Islam, modernity and women’s rights

Published: March 18, 2014

The writer is a London-based lawyer who tweets @ayeshaijazkhan

The question has often been asked: does Islam give women rights or take them away? Surely, the concept of justice and equality for all are repeatedly mentioned in the Holy Quran and are fundamental to the spirit of Islam, with rights for women being an important component. Both the right to divorce and the right to an inheritance, for instance, were revolutionary when Islam bestowed these rights upon women and were not introduced in other parts of the world till much later.

The trouble is, however, that those who most often speak in the name of Islam, frequently contemplate how to take rights away from women rather than elevate their position in society. In addition, while Islam accorded rights to women they did not previously have, the world has progressed in leaps and bounds in the last 1,400 years and unless the Islamic world can reform its laws and practices so that they are in conformity with modernity, it will be difficult to compete with the non-Muslim world or lay claim to the oft-repeated mantra that Islam confers many rights upon women.

In this context, let’s examine the recent recommendations of the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII). The CII has proposed that there should be no minimum age for marriage as that would be ‘un-Islamic’. The CII’s rationale is rooted in the example of Hazrat Ayesha, the Holy Prophet’s (peace be upon him) youngest wife, who is said to have been betrothed to him at the age of seven, nine, 11 or 15, depending on which scholar/historian one chooses to believe as there is no official and uncontroversial record of her age at the time. Her marriage to the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) was not consummated until a few years later by which time, she had, at least, attained puberty and according to at least one scholar, was as old as 18.

Nevertheless, the point is that for much of history, the age of marriage was a matter for families or tribes to decide. In recent years, however, state intervention and legislation on this subject has become commonplace.

According to the Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society, for instance, in 1564, a three-year-old named John was married to a two-year-old named Jane in the Bishop’s Court in Chester, England. Often such underage unions took place when either property or family alliances were at stake. In the Unites States, moreover, Mary Hathaway was only nine when she married William Williams in the state of Virginia in 1689.

But by the 1920s, most countries in Europe and America had legislated a minimum age for marriage to be set at or about 16. The Age of Marriage Act, which applies to Scotland, England and Wales, was enacted as law in 1929 and in the same year, the Child Marriage Restraint Act was promulgated in India.

Mohammed Ali Jinnah had voiced unequivocal support for this law. How tragic is it then that a simple matter that should have been settled by the definitive position of the founder of our nation nearly a century ago is being debated afresh today in the age of smart phones and satellite television — modern goodies of which the clerics do not hesitate to take part, but when it comes to women, they must remain stuck in the Middle Ages.

The CII has also proposed that any restrictions on the practice of polygamy currently in place under Pakistani law must be struck down. According to the CII, polygamy is a man’s unfettered right and thus any restriction on it is ‘un-Islamic’. In fact, the practice of polygamy was not sanctioned by Islam, but predated Islam. Islam resignedly tolerates polygamy but expresses a clear preference for monogamy with the Holy Quran clearly stating: “It is better for you to have one wife.”

In accordance with this principle, many Muslim countries, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Bangladesh among them, have sought to curb the practice of polygamy by requiring a man to seek permission from his first wife before marrying a second time. Tunisia and Turkey, moreover, have outlawed polygamy altogether, in 1956 and 1926 respectively. It goes without saying that polygamy is also not permissible in the developed world.

The choice before us is, therefore, very clear. Are we going to be an example of how Islam is compatible with modernity and able to give its women, at least, the same rights as is the case in many non-Muslim societies, or are we going to reinforce the stereotype that Muslims are a backward bunch, who do not respect their women and cannot contribute positively to the modern global world?

In conclusion, though I have tried to watch Pakistani talk shows on this subject with great interest, I have found them largely disappointing due to the enormous amount of time wasted on deciphering what exactly Islam mandates on these matters. Given the polarisation between the traditional and the modernist approach to religion, it is not possible to find common ground. It may be wiser thus to discuss how to limit the power of those who promote backward and discriminatory interpretations of religion.

