Gender and Religion: Gender and Islam

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During the twentieth century a new gender discourse focusing mostly on women's roles and rights in Islam emerged in various parts of the Muslim world. As is the case in the West, this gender discussion is not uniform, and it is greatly influenced by local cultures and conditions. The division between men and women pervades Muslim culture from the teachings of the Qurʾān to its language of Arabic, which carefully distinguishes between male and female. Based on the assumed asymmetry between the sexes, gender discourse in Islam concerns itself mainly with issues of power and inequality caused by patriarchal hierarchies that over time were strengthened by the religious, social, and cultural environment. Only recently and in a few places (e.g., in the writings of the American scholar Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle [2003]) has gender discourse started to include marginalized women and men, such as homosexuals. However, Muslim scholarship has always recognized the existence of hermaphrodites, who upset the division between the sexes.

Those involved in contemporary gender discourse operate from various ideologies. Their activities are manifold and include creating public awareness concerning gender issues, reforming laws and policies that are detrimental to women, and rediscovering women's histories. They find their inspiration in varying sources, from the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights to Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh ). This movement has become wide-ranging, and it addresses, for example, women's health issues, domestic and public violence against women, the rights of women to education and work, democratic rights, children's rights, and human rights. In many Muslim countries some of these issues are still considered taboo.

The perceptions of Islam of those involved in gender activities are not monolithic. What binds most of them, however, is that their religion provides the core existential ground for their understanding of gender discourse. The theological reinterpretation of authoritative religious texts is in most cases fundamental to developing new understandings about gender in Islam. Revision of male-centered readings is unavoidable, since these were often influenced by the surrounding culture, which led to a gap between women's reality and the teachings of the Qurʾān that promote gender equality.

Since many Muslim countries continue to be governed by regimes that fail to provide basic needs for their citizens, those fighting for gender equality often face insurmountable difficulties. In spite of this reality, critical voices have come into existence that connect across the Muslim world, nowadays via the internet; they are developing a discourse on human rights, religious rights, and civil society that seeks social change for men and women, and empowerment of women in the public and religious sphere. The awarding of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize to the Iranian Muslim human rights activist Shirin Ebadi (b. 1947) was a victory for all involved in this new gender discourse, for she is a living example of their agenda.

History of the Study of Gender Concerns

The process of rethinking the roles and rights of women in Islam first surfaced at the end of the nineteenth century in disparate places within the Muslim world. At that time, calls for changes in women's conditions emerged in countries ranging from Iran, to India (Bengal), Egypt, and Turkey. Women's voices (among others, Aisha Taymour [18401902], from Egypt) became heard via poems, stories, and essays, while women and men (e.g, Rokeya Sakhawat Hossein [18801932], from Bengal) started to demand education for girls and to question the practices of veiling, segregation, and polygyny. Qāsim Amīn's Tarīr al-Marʾa (The liberation of woman, 1899) stressed the need for women's education. As Leila Ahmed (1992) has pointed out, these objectives were not pursued for the sake of women, but served as a tool to resist colonialism and to transform society into modernity.

The Egyptian Muslim scholar Muammad ʿAbduh (18491905) entered the debate when he called for a correct understanding of Islam by returning to its original sourcesthe Qurʾān and adīth. He interpreted these sources using the method of ijtihād (independent investigation of the religious sources), and when necessary he bypassed the teachings of the four legal schools of Islam, the madhhabs. Using this method, described as modernist, Muammad ʿAbduh placed Qurʾanic verses about women's comprehensive veiling and seclusion, polygyny, and the husband's unilateral divorce rights in their original social and cultural contexts, and he argued that because those contexts had changed, their application in modern times had to be adapted as well.

