Allah SWT has included in the Quran a long chapter, “al-Nisa” (Women), which covers many issues, as well as those related to women, such as marriage laws, obligation of dowry, justice towards women, and so on. With the advent of Islam, the status of women was elevated. In pre-Islamic Arabia women had little to no legal status, depending on their class. They were sold into marriage by their fathers, and they seldom owned property and had no rights to inheritance. Women were seen as something of a commodity and as a means to produce children. Female infanticide was common and was not regarded as taboo by society. Islam came and dismantled these oppressions and constraints against women, declaring that women and men are equal in the sight of God, both have religious obligations binding on them, and both genders will be rewarded by God for their belief and their righteousness.
Is Islam Against the Empowerment of Women?
Sheikh Mohamed Al-Ghazali has said, “Humanity, represented by women and men, is like a bird flying with wings outspread; and whenever one of its wings gets broken or damaged, it starts falling down.” This metaphor clearly shows the equal status and value of the two genders. Further, Allah SWT tells us in the Quran, “Whoever does righteousness, whether male or female, while a believer, We will surely cause him to live a good life, and We will surely give them their reward [in the Hereafter] according to the best of what they used to do” (Quran, 16:97). Muslim women, throughout Islamic history, fully understood that they would be held accountable for their deeds; and such realization made them take hold of their lives. Muslim women are seen exploring and deepening their faith, participating in prayers, sacrificing their lives, swearing allegiances to Prophet Muhammed (pbuh), and calling others to Islam.
“We call for the empowerment of women!” was not an issue to be solved among the early Muslim community. Indeed, this call would have sounded absurd to Muslim Arabs back then. Muslim women did not feel helpless or powerless. They were aware that with responsibility came empowerment; otherwise, they would be entrusted with a responsibility that was beyond their capabilities. Critics of Islam today who see Muslim women as disempowered would do well to educate themselves about the roles that women played in Islamic history. They were jurists, scholars, businesswomen, and fighters. The Prophet’s first wife, Khadija (RA), was an independent woman and a wealthy business owner. She supported the Prophet in every way, from the very beginning of his prophethood, including financially. Aisha bint Abu Bakr, who narrated the second largest number of hadith, became an esteemed scholar and jurist. The very first martyr in Islam was Sumayyah bint Khabat (RA). The first officially compiled Quran was entrusted to Hafsah bint Umar (RA) to keep and protect.
Going to the battlefield of Uhud, Umm Umara was seen shielding Prophet Muhammed with her body after being abandoned by the majority of the companions. She was seriously injured, and the Prophet said, “Who can endure what you can endure, Umm Umara!” And after the treaty of Hudaybiyyah, the Muslims were saddened by its conditions and reluctant to follow Prophet Muhammed’s instructions to sacrifice the animals and shave their heads to come out of ihram. The Prophet went to Umm Salama heavy-hearted and sought her advice. She suggested that he shave his head in public which, indeed, encouraged the Muslims to follow suit. One last example is during the reign of Umar ibn al-Khattab as Khalif. He appointed Al-Shifaa bint Abdullah as the inspector of the marketplace in Madinah. When just a handful of Makkans could write, she became the first woman to learn.
Dr. Akram Nadwi has compiled a multi-volume biography of Muslim women scholars in Islam. In “Al-Muhaddithat,” he records the contributions of women who studied and taught hadith and the important role they played in preserving and disseminating the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Dr. Nadwi states, “Initially I thought there might be about 30 to 40 women, but as the research progressed, the accounts kept growing until I realized I had no less than 8,000 biographical accounts of Muslim women who played major roles in the preservation and development of Islamic traditions since the time of the Prophet (pbuh) himself. The women I encountered were far from mediocre when compared to men and, indeed, some excelled way beyond their male contemporaries. These were exceptional women who not only participated in society but actively reformed it. Most striking was their caliber for intellectual achievement and the respect and recognition they received for it.”
Nearly 14 centuries ago, Abd al-Rahman ibn Awf took it upon himself to consult women about choosing Uthman ibn Affan to be the third khalif. Various countries in Europe did not grant women the vote until early in the 20th century, and some, like Belgium, Italy, Romania, and Yugoslavia, waited until 1946. Islamic history abounds with countless examples of women actively participating in building the Islamic nation. They had their say in all important issues that concerned the Muslim ummah. Such a strong and undeniable activism of women in Islamic history demonstrates the freedom and high status granted to women by Islam. In fact, Muslim women enjoyed many freedoms and rights that were not granted to women in the West until a much later date.
