The Circle Group > Readings > Women in Islam

by Mitra Abdur Rashid

I am by no means an authority on Islam, but I do come from a place where there is a spectrum of views on the subject of women in Islam. I grew up in Iran seeing my mother practice Islam in a pure and quiet way, with tolerance, care and concern for everyone Later I learned about political Islam and from that point on, the images between what is, and what should be, became apparent.

Many of us – those from the West and the East – have negative images of women in Islam: the uneducated woman who has no say in decision making, the pregnant mother who does household chores all day, the subservient wife who suffers under the abuse of her dictatorial husband . The western perception in general, and the western media in specific have specialized in portraying these images. In all honesty, in the East, where I come from, although the images may not be as harsh, the prejudices somewhat remain. In the East, at times, these prejudices which emanate from misunderstandings, ignorance, old tales and sayings, enter the fabric of society and after many generations people believe what is told to them is real religion and the word of God, it mixes with cultural attitudes and takes on the name of religion. So, it has been and remains a great challenge to affirm the rights of Muslim women.

For this reason, the topic of women in Islam is an essential subject for discussion, for both eastern and western women and men. I hope it will create a bond of discovery and understanding between them.

Given my limited time and knowledge, I will keep to just a few essential topics, beginning with the historical contexts and Quranic references that create the framework for understanding the place of woman in Islam. I will also try to touch on issues that concern both muslim women and men as well as non-Muslims.

My points will, inshallah, focus on the basic principles of Islam for both women and men to follow in society. Moreover, I would like to emphasize the distinction between the “normative” teachings of Islam and diverse cultural practices among Muslims which may or may not be consistent with these teachings. So although you might continue to have those negative images in your mind that I mentioned earlier, you will, insha’allah, know that the principles differ from actuality.


Today people think that women are liberated in the west and that the women’s liberation movement began in the 20th Century. Actually the women’s liberation movement was revealed by God to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in the seventh century. The Qur’an and the Traditions of the Prophet (Hadith and Sunna) guarantee every Muslim woman certain rights and duties.


These rights are equal to those of a man but they are not necessarily identical. Equality and sameness are two different things. This difference is understandable because man and woman are not identical but they are created equals. The distinction between equality and sameness is of paramount importance. With this distinction in mind, there is no room to imagine that woman is inferior to man, just because her rights are not
identical. Had her status been identical with his, she would have been simply a duplicate of him, which she is not. The fact that Islam gives her equal rights – but not identical rights- shows that it takes her into consideration, acknowledges her, and recognizes her independent personality and role.

In the Qur’an Allah frequently addresses both the man and the woman. In one passage Allah reveals:

“For Muslim men and women, for believing men and women, for devout men and women, for true men and women who are patient, for men and women who humble themselves, for men and women who give in charity, for men and women who fast, for men and women who guard their chastity, and for men and women who engage much in Allah’s praise – For them all has Allah prepared forgiveness and great reward.” (33:35)

III. Human Rights:

Woman is recognized by Islam as equal partner in the procreation of humankind. Man is the father, woman is the mother, and both are essential for life. By this partnership, woman has an equal share in every aspect; she is entitled to equal rights; she undertakes equal responsibilities, and she has as many qualities and as much humanity as her partner. So, fourteen centuries ago, Islam made men and women equally accountable to God in glorifying and worshiping Him – setting no limits on her spiritual progress. In the Qur’an in the first verse of the chapter entitled “Women”, God says:

“O mankind! Be careful of your duty to your Lord Who created you from a single soul and from it its mate and from them both have spread abroad a multitude of men and women. Be careful of your duty toward Allah in Whom you claim (your rights) of one another, and towards the wombs (that bore you). Lo! Allah has been a Watcher over you.” (4:1) And again in the Qur’an:

“O mankind! Verily we have created you from a single (pair) of a male and female, and made you into nations and tribes that you may know each other.” (49:13; cf.4:1)


When we then consider the area of civil rights, education is of greatest importance. The Prophet (pbuh) said: “Seeking knowledge is a mandate for every Muslim (male and female).” Keeping people ignorant equals oppression; whether man or woman. In the case of women their civil rights were considered necessary for the proper functioning of the community.