ʿAbduh's new hermeneutical methods presented an alternative to traditionalist scholars (ʿulamāʾ ), and opened the way for equality between men and women based on Islamic teachings. The ʿulamāʾ used the method of taqlid (that is, to follow the opinions of established scholars of the Muslim past), and applied the teachings of jurisprudence (fiqh, the interpretation of the sharīʿah ) via the four madhhabs of Islam. Traditionalist scholars are still prevalent in many Muslim countries, and their views on women often resemble those of Islamist or fundamentalist Muslims. They teach gender-polarized roles, male authority in the public realm, complementary roles for men and women, and equity but not equality in women's roles vis-à-vis men.

By the early twentieth century, the intellectual, educational, and philanthropic activities of upper- and middle-class Muslim women translated into organized associations, such as the Egyptian Feminist Union set up by Huda Shaʾrawi (18791947), who in 1923 publicly removed her veil upon her return from a gathering of the International Women's Alliance in Rome. Union members were the first women who wrote about women's rights based on the Qurʾān; they argued that veiling the face was not a Qurʾanic injunction.

In 1917, the Muammadīyah-related organization for women called ʿAisyiyah started in Indonesia, with efforts focusing on the religious and secular education of women. Education and journalism were women's most successful ways to advance their cause. Periodicals discussed the veil, women's segregation, Islamic rules, and issues of personal status law, including polygyny. Men welcomed these activities because they considered women to be actors in the national struggles for independence, and in many Muslim countries (Egypt, Turkey, Indonesia), the gender discourse on women remained connected to issues of secular nationalism and national advancement until these countries gained independence from colonial powers.

Around the 1960s, the focus of gender discourse changed. After independence, social reforms by the new nation-states provided education for all and a certain degree of legal protection for women via reformed legal codes. The 1979 revolution in Iran and the rapid transformation of economic and social structures in many Muslim countries triggered a process of redefining Muslim identities that led, among other things, to the ascendancy of Islamist groups. Saudi Arabia encouraged this development by using its oil wealth to spread the puritanical Wahābī interpretation of Islam. Gender discourse regressed in countries where Islamists took control of the government, such as Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sudan. For example, the government of Omar Hassan al-Bashir (who came to power in 1989) in Sudan dismissed women from public employment and limited their mobility by enforcing the rule that they must be accompanied by a maram (male guardian), and the Taliban in Afghanistan prevented women's access to education and healthcare altogether.

Concurrent with these new forces, the feminist movements that emerged in several countries started to take new directions, more or less becoming divided between secular and Muslim activism. Women benefiting from state-provided education acquired the intellectual tools to address issues, such as women's legal position, health, and work, without the assistance of men. In 1972, the Egyptian medical doctor Nawal El Saadawi published the book Al-marʾa wa al-jins (Women and sex), which dealt with sex, religion, and women's circumcision. The book raised awareness about women's sexual oppression across the Muslim world, unleashing intense reaction, especially from the conservative ʿulamāʾ.

Programs emerged that focused on local customs particularly detrimental to women. Women in such African countries as Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Ghana, and Kenya started to question the practice of female genital mutilation, while honor killings became an important topic in the gender debate in Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, and Iraq. These practices were virtually unknown in Southeast Asia and most parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Other groups in Algeria, Nigeria, Iran, Sudan, Pakistan, and Malaysia started to fight the imposition of sharīʿah and research its consequences for women.

Awareness about gender issues was also raised by international initiatives such as the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979) and the United Nations Decade for Women (19751985). Later, the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo (1994) and the World Conference on Women in Beijing (1995) helped boost networking among women activists all over the Muslim world.

Seminal works by Muslim scholars such as Fatima Mernissi and Leila Ahmed analyzed the conditions and mechanisms of women's oppression and exposed the ambiguity of interpretations of Islamic texts and jurisprudence. These writers called for just readings of those texts, readings that were sensitive to the point of view of women. Several women scholars of Islam took up this challenge and the phenomenon of Muslim feminism was born. The early modernist movement positioned women's rights within a program of renewal in Islamic society. It removed many roadblocks for women; however, as several scholars have observed, it did not fundamentally change unequal gender relations and left the system intact. Others argued that by ignoring jurisprudence, the modernist focus on the Qurʾān failed to address the underlying law system of the fiqh that directly ruled women's lives, for example, in matters of marriage and divorce. In order to bring about fundamental changes in the Muslim injunctions concerning women, they proposed a reinterpretation of the rules of the fiqh, which were formed in the ninth century and are susceptible to flaws caused by human intervention.

