Women In Islam

Islam­ic Tra­di­tions & The Fem­i­nist Movement

Confrontation or Co-operation?
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Whether liv­ing in the Mid­dle East or Africa, in Cen­tral Asia, in Pak­istan, in South­east Asia, or in Europe and the Amer­i­c­as, Mus­lim women tend to view the fem­i­nist move­ment with some appre­hen­sion. Although there are some fea­tures of the fem­i­nist cause with which we as Mus­lims would wish to join hands, oth­er fea­tures gen­er­ate our dis­ap­point­ment and even oppo­si­tion. There is there­fore no sim­ple or pat” answer to the ques­tion of the future coöper­a­tion or com­pe­ti­tion which fem­i­nism may meet in an Islam­ic environment.

There are how­ev­er a num­ber of social, psy­cho­log­i­cal, and eco­nom­ic tra­di­tions which gov­ern the think­ing of most Mus­lims and which are par­tic­u­lar­ly affec­tive of wom­an’s sta­tus and role in Islam­ic soci­ety. Under­stand­ing these can help us under­stand the issues which affect male and female sta­tus and roles, and how we should react to move­ments which seek to improve the sit­u­a­tion of women in any of the coun­tries where Mus­lims live.


One of the Islam­ic tra­di­tions which will affect the way in which Mus­lim women respond to fem­i­nist ideas is the advo­ca­cy in Islam­ic cul­ture of an extend­ed rather than a nuclear fam­i­ly system.

Some Mus­lim fam­i­lies are res­i­den­tial­ly extend­ed” — that is, their mem­bers live com­mu­nal­ly with three or more gen­er­a­tions of rel­a­tives (grand­par­ents, par­ents, uncles, aunts, and their off­spring) in a sin­gle build­ing or com­pound. Even when this res­i­den­tial ver­sion of the extend­ed fam­i­ly is not pos­si­ble or adhered to, fam­i­ly con­nec­tions reach­ing far beyond the nuclear unit are evi­dent in strong psy­cho­log­i­cal, social, eco­nom­ic, and even polit­i­cal ties. Mutu­al sup­ports and respon­si­bil­i­ties affect­ing these larg­er con­san­guine groups are not just con­sid­ered desir­able, but they are made legal­ly incum­bent on mem­bers of the soci­ety by Islam­ic law. The Holy Quran itself exhorts to extend­ed fam­i­ly sol­i­dar­i­ty ; in addi­tion it spec­i­fies the extent of such respon­si­bil­i­ties and con­tains pre­scrip­tive mea­sures for inher­i­tance, sup­port, and oth­er close inter­de­pen­den­cies with­in the extend­ed fam­i­ly.1

Our Islam­ic tra­di­tions also pre­scribe a much stronger par­tic­i­pa­tion of the fam­i­ly in the con­tract­ing and preser­va­tion of mar­riages. While most West­ern fem­i­nists would decry fam­i­ly par­tic­i­pa­tion or arranged mar­riage as a neg­a­tive influ­ence because of its appar­ent restric­tion of indi­vid­u­al­is­tic free­dom and respon­si­bil­i­ty, as Mus­lims we would argue that such par­tic­i­pa­tion is advan­ta­geous for both indi­vid­u­als and groups with­in the soci­ety. Not only does it ensure mar­riages based on sounder prin­ci­ples than phys­i­cal attrac­tion and sex­u­al infat­u­a­tion, but it pro­vides oth­er safe­guards for suc­cess­ful mar­i­tal con­ti­nu­ity. Mem­bers of the fam­i­ly pro­vide diverse com­pan­ion­ship as well as ready sources of advice and sym­pa­thy for the new­ly mar­ried as they adjust to each oth­ers’ way. One par­ty of the mar­riage can­not eas­i­ly pur­sue an eccen­tric course at the expense of the spouse since such behav­ior would ral­ly oppo­si­tion from the larg­er group. Quar­rels are nev­er so dev­as­tat­ing to the mar­riage bond since oth­er adult fam­i­ly mem­bers act as medi­a­tors and pro­vide alter­na­tive sources of com­pan­ion­ship and coun­sel fol­low­ing dis­agree­ments. The prob­lems of par­ent­ing and gen­er­a­tional incom­pat­i­bil­i­ty are also alle­vi­at­ed, and sin­gles clubs and dat­ing bureaus would be unnec­es­sary props for social inter­ac­tion. There is no need in the extend­ed fam­i­ly for chil­dren of work­ing par­ents to be unguard­ed, unat­tend­ed, or inad­e­quate­ly loved and social­ized because the extend­ed fam­i­ly home is nev­er emp­ty. There is there­fore no feel­ing of guilt which the work­ing par­ent often feels in a nuclear or sin­gle-par­ent orga­ni­za­tion. Tragedy, even divorce, is not so debil­i­tat­ing to either adults or chil­dren since the larg­er social unit absorbs the resid­ual num­bers with much greater ease than a nuclear fam­i­ly orga­ni­za­tion can ever provide.

