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Journal of the American Academy of Religion, XLVII/4, 517-537

Women in Islam: Equity, Equality, and

the Search for the Natural Order*
Jane I. Smith
From the Muslim perspective, Islam provides women a position of
honor and respect, with clearly stated rights and obligations. The Qur'n
affords legal protections in the areas of marriage, divorce, and inheritance
that are considered to mark a vast improvement over the situation of women
in pre-Islamic society. Nonetheless historical circumstances through the
centuries have often worked to the disfavor of the Muslim woman;
predominant traditions of male authority and honor have made it difficult
for women to avail themselves of the rights guaranteed by the Qur'n. In this
century a number of reforms have taken place leading to improved
opportunities for education and in general to greater emancipation for
women. Yet certain patterns that inflict hardship still prevail, particularly in
the areas of divorce, employment, and political activity.
Westerners often tend to assess circumstances for Muslim women in
terms of "progress" or "problems," noting what they see as obvious inequities
in the relative situation of men and women. This essay argues that little
understanding can take place without the effort to see the female-male
relationship from within the Islamic perspective. The Qur'n cites men as the
protectors of women, the righteousness of the latter defined in terms of
obedience to males. A predominant theme in contemporary Muslim writing,
expressed by both sexes, is the naturalness of the circumstance in which
women because of their innate qualities and characteristics have clearly
defined roles and cannot appropriate functions reserved for men. Their
somatic and psychological differences determine the distinctbut
complementaryduties prescribed for each. Few Muslim women, even
those who may be critical of the restrictions imposed by Islam, are
sympathetic to much of what they see as characteristic of Western feminism.
In Islam women are freed from many of the problems and concerns that are
This paper was originally delivered in a series entitled "Women in Patriarchal
Religions" at the University of Wisconsin (Milwaukee), October 25, 1978.
Jane I. Smith is Associate Director of Harvard's Center for the Study of World
Relgions and an Associate Professor at Harvard Divinity School. She is the author of
An Historical and Semantic Study of the Term 'Islam ', and editor of Women in
Contemporary Muslim Societies.
518 Jane I. Smith
assumed by men, a situation which they often feel is not easily to be given up.
Whether or not liberation is appropriate or desirable in the Muslim context is
a question that must be considered from within as well as without the
tradition, and to the degree to which it is assumed as a goal it must be defined
in terms consistent with the Qur'an and with what Muslims understand as the
divinely-ordained principles of Islam.
Men are in charge (or: are the protectors) of women, because God has
given preference to the one over the other, and because (men) provide
support for (women) from their means. Therefore righteous women
are obedient . . . (S 4:34)
n this often-cited verse from the Qur'an, God's verbatim revelation for
humankind, many modern Muslims find testimony to the natural
circumstance that men are the providers, protectors, and thus the
authority over women. It offers the justification for the role of the male as
head of the household, as the final decision-maker, and even in some cases as
the spiritual authority over his wife and family. One must never assume,
however, that women in Islam (at least by Qur'anic formulation) are denied
equal rights and responsibilities, especially in the realm of religion. Some
contemporary Muslim apologists would even say that part of the glory of
Islam is that it has guaranteed rights and privileges for women despite the fact
that they by nature have certain deficiencies. Difficult as it may be for
Westerners (especially feminists) to accept, the majority of those writing from
within the perspective of Islam see this circumstance as perfectly obvious and
perfectly natural. "Islam is the religion of innate nature," says Ahmad
Shalaby, "as it admits that man is better than woman in certain
matters . . . "/ ! / And a work sanctioned as official Islamic doctrine by the
Muslim World League in 1973, discussing the verse cited above, declares:
. . . When once we admit the physical and intellectual superiority of
man over woman, we cannot deny that woman has to depend upon,
and take advantage of, the intellectual resources and superior strength
of the opposite sex; and this is precisely what Muslim doctors hold to
be the import and significance of the verse under consideration/2/.
Basic to this view is the understanding that men have authority over
womenthe father over his daughter, the brother over his sister, and
ultimately the husband over his wife. What it is crucial to see, however, is that
the rationale for this authority is not simply the special capabilities felt to be
exhibited by the male, but the responsibility thereby placed on men for taking
care of their women. As the verse says, "they provide for them from their
means." The woman is thus freed from the need to worry about economic
affairs or even about choosing a husband, a task traditionally done for her by
the male members of her family.
We will return shortly to the implications of this kind of understanding
for the issue of whether or not women are accorded equality in the view of
Women in Islam 519
modern Islam. In the meantime it must
be noted that while this is a significant
contemporary perspective, it is only part of the total picture. Islam has had a
long and varied history, and what we would call liberal voices have made
themselves heard as well as conservative ones. The circumstances for Islamic
women have improved greatly in the past fifty years, and it is both unfair and
incorrect to assume that the affirmation of male dominance/ responsibility
necessarily precludes the continuation of what we as Westerners see as
progress in this area.
A number of factors make the situation of women difficult to describe as
well as to assess. The issue of the role of women in Islam is an extremely
sensitive one today both in the Muslim world and in the world of Western
scholarship. As a non-Muslim who is neither Arab nor male, I personally am
in a particularly vulnerable position in commenting on this aspect of what is
clearly a male-dominated society. Rather than attempting any kind of general
evaluation of the circumstances, then, I will try to present as objectively as
possible a brief look at what the actual situation for women in Islam has been,
is, and by the letter of Islamic law ought to be. After that we may be in a better
position to determine some of the reasons why efforts to impose the concerns
and formulations of Western liberalism on the Islamic scene are viewed by
Muslims as precisely thatan imposition.
Other problems make this a difficult topic to approach. In the first place,
we are talking about an enormous number of peoplethere are some
800,000,000 Muslims in the world todayrepresenting a vast span of
geographic and cultural areas. These remarks are limited primarily to the
situation in the Arab world, which means that we still will be attempting to
generalize about women in over twenty countries, some of whom are living
more or less as their mothers have lived for over a millenium and others who
are full members of today's jet set. Looking specifically at the circumstance of
women in the Arab world we also find that it is extremely difficult in many
cases to separate what is peculiarly Islamic from what is simply part of Middle
Eastern culture, equally applicable to Christians, Jews and others / 3/ .
