The stereotypical image of a Muslim woman portrayed in the media is that of a woman hidden behind a veil, voiceless, silent figure, and without any rights. Contrary to this stereotype, Muslims believe that women's rights were revealed by Allah (God) in the seventh century by prophet of Islam Muhammad (peace be upon him-pubh). Below is an account of some of these rights.
When the religion of Islam appeared 1,400 years ago, it elevated the position of women in the society and treated them on an equal footing with men. In Islam, gender equality is based on the premise that the two genders are equal, but they are different. Similar rights, or similar duties do not always mean exactly the same rights, or same duties. That is, equality here is qualitative rather than quantitative, depending on the different natures of males and females. Both men and women are equal in their humanity and in their dignity; in their accountability to perform their assigned tasks. In some places in the Quran, identical rights to men and women are explicitly stated. However, in other places equivalent, but non-identical rights are stated.
Women in Islam are required to acquire the appropriate education to perform their duties in private and public sphere. The prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said, "Seeking knowledge is mandatory on every Muslim (male and female)." This includes, not only knowledge of the Quran or Islamic jurisprudence, but also all other branches of knowledge. Since the dawning of Islam 1400 years ago, and until this day, there were female scholars and jurists (experts on Islamic law and jurisprudence), and many renowned male jurists were taught by female jurists. Even the Caliphs (Muslim leaders who succeeded prophet Muhammad (pbuh)) were corrected by women. In several Muslim countries, the percentage of females in colleges of higher education, including medical and engineering schools, exceeds that of males.
A Muslim woman's priority is to maintain her home and give support to her husband and raise and educate her children. However, if a woman wishes, she can work outside the home and to help in the community in accordance with her own education, training, and natural talents and interests, provided that her family obligations are met.
Islam decreed an important right of women, which is her right to independent ownership of money, property and assets. Fourteen centuries ago, Islamic Law recognized the full property rights of women before and after marriage. Muslim women may buy, sell, or lease any or all of their properties at will. Also she can donate her money, act as a trustee and set up a business or company. Muslim women may keep (and in fact they have traditionally kept) their maiden names after marriage. The husband is required to protect and support his wife and family, and a married woman is not required to spend any amount of her wealth or income on the household unless she chooses to. The Quran stated: "Men are the maintainers of women" (Quran 4:34). She also has full possession of her dowry during marriage and in case of divorce.
Also, according to the Islamic law, women have the right to inherit. The Quran states: "For men there is a share in what parents and relatives leave, and for women there is a share in what parents and relatives leave, whether it be little or much an ordained share" (Quran 4:7). The fact that in case of the death of any person, in some cases a female child takes one half of what a male child would take caused a big controversy among some Muslims and non-Muslims. Many people interpret this as injustice to females. The whole issue about the inheritance in Islam depends on the social and economic context. As explained above, Islamic law requires for the males in the family to support the females financially, which will make the male's share effectively lesser. Females keep what they receive through inheritance for themselves, and they are not obliged to support anyone in the family including themselves, unless they voluntarily choose to do so.
The Quran states: "He creates for you mates out of your own kind so that you might incline towards them, and He engenders love and tenderness between you" (Quran 30:21) Marriage is therefore not just a physical or emotional necessity but, in fact, a sign from God! It is a relationship of mutual rights and obligations based on divine guidance. In Islam, contrary to stereotypical belief, a woman cannot be forced to marry against her own will. Another issue that is the subject of controversy is polygamy. Some people believe that the right of women in marriage is not protected in case of polygamy. We have to understand that history proves that polygamy was practiced before Islam in Judaism and Christianity, and it is well known that most prophets and messengers practiced polygamy, and no prophet has ever made polygamy unlawful. Islam did not introduce polygamy, but rather regulated it. Islam limited the number of wives to four, which was unlimited before Islam. Moreover, polygamy in Islam is allowed under certain circumstance and under the condition that one should observe justice between the wives. Throughout the history of early Islam, monogamy was the norm and polygamy was the exception. Even now, it is estimated that less than 2 percent of Muslims practice polygamy.
One issue which is always taken as a sign of oppression of Muslim women is the requirement for Muslim women to cover their hair and bosom. Islam emphasizes modesty, and that no person should be seen as a sex object. There are certain guidelines for both Muslim men and women. For women, their dress should cover all areas except the hands and face. This is the same dress code followed by the Virgin Mary, the most honored and revered woman in Quran.
It is important to note that the status of women in Islam has been misunderstood because of the lack of knowledge about the Islamic system. What has also contributed to this is that the role of Muslim women in many Muslim societies has been defined according the traditions and cultures of these societies, and not according to the authentic principles of Islam.
Although polygamy is not unlawful in Islam, polygamy is not practiced by Muslims in America out of respect to and observance of the law of the land.