By the 1990s, broadly speaking, three approaches of feminism (nisāʾīyyah ) shaped Muslim discourse: secular, Muslim, and Islamist.

Secular feminism

Secular feminism is an amorphous term in the Muslim world. It seldom indicates religious indifference (or atheism), although feminists such as Nawal El Saadawi have insisted on their secular identity. Secular refers to those whose activism is not directly based on the Islamic tradition but who struggle for women's rights within the framework of universal values and principles. To them, religion should be restricted to the private and spiritual domains. It also carries reference to the type of activities undertaken. Secular feminists do not have a unified, clear agenda, but in many Muslim countries their efforts to improve women's conditions are met with accusations that they are tarnishing local culture and religion with Western ideas.

To be secular does not necessarily mean "rejecting Islam." In order to underscore this reality, Margot Badran (2002) speaks of "feminism with Islam."

Most women's organizations in the Muslim world are secular in approach, and their agendas are manifold. For example, the Arab Women's Solidarity Association, formed in 1982, which gained headlines in 1992 when it had to move from Egypt under pressure from Islamists, focuses on eliminating honor killings. Egypt is also home to the FGM (female genital mutilation) Task Force, formed in 1994, as well as a coalition of about seventy organizations and individuals under the umbrella of the Egyptian Commission for Population and Development. Some movements congregate under the umbrella of human rights: for example, Women for Women's Human Rights in Turkey. There are too many such organizations to mention, but they form important sources of women's empowerment and civil resistance. For example, the Turkish Women's Movement against Sexual Assault was the first group in an Islamic country to offer legal assistance to victims of sexual assault. The Network of Women Living under Muslim Laws in southern France and the Pakistani Action Forum, founded in 1981, were formed in response to the introduction of the sharī ʿah penal code in various countries. Apart from these grassroots activities, political parties often have women's branches that pursue a specific agenda to advance conditions for women in certain areas of life.

Muslim feminism

The term Muslim feminism emerged in the 1990s and was used in the writings of Muslims to describe a new gender paradigm. It refers to Muslim men and women who ground their methods and ideas in Islamic knowledge, and most of them articulate that the true spirit of the Qurʾān teaches gender equality and social justice. Some Muslim feminists, however, follow the view that women and men complement each other rather than being equal. Muslim feminists reinterpret the Qurʾān in a woman-centered fashion using the methodologies of ijtihād and tafsīr combined with the tools of social science, psychology, history, anthropology, medicine, and so on. In doing this, as Azza Karam (1998) has observed in Egypt, women who wish to engage in the official discourse of the ʿulamāʾ have met with great resistance.

Some scrutinize the various formulations of sharī ʿah (Lebanese Aziza al-Hibri, Pakistani Shaheen Sardar Ali), or re-examine the adīth and Qurʾān (Moroccan Fatima Mernissi, Turk Hidayet Tuksal, Riffat Hassan, and Asma Barlas, the latter two originally from Pakistan). In principle, these feminists follow modernist methodology. This has caused the pendulum to swing back to traditionalist methodologies that focus on fiqh. Muslim scholars such as Khaled Abou El Fadl argue that true gender equality has been obscured by the patriarchal thinking of Islamic jurisprudence as consolidated in the ninth century. A narrow modernist focus on the Qurʾān and adīth only avoids the real problems that are inherent to the legal system. Hence the advice of Kecia Ali that "progressive Muslims cannot afford to ignore jurisprudence" (2003, p. 182). This approach requires extensive knowledge of the Islamic sources.

