Muslim Women

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Muslim Women

Excerpt from "The Women of Islam: The Taliban Perfected Subjugation, But Nowhere in the Muslim World Are Women Treated as Equals"

   Published by Time Magazine, December 3, 2001

Women living under the religion of Islam at the start of the twenty-first century are subjected to different levels of discrimination and oppression, depending on which country they reside in and who is in power. Nowhere are they treated as equals to men. Women of Afghanistan under Taliban rule between 1996 and 2001 became virtual prisoners in their homes, unable to hold jobs, go to school, or walk outside their homes without a male relative as an escort, or companion. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Pakistan continue to severely restrict women's rights. Egypt and Jordan are more moderate, or fair, and allow more freedoms for women, such as holding professional jobs and attending universities. Women in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Turkey have the greatest degree of equality.

"Saudi women are not allowed to drive. They are effectively forbidden education in fields such as engineering and law. They can teach and provide medical care to other women but are denied almost all other governmental jobs."

In the 2000s, the struggle over women's rights is a struggle between conservative, or traditional, Muslims (followers of Islam) and more moderate Muslims. Iraq provides one example. When Saddam Hussein (1937–) was in power from 1979 until overthrown by the United States military in 2003, Iraqi women held jobs and attended universities with far fewer restrictions than in other Muslim countries. They enjoyed more civil rights such as the freedom to vote, choose their own husbands, inherit property equally with their brothers, and retain custody of children if divorced. Hussein came under increasing pressure in the 1990s from Islamic religious clerics (leaders) to restrict women's rights. In concession, Hussein banned women from traveling without a male relative escort. When the United States removed Hussein from power, Shiite Muslim clerics moved to assert their power over women. About 60 percent of Iraqis are Shiite Muslims, one branch of the Islam faith. The Shiite clerics decreed that women must wear an abaya, head-to-toe black loose clothing, in public. They also moved to push many women out of their professional jobs. Such oppression is deeply rooted in Islam.

In pre-Islamic times, women were treated as inferior beings. During his life, Muhammad (570–632), the founder of Islam who lived in the seventh century, was concerned with the treatment of women. He halted the practice of female infanticide, the murdering of unwanted, newborn girls. He allowed women to attend the mosque, an Islamic place of worship, and pray. Muhammad gave women the right to inherit property, although only half as much as their brothers. It was a step forward for women. Concerned about the number of widows left helpless when husbands were killed in warfare, Muhammad allowed men to take four wives as long as he treated them equally. Muhammad required his wives to veil themselves when they went out in public. Muslims were to speak to the prophet's wives only if a screen or curtain separated them. That screen was the veil. During Muhammad's time, other Muslim women did not wear the veil.

Shortly after the death of Muhammad, conditions of women deteriorated rapidly under Umar (581–644), Muhammad's successor. Umar restricted women to praying at home and excluded them from major religious rituals. He required all women to be veiled and prohibited them from speaking to men. This exclusion and seclusion severely restricted women's freedom. Any rights women had were eliminated. Further, as Islam grew and its principles were established, limitations of women were declared as divine law from Allah, the Islam god.

Fourteen centuries later, a majority of women living in Islamic countries still believe restrictions on women are Allah's law. The following excerpt "The Women of Islam" describes conditions women live under in a number of Islamic countries.

Things to remember while reading excerpts from "The Women of Islam":

  • Nowhere in the Muslim world are women treated as equals to men.
  • Policies of exclusion and seclusion under Sharif (Muslim law) severely limit women in Muslim society and entrench inequality in marriage, employment, education, and participation in politics.
  • Limitations on the rights of women vary between different Muslim countries.

Excerpt from "The Women of Islam"

The Prophet Muhammad … improved the status of women in 7th century Arabia. In local pagan society, it was the custom to bury alive unwanted female newborns; Islam prohibited the practice. Women had been treated as possessions of their husbands; Islamic law made the education of girls sacred duty and gave women the right to inherit property….

Of course, ancient advances do not mean that much to women 14 centuries later if reform is, rather than a process, a historical blip subject to reversal. While it is impossible, given their diversity, to paint one picture of women living under Islam today, it is clear that the religion has been used in most Muslim countries not to liberate but to entrench inequality. The Taliban, with its fanatical subjugation of the female sex, occupies an extreme, but it nevertheless belongs on a continuum that includes, not so far down the line, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Pakistan and the relatively moderate states of Egypt and Jordan. Where Muslims have afforded women the greatest degree of equality—in Turkey—they have done so by overthrowing Islamic precepts in favor of secular rule … "The way Islam has been practiced in most Muslim societies for centuries has left millions of Muslim women with battered bodies, minds and souls."

