In Depth

On Women’s Day, a look at three Muslim women who were the embodiment of empowerment

#BalanceforBetter is the theme for this year’s International Women’s Day, which is observed each year on March 8. The 2019 initiative is aimed at “gender equality, a greater awareness of discrimination and a celebration of women’s achievements”. Here is how #BalanceforBetter existed 1400 years ago, with the advent of “religion of peace”.

“My dear, whatever I shall do, I shall do it for your good,” reads a WhatsApp profile status of one of my contacts, with the photo of a chubby kid as her picture, in the backdrop of Ahdoo’s Café in Lal Chowk. Instinctively, I smile and tap on her profile to gush about how cute her daughter is, and how I wish that she remains protected from all the evil in this world.

She, in turn, expresses her amazement at the 3-year-old’s ability to successfully unlock her mother’s smartphone, proceed to browse the Apps and finally settle on good-old rhymes from our frenemy, YouTube.

The air around millennials like us has profoundly evolved since our parents parted their hair in the middle and believed life was all about gardening. It’s become a norm to travel on a Scooty, have tons of jeans lying on top of the clothes pile in our closet, whine (and rarely receive) for the latest smartphones and generally crowd most morning local buses on our way to school, work or a simple day out with our squad.

There are times when the baby-boomers still widen their eyes in shock when a woman-driving car overtakes theirs, when the almost non-existent white woman’s bus with a horizontal pink line graces the roads with its presence, when daughters put their foot down (respectfully) for a private vehicle or when a mother of three, divorced, ventures out to be the sole breadwinner for her family.

The polarizing shift from men to women has left much unturned and unearthed- from horrifying details of marital rape, to routine sexual harassment from supposedly near and dear ones. Entertainment industries are slammed for absence of women-centric characters in movies, powerful celebrities are brought under public scrutiny with a simple #MeToo tweet, and politicians lose public favor (and office) if caught with misogynistic words in their mouth.

During empowering times like these, a small misstep is often, severely criticized and internationally condemned, while existing misinformation that laid dormant before the shift to ‘matriarchy’ is then brought into light and publicly flogged.

One of the most trending pieces of misinformation we are regularly graced with is the stereotypical comparison between ‘the free woman of the West’ and ‘the oppressed woman of the East’.

The depiction shows the black clothed woman being a slave to her own traditions and having to define herself because of it. Thus, in turn, in the words of the artist, ‘They do it with a simple good faith that it’s demand of God, or a condition to be with God’.

While cartoonic depictions (not like the above) usually bash both cultural representations of women, there is an inherent problem with the narrative the artist has provided.

One, it doesn’t depict women who feel empowered representing such a ‘tradition’ (minus the speech bubble), and two, it brushes off women who are coerced to represent such a depiction.

The cartoon, therefore, nullifies and trivializes the oppression that women in reality face, and paints a shallow picture devoid of the complexity of such representations.

This piece of work highlights a classic example of mixing truth with falsehood. Artist pieces like these have heightened hatred towards one particular culture-from the Muslim’s side, it’s the satanic Woman of the West that seeks to entice men and the world through sexualizing her body, while for the pro-choice woman that has never seen a face veil before, it’s the Muslim woman that willingly lets herself be dogged down by the patriarchal objectification of her body and therefore, submits to revolving her life around delivering pleasure to her four sex-crazed husbands.

‘For the Western woman, she uses her body as a weapon and celebration of her womanhood, and for the Muslim woman, she offers her body as a medium to achieve pleasure’- none of which depict the true reality.

Fortunately, for the ‘Western Woman’, the depiction has decreased and humbly given way to a much more powerful representation of choice that she embodies, respect she earns, and an idea that she is no different from a man in any department.

Unfortunately, for the Muslim woman, the depiction has stood firm, despite conscious and active involvement in proving the exact opposite.

Why so?

From an Islamic perspective, the main concern that often worries scholars is the amount of misinterpretation that has seamlessly flooded into the Holy Book (Quran) and the traditions, sayings and practices of the last Prophet of Islam (Hadith).

