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Engy Abdelkader

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The Question of Muslim Women's Rights

Posted: 07/08/11 11:12 AM ET

The question of Muslim women's rights is an intriguing one requiring discernment of Islam's egalitarian principles from the ill-informed practices of some of its adherents.

To be clear, Islam is defined as a monotheistic, Abrahamic faith. Islamic jurisprudence is largely comprised of teachings from the Quran, a holy book believed to be the literal word of God, as well as those of Prophet Muhammad, considered the seal of a long line of prophets commencing with Adam.

Muslims are followers of Islam. And, as with believers of any religion, Muslims are fallible, capable of falling into error with the divine.

While this distinction appears elementary, it is often lost on those who conflate the Islamic faith with the adherent's misguided conduct. Nowhere is this, perhaps, more painfully obvious than the question of Muslim women's human rights.

Islamic tradition extols the Prophet Muhammad as the human embodiment of Quranic lessons. His conduct is thought to be worthy of emulation and his teachings as guiding principles of spiritual illumination.

So it seems logical for this discussion of Muslim women's rights to begin with a brief examination of the lives of extraordinary Muslim women who defined Islamic culture during Prophet Muhammad's lifetime, more than 1,400 years ago:

• Aisha bint Abu Bakr was a female scholar of great eminence. She was considered more knowledgeable than most of her male contemporaries in matters related to Quranic interpretation, poetry, medicine and history. She issued legal decisions and delivered public speeches eloquently.

• Maimunah bint Haris was a Muslim woman with a reputation for setting slaves free.

• Zainab bint Hayye was known for her kind treatment toward the Jewish people.

• Naseebah bint Ka'b, a female soldier, fought in battles against the pagans who persecuted Muslims for their staunch belief in the one God of Abraham.

• Naseebah bint Haris was a nurse.

• Zainab bint Abdullah was her family's primary breadwinner providing financially for her husband and their children.

• Khansaa bint Amr was lauded as a great poet.

• Shafa bint Adwiya was an intelligent woman skilled in politics and entrusted with overseeing the administration of the marketplace.

Their names may sound foreign, but their lives should not: Their noted achievements mirror those of remarkable American women like Anne Bradstreet, Clara Barton and Bella Abzug, among others.

So, perhaps the problem is not with Islam but with some Muslims' lack of proper understanding and patriarchal interpretation of it. Let us continue a dialogue toward greater inter-cultural and inter-religious understanding.

Engy Abdelkader is a Legal Fellow with the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.