Part of the problem dates to Muhammad. Even as he proclaimed new rights for women, he enshrined their inequality in immutable law, passed down as God's commandments and eventually recorded in scripture. The Koran allots daughters half the inheritance of sons. It decrees that a woman's testimony in court, at least in financial matters, is worth half that of a man's. Under Shari'a, or Muslim law, compensation for the murder of a woman is half the going rate for men. In many Muslim countries, these directives are incorporated into contemporary law….

In Islam, women can have only one spouse, while men are permitted four. The legal age for girls to marry tends to be very young….

In Iran the legal age for marriage is nine for girls, 14 for boys. The law has occasionally been exploited by pedophiles, who marry poor young girls from provinces, use and then abandon them. In 2000 the Iranian Parliament voted to raise the minimum age for girls to 14, but this year, a legislative oversight body dominated by traditional clerics vetoed the move. An attempt by conservatives to abolish Yemen's legal minimum age of 15 for girls failed, but local experts say it is rarely enforced anyway….

Wives in Islamic societies face great difficulty in suing for divorce, but husbands can be released from their vows virtually on demand, in some places merely by saying "I divorce you" three times. Though in most Muslim states, divorcés are entitled to alimony, in Pakistan it lasts only three months, long enough to ensure that the woman isn't pregnant. The same three-month rule applies even to the Muslim minority in India. There, a national law provides for long-term alimony, but to appease Islamic conservatives, authorities exempted Muslims.

Fear of poverty keeps many Muslim women locked in bad marriages, as does the prospect of losing their children…. Maryam, an Iranian woman, says she has stayed married for 20 years to a philandering opium addict she does not love because she fears losing guardianship of her teenage daughter. "Islam supposedly gives me the right to divorce," she says. "But what about my rights afterwards?"

Women's rights are compromised further by a section in the Koran, sura 4:34, that has been interpreted to say that men have 'pre-eminence ' over women or that they are 'overseers' of women. The verse goes on to say that the husband of a subordinate wife should first admonish her to sleep alone and finally beat her. Wife beating is so prevalent in the Muslim world that social workers who assist battered women in Egypt, for example, spend much of their time trying to convince victims that their husbands' violent acts are unacceptable.

Each year hundreds of Muslim women die in "honor killings"—murders by husbands or male relatives of women suspected of disobedience, usually a sexual indiscretion or marriage against the family's wishes. Typically, the killers are punished lightly, if at all….

The Jordanian royal family has made the rare move of condemning honor killings, but the government, fearful of offending conservatives, has not put its weight behind a proposal to repeal laws that grant leniency for killers….

The Koran instructs women to 'guard their modesty.'… Saudi women don a billowy black cloak called an abaya, along with a black scarf and veil over the face; morality police enforce the dress code by striking errant women with sticks. The women of Iran and Sudan can expose the face but must cover the hair and the neck.

Recently a Muslim fundamentalist group in the Indian province of Kashmir demanded that women start wearing the veil: when the call was ignored, men threw acid in the faces of uncovered women.

Limits placed on the movement of Muslim women, the jobs they can hold and their interactions with men are all rooted in fears of unchaste behavior. The Taliban took these controls to an extreme, but the Saudis are also harsh, imposing on women some of the tightest restrictions on personal and civil freedoms anywhere….

Saudi women are not allowed to drive. They are effectively forbidden education in fields such as engineering and law. They can teach and provide medical care to other women but are denied almost all other governmental jobs. Thousands have entered private business, but they must work segregated from men….

Iranian women drive cars, buy and sell property, run their own businesses, vote and hold public office. In most Muslim countries tradition keeps ordinary women at home and off the street, but Iran's avenues are crowded with women. They are 25% of the work force, a third of all government employees and 54% of college students. Still, Iranian women are—like women in much of the Arab world—forbidden to travel overseas without the permission of their husband or father though the rule is rarely enforced in Iran.

Gender reforms are slow and hard fought. In 1999 the Emir of Kuwait, Sheik Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah, issued a decree giving women the right to vote in and stand for election to the Kuwait parliament … Conservatives in parliament, however, blocked its implementation. In addition, the legislature has voted to segregate the sexes at Kuwait University. Morocco's government has proposed giving women more marriage and property rights and a primary rule in developmental efforts, but fundamentalists are resisting the measures.

Muslim women are starting to score political victories, including election to office. In Syria 26 of the 250 members of parliament are female. In Iraq the numbers are 19 out of 250. Four Muslim countries have been or are currently led by women. In Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia, they rose to prominence on the coattails of deceased fathers or husbands. In Turkey Tansu Ciller, Prime Minister from 1993 to 1995, won entirely on her own.

Turkey is an exception to many rules. Women in Turkey are the most liberated in the Muslim world, though Malaysia and Indonesia come close, having relatively progressive cultures before Islam came to Southeast Asia in the 9th century. In Turkish professional life women enjoy a level of importance that is impressive….