In the substantial number of years I spent in the US and the UK, both highly developed societies, I repeatedly heard of Judeo-Christian values inspiring law and society, but hardly ever witnessed religious representatives invited on television or otherwise to comment on either. Perhaps, it may be wise to follow the same approach.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 19th, 2014.

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Reader Comments (42)

  • Logic
    Mar 18, 2014 - 11:55PM

    It’s funny how western-ism is equated with modernism so easily.


  • Toticalling
    Mar 19, 2014 - 1:54AM

    Interesting reading. I am surprised that the author makes reference to religious leaders not being asked to discuss such subjects on TV in western countries. Surely, she knows that laws in these countries are made based on 21st century needs and requirements and not what the bible might have recommended. In Bible, for example, it says that if a man rapes a woman and is caught, he must marry that woman and live with her all his life. Women, considered that an insult to live with a man who raped her. Subsequently all the Christian societies made rape a crime and punish these men since 16th century.
    What it means is that reformation, which includes human rights for women, has been accepted as the basis for any law, ignoring what the holy book might say on such subjects. Asking the priests for legislation is, therefore, never relevant.
    Pakistan is going in another direction and returning the wheels to 6th century. I do not have to point out which societies are more successful and living at peace with themselves. It is self evident, at least to some of us.


  • Iron hand
    Mar 19, 2014 - 2:14AM

    The Islamists have managed to trap Muslim societies within the confines of archaic and unalterable religious doctrine. There is no longer room for modern or enlightened assessments of right and wrong, good and evil, sensible or insensible. Even application of the Golden Rule is restricted. There is simply and only “Islamic” and “Un-Islamic”, with destructive and deadly consequences often flowing from propagation of the latter.


  • Rex Minor
    Mar 19, 2014 - 2:55AM

    Lady, the religion of Islam does not give any rights to men or women, but only obligations!! Learn the arabic language and then read the scriptures, it tells you what your obligations areß. for your rights, you will have to struggle to claim them as every other human in the world.

    Rex Minor


  • Leif
    Mar 19, 2014 - 3:06AM

    I am a Pakistani Muslim in name, but am actually an Atheist. Unfortunately, I can’t be too candid about this in public because of the blasphemy laws. Islam may be modern, but the theocracies sure aren’t.


  • x
    Mar 19, 2014 - 3:46AM

    It’s even funnier how modernism is considered a negative thing.


  • Raj - USA
    Mar 19, 2014 - 4:21AM

    Roshni Chand se hoti hai, Sitaron se nahi.
    Mohabat ek se hoti hai, hazaron (or Charon) se nahi.

    Here are my views on multiple marriages. Multiple marriages destroy family values and the relationship that should exist between the family members. This is probably a reason that history of muslim rulers is full of treachery. There are many instances of sons killing fathers, one brother killing another brother and nephews killing uncles, etc. This is because there is no love or affection amongst the family members. A man marries multiple times only because of lust and not love. The woman knows this and even his children know this. The would show obedience to him only for his wealth and power but would never respect of love him. This sows seeds to treachery. Even as recent as in June 1995, the Amir of Qatar Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad al-Thani was deposed by his own son Crown Prince Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani in a bloodless palace coup. Most muslim rulers have never trusted their own sons or brothers and it is true even today. It is my view that it is not just his first wife, but even the children of the man who is practicing polygamy, would be respecting or loving him. Polygamy destroys the basic fabric of the family relationship. It destroys the trust in relationship. It is even more worse if the man marries another woman without permission from his prior wife. Religion may allow, but rational thinking is required.


  • Rambo
    Mar 19, 2014 - 4:35AM

    Pakistan is extremely modern, ’cause we uses cellphones and stuff. Moreover, why aren’t Pakistani women for polygamy? That way, the housework can be shared among two to four wives, which makes economic, sociological, and culinary sense!!


