Oppressed, inferior, and unequal – for many people, these are the first words that come to mind when thinking about women in Islam. These stereotypes confuse Islam with cultural practices and fail to recognize that Islam has empowered women with the most progressive rights since the 7th century. In Islam, women are not inferior or unequal to men. This brochure presents the actual teachings of Islam regarding the rights, roles, and responsibilities of women, with a special focus on gender equality in Islam.
At a time when female children were buried alive inArabiaand women were considered transferable property, Islam honored women in society by elevating them and protecting them with unprecedented rights. Islam gave women the right to education, to marry someone of their choice, to retain their identity after marriage, to divorce, to work, to own and sell property, to seek protection by the law, to vote, and to participate in civic and political engagement.
In 610 C.E., God began to reveal the message of Islam to Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him (pbuh), inMecca. Muhammad (pbuh) called people towards the belief in one God and encouraged them to be just and merciful to one another. In reforming the pagan Arab society, he particularly transformed their mindset regarding the treatment of women. Islam abolished the practice of killing female children and raised the stature of women in society to one of dignity, esteem, and privilege.
God devotes an entire chapter of the Quran, the holy book of Islam, to women. In addition, God directly addresses women repeatedly throughout the Quran. Islam proclaims that all human beings, men and women, are born in a pure state. The goal of every Muslim is to preserve this purity by shunning evil tendencies and beautifying their inner being with virtuous traits.
Islam further confirms that both men and women are equal in the sight of God. In the Quran, God declares, “…Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you…” (49:13) At another place in the Quran, God clearly states that all humans are equal: “To whoever, male or female, does good deeds and has faith, We shall give a good life and reward them according to the best of their actions.” (16:97)
While Islam clearly establishes that men and women are equal, it does recognize that they are not identical. God created men and women with unique physiological and psychological attributes. In Islam, these differences are embraced as vital components to a healthy family and community structure with each individual contributing their own distinctive talents to society.
Hence, God’s rules apply to both genders, but in diverse ways. For example, God commanded women to cover certain parts of their body, including their hair, to preserve their modesty. Men are also required to cover parts of their body out of modesty, but not in the same way as women. Therefore, God commanded both men and women to be modest; yet, the manner in which they observe it is different.
Similarly, the rights, roles, and responsibilities of women are evenly balanced with those of men but are not necessarily the same. As Islam has granted individual identities to men and women, a constant comparison between the two is futile. Each plays a unique role to mutually uphold social morality and societal balance.
The following overview details a wide range of women’s rights in Islam. It addresses some common misconceptions and provides insight into the diverse roles and responsibilities women fulfill in society. It must also be mentioned here that Muslims are not always representative of Islam and may follow their cultural influences or personal interests. In so doing, they not only disenfranchise women, they also go against the clear guidelines laid out in Islam regarding the treatment of women. Therefore, their practices go against the liberties and entitlements which Islam empowers women with, as shown below.
Back in the 7th century, Muhammad (pbuh) declared that the pursuit of knowledge is obligatory on every Muslim – male and female. This declaration was very clear and was largely implemented by Muslims throughout history. One of the most influential scholars of Islam was Muhammad’s wife, Aisha. After his death, men and women would travel to learn from her because she was considered a great scholar of Islam. The recognition of female scholarship and women’s participation in academia has been encouraged and practiced throughout the majority of Islamic history. For instance, al-Qarawiyin Mosque and University, the oldest running university, was funded by a woman, Fatima al-Fihri, inMorocco in 859 C.E.
In Islam, God clearly gives mothers a high status and elevates their position in the family. In the Quran, God mentions all the sacrifices mothers make in bearing children to remind people to treat their mothers with love, respect, and care. Emphasizing the importance of mothers, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said, “Heaven lies under the feet of your mother.”
On another occasion, a man repeatedly asked Muhammad (pbuh), “Who amongst the people is the most worthy of my good companionship?” Each time, the Prophet (pbuh) replied, “Your mother.” When the man asked for the fourth time, he replied, “Your father.”
Politics and Social Services
Among the early Muslims, women were active participants in the cohesive functioning of the society. Women expressed their opinions freely and their advice was actively sought. Women nursed the wounded during battles, and some even participated on the battlefield. Women traded openly in the marketplace, so much so that the second caliph, Umar, appointed a woman, Shaffa bint Abdullah, as the supervisor of the bazaar.
In Islamic history, women participated in government, public affairs, lawmaking, scholarship, and teaching. To continue to uphold this tradition, women are encouraged to actively participate in improving, serving, and leading the different aspects of the community.
Before Islam, women all across the globe were deprived of inheritance and were themselves considered property to be inherited by men. Islam gave women the right to own property and inherit from relatives, which was a revolutionary concept in the seventh century.
