Celebrating Womanhood: Diversity of Women in the Quran

I’m single. So what?’

She was clearly irritated. It was the gazillionth time she had to answer the same question, and hear that judgmental tone.

What is so wrong about not getting married? Is life all about marriage and having kids? Is she incomplete just being herself?

Deep inside, she was unsure. She felt vulnerable. Everyone she met hinted at marriage. There must be something wrong with her.

In most traditional societies, a woman is generally and most commonly seen as a mother and wife. Her value, status and reputation are often defined by marital affiliation, family ties and motherhood.

As the majority of men and women, to a large extent, embrace the path of marriage and raising children, being different in that sense can be rather painful.

The rule however does not apply to men in the same way as it does to women. Single men are more readily accepted but single, unmarried women are constantly questioned and judged.

Society on the other hand tends to make generalized statements and over simplify the subject, which in reality can be more complex than what it superficially appears.

As a consequence, women who are unmarried or still are in search of marriage partners often feel like they are under constant scrutiny, and that they owe people around an explanation.

These result in a lot of unnecessary mental torture and embarrassment, which sometimes end up in broken friendships and damaged family ties.

Women and Diversity

Just as the human race is diverse, so are women. While it is true that many women choose to be mothers and wives, it is wrong to impose a similar expectation on all women.

Even among mothers and wives themselves, they can be very different from each other and might play many roles other than those of a mother or a wife.

The problem arises when society and cultural norms hastily conclude that a woman is incomplete, less worthy or abnormal until she is married. Even marriage at times does not solve things for her, as she is expected to embrace motherhood and then to give birth to children of both genders.

Women have been mothers throughout history without doubt, for men can almost never contribute to childbirth and motherhood.

However, with modernization, women’s traditional roles as mothers and wives are increasingly being challenged. Two groups have emerged as a result, each with its own extreme ideas and beliefs.

The first group resists any kinds of change; they insist that women have to remain mothers and wives or this world will be corrupted. They tend to deny the existence of other roles and functions that women can play.

The second group on the other hand is desperate to renounce the idea of marriage and motherhood completely, for they see these two as impediments to women’s liberty and advancement.

The Qur’anic Approach

The narratives in the Quran are the best evidence of how God himself acknowledges and celebrates the diversity of women and their roles. Contrary to what many contemporary Muslim societies often culturally dictate, Qur’anic verses debunk those myths.

The Quran has taken a delicately balanced approach as it narrates a number of stories in which women are not depicted as mainly mothers or wives but as free individuals whose merit are not related to the two traditional roles.

Maryam was described as a devout, obedient and chaste person who dedicated her whole life to the worship of God. Pharaoh’s wife was an influential figure in her husband’s administrative affairs who later challenged his authority.

Aziz’s wife was portrayed as a clever and cunning individual who knew how to plot and convince people. Hajar (Ibrahim’s wife) though not mentioned directly, was the founder of Makkah. 

The Queen of Sheba was characterized by her political capabilities, intellect and grace. The two daughters of Shuaib were the caretakers of their father and performed duties, which at that time were dominated by men.

Khadijah’s story though not explicitly narrated in the Qur’an, is widely known. She was a successful businesswoman and merchant. Khaulah (Prophet’s companion) was a warrior who fought in battles.

While some female figures in the holy book and history were indeed described as wives and mothers, others were described in such a manner that gives little attention to their personal lives or domestic identities; rather the real focus was on themselves as independent humans who act freely and are not bound by conventional gender stereotypes.

Evidence 1: The Story of Maryam

Maryam (Mary) is inarguably one of the most revered women in history.  In the chapter of Maryam, God ascertains her high status and praiseworthiness.

Interestingly, her prominence and special place was not a result of her getting pregnant and giving birth to Jesus. The repeated mention of her high rank is attributed solely to her devotion, faith, purity and chastity.

Even though there is a mention of her parents (Imran and wife) and her son Jesus, the actual gist of her story revolves around her faith and perseverance.

Maryam was not defined by her parents, or Jesus, or the need for a spouse. In fact, the Quran completely omits any historical accounts on her marital life (which are debated by some historians) to show that what really matters is her belief and actions, not her marital or social status.

Evidence 2: The story of Pharaoh’s wife (Asiyah)

Asiyah’s name is not mentioned in the Qur’an, but her story is so powerful that it has triggered fierce debates among scholars and historians to this day. The Qur’anic narration of her journey conveys a clear message of how a woman is not defined by her husband’s faith and practices.

Asiyah was portrayed as an independent and free woman because despite her marriage to Pharaoh, she whole-heartedly rejected his claims and authority. Pharaoh’s love and wealth could not buy her heart.

She became a hero in the story for two reasons: first, she saved Moses’ life after he was thrown into the river, and persuaded Pharaoh to adopt him

Unlike the stereotypical image of Muslim women who are often perceived as passive and submissive to their husbands’ will and orders, Asiyah proved exactly the opposite.

She took the first step to adopt Moses, cared for him, and later rejected her husband’s tyranny and blasphemy. She sought liberty from being affiliated to her husband through her famous supplication, which was beautifully carved in the Qur’an (66: 11).

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About Raudah Mohd Yunus
Raudah Mohd Yunus is a researcher, writer and social activist based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Her research interests include aging, elder abuse, human trafficking and refugees health. She is the editor of two books; ‘Tales of Mothers: Of courage and love’ and ‘Displaced and Forgotten: Memoirs of refugees.’