Imagine a world where women inherit nothing. Imagine a world where women themselves could be inherited, like cattle. That is what the world looked like in the pre-Islamic seventh century Arabian Peninsula, according to most historians of Islam.
Now imagine the revelation of the Qur’an through the Prophet Mohammad and the advent of Islam. Something of a feminist revolution is said to have taken place. Women went from inheriting nothing, to, well, something.
Islam’s laws of inheritance, lauded to have dramatically improved the lives and status of women, provide the clearest, most detailed and most complete legal system the Qur’an has to offer. There are several rules, but I’m only going to concern myself here with one, that, frankly, sums up the sentiment towards women and wealth in Islam beautifully:
“Allah commands you regarding your children. For the male a share equivalent to that of two females.” [Quran 4:11]
Who Inherits What, and Why
Now I know you’re thinking: “Context!” “Context!” “Context!” You’re saying to yourself: “You have to look at Islamic law in its entirety. If you read the Qur’an, you will see that men inherit more because the burden of financial responsibility for women is placed on men. Men have to clothe, feed and pay the rent – for wives, for unwed daughters, unwed sisters, widowed mothers, and orphaned granddaughters. Women are protected. With so much financial responsibility, you should actually feel sorry for men.”
A woman, a delicate flower, has the broad shoulders of a man to protect her from direct sunlight, so that her petals don’t get bruised having to handle dollar bills, or dirhams, or whatever. She doesn’t have to spend her money on anyone unless she chooses to do so, and she can spend it as she pleases – presumably, to make herself pretty. So, let us say a father leaves behind no wife, no parents and no siblings, and only two legitimate children: a brother and a sister. Because, in theory, the brother has to pay his sister’s bills, unless and until she marries, he inherits two times what she inherits. He gets two-thirds of his father’s estate, and she gets one-third.
While some women (and I am not one of them) would argue that this is actually a privilege and lovely in theory, I don’t know any Muslim woman who only has to give as good as she gets. While hundreds of millions of Muslim women around the world inherit one-third, two-thirds of the world’s work is carried on their backs, not the backs of their brothers. And to make matters worse, women make up two-thirds of the world’s poor.
For most Muslim women around the world, the money they have does not pay for up-dos and manicures. It pays for food and shelter, electricity and running water (if and when it is available), for themselves and their families. These women struggle to survive in a world that offers them trafficking, HIV/AIDS, illiteracy, and kids tripping on the high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated fats in the foods they can afford.
We also know money is power. We need only look at the first person to purportedly believe Mohammad was indeed a prophet and not a charlatan or a nut. Khadija bint Khuwaylid, a pre-Islamic Arabian woman, was one of the richest people in the Peninsula. It isn’t known whether she inherited anything from her father, but it is known that her wealth surpassed that of her brothers and husbands. She was widowed twice before she decided she would propose marriage to a younger man, Mohammad, who was penniless and who had worked for her.
Once married she remained the head of her household, did not veil her face or her hair, and had no co-wives. When Mohammad presented her with his blueprint for Islam, Khadija bankrolled it.[i] (Incidentally, the one-third for vaginas inheritance rule was revealed after her death. Read whatever you want into that.)
From Theory to My Life
When my father wanted to punish my mother, he would ignore her. If she seemed unaffected and ignored him back, he withheld money. So, from the age of emancipation I have been all “Independent Woman”, just like Beyoncé – I buy my own diamonds and my own rings. And just like Beyoncé (though sans the need for marriage-identification as Mrs. Carter and the seriously misguided Isabel Marant wedge sneakers), I take it upon myself to create my own wealth, if for no reason other than never, ever wanting to have to call my younger brother and say, “Hey, I need some of that cash mom and dad left you swimming in. You know, the cash you’re the custodian of just in case I ever needed to become your ward?”