The move away from the cohe­sive­ness which the fam­i­ly for­mer­ly enjoyed in West­ern soci­ety, the rise of usu­al­ly small­er alter­na­tive fam­i­ly styles, and the accom­pa­ny­ing rise in indi­vid­u­al­ism which many fem­i­nists advo­cate or at least prac­tice, are at odds with these deep-root­ed Islam­ic cus­toms and tra­di­tions. If fem­i­nism in the Mus­lim world choos­es to espouse the West­ern fam­i­ly mod­els, it should and would cer­tain­ly be strong­ly chal­lenged by Mus­lim wom­en’s groups and by Islam­ic soci­ety as a whole.

Indi­vid­u­al­ism vs. The Larg­er Oranization

The tra­di­tion­al sup­port of the large and intri­cate­ly inter­re­lat­ed fam­i­ly orga­ni­za­tion is cor­rel­a­tive to anoth­er Islam­ic tra­di­tion that seems to run counter to recent West­ern trends and to fem­i­nist ide­ol­o­gy. Islam and Mus­lim women gen­er­al­ly advo­cate mold­ing of indi­vid­ual goals and inter­ests to accord with the wel­fare of the larg­er group and its mem­bers. Instead of hold­ing the goals of the indi­vid­ual supreme, Islam instills in the adher­ent a sense of his or her place with­in the fam­i­ly and of a respon­si­bil­i­ty to that group. This is not per­ceived or expe­ri­enced by Mus­lims as repres­sion of the indi­vid­ual. Oth­er tra­di­tions that will be dis­cussed lat­er guar­an­tee his or her legal per­son­al­i­ty. Fem­i­nism, there­fore, would not be espoused by Mus­lim women as a goal to be pur­sued with­out regard for the rela­tion of the female to the oth­er mem­bers of her fam­i­ly. The Mus­lim woman regards her goals as neces­si­tat­ing a bal­ance with, or even sub­or­di­na­tion to, those of the fam­i­ly group. The ram­pant indi­vid­u­al­ism often expe­ri­enced in con­tem­po­rary life, that which treats the goals of the indi­vid­ual in iso­la­tion from oth­er fac­tors, or as utter­ly supreme, runs against a deep Islam­ic com­mit­ment to social interdependence.

Dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion of Sex Roles

A third Islam­ic tra­di­tion which affects the future of any fem­i­nist move­ment in an Islam­ic envi­ron­ment is that it spec­i­fies a dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion of male and female roles and respon­si­bil­i­ties in soci­ety. Fem­i­nism, as rep­re­sent­ed in West­ern soci­ety, has gen­er­al­ly denied any such dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion and has demand­ed a move toward a uni­sex soci­ety in order to achieve equal rights for women. By uni­sex soci­ety,” I mean one in which a sin­gle set of roles and con­cerns are giv­en pref­er­ence and esteem by both sex­es and are pur­sued by all mem­bers of the soci­ety regard­less of sex and age dif­fer­en­tials. In the case of West­ern fem­i­nism, the pre­ferred goals have been those tra­di­tion­al­ly ful­filled by the male mem­bers of soci­ety. The roles of pro­vid­ing finan­cial sup­port, of suc­cess in career, and of deci­sion mak­ing have been giv­en over­whelm­ing respect and con­cern while those deal­ing with domes­tic mat­ters, with child care, with aes­thet­ic and psy­cho­log­i­cal refresh­ment, with social inter­re­la­tion­ships, were deval­ued and even despised. Both men and women have been forced into a sin­gle mold which is per­haps more restric­tive, rigid and coer­cive than that which for­mer­ly assigned men to one type of role and women to another.

