Towards the end of Al-Baqarah is a section on how women are to be treated in case of divorce or widowhood. The laws on divorce didn’t surprise me, they are exactly what I would have expected based on my understanding of the culture. Men can divorce their wives fairly simply. In theory they are meant to be allowed to take any gifts they were given during the marriage (Al-Baqarah 228). A waiting period is to be enforced between the last time the man and wife are intimate and when the divorce is finalized/the wife is allowed to remarry, to ensure she is not pregnant (Al-Baqarah 228). Even child support is mentioned, that the now ex-wife should be supported by the ex-husband for up to two years while she weans a child.
Basically, as I was taught, women are not given equal rights, by any means. But they are given more rights than in other cultures in the same area and time. As a student of history, I know that I can’t judge a culture with my own values, and by the values of the time and place these rules were recorded, this is an advancement for women.
And yet, I know that in practice these rules were probably not held up as they sound. Take, for instance, Al-Baqarah 240,
If any of you die and leave widows, make a bequest for them of a years’ maintenance without causing them to leave their homes; but if they leave of their own accord, you will not be blamed for what they may reasonably choose to do with themselves. God is almighty and wise.
I can’t help but wonder, based on what I know of how women are treated by the fundamentalists of the religion in the current times, how often a woman was mistreated or threatened until she left “of her own accord.”
I want to believe that if I remove the prejudices of my own times, that women were treated the way they were meant to be treated and that these rules that sound as if they were designed to protect women, were followed. I know, from having studied the founding of Islam that the Prophet’s first wife was a business woman, wealthy in her own right, and that women were allowed to work and move around in society. I also know that it isn’t long into reading that the Prophet will have a revelation that the wives of the prophet should be veiled and modest in front of the people. And I know that this revelation is the source of modern veiling laws. And so I am left to believe that these laws didn’t actually protect women the way they sound and I desperately want to understand.
In a culture where a woman had no standing, I can understand why she would hold on to this religion that gave her rights in case of divorce. I can understand why it wouldn’t even dawn on her to ask for more. But it’s no longer the seventh century and I want to understand the modern implications and the modern believer, and how these things impact the world I live in.