In this paper I argue that the position of women in Islam in theory,
that is, according to the Qur'an and Hadiths (tradition) of the Prophet,
differs vastly from Islam in practice. It is not the Islamic ideologies
that determine the position of women in the Islamic societies, it is rather
the pre-Islamic patriarchal ideologies existing in a particular society,
combined with the lack of education and ignorance, that construct the Muslim
Women's Position in Islam in the Idea of Creation
Islam in theory, has given men and women equal rights in every aspects
of life. Islam gives men and women equality in the idea of Creation of
human beings. Concerning the idea of Creation the Qur'an in Sura 4, Verse
O mankind! reverence your Guardian-Lord Who created you from a single
Person, Created, of like nature, His mate, and from them twain Scattered
(like seeds) Countless men and women-Fear Allah, through Whom ye demand
your mutual (rights) and (reverence) the wombs (that bore you): For Allah
Ever watches over you.
In Sura 7, Verse 189 the Qur'an States:
It is He Who created you from a single person, and made his mate of
like nature, in order that he might dwell with her (in love)...
Sura 42, Verse 11 states:
(He is) the Creator of Heaven and the Earth: He has made for you a pair
from among yourselves...
Sura 49, Verse 13 states:
O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of male and female, and
made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other ( not that
you despise each other)...
And Sura 16, Verse 72 States:
And Allah has made for you mates (and Companions) of your own nature...
Women's Spiritual Status in Islam
Not only in the idea of creation Islam has granted equality to men and
women, but also women are given the same spiritual status as men. For example
Qur'an Sura 33 Verse 35 states:
For Muslim men and women- For believing men and women. For devoted men
and women, for true men and women, for men and women who are patient and
constant, for men and women who humble themselves, for men and women who
give in charity, for men and women who fast ( and deny themselves), for
men and women who guard their chastity, and for men and women who engage
much in Allah praise- for them has Allah prepared forgiveness and great
In Sura 74, Verse 38 the Qur'an states:
Every soul will be (held) in pledge for its deeds.
In Sura 16, Verse 97 the Qur'an states:
Whoever works righteousness, man or woman, and has Faith, Verily, to
him will We give new Life, and life that is good and pure, and We will
bestow on such their reward according to the best of their actions.
In Sura 4, Verse 124 the Qur'an states:
If any do deeds of righteousness-be they male or female and have faith,
they will enter Heaven, and not the least injustice will be done to them.
In the above verses a woman's obligations to the Islamic principles
and practices are the same as those of a man. Women are not exempted from
any of these obligations because of their gender. However, under special
circumstances a woman may not be required to fast, examples would be when
she is pregnant, or is nursing a child-- if fasting threatens her life
or her child's life. A man or a woman is exempt from fasting if he/she
is sick or traveling. But he/she must make up for days he/she has missedin fasting at a more convenient time. A woman may not fast or participate
in the performance of prayers during her menstrual periods and after child
birth as long as she is bleeding. But again, she must make up for the days
she has missed fasting.
Women Rights In Islam Regarding Education
The Qur'an and Hadiths of the Prophet both obligate Muslim men and women
to acquire knowledge and education. It is a duty for every Muslim. For
example, concerning knowledge and education the Qur'an Sura 35 Verse 28
Those truly fear Allah, among His Servants, who have knowledge.
Prophet's Hadiths repeatedly emphasizes the acquirement of education
and knowledge for every Muslim male and female. For example, one Hadith
states that, " Seeking knowledge is a duty of every Muslim, man or
woman." (Ayisha Lemu 1978: 25). Another Hadith states, " Seek
knowledge from the cradle to grave." (1978:25). Another Hadith states
that, " The Father, if he educates his daughter well, will enter Paradise."
(The World Bank Report July 9, 1993: 25). Yet another Hadith states that,
" A mother is a school. If she is educated, then a whole people are
educated" (1993: 25).
In early of Islamic history there were many women scholars who had very
significant roles in the Islamic world. For example Ayisha, the Prophet's
wife was one of the most famous Muslim scholars. Not only was she very
intelligent, she had an exceptional memory. That is why she was considered
one of the most important sources of Hadith. It has been stated in some
Islamic reports that the Prophet told the Muslims to go to Ayisha for guidance
and learning of religious duties. The Prophet also told the Muslims to
trust Ayisha's teaching and guidance( Lemu 1978:: 251).
In the Islamic world, at the beginning of Islam, there were no restrictions
or prohibitions toward women to seek knowledge and education. There were
many women scholars in the fields of religion, literature, music, education,
and medicine. For example, a woman named Nafisa who was related to Ali,
the fourth Khalif, had a vast knowledge of and was an expert on the Hadiths
of the Prophet. Many famous Muslim scholars of the time, such as Imam Shafi-ai
would participate in Nafisa's scholarly discourse and learn from her (1978:
Women's Social Position In Islam
In the pre-Islamic era, in the Arab societies, the women were deprived
of the most basic human rights that is required for human existence. The
practice of female infanticide was widely practiced among some of the Arab
tribes. The first and foremost contribution that Islam made to elevating
the social status of the Arab women was to give them the right to live.
