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Islamic feminism is a form of feminism concerned with the role of women in Islam. It aims for the full equality of all Muslims, regardless of gender, in public and private life. Islamic feminists advocate women's rights, gender equality, and social justice grounded in an Islamic framework. Although rooted in Islam, the movement's pioneers have also utilized secular and European or non-Muslim feminist discourses and recognize the role of Islamic feminism as part of an integrated global feminist movement.[1]

Advocates of the movement seek to highlight the deeply rooted teachings of equality in the religion, and encourage a questioning of the patriarchal interpretation of Islamic teaching through the Quran (holy book), hadith (sayings of Muhammad) and sharia (law) towards the creation of a more equal and just society.[2]

Muslim majority countries have produced several female heads of state: Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, Mame Madior Boye of Senegal, Tansu Çiller of Turkey, Kaqusha Jashari of Kosovo, and Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia. Bangladesh was the first country in the world to have one female head of state follow another, those two being Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina.[3] A 2007 Gallup poll has shown that the majority of Muslims in both Muslim-majority countries (Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia) and non-Muslim countries (France, Germany, United Kingdom and United States), including both men and women, are in support of women having equal rights, both socially and politically, provided a woman does not lose her Islamic right to keep her own earnings to herself and share half her husband's earnings.[4]


Early reforms under Islam

During the early days of Islam in the 7th century CE, reforms in women's rights affected marriage, divorce and inheritance.[5] Women were not accorded such legal status in other cultures, including the West, until centuries later.[6] The Oxford Dictionary of Islam states that the general improvement of the status of women in Arab societies included prohibition of female infanticide and recognizing women's full personhood[7] (see Islamic ethics). Under Islamic law, marriage was no longer viewed as a status but rather as a contract, in which the woman's consent was imperative.[8][9][10] "The dowry, previously regarded as a bride-price paid to the father, became a nuptial gift retained by the wife as part of her personal property"[8][9] (sse also Dower). "Women were given inheritance rights in a patriarchal society that had previously restricted inheritance to male relatives."[9]

Annemarie Schimmel states that "compared to the pre-Islamic position of women, Islamic legislation meant an enormous progress; the woman has the right, at least according to the letter of the law, to administer the wealth she has brought into the family or has earned by her own work."[11] William Montgomery Watt states that Muhammad, in the historical context of his time, can be seen as a figure who testified on behalf of women’s rights and improved things considerably. Watt explains: "At the time Islam began, the conditions of women were terrible - they had no right to own property, were supposed to be the property of the man, and if the man died everything went to his sons." Muhammad, however, by "instituting rights of property ownership, inheritance, education and divorce, gave women certain basic safeguards."[12] Haddad and Esposito state that "Muhammad granted women rights and privileges in the sphere of family life, marriage, education, and economic endeavors, rights that help improve women's status in society."[13]

Islamic Golden Age

See also: Women in Islam and Islamic Golden Age

Whilst in the pre-modern period there was not a formal feminist movement, nevertheless there were a number of important figures who argued for improving women's rights and autonomy. These range from the medieval mystic and philosopher Ibn Arabi, who argued that women could achieve spiritual stations as equally high as men [14] to Nana Asma’u, daughter of eighteenth-century reformer Usman Dan Fodio, who pushed for literacy and education of Muslim women.[15]


See also: Madrasah

Women played an important role in the foundations of many Islamic educational institutions, such as Fatima al-Fihri's founding of the University of Al Karaouine in 859 CE. This continued through to the Ayyubid dynasty in the 12th and 13th centuries, when 160 mosques and madrasahs were established in Damascus, 26 of which were funded by women through the Waqf (charitable trust or trust law) system. Half of all the royal patrons for these institutions were also women.[16]

According to the Sunni scholar Ibn Asakir in the 12th century, there were opportunities for female education. He wrote that girls and women could study, earn ijazahs (academic degrees), and qualify as scholars (ulema) and teachers. This was especially the case for learned and scholarly families, who wanted to ensure the highest possible education for both their sons and daughters.[17] Ibn Asakir had himself studied under 80 different female teachers. Female education in the Islamic world was inspired by Muhammad's wives: Khadijah, a successful businesswoman, and Aisha, a renowned scholar of the hadith and military leader. Muhammad is said to have praised the women of Medina for their desire for religious knowledge:[18] "How splendid were the women of the ansar; shame did not prevent them from becoming learned in the faith."

