‘1,300 years ago Islam gave women their rights!’ Every time the issue of women’s rights is brought up in the Middle East, this phrase usually appears. This is important because history forms a big part of gender debates going on there now. So did Islam bring a revolution in women’s rights? Or was it horribly oppressive as others claim?
The answer seems complex.
It was certainly better than its contemporaries in medieval continental Europe. Women scholars like Fatima al-Fihri helped start the world’s oldest continually operating university in Quaraouiyine in Morocco in 859 CE. Aisha bint Abu Bakr, wife of the Prophet Muhammad, transmitted many Hadith, while others openly participated in battle. But was this new? Previously, Roman republican law and contemporary Irish Brehon law granted most of the same rights to property and divorce as Muslim women had.
Issues like FGM, slavery, and punishing women in relationships with men outside the community do find limited justification in interpretations of Islamic scripture and history, not unlike Christian tradition, and still have substantial support from some modern Fiqh (Islamic law) scholars.
So what use is this to gender debates now? Even if things were better historically, that is no excuse for present failings. Most Islamic legal texts were written decades after the Prophet’s death, and are only a medieval interpretation of Islam, not something set in stone. It can be reinterpreted as human’s self-knowledge improves. The educated, inquiring, driven Muslim youth have every prospect of doing just that.
Author, Ronan Stewart, is a participant in this year’s Ideas Collective. Ronan’s project aims to challenge myths and stereotypes about Islam that drive conflict through an online magazine and workshop series. He hopes to work with other organisations to combat these myths in a balanced and informed way.
Through the Ideas Collective, we support people who want to take action on the issues they care about. By doing this, we offer a creative and collaborative space, with like-minded people to harness the potential power of your idea! Find out more about the Ideas Collective here.