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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 9    Issue 19   16-28 February 2015

Status and Role of Women in the Muslim World

Professor A. R. MOMIN

In pre-Islamic Arabia, a woman was treated like chattel. She was considered a man’s property which he could discard or abandon at will. It was common to enslave women after war. There was no restriction on the number of wives a man could have. A woman had no say in the selection of her spouse. When a man died, his eldest son inherited not only his wealth and property but also his wives. He could either marry his dead father’s wives (other than his biological mother) or offer them in marriage to anyone he liked. Marriages between step-sons and step-mothers were not uncommon. A girl child was looked upon as a disgrace for the family and female infanticide was quite common. Women had no access to education.

Islam made a radical break with pagan beliefs and practices relating to women. Female infanticide was strongly denounced and prohibited (Quran 6:151, 17:31; 81:9). The Islamic faith does not allow any discrimination between male and female children. The Prophet warned his followers against humiliating their daughters and preferring their sons over daughters. He described the birth of a girl child as divine mercy and blessing. Islam accorded an honourable and dignified position to women. The Quran says that men and women are equal in the sight of God in respect of virtue and piety (Quran 2:187; 3:195; 4:1, 32). The Prophet is reported to have said, “This world is an ephemeral thing, of which one takes a temporary advantage. Among the things of this world, nothing is better than a good, virtuous woman”. Caliph Umar once said: “During the pre-Islamic period, we did not consider women to be worth anything. However, after the coming of Islam, when God Himself expressed His concern for them, we realised that they also had rights over us”.

Islam opened the portals of knowledge to all and sundry regardless of the distinctions of class or gender. This revolutionary approach to education produced thousands of women who made a significant contribution to the advancement of Islamic learning. A Muslim scholar, Mohammad Akram Nadwi, has identified more than 8,000 female scholars and narrators of Hadith from the time of the Prophet till the 15th century. The celebrated jurist Ibn Taymiyah (d. 1328) has listed two women among his teachers.

In Islamic view, the roles, rights and responsibilities of men and women are largely equal and complementary, though not identical. Under Islamic law, the woman has freedom of conscience, as much as man, and has a right to express her views and opinions without let or hindrance. Similarly, a woman has a legal and unfettered right to acquire and possess property on her own and to dispose it off in whatever manner she pleases. The mahr, which is given to her at the time of marriage, belongs exclusively to her and neither her guardians nor any of her relatives have a right over it. A woman’s marriage has no effect on her legal and financial status. If she is wronged or harmed, she is entitled to as much compensation as a man (Quran 4:92-93). The husband is obliged to take care of his wife’s material and financial needs and she is entitled to inherit his property as well as that of her parents.

During the caliphate of Umar, some people started demanding large sums of money as mahr from their prospective sons-in-law. Umar feared that this trend might prevent many girls from getting married. He therefore fixed a certain amount of money as mahr. None of the Prophet’s Companions raised any objection to this stipulation. However, one day an old lady stood up in the Prophet’s Mosque and took exception to his order. In support of her argument, she cited a verse from the Quran which says: “If you have given one of them a treasure, take not aught therefrom…..”(4:20). She argued that if God had allowed men to gift a treasure to a woman, Umar had no authority to supersede or abrogate the law on the subject. Umar immediately conceded that the lady was right and immediately withdrew the order.

The status and role of women in the contemporary Muslim world should be examined in the context of certain key social indicators such as female-male ratio, female morbidity and mortality, discrimination against the girl child, sex-selective abortions, maternal mortality rates, female genital mutilations, violence against women, child marriage, female literacy rates, access to education and employment, participation in the workforce and political representation.

The status of women in Muslim countries around the world presents a mixed and a largely gloomy picture. There is a conspicuous gap between the ennobling view of the status of women that is found in Islamic teachings and principles and the generally lowly position of women in large parts of the Muslim world. Let us first look at the positive side of the picture. By and large, Muslim countries have a balanced female-male ratio. In Bangladesh, for example, the female-male ratio is 972 girls per 1,000 boys, which suggests that there is much less gender discrimination in child care compared with India and a relative absence of sex-selective abortions. Though the preference for the male child is widespread across large parts of the Muslim world, it does not involve discrimination against the girl child in regard to nutrition, health care and education. There is a conspicuous absence of abortion of female fetuses in Muslim countries, which reflects the influence of the Shariah on the individual and collective behaviour of Muslims.

Unfortunately, however, the negative aspects of the status of women in Muslim countries, as reflected in social indicators, far outweigh the positive features. Some of the highest maternal mortality rates are to be found in Muslim countries. The highest incidence of female genital mutilations in the world is to be found in six Muslim countries (Somalia, Guinea, Egypt, Djibouti, Sudan and Mauritania). Female literacy rates in Muslim countries are among the lowest in the world. Nearly four-fifths of an estimated 5.7 million illiterate people in Turkey are women. By and large, the majority of Muslim women continue to bear the brunt of discrimination, male domination and disempowerment. In many Muslim countries, women do not have equal access to education and employment. The participation of Muslim women in the workforce and their political representation are far below the world average. Of the bottom 10 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2014 report on the Global Gender Gap, 9 are Muslim-majority nations.

In many Muslim countries, women are often subjected to domestic abuse and violence and sexual harassment in the streets. According to a report of Amnesty International, released on February1, 2015, 99% of Egyptian women say they have been subjected to some form of sexual harassment. The report says that 47% of women in the country have faced some form of domestic abuse and violence.

