Religion Wiki

The study of women in Islam investigates the role status of women within the religion of Islam.[1] The complex relationship between women and Islam is defined by both Islamic texts and the history and culture of the Muslim world.[2]

Sharia (Islamic law) provides for differences between women's and men's roles, rights, and obligations. Majority Muslim countries give women varying degrees of rights with regards to marriage, divorce, civil rights, legal status, dress code, and education based on different interpretations. Scholars and other commentators vary as to whether they are just and whether they are a correct interpretation of religious imperatives. Conservatives argue that differences between men and women are due to different status and responsibilities assigned in the Koran,[3] while liberal Muslims, Muslim feminists, and others argue in favor of other interpretations. Some women have achieved high political office in Muslim majority states.[4]

A 2007 Gallup poll appeared to demonstrate that the majority of Muslims (both men and women) in both Muslim-majority countries (Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia) and non-Muslim countries (France, Germany, United Kingdom and United States), support women having equal rights, both socially and politically. This assertion is complicated by the condition that a woman must conform to certain Islamic rules. These include the conditions that the women keeps her own earnings and also share half her husband's earnings.[5]

Sources of influence

Islamic law is the product of Quranic guidelines, as understood by Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), as well as of the interpretations derived from the traditions of Prophet Muhammad (hadith), that were agreed upon by majority of Muslim scholars as authentic beyond doubt based on the Science of Hadith[6][2] These interpretations and their application were shaped by the historical context of the Muslim world at the time they were written.[2] Many of the earliest writings were from a time of tribal warfare which could have been inappropriate for the 21st Century.

The Marxist writer, Valentine M. Moghadam argues that the position of women are mostly influenced by the extent of urbanization, industrialization, proletarization and political ploys of the state managers rather than culture or intrinsic properties of Islam; Islam, Moghadam argues, is neither more nor less patriarchal than other world religions especially Hinduism, Christianity and Judaism.[7][8]

Early costumes of Arab women.

Early historical background

To evaluate the effect of Islam on the status of women, many writers have discussed the status of women in pre-Islamic Arabia, and their findings have been mixed.[9] Some writers have argued that women before Islam were more liberated drawing most often on the first marriage of Muhammad and that of Muhammad's parents, but also on other points such as worship of female goddesses at Mecca.[9] Other writers, have argued that women's status in pre-Islamic Arabia was poor, citing practices of female infanticide, unlimited polygyny, patrilineal marriage and others.[9]

Islam changed the structure of Arab society and to a large degree unified the people, reforming and standardizing gender roles throughout the region, whether through coersion or assimilation. According to Islamic studies professor William Montgomery Watt, Islam improved the status of women by "instituting rights of property ownership, inheritance, education and divorce."[10]

Some have argued that in terms of women's rights, women generally had fewer legal restrictions under Islamic law than they did under certain Western legal systems until the 20th century. For example, restrictions on the legal capacity of married women under French law were not removed until 1965.[11]

Early reforms under Islam

During the early reforms under Islam in the 7th century, reforms in women's rights affected marriage, divorce and inheritance.[12] Women were not accorded with such legal status in other cultures, including the West, until centuries later.[13] The Oxford Dictionary of Islam states that the general improvement of the status of Arab women included prohibition of female infanticide and recognizing women's full personhood.[14] "The dowry, previously regarded as a bride-price paid to the father, became a nuptial gift retained by the wife as part of her personal property."[12][15]

Under Islamic law, marriage was no longer viewed as a "status" but rather as a "contract", in which the woman's consent was imperative.[12][14][15] "Women were given inheritance rights in a patriarchal society that had previously restricted inheritance to male relatives."[12] Annemarie Schimmel states that "compared to the pre-Islamic position of women, Islamic legislation meant an enormous progress; the woman has the right, at least according to the letter of the law, to administer the wealth she has brought into the family or has earned by her own work."[16]

William Montgomery Watt states that Muhammad, in the historical context of his time, can be seen as a figure who promoted women’s rights and improved things considerably. Watt explains: "At the time Islam began, the conditions of women were terrible - they had no right to own property, were supposed to be the property of the man, and if the man died everything went to his sons." Muhammad, however, by "instituting rights of property ownership, inheritance, education and divorce, gave women certain basic safeguards."[17]

During his life, Muhammad married twelve women depending upon the differing accounts of who were his wives.[18][19][20][21]

Female education

Women played an important role in the foundation of many Islamic educational institutions, such as Fatima al-Fihri's founding of the University of Al Karaouine in 859. This continued through to the Ayyubid dynasty in the 12th and 13th centuries, when 160 mosques and madrasahs were established in Damascus, 26 of which were funded by women through the Waqf (charitable trust or trust law) system. Half of all the royal patrons for these institutions were also women.[22]

