The Liberation of Muslim Women Throughout History
Historically, with the exception of earlier accounts of journeys, Westerners really started to write about Islam in the colonial period, a period in which the Western attitude towards women was that they were the weaker, inferior sex. We find French colonial authorities excluding women from teaching in the mosques - and there are still some women alive who remember this happening. Hence the lens through which the West viewed Muslim women (and women as a whole during that period) was already a distorted one - and one imposed or implanted among the Muslims, this viewpoint gradually became the established norm.
As will be seen from some of the examples below, the role of Muslim women during the last fourteen centuries has by no means been confined to house and home. They have been active in many fields. Nor has it been a question of either/or. It has been a matter of undertaking many roles simultaneously, all intermeshed and interlocking, rather than having to make a limited selection from separate categories. A business women is still a mother and a scholar is still a wife. Women simply learn to juggle things more, but that is something as which women have been very good at, as will be seen below.
As regards the present, it is clear there is a need to re-assess all our preconceptions and misconceptions about women's roles and realise that women are a vast resource for the Muslim community - in all spheres of action. After all, women comprise more than half of the community. If half the community is neglected, what will be the state of that community as a whole?
There is too great a tendency among many Muslims to relegate and restrict women's roles to that of a mother and a housewife. Although these are her primary role, which deserves great respect and honour, but we can see from the historical record, this is a fairly modern convention. Indeed, housework is not part of the duties included in the marriage contract unless specified - at least this in Maliki fiqh. A husband should appreciate the fact that the woman does the housework because it is the equivilant of a gift on her part. This is not to say that there have not been women who were only housewives, but certainly up until modern times there has been far more diversity among Muslim women than in other cultures, this being ensured by the fact that in Islam a woman is recognised and accepted as a distinct spiritual and legal entity. A woman controls her own wealth and does not automatically share it with her husband. Ultimately she - like her husband - is only answerable to God. Only ignorance limits the realisation of a person's full potential, man or woman.
Quite clearly, Islam has always allowed women to expand their scope according to their needs, aspiriations and ability. A Muslim woman may have a career or a wider social role, but is not forced to do so unlike in the West. The West has facilitated, via the use of media, economics, social contructs and politics to force a career - to be a slave of the system - on women. Ask many mothers who feel they have no choice to work - due to economic and social pressure - if they would rather spend time with their children? In most cases the answer is yes.
The Islamic system creates a framework where the mother and wife is seen as the 'career' to have, which is equivilant of the 'City Banker' and 'Heart Surgeon' of today. Being a wife and a mother is the ultimate status symbol in Islam. This framework then provides fertile ground for women to be able to expand their scope to interact in society in a positive way.
The education of women is crucial to the well-being of society. We know the oft-quoted saying "Al-umm madrasa" - "The Mother is a school". If the mother is lacking in knowledge, what is the school going to be like? What are the children going to learn? If she is lacking knowledge, then they will be lacking in knowledge. The importance of women's education is self-evident, not only from the Islamic texts, but from reality too.
The negative stereotype of the role of the Muslim woman which is often trumpeted in the media stems from the ignorance of the reality of the position of women in Islam and is coloured by cultural imperialism. How, for example, can a system of law which purports to guarantee freedom of belief and religion - and yet bans the wearing of hijab as a expression of that freedom - can be regarded as enlightened of just?
Looking back at the time of the Prophet (p), women were extremely active in all areas of life, and the Prophet (p) did not discourage them. It is this quality and taste of Islam which permeated the lives of most of the women described below - and it is this quality of Islam, sustained as it has been by direct transmission of the prophetic wisdom from its source, which sincere Muslims seek to establish and taste now - in their own life times.
Examples of Muslim women in History
Zaynab bint al-Makki (1227 - 1289)
She has a good reputation as a hadith scholar and many students gathered aroud her. She gave discourses in the major madrasas, sometimes on her own and sometimes jointly with male colleagues. She taught hadith to Ibn Taymiyya in Damascus.
Umm as-Darda (d. 650)
Khayra bint Abi Hadrad, the wife of Abu'd Darda, she was a companion famous for her piety and wisdom. She transmitted hadith, and many of the students of the Companions of the Prophet transmitted from her.
Nafisa bint Hassan (762 - 824)
The grandaughter of the Prophet (p) and the daughter of al-Hasan ibn Ali. She knew the Qur'an by heart and was familiar with Exegesis and well as Jurisprudence. She grew up in Madina and moved to Fustat, Egypt, after her marriage to Ishaq ibn Jafar. She held public classes which ash-Shafi'i attended. Her gathering included Dhu'n-Nun al-Misri, Abu Bakr al-Adfawi and as-Samarqandi. In his will, ash-Shafi'i insisted that his bier stop at her house on the way to the graveyard. She went to Hajj 30 times and died at the age of 63.
A'isha bint Abi Bakr (d. 678)
Umm al-Mu'minin, the wife of the Prophet (p) and the daughter of Abu Bakr. She was one of the great people of jurisprudence among the companions. A group of the companions known for their jurisprudence used to consult her to ascertain her understanding in various cases. Later scholars who transmitted from her included Masruq, al-Aswad, Ibn al-Musayyab, Urwa, al-Qasim, ash-Sha'bi, Ata, Ibn Abi Mulayka, Mujahid, Ikrima, Amra, Mu'adha al-Adawiyya, and Nafi. She possessed abundant knowledge such that Urwa said "I have never seen anyone with more knowledge of medicine then her....I did not see any scholar greater than A'isha in the learning of the Qur'an, shares of inheritence, lawful and unlawful matters, poetry. Arab history and genealogy."
by Hamza Tzortzis