Islam forbade this inhuman practice and was highly critical of the attitudes
allowing parents to reject their female children. Islam viewed the practice
as a crime and murder.
Concerning the birth of a girl child and the patriarchal Arab society's
attitudes toward it, the Qur'an Sura 16, verse 58 states:
When news is brought to one of them, of (the birth of) a female (child),
his face darkens, and he is filled with inward grief!
The issue is continued in the Verse 59 in the same Sura,
With shame does he hide himself from his people, because of the bad
news he had! On ( sufferance and) contempt, or bury it in dust? Ah! what
an evil (choice) they decide on?
In Sura 81 Verses 8 and 9 the Qur'an states:
When the female (infant) buried alive, is questioned- For what crime
she was killed;
Thus, the Qur'an viewed both the attitude of contempt and shame concerning
the birth of a female child and the act of infanticide as equally evil.
Along with saving the lives of women, Islam made sure they were treated
with respect, kindness and justice. Women's Rights Concerning Marriage
The equality of men and women is recognized by Islam in marriage. The
Qur'an views the marriage of a man and a woman as sharing of the two halves
of society. The objective of marriage, aside from human reproduction, are
love, mercy, mutual respect, justice, emotional well being and spiritual
harmony. Concerning this subject, the Qur'an Sura 30, Verse 21 states:
Among His Signs is this, that He created for you mates from among yourselves,
that ye may dwell in tranquillity with them, and He has put love and mercy
between your (hearts): Verily in that are Signs for those who reflect.
This verses is central because it defines the relationship between the
husband and the wife. Their relation is not just sexual, but also it involves
love, mutual care, consideration and respect.
The Qur'an strongly emphasizes regulations governing behavior, conduct
and human relation, for the purpose of preserving the family. The woman's
role within the family is a crucial one, because it is in the family that
the next generation of Muslims are raised. The woman as the mother has
the crucial role as the early socializer and educators of the children.
This role has a long lasting effect on the behavior, character and attitudes
of the future generation of Muslims.
Islamic Law forbids the marriage of a woman by force. The girl's and
the boy's consent is necessary. Although the parents play a major role
in deciding a girl's or a boy's choice of mates, the final decision is
up to the girl and the boy. For example, according to Ibn Abbas, a girl
came to the Prophet and said that her father had forced her into marriage
without her consent. The prophet gave her the choice of either continuing
the marriage, or invalidating it (Badawi 1976: 139).
There are verses in the Qur'an concerning men and women that are controversial
and have been the topic of discussion by various scholars through out the
Islamic history. These verses have been used by different individuals in
order to discredit Islam. For example, in Sura 2 Verse 228 the Qur'an states:
And women shall have rights similar to rights against them, according
to what is equitable. But men have a degree (of advantage) over them. And
Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise.
This verse has been interpreted in different ways. Some see it as a
degree in intelligence, other view it as a degree in superiority. However,
many Muslim scholars argue that the degree is related to qiwama , that
is, maintenance of the family. A man is legally obligated for this responsibility.
Therefore, this "degree above them" has an economic base and
has nothing to do with intelligence or superiority of men over women (1976
Another controversial verse deals with the marriage of a men to two,
three or four women. In Sura 4 Verse 3 the Qur'an states:
If ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly with orphans, marry
women of your choice, two, or three, or four; But ye fear that ye shall
not be able to deal justly (with them), Then only one...
This verse first sets the conditional clause of the orphans, that introduces
the rules for marriage. This verse comes after the war of Uhud when the
Muslim community had to deal with many orphans and widows. The Qur'an allows
marriage of a man to up to four women, so that the war widows and their
children are protected from destitution. The Qur'an also orders the Muslims
to treat the orphans and widows with justice and equality (Qur'an note
508, page: 184).
However, in Sura 4, Verse 129 the Qur'an states:
Ye are never able to be fair and just as between women, even if it is
your ardent desire: but turn not away (from a woman) altogether, so as
to leave her (as it were) hanging (in the air). If ye come to a friendly
understanding, and practice self-restraint, Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most
Although the Qur'an allows a man to marry up to four women, it also
sets conditions to this rule, that is, the husband must treat his wives
with equality and justice in every aspect, that is, love, maintenance and
so on. Moreover, in the verse 129 that the Qur'an states that a man is
never capable of treating all his wives equally and justly in every aspect
of life. Thus in truth, Islam encourages marriage with only one woman.