Adding to the complexity of the task of determining both facts and attitudes
in the Islamic world today are the realities of Western contact with Islam, the
Islamic response to what is continually seen as Western imperialist aggression
both politically and ideologically, and the wide-reaching implications of the
fact that the oil-rich Arab countries represent the most conservative voice of
What does it mean, then, to talk of equality for men and women in Islam?
First we need to see what kinds of changes Islam as an institutionalized
religion brought to the status of women and what legal rights it actually
guarantees for them. This century has witnessed a great effort on the part of
many Muslims to improve the status of women and to insure that they are able
to take full advantage of these rights and privileges. Modern Muslim writers
stress the superior position accorded women at the time of the Prophet and
insist that still today many non-Muslim women have not achieved the rights
assured to females by the Qur'an. They see the situation of women in pre-
Jane I. Smith
Islamic Arabia as having been dismal and the Prophet as having brought
social reforms through the fundamental human rights accorded by the Qur'an
to all persons.
In point of fact, it is not entirely easy to assess what the actual situation
was for women in Arabia before the beginning of Islam (officially as a
community in 622 CE. ). Earlier in the history of Arabia it appears that women
did enjoy certain rights and privileges in the choice of their own husbands and
even in initiating divorce. They apparently did not live under any restrictions
of seclusion / 4/ , and we know from pre-Islamic poetry that there were many
opportunities for interaction with men / 5/. What seems to be the case is that
sometime well before the coming of the Prophet women did enjoy a relatively
advantageous position / 6/, but that by the period immediately preceeding the
Qur'anic revelation circumstances had deteriorated substantially. Freedom of
choice in marriage seems to have given way to a general situation in which a
woman was purchased from her kin (called ba
l marriage, baH meaning lord
or owner) / 7/ , had to relinquish claims to her children and had no right of
inheritance, while her husband alone had the power of divorce and could
enjoy unlimited polygamy / 8/ .
Given this rather complex situation, then, what clear changes can we say
that Islam introduced? Most Muslims point to the new emphasis on the family
over the tribe as a crucial innovation in Arab society, saying that with the
importance of the family unit came the stress on female as well as male rights
/ 9/ . Both Muslim and Western writers recognize that the most significant
reforms Islam brought to the lot of women were the Qur'anic prohibition
against the burying alive of infant females, the changes in inheritance reg-
ulations, the limitation of polygamy to four wives and the insistence of the
Prophet that of all things divorce (while permitted) is the most hateful. The
basics of what is determined for women by the Qur'an, and thus is still relevant
today, are as follows:
(1) Marriage. The number of wives a man can take is limited to four,
although a woman can marry only one man; a woman is given the right to
dictate the terms of the marriage contract (marriage is a legal contract and not
a sacrament) and can receive the dowry herself; temporary (mut
a) marriage
is limited /10/; Muslim men can marry Christians and Jews as well as Mus-
lims, although women can marry only Muslims. (2) Divorce. The Qur'an
clearly discourages divorce, but in those instances where it is necessitated tries
to protect women and give them equal rights. (3) Inheritance. While immedi-
ately before the advent of Islam only male relatives could inherit, the Qur'an
assured this right for women (although their portion is only one-half that
given to males because, again, of the insistence that men are the providers for
women). A woman can also earn a living and manage her income. (4) Reli-
gious rights and responsibilities. In addition, as attested to above, it must be
recognized that according to the Qur'an all duties in the specifically religious
realm that are incumbent on men are also the responsibility of women, and
women are subject to the final judgment as full and equal partners in the
community of faith /11 /.
Women in Islam 521
It is clear that the Qur'anic descriptions outline rights and privileges for
women not guaranteed in many societies of that age. The community ran into
difficulty in two ways, however, The first is that because of the absolute nature
of the Qur'anic revelation and the divine source of the law, change and
adaptation through the centuries have been exceedingly problematic. And
secondly, given the strong tradition of male authority over women and its
relationship to the maintenance of family honor, it was often very hard for the
growing Islamic society to insure that women were able to avail themselves of
their scripturally given rights / 12/ . Even the most ardent defenders of the
Islamic systemor perhaps we should say especially theyemphasize the
vast difference between what they see as the favorable circumstance outlined
by the Qur'an and the serious decline that set in relative to women / 13/ .
What, then, have been the major problems faced by Muslim women in
the light of what contemporary Islam portrays as the highly advantageous
situation afforded to them through the revelations of the Qur'n and the
legislation of the Prophet? Several areas can easily be identified:
(1) Seclusion. Western observers have long pointed to the Islamic
practice of putting women in seclusion, forcing them to cover their bodies
with robes and their faces with veils, as degrading to the female sex. The
Islamic response both defends these practices (veiling, hijb, and seclusion,
harim or purdah, are related but separate customs), and suggests, quite
correctly, that to a large extent they entered Islam from extra-Islamic sources.
The word hijb in the Qur'n does not mean veiling but partition, from behind
which the wives of the Prophet talked to men for purposes of propriety.
Although the Qur'n does say that women should not expose themselves
immodestly (a verse made much of by contemporary conservative Islam
/14/), the actual practice of veiling seems to have come from such areas as
Syria, Persia, Iraq, and other places conquered by Islam. However, what
apparently began as an attempt to protect women, to make it clear that they
were not "available" to men other than their husbands (in many cases the veil
was worn as a sign of prestige), did lead to a real lack of freedom for many
women. The vast majority of women for centuries have been excluded from
the world of males, from life outside their own homes, so that even the
mosque, guaranteed to them by the Prophet as a place of worship, became
(2) Lack of education. Given this kind of seclusion, it is not surprising to
find that educational opportunities for women have been minimal. Until
recently most girls have received only the rudiments of Islamic education so as
to be able to recite their prayers, and the rest of their training has been limited
to those roles that would prepare them to be capableand obedientwives
and mothers. As a result of their lack of education, and here is where the whole
cycle involving rights and privileges begins to swing down, women have often
been both ignorant of their legal guarantees in terms of marriage, divorce, and
inheritance, and powerless in the face of male authority to lay claim to the
rights of which they were aware.