Recognizing her individuality, Islam grants a woman freedom of choice and expression. We are encouraged to contribute opinions and ideas. Women would pose questions directly to the Prophet (sal) and to other Muslim leaders and offer their opinions concerning religion, economics, and social matters. (Qur’an 58:1-4; 60:10-12)

Actually it was 1400 years ago that a right to vote was given to the woman. When the women came to Prophet Mohammad (sal) and swore their allegiance to him, he had to accept their oath. This established the right of women to publicly participate in the selection of their leader. Nor does Islam forbid a woman from holding important positions in government.

Historical records show that women participated in early public life, accompanying Muslim armies into battle to nurse the wounded, prepare supplies, serve the warriors, and so on. They were not shut behind iron bars or considered worthless creatures and deprived souls, as we see today in such deteriorating and misguided societes as Taliban Afghanistan. People kept ignorant of Islam’s true position on women due to age-old cultural practices begin to accept the misguidance as true. This is especially unfortunate in Afghanistan where so many women were professionals, contributing to the well being of their society, for many years prior to the Taliban. Not only does it poison the minds of the Afghani people toward Islam but also it focuses
the rest of the world’s attention on an aberration that uses the name of Islam so wrongly.


In terms of contributions to society the status of women economically is unique. From the earliest days greater financial security was assured for women. Women are entitled to receive marital gifts, and to keep properties and income for their own security. No married woman is required to spend a penny on the household She is entitled to full financial support during marriage and during the waiting period (‘iddah) in case of divorce. Whether she is a wife or mother, a sister or daughter, she is allowed to receive a certain share of deceased kin’s property, and no one can disinherit her.

Although both man and woman are entitled to inherit property of relations, their portions may vary. In some instances the man receives 2 shares whereas the woman gets one only; this is because the man by law is solely responsible for the complete maintenance of his family. It is also his duty to contribute financially to all good causes in his society. The woman, in contrast, has no obligatory financial responsibilities. She is provided for, whether by her husband, son, father, brother, or other male relative. If she has no relation on whom she can depend, and she has no inheritance, then she is the responsibility of the society. She may be given aid or a job to earn her living, and whatsoever money she makes will be hers. So, in the hardest situation her financial responsibility is limited, while the man’s is unlimited.


In further addressing rights, it is important to look at the role of the wife. The Qur’an states:

“And among His signs is that He created for you mates from among yourselves that you may live in tranquility with them, and He had put love and mercy between you; Verily, in that are signs for people who reflect.”

Marriage, therefore, is not just a physical or emotional necessity, but in fact, a sign from God! It is a relationship of mutual rights and obligations based on divine guidance. God created men and women with complimentary natures, and in the Qur’an, He laid out a system of laws to support
harmonious interaction between the sexes.

Allah says in the Qur’an:
“They are your garments and you are their garments.” (2:187)

Clothing provides physical protection and covers the beauty and faults of the body. A spouse is viewed similarly . Each protects the other, hides the faults and compliments the characteristics of the spouse.

To foster the love and security that comes with marriage, Muslim wives have several rights: the first one is to receive mahr from the husband, which is a gift as part of the marriage contract A wife has the right to kind treatment. The Prophet (pbuh) said :

“The most perfect believers are the best in conduct. And the best of you are those who are best to their wives.” God tells us He created mates and put love, mercy, and tranquillity between them. With rights come responsibilities. The Qur’an states: “the good women in the absence of their husbands guard their rights as Allah has enjoined upon them to be guarded.”

A wife has to keep her husband’s secrets and protect their marital privacy. Issues of intimacy or faults of his that would dishonor him, are not to be shared by the wife, just as he is expected to guard her honor.


The woman as mother is of special importance. This is something that most of us have been blessed with. Mothers, in Islam, are accorded a special place of honor. A man came to the Prophet Mohammad (sal) asking: ‘O Messenger of Allah, who among the people is the most worthy of my good companionship? The Prophet said, your mother. The man said then who is next: the Prophet said, your mother. The man asked again, then who is next: the Prophet said, your mother. The man asked further and only then did the Prophet say, your father. (Al Bukhari) Kindness to parents, especially to mothers, is a foundation stone in the structure of Islam.

