Culture vs. Religion: Women's Rights

Updated: Mar 15

“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.” (Jami` at-Tirmidhi 1162, Book 12, Hadith 17)

Culture vs. Religion, a complicated relationship in many different aspects; one of them being the rights of women. In honor of Women’s History Month, let’s talk about the rights and status women are given through Islam but not necessarily through culture.

In the Pre-Islamic Era, it was common for girls to be buried at birth due to fathers viewing daughters to be less blissful than sons, along with them fearing the possibility of poverty or disgrace that she may bring upon her parents as she grows up. In two specific Ayahs of Surah Al- Nahl, Allah describes the conditions of the fathers at that time: “And when one among of them receives the glad tidings of a daughter, his face turns black for the day, and he remains seething. Hiding from the people because of the evil of the tidings; “Will he keep her with disgrace, or bury her beneath the earth?”; pay heed! Very evil is the judgment they impose!”(Qur’an, 16:58-59). While the spread of Islam minimized the acts of infanticide, due to culture the concept of killing daughters while not as common as before, is still not completely rare; but is just masked under the excuse of Honor Killings.

Before diving into the patriarchal interpretations of the Quran that have caused the complicated relationship between culture and religion, I wanted to highlight some of the rights and blessings women hold in the eyes of Islam. Throughout a woman’s life, she is thought to bring many blessings, from the day she is brought into this world to the day she leaves it. In a simple explanation, when born, a daughter becomes the father’s gate into paradise; when married, a woman is half of her husband’s deen, and finally, when becoming a mother, heaven lies beneath her feet. Women are regarded so highly in Islam, that there is a whole chapter dedicated to them, Surah Al - Nisa, as well as mentioned throughout the Quran a multitude of times.

Allah (SWT) sets an example of the importance of daughters through none other than our beloved Prophet (PBUH). It is reported that Prophet Muhammad (SAW) had a total of three sons and four daughters, but sadly his sons all died during their childhood. In one of the hadiths, Prophet Muhammad (SAW) states: “If someone has three daughters and is patient with them and clothes them from his wealth, they will be a shield against Fire for him.” Prophet Muhammad (SAW)’s treatment of his daughters, is exemplified with the stories of his relationship with Fatima (RA), his fourth and last daughter. While a story for another article, it is known that Fatima (RA) was Prophet Muhammad’s (SAW) solace, and she resembled her father both physically and spiritually. "Fatima is a part of me, and he who makes her angry makes me angry."(Sahih al-Bukhari Book 62, Hadith 63) Islamically, it is the parents’ duty upon their daughters to educate them, care for them, liberate them, and prepare them for a better life. Girls are given the right to gain an education to any level they prefer much like boys are, whether it be until high school, college, or postgraduate studies. Along with education, women have the right to work if they prefer to, which has become more common in the last decade or so than it used to be. Daughters are also given the right to a legal share as her brothers do in the shares of her parents. “For men is a share of what the parents and close relatives leave, and for women is a share of what the parents and close relatives leave, be it little or much — a legal share.” (Qur’an, 4:7). One right that a woman has that exists throughout her entire life, but is commonly neglected during the time she is living with her parents, is the right to decide when she wants to start wearing the hijab, starting from the time of puberty. While the Quran states a girl should wear the hijab starting at the time of puberty, it is undoubtedly her own decision when she wants to start. Nothing in Islam is allowed to be forced on someone by someone else, including the hijab. “Let there be no compulsion in religion, for the truth stands out clearly from falsehood. So whoever renounces false gods and believes in Allah has certainly grasped the firmest, unfailing hand-hold. And Allah is All-Hearing, All-Knowing.”(Qur’an, 2:256).