It proves tremendously difficult to place the actual interpretations that challenge the previous ones, since the religion, like any other, includes wide variety of sects with little to vast differences in teachings that can get offended at any minor change.

Furthermore, it doesn’t help when evolving problems within the youth are not heard by the scholars of the respective sects while they are still engaged in fierce discussions and arguments with other sects with the goal and intent of proving their own sect’s beliefs as right.

In such a situation, it can get tricky to explain the actual concept of women empowerment that Islam embodies-because, which sect of Islam should we refer to for the same? We obviously cannot let the stereotypical idea of us slide, but we must be able to include one collective voice that speaks out just like the West.

It seems like even before the evolution of our problems, the solutions had been carefully crafted and handed out.

Representational Picture.

During the last Prophet’s time, the foundations of Islam had begun to be laid. The time was essentially crucial for the religion, as it is with any other, with the traditions, practices and sayings of the Prophet being taken at face value, since he was represented as the last Messenger of the Almighty.

Knowing that with its advent, each and every aspect of this monotheistic religion would be examined and observed, the Prophet, with the guidance of the Almighty, made sure to lay down very specific guidelines and practices that he himself embodied in practicality- the most revolutionary being the status and rights of women in Islam.

During the pre-Islamic Arab era, the society was filled with rampant practices of female foeticide, fathers having full authority over the choice of husbands of their daughters, ‘shighar’ marriage which entailed the practice of exchanging unmarried grownup daughters so that the dower of one daughter would account for the dower of the other girl and complete absence of any natural rights of women.

These practices had outlined their culture for decades, with women being regarded as lesser than men- something which is alarmingly manifesting in our world even today.

Murtadha Mutahhari, an Iranian cleric and philosopher, in his book, ‘The Rights of Women in Islam’, detailed such an instance that showed how women were viewed during that time.

“One day, during the last pilgrimage which the Prophet performed, when he was on a horseback with a whip in his hand, a man come across him and said he had a complaint to make. The Prophet asked what the complaint was.

“Many years ago,” he said, “during the jahiliyyah (the pre-Islamic period), I and Tariq ibn Marqa’ had taken part in a battle. During the skirmish, Tariq was badly in need of a spear and he cried: ‘Is there any person who can spare me his spear and accept remuneration for it?’ I stepped forward and asked what remuneration he would give. He said, ‘I give my word that the first daughter born to me, shall be brought up for you.’ I accepted the offer and handed over my spear to him. The matter was thus closed and many years elapsed. At last I recollected the pledge and discovered that a daughter had been born to Tariq and that she was of age and that he had her in his house. I went to him, reminded him of the events, and demanded the settlement of the debt. But Tariq went back on his pledge and broke his word of honor and wanted to start asking for mahr, (dower). Now I have come to you to know whether right is with me or with him.”

“What is the age of the girl?” The Prophet inquired.

“She is grown up, and white hairs have appeared in her head,” the man answered.

“According to what you ask me, neither you nor Tariq is in the right. Go back and look after your own affairs and leave the poor girl to look after her,” the Prophet replied.

The man was astonished to hear this. For a moment he was absorbed in wondering what sort of a judgment it was. Was the father not in full authority regarding his daughter? If he should pay the dower to the father of the girl, and if he were willingly voluntarily to hand over the girl to him, was that also wrong?

The Prophet seeing him astonished and perplexed, understood his state of mind and said: “You should be sure that in the way that I have pointed out neither you nor your friend Tariq will be sinners.”

Sayings such as these underline the gross objectification and deep underlying prejudices that the men had toward their tribe’s women. Recreating a new narrative from the previous one required, like the Prophet, exemplary examples that constituted the embodiment of women’s rights.

