Hearing the stereotypes of Muslim women as passive, weak, and oppressed is really disappointing, not to mention flat out wrong. The mislabels are not new, but their amplification in this post-9/11 and presidential Trump era in the United States makes them hard to ignore. When I think of Muslim women, I only remember strong, powerful, and selfless individuals of the present and past who have such an amazing hold on their life, responsibilities, and faith that I cannot help but be inspired by and in awe of them.
One such woman is Asiya bint Muzahim who attained perfect faith as described by the Prophet Muhammad (may the blessings and peace of God be upon him). She lived in ancient Egypt during the rule of the most oppressive pharaoh in history. Not only did she live under his rule, but she lived in his home as his wife. This pharaoh was a a horrible tyrant who claimed to be an all-powerful god, and he made his people worship him. At the same time, however, he was so paranoid of being overthrown (as a fortune teller predicted) that he ordered baby boys born in the land to be killed. In one particular year, the newborn boys could live, and in the next, the newborn boys were killed.
It was against this backdrop that Prophet Musa (Moses) was born, in a year the baby boys were to be killed. But Musa was no ordinary child—people who laid eyes on him felt love toward him. The midwife who received him could not make herself report his birth that would result in his killing. Instead, Musa’s mother—a remarkable woman in her own right—put her newborn baby boy in a crate in the river as inspired by God:
“And We inspired to the mother of Moses, ‘Suckle him; but when you fear for him, cast him into the river and do not fear and do not grieve. Indeed, We will return him to you and will make him [one] of the messengers.’” (Q. 28:7)
As God would plan, baby Musa ended up in the home of the tyrant pharaoh himself. Asiya found Musa in the crate and felt a strong connection and love for him—she had no children of her own. The following exchange between Asiya and her husband is related in the Quran:
“And the wife of Pharaoh said, ‘[He will be] a comfort of the eye for me and for you. Do not kill him; perhaps he may benefit us, or we may adopt him as a son.’” (Q. 28:9)
And thus, in the pharaoh’s own home, the Prophet Musa—the exact boy the tyrant was paranoid of—was raised by his wife. Musa’s real mother ended up there too without Asiya knowing who she was. She served as the baby’s wet nurse, and just as God promised in the verse quoted earlier, the mother and son were reunited.
Asiya loved Musa as her own son. When he started preaching the message of the one true God, she believed wholeheartedly. However, being the wife of the violent and oppressive man who thought himself to be a god, she kept her faith secret.
One day, a daughter of the pharaoh (from someone other than Asiya) heard her hairdresser say, “Bismillah” meaning “in the Name of God.” She reported it back to her father, as he would find this a reason for execution. He sentenced the hairdresser and her children to a public death in a pit of burning copper. One by one, the pharaoh had the children thrown to their demise until it was just the hairdresser and her newborn in her hands. At this point, the hairdresser felt some hesitation and God caused her newborn to speak miraculously. The baby encouraged her that the punishment they faced in this world is nothing compared to the one in the next if they sacrificed their faith.
Upon witnessing this courage from the hairdresser, Asiya too found the ability to stand up to her husband and reveal her true beliefs. She told him she believed in the true God, disbelieved in the pharaoh, and did not care about what he would do to her while knowing he felt no remorse at burning children alive and having women raped.
After learning of his wife’s true beliefs, he took her to the desert, starved her, and stripped her. His daughters and concubines laughed in her face. The pharaoh tried so hard to degrade Asiya, but what he did not realize was that her faith was impeccable. She was striving only for God and His pleasure, and there is nothing that can cause humiliation for a person with that kind of character. While enduring her husband’s punishments, Asiya made a supplication:
“My Lord, build for me near You a house in Paradise and save me from Pharaoh and his deeds and save me from the wrongdoing people.” (Q. 66:11)
The video below points out how beautifully Asiya worded her supplication. She asks for a home in Paradise, but before she even says that she requests for her abode to be near God. Her priorities were clear: she wanted to be close to her Lord. Nothing else mattered—not the pain, not the suffering, not the humiliation her husband was trying to cause her at that very moment.
In response to her supplication, God opened the skies and allowed her to see where her abode would be, and she laughed in joy at this revelation. It was then that the pharaoh decided to have her killed by a huge boulder. Before the boulder came upon her body, God took back her soul and thus, the life of Asiya came to an end.
Lately, many women have come forward regarding situations in their lives in which powerful men silenced them and took advantage of them. They abused their place and for many years got away with their misdeeds. Asiya endured a marriage with an oppressor who was the worst of them all. Yet, she too found the courage to stand up to him with no one else at her side but God. She was granted a true victory through her Lord because of her perfect faith. Although the witnesses of her death believed she was degraded and left this world in a sad state, she achieved an extremely elevated status. She is an example for the entire world that no matter the situation you are in, your dignity and honor can stay in tact as long as you stay true to who you are and what you believe.