According to the Sunni scholar Ibn Asakir in the 12th century, there were opportunities for female education in the medieval Islamic world. He writes that women could study, earn ijazahs (academic degrees), and qualify as scholars and teachers. This was especially the case for learned and scholarly families, who wanted to ensure the highest possible education for both their sons and daughters.[23] Ibn Asakir had himself studied under 80 different female teachers in his time. Female education in the Islamic world was inspired by Muhammad's wives: Khadijah, a successful businesswoman, and Aisha, a renowned hadith scholar and military leader. The education allowed, was often restricted to religious instruction. According to a hadith attributed to Muhammad, he praised the women of Medina because of their desire for religious knowledge:[24]

"How splendid were the women of the ansar; shame did not prevent them from becoming learned in the faith."

While it was not common for women to enroll as students in formal classes, it was common for women to attend informal lectures and study sessions at mosques, madrasahs and other public places. While there were no legal restrictions on female education, some men did not approve of this practice, such as Muhammad ibn al-Hajj (d. 1336) who was appalled at the behaviour of some women who informally audited lectures in his time:[25]

"[Consider] what some women do when people gather with a shaykh to hear [the recitation of] books. At that point women come, too, to hear the readings; the men sit in one place, the women facing them. It even happens at such times that some of the women are carried away by the situation; one will stand up, and sit down, and shout in a loud voice. [Moreover,] her 'awra will appear; in her house, their exposure would be forbidden — how can it be allowed in a mosque, in the presence of men?"

While women accounted for no more than one percent of Islamic scholars prior to the 12th century, there was a large increase of female scholars after this. In the 15th century, Al-Sakhawi devotes an entire volume of his 12-volume biographical dictionary Daw al-lami to female scholars, giving information on 1,075 of them.[26]

Female employment

A female physician in Yemen.

The labor force in the Caliphate were employed from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds, while both men and women were involved in diverse occupations and economic activities.[27] Women were employed in a wide range of commercial activities and diverse occupations[28] in the primary sector (as farmers for example), secondary sector (as construction workers, dyers, spinners, etc.) and tertiary sector (as investors, doctors, nurses, presidents of guilds, brokers, peddlers, lenders, scholars, etc.).[29] Muslim women also held a monopoly over certain branches of the textile industry,[28] the largest and most specialized and market-oriented industry at the time, in occupations such as spinning, dying, and embroidery. In comparison, female property rights and wage labour were relatively uncommon in Europe until the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries.[30]

In the 12th century, the famous Islamic philosopher and qadi (judge) Ibn Rushd, known to the West as Averroes, claimed that women were equal to men in all respects and possessed equal capacities to shine in peace and in war, citing examples of female warriors among the Arabs, Greeks and Africans to support his case.[31] In early Muslim history, examples of notable female Muslims who fought during the Muslim conquests and Fitna (civil wars) as soldiers or generals included Nusaybah Bint k’ab Al Maziniyyah[32] a.k.a. Umm Amarah, Aisha,[33] Kahula and Wafeira,.[34]

A unique feature of medieval Muslim hospitals was the role of female staff, who were rarely employed in hospitals elsewhere in the world. Medieval Muslim hospitals commonly employed female nurses. Muslim hospitals were also the first to employ female physicians, the most famous being two female physicians from the Banu Zuhr family who served the Almohad ruler Abu Yusuf Ya'qub al-Mansur in the 12th century.[35] This was necessary due to the segregation between male and female patients in Islamic hospitals. Later in the 15th century, female surgeons were illustrated for the first time in Şerafeddin Sabuncuoğlu's Cerrahiyyetu'l-Haniyye (Imperial Surgery).[36]

Marriage and divorce

Head-covered girl.

In contrast to the Western world where divorce was relatively uncommon until modern times, and in contrast to the low rates of divorce in the modern Middle East, divorce was a more common occurrence in certain states of the late medieval Muslim world. In the Mamluk Sultanate and Ottoman Empire, the rate of divorce was higher than it is today in the modern Middle East.[37]

In 15th century Egypt, Al-Sakhawi recorded the marital history of 500 women, the largest sample on married women in the Middle Ages, and found that at least a third of all women in the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt and Syria married more than once, with many marrying three or more times. According to Al-Sakhawi, as many as three out of ten marriages in 15th century Cairo ended in divorce.[38] In the early 20th century, some villages in western Java and the Malay peninsula had divorce rates as high as 70%.[37]

Gender roles

The Qur'an states: "Men are the maintainers and protectors of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women)." Qur'an 004.034 [39] In Islam, relations between the sexes are governed by the principle of complementarity, which defines different rights and obligations for men and women.[40][41] According to Islamic tradition, a woman's primary role is to act as a wife and mother,[42] whereas a man’s role is to financially support his family.

