Women Before Islam

As someone who is interested in women & Islam, the situation of women in pre-Islamic Arabia is of special significance.  There are basically two main arguments that have been made.  One, made usually by Muslims, is that women before Islam were worthless, had no rights, were seen as the property of their husbands, and were usually killed right after birth. The second, made usually by non-Muslims, is that women in pre-Islamic Arabia were much more powerful and autonomous than after Islam. The second argument is quite rare and I don’t hear many scholars making it, but it does exist.

One thing people tend to bring up is that Khadija, brought up before Islam, was independent and autonomous. However, to what extent can be extend this to all women of her generation and above? Aisha and Fatima, for example, were also strong-willed and independent, so could we also extend this to all women post-Islam?

Female infanticide should be one great pointer as to how women were seen before Islam. It is a well-accepted fact by most historians and scholars that there were high rates of female infanticide, and that Islam, by banning it, helped reduce the practice tremendously.

Another important point is that women before Islam were seen as part of a larger unit – the family, headed by the father. So even if they had rights regarding their husbands, we should not forget that their fathers still had tremendous say in their lives and how they lived them.

Asma Barlas writes, “A woman in 7th century Arabia could choose/dismiss a husband at will, she remained with her kin after marriage, and her children belonged to her tribe. However, by the time of Islam’s advent, women may have become more dependent on men because of “baal” marriages (derived from the Old Testament) that established the husband as the overlord over his wife and the wife as his subject.”

So the form of marriage had changed before Islam arrived.

She goes on: “Sexual unions were generally temporary since husbands deserted their wives for years on end and also enjoyed powers of unilateral divorce”.  A nomadic lifestyle prevented the strict seclusion of women but not all women enjoyed freedom of movement.”

“Yet some women were able to exercise influence in public life as priestesses and prophetesses, and they could also take part in warfare by tending the sick and wounded. On the whole, however, women’s social place was a function of their class or their own personalities and was not codified in law.”

This is an interesting point: women of a certain class did have some freedom, but this did not apply to all women across all classes. Her point about a forceful personality is also important – I think we could apply this to Khadija, if it is true.

“In spite of some freedoms, women could not inherit property but were themselves considered property and could be inherited as part of a dead father’s estate by his sons.”

In conclusion, I think the reality might be somewhere in between, albeit more to the side of “women in pre-Islamic Arabia were worse off than after Islam”.  There is definitely a tendency on the part of some Muslims to make the Jahiliyya period (the period before Islam) sound as bad as possible, because this highlights how amazing Islam is; and this makes it difficult to know exactly what the situation then was. On the other hand, there is a tendency by same Western academics to make the period before Islam sound like paradise, thus making it seem as though Islam took rights away from women.  While I don’t think women were completely downtrodden before Islam, I do believe that Islam gave them more rights and a higher status. This was mainly achieved through the Qur’an recognizing women as equal to men in the realm of faith: men and women who are pious will both go to heaven. It’s that simple. In the realm of political/economic rights, there is not full equality, but there are reasons for this, and it also depends on how we define equality and whether or not one takes the context the Qur’an came down to into account.

What do you all think? What is the first image that pops into your head of women in pre-Islamic Arabia? Do you think they were better or worse off?

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15 thoughts on “Women Before Islam

  1. Well as muslims, we believe GOD gave women "rights" and "freedoms", not MAN – the prophet was just a messenger of God's words, he did not create these words/laws. But I guess that's another debate with each party reaching it's own conclusions.Anyhow, I think women after Islam were definitely better off. Don't compare muslim women NOW to non-muslim women – the current position is not necessarily the Islamic one. Compare women at the 7th century before and after Islam. Hope that makes sense!

  2. If you want a non subjective historical account as possible I would suggest you read the work of non religious historical scholars. To often time people let thier biases effect how they read certain information. when I want historical accounts I try to stay away from religious scholars and so forth. Keep in mind that the period in which you are referring to also had Jewish and christian women living in it and their is alot of information about treatment of women that can help you paint a clear picture of thier status in that time. This would make a good research paper for myself as well for my personal growth and education. Thank you I always love your posts.

  3. I have to agree with coolred38 that it hardly matters"Simply because man is the one that decided in the end what woman could and couldnt have, do or couldnt do etc."Also, Jasmine makes a good point about lack of literacy for Women for a long time, and when it was available, it was supplied using an effing drip and too little too late for equality to reign freely. I like Aneesh's suggestion and think it's sound.I personally don't have an opinion because I think I lack the knowledge to contract and compare using historical facts, but from what you said, it seemed that the Quraan and the Message was supposed to make things better, but somehow this got lost in translation, or was hidden or something. This takes me back to codered's comment, which I think is the most applicable.Is there an example of a modern Islamic state and it's treatment of women records?

  4. Hey Cairo! It's been a while.The first thing that pops into my head, naturally, is that women in pre- Islamic Arabia were worse off. But it could be due to the "tendency on the part of some Muslims to make the Jahiliyya period (the period before Islam) sound as bad as possible, because this highlights how amazing Islam is".But thinking about it a little more, women in pre-Islamic Arabia could've been better off. With religion come strict rules and regulation to follow.But then again, what's the definition of "better"? If the freedom for women to do and wear as they like is highly regarded, then perhaps it's better pre-Islam. I'm already confused.On a side note, I might be taking a history elective called The Islamic World: Tradition and Modernity. Your posts and readers' comments will definitely come in useful!

  5. Jasmine: I agree, and so does Fatima Mernissi. But I guess my question is whether we can generalize to all women from those two examples. Also Aisha had a pretty strong personality and her situation was pretty different to Khadija's.

  6. Coolred: I totally agree, Islam has given many men a tool with which to oppress women even more. I guess my question is about the Qur'an itself, which I think does give women more rights than they had at the time."thats just words on paper as far as some Muslim (and non Muslim) men are concerned."True and very sad.

  7. Jasmine: "UNfortunately by that time the system is so rigid and in justification of its own self that it cannot be reckoned with."Very true! That's a great point. About reverts, I agree but I also see a tendency to go to extremes amongst reverts more. Some are very focused on the gender equality thing but some go the complete opposite way and really oppress women.

  8. Stimulus: yes, I think it is better to compare women pre-Islam to women right after Islam. Like you said, when I wrote this post I had in mind the fact that God has given women rights in the Qur'an, regardless of whether men allow women to have these rights or not, since that's a whole other debate.

  9. Aneesah: that's true, maybe looking at non-religious historians might be better, but at the same time it sometimes makes a difference when the historian approaches the Qur'an from a believing perspective as opposed to someone who sees it as a faked historical document.

  10. Marzuki: you bring up a good question: what does "better off" refer to? I might think restrictions are better for society and so might argue that women were better off after Islam. Someone else might think that a society with no restrictions is better and thus might argue that women pre-Islam were better off.I will try and define what I mean better next time!

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