Whenever you hear about Muslim women in the media, we’re always portrayed as oppressed, meek, silent victims. Doing a quick Google search using the words “Muslim women” just now, the suggested searches at the bottom of the page include:
Muslim women aren’t “victims” or “subjects”. We’re more than headscarves, burkinis, dress codes and potential wives for those looking for a spouse. We’ve got spiritual, intellectual, economic, social and sexual rights. There is a terrible wave of Islamophobic hate crime at present and there are cultural/social problems within some Muslim communities (see my prior post on gender jihad) but this isn’t what we’re about. Violations of women’s rights is unfortunately a global issue and Islamophobia is an increasing problem but these are problems – they don’t define us. They are problems just like all other forms of racism, violence, discrimination and xenophobia. That’s not us.
Muslim women are proud, strong and free. We were given rights such as the right to inheritance centuries before women in Europe. I’ll leave all that for another post to go into greater detail. What I’d like to cover in this post is the 10 biggest misconceptions about Muslim women.
1. Muslim women dress in hijab and cover because their husbands demand so or because the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) told women to cover
Sigh. I and many other women (I’m sure!) have experienced this through misconceptions, (innocent) ignorance or by jumping to conclusions. It’s really patronising to presume that Muslim women cover their entire bodies for their husband when hijab is a choice, a decision and one act of following (one of ) God’s commands. Unfortunately there are cases of women being forced by men to cover by their fathers, husbands etc., there are oppressive laws in certain countries and in some societies there are judgmental attitudes and social pressure (all of which are wrong) but there’s also those sisters who wear it against their families’ wishes and despite the abuse and discrimination they may face within society. Following hijab in covering your body – not just your hair by the way (!) – is what Muslims believe to be a commandment from God and God alone (who is not male or female!). It’s a spiritual act, an act of modesty and an act of devotion. As Muslims, we believe that commandants are from God, compiled in the Qur’an and not from the Prophet Mohammed – who is the messenger not the Creator. It is and should always be the woman’s choice – a choice not defined by man. Please don’t assume otherwise.
2. Female converts had to convert to Islam in order to marry their Muslim spouses or they converted to Islam for their husband’s sake
Another huge stereotype! There are many many converts to Islam and most are young women. Whatever their timing, the decision to convert is (and must be) their choice. Those who convert simply to marry are not making a valid spiritual decision and those who force people to convert are breaking God’s commandment. God has given us free will and belief is personal – it has to be or it’s not real! You convert when you’re ready. Some sisters convert after witnessing the practice of their husband and learning more about the faith and some before they marry. This is their own personal spiritual choice. Out of those that convert before they marry, many of those aren’t even thinking about marriage. They’re not engaged, they’re not in love – they’re simply on their journey. Faith is personal and it’s once again really patronising to infer that women have no spiritual intelligence, needs, desires or free will. Faith is one thing. Marriage is another. Muslims believe that Allah’s plan is the greatest and therefore his timing is too!
3. Muslim men can touch unrelated women (shake hands etc.) whilst Muslim women can’t (the same goes for pre-martial sex!)
In Islam there is no sexual double standard. Pre- and extra-marital sex are forbidden as is kissing, touching etc. and everything in between. The limits between the opposite sex are the same. Whether this is always upheld is a different story but there should be no distinction between the level of contact between say a non-Muslim woman and a Muslim man and a Muslim man and a non-Muslim woman.
4. Muslim women can’t be scholars
The general lack of female scholarship (in comparison to male figures) is a result of culture, patriarchy and socio-economic factors – not Islam. There are however numerous female Muslim scholars, translators, jurists and important advocates. Aisha (ra), the wife of the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) was an early jurist and hadith transmitter. Another earlier example is Aishah bint Muhammad from Syria who was a 14th century hadith scholar. In today’s period, Laleh Bakhtiar (1938 – present) from the US, was the first American woman to translate the Qur’an into English. Her translation has been used in many mosques and universities. It has also been adopted by Prince Ghazi Bin Muhammad of Jordan. Laleh has translated more than 30 books on Islam and the Islamic movement and is both a lecturer and published author of over 15 books in relation to Islam. For more inspirational Muslim women and their achievements see: 10 Muslim Women You Have to Know, the Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE) index and here for a list of female Muslim scholars. .
5. Muslim husbands are permitted to hit their wives
Muslim men – despite what extremists say – are not permitted to hit their wives. The Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) did not hit his wives and taught men to respect, love and cherish their wives. Verse 4:34 of the Qu’ran is misused and mistranslated and thus used by some to justify violence against one’s wife :
The good women are obedient, guarding what God would have them guard. As for those from whom you fear disloyalty, admonish them, and abandon them in their beds, then strike them.
