The Status of Women between Islamic Teachings and Today’s Reality

Islam brought various social and humanitarian reforms and Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) introduced positive changes that were radical in his time. These reforms also covered gender and women’s issues. Historians largely agree that under the Prophet's jurisdiction, the rights of women improved on what was present in his society. In pre-Islamic Arabia, women had been treated as property – they were considered possessions of their husbands, and thus inheritable. Islam forbade such practice and instead affirmed that Muslim men and women were ‘Awliya' (helpers, supporters, friends, protectors) of one another. Islam instituted for women numerous rights in order to safeguard their wellbeing. These included the right to be treated kindly and justly, the right to property ownership, education, inheritance, divorce, child custody, and seeking employment. Among the Prophet’s wives, daughters, and Muslim women living in and right after his time, we find women taking up various roles and contributing to various aspects of the society: as a mother, scholar, businesswoman, jurist, warrior, leatherworker, political proponent, asylum granter, marketplace overseer, and many others.

Looking at the religion of Islam that Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) enjoined people to and practiced, one can find the spirit of protecting women’s rights, women empowerment, advancement, and justice. The Prophet (pbuh) was “a figure who testified on behalf of women’s rights” . Unfortunately, in many parts of the world today including the Muslim world, women suffer from injustice, systematic discrimination, targeted violence and being denied basic rights. In many Muslim communities, Islam has been used as a justification and mask to promote exactly the opposite of what it essentially promotes. Female infanticide, for example, has been banned by Islam since more than a thousand years ago, but is still practiced in several Muslim communities. In many places, women are still being denied access to education, despite the Prophet’s stating that “seeking knowledge is a duty of every Muslim- man or woman” .

Unfortunately, it seems that the spirit of reform that the Prophet (pbuh) initiated has stopped and, in many cases, reversed. Why do many Muslim communities today disregard the Prophet’s teaching of treating women with kindness and justice and protecting their rights? Is it not time for us all to revive this Sunnah? How to make Islam and the Muslim communities contribute to resolving the problems that women face today? What can we do to improve the conditions of women, just like the Prophet (pbuh) did? The following section is an attempt to identify several major issues in this field.

Position of Women in Islam

Many contemporary issues in this discourse arguably trace their roots to the fundamental question of the status of women. Are women innately inferior and socially subordinate to men? Although this notion exists in both classical and contemporary Muslim literature, the concept actually did not originate in Islam, but rather is a much older concept that can be traced back to ancient Greek philosophy .

Various verses in the Qur’an indicate that “men and women are created as equal creatures of a universal, just, and merciful God whose pleasure is that they live, in harmony and in righteousness, together” . However, opinions vary among Muslim scholars and there exist opinions that can be misused to justify the notion of inherent inferiority. One opinion, for example, holds that “a man is inherently better than a woman, and he is superior to her because he spends on her” and “women are lacking in reason” . Some other scholars argue that it is due to patriarchal interpretations of Islam that women are regarded as inferior in many Muslim communities.

In some cases, Prophetic ahadith are misunderstood and misused to justify injustice against women. Deeper research is needed to provide better understanding of these ahadith. For instance, Auda (2010) studies the relationship between the Quran and Sunnah from the angle of using the method of Quranic universals to critique the content (matn) of hadith narrations. His study shows that Aisha Bint Abu Bakr, the Mother of the Believers, gave us a strong example and a clear illustration for applying this method. In a number of illustrative examples of hadith, Aisha confidently rejected other companions’ narrations, despite being ‘authentic’ according to the sanad verification criteria that had developed later.

Aisha’s rejection was based on the contradiction of these narrations with the clear universals of the Quran that revealed the higher principles (usul) and purposes (maqasid) of Islam. Auda also proves that Aisha’s method is coherent with the classic ‘verification of the content’ (tahqeeq almatn) method, and shows that such methodology is “needed for today’s projects of renewal in the Islamic law in order to align the details of the law to its firmly based principles of justice, mercy, wisdom, or common good”.

