The Rights of Women in a Religious Society; Focusing on Nigeria A Civil Society and Muslim Perspective


The Rights of Women in a Religious Society; Focusing on Nigeria

A Civil Society and Muslim Perspective

Amina Salihu





  1. Introduction

I am not a religious scholar neither am I a religious activist. I am a social entrepreneur, feminist, a farmer and a practicing Muslim. What I contribute through this paper I share as my convictions and findings from research. I present viewpoints from other sources with which I am in agreement These are presented as postulations from someone who is interested in doing what is right by oneself and by others.

I may in the process offend some people, rouse others and cause disquiet to even some more. Either way, it is all very well because it would have at least stirred some response. It is my hope though that this contribution would rouse many to critical thought, which does not necessarily mean agreeing with me but recognising that there are alternative viewpoints, which require that they rethink their perspectives and positions and search further for truth.

My main theory is that Islam is an enduring religion. It is indeed a religion of peace. It gives rights in equal measure to male and female who believe and enjoins worship in equal measure to male and female. It demands that society is just and meets the needs of each in order to maintain peace and harmony.

Islam is in fact a din. This means it is more than just a religion, it is a way of life (Wadud 1999). Islam has been described as ‘the complete code of life ordained by the Sustainer of the Universe which emerged as a socio – economic and political power in 7th century Arabia’

To make Islam a way of life therefore, tenets of Islam must be taken against the changing contexts in which Muslims find themselves. The message is never changing because it is about enduring value – peace, justice and equity. We must however apply our rationality at all times to see what our conditions demand of the message. Amina Wadud that respected Scholar, Researcher and Critique captures it well when she said: order for the Qur’an to achieve its objective to act as a catalyst affecting behavior in society, each social context must understand the fundamental principles of that text, and then implement them in their own unique reflection. It is not the text or its principles that change, but the capacity and particularity of the understanding and reflection of the principles of the text within a community of people (Wadud 1999).

She goes on to say the Qur’an must be flexible enough to accommodate innumerable cultural situations so that it remains universally relevant to all those who believe. Our understanding an application of the wisdom of the Qur’an must therefore transcend just one culture or must not limit itself to the culture of the people in whose context it was first revealed (Arabian). We must search for the key principles behind every revelation and apply it in a manner contextually relevant to all of humankind who believe. 

This is the premise upon which I make my submission. That, the Qur’an intended that women have equal rights as men in Islam. The worship of both is important before the eyes of the Almighty. To each therefore has been given full reason to worship properly and follow the tenets of Islam.

O mankind fear your Guardian Lord

Who created you

From a single person

Created out of it His mate..  and from them twain

Scattered (like seeds) countless women and men

Fear Allah through whom ye demand your mutual (rights)

And be heedful of the womb that bore you: For Allah ever watches over you

(Surah An-  Nisa 4:1)


  1. What are right?

Human rights are inalienable, indivisible and cannot be transferred. They are rights given to all human beings regardless of their race, sex, class or place of abode. You cannot give some rights and take away others. E.g. you cannot guarantee for someone the right to movement but not to earn income or own property. The importance of and knowledge about human rights in Islam of course predates the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. What that declaration does in modern times is to create a universal definition that is known and can be protected by judicial processes that is, people can invoke it and approach the court for redress where they feel those rights have been violated

Islam since pre Hijrah years has been concerned with rights as mentioned and inferred frequently in the Holy Qur’an. Islam outlawed the killing of the girl child at birth. Jahiliyyah (pre Islamic ignorant Arabic society) thought girls were worthless. They buried them alive at birth! The genesis of Islam regulating the pre Islamic practice of citizens taking countless wives began after the battle of Uhud, which left behind many orphans and widows and in order to create a safe space for them where they will be dealt with justly, men were enjoined to marry the women or make other just arrangements for the protection of their rights (Qur’an translation of the meaning and commentary; page 206 note 508). 

  1. What is a religious society?


Is this a society where the laws are singularly derived from religious sources or is it a state that is very fanatical and particular about the practice of religion, or is it a state that is very committed to keeping the rules of religion sacred and separate from secular laws or is it a state that believes that one particular religion is the true religion and the other is not? I have refrained from defining what this religious state is but would rather keep with these postulations as they can in different measure and different contexts be applied to Nigeria.

