The economic status of women in Islam


Ahmed Danyal Arif, London, UK

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In this day and age, saying that women suffer from a degraded image is really a euphemism. The Muslim woman is no exception to this rule, especially since her status in so-called Muslim countries is far from reflecting the real values advocated by the religion of Islam. But how many of us know, for instance, that the Prophetsa of Islam had specifically pointed out over 1,400 years ago that half of the faith could be learned through Hazrat Aishara – in other words, a woman?

Although the Quranic teachings and traditions are crystal clear, the burning news overwhelming us all, reflects our deep ignorance on the issue of her economic status both in theory and practice throughout history. Long consigned to oblivion, it is high time to bring this issue up to date in order to appreciate this “forgotten half’s” true worth.

Islam, the liberator of women

Before the advent of the Holy Prophetsa, women in all countries, including pre-Islamic Arabia, were bound to enslavement and servitude.

There is some legitimacy to say that from time immemorial, there were women, who on account of their charm or outstanding qualities, attained positions of ascendency over men. But this was not true freedom as this was not theirs by right. Such exceptional cases can hardly be perceived as the means for fulfilling true aspiration.

Real liberty is that which emerges from civilisation and conforms to and is defined by statutes and laws, whereas the one which is attained by breaking the bounds is not conducive to human betterment.

In ancient Athens, a woman owned any property that she had inherited, but other males (e.g. her father, brother, uncle, husband, son or even son-in-law) were authorised to administer her property on her behalf and to represent her in legal proceedings, ostensibly to safeguard her interest. Similarly, in Roman law, a woman could inherit but only from her agnatic relatives. A woman remained under the guardianship of her father’s or male relatives after marriage, alternatively choosing to be transferred to her husband’s guardianship. A woman could not perform any transaction without the involvement of a tutor and her freedom consisted in her ability to approach the senators to appoint a tutor or to request a different one.

Although in later Roman times, the role of a guardian became a formality, his consent was still needed to validate a contract. Islam revolutionised it altogether.

In fact, of the great faiths, Islam has been foremost in assigning to women a position of economic independence.

(Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmadra, Muhammad: The Liberator of Women. Hazrat Chaudhry Muhammad Zafrulla Khanra, Women in Islam)

Any property that women might acquire by their own effort, inherit as heirs or receive as a legacy or gift belongs to her independently of her husband, without the possibility for him to interfere in her management if she does not want to.

The Holy Quran states:

“Men shall have the share of that which they have earned, and women a share of that which they have earned.” (Surah al-Nisa, Ch.4: V.33)

Islam further protected the economic status of women by requiring the obligation on the husband’s part to make a settlement with the wife, in proportion to his means, at the time of marriage. This settlement is called mehr (dowry), and if at the time of the husband’s death, the wife’s dowry is still unpaid, it ranks as a debt to be discharged out of his estate:

“And give the women their dowries willingly. But if they, of their own pleasure, remit to you a part thereof, then enjoy it as something pleasant and wholesome.” (Surah al-Nisa, Ch.4: V.5)

Finally, Islam gave women the right to inherit in a practical and effective manner. The root of social evils in 7th century pre-Islamic Arabia was linked to a growth of individualism. Considering themselves as independent individuals, tribe leaders became selfish and careless in their traditional obligations to their members and to those of their own families. Whether the family system was matrilineal or not, women could not own property. Her property was managed either by her husband, her paternal uncle, her brother or her son.

In any case, if an administrator died, he was most often replaced by the most qualified person in the matrilineal group, that is, the man. In practice, this was translated into the law of the strongest. But Islam moved the goalposts and entitled women to inherit from the deceased in her role of mother, wife, daughter or sister.