Lady Khadijah

Known as Ameerat Quraish, (Princess of Quraish Tribe), at-Tahira (the Pure One) in pre-Islamic Arab and later ‘The Mother of Believers’

A distant cousin of the Prophet, and the first believer in the religion of Islam, Lady Khadijah al-Kubra amassed wealth as well as business talents from her father. During those times, due to her, as one scholar put it, ‘impeccable personality and virtuous character, not to mention her honorable descent’, she earned the title of the Princess and the Pure One.

Orphaned at her ascension into adulthood, she was well known for being thoroughly charitable with her wealth, even providing for the marriage of those of her kin who could not otherwise have had any other means.

When she met the Prophet who was representing her in business deals through trade, she had lost her husbands twice, to the wars pre-Islamic Arabs had been embroiled in, and had three children.

The measure of success increased following the Prophet’s dealings of Lady Khadijah’s trade with non-Arabs as well her well-wishers’ deep appreciation of his candor and intellect, leading Lady Khadijah to fall in love and become convinced that she had found a man worthy for her. Via a friend, she initiated the marriage proposal.

15 years after marriage, when the Prophet had turned 40, the first verses of the Holy Book were revealed to him, in a cave he would frequently visit for solitude and deep meditation. Perplexed by the revelation made by archangel Gabriel (or Jibar’eel), he went back home heavy-hearted. He asked Lady Khadijah that he be wrapped with some piece of cloth. Once he felt better, he narrated what he had seen and heard to her.

The narrations mention her replying:

“By Allah,” Khadijah said, “Allah shall never subject you to any indignity…, for you always maintain your ties with those of your kin, and you are always generous in giving. You are diligent, and you seek what others regard as unattainable. You cool the eyes of your guest, and you lend your support to those who seek justice and redress. Stay firm, O cousin, for by Allah I know that He will not deal with you except most beautifully, and I testify that you are the awaited Prophet in this nation, and your time, if Allah wills, has come.”

At first glance, Lady Khadijah may seem like a normal woman who went through life’s woes and supported her husband, a Prophet, with great patience and love. She may seem like the wife all husbands and mothers-in-laws wish and pray to have, with amicability and positivity towards life’s hurdles.

Upon observation and thought, however, subtler things emerge that thicken her position and increase her relevance among women in the 21st century.

One, she was a working woman who was highly regarded in a terribly male chauvinistic society. Two, she was widowed twice and yet never once, considered that, in any form, as an obstacle to her business dealings. Three, she was the sole breadwinner to three children. Four, she initiated the marriage proposal to a man considerably younger to her, and five, she was the sole source of comfort to a highly-esteemed and spiritually elevated man who was a Messenger and a Prophet.

As Daliah Merzaban, in an article, ‘In Her Shoes’, puts it:

“Khadija taught me these lessons on devotion more than any other human being. She became my benchmark. By any measure in today’s world, she would embody the modern successful woman I’ve sought to become. We would commend her for the ambition that motivated her success, and for her ability to delicately balance this with qualities of compassion and maternal tenderness. We would applaud her for being so confident and audacious to propose marriage to a much younger man.”

Editor-in-chief of Kaynak Publishing Group in Istanbul, Resit Haylamaz, in his book ‘Khadija’, sums it up:

“Her chastity, dignity and elegance were virtues widely known and talked about. In today’s terms, she would be called an international businesswoman; she had many people working for her in different countries—in the Roman and Persian Empires as well as the Gassasina, Hira and Damascus regions.”

Lady Fatima

Known as al-Siddiqa (the truthful one), al-Mubaraka (the blessed one), al-Tahira (the pure one), al-Zakiyya (the chaste one), al-Radhiayya (the grateful one), al-Mardhiyya (the one who shall be pleased [on Judgment Day]), al-Muhaddatha (the one, other than the Prophet, to whom an angel speaks) and al-Zahra (the splendid one).

The only child of the Prophet [PBUH] and Lady Khadija, Lady Fatima was born five years after the declaration of the Prophethood and was brought up in a loving, caring and devoted household. A few years later, Lady Khadija passed away, leaving the Prophet to tend to her care.