We have heard of societies where the people strive to have a religious as opposed to a secular state. Islam is not just a religion it is considered to be a way of life. So the Qur’an is devoted to matters of the spiritual, governance, justice, scientific and economic growth of the human being. The state in respecting rights should also be able to do this. The difference between a secular and religious state may be that a secular state would treat religion as a private thing, guaranteeing the rights of everyone to practice that religion which is their choice so long as it does not violate the rights of the next person in any way. In a religious state there would be one religion, which is accepted as the religion of the state and therefore all may be required to obey its laws. Minorities may exist but that is what they are – minority with limited opinion and voice in the scheme of things.

All of these perspectives abound in the Nigerian state as it is right now, there are difference of opinion within civil society as to what the state is or is not. There is divergence of opinion on whether or not the state is able to play the basic role of provider of physical and socio economic security to its citizens.  This has led to intense skew in opportunity and high levels of wants, which has been the cause of deep conflicts and regular flash point that have to be watched and doused. Be that as it may, the fact for this paper is that women exist within these various spaces where these opinions and occurrences exist. Women are affected by the backlash of actions and inactions when there is a collision of different worldviews. There are a number of rights, which the state and religion guarantee women and girls, which are violated.

  1. Nigeria, Religion and Women’s Rights

Nigeria is by constitutional construct a secular society. This means all religions are permitted and are not sanctioned by the State. By law, the state is a secular entity, which respects the rights of all to freedom of choice, association, speech and assembly. In reality Nigeria as a state under three types of law: customary, statutory and religious. Sometimes there is a clash of two or all. Clash of customary and statutory law is the classic case of Mojekwu vs Mojekwu where a statutory court judge ruled that widowhood practices as practised in south- eastern Nigeria was inimical to human dignity. Another statutory court later overturned this landmark ruling. In the case of religious and statutory – the case of the introduction of Sharia in Zamfara state in 1999 and in other states and the classic case of the allegation of adultery against an adult female without a similar charge on any male adult, which the secular statutory legal system frowned upon. Although the case did not get to the Supreme Court before it was quashed, some wish that it had so that it can be decided once and for all which law is supreme and whether Nigeria is a secular or religious state.

There is a lot of religion and religiosity but very little worship and love. The Qur’an is clear about the right of the orphan, the widow, the poor and the need for the rich to alleviate the plight of the poor, if truly religion were worship why should the predominantly Muslim North have the greatest number of beggars and the worst poverty indices?


  1. The Perspective of a Muslim Woman from civil society

From the Islamic Perspective, Islam guarantees certain rights to girls and women. Some of which are the following:

  • The right of choice
  • Right to education
  • Right to dignity and honour
  • The right to a voice and participation in public life
  • The right to life
  • Right to a safe space
  • Right to property
  • Right to defend the religion
  • The right to worship

The right of choice: a girl or woman has the right to choose a spouse, choose a career. Especially after a first marriage, a woman has greater latitude of choice. Men are forbidden from inheriting widows against their will (Qur’an Surah An Nisaa 4:19). A woman can choose which association or community she affiliates with – social, cultural or political. 

Right to education: Muslims irrespective of gender are enjoined to seek knowledge even if it is to the end of the world. A more informed person can better understand and practice the religion. A girl with more years of schooling has access to more knowledge of how to raise healthy children. Islamic history is replete with women who had knowledge and preached the Qur’an and confirmed the Sunnah (practices) and Hadith (sayings) of the Prophet Mohammed Peace Be Upon Him. It is said that the life of Hazrat Aisha (ra) is proof that a woman can be far more learned than men ( ).

In 7th Century Arabia, (622AD) the kind of education, which the girl needs, may be different from the type she need in the 21st century but the fundamental principles remain the same; necessary skills and learning to survive, to contribute meaningfully to society and that learning could be in various branches of knowledge.

