The Prophet (SA) elevated the status of women by not just proclaiming their rights but also exemplifying the best conduct towards them. The emphasis of Islam on equitable treatment of women is perhaps one of the reasons why many of the early converts to Islam were women. Here are ten oppressive practices against women that Islam outlaws and seeks to eradicate from society.
1) Female Infanticide
In pre-Islamic Arabia, some men would bury alive their newborn or infant daughters in order to save them the “trouble” of having to raise a girl. Although the practice was restricted in scope, it was nevertheless prevalent, with hardly any voices raised against it. The Quran alludes to this attribute of the disbelievers as follows: “And when one of them is informed of [the birth of] a female, his face becomes dark, and he suppresses grief… Should he keep it in humiliation or bury it in the ground?” (An-Nahl 16:58-59) Islam completely outlawed this cruel practice and wiped it out from Arabia. The Prophet (SA) further stated that the daughters treated with love and fairness shall act as a “shield” for the parents against Hellfire on the Day of Judgement. (Bukhari)
As narrated by Muslim, two female slaves once came to the Prophet (SA), complaining that their master, Abdullah bin Ubayy, forced them to earn money for him through prostitution. In response, the following verse of the Quran was revealed: “And do not compel your slave girls to prostitution, if they desire chastity, to seek [thereby] the temporary interests of worldly life.” (An-Noor 24:33) The same verse goes on to promise forgiveness for the women forced into prostitution if they truly repent from it. The Prophet (SA) also narrated how a prostitute was forgiven by Allah merely for saving the life of a thirsty dog, as reported in Bukhari.
3) Inheritance of Women
In some segments of the Arab society, when a man died, his wife would be inherited by one of his male heirs. Thus, the widow would literally be treated as a commodity, without having any say in how she wished to lead her life. Islam abolished this custom through the following verse of the Quran: “O you who believe, it is not lawful for you to inherit women by compulsion.” (An-Nisa 4:19) The widow was thus provided the freedom to decide if she wished to remarry and to choose her husband.
4) Denial of Property
Women in many societies were typically barred from inheriting or possessing property. Islam affirmed this right of women in no uncertain terms: “For men is a share of what the parents and close relatives leave, and for women is a share of what the parents and close relatives leave, be it little or much – an obligatory share.” (An-Nisa 4:7) While Allah has made the husband responsible for providing for his family, the wife is not obligated to spend her wealth and earnings on anyone.
5) Forced Marriages
The Prophet (SA) completely outlawed forced marriages, declaring: “Seek the permission of women regarding marriage.” (Nasai) There are various recorded incidents where the Prophet (SA) revoked the marriage because the bride had been forced or pressured into wedlock. For instance, Khansa bint Khidam complained to the Prophet (SA) that her father had married her off against her will. The Prophet (SA) immediately annulled the marriage without asking for any evidence of her unwillingness at the time of Nikah. Khansa then married a man of her choice named Lubabah bin Abdul-Mundhir. (Nasai and Ibn Majah)
6) Payment of Dowry
The requirement of dowry can place the bride and her family under immense financial burden and mental strain. Islam plainly rejects the concept of dowry. In contrast, it prescribes the payment of a gift called Mahr by the bridegroom to his bride. The Mahr is meant as a symbol of love for the bride which the bridegroom must pay according to his means. In pre-Islamic Arabia, the Mahr would normally be paid to the family of the bride as a form of “bride price”. Islam, however, ended this custom too by declaring that the Mahr can only be paid to the bride herself, with no one else having any share in it. The Quran states: “And give the women [upon marriage] their [bridal] gifts graciously.” (An-Nisa 4:4)
7) Domestic violence
The Prophet (SA) described the best among men as those who are “best towards their wives”. (Tirmidhi) While recounting the rights of the wife, he said: “…And do not beat her.” (Abu Dawud) He also advised Fatima bint Qais not to consider the marriage proposal from a man who was “very harsh with women” or “a beater of women”. (Muslim) Moreover, he expressed disgust at the arrogance of a man who hits his wife, saying: “Could any of you beat his wife as he would beat a slave, and then lie with her in the evening?” (Bukhari)
8) Pronouncement of Zihar
Zihar was a type of divorce prevalent in pre-Islamic Arabia where a man would say to his wife: “You are to me like my mother’s back.” Zihar was effectively a form of confinement for the woman because it deprived her of certain marital rights without giving her the freedom to marry someone else. This practice was prohibited by Islam when Khaulah bint Thalabah, whose husband divorced her in this manner, brought her complaint to the Prophet (SA). Allah revealed the following verses of the Quran in response: “Those who pronounce Zihar among you [to separate] from their wives – they are not their mothers. Their mothers are none but those who gave birth to them.” (Al-Mujadilah 58:2)
9) Denial of Right to Divorce
In pre-Islamic Arabia, the wives had no power to end the marriage or obtain freedom from their husbands. Islam introduced the process of Khula under which the wife initiates the divorce proceedings by applying to a court or other relevant authority. Once, Habibah bint Sahl (rtaf) came to the Prophet (SA) and declared: “O Messenger of Allah, I do not blame Thabit for any defects in his character or religion, but I cannot endure to live with him.” The Prophet (SA) summoned Thabit bin Qays, and effectuated the divorce between them after Habibah agreed to return her Mahr. (Bukhari and Abu Dawud)
False accusations of immorality not only put women’s honour at stake but also lead to heinous crimes against them. Hence, slander is considered a major sin in Islam. The Quran states: “Indeed, those who [falsely] accuse chaste, unwary and believing women are cursed in this world and the Hereafter; and they will have a great punishment.” (An-Noor 24:33) Moreover, the Quran prescribes the following legal punishment for the slanderer: “And those who accuse chaste women and then do not produce four witnesses – lash them with eighty lashes and do not accept from them testimony ever after.” (An-Noor 24:4)
It is unfortunate that many of these practices exist even today due to such factors as a lack of education, blatant disregard of the Quran and Hadith, absurd prevailing customs, and weak enforcement of the law. Turning a blind eye to such practices is not enough; we must make a conscious effort to eradicate these from our society. The Quran reminds us that the believing men and women are Awliya (allies) of one another, and an alliance can never be established if one group discriminates against, or oppresses, the other.