The Holy Quran makes clear that:

“For men is a share of that which parents and near relations leave; and for women there is a share of that which parents and near relations leave, whether it be a little or much – a determined share.” (Surah al-Nisa, Ch.4: V.8)

The Islamic system of inheritance aims at a wide distribution of property. If a person should die leaving his or her surviving parents, wife or husband, sons and daughters, they all share in the inheritance. There is no room for discrimination between the heirs under this system, like, for instance, primogeniture, or exclusion of females. Full and specific details of division of property are found in the Holy Quran:

“Allah commands you concerning your children; a male shall have as much as the share of two females; but if there be females [only], [numbering] more than two, then they shall have two-thirds of what the [deceased] leaves; and if there be one, she shall have the half. And his parents shall have each of them a sixth of the inheritance, if he have a child; but if he have no child and his parents be his heirs, then his mother shall have a third; and if he have brothers and sisters, then his mother shall have a sixth, after [the payment of] any bequests he may have bequeathed or of debt … “And you shall have half of that which your wives leave, if they have no child; but if they have a child, then you shall have a fourth of that which they leave, after [the payment of] any bequests they may have bequeathed or of debt. And they shall have a fourth of that which you leave, if you have no child; but if you have a child, then they shall have an eighth of that which you leave, after [the payment of] any bequests you may have bequeathed or of debt. And if there be a man or a woman whose heritage is to be divided and he [or she] has neither parent nor child, and he [or she] has a brother or a sister, then each one of them shall have a sixth. But if they be more than that, then they shall be [equal] share holders in one-third, after [the payment of] any bequests which may have bequeathed or of debt, without [intent to cause suffering to anyone] …” (Surah al-Nisa, Ch.4: V.12-13)

According to this law, women have not only obtained a right to inherit, but they  receive,  like their husbands, the right to contract debts and to bequeath property. Despite this measure, we still notice that men have twice the share of women. Islam assigns an extra share to the man because he has an obligation to financially support  his  wife and children. The husband can never be freed from his responsibilities of being a guardian over his wife and children and automatically, from the share that he inherits, his foremost responsibility of providing as the breadwinner comes into practice.

Exploring history

The fundamental question regarding the status of women is not only what its standing was in the law, but also how it was implemented in the social and economic domain. There is overwhelming evidence indicating that until the late medieval period, women’s independence, involvement and skills were more sophisticated and wide ranging than those of medieval European women.

A study of Prof Maya Shatzmiller (Labour in the Medieval Islamic World [1994]) shows that the trades and occupations which Muslim women exercised, the professional and unskilled tasks they performed and the commercial activities they were involved with reflect a high degree of participation, specialisation and division of labour.

An analysis of the economic activity in which women were involved, shows that gender division of labour was prevalent and that they were employed in the industrial and service sectors, with the strongest showing in the textile industry.

Women monopolised several manufacturing occupations, including spinning, dying and embroidery within an industry, which was the largest, most specialised and market-oriented industry of the Muslim cities. Women also had the right to wages for breastfeeding and to receive wages for child rearing.

Moreover, a considerable number of women of science were found in the Islamic world at all times, who contributed to shape the thought of some very influential scholars of subsequent generations.

The same author also presented another finely-honed analysis of women’s property rights in the final years of Muslim Spain. Based on a series of documents originating in the Islamic court of Granada, the notion of explicit rights that women had strikes the modern reader as radically egalitarian. The heart of the author’s discussion is the one of sadaq, which consisted of money that women received from their husbands when they were married, and which they themselves controlled.

In Prof Shatzmiller’s view, these inter vivos gifts, along with the property and inheritance rights which Islamic law guaranteed to women, are key to appreciating female independence and women’s capacity to act as proprietors. Women in the Latin Christian world, on the other hand, had been increasingly excluded from inheritance since the 12th century when the dowry was reintroduced. (Maya Shatzmiller, Her Day in Court: Women’s Property Rights in Fifteenth-Century Granada [2007])

Thus, the women’s economic rights were not a merely legal fiction. They were the product of the Islamic philosophy and a pervasive paradigm that made property ownership a normal construct of the Muslim woman’s legal persona and a norm of her existence.

Alas, the years passed and the economic status of women hardly seems to have been a priority for the successive nations.

It is well known that in the United Kingdom, till as late as 1882, when the first Married Women’s Property Act was passed by parliament, a married woman could hold no property of her own independently of her husband.

Similarly, in Italy, it was not until 1919 that full property rights were given to women, allowing them to spend their wealth however they pleased. More than a hundred years later, traces still linger in certain aspects of British law, which illustrate a married woman’s position of dependence upon her husband.

In many countries, including those supposedly based on the Islamic ideals, women still do not have inheritance rights over their husbands’ or parents’ wealth. The teachings of the Holy Quran and that of the Holy Prophetsa have been forward-thinking, and inspired many generations to uphold the economic rights of women established by Allah.

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