I was born into a Muslim family and learned about Islam and the respect accorded women from the behaviors of the men around me. I especially treasure my memories of my maternal grandfather. He was always waiting at the door when I came home from school to ask me what I learned that day and marvel at my progress. He cried with joy when I graduated high school. He held and gazed at my diploma for hours afterwards. A devout Muslim, he loved the fact that his granddaughter was getting an education.
My father's family had many Imams, teachers and scholars of Islam. Learning for both men and women was held in high esteem. College graduates among the women in my family have increased with each generation. From my father's behavior and that of his uncles, I saw how natural it was for men and women to gather socially in the same room and converse about family and life. My great-uncles shook my mother's hand and smiled when they greeted her. They were devout Muslim men from Mecca, but many young Muslims today would consider such behavior sacrilege.
My fondest memory of my great-uncle Saleh is the way in which he frequently addressed his wife with such poetic language; he flirted with her, joked with her, and sang to her without being self-conscious that there were other people around. He carried her tea trays, and helped her wash and clean and tidy up.
My ancestors faithfully practiced the five pillars of Islam without losing sight of the fundamental requirements of everyday civil and compassionate living. Their love, devotion, and deep respect for their wives is unlike any of the characterizations portrayed by "fundamental" misogynistic Muslim men of today. Those were men who lived their lives to parallel that of the Prophet Muhammad in kindness, affection, gentleness, generosity, and respect towards women.
So, it grieves me greatly to see men who describe themselves as Muslims transgressing against women in the name of Islam. The Taliban, and others like them, have had extremely deficient schooling in Islam. The Prophet Muhammad championed the movement that gave women protective rights and respect in a culture that treated them as inferior. He made a deliberate move towards eliminating the practice of female infanticide. He considered women as equals and freely supported their independent voice. He encouraged their debates and asked for their opinions. He had no qualms about men seeking advice from his wives or daughters. He had no qualms about his wives and daughters joining in conversation to debate political and social issues in the company of other men. I wonder, in the face of such a legacy, how some Muslims justify their intolerance for women's education, independence, and free speech, and how violence and misogynistic practices against women have come to be associated with Islam today.
The issue of polygamy is often raised as an example of women's lower status in Islam. The West, especially the U.S., seems singularly fascinated by this matter. In reality, the single verse in the Qur'an that seems to permit polygamy also prohibits it on the grounds that no man would ever be able to fairly balance the strings of his purse and his heart equally between two or more women. The Prophet Muhammad was married monogamously to his first wife, Khadija, for 20 years. When she died, he cried and mourned deeply for her. The multiple marriages in which he engaged afterwards were acts of kindness to his community. Many of the women he married were either orphaned or widowed, and had no kin to safeguard them from the difficulties that awaited them physically and socially in the Arabian desert. Some he married for political purposes-to unite tribes and make peace. Men who practice polygamy today do not come near the standard of behavior that the Prophet worked so hard to establish for women fourteen centuries ago.
When the Prophet Muhammad was asked by one of his followers "What is religion?" his response was not related to the Five Pillars of Islam. He answered instead: "Religion is one's regard and conduct towards others." What sets a faithful believer apart from a merely practicing one is his (or her) regard and conduct towards women, men, children, and other living things. My hope is that Muslims, who have strayed from the code of conduct established by the Prophet Muhammad, return to it and never lose sight of its nobility.