So how could we benefit from Islamic history to improve the contemporary status of Muslim women? Change starts from within. The Quran tells us, “Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves” (Quran, 13:11). Instead of blaming Islam for the oppressed state of women, we should ask ourselves: Are we following the teachings of Islam? Are our actions truly governed by Quran and sunna, or by our egotistic desires and petty prejudices? Do families care to raise strong women who fully know their rights?
In the following section, I will attempt to offer parents some advice on how to raise their daughters.
Five Tips to Raising Strong Daughters
Tip #1: Be Self-Directing
1. Teach your daughter to be self-directing. Parents should teach their daughters how to make their own decisions and make their own choices. This could include what sport or other extracurricular activity to participate in, what interest or hobby to develop, what goals they want to achieve, and so forth. With such freedom, they will develop the ability of taking hold of their own lives. They will be able to think and analyze things independently of others. Muslim daughters will become conscious of their responsibilities and have the ability to fulfill them.
We find a beautiful example in the story of Umm al-Mumineen, Khadija, may Allah will be pleased with her. When her husband, Muhammed (pbuh), came to her alarmed and distressed, informing her that he had been chosen to deliver the message of God, what did she do? Did she, herself, become alarmed? Did she embrace Islam immediately? She did neither. Remaining calm, she first comforted her husband, dismissing the possibility that his experience was from the devil. She assured him that Allah would allow no disgrace to come to him given his noble character. Second, she went with the Prophet to her cousin, Waraqa bin Naufal, a Christian, to ask him if her husband was the Last Messenger whose descriptions were found in the Christian Scripture. Third, she made a test, by removing her headscarf when her husband said that the angel Jibril was present in the home, to be certain that he was an angel, not a devil. All these measures that she took clearly reflect her exceptional ability to be self-directing, to use her reasoning, and make her own decisions. Once Khadija was certain of the veracity of her husband’s prophethood, she embraced Islam, becoming the very first convert.
Tip #2: Speak Up
2. Teach your daughter to speak up for herself, whether she is experiencing bullying, discrimination, or any attempt to silence or marginalize her. Allah SWT directs us to stand up for justice, whether it is unfairness or any form of maltreatment directed at any person, including ourselves. In the following verse, Allah SWT tells us to be staunch in our support of justice, even if it involves incriminating ourselves when we have done wrong: “O you who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin…” (Quran 4:135). By extension, standing up for justice also includes defending ourselves when we are the target of a wrong. Speaking up to defend against wrongdoing is part of “enjoining the right and forbidding the wrong” (Quran, 3:104).
In today’s world, sexual harassment and sexual assault are a serious issue. When a woman is attacked, physically or sexually, she will by instinct try to defend herself by getting away or fending off her attacker, or if she is capable, even killing him. Defending her life and her honor in every way possible is, of course, Islamically sanctioned. Part of defending oneself includes speaking out if one is being sexually abused by anyone. In Muslim communities, abuse is too often tolerated, and the victim is blamed and/or told to remain silent about the abuse. This is intolerable. The desire to protect the reputation of the family, while doing nothing to stop and report the abuse to authorities, or to cover up the abuse, is complicity in the crime. There are even cases of abuse by Muslim leaders. Women have to be supported when they report such abuse, and the allegations fully investigated.
Allah SWT guides men to be good to women by reminding them that both women and men share “one soul”: “O mankind, fear your Lord, who created you from one soul and created from it its mate, and dispersed from both of them many men and women” (Quran 4:1). There is an incident narrated by Ibn Abbas that “a woman from Khath’am asked the Messenger of Allah a question during the Farewell Pilgrimage, when Al-Fadl bin Abbas was riding behind the Messenger of Allah. She said, ‘O Messenger of Allah! The command of Allah has come for His servants to perform Hajj, but my father is an old man and cannot sit upright in the saddle. Will it be paid off on his behalf if I perform Hajj on his behalf?’ The Messenger of Allah said to her: ‘Yes.’ And Al-Fadl started to turn toward her, as she was a beautiful woman, but the Messenger of Allah took hold of Al-Fadl’s face and turned it to the other side” (Sunan an-Nasa’i). This illustrates the Islamic dictum to both men and women to “lower the gaze” in order to maintain modesty and avoid any lustful thoughts or impulses. The onus is on men to lower their gaze and practice self-restraint. The abuse of women by men must be stopped by men adhering to Islamic principles; and by women doing their part by speaking out when they are victims of abuse. The Prophet (pbuh) said, “A strong believer is better and is more lovable to Allah than a weak believer…” So, we should teach our daughters to speak up, to stand up for justice, and to be active and strong in their faith.
