Are Women Oppressed in Islam?

The media frequently portrays Islam as a religion that oppresses women. Sadly, women are oppressed in a few Muslim countries around the world, but any form of emotional, physical, or psychological abuse or oppression towards women is prohibited in the faith and strongly goes against the teachings and laws of Islam. The suppression of women occurs in many parts of the world, regardless of the oppressor’s religion or culture — or even if the oppressor is an atheist. And no Islamic laws exist sanctioning this oppression. Islam specifically states that women have the right to a decent life without facing aggression or abuse, just as men do. The Holy Quran says God the Almighty created all species in pairs, indicating that men and women were created of the same species. Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, stated that Women are the twin halves of men. Furthermore, God says in the Holy Quran:

“The men believers and women believers are Auliya’ (helpers, supporters, friends, protectors) of one another” (Quran 9:71)

Islam states that men and women were created in a pure state, and both are equal in the eyes of God. The only real criterion that judges the superiority of one person over another takes the form of piety, God-consciousness, and righteousness.

“…Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you…” (Quran 49:13)

Men and women of the Islamic faith are expected to fulfill the same obligations of faith, worship, prayer, charity, etc. — as stressed in the Holy Quran. Women do not differ from men in the spiritual sense, as both men and women are subject to God’s reward or punishment.

“And whoever does righteous deeds, whether male or female, while being a believer — those will enter Paradise and will not be wronged, even as much as the speck on a date seed” (Quran 4:124)

While men and women are spiritually equal in the eyes of God, the two genders are not identical. They exhibit many biological, psychological, and physical differences; therefore, comparing their roles would not be logical. The rights, responsibilities, and roles of each gender are balanced yet are not necessarily the same. Each gender claims different roles in life, and each is suited for their respective role according to their functions, as designed by nature. Men possess more physical strength than women, which is why men and women compete in separate athletic competitions in such rigorous sports as boxing or basketball.

“…And the male is not like the female…” (Quran 3:36)

One should not misinterpret these differences to mean that men are superior or inferior to women; instead, these roles are attributed to each gender’s natural capacity and the proper functioning of each gender. For example, women are equipped for childbearing, while men are incapable of giving birth. On the other hand, a man is suited for military field battles during times of war, while the appointment of a woman to fight in the field in place of a man would be a disadvantage for the army. Men and women complement each other while serving as a means of mutual fulfillment.

Men and women have preferences and advantages related to their genders. The Holy Quran states that men stand at one degree over women. According to Islamic scholars, this edict references the Verse indicating that men are caretakers of women and should fulfill all of their responsibilities in terms of protecting, supporting, and providing for them. This Verse does not imply that men stand as an authority over women. Women are the beneficiaries of this Verse. A woman’s role is to comfort and support her man. He who created both men and women knows the capabilities, weaknesses, and strengths of each gender.

In past societies — the Romans, Greeks, and Babylonians, in particular — women were denigrated, used for sex and pleasure, treated as property, and prostituted. Some civilizations even considered women as evil instruments of the devil and deprived them of various basic rights. Some societies even buried baby girls alive after birth. Islam was the first religion to grant women status in society.

In many later societies, men deprived women of their basic inheritance rights and treated them as transferable property. However, Islam gives women the right to own property and receive their just inheritance from relatives. Islam gives women the right to get an education, marry who they please, retain their family name after marriage, divorce, and work outside the home. They have the right to earn their own independent income, start their own business, and vote. Of note, Islam granted these rights to females when they were not the norm in the world and culture. In Islam, the husband cannot touch his wife’s money without her permission and must support her and cover the household expenses. Islam introduced the rights of a mother, wife, daughter, etc., into the annals of human culture.

