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Queen Rania of Jordan attends an Arab Women's Summit, marking the Year of the Arab Woman, in Cairo, November 11, 2001.
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What factors determine the changing roles of women in the Middle East and Islamic societies?

More rights than one might think

Some Americans believe that Muslim women are oppressed by their religion, forced to cover themselves completely, denied education and other basic rights. It is true that Muslim women, like women all over the world, have struggled against inequality and restrictive practices in education, work force participation, and family roles. Many of these oppressive practices, however, do not come from Islam itself, but are part of local cultural traditions. (To think about the difference between religion and culture, ask yourself if the high rate of domestic violence in the United States is related to Christianity, the predominant religion.)

In fact, Islam gives women a number of rights, some of which were not enjoyed by Western women until the 19th century. For example, until 1882, the property of women in England was given to their husbands when they married, but Muslim women always retained their own assets. Muslim women could specify conditions in their marriage contracts, such as the right to divorce should their husband take another wife. Also, Muslim women in many countries keep their own last name after marriage.

A peasant woman tending her sheep in Turkey [ enlarge ]

The Quran explicitly states that men and women are equal in the eyes of God. Furthermore, the Quran:

  • forbids female infanticide (practiced in pre-Islamic Arabia and other parts of the world)
  • instructs Muslims to educate daughters as well as sons
  • insists that women have the right to refuse a prospective husband
  • gives women rights if they are divorced by their husband
  • gives women the right to divorce in certain cases
  • gives women the right to own and inherit property (though in Sunni Islam they get only half of what men inherit. Men are expected to care for their mothers and any unmarried female relatives, and would, it is reasoned, need greater resources for this purpose.)
  • While polygyny is permissible, it is discouraged and on the whole practiced less frequently than imagined by Westerners. It is more frequent in the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia. Many Muslims cite the Quranic phrase "But treat them equally... and if you cannot, then one [wife] is better" and argue that monogamy is preferable, or even mandatory.

The Quran and the role of women

As the Islamic state and religion expanded, interpretations of the gender roles laid out in the Quran varied with different cultures. For example, some religious scholars in ninth- and 10th-century Iraq were prescribing more restrictive roles for women, while elite women in Islamic Spain were sometimes able to bend these rules and mix quite freely with men (see Walladah bint Mustakfi below).

Some contemporary women -- and men as well -- reject the limitations put on women and are reinterpreting the Quran from this perspective.

Local cultural traditions

Persian miniature painting of the court of a Sassanian prince [ enlarge ]

Before the arrival of Islam in the seventh century, upper-class women in Byzantine society and Sassanian women of the royal harem wore the veil as a mark of their high status. This custom was adopted by elite women in early Islamic society in the same region. Many nomadic women, however, maintained their traditional freedom of movement and less restrictive dress codes even after conversion to Islam.

Quranic rights for women were not always followed, depending on the strength of local patriarchal customs. Women in 19th-century Ottoman Egypt, for example, were often not given the full inheritance due them by law. If they challenged the family members who withheld their money in an Islamic court, however, they could win. This is still the case in family law practices in some countries.

Female political leaders in Muslim societies

Some women in Muslim societies have been prominent political actors. Female relatives of the Prophet Muhammad were particularly important in the early Muslim community because they knew his practice and teachings so well. Other women came to power through fathers or husbands. Still others wielded power behind the scenes.

  • Aisha, the favored wife of Muhammad, had great political clout and even participated in battle (the Battle of Camel).
  • Razia was a Muslim woman ruler of 13th-century India.
  • Amina was a 16th-century queen of Zaria in present-day Nigeria.
  • Shajarat al-Durr was briefly sultan in Mamluk Egypt, but was the power behind the throne for even longer.
  • The so-called "sultanate of women" in the Ottoman Empire during the 17th century was a period when several strong women had enormous power over affairs of state.
  • Huda Shaarawi, who became famous for discarding her face veil, also established a women's political party and worked for Egyptian independence from Britain in the first half of the 20th century.

Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan answers a reporter's question, June 5, 1989. Bhutto became the Muslim world's first female premier when she was elected in 1988 at the age of 35. [ enlarge ]

Today there is a small but growing number of women in the parliaments of Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon, and in the fall of 2002, the Moroccan parliament is hoping to bring women into 25 percent of its seats. Contemporary Muslim women heads of state have included Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia, Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, Tansu Ciller of Turkey, and Khaleda Zia and Sheik Hasina Wazed of Bangladesh.

Women as religious leaders

Sufism is an important branch of Islam emphasizing mysticism and one's personal relationship with God. The tenets of Sufism were first articulated by a woman named Rabia, a freed slave who became a prominent scholar in the eighth-century city of Basra in Iraq. She refused to marry because she did not want any earthly distractions from her love of God. Fatima, the Prophet Muhammad's daughter, and Zaynab, the Prophet's granddaughter, are also very important role models of piety for women in the Islamic world.

Contemporary women are also important religious leaders. Zaynab al-Ghazali led the women's wing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. There are numerous women teachers, preachers, and Islamist leaders in contemporary Iran, one example being Zahra Rahnavard. In the United States, Riffat Hassan is a well-known American Muslim scholar.