I would like to mention a few contempory Muslim women who have and continue to contribute to today’s world.

Queen Noor of Jordan
Laleh Bakhtiar – author and scholar , psychologist
Rabia Terry Harris – translator and writer
Haja Noura Durkee: Author, lecturer, teacher
Nahid Angha: Psychologist, founder Internation Assoc. Of Sufism
Mouna Abul Fadl – Author. Scholar
Leila Ahmed – Author and Scholar; first Muslim woman appointed to the faculty of Harvard Divinity School
Audrey Shabbas – Educator, founder of Arab World and Islamic Resources (AWAIR)


I would like to conclude by stating that 1400 years ago, the Muslim woman was given a role, duties, and rights that most women do not enjoy today, even in the west. Yet, the religion which revolutionized the status of women is being portrayed as repressive to women. As mentioned earlier, this myth is perpetuated by the media; in addition, in the case of the Taliban and other examples from my own country and elsewhere, women’s inherent Islamic rights have been abrogated.

One issue surrounded by a great deal of misunderstanding is the custom of wearing hijab. The Qur’an enjoins modest dress for both men and women, and in a Muslim society, the men as well as the women typically dress conservatively. Some Muslim women interpret the Qur’an and Hadith as guiding
them to dress modestly and cover their hair in all public situations, others insist that their whole body including hands and face are to be covered, yet others understand the guidance to mean a more general attitude of modesty both in dress and attitude. Many Muslim women freely choose to dress modestly in order to avoid the public scrutiny, judgments, and social dynamics associated with physical appearance. By dressing in ways that do not draw attention to ourselves, we affirm the Qur’anic teachings both of modesty and gender equality. Or as one Canadian Muslima, Naheed Mustafa has written: “…that men and women are equal, and that individuals should not be judged according to gender, beauty, wealth, or privilege”

No scholarly or informed Muslim can condone women being forced to remove themselves from public life altogether, anymore than we can condone violence against women, the denial of women’s right to work and own property, or the refusal to allow women a voice in government. Where such treatment takes place in the Muslim world, people of other faiths ought to realize that there are in certain places and circumstances a significant disparity between beliefs and practices in Islam as well as their own faiths; and the simple fact that the actions of certain individuals who claim Islam do not truthfully or accurately represent Islam. Nor are Muslim women unique in their issues; Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Sikh women in various parts of the world as well as certain sects of Judaism and Christianity share the same problems. To label the status of women in the Muslim world today as “Islamic”, is as far from the truth as labeling the position of women in the West today as “totally liberated and equal”. Inshallah, with this understanding in mind, Muslims and non-Muslims – men and women- could start a process of communication and dialogue in order to remove misconceptions,
suspicions, and fears.

So as you can see there are many challenges for today’s Muslim woman whether in the westernized world or in traditional societies. Through internal and external dialogue I am confident we will find the ways to remain true to the Shariah and Sunnah and contribute to the world today.

I am very grateful for this opportunity a nd I thank you for your patience. Please forgive me for any errors I may have made. Asalam Aleikum wa Rahmatullahe wa Barakatuh. May the Peace, Compassion and Mercy of Allah be with you.

Mitra Abdur Rashid

Delivered at the Interfaith Gathering in Beckley, W.Va
Sunday 9/12/99

Lecture Given by Sister Sharifa Alkhateeb
At the AMSS conference at Georgetown University
October 15, 2000

Salaam Aleykum, Baraka wa Ta’ali. (opening dua). I want to talk about the social cost of ignoring women. By that, I do not mean that all Muslims ignore women, because there are some Muslims that give women their rightful place in society and welcome them as partners in the whole quest of creating a better society that would please Allah.

