Women as Stairways to Heaven by Jameelah X. Medina

In mainstream Islam, the ways and sayings of Prophet Muhammad are second in importance only to the Qur’an. There are two prophetic sayings pften quoted when speaking about the high status of women in Islam: 1) “Whoever has two daughters and treats them kindly, they will be a protection for him against the Fire;” and “Paradise lies beneath her [the mother’s] feet.”  These sayings influenced a growingly famous Islamic scholar who stated, “When she is a daughter, she opens a door to jannah [paradise/heaven] for her father. When she is a wife, she completes half of the deen [religion/way of life] of her husband. When she is a mother, jannah lies under her feet. If everyone knew the true status of a Muslim woman in Islam, even the men would want to be women.” This quote is being reposted all over social media sites by both Muslim men and women.

On the surface, the quote is lovely. It works to combat the stereotype of the lowly Muslim woman who has no standing in her religious community. It is posted as proof that women have great status in Islam. However, this quote and the prophetic sayings also have a problematic implication. When I read these quotes, I don’t see them talking about the status of Muslim women. The quotes are very specific and apply ONLY to women who are daughters, women who are wives, and women who are mothers. The implication is that, even though Muslim women and men are from a single soul and have the same essence (the Islamic perspective), women still are not sufficient enough for praise, reverence, and respect just by virtue of being women. They must be some man’s daughter, wife, or mother in order to enjoy elevated status. What does this say to women without fathers, women without husbands, and women without children? It tells them that they have not yet arrived; they are goals yet unrealized. Simply put, they are not enough.

Another problematic implication of these quotes is that the daughter, wife, and mother are not valuable in themselves but only in relation to the men their lives. So, a woman’s elevated status is based on how she helps men; she is a pillar on which they stand to reach the gates of paradise. The father enters paradise because of his daughter, the husband’s religion or way of life is completed because of his wife, and the son’s ability to enter paradise depends on his making his mother happy. How does the daughter, wife, and mother benefit from these arrangements? Or should the fact that she serves an intercessory and intermediary function for men’s spiritual success be benefit enough?

The quotes can be further problematized if we delve into defining what a woman is. Quite clearly, cisgender women have privileges that transgender women do not enjoy, and the mainstream default understanding of the quotes involves cisgender women. I can only wonder how I might make sense of these quotes if I were a transgender daughter to my father, a transgender wife to my husband, a transgender mother or second mother to my child. Would my father, husband, and child still go to heaven through me or would my trans status prevent that?

Many Muslim women may look at these quotes and adore them, but I look at them and see women not as subjects in their own lives but as objects in the lives of men…objects through which heaven is attainable for the men. In the end, the objectification of women is disguised as reverence. Reverence has not avoided objectification and seeing women as tools of spiritual gratification for men. And, too many people in religious communities confuse reverence with respect. On any given day, this Muslim woman would rather be respected than revered in a way that is not attached to my ability or desire to marry or reproduce.

Jameelah X. Medina is a Ph.D. candidate at Claremont Graduate University. She is also an educator, author, orator, and business owner residing in southern California with her husband and daughter. www.jameelahmedina.com She is also a contributor to I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim, a collection of 40 personal essays written by American Muslim women under the age of 40.


Categories: Feminism, Gender and Power, Islam, Women's Agency

Tags: , , , ,

29 replies

  1. Jameelah —

    This is a great post. If I were still teaching Women’s Studies 101, I could use it as a reading that analyzes how in patriarchy women’s status is derived from men. Thanks.


  2. Very interesting. Have the men who keep women in the house, refuse to educate them, and make them wrap up in chadors read these verses? Who defines “modesty”–men or women?


  3. Hi, Barbara:

    Men and women read these sayings. I honestly cannot say if the type of men who keep women locked up at home, refuse them access to education, and force them to cover with chadors, niqabs, hijabs, abayas, jilbabs, etc have read these sayings or even have reflected upon them. There are many prophetic sayings that speak about how a man will be judged by how he treated his wife and that the best of man is the one who is best to his wife in kindness, but that does not stop women-hating men from controlling and abusing the women and girls in their lives.

    As far as who defines modesty… I think that both women and men do. Quranic and hadith interpretations are so influenced by the male gaze that the male opinion holds more weight and is normalized as THE definition. However, both men and women support various meanings of modesty. To some, it is being completely covered, or being covered except face and hands, or being covered up to the forearm and below the knee, or just covering breasts and vagina and penis. It is being silent to some, not making eyes contact, and lots of other meanings. It really just depends. Personally, I do not consider myself very modest and I don’t really care to perform modesty even though people mistake me for a “modest” Muslim woman because I wear a headscarf.

    I hope this answers your questions. Take care.



  4. Daughters, wives and mothers all refer to relationships to men, as if women cannot stand alone without being chained to fathers, brothers and husbands. Even Obama said this during the inaugural speech– the reason men need to treat women as equals was because they were “OUR wives, daughters and mothers,” with emphasis on the male owning “Our.”

    We can read a phrase or two of the Koran or the Hadith, but really, we have to look at actions, and what men actually do in Islam and Christianity. I believe a lesbian Muslim once said that Islam had not had its reformation yet.

    So I like the tributes, but I don’t support that world of wives and mothers. I am no one’s wife or mother. I am a daughter because I was born one, but my father had nothing to do with my life as a radical feminist. I don’t know, women in that construct try their best with it. Good luck.


    • Turtle Woman,

      I totally agree about the use of “our.” Also, you have touched upon the topic I am thinking about for my next post…I’ve spoken about theory on this but want to delve a bit into practice. We’ll see. As far as reformation in Islam. I see it as a slow process that is already underway. Islam is about 579 years younger than Christianity. I believe reformation in Christianity was the 16th century. So, I think Islam is on target with that same timeline. What do you think?