From the Islamic point of view, all family decisions should be done
with mutual agreement of husband and wife, even if it is only weaning of
a child from nursing.. For example, in Sura 2 Verse 233 the Qur'an states:
... If they [husband and wife] both decide on weaning, by mutual consent,
and after due consultation, there is no blame on them.
The Qur'an and Hadiths both emphasizes the treatment of women with respect,
justice and kindness. For example, one Hadith states "Fear God and
respect women," another states " the best person amongst you
is the one who has the best attitude toward women".
In pre-Islamic Arab societies, women were bought and sold as commodity.
Islam by giving women the right to decide who to marry, and have a part
in the marriage contract, elevated her status from that of a commodity
to that of an equal partner in the marriage institution.
The Qur'an also gave women the right to own her ownmahr. The mahr is
a payment that the husband makes to the wife, and is an important part
of the marriage contract. It provides a woman with some kind of economic
means in case of divorce and it also gives the woman the means of controlling
the man's power of divorce (Esposito 1982: 17, 24-26).
The rights of women concerning divorce are also recognized by Islam.
Women have the same rights as those of men. However, due to the importance
placed on the family in Islam, for its protection and maintenance, certain
procedures must be followed by both men and women. For example, after the
divorce both a man and a woman must wait a period of three months, called
iddah . During this period of time the husband is responsible for the wife's
maintenance. This waiting period has two functions: (1) to clarify whether
the woman is pregnant or not. If she is pregnant, the husband is responsible
for the wife's maintenance until the child is born. Furthermore, if the
woman who is divorced has a young child, she can nurse the child for up
two years and the father must maintain both the woman and her child. (2)
Iddah also function as a cooling-off period during which the relatives
and the community will try to help reconcile the couple ( Lemu 1978: 257-258).
The Economic and Political Position of Women In Islam
Islam has given women the rights to work, to own property and to have
wealth. Women can seek employment and work in profession such as medical
care, teaching, civil and justice professions. These rights remains the
same before and after marriage.
Regarding the right to work, the Qur'an Sura 4 Verse 32 states:
And in nowise covet those things in which Allah hath bestowed His gifts
more freely on some of you than on others: to men is allotted what they
earn, and to women what they earn: But ask Allah of his bounty. For Allah
hath full knowledge of all things.
In the Islamic history there were no restrictions in women's full participation
in the economic, political and social spheres of their society. For example,
Khadija, the Prophet's first wife was one of the most important merchants
of the time, and the Prophet himself was her employee. Ayisha, the Prophet's
other wife was one of his most important advisers and consultants. In the
early Islamic history women not only participated in various aspects of
their society's public sphere, they also had the right to be elected to
political offices. For example, Omar the second Khalif appointed a woman
to oversee the affairs of the marketplace. The women also participated
in wars and fought in the battles.
Islam give women the right to inheritance. Neither her father nor her
husband can lay any claim to her share of inheritance. Regarding this issue
the Qur'an, Sura 4 Verse 7 states:
From what is left by parents, and those nearest related there is a share
for men and a share for women, whether the property be small or large-a
In Sura 4 Verse 11 the Qur'an states:
Allah (thus) directs you as regards your children's (inheritance): to
the male, a portion equal to that of two females...
This Verse also has been the center of controversy. Many individuals
believe that this decision does not benefit women economically. Others
argue that the decision is fair because a man is legally obligated to maintain
his wife, children, parents and other relatives who are in need of assistance.
Whereas a woman is exempt from these legal obligations. Her share is hers
alone, she does not have to contribute to the family's maintenance if she
does not wantto do so.
The above brief discussion shows the equal status of men and women in
Islam. However, in practice, these rights have been violated and the position
of Muslim women has undergone dramatic changes for the worst since early
Islamic era. Upon the death of the Prophet, the restriction of women's
rights began to increase with the course of history. The pre-Islamic societies
of Arab, Persian, Indians and others were patriarchal societies. They had
their own cultures, customs, and belief systems.
The rapid expansion of Islam did not leave the new converts enough time
to obtain sufficient Islamic education. This lead to disagreements between
the new converts and the process of Islamization, that is, Islamic education
and acculturation. These factors, in conjunction with growing wealth, leisure
activities, sensuality combined with the corrupt morality of royals that
influenced the upper class, stirred fear in all classes of urban groups
for the chastity of their women. The socio-historical causes which led
to the deterioration in the position, status, and role of Muslim women
are many. the effect of these causes on the position of women was grave
and led to their severe oppression. Her social, economic and political
rights were violated. To make matters worse, her face, public presence,
and voice became Awarah , that is, the subject of concealment(Alyamoni
unpuplished Dissertation, University of Ilinois at Urbana-Champaign 1985: