Women suffered great injustices in the pagan Arab society and were exposed to diverse kinds of humiliation prior to the mission of the Messenger of Allah (Peace be upon Him). They were treated like material property to be disposed of at the whim of the male guardian. They were not entitled to inherit from their parents or husbands. Arabs believed inheritance should only be granted to those who had martial abilities, like being able to ride a horse, fight, gain war booties and help protect the tribe and clan territory.
Since women in the pagan Arab society did not generally have these qualities, they were themselves inherited like any moveable commodity after the death of an indebted husband. If the deceased husband had adult sons from other marriages, the oldest son amongst them had the right to add her to his household, just as a son inherits other chattels of his deceased father. She was unable to leave the house of her stepson unless she paid a ransom. As a general practice, men had the freedom to acquire as many wives as they desired with no set limits. There was no system of law and justice that would forbid a man from committing any injustice towards his wives. Women had no right to choose, or even consent to being chosen as a partner for marriage; they were simply given away. Women were forbidden to remarry if a husband divorced them.
In the pre-Islamic era of Arabia, fathers commonly became extremely angry and disgraced with the birth of a female child into their family. Some considered it an evil omen. Allah, the Exalted, describes the father’s reception of the news about the birth of a daughter:
(When the news of (the birth of) a female is brought to any of them, his face becomes dark, and he is filled with inward grief! He hides himself from the people because of the evil (and shame) of that which he has been informed. Shall he keep her with dishonor, or bury her in the dirt? Certainly, evil is their decision…)
[The Holy Quran, 16:59]
Women were not even able to practice some of the most natural of rights. For instance eating certain types of foods was allowed only for males. Allah, the Exalted, records this in the Glorious Qur’an:
(And they say: What is in the bellies of such cattle (whether milk or fetus) is for the male alone, and forbidden from our females, however, if it was born dead, then all have shares therein…)
[The Holy Quran, 6:139]
The hatred of female babies prompted Arabs to bury them alive. Allah, the Exalted, states in the Glorious Qur’an with reference to the Day of Requital:
(And when the female buried alive shall be questioned: for what sin was she killed?)
[The Holy Quran, 81:8-9]
Some fathers used to bury their female children alive if the child was leprous, lame or with birth defect. Allah (The Almighty) states in the Glorious Qur’an:
(And kill not your children for fear of poverty. We provide for them and you. Surely, the killing of them is a great sin.)
[The Holy Quran, 17:31]
The one honor afforded to women during the pre-Islamic era was the protection of her person, family and tribe, and the revenge against any who humiliated or dishonored her, but even this was more for male pride, dignity and tribal honor than a concern for the female gender.
This situation of women in the Arab society led Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second Caliph of the Muslims (may Allah exalt their mention) to say, as reported by Muslim:
“By Allah, we didn’t use to think that women had anything until Allah revealed about them what He revealed in the Qur’an, and distributed to them what He distributed…”
[Sahih Bukhari #4629 & Muslim #31]