In Indonesia, the traditionalist organization Nahdlatul Ulama started to apply this method in the 1980s to promote an agenda of justice and social change. Inspired by Abdurrahman Wahid, religious leaders teamed up with feminists to organize the first Islam-based program in the world that advocated women's reproductive rights. Women's groups related to Nahdlatul Ulama, such as the Yayasan Kesejahteraan Fatayat, followed this method, focusing on other aspects of Islamic rights for women. This trend also emerged in Iran with representatives such as Hojjat al-Eslam Seyyed Mohsen Saʾidzadeh (who is prominent in Ziba Mir-Hosseini's Islam and Gender, 1999), and the journals Farzanah and Zanan.

These neo-traditionalists are especially interested in reinterpreting the regulations of Muslim personal status law, which is part of the sharī ʿah and regulates marriage, divorce, and inheritance. They argue that, for example, in order to address the inherent inequalities within the marriage contract, one has to understand the mind frame of the jurists who interpreted the sharī ʿah and saw it as a contract of ownership of the husband over the wife in exchange for a dower. This involved rights of the husband over the wife (he could, for example, forbid her to leave the house). Neo-traditionalists argue that it does not advance the cause of women to narrowly focus on the rights assigned to her by the Qurʾān and ignore the fact that, based on jurisprudence, the majority of Muslim men still see marriage as a modified contract of ownership.

Many Muslim feminists strive to align the Qurʾanic teachings about justice with those of universal human rights. The agenda of this philosophy includes such issues as women's reproductive rights, violence against women, domestic violence, homosexuality, prostitution, democratic rights, and the rights of children and of religious minorities in Muslim countries. Some of these issues still form unspeakable taboos in many parts of the Muslim world. Ironically, all groups discussing gender, from Islamists to progressive feminists, agree that the greatest challenge facing women in Islam is their lack of religious expertise. Where women have gained access to Islamic institutions of higher learning, they can participate in the rereading of the classical religious texts that traditionally were interpreted by men. Women with the required religious knowledge have moved into positions of religious authority, and they have become scholars of Islam and judges. This is still rare in most Muslim countries, and can mainly be witnessed in Indonesia and the United States, and increasingly in Iran.

Examples of Muslim feminist organizations are the Sisters in Islam in Malaysia; Rifka Annisa, Indonesia's first Islamic-based center for women suffering from domestic violence; the women's branches of Muammadīyah and Nahdlatul Ulama; and groups centered around the Iranian journals mentioned earlier.

Islamist feminism

Islamist feminism has grown with the onset of Islamist organizations; it stresses complementarity between men and women, rather than equality and male authority over women. This approach bases women's rights on the Islamic sharī ʿah and favors an Islamic state. Islamists especially reject what they consider to be influences from the West. Both male and female Islamists extol a woman's role as mother and wife. They rely on the ideas of male ideologues, such as the Egyptian Sayyid Qub (19061966), who viewed the family, with a division of labor between husband and wife, as the basis of society. This philosophy led, for example, to women in secular Turkey demanding the right to wear the veil in universities and public offices, and to Muslim women in former Soviet republics calling for the application of polygyny as a tool for achieving women's protection and for allowing the surplus of women to give birth and fulfill their roles as mothers. This view, however, does not mean that all Islamists reject political roles for women.

Islamists claim a return to the fundamentals of faith and to a pure tradition unpolluted by modern influences. Islamists can be intolerant of other views and seek power to impose their ideology by, among other things, controlling women and their sexuality, especially their reproductive faculties. This is accomplished by, for example, denying them access to any form of birth control. Mernissi (1991a, pp. 9899) has observed that since the 1980s Islamism has displayed a growing obsession with women's bodies and social roles, and has promoted texts by misogynist Islamic scholars from the thirteenth through nineteenth centuries. Some Islamists promote practices such as polygyny and early marriage as a means of preventing immorality. For the latter reasons the Shīʿī practice of mutʿah (temporary marriage) has increased in some Sunnī communities. In order to safeguard women's modesty, Islamism imposes dress codes that vary from the face veil of ijāb to the chador that covers a woman from head to toe.