While it was not common for women to enroll as students in formal classes, they did attend informal lectures and study sessions at mosques, madrasahs and other public places. Although there were no legal restrictions on female education, some men did not approve of this practice. For example, Muhammad ibn al-Hajj (d. 1336) was appalled at the behaviour of some women who informally audited lectures in his time:[19]

"[Consider] what some women do when people gather with a shaykh to hear [the recitation of] books. At that point women come, too, to hear the readings; the men sit in one place, the women facing them. It even happens at such times that some of the women are carried away by the situation; one will stand up, and sit down, and shout in a loud voice. [Moreover,] her awra will appear; in her house, their exposure would be forbidden — how can it be allowed in a mosque, in the presence of men?"

('awra refers to the parts of the body that should remain covered; see also hijab for the rules of modesty governing both men and women.)

On the question of women in medieval Islam, Abdul Hakim Murad writes

the orientalist Ignaz Goldziher showed that perhaps fifteen percent of medieval hadith scholars were women, teaching in the mosques and universally admired for their integrity. Colleges such as the Saqlatuniya Madrasa in Cairo were funded and staffed entirely by women. The most recent study of Muslim female academicians, by Ruth Roded, charts an extraordinary dilemma for the researcher:

‘If U.S. and European historians feel a need to reconstruct women’s history because women are invisible in the traditional sources, Islamic scholars are faced with a plethora of source material that has only begun to be studied. [ . . . ] In reading the biographies of thousands of Muslim women scholars, one is amazed at the evidence that contradicts the view of Muslim women as marginal, secluded, and restricted.’

Stereotypes come under almost intolerable strain when Roded documents the fact that the proportion of female lecturers in many classical Islamic colleges was higher than in modern Western universities.[20]

In the 15th century, Al-Sakhawi devotes an entire volume of his 12-volume biographical dictionary Daw al-lami to female scholars, giving information on 1,075 of them.[21]

Civil and military work

The labor force in the Caliphate came from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds, while both men and women were involved in diverse occupations]]nd economic activities.[22] Women were employed in a wide range of commercial activities and diverse occupations[23] in the primary sector (as farmers for example), secondary sector (as construction workers, dyers, spinners, etc.) and tertiary sector (as investors, doctors, nurses, presidents of guilds, brokers, peddlers, lenders, scholars, etc.).[24] Muslim women also held a monopoly over certain branches of the textile industry,[23] the largest and most specialized and market-oriented industry at the time, in occupations such as spinning, dying, and embroidery. In comparison, female property rights and wage labour were relatively uncommon in Europe until the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries.[25]

In the 12th century, the famous Islamic philosopher and qadi (judge) Ibn Rushd, known to the West as Averroes, claimed that women were equal to men in all respects and possessed equal capacities to shine in peace and in war, citing examples of female warriors among the Arabs, Greeks and Africans to support his case.[26] In early Muslim history, examples of notable women who fought during the Muslim conquests and Fitna (civil wars) as soldiers or generals included Nusaybah Bint k’ab Al Maziniyyah,[27] Aisha,[28] Kahula and Wafeira[29].

Property, marriage, and other rights

In terms of women's rights, women generally had fewer legal restrictions under Islamic law (sharia) than they did under certain Western legal systems until the 20th century. For example, under traditional interpretations of sharia, women had the right to keep their surnames upon marriage; inherit and bestow inheritance; independently manage their financial affairs; and contract marriages and divorce. In contrast, restrictions on the legal capacity of married women under French law were not removed until 1965.[30] Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard University, notes:

As for sexism, the common law long denied married women any property rights or indeed legal personality apart from their husbands. When the British applied their law to Muslims in place of Shariah, as they did in some colonies, the result was to strip married women of the property that Islamic law had always granted them — hardly progress toward equality of the sexes.[31]

In contrast to the Western world where divorce was relatively uncommon until modern times, divorce was a common occurrence at certain points in the pre-modern Muslim world, where it was known as talaq. In the Mamluk Sultanate and early Ottoman Empire, the rate of divorce was higher than it is today in the modern Middle East.[32] In 15th century Egypt, Al-Sakhawi recorded the marital history of 500 women, the largest sample on marriage in the Middle Ages, and found that at least a third of all women in the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt and Syria married more than once, with many marrying three or more times.[33]

Nineteenth century

Template:Refimprovesect The modern movement of Islamic feminism began in the late nineteenth century. Egyptian jurist Qasim Amin, the author of the 1899 pioneering book Women's Liberation (Tahrir al-Mar'a), is often described as the father of the Egyptian feminist movement. In his work, Amin criticized some of the practices prevalent in his society at the time, such as polygyny, the veil, and purdah, i.e. sex segregation in Islam. He condemned them as un-Islamic and contradictory to the true spirit of Islam. His work had an enormous influence on women's political movements throughout the Islamic and Arab world, and is read and cited today.

