The Women of Islam

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Students at Gulhane Military Medical Academy in Ankara, Turkey

For his day, the Prophet Muhammad was a feminist. The doctrine he laid out as the revealed word of God considerably improved the status of women in 7th century Arabia. In local pagan society, it was the custom to bury alive unwanted female newborns; Islam prohibited the practice. Women had been treated as possessions of their husbands; Islamic law made the education of girls a sacred duty and gave women the right to own and inherit property. Muhammad even decreed that sexual satisfaction was a woman's entitlement. He was a liberal at home as well as in the pulpit. The Prophet darned his own garments and among his wives and concubines had a trader, a warrior, a leatherworker and an imam.

Of course, ancient advances do not mean that much to women 14 centuries later if reform is, rather than a process, a historical blip subject to reversal. While it is impossible, given their diversity, to paint one picture of women living under Islam today, it is clear that the religion has been used in most Muslim countries not to liberate but to entrench inequality. The Taliban, with its fanatical subjugation of the female sex, occupies an extreme, but it nevertheless belongs on a continuum that includes, not so far down the line, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Pakistan and the relatively moderate states of Egypt and Jordan. Where Muslims have afforded women the greatest degree of equality--in Turkey--they have done so by overthrowing Islamic precepts in favor of secular rule. As Riffat Hassan, professor of religious studies at the University of Louisville, puts it, "The way Islam has been practiced in most Muslim societies for centuries has left millions of Muslim women with battered bodies, minds and souls."

Part of the problem dates to Muhammad. Even as he proclaimed new rights for women, he enshrined their inequality in immutable law, passed down as God's commandments and eventually recorded in scripture. The Koran allots daughters half the inheritance of sons. It decrees that a woman's testimony in court, at least in financial matters, is worth half that of a man's. Under Shari'a, or Muslim law, compensation for the murder of a woman is half the going rate for men. In many Muslim countries, these directives are incorporated into contemporary law. For a woman to prove rape in Pakistan, for example, four adult males of "impeccable" character must witness the penetration, in accordance with Shari'a.

Family law in Islamic countries generally follows the prescriptions of scripture. This is so even in a country like Egypt, where much of the legal code has been secularized. In Islam, women can have only one spouse, while men are permitted four. The legal age for girls to marry tends to be very young. Muhammad's favorite wife, A'isha, according to her biographer, was six when they wed, nine when the marriage was consummated. In Iran the legal age for marriage is nine for girls, 14 for boys. The law has occasionally been exploited by pedophiles, who marry poor young girls from the provinces, use and then abandon them. In 2000 the Iranian Parliament voted to raise the minimum age for girls to 14, but this year, a legislative oversight body dominated by traditional clerics vetoed the move. An attempt by conservatives to abolish Yemen's legal minimum age of 15 for girls failed, but local experts say it is rarely enforced anyway. (The onset of puberty is considered an appropriate time for a marriage to be consummated.)

Wives in Islamic societies face great difficulty in suing for divorce, but husbands can be released from their vows virtually on demand, in some places merely by saying "I divorce you" three times. Though in most Muslim states, divorces are entitled to alimony, in Pakistan it lasts only three months, long enough to ensure the woman isn't pregnant. The same three-month rule applies even to the Muslim minority in India. There, a national law provides for long-term alimony, but to appease Islamic conservatives, authorities exempted Muslims.

Fear of poverty keeps many Muslim women locked in bad marriages, as does the prospect of losing their children. Typically, fathers win custody of boys over the age of six and girls after the onset of puberty. Maryam, an Iranian woman, says she has stayed married for 20 years to a philandering opium addict she does not love because she fears losing guardianship of her teenage daughter. "Islam supposedly gives me the right to divorce," she says. "But what about my rights afterward?"

Women's rights are compromised further by a section in the Koran, sura 4:34, that has been interpreted to say that men have "pre-eminence" over women or that they are "overseers" of women. The verse goes on to say that the husband of an insubordinate wife should first admonish her, then leave her to sleep alone and finally beat her. Wife beating is so prevalent in the Muslim world that social workers who assist battered women in Egypt, for example, spend much of their time trying to convince victims that their husbands' violent acts are unacceptable.

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