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The study of women in Islam deals with the attitudes and beliefs about the roles and responsibilities of women within the religion of Islam. The complex relationship between women and Islam is defined by both Islamic texts and the history and culture of the Muslim world.

Sharia (Islamic law) provides for differences between women's and men's roles, rights, and obligations. Muslim-majority 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, while liberal Muslims, Muslim feminists, and others argue in favor of more original, traditional interpretations. The Islamic World has some women in high political stations and has produced several heads of state.

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 Muhammad (hadith), which were also selected by a number of historical Islamic scholars. These interpretations and their application were shaped by the historical context of the Muslim world.

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. 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 Meccamarker.

Other writers, on the contrary, have argued that women's status in pre-Islamic Arabia was poor, citing practices of female infanticide, unlimited polygyny, patrilineal marriage and others.Valentine M. Moghadam analyzes the situation of women from a marxist theoretical framework and 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.

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

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. However this argument is opposed by those who state that the consensus of Islamic Jurists has consistently held that in many cases a woman's evidence has half the value of that of a man, and that in some cases it is not admissible.

To clarify, in matters of business, two men's testimony is required, and where there is only one man, two women and one man are required (however, women were less likely to know about business matters in those days, because men had all the financial responsibility, whereas women did not. In this century, it is less likely a woman would not know about financial matters) . In matters of family, marriage, divorce and such, however, one woman's evidence is enough to prove a case.

Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard Universitymarker, notes:

Early reforms under Islam

During the early reforms under Islam in the 7th century, reforms in women's rights affected marriage, divorce and inheritance. Women were not accorded with such legal status in other cultures, including the West, until centuries later. 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. "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."

Under Islamic law, marriage was no longer viewed as a "status" but rather as a "contract", in which the woman's consent was imperative. "Women were given inheritance rights in a patriarchal society that had previously restricted inheritance to male relatives." 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."

William Montgomery Watt states that Muhammad, in the historical context of his time, can be seen as a figure who testified on behalf of 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."

Haddad and Esposito state that "Muhammad granted women rights and privileges in the sphere of family life, marriage, education, and economic endeavors, rights that help improve women's status in society." During his life, Muhammad married eleven or thirteen women depending upon the differing accounts of who were his wives.

Female education

Women played an important role in the foundations ofmany Islamic educational institutions, such as Fatima al-Fihri's founding of the University of Al Karaouinemarker in 859. This continued through to the Ayyubid dynasty in the 12th and 13th centuries, when 160 mosques and madrasahs were established in Damascusmarker, 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.

According to the Sunni scholar Ibn Asakir in the 12th century, there were opportunities for female education in the medieval Islamic world, writing 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. 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. According to a hadith attributed to Muhammad, he praised the women of Medinamarker because of their desire for religious knowledge:

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:

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.

Female employment

A nurse 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. Women were employed in a wide range of commercial activities and diverse occupationsMaya Shatzmiller (1994), Labour in the Medieval Islamic World, Brill Publishers, ISBN 9004098968, pp. 400–1 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.). Muslim women also held a monopoly over certain branches of the textile industry, 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.

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. 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 a.k.a. Umm Amarah, Aisha, Kahula and Wafeira,.

A unique feature of medieval Muslim hospitals was the role of female staff, who were rarely employed in ancient and medieval healing temples elsewhere in the world. Medieval Muslim hospitals commonly employed female nurses, including nurses from as far as Sudanmarker, a sign of great breakthrough. 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. 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).

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 Sultanatemarker and Ottoman Empire, the rate of divorce was higher than it is today in the modern Middle East.

In 15th century Egyptmarker, 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 Syriamarker 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 Cairomarker ended in divorce. In the early 20th century, some villages in western Javamarker and the Malay peninsula had divorce rates as high as 70%.

Gender roles

The Qur'an states: "Men are in charge 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 [275465] In Islam, relations between the sexes are governed by the principle of complementarity, which defines different rights and obligations for men and women. According to Islamic tradition, a woman's primary role is to act as a wife and mother, 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 Medinamarker.

In strict Islamic countries, such as Saudi Arabiamarker, sex segregation has been or is strictly enforced. The Taliban treatment of women in Afghanistanmarker 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 gives women the right to own, which entitles them to have personal possessions. While women have no financial obligations like men, some of their financial rights are less. Women's share of inheritance, as outlined in the Qur'an, is typically less than that of men (because women do not have financial obligations, they do not have to pay dowry or pay for child or elderly parents maintenance), but in some cases, women get more, depending on their placement in the family, and the existence of other heirs. Women's right to work is also disputed.