However, in many instances and in families, they do not properly understand what responsibility Allah put on men and women, on boys and girls so what is played out inside the family, inside the Masijid, and inside the Muslim organizations is a very negative atmosphere for women to the extent that they feel so excluded that they do not feel they have a place in the Mosque, or in the Muslim family or in Muslim organizations. They finally seek their wholeness and full personhood outside of that realm. Especially young people who finish school, who finish high school, who finish college and do not feel that the Muslim community, either in their family or in the Mosque, or in the organization framework is a place for them. Is a place where they can grow, a place where they can flower and develop all the qualities that Allah gave them to develop.

I think that there is a serious problem in the Muslim society that need to be addressed and usually is not. If we look at the Qur?an, we know that Allah has talked about the creation of men and women from one soul. In fact, many Muslims do not know those Ayats about the men and women created from one soul. Allah also said that we were created to worship Him alone.

“I did not create human beings and Jinns except to worship me.”

That is their purpose in creation, whether male or female. Unfortunately, very often, women and girls are so socialized in Muslim society to believe that their purpose of creation is not to worship Allah, but almost to worship males in their whole behavior, in the whole they think, in the whole way they pattern what they do.

Also, in the Qur’an, we know that there was no apple, there was no snake, and Eve did not entice Adam to this apple. That is a Christian story. In the Islamic account, there is no apple and no snake, whatsoever. 99% of our Muslims, do not know that. They are still thinking, and even Muslims born and raised in Muslims countries think that there was an apple and a snake and Eve was responsible for enticing Adam. I am surprised to find that many of the Imam do not know that, even though they may be leaders, they do not know that. So we need to go back to the Qur’an and find out what it says.

Allah says in the Qur’an, at the beginning of Surah al Nisa, talking about that you should revere Allah and revere the wombs that bore you. And Allah says,

Revere Allah through whom you demand your mutual rights.

Most of the men in Muslim society think of men demanding their rights, but they do not think of women as having mutual rights with them. Not at all. That is something that needs to be dwelt upon and thought about. Instead, what happens, they will take one Ayat, totally out of context, and that is made to dismantle all other Ayats. Yet, what the Prophet (sal) taught is that you have to take the example as a whole and learn as much of it as you can and make a balance of that in your understanding and in your behavior. Very often, in Muslim society, there is one Ayat that gets repeated a thousand times over and all the other Ayats are forgotten and that Ayat is, of course, the one about men being the protectors and maintainers of women and is extended out to all ends way beyond what it was meant to mean in the Qur’an.

It is made to extend to women’s minds, women’s behavior, women’s impetus to good, women’s ability to control their own direction. It is made to extend to every facet of the girl or woman’s rights. While that is not made to extend to every facet of the boys or men’s life. As a result, women are really seen as grown up children, more or less. In the way they are treated, both in the families and in the mosque and in the Muslim society.

There are so many other Ayats. Just to mention a few: There are verses of freedom of expression for the women. Verses about the right to act with Allah as the goal. Allah is the goal. Not the fear of men, not the fear of father, not the fear of any human being, but the fear of Allah. Fear means consciousness of Allah. Not simply just fear, but consciousness of Allah in positive behavior.

What is mostly taught in families instead is fear of the father. People do not realize that what they are creating is a situation of Shirkh. Of making a partnership with Allah in that you are made to fear the father and not to fear Allah. If you think in most families, what was repeated to you most as a child about who to fear? Allah or your father? (Responses from audience: father) That is a kind of Shirkh. That is exactly what it is.

The right of supervision of her own morality. Women are charged in the Qur?an of supervising their own morality. In the Muslim community and family, we are continually teaching girls that males should supervise your morality. You do not own your morality. Males do. That is not true. Allah says that for men who guard their modesty and for women who guard their modesty, in Surah Al Hujurat, Ayat 35. That is what it says. It does not say, for men who guard their modesty and for women who let men guard their modesty. It does not say it. But that is what we are doing in the Muslim society.

There is, of course, the right to justice in Islamic understanding for women and for men. But often it is construed to mean justice for men and the whim of men for women. Justice, they think, is in their hands. But the reality is that justice is only in Allah’s hands.

The right to think, the right to knowledge, and the right to have a direct relationship with Allah are part and parcel of our Islam. These are usually never talked about, never emphasized when it comes to women.