That same brother who will be rewarded for simply having a sack of balls was not raised to be philanthropic to the tune of two-thirds. He was never encouraged to say, “Here, sit and relax. Give me that feather duster. You take the remote control while I do two-thirds of the housework.” I remember cleaning my parents’ house thinking, “Wow – I’m doing all the housework in this house, slowing down its wear and tear, so that some day, my brother will inherit two-thirds of it.”
When my husband died nine years ago, no “responsible for me” Muslim man was banging down my door with offers to tend to my home while I went to work. No “responsible for me” Muslim man was banging down my door at work offering to take over so I could go home and be with my son. No one gave me a check to pay my rent. No one offered to make casseroles or do the ironing. I was the wife, so, ipso facto, I didn’t need one. I became husband and wife, mother and father, man and woman. And life became very expensive.
My experience got me thinking. When a wife or mother dies, everyone starts to hyperventilate. Who will prepare meals and do all that laundry? Who will pick up kids from school, help with homework, shuttle them from track to piano, from choir to play-dates? Who will wash the dirty dishes piling in the sink and make sure the bathroom isn’t a cesspool of fecal strep? Who will sew on the buttons that have fallen from the cuffs of the poor, grieving husband’s shirts just like the tears that well in his eyes and plop to the floor as he too looks around himself and wonders, shit, who is going to do all the stuff she used to do? People will be quick to rally around him, so he isn’t left wondering for long. Women jump in and take on more unpaid work so the husband has as seamless a transition as possible from husbandry to bachelorhood, without having to blow a chunk of his two-thirds on hired help.
A Thought Experiment in Thirds
“Because men are financially responsible…” has been bellowed at me for as long as I can remember and left me with a permanent case of misogynistic earworm. But, no matter how many times you say it, it doesn’t make it so. It also doesn’t quite work unless it’s one-third everywhere, all the time, with all things. So, when a woman in Saudi Arabia is caught stealing, she should only risk one-third of her right hand being cut off. Not all of it. Two-thirds should come from her guardian.
If she has no male guardian and she has to rely on her one-third, she should only have to pay one-third of the taxes a man has to pay in Morocco, her bus fare should be one-third that of a man’s in Mali, and she should only have to pay one-third of the tuition that men pay to go to university in Iran. Her traffic violations in Egypt should be cheaper, so should her food, and if someone slips on her bathroom floor because of her negligence, well, the invalid should sue her male guardian for two-thirds’ of the damages.
What if women withheld in kind contributions as well – those things no one thinks matter to a country’s GDP, its economic growth, or its citizens’ quality of life. You know, all that work women do for free. What if women volunteered at Iraq’s museums and Croatia’s soup kitchens for only one-third of the time and effort they do now? What if women decided to spend only a third of their day in Tahrir Square and left the task of bringing down Hosni Mubarak’s regime to the men? What if when treating the injured, Libyan women doctors and nurses in field hospitals in Benghazi stopped after treating one-third of the patients dying in front of them? Women did not withhold services and resources. They gave 100 per cent, and they were treated accordingly. There was no two-thirds slack when women dodged rubber bullets in Turkey’s Taksim Square, or tear gas canisters fired into crowds in Bahrain. Women were treated as equal. There could be no two-thirds slack, because as we all know, revolutionary work is unpaid work, and who does unpaid work better than women?
A world where men are financially responsible for women is the stuff of fantasy, and real life is much more Brecht than Disney. What Muslim women do is subsidize male privilege. A woman is not only expected to iron the shirt on her husband’s back; she has also most likely paid for half of it.
It’s time women changed this, either by withholding as much as is withheld from them or by demanding reparations for all the free, unpaid labor they have done.
If a mosque is going to designate an upstairs prayer area for women the size of a vestibule, then don’t pass me the donation box so you can re-carpet the entire mosque. I won’t be making a contribution. Not even a commensurate one-third. I’ll be dipping my hands into it to supplement my one-third inheritance, so I don’t starve in my old age.
If women get one-third, then imagine a world that only gets one-third out of us. Then imagine a world going to shit.
[i] Hassan, Riaz. Islam and Society, Sociological Explorations, Melbourne University Publishing 2013