Whether a woman is a wife, mother, sister, or daughter, she receives a certain share of her deceased relative’s property. This share depends on her degree of relationship to the deceased and the number of heirs. While many societies around the world denied women inheritance, Islam assured women this right, illustrating the universal justice of Islam’s divine law.
In Islam, women are not obligated to earn or spend any money on housing, food, or general expenses. If a woman is married, her husband must fully support her financially and if she’s not married, that responsibility belongs to her closest male relative (father, brother, uncle, etc).
She also has the right to work and spend the money she earns as she wishes. She has no obligation to share her money with her husband or any other family members, although she may choose to do so out of good will. For instance, Khadija, the wife of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), was one of the most successful businesswomen ofMecca, and she freely spent from her wealth to support her husband and the cause of Islam.
At the time of marriage, a woman is entitled to a financial gift (dowry) from her husband. This dowry is legally owned by her and cannot be used by anyone else. In the case of divorce, she has the right to keep whatever she owned before the divorce and anything she personally earned after marriage. The former husband has no right whatsoever to any of her belongings. This ensures a woman’s financial security and independence, allowing her to support herself in the case of divorce.
A woman has the right to accept or reject marriage proposals and her approval is required to complete the marriage contract. She cannot be forced to marry someone against her will and if this occurs for cultural reasons, it is in direct opposition of Islam. By the same principle, women also have the right to seek divorce if they are dissatisfied with their marriage.
In Islam, marriage is based on mutual peace, love, and compassion. God says about Himself, “And of His signs is that He created for you from yourselves mates that you may find tranquility in them; and He placed between you affection and mercy…” (Quran 30:21) Muhammad (pbuh) embodied the best character and is a role model for all Muslims. His example of being helpful around the household and treating his family with compassion and love is a tradition that Muslims strive to implement in their daily lives. Muhammad (pbuh) treated his wives with the utmost respect and honor and was never abusive towards them. One of his traditions clearly states, “The best of you are those who are best to their wives.”
Dignity and Protection from Harm
Any form of emotional, physical, or psychological abuse is prohibited in Islam and the improper treatment of women is no exception to this rule. Indeed, there is no teaching in Islam, when studied in its complete context, which condones any kind of domestic violence. Islam clearly disallows any form of oppression or abuse, according to Dr. Zainab Alwani, a leading female Muslim scholar. It cannot be stated enough times that anyone who exercises unjust authority in the name of Islam is actually doing so to uphold their own cultural influences or personal interests. All of God’s creation is dignified and protected under Islamic law.
In an environment which constantly emphasizes the physical form through various media, women are constantly faced with an unattainable standard of beauty. Although Muslim women are falsely classified as oppressed based on their modest dress, they are in fact liberated from such objectification by the society around them. This modest appearance, which includes veiling, highlights a woman’s personality and character instead of her physical figure and promotes a deeper appreciation for who she is as a person. In this regard, Muslim women identify with Mary, the mother of Jesus (pbuh), who is known for her piety and modesty.
In conclusion, Islam has an extensive tradition of protecting the civil liberties of women based on the guidelines set forth by God and His Prophet. Women are empowered with many rights and protections under Islamic law and are honored with a dignified stature in society.
American Muslim women today are struggling to address the stereotypes and misconceptions associated with the role of women in Islam. Muslim women occupy a wide variety of positions in American life: medical doctors, engineers, lawyers, chemists, housewives, broadcast journalists, professors, clerical workers, business women, schoolteachers. Some are immigrants, from countries ranging from sub-Saharan Africa to Indonesia, while many others are American-born; some American Muslim women were raised in Muslim homes, while others embraced Islam as adults. Some Muslim women cover their head only during prayer in the mosque; other Muslim women wear the hijab; still others may cover their head with a turban or a loosely draped scarf.
The “role of women” in Islam is not easily defined. The Qur’an and the practice of the Prophet Muhammad seem to recognize the different functions and mutually supportive roles of men and women, encouraging just and balanced social and family life. In seventh-century Arabia, the Qur’an extended to women the right of property ownership and financial independence, prohibited the practice of female infanticide and other abuses, and significantly modified marriage and divorce practices. While many Americans consider Islam an “oppressive religion” with regard to women, Muslim women often comment on the liberty and dignity they derive from their faith. Many Muslim women explain that “true” Islam is frequently compromised by oppressive practices that have their roots in cultural differences or political expediency; general ignorance and lack of engagement with the diversity inherited within the tradition contribute to the perpetuation of these practices.
Numerous Islamic organizations in America are working to educate both the Muslim community and the larger society on this issue, writing articles, op-ed pieces, and publishing pamphlets such as ICNA’s “Status of Woman in Islam” and the Institute of Islamic Information and Education’s “The Question of Hijab: Suppression or Liberation.” The Islamic Center of Southern California distributes the pamphlet “To Separate Fact from Fiction… Women in Islam.” Citing the Qur’an, this publication aims to nuance views held by those outside of the Muslim community, while also pointing to the “regrettable practices in some Islamic societies where anti-Islamic cultur(al) traditions have won over Islamic teachings.”