Sex segregation

Islam discourages social interaction between unmarried or unrelated men and women when they are alone, but not all interaction between men and women. This is shown in the example of Khadijah, a rich, twice widowed businesswoman who employed Muhammad and met with him to conduct trade before they were married, and in the example set by his other wives, who taught and counseled the men and women of Medina.

In strict Islamic countries, such as Saudi Arabia, sex segregation has been or is strictly enforced. The Taliban treatment of women in Afghanistan is an extreme example of this. Even in countries where the sexes mingle socially, they generally remain segregated within the mosque (see Women in religious life below).

Financial matters

Islam gave women the right to own personal possessions. The traditional Islamic view is that because women should have no financial obligations they should have less rights in financial matters. For example, a women's share of an inheritance, as outlined in the Qur'an, is typically less than that of men. In some limited cases, women get more, depending on their family status, and the existence of other heirs.

Some scholars maintain that women in Muslim societies had more property rights than in many other parts of the world.[43] However, these rights have rarely developed as the world has modernised and women's rights in many Muslim dominated countries are severely restricted. Indeed, it is mostly due to outside pressures, economic or political that women's rights have progressed at all in many Islamic societies. As Valentine M. Moghadam argues, "much of the economic modernization [of women] was based on income from oil, and some came from foreign investment and capital inflows. Economic development alters the status of women in different ways across nations and classes."[44] This is a proof that since always the status of women was influenced by the economy of the region and its development.

Financial obligations

Women's rights in the Koran are based around the marriage contract. A woman, according to Islamic tradition, does not have to give her pre-marriage possessions to her husband and receives a mahr (dowery) which she is allowed to keep.[45] However, once married the man has the dominant position as regards financial decisions, morally and legally. The position of single women is even more precarious when Islamic laws are applied fully. This is especially true when Islamic custom is mixed with local tribal/early modern customs as in Afghanistan.


In Islam, women are entitled to the right of inheritance,Qur'an 4:7 but often a woman's share of inheritance is less than that of a man. In general circumstances, Islam allows females half the inheritance share available to males who have the same degree of relation to the deceased.[46] This difference derives from men's obligations to financially support their families.[2]

The Qur'an contains specific and detailed guidance regarding the division of inherited wealth, such as Surah Baqarah, chapter 2 verse 180, chapter 2 verse 240; Surah Nisa, chapter 4 verse 7-9, chapter 4 verse 19, chapter 4 verse 33; and Surah Maidah, chapter 5 verse 106-108. Three verses in the Koran describe the share of close relatives, Surah Nisah chapter 4 verses 11, 12 and 176.


Patterns of women's employment vary throughout the Muslim world: as of 2005, 16% of Pakistani women were "economically active" (either employed, or unemployed but available to furnish labor), whereas 52% of Indonesian women were.[47]

Women are allowed to work in Islam, subject to certain conditions, in particular if a woman is in financial need.[48] Islamic law however, only permits women to work in certain circumstances and under strict conditions.[48]

  • The work should not require the woman to violate Islamic law (e.g., serving alcohol), and be mindful of the woman's safety.
  • If the work requires the woman to leave her home, she must maintain her modesty.
  • A woman may not be alone with a man, because as per Hadith, the "devil" will tempt them.

Even when women have the right to work and are educated, women's job opportunities may in practice be unequal to those of men. In Egypt for example, women have limited opportunities to work in the private sector because women are still expected to put their role in the family first, which causes men to be seen as more reliable in the long term.[49]

An indicator of the medieval attitude of the Koran to women in the workplace is indicated by the quotes used to justify women working. These are the examples of two female shepherds ([Qur'an 28:23]), and Khadijah (prophet Muhammad's wife), who was an eminent businesswoman. Khadijah is called up as a role model for females in the Qur'an.[48]

Furthermore, it is the responsibility of the Muslim community to organize work for women, so that she can do so in a Muslim atmosphere, where her rights are respected.[48]

However, the employment of women varies over fields in Islamic law. Whereas women may seek medical treatment from men, it is preferred that they do so from female physicians. It is also preferred that female schools, colleges, sports centers and ministries be staffed by women rather than men. On the contrary, there are disagreements between Islamic schools of thought about whether women should be able to hold the position of judge in a court. Shafi`ites claim that women may hold no judicial office, while Hanafites allow women to act as judges in civil cases only, not criminal ones. These interpretations are based on the above quoted Medinan sura (verse) [Qur'an 4:34].[50]

While many work outside home in responsible positions in Morocco, the law continues to treat them as minors and with discrimination. Specific fields of work clearly spells out that women and children below 16 years are restricted. Whereas this is argued from point of view of protecting them as child potential bearers, in some cases it is on moral grounds. The presumption is that women are less able to protect themselves, or that men are better able to resist the corrupting influences in such places.[51]

