JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA — Outsiders may see Islam as unkind to women, but its prophet seemed to respect them. Women shaped Muhammad's life and the instructions he brought from God were a boon to women of the day.
The Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century was not an easy place for women when Islam took root there. They were seen as chattel and traded as war booty. The Koran gave them rights to education, satisfaction in marriage, divorce, property ownership, and an inheritance. English women would wait another 1,100 years before gaining similar property rights.
After a large battle widowed many women, the prophet had a revelation allowing a man to take as many as four wives, if he could treat them equally. A later revelation released Muhammad from the four-wife limit and his wives led active lives. Some worked, others dispensed religious advice, and a few went into battle as nurses and water carriers. But spiteful talk about them plagued the prophet's community.
God soon told Muhammad to shroud his wives, instructing followers who thronged the prophet's house to "speak to them from behind a curtain." In Muhammad's lifetime, this rule applied only to his wives, to protect their position and the new faith. But over time the custom came to apply to all women and spread along with Islam, often because it coincided with veiling practices in places like Persia.
"Many of the sayings about women were about respecting the private life of the prophet from floods of visitors," says Abubaker Bagader, a sociology professor at Jeddah's King Abdul Aziz University. "Later, they were transformed into something else. It's clear that in the prophet's day, women led very public lives."
Even so, the Koran states that "men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other." Muslims believe that these words, as all in the Koran, come directly from God and are beyond debate. But interpretations differ widely. Conservatives and many women see this verse through different prisms.
"Basically, it means that since men are stronger than women they have to protect and support them," explains Abeer Mishkhas, a Jeddah-based journalist. "This is not always understood by men."
If the Koran is beyond debate, the hadith, anecdotal sayings about the prophet, are not. Muslims scrutinize these accounts so they can emulate the prophet, but historically there has been disagreement over their validity and interpretation.
These debates produced different theories about which behaviors are forbidden, necessary, commendable, or discouraged. With 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide today, these variations - and cultural differences - make for great diversity in the way Islam is lived.
It helps explain why countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Taliban's Afghanistan can all claim the imprimatur of holy law and yet treat their women differently. Iranian women can drive, work in a mixed office, and attend mixed university lectures. Saudi women cannot. Iranian women play active social roles as civil servants, teachers, doctors, and engineers - a profession closed to Saudi women.
The Taliban discouraged women from leaving the house. But more than 3 million Afghanis have sought refuge in Iran in the last few decades, giving Iranian women a close look at another way of life under Islam. "If they're with their man, they will not speak," says a Tehran-based journalist of Afghani women. "It makes Iranian women feel like they're on Planet Liberated."