Right to dignity and honour: Just as with any other type of creed, Islam is very particular about honour, respect and dignity. Unlike that which is so very reported which is ‘honour killing’ where male members kill the girl for bringing dishonour to the family. Islam enjoins families to protect the girl child from any form of violation. Islam gives her the right to speak within the family and to make requests and demands. The most fundamental thing is to make a choice within the confines of Islam. Nowhere is it stated that the girl may not speak to her parents or siblings, for instance.

The issue of modest dress is a symbol of honour and self – respect. It is meant to appreciate and honour not stifle girls and women. Up to a certain age young girls run around without any head covering. Most religions and in fact every creed in the world has its dress code. Islam is no different. The key guiding principle is ‘modesty’. Choice may be tampered by cultural preferences and life style. For example the choice of colour may be informed by the type of weather-  the Arabian weather in the desert is harsh and dusty – black came handy to camouflage the dust and from predators.

In Nigeria more women wear wax material – lighter and more colourful. Some Muslim women wear lose gowns and short scarves some African and Asian women wear long gowns and longer scarves or pieces of cloth or veil. Others wear a long over coat.  A woman can wear trousers underneath a knee length dress with sleeves and a headscarf. All are hijabs in the Arabic language – the language of revelation of the Qur’an.   Yet again it is about a common principle- that of modesty and appropriateness of dress to the occasion.

Right to voice: Interpretations of religious texts borrow or lend themselves to patriarchy. Women are accepted in their biological roles as care givers, child rearers and home nurturers. This informs the non – controversial picture of respect and awe, shown a mother in her biological or accepted social role. The schism comes when women are viewed as social animals who need to express themselves politically.

Unlike the perceived notion that girls are to be seen not heard. There are documented cases of women in Islam who were preachers, who led and set down the rules within large households. There is today a division in opinion about whether or not women can take part in public life. It is however helpful that opinion is divided amongst the Ulama (Scholars) on the issue of women’s political participation. The case of Kwara State in 2011, where a woman sought to be governor is a case in point. Some Ulamas said she cannot become governor because a woman cannot lead prayers. Others said she can – as a matter of fact a woman can run for governor or senator etc. Some others said a woman can be all that, but she cannot be President.

Yet the Quran and Hadith (practices of the Prophet Mohammed SAW) show that women have assumed political leadership guarding and guiding Mumini (believers) through difficult periods of evangelization.

It is astonishing that these debates are on going in a World where the most populous Muslim nations have had female leaders. Indonesia had Megawati Sukarnoputri as President. Second largest Pakistan had Benazir Bhutto as Prime Minister twice. Bangladesh third most populous Muslim nation had Khaleda Zia as Prime Minister. A Woman has led prayers in a Mosque in South Africa. Women head Islamiya (Qur’anic schools) for women. Back to African countries with high Muslim population, The Gambia has a female Vice President Aja Isatou Njie Saidy.  Senegal had Mame Madior Boye as Prime Minister (2001 to 2002) and now Aminata Toure – 2013.  Yet again rather the notion of equal mental, rational capacity as put forward by the Qur’an, patriarchal interpretations of woman’s role without a full consideration of the context is what applied here.

Right to life: Begins with the right to live healthy and productive lives, free from fear and want. This right is severely curtailed in a situation of conflict and strife and abject poverty. Islam is expected to protect the rights and meet the needs of women. The present reality is that even where men earn income few are able to provide for women and the family. Women are now co income earners or in some cases, the sole providers for the family. Northeastern Nigeria has the highest maternal mortality rate 1425 out of every 100,000 women die in childbirth (BC/UK AID Gender in Nigeria Report 2012).

Safe space: The perception of rights or lack of rights of women in Islam is an entirely misunderstood thing. It has been a subject of controversy, which has been a function of the interpretative disposition or political intentions of the person sharing the knowledge.  Polygamy was allowed and encouraged after the battle of Uhud where many women became widowed and in the harsh reality of the then Arab world they were left vulnerable and uncared for. In a bid to ensure that the women had a safe space and were not exploited by unscrupulous persons Allah in his wisdom ordained that men were allowed to marry them, but then the verse that speak to that in the Qur’an expects that human beings would apply their rationality to make such a decision because Allah commands thus on the subject of polygamy:

Marry women of your choice

Two or three or four

But if ye fear that ye shall not

Be able to deal justly with them

Then only one

Or that which your right hand possesses

That will be more suitable to prevent you from doing injustice

(Surah An- Nisaa 4: 3)

..Ye are never able to do justice

Between wives

Even if it is your ardent desire (Surah An- Nisaa 4: 29)

What do you we see today? Most men who know they cannot even ensure justice between their children, now marry more than one wife because they say ‘Allah has ordained –  where and when did Allah say you MUST?

