The Qur’an and the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) are the sources from which every Muslim woman derives her rights and duties. Today people think that women are liberated in the West and that the women’s liberation movement began in the twentieth century. Actually, the women’s liberation movement was not begun by women; it was revealed by Allah to the Prophet in the seventh century.
Islam, more than fourteen centuries ago, made women equally accountable to Almighty Allah in glorifying and worshipping Him, setting no limits on her moral progress. Also, Islam established women’s equality — in their humanity — with men. In the Qur’an, in the first verse of Surat An-Nisaa’ (Women), Allah says,
[O humankind, be careful of your duty to your Lord Who created you from a single soul and from it created its mate and from them both has spread abroad a multitude of men and women. Be careful of your duty toward Allah in Whom you claim (your rights) of one another and toward the wombs (that bore you). Lo, Allah has been a Watcher over you.] (An-Nisaa’ 4:1)
Since men and women both came from the same essence, they are equal in their humanity. Neither gender can be superior because it would be a contradiction of equality.
In Islam, a woman has the basic freedom of choice and expression based on the recognition of her individual personality. In Islam, women are encouraged to contribute their opinions and ideas. There are many examples in the Sunnah that indicate that women would pose questions directly to the Prophet and offer their opinions concerning religion, economics, and social matters. A Muslim woman has the right to choose her husband and keeps her name after marriage. A Muslim woman’s testimony is valid in legal disputes.
The Muslim woman is in equal footing with man with regard to acquiring knowledge, whether religious or other. Both men and women have the capacity for learning and understanding. Since it is also their obligation to promote good behavior and condemn bad manners in all spheres of life, Muslim women must acquire the appropriate education to perform this duty in accordance with their own natural talents and interests.
While looking after the home, providing support to the husband, and bearing, raising, and teaching the children are among the first and very highly regarded roles for a woman, if she has the skills to work outside the home for the good of the community, she may do so, as long as her family obligations are met.
Islam recognizes and fosters the natural differences between men and women despite their equality. Some types of work are more suitable for men and other types are more suitable for women. This in no way diminishes either’s effort. Allah will reward both sexes equally for the value of their work, though it may not necessarily be the same activity.
Concerning motherhood, a famous wisdom from the Islamic literature says, “Heaven lies under the feet of mothers.”
This implies that the success of a society can be traced to the mothers who raised it. The first and greatest influence on a person comes from the sense of security, affection, and guidance received from the mother. Therefore, a woman who has children must be educated and conscientious in order to be a skillful parent.
One of the rights given to Muslim women by Allah, more than fourteen centuries ago, is the right to vote. A woman may voice her opinion on any public matter and participate in politics. The following is stated in the Qur’an,
[O Prophet, if believing women come unto you, taking oath of allegiance unto you that they will ascribe no thing as partner unto Allah and will neither steal nor commit adultery nor kill their children nor produce any lie that they have devised between their hands and feet nor disobey you in what is right, then accept their allegiance and ask Allah to forgive them. Lo, Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.] (Al-Mumtahanah 60:12)
It is derived from this verse that the right of women to select their leader and publicly declare so has been established more than 1,400 years ago. Likewise, Islam does not prohibit a woman from holding important positions in government.
In the Qur’an, Almighty Allah says,
[And [I swear by] the creation of the male and the female.Your striving is surely (directed to) various (ends).](Al-Layl 92:3–4)
In these verses, Allah declares that He created men and women to be different, with unique roles, functions, and skills. As in a society where there is a division of labor, so too in a family — each member has different responsibilities. Generally, Islam upholds that women are entrusted with the role of nurturer and men with the role of guardian. Therefore, women are given the right of financial support. Almighty Allah states,
[Men are the maintainers of women because Allah has made some of them to excel others and because they spend out of their property.] (An-Nisaa’ 4:34)
This guardianship and greater financial responsibility given to men require that they provide women with not only monetary support but also physical protection and kind and respectful treatment.
Allah tells us that men are guardians over women and are afforded the leadership in the family. The responsibility of the Muslim man for obeying Allah extends to guiding his family to obey Allah at all times. A wife’s rights also extend beyond material needs. She has the right to kind treatment. The Prophet said,
“The most perfect believers are the best in conduct. And the best of you are those who are best to their wives.” (At-Tirmidhi)
The Muslim woman has the privilege to earn money and the right to own property, to enter into legal contracts, and to manage all of her assets in any way she pleases. She can run her own business, and no one has any claim on her earnings, including her husband. Almighty Allah says,
[And do not covet that by which Allah has made some of you excel others; men shall have the benefit of what they earn, and women shall have the benefit of what they earn, and ask Allah of His grace; surely Allah knows all things.](An-Nisaa’ 4:32)
In addition, a woman inherits from her relatives. Almighty Allah states,
[Men shall have a portion of what the parents and the near relatives leave, and women shall have a portion of what the parents and the near relatives leave, whether there is little or much of it — a stated portion.](An-Nisaa’ 4:7)
Rights of a Wife
Almighty Allah says,
[And one of His signs is that He created mates for you from yourselves that you may find rest in them, and He put between you love and compassion; surely there are signs in this for people who reflect.)(Ar-Rum 30:21)
Marriage is therefore not just a physical or emotional necessity, but in fact, it is a sign from Allah. It is a relationship of mutual rights and obligations based on divine guidance. Allah created men and women with complimentary natures, and in the Qur’an, He laid out a system of laws to support harmonious interaction between them.
Muslim wives have various rights that serve to foster the love and security that come with marriage. The first of a wife’s rights is to receive mahr (dower). This is a gift from the husband that is part of the marriage contract and is required for the legality of the marriage.
The second right of a wife is maintenance. Regardless of any wealth a wife may have, her husband is obligated to provide her with food, shelter, and clothing. He is not forced, however, to spend beyond his capability, and his wife is not entitled to make unreasonable demands. In the Qur’an, Almighty Allah states,
[Let him who has abundance spend out of his abundance, and whoever has his means of subsistence straitened to him, let him spend out of that which Allah has given him. Allah does not lay on any soul a burden except to the extent of what He has granted it; Allah will bring about ease after difficulty.] (At-Talaq 65:7)
Duties of a Wife
With rights come responsibilities. Therefore, the Muslim wives have certain obligations toward their husbands. Almighty Allah says,
[Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient (to Allah and to their husbands) and guard in (the husbands’) absence what Allah orders them to guard.] (An-Nisaa’ 4:34)
A wife is to keep her husband’s secrets and protect their marital privacy. Issues of intimacy or faults of his that would dishonor him are not to be shared by the wife, just as he is expected to guard her honor.
A wife must also guard her husband’s property. She must safeguard his home and possessions — to the best of her ability — against theft or damage. She should wisely manage the household affairs so as to prevent loss or waste.
A Muslim woman must cooperate and coordinate with her husband. A husband also should not exploit his wife but should be considerate of her needs and happiness.
The Muslim woman was given — more than 1,400 years ago — a role, duties, and rights that most women do not enjoy today, even in the West. These are from Allah and are designed to keep balance in society. What may seem unjust or missing in one place is compensated for or explained in another place. Islam is a complete way of life.
By Mary C. Ali and Anjum Ali