This is a new brand of male chau­vin­ism with which Islam­ic tra­di­tions can­not con­form. Islam instead main­tains that both types of roles are equal­ly deserv­ing of pur­suit and respect and that when accom­pa­nied by the equi­ty demand­ed by the reli­gion, a divi­sion of labor along sex lines is gen­er­al­ly ben­e­fi­cial to all mem­bers of the society.

This might be regard­ed by the fem­i­nist as open­ing the door to dis­crim­i­na­tion, but as Mus­lims we regard Islam­ic tra­di­tions as stand­ing clear­ly and unequiv­o­cal­ly for the sup­port of male-female equi­ty. In the Quran, no dif­fer­ence what­ev­er is made between the sex­es in rela­tion to God. For men who sub­mit [to God] and for women who sub­mit [to God], for believ­ing men and believ­ing women, for devout men and devout women, for truth­ful men and truth­ful women, for stead­fast men and stead­fast women, for hum­ble men and hum­ble women, for char­i­ta­ble men and char­i­ta­ble women, for men who fast and women who fast, for men who guard their chasti­ty and women who guard, for men who remem­ber God much and for women who remem­ber — for them God has pre­pared for­give­ness and a mighty reward” (33:35). Who­ev­er per­forms good deeds, whether male or female and is a believ­er, We shall sure­ly make him live a good life and We will cer­tain­ly reward them for the best of what they did” (16:97).2

It is only in rela­tion to each oth­er and soci­ety that a dif­fer­ence is made — a dif­fer­ence of role or func­tion. The rights and respon­si­bil­i­ties of a woman are equal to those of a man, but they are not nec­es­sar­i­ly iden­ti­cal with them. Equal­i­ty and iden­ti­ty are two dif­fer­ent things, Islam­ic tra­di­tions main­tain — the for­mer desir­able, the lat­ter not. Men and women should there­fore be com­ple­men­tary to each oth­er in a mul­ti-func­tion orga­ni­za­tion rather than com­pet­i­tive with each oth­er in a uni-func­tion society.

The equal­i­ty demand­ed by Islam­ic tra­di­tions must, how­ev­er, be seen in its larg­er con­text if it is to be under­stood prop­er­ly. Since Mus­lims regard a dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion of sex­u­al roles to be nat­ur­al and desir­able in the major­i­ty of cas­es, the eco­nom­ic respon­si­bil­i­ties of male and female mem­bers dif­fer to pro­vide a bal­ance for the phys­i­cal dif­fer­ences between men and women and for the greater respon­si­bil­i­ty which women car­ry in the repro­duc­tive and rear­ing activ­i­ties so nec­es­sary to the well-being of the soci­ety. To main­tain, there­fore, that the men of the fam­i­ly are respon­si­ble for pro­vid­ing eco­nom­i­cal­ly for the women or that women are not equal­ly respon­si­ble, is not a dis­lo­ca­tion or denial of sex­u­al equi­ty. It is instead a duty to be ful­filled by men as com­pen­sa­tion for anoth­er respon­si­bil­i­ty which involves the spe­cial abil­i­ty of women. Like­wise the dif­fer­ent inher­i­tance rates for males and females, which is so often sit­ed as an exam­ple of dis­crim­i­na­tion against women, must not be seen as an iso­lat­ed pre­scrip­tion.3 It is but one part of a com­pre­hen­sive sys­tem in which women car­ry no legal respon­si­bil­i­ty to sup­port oth­er mem­bers of the fam­i­ly, but in which men are bound by law as well as cus­tom to pro­vide for all their female relatives.

Does this mean that Islam­ic tra­di­tions nec­es­sar­i­ly pre­scribe main­tain­ing the sta­tus quo in the Islam­ic soci­eties that exist today ?

