The predominant notion among those less familiar or ill-informed about islam is that Women are sidelined, deprived or oppressed in Muslim communities and that this is a result of the teachings of the faith itself, right from its source. However, this isn’t actually true. If it was true, why would a hashtag about women inspire an #UnapologeticallyMuslim person like me?

In this piece on #InternationalWomensDay, I’d like to outline the way Islam changed the perception, stature and role of women in its early days; countering the culture prevalent at the time.

Women in 6th Century Arabia

Islam started off in Central Arabia in the late 500s of the Current Era, in what is present-day Saudi Arabia. At the time, the Arabs lacked a civilisation, and the system of law was a tribal, hierarchical one.

It is no secret that before recent modern times, in communities worldwide, women weren’t privileged as they are today; and I say that very loosely. Arabia was no different; in fact, the traditions mention harrowing accounts of the way the women were mistreated. Right from the onset, the very birth of a female was considered degrading in society. The Qur’an mentions:

When one of them is given the good news of a female child, his face becomes gloomy and he is choked with grief.

He hides from people because of the [self-presumed] bad news given to him [and wonders]: Shall he keep it despite the disgrace [he will face in the society], or put it away into the dust? In fact, evil is what they decide. (16:58-59)

There are also accounts of young girls being buried alive by their fathers, and this practice was common knowledge.

As for those girls that were kept alive, their treatment wasn’t much to boast about either. Domestic abuse was the norm; they were cut out of any inheritance they deserved and were always disadvantaged when any marriage turned sour. If their husbands died, women would be made to enter into a small hut, wear their worst clothes, and not touch, cleanse or groom until a year would pass in that state.

Then, an animal: either a donkey, goat or pigeon would be brought to them, and they would clean themselves with it. Seldom would it happen that due to the horrid filthy state the woman would be in, the animal she cleaned herself with that. She would then be allowed to emerge from the hut and given a piece of camel or goat dung, which she would throw in front of her. Only from this point onwards would she be able to cleanse herself using whatever she desired, i.e. perfume.[1]

What Did Islam Do?

Islam was introduced to the very people who had lived in this society, and it revolutionised their outlook. Not only did it outlaw burying daughters alive; it also taught that daughters were to be cherished and raised with love and affection, cared for and provided for until they were married off.

It discouraged violence against wives, stating that only the worst people beat their wives. It also stipulated for them a share of inheritance, along with the males. The laws relating to divorce were made clearer; it was no longer possible for a woman to remain divorced without being allowed to remarry for prolonged periods, or in many cases until she lived. If her husband died, she would be allowed to remain in the marital home for a fixed period, without being forced to leave. Added to the above was the incentives given to the males to treat women, be they mothers, wives, daughters, sisters or aunts, properly, with dignity and respect.

Yes, you might be presented with Islamic texts that seem out of line with the way women are treated in 21st century western societies. Let not the historical backdrop and context escape you before you decide to label the whole religion as being oppressive to women.

[1] Al-Bukhari