522 Jane I. Smith
(3) Marriage. Contemporary Muslim responses to the circumstance of
polygamy (or more strictly polygyny) range from a positive defense of the
institution /15/ to a defense of Islam against charges of polygamy /16/.
Regardless of these defenses, it is certainly the case that traditionally
polygamy has caused hardship for the women of Islam, both for the first wife
who has had to live with the threat of added competition and for succeeding
spouses faced with the difficulty of breaking into an already established
Polygamy, of course, has not been the only problem faced by women
within the marriage circumstance; others include (a) the extreme control of
the husband's mother over the young wife (it is almost a truism that in Middle
Eastern society a woman comes into her own only after her son marries and
she can dominate the young bride /17/ ); (b) the early age at which marriages
have been contracted, sometimes even pre-puberty; (c) the fact that despite
Qur'anic guarantee of marriage as a contract entered into by the male and
female partners, almost all schools of law allow for the father or other senior
male member of a girl's family to make her marriage choice for her
(technically a woman cannot be forced into marriage, but the penalty of her
refusal to heed the advice of a male relative has often been so severe as to
discourage any recalcitrance on her part); (d) the fact that Islam has legally
allowed husbands to beat their wives if necessary /18/; (e) the very strong
anxiety on the part of the woman until she bears her first son, at which time
she is known as "umm ," the mother of this boy; (f) giving of the bride
price to the bride's father rather than to her.
(4) Divorce. Problematic as many of these marriage circumstances are,
and it is clear as noted above that many of them are cultural rather than
Islamic per se, there seems little question that even greater difficulties for
women lie in the area of divorce. In addition to the simple repudiation of a
wife by her husband (talq), there is also the legal provision for divorce
instigated by the wife as well as divorce by mutual consent /19/. Even in those
cases in which the wife initiates the proceedings, however, either permission
for such must have been written into the marriage contract initially, a
possibility about which many women have been ignorant, or the wife must
repay her share of the dower and return without financial support to her
family. It is also the case that while the husband can repudiate at his own will
and discretion, the wife must have specific grounds such as lack of support,
maltreatment, impotence, or desertion.
It is probably this fear of unilateral repudiation, the constant threat that a
woman can be divorced at the whim of her husband, that has been the greatest
source of intimidation for women in Islam. And of the various kinds of
divorce, this simple repudiation is by far the most common. Upon divorce, the
wife must wait for three months before remarrying so as to be absolutely
certain that she is not pregnant (a Qur'anic injunction intended for the
protection of women), while the husband can marry again as soon as he
wishes. The triple repudiation of a wife by her husband began as a protection
Women in Islam
against wanton elimination of wives. Remarriage of the same wife is
permissible after each repudiation, to insure that divorce made in a fit of anger
is not the final dissolution of the union. But this can take place only twice
without its being irrevocable. Unfortunately this legal protection has been
circumvented in many cases by the custom of repudiating three times in
immediate succession, a situation against which the wife has no recourse.
Regardless of the perspective one takes on the strictly legal circumstances
regarding marriage, divorce, inheritance, and the like, Muslims and observers
of Muslim culture alike are perfectly ready to agree that the traditional
situation for women in most cases has been in serious need of remedy. As
Islam began to take stock of itself in the late nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries, it became very clear to many of the more progressive Muslim
thinkerstheologians as well as political reconstructioniststhat if Islam
were to regain its place of moral and social leadership it must improve the lot
of its women. Response to the West, both in terms of the introduction of new
ideas and out of the felt need to answer Western critique, led to the gradual
introduction of reforms. The rise of nationalism was closely associated with
the need for social change, and many of the liberal reformers of the turn of the
twentieth century recognized that change must begin within the Islamic
family. They thus came out strongly for such improvements as increased
education for women, the abolition of polygamy, and beginning steps in the
general emancipation of women.
In this century, then, a number of specific changes have taken place:
(1) Polygamy is clearly dying outin the Middle East it ranges from
about 2% to 8% of the population /20/and in some places has even been
legally abolished / 21/ .
(2) Serious attempts have been made to reform the divorce laws, and the
divorce rate is dropping in many countries / 22/ . It is legally possible for a
woman in most places to get a divorce through the courts if she has reasonable
grounds. Simultaneous triple repudiation is rejected in a number of countries
and talq without the waiting period is discouraged; in a few areas divorces
must take place in a court of law to be valid. Traditionally the children of
divorced parents went to the father at puberty or earlier; this situation is
changing (although slowlyin general the male still has the right of custody)
and with more women working both parties may contribute financially to the
upbringing of the children.
(3) The right of the father to give his daughter in marriage without her
consent (jabr), in itself non-Qur'anic though widely practiced, is now revoked
in many countries. Marriages are still generally arranged by the elders, except
in the urban upper middle and upper classes, but daughters as well as sons are
usually consulted before the arrangement.
(4) Educational opportunities are increasing greatly; in most Muslim
countries women have the right to vote; contemporary laws reaffirm the right
of women to own and manage property; and in some places efforts are being
made to reform the inheritance law, based on Qur'anic injunction, which says
that a woman's inheritance is one-half that of a man.
Jane I. Smith
(5) Symbolized by the much publicized act of the Egyptian feminist Huda
rawi, who dramatically cast off her veil in Alexandria in 1923 after
attending an international women's conference, the wearing of the veil as well
as the customs of purdah and the harem are rapidly disappearing / 23/ .
(Exceptions, of course, are to be found in the still extremely traditional Arab
Gulf states.)