Furthermore, when a girl moves on to the next part of her life, marriage, she is also given many rights. Upon becoming of age, marriage to a good person, religiously and morally, for their daughter is another duty of parents, and the daughter has the right to decide whether she wants to marry the said person or not. Islamically without her consent, a girl can not be married off. During the marriage, as a wife, women have rights over her husband such; financial rights, physical rights, and the right to have support through pregnancy and nursing, to name a few. Along with being given the right to choose their spouse, women are also allowed to divorce for the right reasons; if the husband is unjust, impotent, or cruel. If a woman is divorced for any reason or widowed she is allowed to remarry as she wishes, after the given Iddah period of three-months. When getting married, the woman is given dowry that is hers, which she has no requirement to share and can do what she pleases with it. In the occasion of a divorce or the death of a husband, there is a second dowry a woman has the right to, muakhar, which is given as a means of financial support. During a divorce, a woman's property is not divided; whatever she had earned or was given before or during the marriage is hers to keep.

The last example of the immense respect women are given in Islam is the rights given to mothers. The respect and treatment of mothers are incredibly important in Islam; so much so, that heaven lies at her feet. The responsibilities and difficulties a mother endures from the time she is carrying a child in her womb to the time she leaves this Dunya are unimaginable. The most clear-cut right a woman has as a mother is a right to obedience and respect. The status of mothers is so grand in Islam that mothers are put before fathers. In fact, they are put before fathers three times more. "Who among people is most deserving of my fine treatment?" He (SAW) said, "Your mother". He again asked, ''Who next?" "Your mother", the Prophet (SAW) replied again. He asked, "Who next?" He (the Prophet (SAW)) said again, "Your mother." He again asked, "Then who?" Thereupon he (SAW) said," Then your father." (Al-Bukhari and Muslim). A mother, in the case of a divorce, has greater rights over the custody of her children and is worthier of looking after them than the father. A mother is also given the right to inherit from her children if they are independent.

Unfortunately in many cultures, a lot of these rights and blessings are overlooked. Cultures have instead made girls and women feel underloved as well as unvalued. To this day many parents treat their daughters as burdens and liabilities. Some see them as such a burden, that once they are of age they marry them off to who never, just to be free of the responsibility of having a daughter under their roof. While I am sure many cultures are this way, I can only speak for the culture I come from, Southeast Asian culture. There is a saying that is commonly used within the culture that states; “Larkiya ghar ki izzat hoti hai” which roughly translates to “girls are the reputation of the household.” This one statement sums up the cultural mindset that a girl's reputation is held to such high standards, that one slip-up could not only tarnish her reputation but also her family. While speaking to our President, Arshiya, on this subject, she described it in perfect words; “Girls reputations are very fragile, in the view of our desi society, where if a woman does something remotely wrong, she will never be able to live it down and it will define her. While if a man does something wrong, it is very easily brushed off.” This mindset is what has led to the concept of honor killing or shame killing. Women have been killed and are still being killed by family members for things that Islam has given them the right to such as seeking a divorce, refusing an arranged marriage, or wanting to pursue an education. Girls and women are even killed for being victims of violence enacted on them against their will such as rape, a topic that is considered taboo due to the cultural view of the women and the family’s reputation being tarnished, while the men who inflict these acts are almost always gone unpunished. Now you may think that these killings only occur in Muslim majority countries, but unfortunately, these cultural practices have transferred over to non- Muslim majority countries, such as America or the UK. The concept of a woman's reputation is held to such a standard, they have ultimately considered the sole definers of the family reputation, which is a patriarchal interpretation of what the Quran states. Religiously, women are considered an honor and are told to be treated as such, but culturally, that respect and status are so fragile, that if she does anything that is considered taboo culturally, it is as she has not only tarnished her name but also the family name.