Islam in keeping the safe space creed allows women the right to seek divorce even though divorce (Qur’an 2: 128) is the most hated action a human can take in the sight of Allah. It is permitted both male and female if that is the path to justice and it is clear what the procedures should be to ensure equity. Islam does not require a woman to change her name after marriage she keeps her father’s name so in the case of a divorce you don’t have the added trauma of being asked to ‘drop’ the married name.

Property:  Just before marriage a young girl is given her dower(dowry) from her intended and also a trousseau from her parents, according to their means. A young man is not necessarily given. It is assumed that the society being infinitely patriarchal may not give the girl adequate access to wealth but with a good start she can invest, divest and grows her wealth either directly or through proxies. If she is given half of what her male siblings inherit it can be assumed that it is because the male in the family have the responsibility to care for her. However in case they do not, she had her dower at the point of marriage. A parent may also while alive cede whatever property he or she wishes to the daughter regardless of her marital status.  There are many women of wealth in Islamic history the most famous being Khadijat bint Khuwaylid (RA) the Prophet’s first wife whom he married when she was 40 and he 25.


Right to defend the religion: Everything for a cause, for a reason within limits.  A Muslim woman has the right o speak up in defence of her religion.

Fight in the name of Allah

Those who fight you

But do not transgress limits

For Allah loveth not transgressors  (2: 189)

Examples abound of women who attended the mosque argued with the prophet and his Caliphs. During the time of Umar a woman engaged him in debate proved her point and caused him to declare ‘A woman is right and Umar is wrong’ The challenges of 7th century Arabic may not be same. This is about keeping the peace avoiding wars and confrontation and being able to forgive. As Allah is himself ‘oft forgiving most merciful’

  1. With rights go responsibilities: The role of a Muslim woman

To complete the picture of rights we need to also examine duties and responsibilities of the Muslim girl and woman. Some of these are listed as follows:

To believe in the oneness of the Almighty

To honour one’s parents

To protect the property – including the dignity of one’s self and spouses

To use opportunity well

To protect the good name of Islam

Believe in the oneness of the Almighty

To believe is to observe the fundamental religious tenets. We are irrespective of sex required to uphold the tenets of the religious; the five pillars of Islam and the Articles of Faith.

If any do deeds of righteousness

Be they female or male

And have faith

They will enter Heaven (Surah An- Nisaa 4: 124)


A Muslim must not associate any other deity with the Almighty. This is the greatest sin. (Surah Al – Baqarah and many other in the Qur’an) Islamic is a very logical very scientific religion.  Love and respect to the Almighty begets love and honour.

Then do ye remember me; I will remember you

Be grateful to me and reject not faith   (2:152)


To honour ones’ parents: The verses of the Qur’an that address the mother emphasize the difficulties of pregnancy, labor, and breastfeeding and the need to respect one’s mother. These verses many times mention parents in general but go into detail to reverence the mother because she faces challenges that a father does not. (Al – Ahqaf surah 46; 15) illustrates this point.

