The issue of women’s rights is a complex and nuanced matter that has been influenced by various historical, cultural, and religious factors. Unfortunately, the subject of how women have been treated throughout history has been neglected for too long, despite the pressing need for attention and reform.
Throughout history, from the Classical era through Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, there has been a consistent desire for reform of women’s rights on a global scale. In the Mediterranean world, for instance, a woman’s social class and marital status largely determined her status. Wealthy and influential women had better access to education, political power, and economic opportunities, whereas poor women were often subject to poverty, illiteracy, and restricted mobility. However, there were some exceptions, such as Aspasia, a courtesan, and intellectual who lived in Athens during the 5th century BCE (1). She was celebrated for her intelligence and her friendship with the philosopher Socrates. Another notable figure was Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt, who was not technically Greek, but a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, which had Greek origins. Cleopatra was renowned for her beauty, intelligence, and charisma and was an accomplished politician and diplomat. She was also a patron of the arts and sciences and was said to have engaged in philosophical debates with some of the leading thinkers of her time (2).
Likewise, ancient India saw women subjected to a web of religious, social, and cultural restrictions that limited their freedom and opportunities for self-expression. In ancient India, women’s rights were heavily influenced by the Hindu caste system, which relegated women to subordinate positions. Women were largely denied access to property ownership, inheritance, education, employment, and political representation and were confined to traditional roles as wives and mothers. Despite these pervasive restrictions, India also had notable examples of powerful and influential women who left a lasting mark on Indian history, particularly in the realm of religion and spirituality.
One such example is Gargi Vachaknavi, a renowned Vedic philosopher who lived in the 7th century BCE. Despite living in a time when women were denied access to formal education, Gargi’s intellectual prowess and philosophical insights were highly respected, and she was known for her fearless debates with male philosophers (3). Another prominent figure was Queen Draupadi, a central character in the Hindu epic Mahabharata. Draupadi was known for her beauty, intelligence, and strength of character and played a pivotal role in the epic’s narrative as the wife of the Pandava brothers (4).
Arabia, before the advent of Islam, was a place of stark contrasts and challenges, where life was shaped by the harsh desert climate and the fractious political landscape. Most Arabs lived in small, tribal communities where survival depended on cooperation and resourcefulness. The nomadic Bedouin people were known for their resilience and adaptability and were able to eke out a living in even the most inhospitable of environments. Sedentary communities, on the other hand, tended to be clustered around oases or along trade routes and relied on agriculture and commerce for their livelihoods.
In this harsh and unforgiving world, women occupied a tenuous and often marginalized position in society. Patriarchal norms and values governed every aspect of life, from family structure to economic and political systems. Women were considered inferior to men, and their worth was often measured solely by their ability to bear children and maintain domestic duties. They had few legal rights and were often subject to violence, discrimination, and exploitation. Despite these limitations, however, women in pre-Islamic Arabia were not without agency or influence. Some women, particularly those from wealthy and influential families, were able to carve out positions of power and respect within their communities. Others found creative ways to challenge patriarchal norms and assert their autonomy. From the poetess Khansa to the warrior queen Zenobia, women in pre-Islamic Arabia left a lasting legacy of resilience and defiance, even in the face of tremendous adversity.
The social status and treatment of women in pre-Islamic Arabia were highly variable, largely dependent on the tribe and region in which they lived. While some women were able to carve out positions of power and respect within their communities, most were regarded as inferior to men and subjected to oppressive and patriarchal norms.
Female infanticide, for instance, was a widespread practice in some tribes, driven by the belief that male offspring were more valuable than female ones. Women were also barred from inheriting property, and their testimony was often disregarded in legal proceedings. Forced marriages, limited rights in matters of divorce and child custody, and early marriage to much older men were also commonplace.
Tribal warfare, fueled by disputes over resources, land, or honour, was a frequent occurrence in pre-Islamic Arabia. Marriage alliances were used as a means of establishing peace between warring tribes, but they could also be exploited as a tool of aggression, with men abducting women from other tribes to gain power or seek revenge. In such cases, the abducted women were often forced into marriages with members of the winning tribe after their male relatives were killed.
Despite these harsh conditions, some women were able to defy patriarchal norms and assert their agency. Some were even able to gain positions of power and respect within their communities. However, for the majority of women in pre-Islamic Arabia, life was marked by oppression, subjugation, and a lack of agency (5).
In the complex and challenging world of pre-Islamic Arabia, marriage was more than just a personal choice, it was a crucial means of establishing and maintaining the tribal identity and social order. Women, unfortunately, were often caught in the middle of these alliances and conflicts, with their lives and futures decided by men and tribal politics (6).
However, the advent of Islam brought a profound and transformative shift in the history of the Arabian peninsula. With its teachings of social justice and gender equality, Islam presented a new vision of a more just and equitable society, ushering in a rich cultural and intellectual tradition that has had a lasting impact on the world.
