One of the most oft-repeated mistruths about Islam is its apparent misogyny, or hatred of women. Islam's accusers claim that it brutally oppresses women, reducing them to mere chattel. This can not be farther from the truth. Islam liberated women and transformed them into equal contributors to societal advancement. However, to fully appreciate what Islam did for women, we must understand how they were treated at the time of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
In Seventh Century Arabia, except for perhaps the highest social classes, women were nothing more than property. They were bought and sold and had no rights of their own. Having a daughter was considered disastrous: "And when a daughter is announced to one of them his face becomes black and he is full of wrath." (Quran 16:58). In fact, the practice of burying female infants alive was widespread.
Islam changed all of this and put women on equal footing with men. It gave women the right to inheritance, the right to spend their money how they wish, and the right to divorce. These rights were unthinkable in Seventh Century Arabia. Islam was first to give women the right to vote, centuries before we amended the U.S. Constitution to do the same in 1920. Female infanticide was condemned by the Quran: "...Shall he keep it (his daughter) with disgrace or bury it (alive) in the dust? Now surely evil is what they judge." (16:59) and "And when the female infant buried alive is asked for what sin was she killed." (81:8-9). Prophet Muhammad promised Paradise for the person who raises his daughter to be a righteous person. Also, Prophet Muhammad remarked that "Paradise is underneath the foot of the mother." Islam requires both men and women to become educated. Some of the greatest scholars and warriors of Islam have been women. In the Quran, there is a chapter named "Women" and a chapter bearing the name "Mary," after the Virgin Mary, who is most highly esteemed in Islam. In fact, when describing the ideal believer, the Quran cites the example of two women: "And God sets forth an example for those who believe the wife of Pharaoh...and Mary, the daughter of Imran..." (66:11-12).
The veiling of Muslim women has been used as a clear argument for Islam's oppression of women. This is also inaccurate. Islam requires both men and women to dress modestly. Part of this requirement is for a Muslim woman to cover her hair, a practice known as hijab. The burka, or complete body cover worn by women in Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan, is not mandated by the Quran, but is rather a cultural practice. In fact, the requirement for women to cover their hair is not unique to Islam. Orthodox Jewish women cover their hair. In addition, centuries before the Quran was revealed, the Bible also required women to cover their hair: "But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoreth her head...For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered." (1 Corinthians 11:5-6). That being said, however, Islam does not force women to wear the hijab. The Quran states, "There is no compulsion in religion" (2:256), and the choice to cover her head is entirely hers to make.
Another seemingly discriminatory practice in Islam is in the case of inheritance: men are given double the inheritance of women. In reality, this is not discriminatory at all. For example, my wife works as a teacher and earns a very good salary. She has absolutely no obligation in Islam to spend any of her earnings on our family. The fact that she does help the family with her income speaks of the goodness of her heart. On the other hand, my wife and family have a right to every dime I earn. Consequently, since men have more financial responsibilities than women, men are given double the inheritance.
So, is Islam misogynistic? No. Are some Muslims misogynistic? Yes. However, the sins of some Muslims must not be confused for the doctrines of Islam.
Hesham A. Hassaballa is a physician and syndicated columnist based in Chicago.