Growing up in a very conservative household where Eastern tradition was prevalent, I remember struggling with the notion that a good Muslim woman was one that was subservient to her husband, and put his comfort and needs before hers. I watched the women around me and they always seemed to be in service of their husbands in some way or another, whether it was mending their clothing or laying them out for the next workday, or preparing and serving meals to their exact liking. It left me with the unanswered questions: Is this what Islam requires of me? To dote on a man and take care of him while he is fully capable of taking care of himself? Is this what makes me a good Muslim woman, and then one day a good Muslim wife? This is not what Islam teaches, but rather what is predominant in some (not all) cultures.
It took years before I finally understood that the dynamics of my own upbringing were a result of strong cultural influences, and not religion. The description Allah uses in the Quran for the relationship between husband and wife is beautiful and intimate, even romantic: “they are as a garment for you, and you are as a garment for them” (2:187). Like clothing, a spouse should be a source of comfort and protection, and be the closest thing after your own skin. How could such a relationship exist if one partner is considered inferior to another?
In Islam, women and men are equal in front of our Creator as evident in different passages in the Quran, where He tells us:
Anyone who works righteousness, male or female, while believing, we will surely grant them a happy life in this world, and we will surely pay them their full recompense (on the Day of Judgment) for their righteous works (16:97).
The submitting men, the submitting women, the believing men, the believing women… and the men who commemorate God frequently, and the commemorating women; God has prepared for them forgiveness and a great recompense (33:35).
Whoever commits a sin is requited for just that, and whoever works righteousness – male or female – while believing, these will enter Paradise wherein they receive provisions without any limits (40:40).
While men and women are equal in their obligations to Allah, they also have rights and responsibilities that create a sense of equity between the genders. A husband has the right to be respected and the responsibility for bearing the financial burden of the household, just as the wife has the right to be taken care of and the responsibility of providing sound nurturing for their children. In today’s world of dual income homes, it’s hard to acknowledge the roles nature expected us to play. Or to appreciate that Islam protects the rights of women across all aspects of life, from prohibiting pre-Islamic injustices like burying newborn girls to granting the right to initiating divorce, as well as owning property and personal wealth.
We get caught up in the notion of equality between men & women but in truth, we are naturally different. Take the most fundamental human act of reproduction. A woman will conceive, carry the unborn child within her womb. For nine months, every decision she makes is based on the needs of a tiny being she hasn’t even met yet. And then she endures childbirth which brings physical pain that is unlike any other, followed by the inevitable bonding that occurs in a way only a mother can with her newborn. Allah gave this gift and responsibility to women, and His Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) encapsulated the regard for their elevated status when he said “Heaven lies beneath the feet of mothers” (Musnad Imam Ahmad).
The subservient woman was molded through generations of oppressive behavior that finds its roots in patriarchal constructs across the globe. Even today, too many young boys and girls grow up with cultural influences that distort Islam’s beautiful balance of rights and responsibilities, of equity and just treatment. But this mindset is not evident in how the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) lived his life and how he treated the women in his home. For example, he sewed his own clothes, did household chores, and challenged many of the common stereotypes of what is considered “manly”. His wife Aisha explained that he would mend his own clothes, milk his own sheep, help prepare meals, “and serve himself.”
He respected his wives, took counsel and advice from them, and was affectionate and kind to his daughter Fatima (peace be upon her). His wife Aisha recounts many narrations that depict the Prophet’s gentle mannerisms, showing a relationship of friendship and love. In fact, the many ways the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) expressed his love for his wife Aisha outshines any love story ever told. They would drink from the same cup when having meals together, he would lie his head in her lap and recite Quran, and played games together.
If the underlying principles of Islamic faith are equity and fairness, why then have some predominantly Muslim cultures perpetuated the stigma of female inferiority? It is because cultural influences have prevailed, even if they do not reconcile with the religion. The general image is that to be masculine, men have had to refrain from expressing sensitivity or softer emotions in fear of being deemed less of a man, and women expected to be submissive. Yet we know that the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) wives played visible and strong roles in their communities: Khadijah was a successful businesswoman who supported him in his early years of prophethood and Aisha was a scholar and major political leader for the first Muslim generations. Respect for the opposite gender shape the character of early Muslims, strengthened their personal relationships and left a mark on the communities they interacted with. If the world could look past the societal hierarchies that have defined gender roles and embrace true Islamic tradition and ethics, the future of our children could look very different. Ultimately, those interested in what Islam says about gender should look at the religious sources and not certain cultural practices.
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