Women, Public roles of

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There are religious and historical considerations concerning the inclusion of Muslim women in the public sphere. The Qur˒an addresses women as individuals who are responsible for their moral individuality. It states that no individual, regardless of sex, will be forced to bear hardship beyond his or her capacity (2:233, 2:286); that each person is responsible for his/her own account (6:164, 40:17, 20.15); and that any good deed returns to the one who performs it (2:272).

Qur˒anic Examples

The Qur˒an further associates the call for women's individual piety with communal participation in public good, as indicated in verse 33:53. This verse invites human beings to display their individual and communal virtues for the public good. It also establishes a common obligation for both men and women to endow themselves with the ethical qualities, such as chastity, truthfulness, and patience, which work at both personal and communal levels.

Whereas the Qur˒an provides the general principles governing a women's participation in public life, concrete examples of how they actually participated can also be found in the early history of Islamic civilization. Muslim women in early Islam had numerous public roles in such different fields as the economy, education, religion, and the military. For example, Khadija b. Khuwaylid (d. 619), the Prophet's first wife, was renowned among the Quraysh for her business acumen.

During wartime, Muslim women participated in the military. Muhammad used to bring his wives to the battlefields. ˓A˒isha b. Abu Bakr (d. 678) accompanied the Prophet to the wars and learned many military skills, such as initiating prewar negotiations between combatants, conducting, and ending wars. It should come as no surprise that Muhammad's contemporaries and companions entrusted her military ability to restore justice and the communal good. At the Battle of the Camel, in 656, she led a force of 13,000 soldiers against the caliph ˓Ali (d. 661) after he failed to punish the murderer of ˓Uthman (d. 656). Muslim history is replete with the tales of many other Muslim women warriors, such as Husayba (of the Battle of Uhud, in 625), Umm Umara (of the Battle of Uqraba, in 634), al-Khansa˒ (of the Battle of Qadisiyya, in 636), and Hind bint ˓Utba and Huwayra (of the Battle of Yarmuk, in 637).

Women have also played important roles in the field of religious knowledge. ˓A˒isha was one of the most authoritative sources in the transmission of the prophetic tradition. Hafsa, another Prophet's wife, preserved the original collection of the Qur˒an. And Fatima, the Prophet's youngest daughter, played an equally important role in the transmission of the Prophetic tradition within the eminent Shi ite circles.

Medieval Times

Religious scholarship and outstanding personal devotion in life allowed these and other early Muslim women to insert themselves into the male-dominated public sphere. Rabi˓a al-˓Adawiyya (d. 801) was famous for her mystical pursuits. Sayyida Nafisa (d. 824), a female descendant of the Prophet, was respected for her piety and knowledge. Al-Qushayri's wife, the daughter of his master Abu ˓Ali al-Daqqaq, was renowned for her transmission of hadith as well as for her piety.

In the medieval period, Muslim women achieved less public participation. Compared to the previous generations, only a few Muslim women were well known for transmitting prophetic traditions. Among them were Khadija bint Muhammad (d. 1389), Bay Khatun (d. 1391), and Khadija bint ˓Ali (d. 1468). Women's participation also became less and less visible as their roles were subject to the general codification of Islamic law. The jurists generally agreed that the most honorable roles for women were those of wife, mother, and capable household manager. Less valued but acceptable was the role of religious teacher. The most inappropriate role for women, however, was generally held to be that of a judge or a head of the state. Nonetheless, jurists' opinions varied greatly on female leadership, and Abu Hanifa (d. 767) and Ibn Jarir al-Tabari believed that women could be appointed judges.

The legal assertion of a gender-based division of societal roles excluded women from much of the public sphere, resulting in their seclusion within the private sphere. This exclusion coincided with the misogynistic assumption that women's participation in public life invites evil and creates social disorder for society, largely because of the temptation they pose to men.

Modern Movements

The influx of modernity to the Muslim world has changed the faith of many Muslim women. Opportunities for Muslim women to receive education and get involved in nation building have multiplied. By early 1900, women had become more socially and politically active. Egyptian women, such as Huda Sha˓rawi (1879–1947) and Malak Hifni Nassef (1886–1918), were among the first generation of Muslim women to promote education for women and discuss the possibility that aspects of Western life might be appropriate. The call for educating women was heard as far away as Indonesia. There, men's political activist groups were quickly joined by women's organizations, which provided collaboration and support. For instance, the Muhammadiya ("Way of Muhammad," founded in 1912) had a women's counterpart in the A˒isyiah ("way of ˓A˒isha," founded in 1917). Similarly, the women's counterpart to the Persatuan Islam (Islamic Union, 1923) was the Persatuan Islam Istri (1936), and women supporting the male-only Nahdlatul Ulama ("Rise of Religious Scholars," 1926) formed the N.U. Muslimat (1946).

The trend toward globalization presents ever-greater opportunities for Muslim women to engage in public life. More women find that public participation provides them with an avenue for self-expression and an opportunity to become affluent, whereas others are driven into the public sphere by necessity. Muslim women have availed themselves of the opportunity to contribute to the public good in a variety of ways, such as religious teachers, lawyers, doctors, teachers, farmers, laborers, and politicians. Some Muslim women have become the heads of Muslim states, for example Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan (prime minister, 1988–1990 and 1993–1996), Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia (elected president in 2001), Shaykh Hasina Wajed of Bangladesh (elected prime minister in 1996), and Tansu Ciller of Turkey (prime minister, 1993–1995).

Although women have achieved important advances in the public sphere, the idealization of the proper Muslim woman as a mother and a wife has never died. Islamists, both male and female, continue to disseminate this idea in order to counter ideas of women's roles that they see as having been imported from the West. Zaynab al-Ghazali (b. 1918), the founder of Islamic Women's Association, set forth a critique against women who modeled themselves on the Western ways of life and images, even taking to task her own early mentor, Huda Sha˓rawi.

Embedded in Islamist movements throughout the Muslim world is the ideal image of a veiled wife and mother as the pillar of social order and family. Some such movements praise women's roles as mothers and wives, but still permit them to engage in public life if need drives them to do so; others confine women to their own households, denying them more public roles, as in the case of the Taliban.

See alsoFeminism ; Gender ; Law .


Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of aModern Debate. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992.

Hibri, Azizah Y al-. "An Introduction to Muslim Women's Rights." In Windows of Faith: Muslim Women Scholar-Activists in North America. Edited by Gisela Webb. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2000.

Mernissi, Fatima. The Veil and Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam. Translated by Mary Jo Lakeland. New York: Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1991.

Roded, Ruth. Women in Islam and the Middle East: A Reader. New York: Taurus, 1999.

Etin Anwar

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