(6) There has even been progress in the area of birth control, although a
strong conservative opposition remains. Abortion and sterilization are for-
bidden in Islam, but some religious authorities have actually endorsed fami-
ly-planning programs, giving them the sanction of Islamic doctrine / 24/ .
It is clear, then, that many needed reforms have taken place and probably
will continue to do so, yet for many women in Islam the weight of traditional
customs and attitudes often makes the legal changes remote from their daily
lives. In most divorce cases the woman has to take the case to court while the
man does not; the woman needs factual evidence and the man does not; the
judge is almost always a male, and even if the wife can offer sufficient "proof
to warrant the judge's granting a divorce, the woman faces the censure of
society for bringing shame on the man. In addition, the courts are often so
overcrowded that cases go on for years, during which time the woman is
neither married nor free, and has no support from her husband. Torn by the
fear of repudiation many illiterate wives try to have as many children as
possible so that their husbands cannot afford to divorce them and pay the
necessary child support.
Social control over the woman is still extremely strong. Formerly
seclusion and the veil prevented her in a very physical sense from participation
in the male world. While these institutions have largely disappeared, the more
subtle forms of control continue / 25 /. Females are still locked into prescribed
patterns of behavior because of male dominance and the pervasive code of
honor (
ird) /26/. A more specifically secular than religious value, male
honor, which is in many cases immediately dependent on the conduct of the
woman, continues to have very deep ramifications for the possibility of the
advancement of Arab women both Muslim and non-Muslim /27/.
In the area of work the problems are manyunequal pay, the mistrust of
male employers, the fact that women in most areas still cannot work in the
company of men, lack of child care facilities, refusal of the husband to share in
the household choresall of this in addition to the continued general censure
of women working away from the home. Even in cases where there is
acceptance, it is only if and when duties outside the home are carried out in
addition to home responsibilities /28/. Increased opportunities for women
inevitably means a weakening of male authority over them; such authority, as
we have seen, is both cultural and sanctioned by the religion of Islam. One
finds in the writings of modern Muslims countless affirmations of the old
adage that a woman's place is in the home, and that this is the natural order of
things. Thus Muhammad Fazlur-Rahman Ansari asserts:
. . . unlike man, whose sphere of activity is mostly outside the home
and who thereby gains a rich experience of, and a sharp judgment
Women in Islam
about, men and things, the natural sphere of activity for the woman is
the home, which does not allow her to acquire the same richness of
experience and sharpness of judgment regarding the affairs of the
outside world . . . /29/
And from Sayyid Hossein Nasr, one of the most widely-read of the
contemporary spokesmen for Islam:
The home and the larger family structure in which she lives are for the
Muslim woman her world. To be cut off from it would be like being cut
off from the world or like dying. She finds the meaning of her existence
in this extended family structure which is constructed so as to give her
the maximum possibility of realizing her basic needs and fulfilling
herself / 30/.
Politically, while she has been given the vote in most Arab countries
(although not yet in Saudi Arabia or most of the Gulf states), the Arab
Muslim woman is still at an extreme disadvantage. She has traditionally been
passive in exercising her political rights either because she has not been
educated to them or because she has been prevented from doing so indepen-
dent of the dominant male opinions in the family. Women who choose to go
into politics professionally find little support from male constituents (though
in several Muslim countries a few women have been influential members of
government). Again we find that for some Muslim males the role of women as
legislators goes beyond what nature allows. "We certainly should like to
strengthen our community with educated women," said Muhammed al-
Ghazzali in 1953 in a statement with which many would agree today, "but we
should be alarmed to see women take over the reins of governmentthis
would be unnatural" / 31 /. More liberal males, of course, are equally vocal in
their insistence that women have the right to vote, to hold public office, and to
be professionals, although not at the cost of sacrificing their home life or
neglecting their familial responsibilities / 32/ .
Educationally there have been tremendous advances for women in the
Arab world. While formerly the Muslim woman was accorded only the
rudiments of an Islamic education at best, in most countries she now has, at
least technically, free access to the highest levels of education. But one still
finds among many of the most conservative doctors of Islam the clearly
expressed feeling that while education as such should be open to women, their
natural aptitude for some topics over others (or, their inability to successfully
function in some intellectual spheres) means that they should be exempted
from certain fields more naturally masculine in orientation.
It is also interesting to note that despite various social, educational, and
political reforms that have taken place in the Islamic world with regard to
women, there has been little progress in helping bring Muslim women back
into the formal religious life of the community. As we observed earlier, any
exclusion of women from religious practices is strictly non-Qur'anic. But
because of the early development of forms of seclusion this removal did take
place, and instead of worshipping in the mosque women were relegated to
Jane I. Smith
worship in their homes / 33/ . This is not to say, of course, that women never
attend the mosque; in recent times with their gradual emergence fxompurdah
they are more in evidence, particularly for special occasions. It is also true that
many liberals have urged the return to the situation which pertained at the
time of the Prophet when men and women worshipped together and partic-
ipated communally in the religious life of Islam /34/. In general, however,
women pray at home and in fact may well be more regular in that per-
formance than are the men in public or at the mosque.
Women do tend to fast / 35/ and to go on the pilgrimage to Mecca, often
welcoming the legitimate excuse to get outside of the home, and are especially
faithful attendants at the shrines of local saints. A saint's sanctuary has been
seen to offer women a great contrast to the usual subordinate position they
hold /36/; there they feel themselves away from the mediation of their
husbands and in direct communication with the saints (considered in a special
sense to be still living), many of whom are themselves female. Through
petitions and complaints women find at the saint's tomb one of the few
releases for the frustrations and felt inequities of their daily lives.
Responses to the general circumstances of women in the world of Arab
Islam within the Muslim community itself have differed widely. The
conservative stance often taken by doctors of Islam today is supported by
many women, both passively and actively. Other feminine voices have been
raised in sharp criticism, and have often been supported by liberal males.
