At the time of its establishment, Islam constituted a truly progressive force regarding women’s rights, including ending the practice of female infanticide. Many of the rights granted to women in Islam were not granted to Western women until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For example, only with the adoption of the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882 in Britain were married women there given the right to own and manage their own property. Women in Switzerland were given the right to vote only in 1974; and, as late as the mid 1970s, state law in both Alabama and Kentucky prohibited married women from selling or leasing their separate real property without their husbands’ written approval. Under Islamic law, women have always held the right to own property, enter contracts, and conduct business independently of men, although the patriarchal nature of society in some Muslim countries may limit the extent to which women actually exercise there rights.
The unrestrained polygamy of pre-Islamic Arabia was restricted by the Quran, but not prohibited altogether in order to allow flexibility in times of war when the male population might decrease significantly. Under Islamic law, a man can have up to four wives at one time, provided that he treat each equally, although the Quran specifies that monogamy is preferable. Polygamy has been generally rejected by recent generations in most Muslim countries, and it is outlawed altogether in some.
The Quran also provides directives for the distribution of inheritance. There are differences among various Islamic schools of law regarding inheritance, but in general, wives and daughters of a deceased man inherit half as much as his sons. If there are no sons, the daughters may be to share the estate with other male relatives. These terms reflect the requirement under Islamic law that men provide for any unmarried or widowed women in the family as well as for parents and grandparents who are no longer self-supporting.
Many claim that these elements of Islamic law are no longer appropriate for today’s society, and some countries have modified laws of personal status in order to strengthen women’s rights. Others resist such change, claiming that the will of God as reflected in the Quran should be immutable.