Women in Islam
Women play a vital role in the story of Muhammad. Muhammad’s loss of his own mother at an early age provides some context for his sensitivity to the cause of women throughout his life. When Muhammad began spending many hours alone in prayer, for instance, one of his concerns was the widespread discrimination he witnessed against women. Later in life, Muhammad will take on wives deemed poor and outcast by society as an act of kindness. In terms of his own story, Muhammad’s first wife, Khadijah — a woman fifteen years his elder — will give the future prophet his first job as a caravan driven. Later, after Muhammad’s first encounter with Gabriel left him frightened, Khadijah is also the one who consoles the future prophet, even encouraging him to return to the cave of his encounter. Khadijah is also among the first to convert to the new religion as well.
Muhammad’s second wife, Aisha, will serve as an important figure for verifying Muhammad’s piousness. She reports, for instance, “I saw the Prophet being inspired Divinely on a very cold day and noticed the sweat dropping from his forehead (as the Inspiration was over).” Aisha also proves pivotal in that her father, Abu Bakr, becomes the first recognized caliph following Muhammad’s passing. Muhammad’s daughter, Fatima, will prove an important figure as well, her husband Ali becoming the fourth caliphs and the rightful successor of Muhammad within the Shiite Islamic tradition. (1)
After the rise of Islam, the Quran (the word of God) and the Hadith (the traditions of the prophet Muhammad) developed into Sharia, or Islamic religious law. Sharia dictates that women should cover themselves with a veil. Women who follow these traditions feel in wearing the hijab is their claim to respectability and piety. One of the relevant passages from the Quran translates as:
“O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their outer garments over their persons, that are most convenient, that they should be known and not molested. And Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful” (Quran Surat Al-Ahzab 33:59).
These areas of the body are known as “awrah” (parts of the body that should be covered) and are referred to in both the Quran and the Hadith. “Hijab” can also be used to refer to the seclusion of women from men in the public sphere.
In pre-Islamic Arabian culture, women had little control over their marriages and were rarely allowed to divorce their husbands. Marriages usually consisted of an agreement between a man and his future wife’s family, and occurred either within the tribe or between two families of different tribes. As part of the agreement, the man’s family might offer property, such as camels or horses in exchange for the woman. Upon marriage, the woman would leave her family and reside permanently in the tribe of her husband. Marriage by capture, or “Ba’al,” was also a common pre-Islamic practice.
Under Islam, polygyny (the marriage of multiple women to one man) is allowed, but not widespread. In some Islamic countries, such as Iran, a woman’s husband may enter into temporary marriages in addition to permanent marriage. Islam forbids Muslim women from marrying non-Muslims. (56)