The answer is a def­i­nite No.” Many think­ing Mus­lims — both men and women — would agree that their soci­eties do not ful­fill the Islam­ic ideals and tra­di­tions laid down in the Quran and rein­forced by the exam­ple and direc­tives of the Prophet Muham­mad, salal­lahu ale­hi wasal­lam. It is report­ed in the Quran and from his­to­ry that women not only expressed their opin­ions freely in the Prophet’s pres­ence but also argued and par­tic­i­pat­ed in seri­ous dis­cus­sions with the Prophet him­self and with oth­er Mus­lim lead­ers of the time (58:1). Mus­lim women are known to have even stood in oppo­si­tion to cer­tain caliphs, who lat­er accept­ed the sound argu­ments of those women. A spe­cif­ic exam­ple took place dur­ing the caliphate of Umar ibn al Khat­tab.4 The Quran reproached those who believed woman to be infe­ri­or to men (16:57 – 59) and repeat­ed­ly gives expres­sion to the need for treat­ing men and women with equi­ty (2:228, 231 ; 4:19, and so on). There­fore, if Mus­lim women expe­ri­ence dis­crim­i­na­tion in any place or time, they do not and should not lay the blame on Islam, but on the un-Islam­ic nature of their soci­eties and the fail­ure of Mus­lims to ful­fill its directives.

Sep­a­rate Legal Sta­tus For Women

A fourth Islam­ic tra­di­tion affect­ing the future of fem­i­nism in Mus­lim soci­eties is the sep­a­rate legal sta­tus for women which is demand­ed by the Quran and the Shar­i’ah. Every Mus­lim indi­vid­ual, whether male of female, retains a sep­a­rate iden­ti­ty from cra­dle to grave. This sep­a­rate legal per­son­al­i­ty pre­scribes for every woman the right to con­tract, to con­duct busi­ness, to earn and pos­sess prop­er­ty inde­pen­dent­ly. Mar­riage has no effect on her legal sta­tus, her prop­er­ty, her earn­ings — or even on her name. If she com­mits any civ­il offense, her penal­ty is no less or no more than a man’s in a sim­i­lar case (5:83 ; 24:2). If she is wronged or harmed, she is enti­tled to com­pen­sa­tion just like a man (4:92 – 93 ; see also Mustafa al Siba’i 1976:38 ; Dar­wazah n.d.:78). The fem­i­nist demand for sep­a­rate legal sta­tus for women is there­fore one that is equal­ly espoused by Islam­ic tra­di­tions.56


Although the tak­ing of plur­al wives by a man is com­mon­ly called polygamy, the more cor­rect soci­o­log­i­cal des­ig­na­tion is polyg­y­ny. This insti­tu­tion is prob­a­bly the Islam­ic tra­di­tion most mis­un­der­stood and vehe­ment­ly con­demned by non-Mus­lims. It is one which the Hol­ly­wood stereo­types play upon” in their ridicule of Islam­ic soci­ety. The first image con­jured up in the mind of the West­ern­er when the sub­ject of Islam and mar­riage is approached is that of a reli­gion which advo­cates the sex­u­al indul­gence of the male mem­bers of the soci­ety and the sub­ju­ga­tion of its females through this institution.

Islam­ic tra­di­tion does indeed allow a man to mar­ry more than one woman at a time. This lenien­cy is even estab­lished by the Quran (4:3).7 But the use and per­cep­tion of that insti­tu­tion is far from the Hol­ly­wood stereo­type. Polyg­y­ny is cer­tain­ly not imposed by Islam ; nor is it a uni­ver­sal prac­tice. It is instead regard­ed as the excep­tion to the norm of monogamy, and its exer­cise is strong­ly con­trolled by social pres­sures.8 If uti­lized by Mus­lim men to facil­i­tate or con­done sex­u­al promis­cu­ity, it is not less Islam­i­cal­ly con­demnable than ser­i­al polyg­y­ny and adul­tery, and no less detri­men­tal to the soci­ety. Mus­lims view polyg­y­ny as an insti­tu­tion which is to be called into use only under extra­or­di­nary cir­cum­stances. As such, it has not been gen­er­al­ly regard­ed by Mus­lim women as a threat. Attempts by the fem­i­nist move­ment to focus on erad­i­ca­tion of this insti­tu­tion in order to improve the sta­tus of women would there­fore meet with lit­tle sym­pa­thy or support.

