One of the biggest misconceptions about Islam is about its treatment of women. No true Muslim will deny that there are barbarous customs and laws that mistreat women in many so-called Islamic countries. However, it is important to understand the difference between what comes from Islam or Shariah and that which comes from a sinful, backwards view on the equality of the sexes. In fact, almost every case of mistreatment of women in Arab countries is completely against the literal teachings of Islam and the precepts of Shariah. These kinds of customs usually are derived from pre-Islamic practices in a tribal society which has refused to abandon their old ways completely. This is almost certainly due to a deeply entrenched patriarchal society.
When looking at what the Quran and Prophet actually say about gender equity, the results are actually quite progressive, especially considering the society that existed in the Prophet's own time. In true Islam, women are individuals with their own rights. Unlike the practices of many Arab countries, the Quran teaches that women can own property and earn a salary. In fact, the example of the women surrounding the Prophet himself is enlightening – accomplished, wealthy, educated women, through their own means. In Shariah, a woman keeps her own family name and is especially protected against violence or mistreatment.
One aspect of Muslims that helps perpetuate the misconception that Islam mistreats women is the image of a woman covered from head to toe in a long, oppressive veil. It is important to understand that the Quran and the Prophet only requires Muslims to dress modestly, both men and women. While the burka and similar items of clothing are widely used, it is important to understand that these derive from cultural practices and are not specifically enforced by Islam itself. Many women consider these kinds of garments as a way to express their faith and identity as Muslims. However, these kinds of practices are similar to the ways in which many Catholics express their devotion to God through self-sacrifice.
Another common misconception of the way Islam treats women is related to aspects of marriage and divorce. In some countries, like Saudi Arabia, forced marriages are commonplace, and there are even cases of grown, older men marrying underage girls. The Quran clearly teaches that these practices are wrong. In Islam, marriage is a legal contract which both parties must enter voluntarily. Divorce is also permissible and, according to the teachings of the Quran and the Prophet, there can be no coercion in matters of marriage. The practices of arranged marriages and underage marriages are derived from a perverted cultural tradition – the very cultural tradition that the Prophet fought against in his own time.
-- Al Arabiya Digital