Legal and criminal matters

The status of women's testimony in Islam is disputed. However it is generally accepted that if Islamic strictures are followed exactly, a woman's status is less than that of a man in a court. Some Islamic jurists have held that certain types of testimony by women will not be accepted.[52] In other cases, the testimony of two women can equal that of one man (although Quran says 2 women and 2 male are needed but if a male cannot find another male he may carry this testimony out himself).[52]Qur'an 2:282[53] Justifications for this discrimination have been put forward including: women's "lack of intelligence",[54] women's temperament, women's lack of interest in legal matters,[55] and also the need to spare women from the "burden of testifying".[56] In other areas, women's testimony may be accepted on an equal basis with men's.[52][57]

Controversial tribal customs such as diyyat or blood money remain an integral part of Islamic jurisprudence. The implementation of this also discriminates against women. Commentators on the status of women in Islam have often focused on disparities in diyyat, the fines paid by killers to victims' next of kin after either intentional or unintentional homicide,[58] between men and women. Diyya existed in Arabia since pre-Islamic times.[59][60] While the practice of diyya was affirmed by Muhammed,[60] Islam does not prescribe any specific amount for diyyat nor does it require discrimination between men and women;[58] the Qur'an has left open its quantity, nature, and other related affairs to be defined by social custom and tradition.[58][61] However, in practice, the killing of a women will generally invoke a lesser diyyat than the killing of a man.



The majority of Muslim scholars believe that a woman should not be punished for having been coerced into having sex.[63] According to a Sunni hadith, the punishment for committing rape is death, there is no blame attached to the victim, nor should she be the subject of any legal action.[64][65] Most scholars, however, treat rape instead as hiraba (disorder in the land),[66] which does not require four witnesses.

Honor killings

So-called Honor killing (murders, nearly exclusively of women, of persons who are perceived as having brought dishonor to their families) are often identified with Islam, however, it can also be associated with Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religions, as well. Honor killings are more common in Muslim-majority countries, though they occur in other countries as well.[67] Many Muslim scholars and commentators say that honor killings are a cultural practice which is neither exclusive to, nor universal within, the Islamic world.[68]

According to law professor Noah Feldman in the New York Times, Islam "condemns the vigilante-style honor killings that still occur in some Middle Eastern countries."[69]

Marriage and sexuality

A riverside Muslim wedding in India.

Who may be married?

Marriage customs vary in Muslim dominated countries. Cultural customs are sometimes implemented under the cover of Islam. However Islamic law appears to allow polygamy, marriage to a child and promotes the rights of men, in law, over women. Islamic scholars state that no age limits have been fixed by Islam for marriage. Children of the youngest age may be married or promised for marriage, although they say that a girl should not be allowed to get married until "she is fit for marital sexual relations".[70] This attitude presents severe problems in the modern world where there are strict laws on child exploitation.

According to Islamic law (sharia), marriage cannot be forced.[45][71]

Islamic jurists have traditionally held that Muslim women may only enter into marriage with Muslim men,[72] although some contemporary jurists question the basis of this restriction.[72][73][74] This is pursuant to the principle that Muslims may not place themselves in a position inferior to that of the followers of other religions.[75] On the other hand, the Qur'an allows Muslim men to marry women of the People of the Book, a term which includes Jews and Christians, but they must be chaste[72][76] However, fiqh law has held that it is makruh (reprehensible, though not outright forbidden) for a Muslim man to marry a non-Muslim woman in a non-Muslim country.[72]

Polygamy is permitted under restricted conditions,[77] but it is not widespread.[78] However, it is strongly discouraged in Quran which says, 'do justice to them all, but you won't be able to, so don't fall for one totally while ignoring other wife(wives)'. This also must be taken in historical context, as this was actually a restriction on the number of wives men of the Arabian tribes. Sometimes Pre-Islamic men could have up to 8 wives. Women are not allowed to engage in polyandry, whereas men are allowed to engage in polygyny (a man can take up to four wives at any given time as mentioned in Quran).[77] A widow inherits one quarter of the property of her deceased husband, however, if he had children the inheritance reduces to one eighth. The widow is allowed to marry any non-mahram person, if she wishes.[Qur'an 4:19]

Marriage contract

1874 Islamic marriage contract

The contract specifies the dowry (mahr) the groom gives to the bride upon their marriage. It may also specify where the couple will live, whether or not the first wife will allow the husband to take a second wife without her consent, whether or not the wife has the right to initiate divorce, and other such matters. The marriage contract somewhat resembles the marriage settlements once negotiated for upper-class Western brides, but can extend to non-financial matters usually ignored by marriage settlements or pre-nuptial agreements.