Some Muslim women are deeply angry and express with great candor their
frustrations over the difficult position in which they find themselves. Talking
about the Qur'n verse mentioned earlier which gives men authority over
women, the Algerian Fadela M'rabet says that what is really being communi-
cated is that God prefers men over women because the latter are inferior. And
because of this inferiority follow some of the consequences for women which
we have already noted: a man can marry a Christian or a Jew but a woman
only a Muslim; a man can have four wives and a woman only one; a man is free
to do as he pleases but a woman comes into her own only when she is older; a
man does not have to be faithful to one woman only (in fact he can even have
concubines) while a woman can be beaten or worse if she is even suspected of
being unfaithful, and on and on. "This," asks M'rabet, "is equality?" /37/
Then in a terse paragraph she puts her finger on what she sees to be the basic
orientation of Muslim males toward women:
. . . despite the promise of a happy hereafter and a relatively comfort-
able material existence on earth, the Muslim woman is still, ontolog-
ically, inferior to the man. This is not a 'detail' which can be consid-
ered negligible or re-interpretable: for a believer, this inferiority is
fundamental. Because it proceeds from a divine preference, this infe-
riority is the marknatural, ineffaceableof the woman /38/.
Is this a fair assessment of the way Islam sees women? Let us look more
closely at what Muslims in recent years have had to say on the question of
equality and the natural. Muhammad al-Ghazzali asserts that "the concept
. . . of the supposed inferiority of woman as such in Islam is pure fiction and
Women in Islam 527
should be completely disgarded. On the other hand, the marked difference in
the physical, mental, and emotional constitution of man and woman is a brute
fact." He then goes on to say that "In the Sunnah, the tradition that women
are inferior to men in respect to religion and the intellect has been
unequivocally explained. . . ." /39/ The explanation, one that is commonly
offered, is that her "religious inferiority" is because she menstruates and thus
is exempted from prayer and fasting at certain times and because the
testimony of two women is needed to balance that of one man since women
are naturally more forgetful than men. (The Syrian feminist Fatme Jouyouchi
remarks that this latter restriction is a standing joke among Muslim women
who maintain that no law is broken when eight women ride in an automobile
instead of the required four because eight women equal four persons! /40/ )
"It is regrettable," concludes al-Ghazzali, "that some women believe Islam
thinks ill of them "/ 41/
It is perhaps unfortunate that certain Muslim writers have used such
terms as "inferior" when describing women. This attitude that women are
inferior may apply to some of the more conservative Muslim thinkers, but the
moderate opinion holds that rather than inferior they are simply different.
Their constitution is different, physically, mentally, and emotionally, and
because of that their natural roles in society are different. A clear statement of
this is put forward by Muhammad Abdul-Ra'uf, Director of the Islamic
Center in Washington, D. C:
To an ordinary observer, men and women share common biological
and mental ingredients which justify and call for their legal, moral and
economic equality. Yet there are obviously some somatic differences
between men and women, affecting their temperaments, and con-
sequently call in some situations for different but reciprocal sex
roles . . . /42/.
That there have been genuine inequities in the relationship between men
and women in Islam is admitted by liberals and conservatives, Muslims as well
as Western observers. The more basic question is whether or not the Islamic
recognition of natural differences between men and women with the con-
sequent insistence on differences in the roles they play in the social order con-
stitutes a situation of inequality. For the most part Islam says no. Mu-
hammad Ansari talks about "inequities of condition" but affirms woman's
equality of status with man / 43/ . Both materially and spiritually, says
Maulana Muhammad
Ali, Islam recognizes the position of women to be the
same as that of men / 44/ . Interestingly enough, even some of the most
articulate of the Muslim women critics of the Islamic system will agree that the
problem is not simply that the woman is considered to be inferior. It is not an
issue of female inferiority, says Fatima Mernissi in her sharp critique of the
role of women in Islam entitled Beyond the Veil, but of laws and customs
insuring woman's status as one of subjugation / 45/ . What she sees as
subjugation, Muslim apologists affirm is rather the natural circumstance
whereby men offer protection, care, and provision for their women.
528 Jane I. Smith
Basic to this view is the understanding that women can best be fulfilled in
marriage and through the bearing of children, and that within the marriage
context it is necessary for one partner to have final authority. This authority,
on the basis of the sanction afforded by the Qur'n, goes naturally to the man.
In return for the concern of her husband for her "physical, mental, moral,
spiritual and economic welfare" /46/ the wife must be obedient to the will and
opinion of her husband. This view is far from limited to Muslim men alone.
Many Muslim women share the idea that equality does not in any sense mean
a mutual appropriation of function, nor does it negate the ultimate authority
of the male over the female. "The ruling idea with regard to men and women,"
says Saneya Saleh, "is that the husband and wife should supplement each
other, for each has particular features and characteristics. As a result, their
functions are quite distinct, and each is entrusted with the functions which are
best suited for his and her nature" /47/. The home is like a kingdom, she says,
and without a ruler there would be anarchy. Therefore the responsibility of
the wife is to look after the interests of her husband and submit to his
authority in all matters.
Again, we must recognize that basic to this perspective is the firm con-
viction that this is a divinely-ordained and therefore a natural circumstance.
"This pattern of reciprocal relationship, mutual love, cooperation and
dedication," says Abdul-Ra*uf, "is the natural style. . . . This pattern sets a
fair equilibrium compatible with sex differences and is by no means inimical
to the sense of moral equality. What is important is not quantitative equality,
but equity, domestic harmony, peace, love, and stability" /48/.
What, then, can we project for the future of women in Islam? In the first
place it is crucial to recognize that what we as Westerners might hope/or them
in the way of greater steps toward equality and improvement in general status
may very well not be what many Muslims want for themselves. There has been
a feminist movement in the Middle East for years, but its causes, directions,
and general motivations have in many ways been different from those of
Western feminism /49/. For the vast majority of women in the Middle East,
Islam remains a tremendously powerful influence. Elizabeth Fernea in Mus-
lim Middle Eastern Women Speak quotes an Iraqi woman who states very
poignantly the dilemma of many modern Muslims:
I find to my dismay that I am full of conflict. I am pulled more strongly
by the strings of tradition and Islam than I would have believed. I
thought I was a modern woman, but what is that exactly? I am an
Islamic woman first /50/.
