Originally published in the Loudoun Times-Mirror, March 24, 2010.
Around the world on March 8, International Women’s Day honored women’s economic, political and social accomplishments. Congress declared March National Women’s History Month, when we honor extraordinary women like Rosa Parks, Susan B. Anthony, Hillary Clinton and Sonia Sotomayor.
Sometimes missing from history is religion’s role in advancing women’s rights and equality. Contrary to modern-day stereotypes, Islam in particular led the way in establishing and protecting women’s God-given rights. Almost 1,500 years ago, God Almighty said in the Qur’an: “I do not neglect the deeds of any one of you who works, whether male or female. You are of one another.” (3:195)
The Rev. William Montgomery Watt (1909-2006), a Scottish historian, wrote that before Islam began, “the conditions of women were terrible—they had no right to own property, were supposed to be the property of the man, and if the man died everything went to his sons.” Islam, however, by “instituting rights of property ownership, inheritance, education and divorce, gave women certain basic safeguards.” (The Coracle, the Iona Community, summer 2000, issue 3:51, pp. 8-11.) Watt noted that women were not accorded such legal status in the West until centuries later.
Today, a majority of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world live in countries that have, at some time, elected women as heads of state. Four of the five most populous Muslim-majority countries have elected women leaders – in Indonesia (the most populous Muslim country) Megawati Sukarnoputri was president from 2001 to 2004; in Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto was prime minister twice (1988-1990, 1993-1996); in Bangladesh, Khaleda Zia (1991-1996) and Sheikh Hasina Wazed (1996-2001, 2009-present) served as prime minister; in Turkey, Tansu Çiller was prime minister (1993-1996).
This could mean women have gained true equality. Unfortunately, all over the world and here at home, women do not receive equal pay for equal work, do not have a proportionate presence in business or politics, and our education and health lag behind men’s.
We have female astronauts and athletes, professors and pediatricians. We can have a family or work – or both. Let’s be grateful for our God-given equality.
Let’s also remember that actions speak louder than words – we have a long way to go for our daughters and nieces.
Priscilla Martinez coordinates several programs for the All Dulles Area Muslim Society.