Younger Islamists such as Heba Raouf (b. 1965) from Egypt argue that while being faithful to their roles as wives and mothers, women can occupy the highest public functions as long as they are qualified. Egypt produced the earliest and most prominent women Islamist activists: Zaynab al-Ghazālī (b. 1917), who in 1936 set up the Muslim Women's Association for Islamist women, lauding women's family duties and obligations; Safinaz Qazim (b. 1939), who vigorously campaigns for an Islamic society; and Heba Raouf, who is active in the Muslim BrotherhoodLabor Party Alliance, writes a woman's page in its newspaper, Al-Shaʾb, and is one of the founders of the Islam Online website. These activists combat women's oppression and see Islam as the main tool of liberation. They publicize their views via writing, campaigning, and advising, while considering Western feminism as divisive and individualistic.

Gender Distinctions in the QurʾĀn

The Qurʾān presents a double message concerning the status and rights of women. It considers women and men equal in their religious observance (Qurʾān 33:35); they can both, for example, lay claim to paradise (40:8). The Qurʾān also states that both males and females share the same origin because they were created from the same spirit (nafs ) (4:1, 6:98, 7:189). The Qurʾān does not acknowledge original sin because both Eve and Adam were equally tempted by Satan (7:2022). It refers to husband and wife as each others' "garments" (2:187), recognizes a mother's burden of childbirth (46:15), and comments on the age of weaning (2:233). In principle, the Qurʾān assigns to women considerable rights: they retain their financial independence after marriage and are entitled to maintenance, a dower, and inheritance.

However, these egalitarian texts have counterparts, such as verse 4:34, which some interpret as allowing men to beat their wives in cases of disloyalty, disobedience, or ill conduct. Prejudiced interpretation of this verse can lead to severe domestic violence. The same verse contains the much debated phrase that "men are in charge of [or the protectors of qawwāmūnʿalā ] women because God has given the one more than the other, and because they support them from their means." Traditionally this verse has been explained as referring to a man's superiority over women. However, feminist interpretation has pointed out that qawwāmūn refers to the fact that men should provide for their wives in their role as mothers. Apart from the Qurʾān there is an abundance of traditions, alleged to be from the Prophet, that confirm women's secondary position, stating, for example, that the majority of those entering hell are women.

The original interpreters of the Qurʾān were Middle Eastern men. Muslim feminists argue that these interpretations, as transmitted via the fiqh, are replete with instances where universal teachings from the Qurʾān were confused with local customs and values. Muslim feminists consider this to be most detrimental to women. Like the Qurʾān, most of the fiqh discussions are in principle ungendered; apart from distinctions with regard to menstrual purity, both men and women follow the same rules of purity, and there are no gender distinctions in the ritual obligations. The main gender differences concern the areas of marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody. Together these form the so-called personal status law, which is part of the sharī ʿah -based Muslim family law that is widely debated in the Muslim world.

Muslim Family Law

Muslim family law is based on Islamic law, and in principle it is meant to improve the status of Muslim women. Early Egyptian reformers reinterpreted the law, trying to adhere to classical legal principles in the light of modern conditions, in an attempt to improve women's rights. The most widely followed code used to be based on the Hanafī school. Important contemporary changes in the legal code allow women to enter stipulations in the marriage contract and to protect their position in case of divorce. Tunisia's code (1957) provides the strongest rights for women; it bans polygyny, repudiation (alāq ), forced marriage, and the requirement that male guardians act on behalf of women. Many countries follow a middle course by including a minimum age for marriage, expanding women's rights to divorce, and restricting a man's right to polygyny. Because legal changes still comply with local patriarchal cultures and the demands of the conservative religious establishment, the rules of the personal code remain a central issue in the gender debate. For example, based on the Qurʾān (2:226237; 65:1), many countries preserve the husband's unilateral right to divorce while Muslim women can only apply for a divorce on specific grounds.