One of the things that we also suffer from in the Muslim society is that women are always under the threat of having their reputation ruined, and what it is usually ruined by is gossip. Gossip among females and gossip among males. They are always under suspicion of moving towards something that is unacceptable Islamically. Yet Allah says in the Qur’an about the situation when there was a rumor spread about Ayisha and the whole Muslim community believed it and Allah says, in the Qur’an, “When you heard this statement, you should have said, ‘it is not right for us to speak of this. Glory be to you our Lord. This is a most serious slander. Allah admonishes you so that you may never repeat such conduct if you are believers.'”

Instead, we find in our Muslim communities that it is full of gossip, full of accusing women of doing all kinds of things, constantly. This is one of the major things that make women run away from the Muslim community and not want to be part of it. It is one of the major things that makes Muslim women, especially young educated women, run away from their Muslim families. When they become 18, they go to college and when the graduate, the take a job as far away from home as possible so that they will have nothing to do with being judged and told what they are doing wrong. Instead of being trusted as good, knowledgeable human beings who can make good choices.

As our brother said, men and women are protectors of each other. That is almost never talked about in Muslim families or in communities that men and women protect each other. That is in the 9th Surah, 71st Ayat, but usually the other Ayats that would infer or imply that women should always be under the control of men, those are the ones emphasized, not the ones that say they are protectors, one of the other.

Allah says in the Qur’an, “Do not fear human beings, but fear me.”

But the whole Muslim community is rife with fear, not only of males, but fear of human beings. We do not do things. Why? Because people might gossip. You do not do such and such or do such and such. Why? Because that is what mainstream America would accept. You do not do such and such. Why? Because so and so’s daughter did such and if you do that, then everyone is going to walk.

Also, Qur’an says, “With Allah rests the end and decision of all affairs.”
Actually in our families and in our Mosques and our organizations that are Muslim, we do not practice that, really. We make people believe that all decisions and affairs in the end rest with the man who is in charge of that family or that Mosque or that organization. We make them. I was so happy to hear my brother say, “We are not God. We are also not a Prophet.” There is Allah, there is the Prophet, and then there are the rest of us. If we start thinking that we approximate God or we approximate the Prophets, we are in serious trouble. We do not think that we do that. Yet in our exact behavior in our family and in society, that is what we pretend that we are. That we are the end of all decisions. That we are the end of deciding on all affairs. That is not true.

You find most mothers, even, socialize their children to believe that the decision is with them. That is where they go wrong. That is why the children do not respect them in the way they should. Parents should be teaching their children, “I am just trying to obey Allah. This is what Allah says. I am not the end. I am not the end of all decisions. Allah is.” If parents taught in that way, children would understand Islam in that way and would behave in that way. Both the fathers and the mothers teach the children that “I have the decision. You will obey because I say so. You will obey me. I am the important one. No discussion. That is the end of that.” That is not what the Prophet (sal) did. He always drew people to the attention that there was something over him. Above him that he is obeying. That is what should be the model for parenting.

O my God. Two minutes! I did not even start what I was going to say. I made a separation in the pages between what men know and experience and what women know and experience. I separated it to the family level, the Mosque level, and the Muslim organization level.

On the family level, in marriage, if the person is an immigrant, or African American, more than 40 years old, usually, in the marriage, the man considers himself the owner and director of everyone in the household and everything, including their choices and their minds. They believe in strict obedience to the mail. Also his opinion is the most important one. Another model is that they are benevolent owner and director that practices Shorda in a limited way. That means consultation.
The woman who is an immigrant or 40+ African American usually believes that her job in life is to please her husband. Raise their children to his liking. Cook, clean, and entertain his guests. She shall follow the lead of her husband. She is afraid to voice her opinion. Usually in that category, if it was a male, married someone much less educated than themselves and felt that was the right thing to do. In general the men have privilege and services and are 95% responsible for everything that women do.

In those groupings, the major identity is ethnic and not religious.