  • Mirza
    Mar 19, 2014 - 9:24AM

    A bold and no nonsense Op Ed by ET, thanks for that. There is an essential part of Islam called Ijtehad which has been given up by Mullahs. When we can have timing in Ramazan when to break it are published with digital accuracy in every city of the world (to keep Sunni Shia separate) why we cannot have such modern approach to all other parts of Islam? The watches even the crude ones are not more than hundred years old but we have adapted quickly for keeping divisive issue alive. However, no calculation is allowed for moon sighting, or family laws to meet today’s demands. While the other religions do not stick to thousands of years of practices and grant equal rights to men and women as a witness, inheritance and voting some of us are still trying to keep women hidden in a corner.


  • Khurram
    Mar 19, 2014 - 9:38AM

    “unless the Islamic world can reform its laws and practices so that they are in conformity with modernity, it will be difficult to compete with the non-Muslim world or lay claim to the oft-repeated mantra that Islam confers many rights upon women.”

    The above quoted lines reveal writer’s acute ignorance of Islamic Jurisprudence. Islamic Laws are Divine Laws there is no room in their body either for reform or amendments by us humans. These laws are eternal and transcend time and space. Only the Almighty Allah has the right to make the required change or changes only if He so chooses to.


  • Mar 19, 2014 - 10:13AM

    Most Islamic countries have the same laws for women. Even Malaysia sentenced a women to be caned for drinking beer.

    If the laws in Islam are so liberal and modern, out of 2 dozen or so Islamic Republics, not a single country has laws you can be proud of.

    Rationally speaking either all of these countries are all following the same, incorrect version of Islam or the liberal Muslims are the ones which are wrong.

    Every debate, no matter if it is Terrorism, Radicalism, Women rights, Minority rights, starts with “This is not Islam”.

    There are 2.5 Billion Christians, 1 Billion Hindus compared to 1.4 Billion Muslims. No group has to defend their ideology so much.

    Please embrace Rationality. That is the only Religion you can fight for without contradicting yourself.


  • Feroz
    Mar 19, 2014 - 10:36AM

    Your argument is very weak and no one is sure which side of the fence you want to rest. The real issue is how much space to give religion in peoples private and personal lives, not to indulge in meaningless religious contextualization, where you can only lose an argument. Either you are wedded to religion or logic, to claim to use both to fortify your cause will result in falling between two stools.


  • Sayed
    Mar 19, 2014 - 1:08PM

    The West prides itself as a champion women’s rights, considering itself to be the protector of women all over the world. Western thinkers are of the position that women in West are progressively receiving more and more rights, while Muslim women are still being suppressed!

    Muslims believe however, that in actuality Islamic ethics provide true freedoms for both men and women alike, and that the West promises a freedom that in realty does not exist, rather only being a modern form of enslavement, packaged in plastic words.Recommend5

  • Parvez
    Mar 19, 2014 - 1:14PM

    Liked what you wrote……..Islam and modernity ( not a good word, progress would have been better ) are not compatible because as you rightly say its because of the people ( read : men ) who control the narrative are myopic in thought and self serving.
    ( Recently my comments are going up in smoke. ET I hope this get printed )


  • Kolsat
    Mar 19, 2014 - 1:18PM

    In every Muslim nation women do not have the same freedoms as men. However when someone points this out the Muslims always trot out the answer that this not Islam and go on to quote Koran completely ignoring the facts on the ground. The author wanting to show that even in the western world there is no minimum age for marriage could only find two instance which happened 300 hundreds years ago whereas in the Muslim world underage marriages seem to be common. Recently in Australia a Lebanese Muslim was jailed for marrying a 12 year old girl.Recommend34

  • Saad Khawaja
    Mar 19, 2014 - 2:00PM

    Equal rights, sure. However, next time you are standing in a queue, do not jump the column or seek preferential treatment. Moreover, do not make a separate queue. Stand among us. Travel in buses among us. Im sick of feminists asking for equality but devouring preference wherever it suits them. I hope you are not among them.


