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Arif Mohammed Khan is a former Union Cabinet minister.

Early Islam saw the rise of free-thinking women

he recent Deoband fatwas on working women provoked a healthy debate, in which comments made by young Muslim men and women were particularly enlightening. Since these fatwas are mostly based on juristic principles evolved more than hundred years after the death of the Prophet, it is important to take a look at some cases reported in early Muslim society to ascertain how women fared during the Prophet's time.

A prophetic narration reported by Imam Malik and Muslim says, "Fatima bint Qais, an emigrant woman in Medina received three marriage proposals after she became a widow. Since one proposal was from Usma bin Zayd, a freed slave of the Prophet, she decided to entrust her affair to the Prophet and asked him to make a choice on her behalf. Moreover she had left the house of her deceased husband so they discussed the question where she should spend her waiting period (Iddat). The Prophet first advised her to move to the house of Umm Sharik, a rich lady of Medina known for her generosity and hospitality. On second thought, he told her, 'Don't do that because Umm Sharik is frequently visited by people and I do not want you to come before the strangers with your head uncovered'." The other version says, "This is a woman whom many of my companions visit" (Muwatta 29.67 and Muslim 1373). So the Hadith books tell us that Medina had women who received and entertained visitors not related to them and that these women were held in high social esteem.

Another interesting anecdote shows how fiercely women guarded their independence and free-thinking. A slave woman called Barira negotiated her freedom and the money was paid by a wife of the Prophet. After her freedom, Barira exercised her legal right to annul her marriage with Mughith, the man she had married when she was a slave. Mughith was deeply in love with Barira and could not bear to be separated from her. He would cry inconsolably and roam the streets of Medina chanting her name. The Prophet saw him one day and moved by his condition asked Barira, "Why don't you return to him?" Barira asked, "Do you order me to do so?" The Prophet replied, "No. I only intercede for him." Barira turned down the advice by saying, "I am not in need of him" (Bukhari 7.206).

Islam had not only imparted a sense of equality and dignity to women but had vehemently denounced female infanticide.

The assertion of freedom of choice on the part of women is powerfully portrayed in another episode involving the wife of Tahbit bin Qais, a companion of the Prophet. The lady was unhappy with her marriage and approached the Prophet seeking legal separation from her husband. On being asked she admitted that Tahbit was a man of good character and fulfilled all his duties as a husband. "But physically he is very unattractive and I feel revulsion when he comes near me. I fear that it may lead to some transgression on my part," she said. The Prophet asked her, "Will you return the garden that he has given you as dower?" She replied in the affirmative. The Prophet summoned her husband and ordered him to take back his garden and divorce her.

The following testimony by Caliph Umar may sound shocking to the champions of Islamic law today, but it shows how strongly women asserted their rights. He says, "Once I shouted at my wife and to my horror she paid me back in the same coin. Further she said: why are you so upset, the wives of the Prophet reply back to him and some of them do not speak to him whole day long. What she said appalled me... Then I dressed up and went to Hafsa (Prophet's wife) and asked her: Does any of you keep Allah's Apostle angry all the day and she replied in the affirmative" (Bukhari 3.648).

Islam had not only imparted a sense of equality and dignity to women but had vehemently denounced female infanticide saying, "When the female, buried alive, is questioned, for what crime was she killed?" (81.8-9). Fatwa makers may also be questioned for what crime they wish to confine women within the four walls of their homes.

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