominantly Muslim then too, were beacons of light and learning for the entire known world, whether Muslim or not.
However, hope should never be lost. It is true the Muslim world is in poor shape, but the Ummah is not, and the Ummah includes all Muslims, whether living in the geographic pre-dominantly Muslim world or elsewhere. We have prime examples of Muslim women in today’s world who are “taking their religion back” from people, be they their own fellow Muslim men or others who do not understand Islam, and giving the world a new image of Muslim women to see.
We have public figures, such as Tawakkol Karman, one of the recent winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, but we also have simply the number of Muslim women making a difference. For example, in the U.S., out of all religious groups, Muslim women are fast becoming the most highly educated in the country. Many of these women find Islam as their driving force and being American as their vehicles. Thus, they are using their rights given to them by their faith, and the freedoms given to them by their country to reach their full potential. And this is how it should be. In an ideal Muslim nation, the country’s system would allow for the God-given rights to be expressed.
It seems that, just as individuals and groups are beginning to “remember” this ideal, some nations are as well. Some Muslim countries are beginning to put laws into place that protect more women’s rights.
However, let’s hope the inspiration behind these changes is to follow Islam and not simply pressure from other countries to accept “modern values”, which are in fact, values that were actually granted centuries ago.