When the Holy Quan was revealed, its scripture condemned sexist attitudes and discrimination against women. Indeed, the Book raised the status of women, honored them, and demonstrated how they could maintain their God-given honor. Nowhere in the Holy Quran will you find a Verse that degrades women or gives them a secondary status. The Holy Quran has an entire chapter named “The Women.” There is no chapter called “The Men.” The Holy Quran also contains a chapter named “Mary,” who is mentioned throughout the Holy Book. Islam’s first follower was a woman (Khadijah, the Prophet’s wife). The first martyr in Islam was also a woman.

Prophet Muhammad PBUH stated in a Hadith: ‘The most complete of the believers in faith is the one with the best character among them. And the best of you are those who are best to your women. (At-Tirmidhi) Another narration contains a statement from Prophet Muhammad PBUH: Whoever has three daughters, or three sisters, or two daughters, or two sisters, and he keeps good company with them and fears Allah regarding them, then Paradise is for him. (At-Tirmidhi)

Treating one’s parents well, especially the mother, is highly mandated in Islam and the Holy Quran. The Holy Quran elevates mothers to a high status and commands everyone to treat their mothers with the utmost respect, kindness, tenderness, love, devotion, and care. Our Prophet PBUH stated: Paradise lies under the feet of your mother. Additionally, when Prophet Muhammad PBUH was asked by a companion, Who amongst the people is the worthiest of my companionship? Prophet Muhammad PBUH responded, Your mother. Then the man asked, Then who?, and Prophet Muhammad PBUH replied, Your mother and the companion replied, Then who? Prophet Muhammad PBUH replied, Your mother, at which point the companion replied, then who? And finally, Prophet Muhammad PBUH replied, Then your father.

A Muslima is honored in Islam and Sharia (Islamic Law). While the media often portrays Muslim women as oppressed, weak, and submissive to their husbands based on how they look and dress, the apparel of Muslim women stands as a symbol of their liberation from societal objectification. Non-Muslim women often dress to attract the attention of the opposite gender, while a Muslim woman’s goal is to dress appropriately and modestly and to attract the least attention in a world where the physical form is constantly emphasized and given undue focus.

Islam elevates the one who covers herself, safeguarding her integrity by not allowing herself to be treated as a sexual object. She is not to be valued and judged externally, based solely on her appearance, but rather internally on her righteousness, character, mind, and intellect. A Muslim woman does not desire to adorn her body for men, sexualizing herself to gain attention from men other than her husband. Muslim women look up to and identify with Mary, the mother of Prophet Jesus, peace be upon her, known for her piety, righteousness, character, God-consciousness, and modesty.

In today’s modern Arabic vernacular, the word Hijab refers to a headscarf. Yet, in classical Arabic and the language of the Quran, the Hijab refers to a physical curtain, a screen, a partition, or a barrier that separates one from others when one stands behind it. The one being covered by or found behind the hijab is not only covering her head and body but also the space around her as she stands behind a curtain, screen, partition, or barrier. According to the Holy Quran, this garment was an extra layer of coverage required to be worn only by Prophet Muhammad PBUH’s wives.

“…And when you ask his wives for something, ask them from behind a partition. That is purer for your hearts and their hearts…” (Quran 33:53)

The Prophet PBUH’s wives not only had to cover their heads and bodies, but they had to place covers or curtains in front of them to conceal their space when speaking to men other than their mahrams (a person who that individual may not marry because of their close blood relationship, such as a brother, uncle, nephew, etc.). The Almighty gave additional rules of etiquette regarding how one should speak to the wives of the Prophet PBUH.

The hijab provided an extra layer of privacy while symbolizing noble women’s high status and dignity. To reiterate, the classic meaning of the term hijab in the Holy Quran is not the same as the meaning we reference today. The wearing of the Hijab mentioned in the Holy Quran was not required by anyone other than the Prophet PBUH’s wives, as outlined in the Holy Quran. Regarding all other Muslim women, a different verse of the Quran explicitly instructs that women wear headscarves.