In practice, Islamic marriages are entered into with a written contract, or with a "fill in the blanks" form supplied by the officiant. Islamic law, influenced by custom and/or rulings by local courts based on local law, governs the treatment of a divorcee or widow. Islamic feminists have been active in informing Muslim women of their rights under Islamic law (sharia) and encouraging them to negotiate favorable contracts before marriage.

Behavior within marriage

The Qur'an considers the love between men and women to be a Sign of God.Qur'an 30:21 Islam advocates a harmonious relationship between husband and wife, and mandates that the will of the woman be honoured. It puts the main responsibility of earning over the husband. Both are asked to fulfill the other's sexual needs. Husbands are asked to be kind to their wives and wives are asked to be obedient to their husbands. The Qur'an also encourages discussion and mutual agreement regarding family decisions.[45]


Islamic law has very restrictive interpretations of the role of sexuality, is generally suspicious of it, in particular women's sexuality. More positively, some hold that Islam enjoins sexual pleasure within marriage; see Asra Nomani's polemic "Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in the Bedroom". Some examples of this influence are set out below. One can see from the references below that those captured in warfare have no rights and the captor may do as he pleases, presumably to women.

Qur’an 4:24— Also (prohibited are) women already married, except those whom your right hands possess: Thus hath Allah ordained (Prohibitions) against you: Except for these, all others are lawful, provided ye seek (them in marriage) with gifts from your property,- desiring chastity, not lust, seeing that ye derive benefit from them, give them their dowers (at least) as prescribed; but if, after a dower is prescribed, agree Mutually (to vary it), there is no blame on you, and Allah is All-knowing, All-wise.[Qur'an 4:24]

Qur’an 23:1-6—The Believers must (eventually) win through—those who humble themselves in their prayers; who avoid vain talk; who are active in deeds of charity; who abstain from sex; except with those joined to them in the marriage bond, or (the captives) whom their right hands possess—for (in their case) they are free from blame.

Qur’an 33:50—O Prophet! We have made lawful to thee thy wives to whom thou hast paid their dowers; and those whom thy right hand possesses out of the prisoners of war whom Allah has assigned to thee . . .

Qur’an 70:22-30—Not so those devoted to Prayer—those who remain steadfast to their prayer; and those in whose wealth is a recognized right for the (needy) who asks and him who is prevented (for some reason from asking); and those who hold to the truth of the Day of Judgement; and those who fear the displeasure of their Lord—for their Lord’s displeasure is the opposite of Peace and Tranquility—and those who guard their chastity, except with their wives and the (captives) whom their right hands possess—for (then) they are not to be blamed.

A high value is placed on female chastity (not to be confused with celibacy). To protect women from accusations of unchaste behaviour, the scripture lays down severe punishments towards those who make false allegations about a woman's chastity.[Qur'an 24:4] However, in most Muslim societies an accusation is rarely questioned and the women who is accused has rarely got a chance to defend herself in a fair and just manner. This is often due to the local cultural customs rather than as a direct result of classic Islamic teaching.

Female genital cutting has been erroneously associated with Islam, but in fact is practiced predominantly in Africa and in certain areas has acquired a religious dimension[79] The factuality of this is disputed though, as a UNICEF study of fourteen African countries found no correlation between religion and prevalence of FGM.[80]


Common belief in the west is that women are not given the power to initiate divorce, where in fact the opposite is true. In Sharia Law a woman can file a case in the courts for a divorce in a process called "Khal'a", simply meaning "Break up". However, under most Islamic schools of jurisprudence, the husband must agree to the divorce in order for it to be granted, thereby leaving the husband in practical control.

Similarly, many wrongly believe that the man can totally divorce his wife by repeating the phrase "I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you!" in the presence of the woman. Sharia Law clearly states that divorce has to be confirmed on three separate occasions and not simply three times at once. The first two instances the woman and the man are still in legal marriage. The third occasion of pronouncing divorce in the presence of the woman, the man is no longer legally the husband and therefore has to leave the house. This procedure of divorce in Islam is such as to encourage reconciliation where possible. Even after divorce, the woman should wait three monthly cycles during which her husband remains responsible for her and her children's welfare and maintenance. He is not permitted to drive her out of the house.[81] This process may leave the woman destitute should her family not take her back or the ex-husband fail to support her and possible his children.

After the third pronouncement they are not allowed to get back together as husband and wife, unless the wife enters into another lawful and fully consummated marriage and is unfortunate in that marriage and has a divorce from her husband. This rule was made to discourage men from easily using the verbal declaration of divorce by knowing that after the third time there will be no way to return to the wife and thus encourage men's tolerance and patience.

Usually, assuming her husband demands a divorce, the divorced wife keeps her mahr (dowry), both the original gift and any supplementary property specified in the marriage contract. She is also given child support until the age of weaning, at which point the child's custody will be settled by the couple or by the courts.