With the rise of Islamism, there have been attempts to abandon family legal reforms under the banner of "return to the sharī ʿah." For example, after the revolution in 1979 in Iran, reforms introduced by the previous regimeincreasing the minimum marriage age, restricting men's access to polygamy and unilateral divorcewere repealed. After Muslim activists protested that the new laws caused women great injustice and suffering, many of the abandoned reforms were brought back gradually. In 1992, the Iranian parliament amended the divorce laws to give women better protection in marriage, and in 2002 it increased the minimum age of marriage for girls from 9 to 13.

A few differences stand out between classical Sunnī and Shīʿī law. Divorce is more difficult under Shīʿī law because it requires the presence of two witnesses in pronouncing the divorce statement (alāq ). While Sunnī marriage only ends through death or divorce, Shīʿī law allows a man to contract an unrestricted number of temporary marriages. Activists consider this union detrimental to women because it leaves them without legal rights; for example, they are not entitled to the husband's inheritance.

Shīʿī inheritance law, however, is more favorable towards women. While Sunnī law in the absence of a son allows the daughter only half of the estate, or in some cases gives precedence to agnates, Shīʿī law allows a daughter to inherit the entire estate.

Religious and Domestic Observances in SunnĪ and ShĪʿĪ Islam

Domestic Muslim observances vary greatly depending on local cultures and traditions. Women are expected to fulfill the duties that are believed to form the basic obligations of all believers. They have to suspend these duties when ritually impure because of the flow of blood. Apart from that, the Qurʾān and fiqh do not differentiate male and female rules of worship. Depending on the country, a woman's state of impurity leads to restrictions in mosque attendance and recitation, learning, or touching of the Qurʾān.

The roles of women in religious or cultural-religious activities vary greatly over the Muslim world. Women's activities can include participating in religious vocations as preachers, specialists of the Qurʾān, or teachers of religion, or leading folk religious events such as the zār, a trance ceremony of healing for those who are possessed by spirits. Women also fulfill semi-religious roles in rituals connected with pregnancy, birth, and early childhood.

Although women live secluded in some places such as Bangladesh, northern Nigeria, and northern Sudan, this practice is virtually unknown in other regions. Ideas about seclusion shape women's public role in society, sometimes resulting in the denial to women of the most basic education.

Depending on the local culture, a certain code of conduct for women is identified with Islamic religion. Handbooks concerning duties and good manners instruct women, for example, on how to behave toward their family, neighbors, and other social contacts. Some teachings of such books gained a degree of religious authority after they were adopted into local fiqh texts. The moral code for women varies accordingly; while in the Middle East issues of honor and virginity are central to a family's reputation, they do not feature as such in public discussions in Southeast Asia.

Mosque Attendance

According to a adīth, the prophet Muammad condemned those who sought to prevent women's attendance at the mosque. He also encouraged women to attend the liturgical events associated with the two main Islamic festivals: ʿĪd al-Fir after Ramaān, and ʿĪd al-Aā after the ājj. In addition, women who were menstruating or unmarried and kept from public view were allowed to attend mosque (although menstruating women did not perform the prayer). Later scholars banned young women from mosques, eventually extending this rule to older women as well, fearing deleterious consequences and quoting a adīth that a woman's prayer is more meritorious when performed at home.