“And tell the believing women to reduce some of their vision and guard their private parts and not expose their adornment except that which necessarily appears thereof and to wrap a portion of their headcovers over their chests and not expose their adornment except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers, their brothers’ sons, their sisters’ sons, their women, that which their right hands possess, or those male attendants having no physical desire, or children who are not yet aware of the private aspects of women. And let them not stamp their feet to make known what they conceal of their adornment. And turn to Allah in repentance, all of you, O believers, that you might succeed” (Quran 24:31)

The Holy Quran uses the word Khamar to refer to a headscarf covering the head. Khamar comes from a root word meaning “to cover something.” The word Khamar is similar to the Arabic word Kha’mir, the word for alcohol. The consumption of alcohol impairs one’s intellect: one cannot think rationally while under the influence, as liquor creates a barrier between the mind and the power of speech and reasoning. God states in His Book, “Tell the believing women to wear their Khomar (the plural of Khamar) over their bosom as in to throw their shawl over and cover their chest area.” So, aside from covering one’s chest, the head should be covered as well since the concealment of the head is implied through the use of the word Khomar in this Verse. So, the essentials of the Khamar dictate that the hair is to be covered and that cloth covers the women’s chest.

Whereas women in the days of the Prophet PBUH would wear headscarves generally, some would expose their chest area by pushing their headscarves back; as a result, they were commanded by God the Almighty to cover their chests as well.

Besides covering the head, neck, and chest area, God instructs the believing Muslim woman to wear a Jilbab, referencing a loose outer garment that does not define their body shape and that conceals their beauty. The garment is worn by Muslima when leaving her home or in the presence of those aside from her mahram.

“O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves part of their outer garments. That is more suitable that they will be known and not be abused. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful” (Quran 33:59)

As these Verses in the Holy Quran are very explicit and direct, no disagreements or disputes have been imposed against this edict by Islamic scholarship in the past unless it questions whether women also should cover their faces and feet. The primary reason a Muslim woman wears the Hijab can be attributed to Muslima’s belief that her true purpose in life is to worship God the Almighty according to His instructions, as revealed in God’s final Revelation to humanity, the Holy Quran and through the teachings of Prophet Muhammad PBUH, the final Messenger of God. Wearing the headscarf and outer garment is an act of righteousness and obedience to God. A Muslim woman wears the Hijab to seek and gain the pleasure of her Master.

It is the core teaching of Islam that, whatever God instructs one to do, it is always best to follow it, whether one understands its logic or not. A Muslim woman trusts God and does what He instructs her to do, trusting it will be best for her. God knows what’s best for her more than she does. God is the Creator of everything and is All-Knowing, All-Wise. Only when she submits to God and obeys His commands does the Muslima reap the benefits of her faith, feeling true tranquility and contentment in life, as she knows God is pleased with her. By focusing on and submitting to the demands of God, she is set free and is no longer a slave to and prisoner of society’s pressures and desires.

“Whoever does righteousness, whether male or female, while he is a believer — We will surely cause him to live a good life, and We will surely give them their reward in the Hereafter according to the best of what they used to do” (Quran 16:97)

Islam stresses the relationship between the body and the mind. In covering her body, a Muslim woman shields her heart from spiritual impurities. A Muslim woman wears the Hijab to uphold Islam’s code of modesty. This code extends to all aspects of life, including her dress and carriage. A Muslim’s dress is an outer manifestation of inner purity, beauty, and humility. Wearing the Hijab embodies moral conduct, character, manners, and speech. A Muslim woman guards her modesty and does not attract unnecessary attention, such as leering admiration, praise, or sexual attraction expressed by those other than her husband.

Whereas admiring attention from others may boost the ego for a short period, a Muslim woman acknowledges that this heed can lead to negative consequences in the long term, such as jealousy from others, envy, competition, affairs, acting as a poor role model for children, and possibly a marital breakup — as we so often see in the West and around the world, where dressing immodestly is common.

A Muslim woman boasts the trait of Ha’yaa (modesty, bashfulness, and a sense of shame). She values her beauty, so she veils herself. The Hijab diverts attention from, conceals, and protects the Muslima. God also instructs women to lower their gazes when members of the opposite gender are present, thus showing Haya’s trait (bashfulness).