  • Uza Syed
    Mar 19, 2014 - 2:26PM

    While I would like to see Pakistan becoming at least as civilized as most of the rest of the civilized countries in the world and provide a decent if not ideally equal status to women here. But, I’m afraid this just is not going to happen at least I can’t foresee it in near future, not in our life time. For this to ever take place we would have to tackle the deep rooted sense of superiority and ownership in typical male dominant society here which is supported if not created by theocracy here. And when you talk about theocracy then frankly you are referring to Islam which I’m afraid does provide some justification if not real support to the concept of gender superiority. The author Ms. Ayesha Aijaz-Khan, frankly, exaggerates if not mutilates factual position in praising role of Islam in promoting rights of women, . We neither need to be Islamic scholars nor Islamic historians to know, from ordinary believers’ point of view, where our religion really stands vis a vis women. Without being too negatively critical on religious views and what went on in the past in its name, I’d simply go for serious reformation of our legal system and also an overhauling of prevailing belief and this can only be possible by keeping religion far away from the vicinity of all three organs of our State, all three, legislature and judiciary and the executive.

    That’s why it’s imperative that we as people must insist on keeping State & the people’s legal rights & duties completely separate and independent of religion.


  • F
    Mar 19, 2014 - 3:27PM

    No debate about history and culture is allowed. No alternative views are tolerated. Don’t even try – such is the fear. Only the status quo that supports greatness and infallibility is welcomed. In a contrived environment of self congratulations and victim hood progress and modernity are stymied. You can always count on a very aggressive and dogmatic worldview to keep women in “their place”. Despite all this there are no protests.


  • mshaiq
    Mar 19, 2014 - 3:30PM

    That third paragraph – Yes. Thank you!


  • rasgullah
    Mar 19, 2014 - 4:54PM

    Grow up.


  • goggi (Lahore)
    Mar 19, 2014 - 6:20PM

    The institution of marriage, for most of the religions, take it for granted or give an impression, as if we humans were a monogamous species.

    The evolutionary history of mankind proves, without any ifs and buts, that we are polygamous and in contrary to all other species of our planet, we are endowed with an insatiable sex drive.
    Both men and women!

    Acknowledging this fact, Islam allows men to have till 4 wives at a time and to discard any wife on the spot without any explanation or reason with 3 simple words!

    If the women would have been given the same rights to have more than one husband at the same time and discard any with 3 simple words, then we would witness that Islam is a religion of equality and justice.

    This neverending issue of women rights and gender disequilibrium cannot be solved from the Muslim clergies, even if they want to, because it is not in their capability to make any amendments in the divine laws of their Allah.


  • Rex Minor
    Mar 19, 2014 - 7:04PM

    Let the media publish the photographs of CII members who are proposing marriage of under age people or talkng about having more than one wife. The scriptures prohibit polygamy and a contractual agreements among children is not valid.

    Rex Minor


  • Unbeliever
    Mar 19, 2014 - 8:10PM

    Refreshing article and not the typical apologist one. Though I do not agree on the premises of discarding the age of Aisha so easily. If you use non authenticated hadiths to disapprove hadiths that are considered authentic, such as Muslim and Bukhari, you are opening the door to discard ALL hadiths.


  • AW
    Mar 19, 2014 - 8:29PM

    While I agree with the author, defending islamic ideology is not an example of backwardness of Islam. It’s the backwardness of Mullahs’ that we have to defend on daily basis.


  • mullah
    Mar 19, 2014 - 9:19PM

    Islam, modernity and women’s rights-
    The title is SO FUNNY, all 3 together, in one sentence? You must be joking, right! LOLZZZZ


  • Observer
    Mar 19, 2014 - 9:54PM

    @Iron hand:

    “The Islamists have managed to trap Muslim societies within the confines of archaic and unalterable religious doctrine.”

