March 8, 2013 | Ailya Vajid
As women across the globe commemorate International Women’s Day, we recognize great advances in gender equality, as well as the battles that lie ahead. We celebrate the journey women have taken in standing up and campaigning for their rights since the early 1900s. We honor the women of today and of our history (since the beginning of industrialized society) who have championed the cause of women’s equality and rights, and we remember them in each victory and milestone because they stand at its foundational roots. I, too, am grateful to these women and take inspiration from their strength and courage. But like many others, for me this journey begins centuries before the 1908 rally in which 15,000 women marched through New York City advocating for shorter working hours, higher wages, and voting rights. This celebration of the strength and power of women perhaps even predates recorded history. For me, this beauty and power lies in Saraswati, one of the most ancient goddesses still worshiped today, who in the Hindu tradition is the deity of knowledge, music, the arts and science. It was with her knowledge that the universe was created. This light and power is also embodied in Mary, into whom the Divine Breath was blown creating a child, exalting her among the women and men of the world. And it is carried by Khadija bint Khuwaylid, the first wife of the Prophet Muhammad.
While we celebrate all of the women of our past and present, MIIM Designs chooses today to highlight Khadija, who as a woman entrepreneur in pre-Islamic Arabia exemplifies the empowerment of women more than a century before the concept of gender equality even existed. A talented merchant, Khadija inherited both her father’s trade business and his business acumen. It is related that when the Quraysh tribe’s caravans embarked upon their extended trade journeys, Khadija’s caravan equaled the sum of all of the other caravans of the Quraysh combined. In fact, among her titles, Khadija was known as “Amīrat-Quraysh”, or the Princess of the Quraysh. Her talent and expertise caused many highly respected Arabian men to seek her hand in marriage. She was married twice before her marriage to the Prophet Muhammad, and even aided her first husband in his own business endeavors. In a society in which women were perceived as such a financial burden on their parents that many buried their infant daughters, Khadija shattered stereotypes and persevered as a successful businesswoman in a man’s world. She was in fact a pre-modern executive-CEO, hiring reputed employees to trade on her behalf and managing the entire enterprise from her home in Mecca. Trading at extensive distances, Khadija was cognizant of the high risk of dishonesty and fraudulence among her employees and was thus astute in recognizing upright character and honesty, which is what initially drew her to the Prophet Muhammad, who even before his prophethood was known as al-Amīn, or the trustworthy. A leader and an executive in her own right, Khadija continues to be a model for contemporary women who even in the United States are still not always paid equally to their male counterparts, nor are they present in equal numbers to men in business and politics.
In addition to her business talents, Khadija is also remembered for her pure heart, generosity, wisdom and kindness. It is said that Khadija used to feed and clothe the poor, financially assist her relatives, and even provide for the marriages of those in her family who did not have the financial means to marry. Moreover, she married an orphan in a society in which status was earned primarily through tribal affiliation (though even orphaned he was still of the Bani Hashim tribe). Not only did she wed the Prophet Muhammad who came from humble means, but she showed great courage and steadfastness by accepting his message, recognizing his prophethood, and embracing Islam. Khadija was his support, both emotionally and financially. She bravely confronted any opposition to his message and patiently endured the persecution and abuse they faced from the Quraysh nobility and others. In addition to this, she gave freely of her wealth in the spread of Islam, freeing slaves who had embraced the faith and feeding and sheltering the nascent Muslim community. It was in large part her courage and support that enabled the Prophet Muhammad to spread his teachings, even in constant persecution.
A successful businesswoman, a mother, a wife, and a courageous community leader who stood up to abuse even in the severest of conditions, Khadija is a pillar of strength and a model for today’s women and men. A provider for the disadvantaged and a protector of the weak and orphaned, Khadija represents the values we continue to uphold and the realities we seek to realize. Khadija is exemplary not just as a woman but as a human being. She exemplifies great leadership, courage, strength, success, devotion, and compassion, qualities to be revered and emulated by men and women alike, and characteristics essential to the ongoing struggle for gender equality.
MIIM Designs will contribute to this in our own work through the creation of spaces that preserve our environment, are gender equitable, and unite people of diverse faiths and cultures. We will continue to push forward in our efforts for the realization of gender equality in the mosque. And we will strive for gender justice globally, though not at the expense of the diversity and plurality of existing cultures and customs. Please join us in celebrating International Women’s Day; may this day open a new chapter in advancements in education and health and against violence and intolerance for both women and men across the globe.