“And tell the believing women to reduce some of their vision and guard their private parts by being chaste …” (Quran 24:31)

A Muslima is honored in Islam and Sharia (Islamic Law). Islam elevates the one who covers herself, safeguarding her integrity by not allowing herself to be treated as a sexual object. She is not to be valued and judged externally based solely on her appearance but rather internally on her righteousness, character, mind, and intellect. A Muslima woman does not desire to adorn her body for men, sexualizing herself to gain attention from those other than her husband.

“…That is more suitable that they will be known and not be abused molested. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful…” (Quran 33:59)

According to this Verse, a Muslima should wear an outer garment and dress modestly so she can be recognized as a Muslim woman who is chaste and serious about her modesty. A Muslima sets a standard and sends a message to everyone around her that she is not one to sell herself cheaply. She knows her value; she is a strong woman with courage, inner strength, and fortitude. She is a practicing Muslima that would not harm, oppress, or cheat anyone. The Hijab veil and outer garment help prevent a Muslima from being a victim of molestation, taunting, or teasing. She wears modest garb, not only to protect herself but to protect men and society.

Contrary to popular belief, the Hijab is not worn solely to restrain men’s illicit desires. It is not the women’s responsibility to regulate a man’s behavior. Every man is responsible and accountable for his own conduct. The Holy Quran instructs men to be modest, lower their gaze, guard their modesty, and handle themselves sensibly in every sphere of their lives. God states:

“Tell the believing men to reduce some of their vision and guard their private parts. That is purer for them. Indeed, Allah is Acquainted with what they do” (Quran 24:40)

The Holy Quran instructs men to observe modesty when speaking to women. While many often incorporate the concept of the Hijab with wearing a headscarf, this is only one application. The Hijab is more than a head covering; it symbolizes the overall concept of being modest and humble in other aspects of life.

Similar instruction is given in the Bible: You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Gospel of Mathew 5:27–28)

In the Holy Quran, the Almighty specifically addresses women when He asks them not to show off their adornments and to draw their veils over their bodies due to the physical and biological distinctions between males and females and how the female body can be an object of attraction. This is evident in today’s commercialized world, where disgraceful, overtly sexualized media is catered overwhelmingly to men as opposed to women by corporations and industries mindful of how their advertising and sale of products influence purchasing behavior.

Some feminist movements and media outlets portray the Hijab as a depiction of the oppression and slavery of women. Sadly, some Muslim women are oppressed in many parts of the world, even though this treatment goes against the teachings of Islam. While a particular government or group of people may oppress women in general, it is not truthful to say that Islam oppresses women. No Islamic laws oppress women; they have every right to a decent life without facing aggression or abuse.

If women were granted their God-given rights, oppression would not exist. Unfortunately, Islam is not being practiced as it should, even in Muslim lands, where the citizens fail to enact the true principles of the religion. Islam honors women, yet sadly and across the globe, Muslim women fall victim to cultural aberrations that have no place in the faith.

A Muslim woman who covers her hair and places her religion above worldly pursuits is labeled as oppressed. Still, a state of oppression is not defined by a piece of material on one’s head but rather by a weakening of the heart and mind. Liberation means freedom but not acting recklessly. Freedom must never come at the expense of oneself or others. When a Muslim woman fulfills the role she was created for, to find God, build a relationship with Him, and follow His guidance, she is liberated, empowered, and honored. She is liberated and freed from the shackles of society, its pressures, unrealistic stereotypes, and images dictated by the media. Muslim women who cover their hair and dress modestly view the act as a right, not a burden.

The concept of the Hijab is not unique to Islam. The three Abrahamic religions share many beliefs, including that a woman should cover her hair publicly with a veil. It was the custom of Jewish women and Catholic nuns to go out in public with their heads covered. And as recently as 40–50 years ago, it was unheard of for a Christian woman to go to church without covering her head or wearing a long skirt.