While a lot of situations do not escalate to death for the daughters, they are still refused their Islamic rights. It is not an uncommon story to hear about girls who are forced to wear the hijab by their families well before they are ready to do so. This on occasion has affected girls mentally long-term or even drawn them away from the religion. Culturally on many occasions, girls are raised only to take care of their house and husbands, never taught to care for themselves or anything about the real world. Many have grown up being told that is actually their only responsibility. So much so that many are refused to be allowed to gain an education, refused to be allowed to work, often treated as maids of the house, and deal with significant double standards when it comes to how their parents deal with them versus their brothers. Topics like divorce, domestic abuse, or neglect are deemed taboo, which can not only affect women negatively but it also can put them in danger. Culturally, women who are divorced are deemed unmarriageable and are seen as outcasts by society. In fact, due to a divorce being looked at so negatively, many women are advised, by their parents, to suffer through things like domestic abuse or any neglect in their marriage to ensure they do not break their home and to “protect” themselves from being labeled a divorced woman. The culture is so patriarchally minded that women are often blamed for the abuse they endure or even for their husbands committing adultery. Another right that is usually overlooked, while not exactly cultural but more of a social issue, is one’s right to conceal their past. Islamically we know that no man or woman has to admit or talk about their past sins. In fact, asking someone about their past would put them in a position of another sin, either it is by lying about their past or it being uncovering their sins. In today’s day and age, many boys, who may not have the best past themselves, want a girl who is pure, leading them to investigate and question them about their past, which in exchange tarnishes the girl’s reputation or forces her to lie. Culturally, it is not only the boys but the parents that also practice the same misogynistic ideology that their son's future wife should not have any sort of past meanwhile it is completely acceptable if their son does. This is not to say that women should not remain pure, but more so to draw attention to the fact that Islamically both men and women are instructed to stay away from sin, and if by any chance they do fall into it both are obliged to conceal it unless it were to cause harm to someone else. But culturally it has become a norm that only women are expected to stay away from sin as well as reveal their sins.

When it comes to being a mother and raising children, our patriarchal culture deems women the sole person responsible for taking care of and educating the kids while religiously it is equally the mother and father’s responsibility. Increasing the burden on women, to not only tend to their children 24/7 but also to their husbands and the house without any help. On the occasion that a woman decides to choose to stay home rather than work, it has become common culturally for husbands to talk down to their wives regarding them being lazy or both husbands and in-laws to have increased expectations of the women catering to their needs without considering the women's needs. Due to the patriarchal cultures, many men have been raised on a pedestal which ultimately causes them to have a big ego. This continues on to cause them to treat their wives disrespectfully or causes them to think they are given the right to control women.

Unfortunately, the topics I have discussed are not the only unjust treatment women endure through culture; these are just the few that are based on the patriarchal interpretations of the Quran.

For years men have hidden behind the excuse of culture for how they treat their daughters and women in general, while simultaneously labeling themselves the picture of Islam. It is heartbreaking that a religion that holds women to the highest levels of honor and respect, has been tarnished through the patriarchal culture’s treatment of women, that have developed and carried on through generations stemming from Muslim- majority countries. Due to the complicated relationship between culture and religion, many view religion as a whole to be the one that oppresses women when in reality it’s the culture doing so.

Before ending I wanted to take a moment to note that not all fathers are unjust to their daughters and not all men are unjust towards women. Many fathers follow in the Prophet’s (SAW) footsteps and treat their daughters with the same regard as our beloved Prophet (SAW) did towards his daughters. Giving them accessibility to gain an education, to work, to choose their spouse, and overall treating them with an abundance of love and respect, my father being one of them, Alhamdulillah. Similarly, there are men who do follow the proper teaching of Islam when it comes to treating women, whether it be their wife, sister, or mother.

During the month of March, we celebrate important women throughout history who have fought for women’s rights and raised their voices for those who could not raise their own voice; along with the struggles women have gone through in the United States. In the last few years, our own Muslim women have made history in America. Women like Ibtihaj Muhammad who became the first women to wear hijab in Olympic competition, or Ilhan Omar who is the first Somali- American Muslim lawmaker, or Linda Sarsour who was co-chair to the first-ever Women’s March, and many more women, have become a staple of Muslim Women representation in America.

I am not a scholar or teacher by any means; this article is one I have written from my own point of view. If anything is incorrect I ask Allah for forgiveness.

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