In the real world and outside of Islamic judicial theory, a women’s right to divorce is often extremely limited compared with that of men in the Middle East.[82] While men can divorce their wives easily, women face many legal and financial obstacles. In practice in most of the Muslim world today divorce can be quite involved as there may be separate secular procedures to follow as well.

This contentious area of religious practice and tradition is being increasingly challenged by those promoting more liberal interpretations of Islam.

Movement and travel

Wives are required to inform their spouses before leaving home, and get the consent of their husbands. Although no limitation or prohibition against women's travelling alone is mentioned in Quran, there is a debate in some Islamic sects, especially Salafis, regarding whether women may travel without a mahram (unmarriageable relative).[83] Some scholars state that a woman may not travel by herself on a journey that takes longer than three days (equivalent to 48 miles in medieval Islam).[84] According to the European Council for Fatwa and Research, this prohibition arose from fears for women's safety when travel was more dangerous.[83] Some scholars relax this prohibition for journeys likely to be safe, such as travel with a trustworthy group of men or men and women, or travel via a modern train or plane when the woman will be met upon arrival.[83]

Sheikh Ayed Al-Qarni, a Saudi Islamic scholar known for his moderate views, has said that neither the Qur'an nor the sunnah prohibits women from driving and that it is better for a woman to drive herself than to be driven by a stranger without a legal escort.[85] (He also stated, however, that he "personally will not allow [his] wife or daughters or sisters to drive."[85]) Women are forbidden to drive in Saudi Arabia per a 1990 fatwa (religious ruling);[86] Saudi Arabia is currently the only Muslim country that bans women from driving.[87][88] When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, they issued a 2001 decree that also banned women from driving.[89] John Esposito, professor of International Affairs and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, has argued that these restrictions originate from cultural customs and not Islam.[87]

Dress code

Hijab is the Quranic requirement that Muslims, both male and female, dress and behave modestly. The most important Quranic verse relating to hijab is sura 24:31, which says, "And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and guard their private parts and not to display their adornment except that which ordinarily appears thereof and to draw their headcovers over their chests and not to display their adornment except to their [maharim]..."

Islamic scholars[who?] agree that a woman should act and dress in a way that does not draw sexual attention to her when she is in the presence of someone of the opposite sex. Some Islamic scholars[who?] specify which areas of the body must be covered; most of these require that everything besides the face and hands be covered, and some require all but the eyes to be covered, using garments such as chadors or burqas. Most mainstream scholars say that men, in contrast, should cover themselves from the navel to the knees.

Sartorial hijab as practiced varies throughout the Muslim world. In Iran, strict hijab requirements are enacted in law, while in Muslim-majority areas of India, social norms rather than law dictate the wearing of hijab. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Tunisia, where the government is actively discouraging women from wearing the veil.

Sartorial hijab, and the veil in particular, has often been viewed by Westerners as a sign of oppression of Muslim women.[90] It has also been the cause of much debate, especially in Europe amid increasing immigration of Muslims;[91] the 2006 United Kingdom debate over veils and the 2004 French law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools are two notable examples.

Arab women often observe purdah (the practice of preventing men from seeing women). It is important to differentiate between purdah and hijab. Hijab is an Islamic tradition that is based on physical and psychological morality, while purdah does not necessarily conform to Islamic teachings.

Women in religious life

In Islam, there is no difference between men and women's relationship to God; they receive identical rewards and punishments for their conduct.[92]

According to a saying attributed to Muhammad, women are allowed to go to mosques.[93] However, as Islam spread, it became unusual for women to worship in mosques because of fears of unchastity caused by interaction between sexes; this condition persisted until the late 1960s.[94] Since then, women have become increasingly involved in the mosque, though men and women generally worship separately.[95] (Muslims explain this by citing the need to avoid distraction during prayer prostrations that raise the buttocks while the forehead touches the ground.[96]) Separation between sexes ranges from men and women on opposite sides of an aisle, to men in front of women (as was the case in the time of Muhammad), to women in second-floor balconies or separate rooms accessible by a door for women only.[96]

In Islam's earlier history, female religious scholars were relatively common. Mohammad Akram Nadwi, a Sunni religious scholar, has compiled biographies of 8,000 female jurists, and orientalist Ignaz Goldziher earlier estimated that 15 percent of medieval hadith scholars were women.[97] After the 1500s, however, female scholars became fewer,[97] and today — while female activists and writers are relatively common — there has not been a significant female jurist in over 200 years.[98] Opportunities for women's religious education exist, but cultural barriers often keep women from pursuing such a vocation.[97]

Women's right to become imams, however, is disputed by many. A fundamental role of an imam (religious leader) in a mosque is to lead the salah (congregational prayers). Generally, women are not allowed to lead mixed prayers. However, some argue that Muhammad gave permission to Ume Warqa to lead a mixed prayer at the mosque of Dar.[99][100]

