The Burkini Ban, Women’s Rights, and Prophet Muhammad’s Way

Originally published in Muftah

After intense international pressure, France’s highest court overturned the “Burkini” ban on Friday, August 26, 2016. Before the move, over a dozen French cities had banned the burkini. Most recently, armed officers forced a Muslim woman to dress down under threat of pepper spray and arrest, essentially criminalizing modesty.

That this act of forced uncovering occurred in the first place—it is not the first time France and the EU have legislated a woman’s attire—is indicative of a wider global problem, namely, the systemic mistreatment of women as second-class citizens.

This misogyny manifests itself in numerous ways and in varying degrees. In America, for example, 97% of rapists receive no punishment for their crimes. Far from an isolated data point, the broader statistics on violence against women in the United States are shocking—every nine seconds a woman in America is beaten, one in four women will suffer domestic violence, and one thousand women are murdered annually due to domestic violence. Overall, violence against women is the leading cause of injury to American women.

In India, “nearly 1 in 10 child deaths under the age of 1 can be attributed to domestic violence against the mother during the marriage.” Remedying these atrocities requires a significant shift in attitudes. The BBC reports that over 300,000 crimes against women take place annually in India, and that, “more than 54% of men and 51% of women said it was okay for a man to beat his wife.”

France does not fare much better, as at least one woman is murdered every two days due to domestic violence. An astounding 100% of Parisian women surveyed have reported that they have suffered sexual harassment in public. Most recently, seventeen female French politicians filed a joint complaint, alleging sexual harassment and violence, verbal harassment, touching, grabbing, molestation, and beatings at the hands of male French politicians.

In China, experts estimate that more than one in four women are beaten by men; the extent of domestic violence is likely even worse than these statistics suggest, due to low reporting particularly from rural areas. China has been slow to respond to these violations, passing its first law criminalizing domestic violence in March 2016.

Overall, the World Health Organization reports that 35% of women worldwide—over 1 billion women—face some sort of violence from men.

The remedy to this ongoing violence against women does not lie only in educating women about their rights—but also in educating men about women’s rights. It is not a matter of teaching women how to avoid rape or violence or forcing women to dress a certain way—but in teaching men not to rape, commit violence, or infringe on a woman’s right to self-determination.

While many unjustifiably malign Islam for its so-called oppression of women, it is, in fact, Prophet Muhammad’s practices that can help stop the endemic violence against women worldwide, because of its capacity to tackle the real cancer perpetuating ongoing violence against women—authoritarian men.

In analyzing how the Taliban and groups like it misrepresent Islam, a State Department report concluded that, “Islam has a tradition of protecting the rights of women and children. In fact, Islam has specific provisions, which define the rights of women. The Taliban’s version of Islam is not supported by the world’s Muslims.”

Verse ‪4:20 of the Qu’ran commands men, “do not inherit women against their will,” clarifying that a man has no right to force himself or his views on a woman—she maintains her right to self-determination. Similarly, Prophet Muhammad’s categorical condemnation of rape sets a clear rule to be followed; when a woman reported that a man had raped her, the Prophet believed her on her testimony alone and punished the rapist.[1]

When it comes to respecting a woman’s body, Prophet Muhammad warned men, “For one of you to be stabbed in the head with an iron needle is better for him than that he should touch a woman who is not permissible for him,”[2] i.e. anyone but his wife. And as clarified in the Qur’an, a woman, even in relation to her husband, maintains self-determination over her body.

The Qur’an also obliges men to follow a detailed de-escalation process to prevent them from physically harming women. And while the Qur’an admonishes women to observe modesty, invoking the example of Mary Mother of Jesus, it commands men not to stare lustfully at women. Accordingly, when Prophet Muhammad saw one of his companions staring at an attractive woman, he did not tell the woman to ‘cover up,’ but instead obliged his companion to stop staring.

Recently His Holiness the Khalifa of Islam, the spiritual and administrative head of the worldwide Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Mirza Masroor Ahmad, delivered an internationally broadcast sermon admonishing men who objectify and oppress women:

Men should remember that they have not been given powers to police others and should restrain themselves. Men are commanded to restrain their eyes; they should fulfill their own obligations. There is not even any commandment to forcibly cover the heads of Muslim women, let alone non-Muslim women. It is men like these who have hardline ideas.

Hijab bans and veil bans are symptomatic of widespread violence against women, in both the East and West. This violence will stop only when men—from all walks of life, all over the world—take the lead in ending this cancer. The true model of Islam, embodied by the actions and teachings of Prophet Muhammad, obliges men to take ownership over their actions and treatment of women.

If we are serious about ending violence against women, Prophet Muhammad’s model is the best place to start.


[1] Imam Muhammad ibn ‘Isa Tirmidhi, “Chapter 22, #1453, #1454” in Jami’ Tirmidhi vo. 3, (Karachi: Darul Ishaat Urdu Bazaar, 2007), 620.

[2] Narrated by al-Tabaraani in al-Kabeer, 486. Shaykh al-Albaani said in Saheeh al-Jaami’, 5045. 

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