The concept of female head covering is found and mandated in the Bible. If her head is uncovered, the Bible states, she dishonors herself and should have her hair shaved: But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one las if she were shaven. For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be ma shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered. (1 Corinthians: 11: 5–6)

Unlike the related passages in the Holy Quran, Paul, in this Verse, presents the veil as a sign of man’s authority. In his view, a woman wearing a headscarf shows her subordination to men. This sexist perspective of why women should cover their heads reflects the views of a few Western individuals, who think the Hijab is oppressive and a symbol of inferiority and degradation. They subconsciously react to the Judeo-Christian concept of the veil, which symbolizes a woman’s subjection to her husband. This is not the case in Islam.

The concept of the Hijab comes accompanied by obligatory conditions for Muslim women to follow. The requirements are: the entire body, except for the face and hands, should be covered by loose and concealing, not tight and transparent clothing. Their dress should not attract attention or accentuate the body, should not be perfumed, should not resemble clothing worn by men or unbelievers, nor should it be overly elegant or ornate.

God claims exceptions to this rule in the form of women no longer capable of bearing children, who no longer desire marriage or sexual relations, and who cannot excite the passions of men. These ladies need not cover themselves to the same degree as other women. They even can remove their outer garment.

“And women of post-menstrual age who have no desire for marriage — there is no blame upon them for putting aside their outer garments but not displaying adornment. But to modestly refrain from that is better for them. And Allah is Hearing and Knowing” (Quran 24:60)

The Prophet of God PBUH praised modest women who guard their chastity and the beauty bestowed upon them by God. Prophet Muhammad PBUH also cursed those who publicly display and flaunt their beauty, stating they would not smell the fragrance of Paradise. Our Prophet PBUH warned us that towards the end of time, women who are dressed inappropriately, turning away from righteousness, will be inclined to do evil, leading others astray — including their husbands.

To my dear believing sister, let not the whispers of Satan mislead and misguide you. Let not Satan drag you from your Creator, the most-Merciful. You must recognize that you cannot negotiate your faith regarding what you should accept and decry. You need to submit fully and willingly and realize, my dear sister, that you are blessed and honored to be amongst the people of La Ala Ila Allah (There is no deity worthy of worship except Allah). Do not procrastinate in adhering to the guidelines assigned to you, as your death can occur anytime, bringing an end to the test of your faith.

The act of not wearing a Hijab or not dressing modestly is a sin, but justifying your actions is much worse. When you instead are honest with yourself and are willing to admit your transgressions, you gain the chance for repentance, change, and forgiveness — feeling guilt because of sin is the first step of repentance. Like any other act of worship, dressing modestly and wearing a Hijab requires faith, sacrifice, discipline, and patience. Dressing modestly strengthens the relationship between you and your Lord.

To my dear sister struggling through your journey of the Hijab, strengthen your prayer rituals to strengthen your connection with God and His Book. By supplicating to Him, you call upon Him, the Almighty, the Most Merciful, to help you. Pray and strengthen your connection with Allah, as these acts will deter you from sins and unlawful acts, giving you the power you need to resist evil elements. Take the first step now, and never surrender your quest for faith.

When you wear the Hijab for God alone, all the while ignoring the outside noise, people’s stares, and comments, you realize that this journey is worth the struggle. Pleasing people is a goal you can never achieve, but pleasing your Creator — by contrast — is the ultimate road to contentment and peace. Our Prophet PBUH narrated: Whoever seeks Allah’s pleasure by incurring the wrath of the people, Allah will suffice and protect him from the people. And whoever seeks the people’s pleasure by Allah’s wrath, Allah will entrust him to the people (Al-Tirmidhi). Surround yourself with righteous, practicing sisters, and realize that you are too precious to be displayed for each man to see.

Realize, my dear sister, that you and your believing sisters are the last true representatives of femininity on this Earth.

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