Women and politics

The late Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister of Pakistan was the first woman elected to lead a Muslim state.[101]

The only hadith relating to female political leadership is Sahih Bukhari 5:59:709, in which Muhammad is recorded as saying that people with a female ruler will never be successful.[102] (The al-Bukhari collection is generally regarded as authentic, though one Muslim feminist has questioned the reliability of the recorder of this particular hadith.[102]) However, some classical Islamic scholars, such as al-Tabari, supported female leadership.[102] In early Islamic history, women including Aisha, Ume Warqa, and Samra Binte Wahaib took part in political activities.[99] Other historical Muslim female leaders include Razia Sultana, who ruled the Sultanate of Delhi from 1236 to 1239,[103][104] and Shajarat ad-Durr, who ruled Egypt from 1250 to 1257.[105]

In the past several decades, many countries in which Muslims are a majority, including Indonesia,[106] Pakistan,[107] Bangladesh,[108] and Turkey,[109] have been led by women. Nearly one-third of the Parliament of Egypt also consists of women.[110]

Iraqi women waiting to vote in elections, 2005.

According to Sheikh Zoubir Bouchikhi, Imam of the Islamic Society of Greater Houston’s Southeast Mosque, nothing in Islam specifically allows or disallows voting by women.[111] Until recently most Muslim nations were non-democratic, but most today allow their citizens to have some level of voting and control over their government. The disparate times at which women’s suffrage was granted in Muslim-majority countries is indicative of the varied traditions and values present within the Muslim world. Azerbaijan has had women's suffrage since 1918, but some Islamic states did not have women's suffrage the late 1990s. .

Saudi Arabian women - Saudi women have voted in some elections. See: "Saudi women take part in election ," BBC News.</ref>),[112] (Lebanon requires proof of education for women to vote.[113])

Modern debate on the status of women in Islam

Shirin Ebadi, Iran's famous women activist

Within the Muslim community, conservatives and Islamic feminists have used Islamic doctrine as the basis for discussion of women's rights, drawing on the Qur'an, the hadith, and the lives of prominent women in the early period of Muslim history as evidence.[114] Where conservatives have seen evidence that existing gender asymmetries are divinely ordained, feminists have seen more egalitarian ideals in early Islam.[114] Still others have argued that this discourse is essentialist and ahistorical, and have urged that Islamic doctrine not be the only framework within which discussion occurs.[114]

Conservatives and the Islamic movement

Conservatives reject the assertion that different laws prescribed for men and women imply that men are more valuable than women, arguing that both genders must have a different role in society and the only criterion of value before God is piety. Some Islamic scholars justify the different religious laws for men and women by referring to the biological and sociological differences between men and women. For example, regarding the inheritance law which states that women’s share of inheritance is half that of men, the imam Ali ibn Musa Al-reza reasoned that at the time of marriage a man has to pay something to his prospective bride, and that men are responsible for both their wives' and their own expenses but women have no such responsibility.[115]

The nebulous revivalist movement termed Islamism is one of the most dynamic movements within Islam in the 20th and 21st centuries. The experience of women in Islamist states has been varied. Women in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan faced treatment condemned by the international community.[116] Women were forced to wear the burqa in public,[117] not allowed to work,[118] not allowed to be educated after the age of eight,[119] and faced public flogging and execution for violations of the Taliban's laws.[120][121] The position of women in Iran, which has been a theocracy since its 1979 revolution, is more complex. Iranian Islamists are ideologically in favour of sex segregation,but allow many more rights such as allowing female legislators in Iran's parliament[122] and 60% of university students are women.[123]

Liberal Islam, Islamic feminism, and other progressive criticism

Liberal Muslims have urged that ijtihad, a form of critical thinking, be used to develop a more progressive form of Islam with respect to the status of women.[124] In addition, Islamic feminists have advocated for women's rights, gender equality, and social justice grounded in an Islamic framework. Although rooted in Islam, pioneers of Islamic feminism have also used secular and western feminist discourses and have sought to include Islamic feminism in the larger global feminist movement. Islamic feminists seek to highlight the teachings of equality in Islam to question patriarchal interpretations of Islamic teachings.[125] Others point out the incredible amount of flexibility of shariah law, which can offer greater protections for women if the political will to do is present.[126]

After the September 11, 2001, attacks, international attention was focused on the condition of women in the Muslim world.[127] Critics asserted that women are not treated as equal members of Muslim societies[128][129] and criticized Muslim societies for condoning this treatment.[128] Some critics have gone so far as to make allegations of gender apartheid due to women's status.[130] At least one critic has alleged that Western academics, especially feminists, have ignored the plight of Muslim women in order to be considered "politically correct."[131]

The Indonesian Islamic professor Nasaruddin Umar is at the forefront of a reform movement from within Islam that aims at giving women equal status. Among his works is a book "The Qur'an for women", which provides a new feminist interpretation.