Muslim women in the United States are actively engaged in this issue on every level, from academia to small grassroots groups. Dr. Azizah al-Hibri, a professor of Law at the University of Richmond, notes that Islamic laws about humanity come from a compassionate God. Accordingly, she researches issues in which Islamic law is being applied to women in what she views as an oppressive way, in order to find “the legal basis in Islamic jurisprudence for dealing with these kinds of situations.” Al-Hibri’s organization KARAMAH: Muslim Lawyers for Human Rights, is one of many outlets through which she works to understand and promote Islamic civil rights, especially those pertaining to women. In 2011, President Barack Obama appointed her as a commissioner to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Al-Hibri is one of many Muslim women in America assuming active leadership roles both within and outside of the Muslim community.
Ingrid Mattson, a Canadian-born convert to Islam, was the first woman to have been elected and to serve as vice-president and president of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). She is highly regarded as a scholar of Islam and as a Muslim scholar. Among many accomplishments, Dr. Mattson founded the Islamic Chaplaincy Program at Hartford Seminary, where she is Professor of Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations, as well as the Director of the Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations.
In 2005, Amina Wadud, a black American female convert to Islam and a scholar of Islamic studies, led Friday prayers to a congregation of Muslim men and women in New York, breaking the tradition that reserves that role exclusively for men, and stirring a controversial debate about gender in Islam.
Daisy Khan, an Indian-born American Muslim, is the co-founder and executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA), as well as the founder of Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE) and she is also actively involved in other projects that focus on interfaith efforts and dialogue on Islam in the West.
These women are but a few of the many American Muslim female leaders who are challenging misperceptions about gender equality in Islam.
A December 2010 article in the New York Times, “Muslim Women Gain Higher Profile in U.S.,” highlighted this trend of increased involvement of American Muslim women in the United States, emphasizing the leadership roles that they have within public and private sectors, as well as within Muslim communities. The article noted that American Muslim women have more authoritative positions in society particularly as compared to Muslim women in other countries, and also compared to American women of other religions.
And yet, gender in Islam remains a frequent debate in America. The results of a 2011 Pew Research Center survey, “Muslim Americans: No Signs of Growth in Alienation or Support for Extremism”, suggest that nearly half of all American Muslims agreed that men and women should be separated when praying in a mosque. Data from the survey also shows that over a third of American Muslim women cover their hair, by wearing hijab or otherwise, when they are in public. These issues continue to fuel lively and important discussions throughout the country, particularly as more women express their own voices as community leaders.
Muslim women’s groups have been organized across the United States to discuss issues of the interpretation of scripture and tradition. Many of these groups also work together to confront issues of prejudice toward women wearing the hijab in the workplace and public areas. Muslim women are also actively engaged in interfaith groups, like Women Transcending Boundaries in Syracuse, New York, or Daughters of Abraham in Cambridge, MA. Some of these groups are independently organized by ordinary women trying to better understand their own faith on a practical level, while others take more academic approaches.
Many American Muslim women are writing their own alternate discourse. Of course, the Internet is one forum in which women can express themselves and engage with others, such as through blogs or publishing academic and/or opinion articles. They are also recording their stories in books. Through writing, these Muslim women are aiming to express their own experiences, which are separate from both the religious leaders of their own communities and from the American mainstream media portrayal of them.
Muslim women are writing about topics that include the hijab, romance, religion, fashion, and parenting. I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim and Living Islam Out Loud: American Muslim Women Speak are two such essay collections. Another is Love, InshAllah (2012), which is a collection of twenty-five essays on the “secret love-lives of American Muslim women.” This book amplifies the diversity of perspectives and experiences on relationships within the Muslim community in America. The co-editors of the book, Nura Maznavi and Ayesha Mattu, engage with Muslim and non-Muslim readers through an active web presence that includes regular guest bloggers on the book’s website (loveinshallah.com), a Facebook page and Twitter handle, as well as with in-person and online book discussions.
Female Muslim scholars are also writing, many of them examining the “Muslim world” and comparing Islam in “Western” versus Muslim countries. Some important voices include Fatima Mernissi, who writes on Qur’anic scholarship and gender, Saba Mahmood, who writes on Muslim cultural practice and the agency of women, and Leila Ahmed, who writes on feminism and Islam.
Whether they are formally trained in Islamic scholarship or they know Islam primarily through practice, women are increasingly entering into religious, academic, and political dialogue on a variety of issues, including the issue of gender in Islam.
The number of Muslim women leaders on the American stage has skyrocketed in recent years. More American Muslim women are asserting themselves as board members of mosques, participants in interfaith organizations, as scholars, and as writers. Only time will tell the myriad ways in which Muslim women will continue to contribute to the vibrant discourse on religion and gender in America.