For Afghanistan's women, Islam is the answer
Author: Dalia Mogahed
After 20 years of ceaseless war and famine, the women of Afghanistan
must heal themselves, and ultimately their nation, by rediscovering
their identity as empowered, dignified Muslim women.
To many, such an assertion seems like an exact reversal of the
truth. After so much suffering, some think, the last thing these
women need is more of what apparently caused it. However, a brief
look at history and women's rights through a correct understanding
of Islam paints quite a different picture.
It was Islam, in the 7th century, that established women's spiritual
and intellectual equality with men. Muslim women were granted the
right to vote, own property, inherit, receive a higher education
and even run a business in which men were subordinates.
These teachings were immediately put into practice, where 1,400
years ago women played an active political role, not only voting
for their leader, but also advising him. The Prophet Mohammed's
wife, Khadijah, was one of the most successful businesswomen in
Mecca, employing many men, including at one point the Prophet himself.
Aisha, whom the Prophet married some years after the death of Khadijah,
became a scholar of Islam. A man of the time described her by saying,
"I have not seen a greater scholar than Aisha in the learning
of the Koran, shares of inheritance, lawful and unlawful matters,
poetry, literature, Arab history and genealogy." It was not
surprising, then, when the world's first institution of higher education
-- Al-Azhar Islamic University, founded in Cairo in 969 A.D. --
was named after a woman, Fatima al-Zahraa.
In fact, Islam gave women rights centuries ago not enjoyed by them
in our country today. For example, a Muslim woman is a totally separate
entity from her husband, not only keeping her family name as well
as all property she owned before marriage, but also maintaining
total ownership of any money or property she acquires after marriage.
In contrast, the general law in most states considers any wealth
a woman obtains during marriage as jointly owned by her and her
Since Afghanis are predominantly Muslim, one would expect their
customs to already reflect Islam's reverence of women. However,
20 years of war has created a culture of force, where the physically
weaker sex is abused and seen as inferior, and where Islamic teachings
are superseded by tribal traditions.
The suppression of women's rights in Muslim countries is, of course,
not unique to Afghanistan, and neither are the reasons for it. Women's
oppression in many parts of the Muslim world is actually just one
symptom of a widespread decay of Islamic ideals and the subsequent
regression to pre-Islamic tribal culture.
This spiritual cancer has also resulted in the rise of corrupt
tyrannical rulers, the proliferation of usury in Muslim economies,
the growing gap between rich and poor and the emergence of nationalism.
Due to this misrepresentation of Islam, some have dismissed it
as a solution to the problems of women in Afghanistan. Instead,
they argue that this country is a hundred years overdue for a healthy
helping of Western feminism. Many are under the impression that
women's liberation was a 20th-century Western development, and that
gains in women's status in other parts of the world are primarily
as a result of Western influence.
Certainly no one can deny the progress Western women have made
since the days of the English Common Law, which regarded a woman
as the legal property of her husband, barring her from owning property,
entering into contracts or even keeping her name. After centuries
of struggle, American women gained the right to vote in 1920 and
British married women gained the right to own property in 1935.
Laws for equal access to education and the workplace followed.
This relatively recent change in laws makes it quite clear that
far from being the pioneer of women's liberation, the West was actually
a thousand-years-late newcomer to this Islamic movement. What's
more, when laws in the West were finally corrected to give women
their equality, society was late to follow. It took generations
to alter people's beliefs about the status of women and affect true
In contrast, Islam changed society almost overnight through the
power of deep belief in God and the resulting desire to submit to
His will. Afghanistan needs such an immediate and radical cultural
Western feminism simply cannot bring this about because it lacks
the ideological strength to quickly penetrate hearts and minds.
Even with the help of the greatest propaganda machine, Western feminism
fails to answer the most basic question: Why should women be regarded
as equals now after being seen as inferior for years of civil war?
"Because America said so" will not hold much weight with
Islam, on the other hand, teaches women's equality as a divinely
ordained principle. It elevates the status of women by revealing
their God-given rights, which no one has the right to take away
and which no devout believer dares question. If the Afghanis rediscover
the true teachings of their faith, women's liberation will emerge
Fundamental societal change in Afghanistan requires the power of
deep religious conviction. Only this will elevate women to their
proper station -- servants to God alone whose rights are a sacred