Gender Justice and Equality/Equity

According to the United Nations Development Program (2011), countries with less human development tend to have greater inequality in more aspects, and therefore larger losses in human development. It is particularly important to note here that countries that display high gender inequality also exhibit inequality in distribution of development, and vice versa. Social Institutions and Gender Index 2012 Report states that there is widespread consensus that gender equality is a requirement for development, growth and poverty reduction. Discriminatory social institutions – social norms, practices, formal and informal laws – have gained prominence as a useful analytical framework to illuminate what drives gender inequalities and development outcomes more broadly.

Abusharaf (2003) argues that the concept of gender justice deals with the analysis of gender relations across different political, socio-economic, legal and institutional settings. Abusharaf also asserts that social institutions - laws, norms, traditions, and codes of conduct - constitute the single most important factor determining women's freedom of choice in economic activities. To address gender inequalities effectively, it is important to address institutional frameworks. Abusharaf believes that the challenge for research on gender justice is to examine the complexities of local culture in the spatio-temporal context of social relations and the legal treatment of citizenship rights. Her study sees Islamic religious institutions as one of the dynamic traditional institutional frameworks.

This dynamism implies that there is room for reforms and positive changes. Culture is also a very important aspect apart from religion, and there are many cultural practices criticized as oppressive to women that are misidentified as “Islamic”.

An increasing number of Muslim scholars address the concept of gender equality through hermeneutics. Al-Tahir Al-Hadad , for example, argues that the Quran encourages development and change in accordance with ever-changing human conditions. He argues that the essential values that Islam brought are - among others - monotheism, superior moral ethics, establishing justice and equality. In terms of women's rights, the Quranic stipulations represent an advanced move towards more equal rights. But these stipulations are not ends in themselves. For instance, according to his opinion, pre-Islamic Arabia's human conditions such as slavery and polygamy are not essentially Islamic. If we apply the 'Quranic strategy' to this case, these human conditions are subject to change.

However, working with these concepts and terms requires specific caution. Pruzan-Jørgensen (2012) notices that many Islamic women’s activists are wary of concepts such as ‘equality’ (as opposed to ‘equity’ or ‘complementarity’), ‘feminism’ and ‘gender’, as these concepts are loaded with negative associations. Associations are ranging from cultural imperialism and neo-colonial interference, threats to Islam and indigenous ways and traditions.

Other scholars have also noticed this phenomenon. For instance, Tønnessen (2011) analyzes a range of Sudanese Islamist women' positions and shows that while on the one hand Islamist women reject the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and Western definition of gender equality, they do promote issues that empower women in the Sudanese state and society. These studies highlight the weight of terminology and expressions.


Formal education has become indispensable in today’s modern world and individuals with no basic education are likely to be severely disadvantaged. This disadvantage can have serious implications on their wellbeing and standard of living.

Contemporary Muslim women face difficulties in accessing education, but the degree of the problem differs greatly from one area to another. Esposito and Mogahed (2007) quoted “nationally representative self-reported data” which showed varied percentages of women attaining post-secondary education: as high as in Iran (52%), Egypt (34%), Saudi Arabia (32%), and Lebanon (37%), but as low as in Morocco (8%) and Pakistan (13%). Lack of basic education is worst in poorer countries such as Afghanistan, where girls are forced into early marriage and denied basic education, it was reported that numerous schools for girls have been burned down and some girls have even been poisoned to death for daring to go to school. As a result, 87 percent of Afghan women are illiterate and only 30 percent of girls have access to education .

The Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE) argues that one of underlying challenges that Muslim women face in education is the patriarchal interpretation of qawamah (male guardianship). According to WISE, although the Qur’an stipulates that both men and women are protectors of one another, qawamah has been used as a pretext to restrict educational opportunities for women.

Challenges in education are not just present in Muslim communities; they also exist in other communities. One pattern persists, however: that the positive impact of improving female education does not only affect the female student herself, but also her family, community, and nation. Herz and Sperling (2004) found that while educating both boys and girls increases productivity and supports the growth of national economies, the education of girls may lead to greater income gains. For instance, if women farmers in Kenya had the same education and inputs as men farmers, crop yields could rise by 22 percent .

Educating women also saves children’s lives and leads to healthier families. In Africa, children of mothers who receive five years of primary education are 40 percent more likely to live beyond age five . An extra year of girls’ education can reduce infant mortality by 5–10 percent. This striking pattern “has been widely replicated across comparative data bases…and through repeated censuses”. Evidence shows that women often invest more of their income in their families than men do. For example in Brazil, women’s resources have 20 times the impact on children’s health compared to men’s resources .