According to Bernard Lewis, while Islam sanctions a social inequality between man and woman, Muslim women have historically had property rights unparalleled in the modern West until comparatively recently.

In general, 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." This is a proof that since always the status of women was influenced by the economy of the region and its development.

Financial obligations

A woman, when compared with her husband, is less burdened with any claims on her possessions. Her possessions before marriage do not transfer to her husband and she is encouraged to keep her maiden name. She has no obligation to spend on her family out of such properties or out of her income after marriage. A woman also receives a mahr (dowry), which is given to her by her husband at the time of marriage. Men as with women also have the right to be supported financially by their families or State.


In Islam, women are entitled to the right of inheritance, 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. This difference derives from men's obligations to financially support their families.

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.


Women are allowed to work in Islam, subject to certain conditions, and even recommended to do so should they be in financial need. This is supported by the Quranic example of two female shepherds ( ). Islam recognizes that the society needs women to work for the sake of development. In general, women's right to work is subject to certain conditions:
  • 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 remain in isolation with an adult male in isolation, because as per Hadith, the third one among them is the devil, thus chances of going astray will be avoided.
  • Her work should not affect more important commitments, such as those towards her family.

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.

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 Medinanmarker sura (verse) .

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 Egyptmarker 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.

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.

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

Legal and criminal matters

The status of women's testimony in Islam is disputed. Some jurists have held that certain types of testimony by women will not be accepted.. 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). The reason for this disparity has been explained in various manners, including women's lack of intelligence, women's temperament and sphere of interest, and sparing women from the burden of testifying. In other areas, women's testimony may be accepted on an equal basis with men's.

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, between men and women. Diyya has existed in Arabia since pre-Islamic times. While the practice of diyya was affirmed by Muhammed, Islam does not prescribe any specific amount for diyyat nor does it require discrimination between men and women; the Qur'an has left open its quantity, nature, and other related affairs to be defined by social custom and tradition.


Refer to the link for detailed understanding about the difference between zina and rape/>

Islamic criminal jurisprudence does not discriminate between genders in punishments for crimes.. In case of sexual crimes such as zina (extramarital sex), for both men and women four witnesses are required to testify that they have seen the accused individuals having intercourse, meaning actually four of them should have seen the act as 'insertion of thread through the needle's hole'. According to Islamic law the couple cannot be tried for zina if four witnesses are not available. Thus a strict Islamic punishment is unlikely to be executed, as there is little chance of finding such accurate witnesses. thus discouraging its further spread which may result in great disorders. The punishment for zina varies depending on the marital status of the guilty individuals. If they are single then both receive a hundred lashes.

If they are married the punishment is death, by stoning, or Rajm. This is not supported or sanctioned by the Quran. There is no mention of stoning to death or rajam in the Quran. The Lahore high court, in its judgment in 1978, stoning to death or rajam was declared unislamic. A decision written by the chief justice Aftab. The support for rajam is derived from certain hadith The difficulty of prosecuting rapists and the possibility of prosecution for women who allege rape has been of special interest to activists for Muslim women's rights. In the past decades there have been several high profile cases of pregnant women prosecuted for zina who claim to have been raped.

The majority of Muslim scholars believe that a woman should not be punished for having been coerced into having sex. According to a Sunni hadith, the punishment for committing rape is death, there is no sin on the victim, nor is there any worldly punishment ascribed to her. However, the probability of victim getting a respectable single or married status in the society is rare, especially if she gets pregnant due to rape. So, the majority of cases are neither reported nor brought to court. However, the stringent requirements for proof of rape under some interpretations of Islamic law, combined with cultural attitudes regarding rape in some parts of the Muslim world, result in few rape cases being reported; even the cases brought forward typically result in minimal punishment for offenders or severe punishment for victims. It can be difficult to seek punishment against rapists, because a zina case cannot be brought without four witnesses. Most scholars, however, treat rape instead as hiraba (disorder in the land), which does not require four witnesses. The form of punishment and interpretation of Islamic law in this case is highly dependent on the legislation of the nation in question, and/or of the judge.

Honor killings

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." So-called honor killings (murders, nearly exclusively of women, of persons who are perceived as having brought dishonor to their families) are often identified with Islam. Honor killings are more common in Muslim-majority countries, though they occur in other countries as well. Many Muslim scholars and commentators say that honor killings are a cultural practice which is neither exclusive to, nor universal within, the Islamic world.