Despite Qasim Amin's effects on modern-day Islamic feminist movements, present-day scholar Leila Ahmed considers his works both androcentric and colonialist.[34] Muhammad 'Abdu, an Egyptian nationalist,[35] could easily have written the chapters of his work that show honest considerations of the negative effects of the veil on women.[36] Amin even posed many male-centered misconceptions about women, such as their inability to experience love, that women needlessly (when they had very good reason to) talk about their husbands outside their presence, and that Muslim marriage is based on ignorance and sensuality, of which women were the chief source.[37]

Less known, however, are the women who preceded Amin in their feminist critique of their societies. The women's press in Egypt started voicing such concerns since its very first issues in 1892. Egyptian, Turkish, Iranian, Syrian and Lebanese women and men had been reading European feminist magazines even a decade earlier, and discussed their relevance to the Middle East in the general press.[38]

Twentieth century

Aisha Abd al-Rahman, writing under her pen name Bint al-Shati ("Daughter of the Riverbank"), was the first modern woman to undertake Qur'anic exegesis, and though she did not considered herself to be a feminist, her works reflect feminist themes. She began producing her popular books in 1959, the same year that Naguib Mahfouz published his allegorical and feminist version of the life of Muhammad.[39] She wrote biographies of early women in Islam, including the mother, wives and daughters of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as literary criticism.[40]

Areas of campaign

Personal law

Template:Citations missing

See also: Islamic marital jurisprudence

One of the major areas of scholarship and campaigning for Islamic feminists are aspects of sharia (Islamic law) known as Muslim personal law or Muslim family law. Some of the thorny issues regarding the way in which MPL has thus far been formulated include polygyny, divorce, custody of children, maintenance and marital property. In addition, there are also more macro issues regarding the underlying assumptions of such legislation, for example, the assumption of the man as head of the household.

Muslim majority countries that have promulgated some form of MPL include Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Sudan, Senegal, Tunisia, Egypt, Indonesia, and Bangladesh. Muslim minority countries that already have incorporated MPL into their own law or are considering passing legislation on aspects of MPL include India, Israel, and South Africa.

Islamic feminists have objected to the MPL legislation in many of these countries, arguing that these pieces of legislation discriminate against women. Some Islamic feminists have taken the attitude that a reformed MPL which is based on the Qur'an and sunnah, which includes substantial input from Muslim women, and which does not discriminate against women is possible. Such Islamic feminists have been working on developing women-friendly forms of MPL. (See, for example, the Canadian Council of Muslim Women for argument based on the Quran and not on what they call medieval male consensus.) Other Islamic feminists, particularly some in Muslim minority contexts which are democratic states, argue that MPL should not be reformed but should be rejected and that Muslim women should seek redress, instead, from the civil laws of those states.

Sexuality and marriage

See also: Islamic sexual jurisprudence and Homosexuality and Islam

Despite the taboo status of sex and sexuality in many Muslim societies, some Quranic scholars have argued that the Quran itself discusses these subjects openly and positively, and that Islam is one of the most sexually accepting of the major world religions.[41] .[42]

There is debate over the interpretations of the Quranic verses that have been cited to outlaw homosexuality, principally the verse relating to the story of Lot (see Qur'an verses: 11:69-83, 29:28-35). Quranic verses appear to relate specifically to male homosexuality. Contemporary interpreters and campaigning organisations are working to reinterpret texts to allow for a wider spectrum of sexual relationships, including homosexual and bisexual, but there is much resistance from the mainstream Muslim community.[41]

Dress codes

See also: Sartorial hijab, Islam and clothing, Awrah, and Purdah

Another issue that concerns Muslim women is the dress code expected of them. Islam requires both men and women to dress modestly; this concept is known as hijab and covers a wide interpretation of behavior and garments. In some countries such as Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia women are expected to wear the all-covering burqa or abaya; in others such as Tunisia and Turkey they are forbidden to wear even the headscarf (often known as the veil) in public buildings. There is mixed opinion among Muslim feminists over extremes of externally imposed control.

