As someone who is interested in women & Islam, the situation of women in pre-Islamic Arabia is of special significance. There are basically two main arguments that have been made. One, made usually by Muslims, is that women before Islam were worthless, had no rights, were seen as the property of their husbands, and were usually killed right after birth. The second, made usually by non-Muslims, is that women in pre-Islamic Arabia were much more powerful and autonomous than after Islam. The second argument is quite rare and I don't hear many scholars making it, but it does exist.
One thing people tend to bring up is that Khadija, brought up before Islam, was independent and autonomous. However, to what extent can be extend this to all women of her generation and above? Aisha and Fatima, for example, were also strong-willed and independent, so could we also extend this to all women post-Islam?
Female infanticide should be one great pointer as to how women were seen before Islam. It is a well-accepted fact by most historians and scholars that there were high rates of female infanticide, and that Islam, by banning it, helped reduce the practice tremendously.
Another important point is that women before Islam were seen as part of a larger unit - the family, headed by the father. So even if they had rights regarding their husbands, we should not forget that their fathers still had tremendous say in their lives and how they lived them.
Asma Barlas writes, "A woman in 7th century Arabia could choose/dismiss a husband at will, she remained with her kin after marriage, and her children belonged to her tribe. However, by the time of Islam's advent, women may have become more dependent on men because of "baal" marriages (derived from the Old Testament) that established the husband as the overlord over his wife and the wife as his subject."
So the form of marriage had changed before Islam arrived.
She goes on: "Sexual unions were generally temporary since husbands deserted their wives for years on end and also enjoyed powers of unilateral divorce". A nomadic lifestyle prevented the strict seclusion of women but not all women enjoyed freedom of movement."
"Yet some women were able to exercise influence in public life as priestesses and prophetesses, and they could also take part in warfare by tending the sick and wounded. On the whole, however, women's social place was a function of their class or their own personalities and was not codified in law."
This is an interesting point: women of a certain class did have some freedom, but this did not apply to all women across all classes. Her point about a forceful personality is also important - I think we could apply this to Khadija, if it is true.
"In spite of some freedoms, women could not inherit property but were themselves considered property and could be inherited as part of a dead father's estate by his sons."
In conclusion, I think the reality might be somewhere in between, albeit more to the side of "women in pre-Islamic Arabia were worse off than after Islam". There is definitely a tendency on the part of some Muslims to make the Jahiliyya period (the period before Islam) sound as bad as possible, because this highlights how amazing Islam is; and this makes it difficult to know exactly what the situation then was. On the other hand, there is a tendency by same Western academics to make the period before Islam sound like paradise, thus making it seem as though Islam took rights away from women. While I don't think women were completely downtrodden before Islam, I do believe that Islam gave them more rights and a higher status. This was mainly achieved through the Qur'an recognizing women as equal to men in the realm of faith: men and women who are pious will both go to heaven. It's that simple. In the realm of political/economic rights, there is not full equality, but there are reasons for this, and it also depends on how we define equality and whether or not one takes the context the Qur'an came down to into account.
What do you all think? What is the first image that pops into your head of women in pre-Islamic Arabia? Do you think they were better or worse off?