And We have enjoined upon man, to his parents, good treatment. His mother carried him with hardship and gave birth to him with hardship, and his gestation and weaning [period] is thirty months. [He grows] until, when he reaches maturity and reaches [the age of] forty years, he says, “My Lord, enable me to be grateful for Your favor which You have bestowed upon me and upon my parents ( retrieved Nov 6 2013)


How a Muslim should treat their parents, especially the mother, is further underscored in the hadith. There are many instances that the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) commanded believers to respect their mothers. Here are a few examples:

A man came to the Prophet and said, ‘O Messenger of God! Who among the people is the most worthy of my good companionship? The Prophet (PBUH) said: Your mother. The man said, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said: Then your mother. The man further asked, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said: Then your mother. The man asked again, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said: Then your father. (Bukhari, Muslim)


A man once consulted the Prophet Muhammad about taking part in a military campaign. The Prophet asked the man if his mother was still living. When told that she was alive, the Prophet said: “(Then) stay with her, for Paradise is at her feet.” (Al-Tirmidhi)


To protect the property – including the dignity of one’s self and spouses: A good Muslim must guard that which should be guarded. Her tongue, to show prudence in all things –and strive to say and do good her honour her space and property left in her care. Good relations within the family with neighbors and associates

To use opportunity well: Seeking knowledge it is about seeking to better oneself and to give back to the society. Islam does not condone waste of any sort.  Islam enjoins us to enter a house through ‘the proper doors’ (Qur’an 2: 190). Give respect to and demand respect of others. Use the right openings as necessary. Another meaning is if you enter a society, respect its manners and customs. If you want to achieve an objective honourably, go about it openly and not ‘by a back door’. 

Science offers us many openings that we can use to advance the cause of society. The Qur’an in several chapters – Surah Al Baqarah, Ya Sin, Iqraa, Al Nur, all these Surahs or Chapters speak about science; the constellations, the orbit, the rain cycle, the making of the human being from sperm and blood clot etc. How do we apply knowledge to reduce maternal mortality. How do we as women come together across divides to address the issues of conflict and the attendant loss of lives and property? These are opportunities which Islam offers us, which we must use well because someday we will be called upon to give account of our actions.

To protect the good name of Islam: This is not necessarily done by fighting a physical battle all the time. Equipping oneself with the necessary knowledge to compete favourably to generate creative ideas and to maximize resources are good ways to protect the religion. Girls getting the requisite life saving knowledge so they can give health and hope back to their communities. Shunning corruption, taking care of the needy in our society by evolving sustainable income earning projects, showing rational behaviour consistent with balanced thinking all these are fundamental ways by which we can gain respect for Islam.

In the present day 21st century, marrying a 9 or 13 year old would only gain disrespect for our religion. It would contradict the assertion of the freedom to seek knowledge. How much knowledge has a nine year old in modern context. Her mates are in primary school!  How does a Muslim offer up himself to serve in a State, which has a Child Rights Act passed by a Legislature to which they belong, believing in a religion that calls for respect for constituted authority yet violates the laws of that country and that of another land by marrying its citizen outside its borders in a public ceremony with an ostentatious dower, where their own state is one of the poorest in Nigeria. Where is the modesty, where is the protection of the girl? Where is the respect for Islam. 100,000 dollars could provide both Islamic and secular education for 13 girls for 5 years.

In some Countries with a high number of Muslim population, and in some, which could be said to be Islamic states even, it is forbidden for certain age groups to marry each other. A 13 year old cannot marry a 50 year old. If marriage is about protecting the girl and her happiness and ensuring companionship between spouses a person much closer to their grave and someone in the dawn of their lives whose full rational faculties are yet to be formed surely cannot be compatible?


Hazrat Aisha’s age at marriage

Ironically, people who endorse child marriage in 21st century Islam say it is based upon the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) alleging that he married a nine-year-old girl.  However they may be wrong. There are traditions and historical narratives that point to the fact that Aisha was not 9 years old at the time of her marriage to the Holy Prophet (SAW). Although it is not to say that girls didn’t marry at age 9 in then Arabia. New historical facts show that Aisha (ra) may have been closer to 18 or 20 years when she got married.

First: most of these narratives of Aisha being 9 at the time, are reported only by Hisham ibn `Urwah, reporting on the authority of his father. More people than just one should, logically have reported an event as well known as the one being reported. Two or three as is the tradition but this is not the case. This calls to question the authenticity of the recount.

Second, According to a number of narratives, Ayesha (ra) accompanied the Muslims in the battle of Badr and Uhud. Furthermore, it is also reported in books of Hadith and history that no one under the age of 15 years was allowed to take part in the battle of Uhud. All the boys below 15 years of age were sent back. Ayesha’s (ra) participation in the battle of Badr and Uhud clearly indicating that she was not nine or ten years old at that time.