Liberation in the Arab world, and thus liberation for the Muslim woman,
has always meant both implicit and explicit liberation from the domination of
the West. It began as a response to imperialism and in many of the statements
made by Muslims todaywomen as well as menone finds the continuation
of the expressed need to be free of the ideological as well as the political
presuppositions of Westerners. As a young Muslim woman friend from Egypt
has said, "The cause of liberation of women is too specifically Western to be
Women in Islam 529
applied unconditionally to the Arab world. Many Western scholars have
disregarded what Muslim women think of themselves and have imposed their
own value judgments on the condition of women there" / 51/ .
It is, in fact, by virtue of their association with Western ideas and Western
styles of life that some women in the Middle East, who in their own
understanding are attempting to raise the status of women, are looked upon
with suspicion by many in the Islamic community. The conservative views
expressed earlier must be understood at least in part as direct response to the
condemnations of Westernersmissionaries, orientalists, and othersas
well as of Arab secularists / 52/ . Women's liberation in the Muslim world is
often seen as another concession to the influences of the West which have
already done so much to undermine Islam. As Fatima Mernissi so graphically
points out, the very political setbacks that signal the need for progressive
development are precisely the occasions when it is most necessary to defend
and reaffirm Islam as a viable way of life. "In a single blow," she says, "both
the forces for modernity and the forces for tradition are unleashed, and they
then confront each other with dramatic consequences for the relation of the
sexes" / 53/ .
In many cases women in the Middle East who continue to enjoy the love,
care, and protection of the males in their lives are not interested in the kind of
liberation that would remove them from that protection. To ask about rights
for these persons is to ask the wrong question, as many of the Muslim apol-
ogists have perceived. One should rather ask upon whom lies the ultimate re-
sponsibility for the care of the family, and many Muslim women are glad to re-
spond that it lies not on them but on their fathers, husbands, and sons.". . . it
is not a matter of rights," says an official statement on Muslim Doctrine and
Human Rights in Islam / 54/, "but rather a charge for man. It is fortunate for
women to be exempted from it." Many Muslim women agree. And what is
more, they look at their "liberated" female counterparts in Western society as
burdened by great and unnecessary (to say nothing of unnatural) respon-
sibilities from which they are happy that their religion provides a protection.
It is also important for us as Westerners to understand that for most
Muslim women, movements toward increased opportunities are not viewed as
anti-male in the way that Arabs often feel is the case among Western women.
The clearest voices proclaiming the need to improve the lot of women in the
early part of this century were male voices, and the felt need on the part of
most women continues to be cooperation rather than competition with the
men of their families and community. Middle Eastern women have no desire
to usurp the position of males in society, and attitudes that reflect a "female
against male" approach are foreign to a culture in which such a high priority is
put on the complementary nature of the roles of women and men / 55/ .
Regardless of their degree of liberation, Muslim women value modesty as
well as prize and retain their femininity. They find particularly odious, as do
Muslim men, the sexual permissiveness of Western society. Whether the
control exercised by Muslim men over their women is viewed as protection or
exploitation, the fact remains that liberal and conservative Muslims alike are
530 Jane I. Smith
appalled and disgusted by women's open display of themselves and the sexual
freedoms seen as part of the general emancipation of women in the West.
Again to cite the expressive commentary of Fatima Mernissi, "While Muslim
exploitation of the female is clad under veils and buried behind walls, Western
exploitation has the bad taste of being unclad, bare and overexposed" / 56/.
It is my opinion that Western feminists are beginning to recognize what
historians of religion were a long time in realizingthat the kinds of
assumptions one brings to the observation of another culture often lead to the
asking of questions basically inappropriate to that culture. We must begin to
listen more carefully to what persons from within cultural traditions, in this
case particularly women, are saying in response to their own felt needs and
priorities. The point has been made repeatedly that the history of women in
Islam reveals a clear pattern of male domination. But what I have tried to
indicate is that from within the Islamic perspective this is a divinely-initiated
and therefore natural and right circumstance. In all religions the rules have
been made by men, insist Western feminists, and women must play the parts
thus determined for them. But for the Muslim women this is not necessarily
the case. Listen again to my Egyptian friend:
They [Western feminists] say that the rules have been made by men for
women to follow. But they do not understand that Muslim women
believe these to be divine rules. . . . By liberating them from these
"man-made" regulations they are in fact liberating them from their
own religion /57/.
Perhaps not all Muslim women would agree, but then as we have said, we
are talking about a vast number of persons representing greatly differing
stages of modernization. In attempting to understand the circumstances and
problems of Muslim women let us at least make every effort to listen to their
own voices and hopefully to refrain from the kind of comment made recently
by Gloria Steinern in which she referred to Saudi Arabia as a "Nazi Germany
of sexual rights" / 58/. To a people for whom God's word has been absolutely
revealed and whose law has developed under God's guidance, change is a slow
and problematic process. When it does come, Muslim men and women agree,
it must be within the framework of that revelation. Equality will carry an
Islamic, not a Western, definition, and in the Muslim mind the role of women
must evolve in a pattern consistent with God's ordered plan for humankind.
/1 / P. 319. References to the opinions of contemporary Muslim writers are taken
exclusively from works in English, expressly to illustrate the kind of material that is
Women in Islam 531
presented by Muslims for Western readers. For a detailed study of contemporary
Arabic writers on the role of women in Islam see Y. Y. Haddad, "Traditional
Affirmations Concerning the Role of Women as Found in Contemporary Arab
Islamic Literature."