Marriage and sexuality

A riverside Muslim wedding in India.

Who may be married?

According to Islamic law (sharia), marriage cannot be forced.

No age limits have been fixed by Islam for marriage. Children of the youngest age may be married or promised for marriage, although a girl is not handed across to her husband until she is fit for marital sexual relations.

Islamic jurists have traditionally held that Muslim women may only enter into marriage with Muslim men, although some contemporary jurists question the basis of this restriction. This is pursuant to the principle that Muslims may not place themselves in a position inferior to that of the followers of other religions. On the other hand, the Qur'an explicitly allows Muslim men to marry chaste women of the People of the Book, a term which includes Jews and Christians. 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.

Polygamy is permitted under restricted conditions, but it is not widespread. 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). 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.

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 Qu'ran considers the love between men and women to be a Sign of God. 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.

There are extreme circumstances however, under which women seem to be treated very unfairly. In Morocco, the penal code contains disciminatory elements. Article 336 for example stipulates that a woman must obtain permission of the court in order to join a civil suit against her husband. Article 418 of the same penal code states that, a man who is a victim of adultery and who as a result commits murder or assault on encountering his wife and her lover benefits from consideration of extenuating circumstances. There is no mention of a parallel right for the wife.


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".

Islam also allows men the privilege of having sex with their concubines and slave girls.

Qur’an 4:24—Also (prohibited are) women already married, except those whom your right hands possess . . .

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) for both men and women. 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.

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


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.

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 of the divorcee 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.

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.

Women’s right to divorce is often extremely limited compared with that of men in the Middle East. While men can divorce their wives easily, women face many legal and financial obstacles. These obstacles are not based on Islam.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

Both husbands and wives are required to inform their spouses before leaving home.

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). 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). According to the European Council for Fatwa and Research, this prohibition arose from fears for women's safety when travel was more dangerous. 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.

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. (He also stated, however, that he "personally will not allow [his] wife or daughters or sisters to drive.") Women are forbidden to drive in Saudi Arabiamarker per a 1990 fatwa (religious ruling); Saudi Arabia is currently the only Muslim country that bans women from driving. When the Taliban ruled Afghanistanmarker, they issued a 2001 decree that also banned women from driving. John Esposito, professor of International Affairs and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, has argued that these restrictions originate from cultural customs and not Islam.

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 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 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. It has also been the cause of much debate, especially in Europe amid increasing immigration of Muslims; 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.

According to a saying attributed to Muhammad, women are allowed to go to mosques. 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. Since then, women have become increasingly involved in the mosque, though men and women generally worship separately. (Muslims explain this by citing the need to avoid distraction during prayer prostrations that raise the buttocks while the forehead touches the ground.) 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.

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. After the 1500s, however, female scholars became fewer, and today — while female activists and writers are relatively common — there has not been a significant female jurist in over 200 years. Opportunities for women's religious education exist, but cultural barriers often keep women from pursuing such a vocation.

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.

Women and politics

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

In the past several decades, many countries in which Muslims are a majority, including Indonesiamarker, Pakistanmarker, Bangladeshmarker, and Turkeymarker, have been led by women. Nearly one-third of the Parliament of Egypt also consists of women.
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. 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. Azerbaijanmarker has had women's suffrage since 1918, but some Islamic states did not have women's suffrage until the last ten years . Today, aside from Bruneimarker (where neither men nor women can vote), The Vatican City and Saudi Arabiamarker (though Saudi women will be able to vote in 2009), all Muslim-majority nations allow women to vote. (Lebanonmarker requires proof of education for women to vote.)

Modern debate on the status of women in Islam

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. Where conservatives have seen evidence that existing gender asymmetries are divinely ordained, feminists have seen more egalitarian ideals in early Islam. 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.

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.

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. Women were forced to wear the burqa in public, not allowed to work, not allowed to be educated after the age of eight, and faced public flogging and execution for violations of the Taliban's laws. The position of women in Iran, which has been a theocracy since its 1979 revolution, is more complex. Iranian Islamists are ideologically to sex segregation, but allow many more rights such as allowing female legislators in Iran's parliament and 60% of university students are women.

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. 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.

After the September 11, 2001, attacks, international attention was suddenly focused on the condition of women in the Muslim world. Critics asserted that women are not treated as equal members of Muslim societies and criticized Muslim societies for condoning this treatment. Some critics have gone so far as to make allegations of gender apartheid due to women's status. 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."

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


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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.
  • 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).

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 [275466]
  • 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.


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