II. Direc­tives for the Fem­i­nist Move­ment in an Islam­ic Environment

Inter­cul­tur­al Incom­pat­i­bil­i­ty of West­ern Feminism

The first and fore­most prin­ci­ple would seem to be that many of the goals of fem­i­nism as con­ceived in West­ern soci­ety are not nec­es­sar­i­ly rel­e­vant or exportable across cul­tur­al bound­aries. Fem­i­nism as a West­ern move­ment orig­i­nat­ed in Eng­land dur­ing the 18th cen­tu­ry and had as one of its main goals the erad­i­ca­tion of legal dis­abil­i­ties imposed upon women by Eng­lish com­mon law. These laws were espe­cial­ly dis­crim­i­na­to­ry of mar­ried women. They derived in part from Bib­li­cal sources (e.g., the idea of man and woman becom­ing one flesh,” and the attri­bu­tion of an infe­ri­or and even evil nature to Eve and all her female descen­dants) and in part from feu­dal cus­toms (e.g., the impor­tance of car­ry­ing and sup­ply­ing arms for bat­tle and the con­comi­tant deval­u­a­tion of the female con­tri­bu­tions to soci­ety). The Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion and its need for wom­en’s con­tri­bu­tion to the work force brought strength to the fem­i­nist move­ment and helped its advo­cates grad­u­al­ly break down most of those dis­crim­i­na­to­ry laws.

Since the his­to­ry and her­itage of Mus­lim peo­ples have been rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent from that of West­ern Europe and Amer­i­ca, the fem­i­nism which would appeal to Mus­lim women and to the soci­ety gen­er­al­ly must be cor­re­spond­ing­ly dif­fer­ent. Those legal rights which West­ern women sought in reform of Eng­lish com­mon law were already grant­ed to Mus­lim women in the 7th cen­tu­ry. Such a strug­gle there­fore holds lit­tle inter­est for the Mus­lim woman. In addi­tion, it would be use­less to try to inter­est us in ideas or reforms that run in dia­met­ri­cal oppo­si­tion to those tra­di­tions which form an impor­tant part of our cul­tur­al and reli­gious her­itage. There has been a good deal of oppo­si­tion to any changes in Mus­lim per­son­al sta­tus laws since these embody and rein­force the very tra­di­tions that we have been dis­cussing. In oth­er words, if fem­i­nism is to suc­ceed in an Islam­ic envi­ron­ment, it must be an indige­nous form of fem­i­nism, rather than one con­ceived and nur­tured in an alien envi­ron­ment with dif­fer­ent prob­lems and dif­fer­ent solu­tions and goals.

The Form of an Islam­ic Feminism

If the goals of West­ern fem­i­nism are not viable for Mus­lim women, what form should a fem­i­nist move­ment take to ensure success ?

Above all, the move­ment must rec­og­nize that ; where­as in the West, the main­stream of the wom­en’s move­ment has viewed reli­gion as one of the chief ene­mies of its progress and well-being, Mus­lim women view the teach­ings of Islam as their best friend and sup­port­er. The pre­scrip­tions that are found in the Quran and in the exam­ple of the Prophet Muham­mad, salal­lahu ale­hi wasal­lam, are regard­ed as the ide­al to which con­tem­po­rary women wish to return. As far as Mus­lim women are con­cerned, the source of any dif­fi­cul­ties expe­ri­enced today is not Islam and its tra­di­tions, but cer­tain alien ide­o­log­i­cal intru­sions on our soci­eties, igno­rance, and dis­tor­tion of the true Islam, or exploita­tion by indi­vid­u­als with­in the soci­ety. It is a lack of an appre­ci­a­tion for this fact that caused such mis­un­der­stand­ing and mutu­al dis­tress when wom­en’s move­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the West vis­it­ed Iran both before and after the Islam­ic Revolution.

