The Muslim world today is inundated with stereotypes and fallacies about women's role within society. Despite the Quran's clear promotion of women's rights in Islam, the interpretation of the Hadith and Quran by men has led to patriarchal structures and male dominated cultures. Ironically, Muslim women had more rights during the time of the Prophet in seventh century Arabia than they do in some overtly religious societies. The lack of access to education and authentic Islamic education for women today has contributed to the widespread acceptance of their inferior status.
One of the reasons for the establishment of Islam was to liberate women. It gave them equal civil status with men through the right to own property, to inherit, to petition for divorce and to receive an education amongst many other entitlements. The Prophet's wife Khadija was a prominent businesswoman and the first person to accept Islam, whilst reassuring her husband of his Prophethood. It was not until post-Muhammad, with the codification of the laws and the development of Islamic jurisprudence that the role of women in society became limited. This can be attributed to the motivation to interpret the Quran and Hadith literature by some men to reflect the cultural nuances of the time.
The countless number of Hadiths that flooded into the early Islamic community were filled with inaccuracies not least by combining fact with allegory. Hence, evidence could be located to support a Caliph and promote his purpose without any test to establish the legitimacy of Hadiths. An example of an aHadith (singular form of Hadith) that contradicts the Quran is the creation of Eve. The aHadith, which has become authenticated, states that Eve was created from Adam's ribcage, an idea most likely borrowed from the book of Genesis 2:18-24. However, the Quran speaks of creation in equal terms. There is no mention of man being created before woman or vice versa. So, with no mention in the Quran, which is believed by virtually every Muslim to be the word of God, should the scholars not have interpreted this aHadith as weak or even false? This, however, has not happened. Instead, due to this aHadith, women have been faced with prejudices against them for being God's second best creation and moreover solely created for the pleasure of men.
Another prominent issue, which continues to dominate some Muslim societies, is the concept of the veil. It is important to note there is no mention of the veil in the Quran. Nonetheless, it only asks women to draw "their veils over their bosoms" (Quran 24:30-31). The veil initially was only worn by women of a high social status in society, a custom borrowed from the Christian Byzantine Empire. The proletarian woman could not be veiled, as it would interfere with her practical and household duties often carried out whilst working outside the home. Gradually through the reduction of female education, women's social role was restricted to that of a housewife. A parallel development was the requirement to wear the veil outside the home. Eventually the veil became a symbol of female Muslim identity.
In the last century ideologues such as Mawdudi and Sayyid Qutb, have called for women's roles to be confined to their household duties, thus limiting the development of women. Their ideas had a detrimental effect on men as well as women as they learned to view women as their inferiors. Their circumstances are such that women not only accept the lives determined for them by their men folk, but end up believing in their absolute inferiority. It is hardly surprising that their children are brought up with similar attitudes and hence the cycle of inequality is perpetuated.
Unfortunately today, women are unaware of the extent their God given rights have been violated by Muslim society to less than half of those of men. The Quran recognises the childbearing and childrearing roles of women, but does not present women as inferior to or unequal to men. On the contrary, central to Islamic belief is the importance and high value placed on education. From the true Islamic point of view education should be freely and equally available to women as much as men. Thus, if the Quran is correctly followed it will inevitably lead to progress and to the full emancipation of women.