A number of Islamic feminists, including Fadela Amara and Hedi Mhenni support bans on the hijab, for various reasons. Amara explained her support for France's ban of the garment in public buildings: "The veil is the visible symbol of the subjugation of women, and therefore has no place in the mixed, secular spaces of France's public school system."[43] When some feminists began defending the headscarf on the grounds of "tradition", Amara saw red. "It's not tradition, it's archaic! French feminists are totally contradictory. When Algerian women fought against wearing the headscarf in Algeria, French feminists supported them. But when it's some young girl in a French suburb school, they don't. They define liberty and equality according to what colour your skin is. It's nothing more than neocolonialism."[44] Mhenni also expressed support for Tunisia's ban on the veil: "If today we accept the headscarf, tomorrow we'll accept that women's rights to work and vote and receive an education be banned and they'll be seen as just a tool for reproduction and housework."[45]


There are subtle yet substantial differences to be noted between the terms 'Islamic feminist', 'Muslim feminist', and 'Islamist'. Any of these terms can be used of men or women.

Islamic feminists

Islamic feminists ground their arguments in Islam and its teachings[46], seek the full equality of women and men in the personal and public sphere, and can include non-Muslims in the discourse and debate.

Islamic feminism is defined by Islamic scholars as being more radical than secular feminism,[47] and as being anchored within the discourse of Islam with the Qur'an as its central text.[48]

In recent times the concept of Islamic feminism has grown further, with Islamic groups looking to garner support from as many aspects of society as possible, and educated Muslim women striving to articulate their role in society.[49] The history and potential success of such a movement is debatable but looking back through the Qur'an there has always been a degree of respect afforded to women with the Qur'an stressing the importance of men, but also women's rights to honorable treatment. However, such freedoms as property rights and the respect from men are often sidelined, with little recourse being available for those that wish to protest. It has been, however, mainly upper-middle-class women that have been able to vocalise the Islamic feminist movement, as they have the economic security to violate widely held beliefs.

Muslim feminists

Muslim feminists, on the other hand, are people who consider themselves both Muslim and feminist, but they may use arguments outside Islam, for example, national secular law or international human rights agreements, to counter gender inequality. The rise of feminism in the Islamic world has been linked to the rise of Western influence. This influence may be aligned with Western powers and markets, promoting ideas such as universal suffrage, human rights, and access to education, and borrowing from secular feminism.

Muslim feminist activists may be born and brought up within Western societies. Often those born to immigrant families face racism from the host community and sexism within their own communities. For example, young Muslim women in France fought back against the issues facing them, ranging from endemic sexual violence to the forced wearing of the hijab, by creating Ni Putes Ni Soumises (usually translated "Neither Whores Nor Submissives"). This movement has spread to other countries.[Citation needed]


Islamists are advocates of political Islam, the notion that the Quran and hadith mandate a caliphate, i.e. an Islamic government. Some Islamists advocate women's rights in the public sphere but do not challenge gender inequality in the personal, private sphere [50].

See also

  • Women in Islam and Sex segregation and Islam
  • Rights and obligations of spouses in Islam
  • Female figures in the Qur'an
  • Sisters in Islam
  • Role of women in religion
  • Asra Nomani
  • Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in the Mosque
  • History of feminism
  • Rada (fiqh)

Other countries:

  • Sex segregation in Iran
  • Women's rights in Iran
  • Women's rights in Saudi Arabia
  • Women's rights in Kuwait
  • Feminism in Egypt
  • Women in Lebanon


  • Taliban treatment of women
  • Golden Needle Sewing School
  • Gender roles in Afghanistan
  • Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan


