Defending the spiritual, social, economic and political status of women in Islam, Tahani Al-Salhi, the Director of Cultural Resources from the Petra Archeological Park in Jordan, addressed women’s cultural and doctrinal role in one of the world’s largest religions.
PROVO, Utah (March 5, 2015)— If there is one conversation in which Tahani Al-Salhi is well versed, it’s the conversation on being a working woman in Islam.
After completing her university studies in 1993 at the University of Jordan, Tahani Al-Salhi moved to southern Jordan to work at a village municipality as an engineer. In 1996 she married, and over the next several years she and her husband had four children. As a wife and mother, she began working as a civil engineer at the Petra ArcheologicalPark, one of the most famous archeological sites in the world, and in 2009, she became the park’s director of cultural resources. With her work, she has traveled throughout the world to countries like France, Japan, Turkey and the United States.
Al-Salhi acknowledged that “the status of women in society is neither a new issue nor is it a fully settled one,” and she remarked that the specific subject of women in Islam is presented, especially to Westerners, with very little objectivity.
“The teachings of Islam are based essentially on the Quran, or God’s revelation, and Hadith, or elaboration by the Prophet Muhammad,” Al-Salhi said. “The Quran and the Hadith provide the basic source of authentication for any position or view which is attributed to Islam.”
Only in understanding this, she said, can we be contextually prepared to ask major questions such as: What is the position of Islam regarding the status of woman in society? How similar or different is that position from “the spirit of the time,” which was dominant when Islam was revealed? How does this compare with rights that women have gained in recent decades?
“At a time when the rest of the world – from Greece and Rome to India and China – considered women as no better than children, or even slaves, with no rights whatsoever, Islam acknowledged women’s equality with men in a great many respects,” Al-Salhi said.
The Quran states: “And among His signs is this: that He created mates for you from yourselves that you may find rest and peace of mind in them, and He ordained between you love and mercy” (Quran 30:21), and the Prophet Muhammad said: “The most perfect in faith amongst believers is he who is best in manners and kindest to his wife.”
“Before marriage, a woman has the right to choose her husband,” Al-Salhi said. “Islamic law is very strict regarding the necessity of having the woman’s consent for marriage, and she keeps her own family name rather than taking her husband’s.” Additionally, Muslim women have the right to seek divorce and custody of young children.
Women and men have the same rights and obligations to receive education, as articulated in Muhammad’s statement: “Seeking knowledge is mandatory for every believer.”
“Women have the right to be educated and to work outside the home if she so chooses,” Al-Salhi said. She went on to say that Islam employs no policy forbidding women from seeking employment whenever there is a necessity for it.
Women throughout the history of the world (even up to the 21st century) have largely been denied the right of independent ownership. “According to Islamic Law, a woman’s right to her money, real estate or other properties is fully acknowledged. This right undergoes no change whether she is single or married, and she retains her full rights to buy, sell, mortgage or lease any or all her properties,” Al-Salhi said.
One of the main questions that Al-Salhi hears about being a woman in Islam is why Islam mandates that women wear the hijab, or the veil covering the head, neck and chest.
Initially, Al-Salhi said that Islam introduced the hijab to establish “decency in interaction between members of the opposite sex.” She clarified that the wearing of the hijab, like many cultural practices in Islam, varies from area to area.
“In the United States and other Western nations, women’s head covering takes on a very different meaning,” Al-Salhi said. “It is one thing to wear a scarf and abaya [a black robe-like dress] in Saudi Arabia where such dress is compulsory.” Women’s dress and covering standards are quite another thing, Al-Salhi asserted, in Egypt or Kuwait, where women’s dress spans the range from fully covered – including face veil and gloves – to chic and potentially revealing skirts and jeans.
“Many non-Muslims believe that Muslim women are oppressed by their religion, forced to cover themselves completely and denied education and other basic rights,” Al-Salhi said. “It is true that Muslim women, like women all over the world, have struggled against inequality and restrictive practices in education, work force participation and family roles. These issues do not come from Islam itself, but are part of local cultural traditions.”
Al-Salhi’s argued that the issues facing the majority of Muslim women around the world today are the same issues facing the majority of women everywhere: poverty, illiteracy and political repression. The real equality granted to women in Islam comes from adherence to Islam’s doctrinal claims instead of compliance with cultural norms.
—Danielle Chelom Leavitt (B.A. Russian ’15)