Sec­ond, any fem­i­nism which is to suc­ceed in an Islam­ic envi­ron­ment must be one which does not work chau­vin­is­ti­cal­ly for wom­en’s inter­est alone. Islam­ic tra­di­tions would dic­tate that wom­en’s progress be achieved in tan­dem with the wider strug­gle to ben­e­fit all mem­bers of the soci­ety. The good of the group or total­i­ty is always more cru­cial than the good of any one sec­tor of the soci­ety. In fact, the soci­ety is seen as an organ­ic whole in which the wel­fare of each mem­ber or organ is nec­es­sary for the health and well being of every oth­er part. Dis­ad­van­ta­geous cir­cum­stances of women there­fore should always be coun­tered in con­junc­tion with attempt to alle­vi­ate those fac­tors that adverse­ly affect men and oth­er seg­ments of the society.

Third, Islam is an ide­ol­o­gy that influ­ences much more than the rit­u­al life of a peo­ple. It is equal­ly affec­tive of their social, polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic, psy­cho­log­i­cal, and aes­thet­ic life. Din,” which is usu­al­ly regard­ed as an equiv­a­lent for the Eng­lish term reli­gion,” is a con­cept which includes, in addi­tion to those ideas and prac­tices cus­tom­ar­i­ly asso­ci­at­ed in our minds with reli­gion, a wide spec­trum of prac­tices and ideas which affect almost every aspect of the dai­ly life of the Mus­lim indi­vid­ual. Islam and Islam­ic tra­di­tions there­fore are seen today by many Mus­lims as the main source of cohe­sive­ness for nur­tur­ing an iden­ti­ty and sta­bil­i­ty to con­front intrud­ing alien influ­ences and the coöper­a­tion need­ed to solve their numer­ous con­tem­po­rary prob­lems. To fail to note this fact, or to fail to be ful­ly appre­cia­tive of its impor­tance for the aver­age Mus­lim – whether male or female — would be to com­mit any move­ment advo­cat­ing improve­ment of wom­en’s posi­tion in Islam­ic lands to cer­tain fail­ure. It is only through estab­lish­ing that iden­ti­ty and sta­bil­i­ty that self-respect can be achieved and a more healthy cli­mate for both Mus­lim men and Mus­lim women will emerge.Endmark


  • Kamal Ahmad Awn, Al Mar’ah fi al Islam (Tan­ta : Sha’raw Press, 1955)
  • Muham­mad Izzat Dar­wazah, Al Das­tur al Quran fi Shu’un al Hay­at (Cairo : Isa al Babi al Hal­abi, n.d.).
  • Mustafa al Siba’i, Al Mar’ah bay­nal Fiqh wal Qanun (Alep­po : Al Mak­tabah al Ara­biyyah, first pub. 1962).
  1. For exam­ple, see Quran 2:177 ; 4:7,176 ; 8:41 ; 16:90 ; 17:26 ; 24:22.[]
  2. See also Quran 2:195 ; 4:124,32 ; 9:71 – 72.[]
  3. God (thus) directs you as regards your chil­dren’s (inher­i­tance): to the male, a pro­por­tion equal to that of two females…” (Quran 4:11).[]
  4. Kamal Ahmad Awn, Al Mar’ah fi al Islam (Tan­ta : Sha’raw Press, 1955)[]
  5. Mustafa al Siba’i, Al Mar’ah bay­nal Fiqh wal Qanun (Alep­po : Al Mak­tabah al Ara­biyyah, first pub. 1962).[]
  6. Muham­mad Izzat Dar­wazah, Al Das­tur al Quran fi Shu’un al Hay­at (Cairo : Isa al Babi al Hal­abi, n.d.).[]
  7. … Mar­ry women of your choice, two, or three, or four ; but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal just­ly (with them), then only one, or (a cap­tive) that your right hands pos­sess. That will be more suit­able, to pre­vent you from doing injus­tice.”[]
  8. It should be remem­bered that any woman who wants her mar­riage to remain monog­a­mous can pro­vide for this con­di­tion under Islam­ic law.[]

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