The Shari’a has a long history of protecting the rights of women. It allows women specific rights that in the pre-modern world were not common for women from other religious and cultural traditions. There are discriminatory rules in a number of Muslim-majority countries against women but these rules are often based on non-Islamic cultural practices rather than on the Shari’a. Feminists in Muslim countries are challenging these discriminatory rules by appealing to the Shari’a.
What the Shari’a Provides Women
First and foremost, the Shari’a allows Muslim women to inherit property from their relatives and to keep their inheritance for themselves, even after they are married. The husband has no claim on his wife’s property. One should remember that Western Christian women, once they married, could not hold on to their property in their own name since the husband automatically took possession of it. It was only starting in the nineteenth century that European women acquired the right to hold onto their property after marriage.
The Shari’a allows Muslim women to acquire an education and to teach others as well. Knowledge is obligatory for both Muslim men and women. As a result, throughout Islamic history, we have had women scholars who taught both males and females, including in institutions of higher learning (equivalent to our universities today).
Women have a say in marriage and divorce; the woman’s consent has to be obtained for a legitimate marriage. If her husband is abusive and unwilling to provide financial support for the family, a woman can seek divorce, although divorce is strongly looked down on in general. The Shari’a recognizes women as the spiritual and moral equals of men. The Qur’an, one of the principal sources for the Shari’a, describes men and women as equal partners of one another in their moral and social obligations.
Birth control is allowed under the Shari’a and Muslim jurists typically allowed first-trimester abortions for pregnant women.
Some people in the West become concerned about the veil and automatically assume that it leads to oppression of women. The veil or head-scarf is part of modest clothing that many Muslim women prefer – many of these women have advanced education and have professional jobs. Veiling is not unknown in Christianity or Judaism; the Bible in 1 Corinthians says a woman should cover her head when praying and nuns have always veiled themselves until very recently. Orthodox Jewish women continue to cover their hair in public today either by putting on a scarf or a wig. Veiling is therefore very much a part of the Abrahamic faith traditions.
Dr. Asma Afsaruddin is Professor of Islamic Studies and former chairperson of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures in the School of Global and International Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. She is also an adjunct professor in the Department of Religious Studies and an affiliated professor in the Department of Gender Studies. She received her Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies from Johns Hopkins University in 1993 and previously taught at Harvard and Notre Dame universities. Professor Afsaruddin’s research has been funded among others by the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, which named her a Carnegie Scholar in 2005. She was the Kraemer Middle East Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at the College of William and Mary in 2012 and has been a fellow at the American Research Institute in Turkey (ARIT), Istanbul and at the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE), Cairo.