    What is worse it that apologists like the author try to refute the Islamists claiming that the Islamist version of Islam is wrong. This is an approach that is sure to fail. What the “modernists” should do instead of claiming their “interpretation” of Islam is the right one, is to stay away from couching their arguments in religious interpretation terms and turn the conversation to one of logic, rationality and humanism. Otherwise, they are bound to fail.


  • hamza khan
    Mar 19, 2014 - 10:02PM

    @Raj – USA:

    polygamy was allowed in islam as a way for women whose husbands had been killed or died early on to remarry and live under the protection of a man. a women with kids i can guarantee you would prefer to marry a man who has a wife than remain single and unmarried the rest of her life. to dismiss polygamy (though i completely agree that one marriage is the solution for 99% of all people) is foolish and short sighted.


  • Imad Uddin
    Mar 19, 2014 - 10:09PM

    Why should women get equal, why not more, why not more respect and better status? World has gone backwards from the most refined balance. Should they be followed just so that they may not misunderstand us? Thats sheepish.
    What is modern today would be obsolete tomorrow.
    Your piece was more about the concern of how the liberal west would think of us, the rigid presumption that polygamy is uncivilized , and that traditional or cautious viewpoint should be totally eradicated. If that is “Modernist approach to religion”, I would say its escapism. No, thank you.


  • Komal S
    Mar 20, 2014 - 1:12AM

    @hamza khan: Says
    ” a women with kids i can guarantee you would prefer to marry a man who has a wife than remain single and unmarried the rest of her life”

    Not sure i agree with you. Anyway please do not try to rationalize something, that you believe is God’s words. Islam allows a male upto 4 wives, expect people in today’s world to see this as an alien concept and insensitive to women. But if you believe this is straight from God you should not worry about what others think.


  • humnah
    Mar 20, 2014 - 6:58AM

    She isn’t dooing that exactly, I think she’s saying that the reforms in western thought that happenened because of modernism, should also occur in pakistani or rather islamic thought, perhaps a similar process should occur and that there should be a move from mythos to logos, reliance on logic will allow us to appreciate the absurdity lf rituals like polygamy even today.Recommend1

  • Nobody
    Mar 20, 2014 - 7:22AM

    @hamza khan:
    That’s the same tired excuse men use as a support for polygamy when in actuality, I can guarantee MOST women would prefer to be educated and left to decide whether they want to marry (and believe it or not, some women don’t), become independent and self sufficient or marry an already married man just to be dependent on him. It baffles me when men think they are experts on what women want in life. Please don’t regurgitate what mullahs have filled people’s heads with. If someone gave me a choice to become some man’s second wife or be self sufficient and single, I’d choose the latter every time, as would most other self respecting women. Cheers.


  • PeaceMonger
    Mar 20, 2014 - 9:19AM

    It is going to be one uphill battle that has to be fought for a very long time. Good luck. Better you than me.


  • zero
    Mar 20, 2014 - 9:36AM

    Islam is the best religion. Freedom does not mean to become animal and do whatever you want. There are certain rules that human should follow to live a better life and for the betterment of the society as a whole.
    Westernism is no good, they have all sorts of problems. No family life.


  • Atif Salahuddin
    Mar 20, 2014 - 3:55PM

    It is indeed shocking that the author who claims to live in the West completely ignores the reality of women in the West. Women are treated like sex objects, the more they flaunt, the more value they are perceived to have and which is why they are unashamedly used to sell everything in marketing campaigns. Do men in the West dress almost naked for marketing ads? There is no equality in reality whilst more and more women are becoming victims of rape and unwanted sexual advances in Western countries as numerous reports prove.

    This is why women in the West are bombarded with photoshoped images of perceived beauty and increasingly becoming victims of the anorexia and bulimia type of eating disorders as they pursue the ‘perfect’ body – something which over time is impossible to retain and causes so much misery for many women. The ‘liberation’ of women in the West has less to do with ensuring equality and more to do with providing an increasing and hence cheaper labour pool for Western economies.