See also

  • Islamic feminism
  • Female figures in the Qur'an
  • Role of women in religion
  • Muhammad's wives
  • Women in Arab societies
  • Women's rights
  • Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam
  • Hazrat Babajan
  • Namus
  • Hiba (Family Magazine)


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  111. Islam
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  113. Central Intelligence Agency. "Lebanon." World Factbook (2007).
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  115. Quoted in Grand Ayatollah Makarim Shirazi, Tafsir Nemoneh, on verse 4:12.
  116. M. J. Gohari (2000). The Taliban: Ascent to Power. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 108-110. For an example, see
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  120. "The Taliban's War on Women"PDF (857 KiB), Physicians for Human Rights, August 1998.
  121. A woman being flogged in public
  122. See, e.g., Tahereh Saffarzadeh, Masumeh Ebtekar, Marzieh Dabbaq and Zahra Rahnavard.
  123. Esfandiari, Golnaz. "Iran: Number Of Female University Students Rising Dramatically." Radio Free Europe/Free Liberty (November 19, 2003).
  124. Haddad, Moore, and Smith, p19.
  125. Madran, Margot. "Islamic feminism: what's in a name?" Al-Ahram Weekly Online, issue no. 569 (January 17–23, 2002).
  126. "The Role of Islamic Shari’ah in Protecting Women’s Rights". 
  127. United States Institute of Peace. "Women, Human Rights, and Islam." Peace Watch (August 2002).
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  129. Kamguian, Azam. "The Liberation of Women in the Middle East."
  130. Feminist author Phyllis Chesler, for example, asserted: "Islamists oppose the ideals of dignity and equality for women by their practice of gender apartheid."[2] For further examples, see
  131. Lopez, Katherine Jean. A survey conducted by the Gallup Organization found that most Muslim women did not see themselves as oppressed.[3] "Witness to the Death of Feminism: Phyllis Chesler on Her Sisterhood at War." National Review (March 08, 2006).

Works cited

  • El Fadl, Khaled Abou. "The Death Penalty, Mercy, and Islam: A Call for Retrospection." In Religion and the Death Penalty: A Call for Reckoning (Erik C. Owens, John David Carlson, and Eric P. Elshtain, eds.). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing (2004), ISBN 0802821723.
  • Friedmann, Yohanan (2003). Tolerance and Coercion in Islam: Interfaith Relations in the Muslim Tradition. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521026994. 
  • Glassé, Cyril. The New Encyclopedia of Islam (2002), AltaMira Press, ISBN 0-7591-0189-2.
  • Yvonne Haddad and John Esposito. Islam, Gender, and Social Change, Published 1998. Oxford University Press, US. ISBN 0-19-511357-8.
  • Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, Kathleen M. Moore, and Jane I Smith. Muslim Women in America: The Challenge of Islamic Identity Today. Oxford University Press (2006): ISBN 0195177835.
  • Hessini, L., 1994, Wearing the Hijab in Contemporary Morocco: Choice and Identity, in Göçek, F. M. & Balaghi, S., Reconstructing Gender in the Middle East: Tradition, Identity & Power, New York, Columbia University Press
  • Suad Joseph and Afsaneh Najmabadi. Encyclopedia of Women & Islamic Cultures BRILL (2005), ISBN 9004128182
  • Javed Ahmed Ghamidi. Mizan. Al-Mawrid (2001–present).
  • Levy, Reuben (1969). The Social Structure of Islam. UK: Cambridge University Press. 

Further reading



  • Nadje Al-Ali and Nicola Pratt, Women in Iraq: Beyond the Rhetoric, Middle East Report, No. 239, Summer 2006
  • Bernadette Andrea, Women and Islam in Early Modern English Literature, Cambridge University Press, 2008 [4]
  • Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical roots of a modern debate, Yale University Press, 1992
  • Saddeka Arebi, Women and Words in Saudi Arabia: The Politics of Literary Discourse, Columbia University Press, 1994, ISBN 0231084218
  • Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, London, HarperCollins/Routledge, 2001
  • Alya Baffoun, Women and Social Change in the Muslim Arab World, In Women in Islam. Pergamon Press, 1982.
  • John Esposito and Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, Islam, Gender, and Social Change, Oxford University Press, 1997, ISBN 0-195-11357-8
  • Gavin Hambly, Women in the Medieval Islamic World, Palgrave Macmillan, 1999, ISBN 0312224516
  • Suad Joseph, ed. Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures. Leiden: Brill, Vol 1-4, 2003-2007.
  • Valentine Moghadam (ed), Gender and National Identity.


This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Women in Islam. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.