In the West, the struggle for women empowerment has been couched in the struggle for Women Liberation.
The gist of the struggle of the feminist movement in the West is about attaining to what has not been given to women – such as their status, rights, privileges.
The women in the West have got to initiate movement, thoughts and activities that signify their demand for obtaining those rights.
Quite in contrast to that, for the women in Islam, the purpose of their struggle is to restore back to the women what God has already given them – restoring what has been our God-given rights.
Why restore women’s empowerment?
Most contemporary scholars with proper knowledge of Islam concur that it was Islam that empowered women for the first time in human history with the most progressive social, legal, economic and political rights since the seventh century.
William Montgomery Watt, for example, suggested that Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam SAW, “can be seen as a figure who testified on behalf of women’s rights” (Bashir Maan and Alastair McIntosh (2000).
The caring for, and sustaining of, women’s welfare from time to time is an ongoing cause/obligation/amanah that Muslim societies should need no reminder of.
Yet, in his farewell sermon on the Ninth Day of Dhul Hijjah 10 A.H. in the ‘Uranah valley of Mount Arafat, Mecca, the Prophet made it a point to still stress on the duty and responsibility of society to safeguard the interests and wellbeing of women:
O People, lend me an attentive ear, for I know not whether after this year, I shall ever be amongst you again. Therefore listen to what I am saying to you very carefully and take these words to those who could not be present here today…
O People, it is true that you have certain rights with regard to your women, but they also have rights over you. Remember that you have taken them as your wives only under Allah’s trust and with His permission.
If they abide by your right then to them belongs the right to be fed and clothed in kindness.
Do treat your women well and be kind to them for they are your partners and committed helpers. And it is your right that they do not make friends with anyone of whom you do not approve, as well as never to be unchaste.
Remember, one day you will appear before Allah and answer your deeds. So beware, do not stray from the path of righteousness after I am gone.
All those who listen to me shall pass on my words to others and those to others again; and may the last ones understand my words better than those who listen to me directly. Be my witness, O Allah, that I have conveyed your message to your people.
Prophet Muhammad SAW
Yes, the Prophet made it a point to still stress on the duty and responsibility of society to safeguard the interests and wellbeing of women.
Why is that?
Because the Prophet knew that taking care of women’s interests would be a Muslim patriarchal society’s inherent weakness.
Just look, for instance, at the various unceremonious ways women’s rights have been (mis)treated by Muslim men even in the progressive 21st Century:
Afghanistan: We ban women from getting educated
Iran: We force women to wear the headscarf
Pakistan: We allow honour killings and forced marriages
Saudi Arabia: We ban women from driving
Somalia: We stoned 19-year-old rape victim
Sudan: We arrest and flog women for wearing trousers
Turkey: We ban women from wearing the headscarf
The media is replete with news of the various forms of suffering that contemporary Muslim women and girls had undergone: from death after being made a child bride…
….to being shot for defending the right of girls to get an education…
…to being discriminated against as violence or war refugees and migrants…
….to being instantly divorced without due considerations…
…to being abandoned wives and becoming single mothers without receiving any child financial support from the fathers…
…to being denied the right to divorce unjust husbands…
…and to being killed for the sake of somebody else’s honour.
The above examples of the mistreatment of Muslim women in their societies beg the question of how unfaithful Muslim societies have been in obeying the instruction of the Prophet SAW to treat women well and to be kind to them.
Given that Muslim societies generally have been slow to give women the empowerment that the Quran and the sunnah had granted them, it is not too farfetched to say that in the face of this systemic weakness it is women themselves who have to always be on the alert, to come forward, and do whatever they can to protect and defend themselves.
In short, to mobilise themselves in order to restore the empowerment that is their God-given right.
Amriah Buang (2020), Gender Equality vs Gender Equity: Islamic Worldview, Paper presented to the IIUM-ISTAQ Roundtable Discussion on 3rd March, 2020, Ibn Khaldun Hall, ISTAQ, Kuala Lumpur
empowerment: The process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights.
gender: either of the two sexes (male and female), especially when considered with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones.
Gender equality: the state in which access to rights or opportunities is unaffected by gender.
Gender gap: The difference between women and men as reflected in social, political, intellectual, cultural, or economic attainments or attitudes.
Women empowerment: The process of making women becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling their life and claiming their rights in social, educational, economic, political and psychological aspects.