Growing up I read stories about inspirational women, who ruled over kingdoms, created legislation, established schools and universities and moulded the minds of the future, and there was one thing that they all had in common; they were Muslim women.
Independent Muslim women have achieved great milestones throughout history and continue to break social barriers by using their beliefs as a source of empowerment. It is horrifying to see young Muslim women join extremist groups as 'Jihadi Brides,' naively embracing a life of subjugation and abuse. Their immature decisions whitewash the memory and efforts of countless Muslim women and global organisations that are fighting for a life away from such violence. It's an insult to women all over and an insult to Islam; a religion that renounced local pagan customs that buried unwanted baby girls alive. It gave them the right to life, a right to inheritance, an education, the right to a divorce, to participate in civic and political engagement and the right to vote.
The greatest embodiment of these values can be seen in Khadija, the wife of the Prophet Muhammad and the first person to accept the message of Islam. Although she lived in a culture dominated by male chauvinism, Khadijah earned two titles: Ameerat Quraish, (Princess of Quraish), and at-Tahira (the Pure One) due to her personality, virtuous character and prestigious heritage.
Following the demise of her father she took charge of the family business and became one of the elite figures of Mecca. It was thought that when the Quraysh's trade caravans gathered on their journey to Syria or Yemen, Khadija's caravans equalled all of the other caravans put together. Her business was so vast that she often employed others to trade on her behalf, and in fact she hired the Prophet Muhammad as a trader. She was so impressed by his honesty and good work that she sent a proposal of marriage to him. She was 40 at the time and 15 years his senior. They were married for 25 years. She was the only wife to bear him children and it was only through their daughter Fātima that the lineage of the Prophet was continued through her sons, al Hasan and al Husayn.
Khadija spent her wealth helping the poor and the destitute. When the Prophet Muhammad first received the message of Islam it was Khadija who encouraged him to leave the business and preach full time. She financially supported him and when he faced great persecution protected him with her political power and influence. Her constant encouragement helped the Prophet spread the message of Islam. She faced persecution and hate for her beliefs but she was never deterred from the cause. She died in 620 CE which was marked by the Prophet as the "year of sorrow." Her memory was revered by the Prophet for the rest of his life and he consistently held her up to both men and women as a model of courage, virtue and devotion to family and God.
Her intelligence, courage and determination inspired countless Muslim women who went on to rule over kingdoms and change the face of history. Fatima Muhammad Al-Fihri was responsible for creating the first institution that granted academic degrees in the world, the University of Qarawiyyin in Fes, Morocco. Today the Guinness Book of World Records recognises the university to be the oldest continuous institution of higher learning in the world. Sultan Raziyya was the sultan of Delhi. She famously refused to be addressed as Sultana because it meant "wife or mistress of a Sultan" and therefore only answered to the title of "Sultan" and even dressed like a man. Nana Asma'u was a princess, poet, and teacher and is also considered the founder of modern feminism in Africa. In 1830, she formed a group of female teachers who journeyed through Nigeria to educate women in deprived rural regions.
Since 1988 Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Mali, Senegal, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan and Turkey have been led at some point, by a Muslim woman president or prime minister. We have also seen Muslim women travel to space, excel in all fields of critical thinking and become global advocates for equal rights and education. Malala Yousafzai has become a great activist for women's education after being shot by gunmen for publishing a diary about life under the Taliban rule. She is now a Nobel Peace Prize recipient and a global leader for equal rights in education: "Once I had asked God for one or two extra inches in height, but instead he made me as tall as the sky, so high that I could not measure myself."
These women are a living testament that Islam encourages the development of free thinking independent women. They are the role models that should motivate the future generation of young Muslims, to work towards inspired change rather than fall in to the trap of extremists and their gross manipulation of Islam. Unfortunately these attitudes are further reinforced when we see a number of Muslim countries that enforce prohibitions on women that have no valid justification in Islam. If women like Khadija could independently run their own business empires 1400 years ago why would it be acceptable to suppress women to the point that they are unable to drive a car or even do basic errands without supervision? Women in the 21st century are still fighting for equal rights even in the developed west, but through the tireless efforts of inspiring women across the world the bridge of equality is growing ever stronger. Women in the Middle East face great challenges but with brave determination and inspiration from their history, modern day Khadijas are pushing forward and are slowly making progress against outdated cultural and traditional oppression.