Women's mosque attendance differs from country to country and may even differ between rural and urban areas. Although in the main mosque in Mecca men and women pray together, mosques mostly have separate women's sections, and few women attend the Friday prayers. In some cases, women have built their own houses of worship (Indonesian: musholla; Arabic, muallan ); Indonesian Muammadīyah women built musholla as early as the 1920s. Nowadays, many mosques include women who preach (but not the Friday sermon) and teach Islamic lessons for other women. Islamic boarding schools for girls (in Indonesia, Pakistan, Iran, and Iraq) provide extensive religious education and opportunities for women to worship, with women leading daily ritual and tarāwī prayers during Ramaān. Women preachers are gaining popularity due to information technology. Cassettes with their sermons are widely sold, and women preachers even appear on television. Some women who have memorized the Qurʾān are allowed to recite on television and in mosques during nonritual gatherings. For example, in Indonesia Maria Ulfa, who won the 1980 national Qurʾān reciting competition, regularly appears on television.

Women ŪfĪs, Saints, and Sanctuaries

In the formative period of Islam, women had distinctive roles in Sufism as disciples of ūfī masters or as masters themselves. The most famous of them was Rābiʿah al-ʾAdawīyah (d. c. 801) whose poems and sayings were published in 1928 by Margaret Smith (2001). While her legacy is well-known, many ūfī women have vanished from history as their voices were incorporated into men's writings, but Muslim women scholars such as Rkia Elaroui Cornell have begun to rediscover them. In spite of their muffled voices, there have always been women who were regarded as saints, such as the Afghan mystic Hazrat Babajan (d. 1931) and Hagga Zakīyya of Cairo (18991982). Believers were healed through their prayers or consoled by their gift of clairvoyance.

Women's participation in ūfī rituals diminished as public opinion accepted traditions about their spiritual and intellectual inferiority to men. Concurrent with the diminishing of their role in official Islamic discourse, with some exceptions, women were pushed to the margins of ūfī rituals and ceremonies. At the same time, women have continued to play significant roles in rituals surrounding the graves of saints, and women have traditionally been the majority of those visiting shrines to seek blessing or help in solving such problems as infertility. But they do not participate in the dhikrs, and they confine their activities to seeking blessings or participating in public festivals (maulids ). In some places in South Asia women can be itinerant singers or poets and keepers of saints' shrines. Some women saints remained famous after death; the shrines of Zaynab, the Prophet's daughter, in Cairo, Lalla Imma Tifellut in Algeria, and Mai Supran in Punjab continue to attract visitors.

The Impact of Gender Studies

The impact of gender studies in the Muslim world is undeniable and expresses itself in numerous ways. After gaining independence from colonial powers, Muslim nation-states strove to strengthen the public and private position of women by revising personal status law, improving women's education, and providing opportunities for work.

The modernist approach to interpreting the Qurʾān as proposed by Muammad ʿAbduh influenced numerous scholars throughout the Muslim world. Interpretations sensitive to the needs of women forced the traditional ʿulamāʾ to reconsider their positions. Both sides defended their respective points of view in a plethora of books on gender and Islam. Muslims on all sides of the spectrum started to rediscover the social and historical contexts in which the interpretation of the Qurʾān and fiqh were developed. Some have proposed that the way to avoid the influence of negative human interference with the holy texts is to discern the divine, universal principles from within the human interpretations that arose from a cultural and geographic context.

Voices of women have penetrated the public domain and have influenced the academic study of Islam and general attitudes concerning women. On the Aljazeera television channel women are partners in debates about Islam. Women have also set up their own Qurʾān study groups and begun searching for their own histories. They have even started to participate in the reinterpretation of holy texts, the final bastion of male power.

In spite of the fact that gender debates remain controversial in many parts of the Muslim world, their influence reaches beyond issues of male and female. Muslim feminists such as Riffat Hassan, who wrote about equality and justice in Islam, are now engaged in studies on the compatibility between Islam and basic human rights. In some countries (e.g., Indonesia) advocates of women's rights also increase awareness of such issues as economic conditions and poverty, the plight of prostitutes, and debates on democratic rights. As women have become active agents in reflecting on the rules and guarantees granted by Islam, they have triggered a wave of self-reflection that can range from progressive Islam to Islamist expressions. Although in some countries women have had to cope with setbacks in the gender debates, their higher levels of education have opened doors that can never be closed. Women are not only recapturing their own history, they are also shaping it, now that they can read for themselves what the Qurʾān and the holy texts teach. This means that in spite of contrary images in some countries, gender discourse has changed and is still profoundly changing Muslim societies in all parts of the globe.

