"Speak now or forever hold your peace in pieces."
What is a feminist? In the simplest sense, a feminist is someone who is an advocate of the rights and equality of women. This includes political, economic, personal, and social rights for women including giving them equal opportunities as their male peers to receive education and employment.
In a time where women were seen as objects of inheritance, Islam gave women the rights to inheritance. In a time where women were seen as personal properties, Islam gave women the right to possess personal property. In a time where women were seen as objects to be collected, Islam gave women the right to reject and divorce. In a time where unlimited marriages were common, Islam regulated and restricted polygyny. In a time where women were silenced and voiceless, Islam also gave women the right to testify.
In a society that looks up to fathers, the Prophet said that Heaven lies at the feet of mothers. In a society that prized sons, the Prophet told fathers that if their daughters spoke well of him on the day of Judgment, they will enter paradise. In a society that practiced polygamous marriages, the Prophet stayed in a monogamous marriage with Khadija RA until the day she passed on. In a society that prioritised male dominance, the Prophet allowed Umm Waraqa to lead prayers. In a society that treated wives as possessions, the Prophet said that the best among men are those who are best to their wives. In a society that buried infant daughters, the Prophet said that daughters are a blessing; kind, helpful and good companions.
Yes, the Prophet did practice polygamy himself. However, these marriages were done to help rehabilitate divorced and widowed women. Considering the social standards of the time, it wouldn’t seem proper to leave a woman to fend for herself, thus the need for a caretaker. He married widows of companions who were killed in battles, to strengthen bonds between friends and tribes and sometimes merely as an act of compassion. To me, not only does the Prophet’s monogamous marriage showed his love and loyalty, but his polygamous marriages also show his nobility and kindness. He took care of the interests of women and found importance in their well-being.
Anti-Muslims and fundamentalists might argue and justify giving women lesser rights than men because of what is written in the Qur’an, but considering the social standing of women in the 7th century, the rights that Islam has restored to women (even if just a little bit) is revolutionary and progressive, to say the least. The way the Prophet treated the women around him is respectable and exemplary, compared to the other men at the time who inflicted harsh degradations and violations towards their women. It’s true that there may not be full equality in the Qur’an regarding social roles, but men and women are definitely intellectual and spiritual equals in faith.
Which brings me to my next question.
“Would giving Muslim women more rights today than in the 7th century be considered un-Islamic?”
No. Why should it? If you had read my article on the gradualist approach of the Qur’an, you would understand. Giving women more rights today should be seen as an improvement from the examples that have been put forth by the Prophet, his Companions, wives and early Muslims. Instead of keeping at an uneasy static or regressing back to before Islamic era, we should be building upon these examples, realising the goals that they had wanted to achieve, and that is equality, justice and fairness for all and allowing the involvement of women in public spheres, working hand-in-hand with their male counterparts.
Does that sound like gender equality to you? Indeed, it is. And I do think that the Qur’an calls for it. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging the biological differences of men and women while providing both genders equal opportunities to education, employment and social activities.
I wouldn’t say that Islam and the Prophet are feminists in the western, white-washed, modern and militant sense, but considering everything that they have done for women in their time given the cultural constraints, I do think Islam and the Prophet are as feminist as feminists can get. Pretty radical ones too.
Like I have mentioned before, change or reform does not happen in a day. Let us continue the Prophet’s legacy and further push the women in our lives to be the best people they can potentially be.