“Fatima was an intelligent, accomplished and a cheerful child,” Islamic author Yasin T. Al-Jibouri writes. “Her speeches, poems and sayings serve as an index to her strength of character and nobility of mind.”

The narrations are meticulous in mentioning the Prophet’s boundless love for her. He has famously said, “Fatima is part of me” and would stand up whenever she entered the room to show his respect for her presence. She was constantly a source of comfort to her father after Lady Khadija’s death, specifically during the times when he was met with fierce resistance from his society over his monotheistic preaching.

Her existence is ascertained to be perfectly aligned with being a complete woman, daughter, wife and mother at the same time.

After being married to the Prophet’s cousin, Ali Ibn Abu Talib, who later became the fourth Caliph after the Prophet’s death, she gave birth to three children.

The Christian poet, Abdul-Maseeh al-Antaki (of Antioch city) in praise of Lady Fatima, composed the poem:

Among women, hers is a unique birth:
No other daughter of Eve comes to her distinctions close.
One from whose forehead the sun’s rays shine,
From her standing places glitter glows.

She is the peer of the honored one and only who
In his feats and supreme honors is her only match.
Arabs seek competent peers for daughters to marry
A tradition which they refuse to forgo.

Any marriage without a competent peer they regard
As a shame on them that debases them among peers.

The status of Lady Fatima among women is unparalleled. After Lady Khadija, Lady Fatima is considered to be the most significant historical figure and the leader of the women of this world and the hereafter. She has often been compared with the powerful position that Mary (Maryam) holds in Catholic Christianity.

However, at this point of time, objections rise in mind against the role of a woman being narrowed down to that of being someone’s mere wife, daughter or mother, since it lessens her significance as a woman.

How then, is Lady Fatima, considered to be a role model for women in today’s time?

To put it simple, the firm constitution of a religion like Islam, or Christianity, places a significant amount of emphasis on a woman’s role in the society. Family relationships and inter-personal ethics are valued consistently side-by-side with the persona of a woman.

The embodiment of Lady Fatima, therefore, acquires exoteric as well as esoteric significance as it explores what the ‘true’ idea of a woman is- can a woman, who is apprehensive of such an institution that may limit her freedom and choice, be able to merge her womanhood and steer the direction toward which the next generation’s society will go?

Lady Ayesha

Known as al-Siddiqa (the Truthful one). Along with Lady Khadija, she was also known as ‘The Mother of Believers’

One of the most influential stateswomen of her time, Lady Ayesha was considered to be the closest wife to the Prophet after Lady Khadija.

As Hakan Arslanbenzer notes, “There was a close intellectual relationship between them. They had serious talks. Aisha never hesitated to say what she thought before Muhammad [PBUH]. Besides, she became one of the wisest people within the Muslim community after the prophet’s death. She was involved in religious matters and political events as well.”

Lady Ayesha was the daughter of the first Caliph, Abu Bakr [RA], and like Lady Fatima, she was known to provide religious advice on women’s matters. After the Prophet’s passage, she provided and distributed his sayings across the society. She was considered to be the most authentic source of hadith after the Prophet and laid down the traditional customs (Sunnah) to be followed by the Muslim community.

Lady Ayesha is considered to be one of the most prolific examples of women in Islam. Along with Lady Khadija and Lady Fatima, Lady Ayesha played a pivotal role in establishing the revelations and practices of Islam observed by the Prophet.

It is, therefore, of surmount importance, to note the examples of women in the first few decades of Islamic history that shaped and crafted a powerful image of their gender- one that is not defined by their sexual appeal or their beauty, but by their intellect, bravery in the face of adversity, their patience, perseverance and refusal to stay blind to the shallow traditions of the pre-Islamic era.

It is women like these that all of us can look up to and strive to be; a businesswoman like Lady Khadija, a pious woman like Lady Fatima and a powerful woman like Lady Ayesha.

Happy Women’s Day!


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