See Also

Dhikr; adīth; Human Rights and Religion; Islam, overview article; Menstruation; Mosque, article on History and Tradition; Pilgrimage, article on Muslim Pilgrimage; Qurʾān, article on Its Role in Muslim Practice and Life; Spirit Possession, article on Women and Possession; Sufism.


Abou El Fadl, Khaled. Speaking in God's Name: Islamic Law, Authority, and Women. Oxford, 2001. The first neo-traditionalist writing analyzing fiqh teachings about women in English.

Afkhami, Mahnaz. Faith and Freedom: Women's Human Rights in the Muslim World. Syracuse, N.Y., 1995.

Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. New Haven, 1992. One of the first analytical histories of women in Islam that dislodges preconceived notions.

Ali, Kecia. "Progressive Muslims and Islamic Jurisprudence: The Necessity for Critical Engagement with Marriage and Divorce Law." In Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, edited by Omid Safi, pp. 163189. Oxford, 2003.

Badran, Margot. "Feminism and the Qurʾān." In Encyclopeadia of the Qur'an, edited by Jane Dammen McAuliffe, pp. 199203. Leiden, 2002.

Barlas, Asma. Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qurʾān. Austin, Tex., 2002.

Cornell, Rkia Elaroui, ed. and trans. Early Sufi Women. Louisville, Ky., 1999. Based on a manuscript about ūfī women, this volume traces how they were edited out of the history of Islam. In connection with this topic see also Shemeem Burney Abbas, The Female Voice in Sufi Ritual: Devotional Practices in Pakistan and India (Austin, Tex., 2002), which argues that women are central to ūfī Islam through their presence at shrines and their performances as musicians and singers of ūfī poetry, and as a prominent narrative voice in ūfī poetry itself.

Daly Metcalf, Barbara. Perfecting Women: Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanawi's Bihishti Zewar. Berkeley, 1990. One of the few translated handbooks that describe the duties of women and expectations concerning their behavior.

El Saadawi, Nawal. The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World. Translated by Sherif Hetata. London, 1980. Her most famous book, covering women's reproductive rights and the chronic abuse of women.

Engineer, Ashgar Ali. The Rights of Women in Islam. New York, 1992; 2d ed., Chicago, 2004. A widely read example of modernist reading of the Qurʾān.

Esposito, John L., with Natana J. DeLong-Bas. Women in Muslim Family Law. Rev. ed. Syracuse, N.Y., 2001. A useful overview of Islamic rules concerning marriage.

Göle, Nilüfer. The Forbidden Modern: Civilization and Veiling. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1996. Studies the complex relationships between modernity, religion, and gender relations in the Middle East and the Western world.

Hassan, Riffat. "Equal before Allah? Woman-Man Equality in the Islamic Tradition." Harvard Divinity Bulletin 17 (1987): 24. Hassan has written numerous articles in which she rereads texts of the Qurʾān and the tradition that were foundational for misogynist views on women. She has also focused on Islam and human rights.

Ilkkaracan, Pinar, ed. Women and Sexuality in Muslim Societies. Istanbul, Turkey, 2000. One of the few books that addresses a wider range of gender issues, such as lesbian Muslims.

Kandiyoti, Deniz, ed. Women, Islam, and the State. Philadelphia, 1991.

Karam, Azza M. Women, Islamisms, and the State: Contemporary Feminisms in Egypt. New York, 1998. Analyzes the three levels of gender discourse in Egypt with a focus on Islamist ideologies.

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Nelly van Doorn-Harder (2005)

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