Although women produce 75 to 90 percent of food crops in the world, they still suffer disproportionately, leading to what sociologist refer to as the “feminization of poverty,” where two out of every three poor adults are women (Robbins, 1999). According to a United Nations Development Program (UNDP) research in 1995, women do more than two-thirds of the world's labor - the equivalent of almost 50 percent of world GDP - but they only receive an estimated 10 percent of the world's income and own only 1 percent of the means of production. Consequently, women constitute 70 percent of the world’s poor .

Although Islam recognizes women as individuals who have financial rights and who are entitled to accumulate wealth in a variety of ways, the reality on the ground is often different from the teachings of Islam. Many women are denied their right to property ownership, their share of inheritance, their right to sustenance, and other economic-related rights. In general, women are more likely than men to be poor and at risk of hunger because of the systematic discrimination they face in education, health care, employment and control of assets. Unfortunately, being poor carries other negative consequences. One of the consequences of being poor is that women have little protection from violence.

Violence and Health

Violence against women is a major issue. Sex-selective abortion, infanticide, domestic violence, rape, female genital mutilation and honor killings are common in contemporary Muslim societies, although the issues are not unique to them. There also exists a phenomenon known as “son bias” that leads to intentional killing of female babies before they are born. A research assessed that over 100 million females were "missing" from the projected population in various countries in the world, partly due to sex-selective abortion (Klasen and Wink, 2003) .

The Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI)’s Restricted Physical Integrity index attempts to measures the existence of women's legal protection against violent attacks such as rape, domestic violence and sexual harassment, attitudes towards domestic violence and prevalence of domestic violence; and to measure the percentage of women who have been subjected to any type of genital mutilation. Based on this indicator, unfortunately conditions in Muslim countries seem to be poor. Among the top ten best countries, there are no Muslim-majority countries or countries with significant Muslim population. Rather, many Muslim countries occupy the medium-to-worst positions. This statistics is not alone in reporting this condition. For instance, the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT) estimated in 2002 that 89.2% of the women and girls in Sudan endured female genital mutilation.

Systematic discrimination against women and girls persists not only within Muslim communities, but across the globe. Overall, girls are three times more likely to be malnourished than boys because families feed them last. Millions of girls are exploited, abused, trafficked or sold into the sex trade, and two thirds of youth newly infected with HIV are female.

The lack of access to health care for women is another significant issue and conditions can be very severe in some regions. One example is Afghanistan - literature indicates that in 1997 maternal mortality in Afghanistan was one of the worst in the world. Unfortunately, according to Turner the difficulties in establishing health services revolve around fundamentalist Islamic ideas and ongoing violence within Afghanistan. Overall, health indicators show correlation to the level of gender justice in general. According to SIGI 2012 report, countries with higher levels of discrimination against women are more likely to have a higher maternal mortality rate.

Domestic / Family Laws

Hajjar asserts that the arena where gender inequalities are most deep-seated, in the context of family relations, is also where they are most widely accepted and thus most difficult to alter. Numerous issues are present in this domain, including the issue of guardianship, prenuptial/premarital agreement, rights within marriage, divorce, domestic violence, inheritance, child custody, and many others.

According to Hajjar, even though the use of Shari’a to administer family relations contributes to certain commonalities in gender relations across Muslim societies, particularly the privileging and empowerment of men over women in the context of the family, it is also important to note substantial variations. Hajjar argues that the state “is the most important variable for understanding variations across societies, since, in the modern era, the state is the primary arbiter of law”. There have been attempts to address these issues through legal reforms, but case studies from various communities also show that legal reform is not sufficient if cultural and religious value systems remain untouched .


We have reviewed several major topics related to gender where ethical issues are present. This attempt however, is not all-inclusive as the domain is large since most, if not all, spheres of human activities can be looked at from a gender perspective and involve ethical issues.

Post your Comments

Your email address will not be published*


Submitted by CILE on Wed, 12/31/2014 - 07:46


Dear Mahmood, This article is an external contribution from Farania Rangkuti. As CILE, we do not edit external contribution. We will ask author if she is willing to edit her article in order to add references. Thanks.

Add new comment

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.