    • Turtle Woman,

      I totally agree about the use of “our.” Also, you have touched upon the topic I am thinking about for my next post…i’ve spoken about theory on this but want to delve a bit into practice. We’ll see. As far as reformation in Islam. I see it as a slow process that is already underway. Islam is about 579 years younger than Christianity. I believe reformation in Christianity was the 16th century. So, I think Islam is on target with that same timeline. What do you think?



  5. I have had a similar reaction to the romanticization of women’s position in these sayings. Thank you for expressing it so eloquently!

    I disagree however about the supposed “privilege” of “cisgender” women, which is not at all “clear.” Across the world, girls work more than boys; play less; eat less; have less mobility, less education, less literacy, less choice, more restraints. They are taught to defer to males and to accept second class status. In Iran trans women retain their (four times greater than females) inheritance received by virtue of being born sons. They are oppressed as trans, yes, but it is gay men who are subject to execution. There are other complexities that the cis/trans framing erases: the man on the street who attacks the gender-non-conforming person doesn’t know if the person identifies as trans, or gay, or butch. He just wants to punish that person for resisting gender conformity. It’s happened to me, and to lesbians i know. Similarly, women born-and-raised are punished all our lives by this gender hierarchy (not just a “binary,” but a system based on colonizing the female). That is not “privilege,” that is oppression.


    • Hi Max,

      Thank you. I also agree with your awesome comment. Maybe in a future post I will compare cisgender female privilege to cisgenderale or even trans privilege. Here, I could have more clearly stated that my argument was only comparing the status of women to other women. And, yes, we are so beyond a binary.


      • Doesn’t islam resemble worship of women’s vagina as a door to allah . Or targeting women’s desire as a sole proprietor ship of islam religion as a duty of men in other ways suppressing exploiting women by 4 marriages and 40 children .


  6. Correction: I miswrote “four times” should have been “two times greater.”

    Hi Jameelah,
    It was clear that you were comparing women to trans women, but my point was that boy-preference is relevant to the life history of trans women when making comparisons of status/privilege. Not that it is the only factor; disdain and violence toward gender-nonconforming people is real, whatever self-identification they make at the time or later in life. Only that socialization is a powerful force, not trumped by self-identity, and the new binary of “cis”/trans obscures more than it explains.

    On the paradise at the feet of mothers, you’ve hit on something that gets raised often as an empty assurance to women. My reaction to that saying is to ask, Is not hell in the hearts of mothers whose husbands unilaterally divorce them, while the various schools of shari’ah assign custody of children (ages vary according to the schools) to the fathers? Such a proverb evades the structural realities of a patrilineal system, where women do not have control even in the sphere assigned to them. I thank you again for lifting the curtain on this discourse.



  7. As salaamu alakium wa rahmatuallahi, your writing is beautiful, masha’Allâh. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this segment. The content of this segment directly relates to the intention of my blog. My goal is to empower Muslim women worldwide. Barak’Allâh feeki


  8. Reblogged this on SAADIQspeaks and commented:
    Subhan’Allâh, a very well written piece from an educated, empowered Muslimah


  9. Reblogged this on poeticlyric and commented:
    A beautiful piece of writing with lots of critical thinking.


  10. Jameelah, you nailed it right. It’s the exact same problem I have, our statutes are conditional to our relationships with men.


  11. Alhamdulillaahi alaa kulli haal… I see it as a caveat for all males and the rest of mankind to value females… the cruelty against daughters; the apathetic treatment against mothers and wives. Perhaps because the caveat is relevant because of the cruelty and apathy against women thrive in this milieu.
    As for those who treat their daughters, mothers, wives compassionately… sustain it! :)
    Daughters, mothers, and wives must strive to deserve being portals and pathways for bliss and Heaven in shaa ALLAH.
    As for daughter without fathers?!? (a resounding interrobang here ;) ) I am appalled. Naudhubillaah.
    In the history of (wo) mankind, only Eve (Hawa) was not fathered… as for the rest of us including test tube / in vitro babies… regardless of gender…. they are all sired… albeit via sperm bank.
    As for sexual orientation and gender inclination issues and concerns well it is between them and their LORD.
    The status of females cannot be denied considering that Adam can never be an island. :)

    I have Allah and Islam to thank for. Allah and Islam have liberated me from the human shackles of oppression and of debilitating ignorance. All Muslims are overwhelmingly humbled that Allah has perfected His Favor upon His creatures by giving to us Islam as ad–deen along with The Prophet as Mercy to Mankind. Indeed, we now have nothing whatsoever to fear except Allah swt. :)

    Allaahu ah’lam


  12. So are you questioning the hadiths and quran or manas they follow religion now a nowadays??????? it seems to me you have a problem with what the prophet has said ??? or Am i misunderstanding your work


  13. Elizabeth, I’m not sure how you came to these conclusions through this piece. Yes, I think you are misunderstanding my work and my points. But it’s ok. Peace and blessings.


  14. Spot on, Jameelah!


  15. So are you implying that there are not enough statements/hadiths by the prophet which don’t elevate women in general to higher degrees/status or do you mean that muslim women should not romanticize about some of the the hadiths that you mentioned because they are not all encompassing of women in general?
    I believe those statements by prophet were said in relation to the female infanticide and the plight of women in general in pre islamic arabia. As islam came men and women were seen as equal before God as the Quran commands. I am not sure why there should have been statements by prophet particularly glorifying the women folk. Anything more than that would have made the situation matriarchal, if you will.


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