21 Galwash, p. 125.
/ 3/ Peter Dodd (1974) in a study of religion as a (possible) source of resistence to
change in the Levant, for example, has found that attitudes toward change in women's
status are due less to religious teaching than to general level of education and
development, and that Christians and Muslims have very similar patterns of role
/ 4/ Cf. Smock and Youssef who feel that Islam before the revelation of
Muhammad accorded considerable freedom to women with few restrictions on
marriage and divorce.
5/ Nicholson, p. 88; Nicholson affirms that their position was high and their
influence great, a view not necessarily shared by other Western scholars. Cf. Esposito,
p. 100: "Social conditions and the necessity of survival accounted for women's low
social position."
/ 6/ Some have suggested that there was a time in Arabia when society was
predominantly matrilineal; we know that there were forms of matrilocal marriage (see
note 7 below).
7/ It appears that for some time several types of marriage existed si-
multaneously: (1) sadlqa in which the wife chose her husband, stayed with her tribe,
and received a dowry, while her children remained part of her family; this was either of
the temporary (mut
a) or more permanent (beena) type; and (b) ba
l, described in the
text above, which came to predominate. Cf. Esposito, pp. 100-102; Faruqi, pp. 78-79.
/ 8 / Smock and Youssef point out that the traditional roles and status of women in
Egypt before the advent of Islam were quite different from those in Arabia. Many of
the rights introduced by Islam were already held by Egyptian women, and in fact for
centuries after the Islamic conquest of Egypt these rights continued to be held. Women
even ruled briefly in the tenth and thirteenth centuries. Women's relatively high status
there in relation to the rest of the Islamic world was not substantially altered until
Turkish rule in 1517.
9/ Here again, however, the facts are subject to more than one interpretation.
Fatima Mernissi says about the introduction of the family order over tribal society
(1975:39): ". . . the Prophet had a vested interest in having women, made helpless by
the breakdown of tribal society, reintegrated into new solidarity units . . . the insti-
tution of the family allowed new allegiances, new ways to transfer private possession of
goods, while providing at the same time tight controls over women's sexual freedom."
Earlier (pp. 32-34) Mernissi argues that many women were opposed to Islam because it
jeopardized their relatively advantageous position.
/10/ lthna Ash
ari Sh
Islam, however, still allows any number of temporary
/11 / Faruqi (p. 86) also adds that unlike Christianity, Islam puts on woman no
blame for original sin; both Adam and his wife are equally responsible.
532 Jane I. Smith
/12/ Saneya Saleh, a Muslim woman writing in defense of Islamic provisions for
women, comments (p. 42) that ". . . the low status of all women stems from extra-
religious conditions in the Middle East. To a limited extent this low status is
attributable to the abuses of Islamic law on the part of males." She also insists (p. 38)
that this low status is due as much to transplanted laws as it is to extra-Islamic Middle
Eastern traditions.
/13 / This is not to indicate that a woman was necessarily personna non grata in the
Middle Ages of Islamapologists delight in telling about women who were famous as
scholars teaching in mosque-universities, transmitters of oral tradition, poets,
musicians, occasional warriors for the cause of Islam, scribes and calligraphers, leaders
of jurisprudence, and well-known saints and members of Sufi orders. These were a
small minority, however, and it is obvious that higher education for women and men
was limited to a very few.
/14/ Writing from the perspective of Islam in the U. S., for example, Muhammad
Abdul Ra'uf of the Islamic Center in Washington, D. C. explains (p. 35): "Advantage
should not be taken of the woman's body and her flesh should not be put on public
display. . . toleration of an evil leads to other evils. First we condone public exposure;
next dating and easy mixing; next, pre-marital 'games', extra-marital relations, and
open marriages; next, the elevation of homosexuality to an acceptable normal status;
and next, uni-sex marriages. Where, and when, shall we stop? "
/15/ In the early days of Islam, polygamy was for the protection of widows and
orphans; or, polygamy makes for a stable family unit in society. ". . . the four wives
that a Muslim can marry," says Hossein Nasr (p. Il l ), "like the four-sided Ka^ah,
symbolize this stability . . . " Others have stressed the positive side of the Prophet's
taking a number of wives by saying that this opportunity for him to educate his own
wives helped the spread of Islamic education among women in the community, and
that strategically such marriages enabled him to contract beneficial liaisons and thus
aid the spread of Islam.
/16/ The limitation of four wives is a great improvement over the unlimited number
available before Islam; or, the Qur'n really favors having only one wife as is evident in
its insistence that it is difficult to achieve equal treatment among several wives.
/17/ "The triangle of mother, son, and wife is the trump card in the Muslim pack of
legal, ideological, and physical barriers which subordinate the wife to the husband,"
comments Mernissi (p. 79), "and condemns the heterosexual relationship to mistrust,
violence and deceit."
/18/ This is still attested to by contemporary Muslim conservatives, although with
the clear recommendation of lenience and moderation. Some even insist that the
woman likes to be beaten and gets pleasure out of submission to man's strength.
/19 / This divorce by mutual consent can be of two kinds: khul, which is instituted at
the insistence of the wife and therefore involves return of the dower, and mubra'a, in
which no compensation on either side is made.
/20/ See Prothro and Diab, p. 185.
/ 21/ Since the law of Personal Status in 1957 in Tunisia, polygamy is prohibited
(Tunisia and Morocco also forbid marriage by compulsion); Attaturk in the 1920s in
Turkey abolished it in a series of statutes giving women equal rights with men
(including the vote, rights of consent in marriage, divorce, inheritance, and the holding
Women in Islam
of public office). Egypt under Nasser in 1966 attempted to pass a law which, while not
eliminating polygamy, made the taking of a second wife grounds for divorce by the
first. The bill was withdrawn, however, after active opposition from al-Azhar.
President Sadat, despite attempts to improve the situation of women legally, has also
been thwarted by the conservative response of the doctors of the Azhar.