Translation: Talal Itani
Laleh Bakhtiar in her translation: “The Sublime Quran” (2007) translated the Arabic word daraba as “go away” instead of “beat” or “hit” – meaning the final commandment when in conflict with your spouse is to not actually have contact! Given the fact that the verse takes increasingly separatist stages: to first advise, then not share the marital bed until this last stage, this makes far more sense! As pointed out earlier, her translation of the Qur’an is used in various mosques and universities and was adopted by Prince Ghazi Bin Muhammad of Jordan.
6. Muslim women are not (really) allowed in the mosque or community sphere
This is simply a cultural issue. Women are not obliged to go to the mosque for Friday prayers – unlike men – as they may be busy looking after their children, looking after the house, perhaps not praying (time of the month!) etc. Women should never be stopped from going to a mosque. The authentic hadith (Al-Buhkhari) states the words of Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) as following: “Do not stop women servants of God from the mosques of God.” See the WISE list of female Muslim spiritual and religious leaders for more on information on Muslim women in this area.
7. Muslim women are all a bit “meek and mild”
I think my message is becoming clear! Modesty is an important virtue in Islam but that doesn’t mean we have to hide away. There are many, many inspirational Muslim women figures – lawyers, writers, lecturers, translators, scholars, artists, political leaders, athletes and many more. Once again, check out the WISE index for a list of 100 extraordinary Muslim women!
8. Muslim women have no sexual rights
Both men and women in Islam have a right to sexual satisfaction. Islamic teachings – especially early on – talked openly about such issues including the need for foreplay with your wife. As previously explained, modesty and shyness are virtues but cultural habits have once again “got in the way” in relation to sexual education and attitudes. See for example this hadith in which the Prophet advised Abdullah bin Amr bin Al-As (who fasted all day and spent all night praying) to fast some days and to not fast on others and to likewise sometimes pray at night and other nights sleep – as to not act in excess: “Your body has a right over you, your eyes have a right over you and your wife has a right over you.” (Bukhari, Vol.7, No. 127). Muslims of course cannot be intimate with their spouse when fasting and any sexual act requires you to shower afterwards – especially in order to later perform prayers. Therefore a husband who is fasting every day (until sunset) and praying after sunset all night is not only being harsh on himself but is not allowing for sexual intimacy to take place, when his wife has the right to sexual pleasure.
9. Muslim women must/should be financially dependent on their husbands
Muslim women have the right to work if they want to as long as the children and other duties etc. are not neglected as the man is the (main) breadwinner (remember men can’t have children!). Obviously in today’s economy many women also work out of necessity. Muslim women are endowed with financial autonomy in relation to their earnings. The husband has no (automatic) right to her earnings – they can only be given with permission (which counts as charity). The husband, regardless of her earnings or lack of, must always provide for his wife and family – even if she is a multi millionaire!
10. Choosing one’s spouse is down to the men – the groom, the bride’s father, brother, uncles etc.
Regardless of cultural or family behaviour, beliefs or tradition, in Islam marriage is between two consenting adults – be it a “love marriage” or arranged marriage (not forced for those who equate the two as being the same!). Firstly, women cannot and should not be forced to marry anyone – any such “marriage” would be invalid. Secondly, some couples chose their spouse, others ask their family and community to find a spouse for them. Each to their own! A Muslim woman has every right to ask her family, local imam etc. to help her find a spouse. If she falls in love, her potential husband may go to her father and ask for her hand. In the same way, if an unfamiliar brother wishes to marry a sister, he may approach her family who can ask their daughter what they make of him! Perhaps her father or brother know a nice brother they think is suitable and so they approach her to ask her thoughts but in no way is it a requirement that her family pick a husband for her. This works for some, for others things happen differently. Again – each to their own! The crucial point is that the marriage must be consensual. The woman’s family cannot give her hand against her will. Forced marriage is illegal, immoral and invalid. It is essentially a non-marriage involving forbidden sexual activity, immoral conduct and sexual, emotional and spiritual abuse. The Prophet Mohammad’s first wife Khadijah proposed the idea of marriage and they had a long happy marriage. Now me personally I’m a bit “traditional” and think it’s nicer for the men to ask/get the ball rolling but that’s not a rule! Modesty, respect and upright honest behaviour is the key.
So, I hope that’s cleared up some misconceptions around the so often mystified Muslim women! We’re human, we’re here, we have a voice, we have freedom, we have spiritual needs and we have opinions. We’re very normal!
Feature image: dzoro