    We can also see how women in India are treated which has adopted this liberal approach, as the vicious spate of gang rapes has shown. This is not ultimately about East or West but a question about values. Islamic values have served Muslims well over time but have been abandoned by the Pakistani state apart from token gestures.

    The author then may find it a revelation that people living in the West continue to convert to Islam and nearly 75% actually happen to be women.


  • Gurion
    Mar 20, 2014 - 4:44PM

    @hamza khan:

    polygamy was allowed in islam as a way
    for women whose husbands had been

    It was in fact introduced to accommodate the marriage of the woman to the men who killed her husband in the first place.
    Such peace and tolerance!


  • Rex Minor
    Mar 20, 2014 - 8:15PM

    second attempt to ET mod.;


    The billion hindus are pagans and have no religion per say. There can be no morality or ethics without accepting the authorhity of God almighty(Immanuel Kant), the creator who demands obedience and worship. Try and stop the rape among the one billion hindus who commit this act every 20 minutes nor do they teach their children in schools what a sin is?

    Rex Minor


  • Observer
    Mar 20, 2014 - 11:15PM

    @hamza khan:

    “polygamy was allowed in islam as a way for women whose husbands had been killed”

    Very convenient. First you butcher their husbands for not accepting Islam and then “marrry” their widows as mercy! If compassion is the real motive, why not accept the women as sisters and provide for their livelihood. Also of note is that the mercy “marriages” were mostly with the young women often unmarried.


  • csmann
    Mar 20, 2014 - 11:50PM

    @Rex Minor:
    You don;t have even an elementary knowledge of Hinduism.And just see what TTP is doing in the name of God.Authority of conscience is more important than that of God.
    @hamza khan:
    In this age of ultrasounds and female infanticide,there are going to be excess of men available .Would Islam allow the woman to marry more than one man then?It should per your logic.


    Mar 21, 2014 - 5:39AM

    For Khurram
    The new millennium requires Muslims to approach the scripture with fresh mind in the light of changed conditions and new information and move away from blind ‘TAKLID’ In modern society hidden and unknown frontiers are conquered and society’s environment and lifestyle is changing as never before. But ironically Muslim world in the current century is at cross road, confused and out of tune with the reality. The notion that the Islamic concept of law is absolute and authoritarian and hence immutable is breeding intellectual inertia amongst the Believers. Council of Islamic Ideology Mullah/Molvis are bigots and fanatics. Instead of looking to the present and the future their eyes are fixed to a mirage of the past. The norms of 7th century desert society are not workable. Justice, logic, truth and compassion form no part of their deliberations. They are caught up in time consuming, non-productive ritual, they engage in debate with not a glance at the larger picture. Their ideology is geared to blind self-destruction, hate, divisiveness and injustices of the practices they advocate.


  • Rex Minor
    Mar 21, 2014 - 3:55PM

    while I have no problems with your crtitic of CII, you should be aware that all human knowledge emanates from scriptures. You are a non believer and therefore you may be excused for your ignorance of Islam of 7th century. What we have today in the western world is the values which we have learnt of over a thousand years from the scriptures of the Ibrahimic faith. Perhaps you should examine the Madina charter of the 7th century which is more advanced than what Pakistanis are practicing because of the ignorance of the divine language. This is being corrected now by the report that the arabic language will be taught as a compulsary subject in schools. I would also recommend as in the past that basic science subjects should also be introduced in Pakistan Madrassas!

    Rex Minor


  • usman
    Mar 23, 2014 - 11:41AM

    its heart-touching. Great work.


  • Gurion
    Mar 24, 2014 - 7:17PM

    @Rex Minor:

    There can be no morality or ethics
    without accepting the authorhity of

    You don’t need religion to have morals. If you can’t determine right from wrong then you lack empathy, not religion.


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