  1. International Congress on Islamic Feminism
  2. Al-Ahram Weekly | Culture | Islamic feminism: what's in a name?
  3. "Women Who Rule: 10 Firsts - MSN Encarta". Archived from the original on 2009-10-31.
  4. Magali Rheault (December 21, 2007). "Saudi Arabia: Majorities Support Women's Rights". Gallup. Retrieved on 2010-04-11.
  5. "Women and Islam" in Oxford Islamic Studies Online
  6. Jones, Lindsay. p.6224
  7. "Women and Islam" in Oxford Islamic Studies Online
  8. 8.0 8.1 Khadduri (1978)
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Esposito (2005) p. 79
  10. Esposito (2004), p. 339
  11. Schimmel (1992) p.65
  12. Maan, McIntosh (1999)
  13. Haddad, Esposito (1998) p.163
  14. Hakim, Souad (2002), "Ibn 'Arabî's Twofold Perception of Woman: Woman as Human Being and Cosmic Principle", Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi Society 31: 1–29
  15. Mack, Beverly B.; Jean Boyd (2000), One Woman's Jihad: Nana Asma'u, Scholar and Scribe, USA: Indiana University Press
  16. Lindsay, James E. (2005), Daily Life in the Medieval Islamic World, Greenwood Publishing Group, p. 197, ISBN 0313322708
  17. Lindsay, James E. (2005), Daily Life in the Medieval Islamic World, Greenwood Publishing Group, pp. 196 & 198, ISBN 0313322708
  18. Lindsay, James E. (2005), Daily Life in the Medieval Islamic World, Greenwood Publishing Group, pp. 196, ISBN 0313322708
  19. Lindsay, James E. (2005), Daily Life in the Medieval Islamic World, Greenwood Publishing Group, p. 198, ISBN 0313322708
  21. Guity Nashat, Lois Beck (2003), Women in Iran from the Rise of Islam to 1800, University of Illinois Press, p. 69, ISBN 0252071212
  22. Maya Shatzmiller, pp. 6–7.
  23. 23.0 23.1 Maya Shatzmiller (1994), Labour in the Medieval Islamic World, Brill Publishers, ISBN 90-04-09896-8, pp. 400–1
  24. Maya Shatzmiller, pp. 350–62.
  25. Maya Shatzmiller (1997), "Women and Wage Labour in the Medieval Islamic West: Legal Issues in an Economic Context", Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 40 (2), pp. 174–206 [175–7].
  26. Ahmad, Jamil (September 1994), "Ibn Rushd", Monthly Renaissance 4 (9),, retrieved 2008-10-14
  27. Girl Power, ABC News
  28. Black, Edwin (2004). Banking on Baghdad: Inside Iraq's 7,000 Year History of War, Profit, and Conflict. John Wiley and Sons, 34. ISBN 047170895X. 
  29. Hale, Sarah Josepha Buell (1853). Woman's Record: Or, Sketches of All Distinguished Women, from "The Beginning Till A.D. 1850, Arranged in Four Eras, with Selections from Female Writers of Every Age. Harper Brothers, 120. 
  30. Badr, Gamal M. (Winter 1984), "Islamic Criminal Justice", The American Journal of Comparative Law 32 (1): 167–169 [167–8], Error: Bad DOI specified
  31. Noah Feldman (March 16, 2008). "Why Shariah?". New York Times. Retrieved on 2008-10-05.
  32. Rapoport, Yossef (2005), Marriage, Money and Divorce in Medieval Islamic Society, Cambridge University Press, p. 2, ISBN 052184715X
  33. Rapoport, Yossef (2005), Marriage, Money and Divorce in Medieval Islamic Society, Cambridge University Press, pp. 5–6, ISBN 052184715X
  34. Leila Ahmed. Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992. pp.155-163, 171, 179.
  35. Leila Ahmed. Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992. pp.136-137.
  36. Leila Ahmed. Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992. pp.159,161.
  37. Leila Ahmed. Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992. pp.157-159.
  38. see "Great Ancestors: Women Asserting Rights in Muslim Contexts," by Farida Shaheed with Aisha L.F. Shaheed (London/Lahore: WLUML/Shirkat Gah, 2005) [1]
  39. Roded, Ruth (May 2006), "Bint al-Shati’s Wives of the Prophet: Feminist or Feminine?", British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 33 (1): 51–66, Error: Bad DOI specified
  40. Arab Women Novelists: The Formative Years and Beyond by Joseph T. Zeidan, State University of New York Press, 1995
  41. 41.0 41.1 SAFRA Project Essay on Islam and Sexuality
  42. See the works of Asra Nomani for more details
  46. ‘Islamic feminism means justice to women’, The Milli Gazette, Vol.5 No.02, MG96 (16-31 Jan 04)
  47. "Islamic feminism: what's in a name?" by Margot Badran, Al-Ahram, January 17–23, 2002
  48. "Exploring Islamic Feminism" by Margot Badran, Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University, November 30, 2000
  49. Humphreys, R. Stephen: "Between Memory and Desire - The Middle East in a Troubled Age", University of California Press, 2005
  50. Islamic Feminism And The Politics Of Naming

Alya Baffoun "Women and Social Change in the Muslim World" (Women's Studies International Forum, V, 1982, 227-242).

Baffoun, Alya (1994) "Feminism and Muslim fundamentalism: the Tunisian and Algerian cases" in Valentine M. Moghadam (ed.) ISBN 0 8133 8692 6.

Baffoun, Alya. 1989 African women participation for research and development : roles and functions of AAWORD. Tunis University publication n:7.

Baffoun, Alya (1980) "Some remarks on Women and Development in the Maghreb" in The Changing Middle Eastern City. State University of New-York.

Baffoun, Alya (1984) "Critical Methodological Approach to the problem of Sexual Asymmetry" in Social Science Research on Women in the Arab World. UNESCO.

Further reading