The role of wealth and class

Lebanese co-workers huddle around a computer monitor. [ enlarge ]

Wealthier women historically have had more economic and educational opportunities by virtue of their class. Many wealthy women were and continue to be highly educated, their money and intelligence giving them the power to ignore society's traditional expectations of women and to participate fully in the economic, political, and cultural life of their community.

Wealthy women, however, have often been more restricted in their clothing and movement in public, since keeping them covered and out of public life is a way to demonstrate status. Poorer and rural women have had relatively more freedom of movement but fewer educational opportunities. In addition, women in highly segregated Muslim societies sometimes created (and still do create) their own society set apart from the male world. Segregation does not necessarily mean isolation for women, though it obviously has many other effects.

Individual personality and abilities

Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum [ enlarge ]

Whatever the cultural and economic background of a woman, her own abilities and personality greatly determine what she can achieve in her society.

  • Khadija, first wife of the Prophet, was a confident and shrewd businesswoman. She first hired the Prophet to lead her trading caravans, then proposed marriage to him although she was many years his senior. She was the first person to convert to Islam.
  • Walladah bint Mustakfi, a spirited noblewoman and noted poet of 11th-century Cordoba, gave parties with both men and women where she read her poetry. She declared, "I am by God fit for great things/And go my way armed with pride."
  • The contemporary singer Umm Kulthum, who came from a modest village background, was considered by many to be the voice and conscience of Egypt. Even today her memory and music have great appeal throughout the Arab world.

The "veil"

An Iraqi woman crosses a street in Zakhu, Iraq. [ enlarge ]

The veil is often seen in the West as a symbol of Muslim women's subordinate position in society, but its meaning and use vary enormously in Muslim societies.

  • The Quran directs both men and women to dress modestly, but the actual interpretation and implementation of this rule varies enormously.
  • Historically, the veil has been related to social class, not religion. The veil was first adopted from pre-Islamic Byzantine and Persian customs. In most areas, poor and rural women have covered themselves less than urban and elite women.
  • Within Islam, head coverings (hijab) vary by culture. They range from loose scarves to veils and full-length coverings, such as the burqa worn by many Afghan women. There is also a new style called "Islamic dress," in which a loose coat is worn with a scarf tied over the hair. Covering of the face was more common in the past than it is today, more so in some regions than others. Head covering is not solely a facet of Islam, however, and women of many cultures and religions cover their heads in different ways.
  • Veiling rules vary from country to country. In the modern period, strict laws about women's dress are often used to emphasize the religious orientation of a particular government, as in Iran or Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, Turkey does not allow women to wear the veil in public offices or universities because the Turkish state is committed to a more secular identity. The veil is also discouraged in Tunisia. In all cases, many citizens are dissatisfied with the law.

Related Video:
Veiling and Feminism (2:48) Watch

In many cases the varied practice of veiling is a personal, but not necessarily a permanent, choice made by women.

Back to top

Related sites

Muslims: Women and Islam: shows/muslims/themes/women.html
Is Islam inherently discriminatory? What is Muslim women's role in the Islamic resurgence? And what does it mean to be a Muslim "feminist"?

Muslim Women's League Web Site:
The Muslim Women's League is a nonprofit American Muslim organization working to implement the values of Islam and thereby reclaim the status of women as free and equal.

Women in Afghanistan: -dec01/afghanwomen_11-21.html
Four Afghan women talk to NewsHour about their repression during Taliban rule. (November 2001)

Introduction to Islam:
This introductory book on Islam includes a chapter on women.

Biographical Sketches:

Biographical sketches of influential Muslim women

Women, Class, and Islam during the Ottoman Empire: /module2/tutorial2a.htm
A tutorial on women, class, and Islam during the Ottoman Empire

Biographies on Rabia, one of the first Sufis, including translated quotations from her speeches

The Muslim Sisters' Homepage:
This Web site is meant to help people to understand the true stance Islam takes on gender issues and the role of women.

Women in Iran:
Vis à Vis discusses women's rights in Iran, pre-Islamic Revolution through today.

Gender Issues in Islam:
Students will compare and contrast the roles of men and women with regard to various topics in the six countries featured in the film.

A Woman's Place:
Students will learn about women's status in Iran and the U.S. across different points in history, explain why women in Iran dress and interact with men in specific ways, and relate this to certain groups/religions in the U.S., and adopt the perspective of a woman living at a different time in the U.S. or Iran.

Divas: The Interviews:
Interviews with Iranian women about poetry, religion, politics, marriage, film, youth, and freedom of the press

Reaching Across the Divide:
Attacks prompt a Muslim woman to teach others about her faith, dispel myths, and build understanding.

Center for Near Eastern Studies: Media: Veiling and the Media:
This site provides a variety of viewpoints and resources in the Western popular media that look at veiling of Muslim women.

Related topics

Culture: A Rich Mosaic

Religion: Three Religions, One God

Jump To:

The Quran and the role of women

Local cultural traditions

Female political leaders in Muslim societies

Women as religious leaders

The role of wealth and class

Individual personality and abilities

The "veil"


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