The next grouping, people who are born in America or African Americans under 40, usually for the man, he thinks of a partnership model with his wife. He thinks of cooking, cleaning and childcare as a joint responsibility, which is what Islam presents. He wants to contribute to his wife’s education and career development and he wants Shurah or consultation on everything. He believes in discussing all decisions together. For the woman’s part in that category, she believes also in the partnership model. She believes that cooking, cleaning and childcare is a joint responsibility. They usually have similar education. She expects her career choices and education to have equal weight with her husband. She believes in Shurah on everything and expects decisions jointly. The outcome of that, usually, is that they will have a more peaceful kind of relationship in the home and a more successful relationship. If it is the 40+ model and immigrant model, it is always men lead, women serve. If there is not an outward friction, there is an undercurrent of friction to that and argumentation because women do not really accept that kind of model.

In the second model, the major identification is religion, not ethnicity. Then we see that the outcome of the first model, the result in the children is disbelief in Allah. It is amazing to me how many young people do not believe in Allah and how many parents assume that they do. Feeling of isolation, juvenile delinquency, depression and anger, and those are just some of the outcomes. At the Mosque level, we find that most of the men and women in the first model are carrying on their family in a macrocosm. They behave in the Mosque exactly as they think they should behave in their families. So men are directors of the community and women are considered privileged to be in the Mosque. If a woman is at the head of a committee, it will be the head of the women’s auxiliary or a committee or school issues. Major decisions should be made by men and they are considered the natural leaders. Young men have no saying in the Mosque because they have the same low status as women do. An example of that is in King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where I used to teach, the women, who were in charge of the entire University were never allowed to make a decision which were then censored by the men and checked out to see if it was the correct decision.

For women, they are resigned to accept men as directors of the community. The grumble but do not change it because they are not sure whether it is Islamic. They might serve on the Executive committee, if their father or husband approves. They expect men to make the major decisions or express opinions. If she wants to participate in major decisions, she will be chastised for trying to be man like or competing with men. If she accepts or puts up with male censorship of her decisions and actions, those same women, are very censoring of other women who come into the Masjid. As soon as a woman comes into the Masjid, they look her up and down and figure out what they can tell her is wrong with her. Her sons and daughters are not usually involved in Masjid affairs, lack of involvement, abandoning of community, youth looking for freedom of thought and space elsewhere and they start to feel more comfortable in a non-Muslim society than in a Muslim society.

Describing the organizational framework we usually find ourselves in, for the Mosque framework, it is the 40+ and Immigrant framework. This also carries into the framework for the organizations. Figure it out. Where do the minus forties and non-immigrants fit into the Mosque? They do not. They do not fit into the Mosque structure. They are not given space. If in fact you are in that space, it is considered a privilege. It is not a right.

There are youth groups and the youth groups have a lot of freedom of expression there. It is like women in the kitchen. Are they allowed that same freedom in the whole society? No.

Organizations according to men. Organizational involvement is a male thing. Women can help them, if they are asked to. Men make the better decisions. They are convinced of that. Women should be cooking, cleaning, childcare are first. Organizational development and publishing is second. It has to be second. If it is first, there is something wrong with you, if you do not already know it. For males, they look for other males for leadership positions, for holding offices, for heading a committee and for initiating change. They do not look at women as change agents.

It is the opposite for the 40- model. They look towards women and see them as change agents and look at them as possibly being organizers, developers and publishers..

Women in the 40+ grouping feel that men should lead and women should help. Appendages. Women in that grouping think that men make better decisions. They think that cooking, cleaning, childcare come first. If they have some time for some minor involvement, maybe they will do one thing. If you try and initiate change, you are trying to act like a male, you are trying to compete with men. That means you are going against the Hadith that says, “Don’t dress like a man.”

I wanted to give a few examples in our Muslim community that happen like this. The Minaret Magazine in California held a gathering of Muslim leaders to discuss issues affecting America. There were no women! How is that possible? There is a major research project going on here at the Washington, D.C. area. About 25 researchers and the leaders of that research group, who are here in this conference, are two men and they refuse to put a woman on that grouping. Major Muslim organizations have all male Boards of Directors. If there are women on the board, they make the decisions first and then the inform the women who are on the board. Then they say it is a Muslim Board of Directors that has women on it.