Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Gender Politics in Islam by Julian Bregstone

One of the most significant characteristics of Muslim life in modernity is the role of women in society and women’s rights. The Quran and Hadiths are the root of Women’s roles in Muslim society. The Quran however is very general and the interpretations vary. Jurisprudence contributes mainly to the modern role of women in Islam. Over time the role of women and restriction placed on them have been reformed in varying ways. Some see it necessary to enact reform from a secular position while other work inside the Islam to create change. In many Muslim majority countries, wearing veil is expected if not required. The veil is worn by Muslims in countries across the world and is complicated. Western activists and scholars criticize restrictions placed on women in Muslim majority countries. There is a history of feminism and women’s movements in majority Muslim countries.

The formation of Islam did improve the status of women. In the Quran, men and women are considered to be equal in their religiosity. Quran verse 33 is “Verily, men who surrender unto God, and women who surrender, and men who believe and women who believe, and men who obey and women who obey, and men who speak the truth and women who speak the truth… God hath prepared for them forgiveness and a vast reward.” The language in this verse implies equality in the eyes of God. Before Islam female infanticide was practiced in tribal communities. That practice was condemned by Muhammad. In verse 16 of the Quran it states “{And when one of them is informed of [the birth of] a female, his face becomes dark, and he suppresses grief. He hides himself from the people because of the ill of which he has been informed. Should he keep it in humiliation or bury it in the ground? Unquestionably, evil is what they decide.” Polygamy and polyandry were both accepted forms of marriage. The main Quranic statement on women’s rights concern marriage, divorce and inheritance. Women had to be willing to get married and were allowed their own property. Marriage was seen as a contract between two willing participants. Generally, gender roles are well defined by jurisprudence and fatwa. There is historically a strict separation in the roles of men and women. In foundational Islam, women are restricted to the home, not often leaving the house without a familial male escort.

Today in Saudi Arabia, women are heavily restricted to the home. In a recent article, published in the New York Times, the Saudi Women are still “subject to strict guardianship laws that prohibit them from making many basic decisions without the permission of a male relative” (NYT). Not every Islamic country is like Saudi Arabia however as there are varying opinions and rules on the restrictions placed on women. In public opinion poll, a majority of Iraq, Jordan, Afghanistan and Egypt did not think that Muslim women should decide if they could wear a veil or not. In Tunisia and Morocco more than 80% of people think that women should decide whether to wear a veil. When asked whether a wife must always obey her husband, 92% of Iraqis agreed, 92% of Moroccans agreed and 85% of Egyptians agreed. In Turkey however, 65% of people agreed that a wife must always obey her husband. On the question of if a woman should have the right to divorce her husband, 85% of Turks and 73% of Moroccans agreed while only 14% of Iraqis, 22% of Jordanians and Egyptians agreed. This goes to prove that there is no singular Muslim world-view. Differences in opinion range within each region and it is likely that even a country by country basis is too broad.

Some Islamic feminists draw on the intellectual foundation of Islam while others confront Islam as an ideology and argue for a universal set of rights for Muslim and non-Muslim women. The secular Muslim feminists argue that the existing practices in Islam will never allow a full realization of women’s rights. The differing ideas on feminism manifest in the debate about the veil. The veil reemerged as a rejection of the west at the end of the 20th century. There is an ongoing debate as to whether the veil offers women the ability to progress in society or if it hinders and reduces their freedoms. There are arguments that are pro veil and arguments against the practice of wearing the veil. Some Muslim women describe the hijab as a voluntary form of expression of faith. Women have found that wearing the veil puts them on equal footing as men because they are not judged by how they look. The other side argues that wearing the veil further separates the genders. The Moroccan author and activist Fatima Mernissi writes about the issue of the veil. In 1975 she published a book titled “Beyond the Veil” which was very revolutionary and harsh on Islam. Over time she began to adjust her position to one that favors a re-evaluation through a more equal interpretation of Islamic texts.

Muslim women have had prominent roles in politics and business. For example, Pakistan elected a women Prime minister in 1988. Both Bangladesh and Singapore have incumbent female heads of state. Muslim women are, to a degree, more prominent in politics than women in the U.S. The U.S. has failed to elect a woman as President and there is still widespread exclusion of women in politics although recently there has been an uptick in women running for public office.

Today there is still for women’s right to education around the Islamic world. Activist Malala Yousafzai. Yousafzai was attacked by the Taliban for her effort to bring attention to education issues in Pakistan. She was granted the Nobel peace prize in 2014 for her work when she was only 17 years old. She has set up a fund for women’s education and brought worldwide attention to the issue.

In Islam, women are in general expected to obey their husbands and have less autonomy. There is The first to recognize Muhammad as the prophet and therefore the first follower of Islam was Muhammad’s wife Khadija. Khadija was older than Muhammad and independent, making many of her own decisions. In contrast Muhammad’s next wife was however only nine or ten at the time of marriage and had little autonomy. The foundations of Islam have set into place a polarization in the roles of women and men in society. There is a wide range of opinions about the rights of women in Islam. In some countries, women are very restricted and have less freedom than men. Some argue that the issue is with Islam itself while others take the position that Islam can be interpreted in a way that gives equal rights to men and women. The role of women in Islamic society is very important and in a period of change. Young activists like Malala Yousafzai are bringing attention to the issues currently facing women in Islam.


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