Tip #3: Seize Opportunities
3. Teach your daughter to seize opportunities: Muslim parents should teach their daughters how to make their own way in the world. They have to learn how to seize any opportunity that comes their way. Let’s go back to history and see how Muslim women used to make their own way. The news of the Hudaybiyya treaty reached a young woman in Makkah. She was from a pagan family and she felt she had to take the reins of her own life in order to live as a Muslim. She knew her family would never consent for her to leave so she decided to set out to Madinah on her own initiative. As soon as she reached Madinah, she realized that she had been followed by her brothers. What’s more, Prophet Muhammed refused to let her stay, given the conditions of the treaty. Did she accept going back to her family? No! She advocated for herself and told Prophet Muhammed that if she went back to her family, she would be forced to give up her faith. She meticulously scrutinized the Hudaybiyya pact to support her cause. Prophet Muhammed agreed to let her stay in Madinah and she was the first single Quraish woman who immigrated alone and embraced Islam. This woman is Umm Kulthum, daughter of the pagan chief, Uqbah ibn abi Mueet. If Umm Kulthum did not seize the opportunity of the Hudaybiyya treaty, she may not have been able to practice Islam and live with the Muslims in Madinah.
Tip #4: Equal Rights
4. Teach your daughter she is equal to her brother: Want to improve the status of women? Start in your own home! If your sons and daughters are not treated equally, do not ask the world to be fair to your daughters. Islam has made it clear “… whoever does righteous deeds, whether male or female, while being a believer — those will enter Paradise and will not be wronged, [even as much as] the speck on a date seed” (Quran 4:124). Girls should be given equal opportunities for education. They should be taught to be strong in decision-making, to be firm in their Islamic morals and values, and to see their lives and the choices they make as important and central to their life goals.
Some women choose or need to work outside the home. They have to strive to find an effective and fair balance between career and family life. That takes planning, good time management, organizational skills, and cooperation from husbands. As to those women whose main goal is to be a homemaker and mother, the following hadith makes clear the bounty in that. Asmaa bint Yazeed went to the Prophet and asked, “Messenger of God (pbuh), I am sent by a group of Muslim women and we all share the same view and have the same concern. Allah has sent you to both men and women. We believe in you and follow you. Yet we, women, have to stay at home. We are the object of men’s desire and we bear their children. Nevertheless, men have privileges, such as the obligatory Friday prayer, attending funerals and going on jihad campaigns. When they leave for jihad, we look after their property and we rear their children. Messenger of God (pbuh), do we have a share of reward for doing so?” Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) replied, “Asmaa, go and tell women that when any of you is a goodly wife, giving her husband a pleasant life and cutting out friction, she earns a reward equal to all that you have mentioned of men’s reward.”
Tip #5: Stand Firm
5. Teach your daughter to stand firm in her beliefs: Want to raise a strong daughter? Teach her to hold on tightly to her beliefs! A simple comparison between the conditions of women prior to and after Islam was introduced in Arabia reveals how Muslim women were transformed, how they were strong and true to their faith after embracing Islam. The more Muslim daughters hold on tightly to their beliefs, the stronger they become. The key is to let “the transforming power” of Islam touch the soul. This is the amazing power of truth, of Allah’s deen. Allah knows what is best for the soul, and by adhering to Islamic teachings, the soul is purified and breaks free from society’s shackles. In Islamic history, there are so many examples of strong females, women who no longer felt inferior to men as they knew their status as endowed upon them by Allah SWT.
The second of those who are called the four Rightly Guided Khalifs, Umar ibn al-Khattab, was feared as much as he was admired by the Muslims he governed. Because of Umar’s greatness, many felt intimidated in his presence. Yet, there is an incident narrated by Abdur Rahman As-Salami who reported Umar ibn Al-Khattab as saying, “Do not be excessive in the dowry of women.” A woman said, “It is not so, O Umar, for Allah said, ‘And you gave one of them a great amount [in dowry gifts],” (4:20). Umar said, “Indeed, a woman has disputed Umar and she has defeated him” (Musannaf of Abd al-Razzaq). The verse is about a man wanting to end his marriage to a woman and being directed by Allah SWT to take back nothing of what he has given her as dowry, even though it be a great amount. The point, however, is that this hadith shows the confidence of women who hold tightly to their Islamic beliefs, and their willingness to speak up and be heard.
A duty for every Muslim man and woman is to enjoin the good and forbid the wrong. Along these lines, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said, “Whoever among you sees an evil action, let him change it with his hand; if he cannot, then with his tongue; and if he cannot, then with his heart – and that is the weakest of faith” (Muslim). Hand, tongue, and heart, all involved in bringing positive change to the world — that is the piety and strength of character we want to instill in our daughters.