/ 22/ While in the early part of this century the rate was high in comparison with the
West, it is substantially lower today. Many of what would appear as divorces are
actually only a breaking of the engagement contract. It is true, however, that the rate
seems to be rising rapidly in the Gulf States, generally for purposes of profit-making on
a lucrative settlement.
/23/ Mme. Sha
rawi was not the first to disgard her veil, of course (other upper
class women had done so especially in the urban areas of the Levant), but her act was
significant because of the public attention it drew.
/24/ It is nonetheless true that efforts such as those of Jehan Sadat in Egypt to
introduce birth control in the rural areas have been consistently thwarted by the
conservative Mullahs.
/25/ This is what Greer Litton Fox (p. 806) calls "self-control through the
internalization of values and norms . . ." It is important to remember, of course, that
this process involves not only negative sanctions but positive rewards both
psychologically and practically.
/26/ Dodd (1973:40-45) concludes that both urbanization and the political
revolutionary mentality have had little lasting effect in changing the male-enforced
code of honor, but that continuing education may induce changes in both norms and
valuation of Hrd.
I Smock and Youssef, p. 57.
/28/ Dodd (1968) suggests that in the Arab world any significant role for women
outside the home is still far off. His findings indicate that the most important factor in
the acceptance by young men of an increased role for women in society at large is the
degree of education attained by their mothers.
/ 29/ P. 192; Ansari here is actually defending the Qur'anic injunction that says the
witness of two women is needed to equal that of one man.
/30/ P. 113.
/ 31 / A religious pronouncement issued by the Mufti of Egypt in 1952 went so far as
to condemn the granting of the right to vote to women entirely because it would involve
them in going to public meetings and thus exposing them to male society. This fatwa
was so extreme in its conservative pronouncements concerning the position and status
of women as to have incurred a great outcry among many more liberal Muslims. See
"Al-Azhar, Islam, and the Role of Women in Islamic Society."
/32/ Replying to the 1952 fatwa (note 31) Maulana Abul-Kalam Azad said, "I am
astonished to read this report, for if we consider the Philosophy of Muslim Law or the
History of Muslim Societies we get an exactly opposite picture. Islam has from its
inception denied all distinction between men and women in political as well as public
life. . . . " ("Al-Azhar", p. 4) And from the Egyptian Khalid Muhammad Khalid (p.
157): ". . . the fear that, if women were to implement their political rights, they would
534 Jane I. Smith
be deterred from their housework and matrimonial duties, is ridiculous. This assump-
tion implies that every one of our twelve million women is going to become a member
of parliament and that their enjoyment of their right is going to change them funda-
mentally, making none of them capable of becoming a wife, a mother, or a mistress of
the home."
/33/ Typical of the response of contemporary male conservatives to the issue of
women praying in public is this statement by Ahmad Galwash (pp. 155-56): "As
regards attending public prayers, there is nothing to prevent women from doing so
under certain reservations, but it is preferable that they should pray at home. 'It is more
meritorious,' said the Prophet, 'that a woman should say her prayers in the courtyard
of her house, rather than in the mosque; it is more meritorious that she should say her
prayers within the house, rather than in the courtyard; and better still, in her closet,
rather than in her house; and all this with a view to conceal her from public view.'"
/34/ Sakr, pp. 132-35.
/ 35 / The Prothro and Diab study of the Levant reveals that women fast much more
regularly than they pray, probably because of the social aspect of the breaking of the
Ramadan fast.
/36/ "Visits to and involvement with saints and sanctuaries are two of the rare
options left to women to be, to shape their world and their lives. And this attempt at
self-determination takes the form of an exclusively female collective endeavor."
(Mernissi 1977:104)
/37/ Pp. 336-37.
/38/ P. 338.
/39/ Pp. 109-10.
/40/ "The Arab Woman: Between Tradition and Revolution" (an unpublished
lecture delivered in July 1973 at an international gathering of women in Lebanon).
/41/ P. 122.
/42/ P. 31.
/43/ P. 189.
/44/ P. 643.
/45/ P. ix. Mernissi refuses to accept the argument that Islam sees women as
biologically inferior, claiming that subjugation is due rather to male fear of women's
potential power. "Paradoxically, and contrary to what is commonly assumed, Islam
does not advance the thesis of women's inherent inferiority. Quite the contrary, it
affirms the potential equality between the sexes. The existing inequality does not rest
on an ideological or biological theory of women's inferiority, but it is the outcome of
specific social institutions designed to restrain her power: namely segregation and legal
subordination of the woman to the man in the family structure." (pp. xv-xvi)
/46/ Ansari, pp. 200-204.
/47/ P. 37.
/48/ Pp. 160-61.
Women in Islam
/49/ What roughly can be named a movement for the liberation of women in the
Arab world began as part of the broader movement in several Middle Eastern
countries, Egypt in particular, for total emancipation. The Egyptian Feminist Union
of Huda Sha
rawi maintained a platform in which both socio-political and feminist
issues were outlined. Most of the programs of women's organizations (such as the
Union of the Daughters of the Nile founded in 1948) were based primarily on social
reform, the fight against illiteracy among women, and on the personal status issues of
polygamy and divorce. See Doria Shafiq, Aziza Hussein, Joseph Graziani.
/50/ P. xxxiv.
/ 51 / Sanaa Makhlouf, taken from comments made at a symposium on Feminism
and Non-Western Women at the Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard,
April 24, 1978.
/52/ See Haddad (p. 67): "Liberation is not freedom from obedience to men, or
freedom from restrictions on the faith; rather, liberation must be free from corruption
and alienation that have been brought about by Western impingement on the East."
/53/ 1975:ix.
/54/ P. 175.
/55/ ". . . Islam ascribes to each sex an equal status and a complementary role."
(Saleh, p. 42) Cf. Devaki Jain, p. 10: "These female-versus-male attitudes are often
rejected because of concepts in both Eastern religious and agrarian peasant work
patterns that are based on the assumption of unity and complementary functions of
male and female."
/56/ P. 101.
/57/ See note 51.
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^ s
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