Turkey's liberalism is a legacy of the republic's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, an aggressive secularist who gave women rights unprecedented in the Muslim world. Last week the Turkish parliament went further by reforming family law. Previously, a man was head of the household able to make unilateral decisions concerning children. The new law establishes community property in marriages and raises marriage age of girls from 15 to 18….

Iran's parliament recently compromised with conservative clerics to allow a single young woman to study abroad, with her father's permission. Bangladesh passed legislation increasing the punishments for crimes against women, including rape, kidnapping and acid attacks. Egypt has … made it easier for women to sue for divorce. In Qatar women have the right to participate in municipal elections and are promised rights in first-ever parliamentary balloting scheduled to take place by 2003…. Saudi Arabia, the chief holdout, has at least pledged to start issuing ID [identification] cards to women. Today the only legal evidence of a Saudi woman's existence is the appearance of her name on her husband's card. If she gets divorced, her name goes on … the card of her closest male relative, even if she scarcely knows him.

What happened next …

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, discussion on the status of women in Islamic countries increased. Communications increased in the West and Islamic countries. Muslims took advantage of television and the Internet for information sources. On one hand, many thought Islamic culture did not practically keep up with the modern world. On the other hand, conservative Muslims viewed Western culture as evil and something to protect Islam from. As for women's rights, two movements, at odds with each other, were gaining strength.

Governments continued making laws restricting women's freedoms in the name of Shari'a, the Muslim law. In reaction, new women's movements generally led by well-educated Muslim women from wealthy families resisted and protested against such laws. The most hopeful sign for women was that they were gaining a small but significant presence in politics. Demonstrations in the streets of a number of countries against gender discrimination had taken place. In 2001, a number of women joined together and revealed their faces. When men assaulted women protesters in Egypt, hundreds more women protested in the streets. Iranian women had also marched in protest against discrimination of women. Women's movements were in their infancy at the beginning of the twenty-first century in Islamic nations, but appeared to have a growing basis of support.

Did you know …

  • Throughout the world, Muslim women cover their head, neck, and throat as a symbol of modesty. To the West, this practice represents female oppression. Some Muslim women agree but others do not. Many say covering is an identifier of their religion and that they must instead concentrate on oppressive restrictions blocking women from education and jobs.
  • A verse in the Koran, sura 4:34, condones punishment of wives including beating for insubordination. The more liberal interpretation maintains the beatings should be only light taps and only for religious infractions, or violations. Nevertheless, wife beating and abuse remained common in Muslim marriages.
  • Muslim women in Turkey enjoy human rights under law that are unheard of in other Islamic nations. For example communal property (that which is jointly owned by both husband and wife) in marriages is law. Turkey has accomplished this liberalization because its government is run by politicians and is not in the hands of religious leaders.

Consider the following …

  • Muslim schoolgirls in the United States often wear head scarves. There have been several instances of reported harassment in middle and high schools. How would your fellow students react to the wearing of the head scarves in your school?
  • What victories, however small, have Muslim women seen around the world?
  • How do the rights of women in Islamic countries vary, such as between Saudi Arabia and Egypt?

For More Information


Afzal-Khan, Fawzia, ed. Shattering the Stereotypes: Muslim Women Speak Out. Northampton, MA: Olive Branch Press, 2005.

Armstrong, Karen. Inside Islam: The Faith, the Peoples and the Conflicts of the World's Fastest Growing Religion. New York: Marlowe and Company, 2002.

Bowen, Donna Lee, and Evelyn A. Early, eds. Everyday Life in the Muslim Middle East. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002.

Nomani, Asra Q. Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam. San Francisco: Harper, 2005.

Peters, Francis E. Muhammad and the Origins of Islam. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.


Beyer, Lisa. "The Women of Islam: Nowhere in the Muslim World Are Women Treated as Equals." Time Magazine, December 3, 2001.


Women Living Under Muslim Laws. (accessed on December 12, 2006).

Pagan: Someone who is not a Christian, Muslim, or Jew and practices earth- or nature-centered religion.

Entrench: Solidly establish.

Fanatical subjugation: Obsessively enthusiastic governmental control.

Continuum: Scale of gradual differences.

Precepts: Beliefs.

Secular: Nonreligious.

Immutable: Undisputable.

Pedophiles: Adults whose primary sexual interest is in children.

Parliament: The legislature.

Alimony: Payments for support from one former spouse to another after divorce.

Philandering: Sexually unfaithful.

Opium addict: Person addicted to a narcotic drug.

Guardianship: Control and care.

Koran sura 4:34: Location of religious passage, equivalent to chapter and verse in Christian bibles.

Pre-eminence: Superiority.

Subordinate: Lesser valued.

Admonish: Warn.

Leniency: Lesser penalties.

Unchaste: Unwanted sexual.

Segregated: Separated or isolated from.

Implementation: Being carried out.

Segregate: Keep apart.

Fundamentalists: Those who strictly interpret religious guidance.

Coattails: Established influence.

Unilateral: On his own.

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