Third: According to a narrative reported by Ahmad ibn Hanbal, after the death of Khadijah, when Khaulah came to the Prophet advising him to marry again, the Prophet asked her regarding the choices she had in her mind. Khaulah said: “You can marry a virgin (bikr) or a woman who has already been married (thayyib)”. When the Prophet asked about who the virgin was, Khaulah proposed Ayesha’s name. All those who know the Arabic language, are aware that the word “bikr” in the Arabic language is not used for an immature nine year old girl. The correct word for a young playful girl, as stated earlier is “Jariyah”. “Bikr” on the other hand, is used for an unmarried lady, and obviously a nine year old is not a “lady” “″&HYPERLINK “″ID=4604HYPERLINK “″&HYPERLINK “″CATE=1        

Countries with high Islamic populations have laws stipulating the age of marriage at minimum18 although most have parental / judicial consent exceptions. This means that, while these countries could be seen as examples of the right age, they are not necessarily models of protective legal systems, so its still a long way to go to enforcement (African Child Policy Forum (ACPF), Overview of legal minimum age at marriage in Africa, prepared for Girls Not Brides).

  1. Conclusions

The fulcrum of Islam is justice. Islam is forward looking and dynamic. As society evolves practices have changed but the notion of justice remains the same. For example, slavery is a thing that is now outlawed yet the right of slaves is respected in the Qur’an. (2: 178). But today we all, irrespective of our religions, condemn slavery and discourage it.  Although legitimized in the Qur’an, in the context of then Arabia, in this age, avoiding the practice of something inimical to human rights because it has been overtaken by the dynamics of new justice, does not make us bad Muslims it in fact makes us better Muslims we are upholding the principle of justice.  

The aspiration of Islam is no different from that of a just state. Indeed Islam enjoins all believers to respect constituted Authority. Each just state wants the greater good and happiness for all. Islam has outlined pathways to getting to that kind of state but we need to keep an open mind and constantly ask the question will this pathway take us to justice. Allah has made us rational beings; to see, weigh and draw conclusions. He has given us clear light in multiple ways; in words, events, through histories, Prophets raised from amongst the people and through promises, which shall come to pass.  Truly Allah is all – wise, forgiving and most merciful and none of us can be the judge of the other. We can but only strive to serve in the way of the true Lord:

Allah is the light

Of the Heavens and the Earth

The parable of His light

Is as if there were a Niche

And within it a Lamp

The Lamp enclosed in Glass

The glass as it were

A brilliant star

Lit from a blessed Tree

An olive neither of the East

Nor of the West  

Whose oil is well- nigh.


Though fire scarce touched it

Light upon Light!

Allah doth guide

Whom He will to His Light

Allah doth set forth Parables for men;

And Allah Doth know all things.


Surah Al Nur 24: 35


Glossary and some Abbreviations

Hijrah                Migration of the Prophet Mohammed (SAW) from Mecca to Medina AD 622

Hadith               Saying and pronouncements of the Prophet (SAW) as lessons for Muslims

PBUH               Peace Be Upon Him

RA                    RadiAllahu Anhu (May Allah be pleased with him /her)

SAW                 Salalahu Alaihi Wasalam (PBUH in Arabic)

Sunah               the Actions and deeds of the Prophet as lesson for Muslims

Surah                Chapter of the Holy Qur’an in Arabic

Qur’an               The Holy Sacred text of the Muslims and the religion of Islam


African Child Policy Forum (ACPF), Overview of legal minimum age at marriage in Africa, prepared for Girls Not Brides

Amina Wadud 1999; Qur’an and Woman Re reading the Sacred text from a woman’s perspective New York Oxford University Press Kindle version location 489 – 93 – 2793

The Holy Qur’an English translation of the meaning and commentary 1411 AH  (1987)

The Gender in Nigeria Report British Council/ UK AID 2012 “″&HYPERLINK “″ID=4604HYPERLINK “″&HYPERLINK “″CATE=1 retrieved Nov 6 2013