For women in particular, the arrival of Islam marked a watershed moment in the history of their rights. The Holy Quran recognized the inherent worth and dignity of both men and women, affirming their equal standing in society: “O mankind, We have created you from a male and a female; and We have made you into tribes and sub-tribes that you may recognize one another. Verily, the most honourable among you, in the sight of Allah, is he who is the most righteous among you. Surely, Allah is All-knowing, All-Aware” (7).
Islam gave women the right to own property, inherit wealth, and receive an education, which was previously unthinkable in pre-Islamic society. Furthermore, the Prophet Muhammad (sa) himself was known for his support of women’s rights and his efforts to improve their status in society, including giving them the right to consent to marriage and abolishing the practice of female infanticide (8).
The Holy Quran proclaimed a universal belief in human equality and made no distinction on the basis of gender. Its teachings affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every individual, regardless of gender identity (9). Quranic verses emphasize the importance of treating all people with justice and kindness and condemn discrimination and oppression in any form. As such, the Holy Quran serves as a powerful testament to the universal values of equality, dignity, and respect for all human beings (10).
The Holy Prophet of Islam (sa) is the ultimate role model to emulate in every aspect of life. The Promised Messiah, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as), emphasized the importance of treating women with the utmost respect and dignity. He wrote, “Never think of women as lowly and unimportant! Our exemplary guide, the Holy Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him), has taught us that the best among us are those who treat their wives with the highest degree of kindness and compassion” (11).
In summary, the discourse makes it clear that pre-Islamic Arabia had a system that was demeaning and oppressive to women, depriving them of fundamental rights and respect. They were regarded as inferior to men and were often treated as property or commodities. Female infanticide forced marriages, and limited rights in matters of divorce and child custody were commonplace. The advent of Islam marked a turning point in the history of women’s rights, as it recognized their equal worth and dignity, affirmed their right to own property, inherit wealth, and receive an education. The Prophet Muhammad (sa) was a staunch supporter of women’s rights and worked tirelessly to improve their status in society.
As Ahmadi Muslims, it is our responsibility to continue to champion the rights of women and to ensure that they are given the respect and dignity that they deserve. We must strive to eliminate any form of discrimination or injustice towards women and provide them with the same opportunities as men to succeed and prosper. This is not just a religious obligation but a moral imperative, and we must work tirelessly to ensure that the rights of women are protected and upheld in all aspects of life.
- Helmer, Etienne. “Nickolas Pappas, Mark Zelcer, Politics and Philosophy in Plato’s Menexenus: Education and Rhetoric, Myth and History.” Études platoniciennes 13 (2017).
- Prescendi, Francesca (Geneva), Badian, Ernst (Cambridge, MA), Ameling, Walter (Jena), Stegmann, Helena (Bonn), Mehl, Andreas (Halle/Saale), Schottky, Martin (Pretzfeld) and Bringmann, Klaus (Frankfurt/Main), “Cleopatra”, in: Brill’s New Pauly, Antiquity volumes edited by: Hubert Cancik and, Helmuth Schneider, English Edition by: Christine F. Salazar, Classical Tradition volumes edited by: Manfred Landfester, English Edition by: Francis G. Gentry. Consulted online on 24 February 2023
- Banerjee, Milinda. ““All This is Indeed Brahman” Rammohun Roy and a ‘Global’History of the Rights-Bearing Self.” Asian Review of World Histories 3.1 (2015): 81-112.
- This was a polyandrous marriage, common in ancient India. The marriage of Draupadi to the Pandavas is often cited as an example of how the practice of polyandry could be used to solve social problems, as Draupadi was able to marry all five brothers and avoid any conflict or jealousy between them. For details, see Hiltebeitel, Alf, “Draupadī and Sītā”, in: Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism Online, Editor-in-Chief Associate Editors Knut A. Jacobsen, Helene Basu, Angelika Malinar, Vasudha Narayanan. Consulted online on 24 February 2023
- Shah, Niaz a. “Chapter 1. The Position of Women in Pre- and Post-Islamic Arabia”. Women, the Koran and International Human Rights Law. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill | Nijhoff, 2006.
- Samadi, Mona. “Chapter 1 The Legal Status of Women: An Introduction”. Advancing the Legal Status of Women in Islamic Law. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill | Nijhoff, 2021.
- The Holy Qur’an (49:14)
- Imaillah, Lajna. Pathway to Paradise: A Guidebook to Islam. Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam, Incorporated, 1996.
- For example, see Sahih Muslim – Book 1, Hadith 161, Sahah al-Bukhari – Vol. 7, Book 62, Hadith 62
- The Holy Qur’an (4:135)
- Jami` at-Tirmidhi, Vol. 1, Book 7, Hadith 1162, Quote of the Promised Messiah (as) is taken from Malfuzat (Urdu), vol. 3 of 5, p. 147
Last modified: October 2023