For Muslim Women, Education and Economic Empowerment Are Keys to a Better Life

Posted on March 11, 2007


By Margaret Besheer, VOA

05 March 2007

International Women’s Day Thursday highlights women’s struggle for equality, justice, peace and development. For many it is a day to celebrate progress. For others, it is a reminder of just how far they still must travel. (Note from Rafik Beekun: As an example of how far our Muslim sisters have yet to go, please view the video clip in my vodpod below in the right hand column of this blog about how Saudi TV Host, Ranya Al-Baz, was severely assaulted by her husband).

The principle of equality between men and women is deeply rooted in Islam. The Prophet Muhammad was known for his equal treatment of the sexes. All his children were female, and he advocated women’s rights. (Note from Rafik Beekun: Here is a video clip of how the Prophet (s) himself encouraged a Muslimah to work as a doctor and to provide care to men:

The Prophet Muhammad (s) also required that a dowry be paid directly to a bride, rather than to her father or guardian, and he offered special protection to widows and orphans. Mishkat al-Moumin, a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, says that has interpretation has changed. “Later on, when Prophet Muhammad died, and so many other interpretations came to exist, again, it goes back to controlling society,” said Al-Moumin.  “If you want to control society, if you want to control families, then you control women.”Today, Muslim women are working to break free of unIslamic restrictions–many of which are  culture-based.

One such restriction that Muslim women face in some countries, e.g., Saudi Arabia, is driving or traveling by themselves. On this subject, please note that Sheikh Yusuf Qardawi, one of the most prominent and respected scholars in Islam, has already indicated there is no reason a woman cannot travel to perform Hajj [pilgrimage to Mecca] in the company of other trustworthy women and without the presence of any mahram as long as the road is safe and secured. He reasons that travel, nowadays, is no longer done through deserts or wilderness.  Contrast this position of Qardawi with the position of some very conservative Saudi scholars that maintain that women should not be allowed to drive by themselves. Al-Moumin also states economic and social empowerment are the keys to women’s advancement in the Islamic world.“You cannot expect a woman to stand up for herself, if she has no income, or if she cannot afford to put food on the table for her children. There are so many widows and divorced women,” said Al-Moumin. “They are responsible for a whole family — sometimes three or four kids. If there is no social or economic program to support them, it will be so difficult for them to survive.”

Education is another area where Muslim women lag behind. U.N. statistics show that, in 2005, more than 75 million women in the Middle East and North Africa — a large part of the Muslim world — could not read or write. Wadeer Safi, a professor of law at Kabul University, says illiteracy is also a serious problem in Afghanistan.Safi said, “The main problem in front of female students in Afghanistan is the illiteracy, which is prevailing all over the country.”Mishkat al-Moumin says uneducated girls grow up to be unprepared mothers, who often lack strong parenting skills. This leaves them unequipped to deal with modern problems, such as drugs, crime and religious extremism.“When you make women suffer, you make the whole family suffer. That is why women’s rights are important. It is not about women. It is about families,” said Al-Moumin.

Women are advancing at different speeds across the Muslim world. In Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, the pace of modern change is coming more slowly, with women still denied the right to vote or drive.Munira Nahid, a sociologist at King Fahd University in Riyadh, “Saudi women, because of the restrictions, and because of this unequal kind of opportunity that they are facing in this society, have become great fighters, and they have become great achievers.”Such determination is not limited to Saudi women. Elsewhere in the Muslim world, women are beginning to develop a voice in politics. In Iraq, women are playing an active role in government, while, last June in Kuwait, women voted and ran as candidates in parliamentary and local elections for the first time.In the Gulf nation of Bahrain, the king appointed the first female judge last year. She joins the ranks of other women judges in Jordan, Lebanon, Iran and several other Muslim nations.[more]

Some additional comments from Rafik Beekun:

(1) The need to empower our sisters and not to fall victim to cultural norms that are antithetical to Islam is highlighted in the following short video clip by Jeffrey lang:

(2) Muslim women are not to be servants–as illustrated by the Seerah of the Prophet Muhammad (s) himself:

(3) Many Muslim women are losing their self-esteem and self-confidence when they are reduced to cooking and rearing roles, and are treated as beasts of burden. This is contrary to the amazing achievements, intellectual and otherwise, of our sisters in Islamic history.  The first person to embrace Islam was a woman: Khadija (ra), and as the owner of her own business, she was the first Muslim CEO (Chief Executive Officer).  The first martyr in Islam was a woman, Sumayya.   The most prolific narrator of Hadiths was a woman: Aisha (ra).  One of the few companions of the Prophet (s) who stood firm next to him and defended him during the near disaster at the battle of Uhud was a woman: Nusaybah Bint k’ab Al Maziniyyah who fought off the enemy with a sword in one hand and a bow in the other hand while many in the Muslim army fled.   Muhammad (s) later remarked that “Wherever I turned, to the left or the right, I saw her fighting for me.” She was also present on a number of other occasions, namely the treaty of ‘Aqabah, Al-Hudaybiyah, Khaybar and Hunayn. Her heroic conduct at Hunayn was no less marvellous than her heroic conduct at Uhud. At the time of Abu Bakr’s Khilafah, she was present at Al-Yamamah where she fought brilliantly and received eleven wounds as well as losing her hand. Some of the leading scholars in Islam have been and are women.  As sister Rasha Al-Disuqi points out in the following video clip,  Muslim women can wear their hijab AND be fully involved in society: