Can Women Have Rights in Islam?

I know that by saying this many eyebrows will be raised: Islam is a modern religion with the aim of emancipation. Yes, I know, looking at the Burka of Afghan women, looking at the hijab of Iranian women, reading that FGC is mostly done in the Islamic countries of Africa, reading how poorly women in Islamic countries are treated does not really prove my point. But give me a chance to explain my point without stopping to read my paper, and I am sure that at the end of this you will understand my statement.

Since it would be too broad to consider all the Islamic countries, I will concentrate on Iran as a sample and compare it to some other Islamic countries when necessary.
Before the islamization of Persia, Persians were mainly Zoroastrians. Women had numerous rights: right to divorce, right to own real property, right of leadership etc. I could go on and on. The other Middle Eastern countries did not have any of those rights. Women were seen as “birth-machines” for male production only. Now, do not ask me how they imagined future reproduction without girls!

Islam came from Saudi Arabia, a country where girls were buried right after their birth and women who dared to give birth to baby girls were mostly kicked out of their homes, had to see their husbands bringing other women into their homes to finally produce a male child. Women had no right to education, nor to real property and were seen as property of their fathers first and then their husbands. The motto was very simple: Be happy that I allow you to live at all.
When Islam was introduced to Saudi Arabia, the Koran (translated meaning: recitation) became a revolutionary rule-book. Not only did it speak about how to believe in God and how to appreciate nature, but additionally it spoke about family law, about wills and inheritance, and about women.

Many might be surprised to hear that Islam is the first world religion, dedicating one chapter (sure) to women (Sure 4, Nessah). It speaks about giving girls the right to live, and that those parents who buried their baby girls should fear the Judgment Day, since those girls would want to know why they had to die because of their gender. It continues about the woman in the marriage, and it also speaks about divorce. Unlike most other religions, Islam does give women the right of requesting a divorce for numerous reasons (one of them being if the husband does not pay any sexual attention to her).

It continues with the rights of women after their divorce, indicating that no man should mistreat his ex-wife; neither should he take their children away, mostly not if they are still being nursed by her. He should give her dowry and make sure that she is provided for. [[4.4] And give women their dowries as a free gift, but if they of themselves be pleased to give up to you a portion of it, then eat it with enjoyment and with wholesome result.]
After saying all of this I can imagine anyone asking me: if this religion is so modern, why are women in Islamic countries treated so poorly?

For being able to answer this question, I will give you a little historical background of Islam: As I mentioned above, before Islam women had basically no rights. And while reading Islamic rules now, we do not have to look at them from our modern, maybe western point of view, but mostly from the eyes of the women from 1,400 years ago. I give you one sample: Islamic rules indicate that in a legal situation, one would need two female witnesses, which would be the equivalent to one male witness. I have to admit, the first time I read this in the Koran, I was furious! What does that mean? Are women worth half of a man? The answer is NO! Put yourself in the same position of an Arab woman in the year 600 B.C.: You had no rights before Islam, and now you can even become a witness. Now, how does that sound? Or another sample: You were not able to stay in your house if your husband decided to leave you, and now he has to make sure that you will do fine after a divorce. See the difference?

Another question people usually ask me is about the hijab. Hijab means cover in Arabic. I did a lot of research on this, since the Islamic revolution, which required that (literally from one day to another) women should wear a scarf over their head and a longer coat or a veil (chador). I could not understand why women should cover themselves up, while men could walk around anyhow they wanted. While no where in the Koran is written that a woman should wear a Burka or cover her head, I found a historical explanation: The head cover was originally for the Prophet Muhammad’s wife, or any other female related to the Bani-Hashem Family and the Quaraish tribe (While Surnames did not exist at that time in history, people used their tribal names to indicate where they belonged to.). Originally this cover was meant to make a distinction between the women form the higher groups and the working class women. Similar to the difference between women in the US Northern and Southern States: women of the South, who had their slaves working for them on the farms, were not supposed to have a tanned skin, since it would show that they were working outside.

Here, it was supposed to show a woman’s cleanliness to cover her head in order for her not to get dust or dirt into her hair. The body cover also is not written literally in the Koran, but is based on history. Saudi Arabia is geographically one of the hottest countries on the globe. With temperatures of around 120 F (50 Celsius) in the summer, it is logical that people like to wear fewer clothes. And since back then women did not have any rights, imagine who would have come to rescue a woman in case of a sexual crime? Exactly: no one! To protect women the Koran indicated that women should cover the space between their shoulders, meaning their cleavage and should not show their body jewelry. (At that time working women would wear ankle bracelets with bell-charms, which would make a tremendous sound while walking.) Now you will probably ask: Why are women then wearing the hijab or Burka?

First, let us look at Iran. Iran is the only country where women wear their head scarves differently than in the other Islamic countries. In Taliban- Afghanistan women were forced to wear a Burka, in Saudi Arabia they also wear a Burka, which looks different than the Afghan one. In conclusion one could say that the different understanding of the koranic word of “cover your cleavage” is based on the geographical location of the practicing countries. In Pre-Islam Iran women were wearing something similar to the “Greek-dress”, a simple dress with a shawl in the back. The shawl became the head cover. In Saudi Arabia, people did not want to compromise and covered the whole woman. Do you see the difference? It is not Islam indicating what women should wear; it is the original tradition of the countries adapting their life styles to their understanding of the Islamic way of life.

The second question I am usually asked is about the famous Islamic statement, why men can have four wives, and that this would degrade women. First of all, the Koran does not say that any man can have four wives. There are numerous conditions on that statement: first, the man must be financially sound, he has to have the permission of his first wife, and most importantly he has to have some supporting reasons. If for example, his wife is ill, or she can not bear any children (see the difference to the pre-Islam time: the Koran does not make a gender differentiation), and most of all treat them all equally. [[4.3] And if you fear that you cannot act equitably towards orphans, then marry such women as seem good to you, two and three and four; but if you fear that you will not do justice (between them), then (marry) only one or what your right hands possess; this is more proper, that you may not deviate from the right course.] In case he does not, any of the women could request a divorce.

I believe the latter one explains everything! I can not even treat two pairs of shoes the same way! How should it be possible to treat two women exactly the same? Hence, one can see that the Koran makes it very difficult for men to take advantage of the rule. But, before closing this chapter I should explain why it is written in the book at all. Again, this has protective reasons for women. At a time in history, where women were not able to work, where society would treat a widowed woman poorly, or where a woman who did not have any male supporters was seen as an easy target, a man who was financially sound, and hence able to support her, was allowed to have another wife. This was also the Islamic way of keeping women away from prostitution.
I could go on and on and bring you more samples. However, concluding I would say that Islam does give women a lot of rights.

Sadly, around 80% of the Islamic population is illiterate, and from that number more than half are women. Some people take advantage of their illiteracy by saying that no matter what gets done with them, they should obey, since this is the Islamic way. The countries traditions do not want women to be able to read and write, in order for them to read the Koran and become able to defend themselves based on the Islamic rules. Unfortunately the newest political developments and the involvement of terrorists in the name of Islam put a bad light on a religion, which was supposed to bring people closer and give women rights. Personally it makes me very sad and upset to see how people, who do not understand anything about Islam, act and try to explain their un-Islamic actions under the guise of the religion.