Status of Women in the Arab World

The Arab Human Development Reports, launched under the auspices of the United Nations Development Programme in 2002, provide a reliable picture of human development in the Arab region. The first Arab Human Development Report (2002) identified three major deficits in the region: knowledge, freedom and women’s rights. The report succinctly observed that “no society can achieve the desired state of well being and human development or compete in a globalizing world, if half of its people (women) remain marginalized and disempowered.” The Arab Human Development Report 2005 noted that in the Arab countries, women are often in a subservient position within the family and receive little protection from the legal system against violations inflicted by male family members. Arab women, according to the report, encounter violence in different forms, including physical, sexual and psychological abuse, female genital mutilation, child marriage, child prostitution and pornography, trafficking in women, rape and homicide. The report points out that women in Arab countries suffer from high risks of morbidity and mortality connected with pregnancy and reproductive functions. The maternal mortality rate in Arab countries averages 270 deaths per 100,000 live births, among the highest in the world.

The Arab Human Development Report 2005 points out that the Arab region has one of the highest rates of female illiteracy in the world. Almost half of the region’s female population can neither read nor write. The Arab region also has one of the lowest rates of enrolment at the various levels of education. The report notes that though Arab girls are now outshining boys in schools and universities, they continue to face unequal access to educational opportunities. Though the enrolment of girls in university education has risen, enrolment rates for females in fields like medicine and engineering are much lower.

The 11th report of the World Education Forum, Teaching and Learning: Achieving Quality for All (2013/2014), released by UNESCO in March 2014, reveals that there is a yawning gender gap in education in the Arab region. The report says that the share of Arab states in the global population of children out of school is 60% and that girls form the majority of such children.

A glaring aspect of the deficit in women’s rights in the Arab region is reflected in the extremely limited right available to women to vote and to contest elections and their negligible representation in legislatures. In most Arab countries (with the exception of the Gulf states) women gained the right to vote and to contest elections in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1952 Lebanon became the first Arab country to grant women to right to vote and to stand for elections. The proportion of female representatives in legislatures in the Arab region remains the lowest in the world at under 10%.

The Arab Human Development Report 2009 noted that, by and large, Arab women continue to remain victims of institutionalized discrimination, deeply entrenched male domination and social subordination, and violence. The report says that though the Arab countries have made significant progress in respect of women’s empowerment, much remains to be done in eliminating deeply-entrenched prejudices and in enabling women to actualize their capabilities and potentialities and to enjoy their legitimate rights. The report makes a strong plea for the full ratification of all the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, as well as a wide-ranging movement in Arab civil society for the enhancement of opportunities for women.

The status of women in the rest of the Muslim world, particularly in respect of gender equality, is not substantially different from the Arab region, though there are exceptions. The World Economic Forum’s report on global gender equality places Yemen, Chad, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Benin, Morocco, Egypt, Ethiopia and Bahrain at the bottom of the list.

Women’s Agency and Empowerment

The issue of women’s agency and empowerment has received considerable attention in large parts of the Muslim world in recent years. This is manifested in the growth of women’s education and in the establishment of colleges and universities for women, in the growing involvement of Muslim women in faith-based grass roots movements and non-governmental organizations, in the increasing participation of women in the workforce, in the greater visibility of women in the public sphere, and in what has come to be known as Islamic feminism.

In the past few decades there has come about a growing awareness in the Muslim world about the highly significant role of education in expanding women’s capabilities and in actualizing their potentialities, in enhancing the status of women in society, in the raising and socialization of children and in the well-being and development of society in general. This realization has led non-governmental organizations and governments to launch a campaign to increase the enrolment of women in schools and colleges and to establish schools, colleges and universities for women. A college for women at Al-Azhar University in Cairo opened in 1962. In Iran, Islamic schools in the holy city of Qom were opened to girls in 1976. Dozens of madrasas, schools and colleges for Muslim women have been established in several cities in India in recent decades. Though Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries in the world, it has made impressive progress in female literacy and education and women’s participation in the workforce. School participation and literacy rates for girls in Bangladesh are now higher than those of boys. In fact Bangladesh is one of the few countries in the world where girls outnumber boys in school.

Most Arab countries have greatly expanded their investment in women’s education. Equality between the two sexes in higher education has been achieved in 12 Arab countries (Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Occupied Palestinian Territory, Qatar, Oman, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia). In the UAE, the number of female students rose from 4% in the 1970s to more than 50% in the 1990s. Now female graduates in the UAE outnumber their male counterparts by a ratio of two to one. In1970 just 2% of women in Saudi Arabia could read and write. Now the figure is around 80%. Some 55% of university students in Saudi Arabia are female. More than 150,000 Saudi students, many of them women, are studying abroad. The number of women registered in higher education in Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE is greater than that of men. Some 60% of university students in Algeria are women.

ozens of colleges and universities for Muslim women have been established in many Muslim countries. These include Abu Dhabi Women’s College, Abu Dhabi, Dubai Women’s College, Dubai Medical College for Girls, Jordan University for Women, Amman, Effat Women’s University, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Sharjah Women’s College, Ras al-Khaimah Women’s College, Sudan University College for Women, Khartoum, Asian University for Women, Chittagong (Bangladesh) and Al Zahra University, Tehran. King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, 80 kilometres north of Jeddah, is coed.

Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman University, a women’s university located in the capital city of Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, is one of the ten largest universities in the world and the world’s largest women’s university with more than 42,000 students. The university, established in 20, offers courses in medicine, pharmacy, nursing, natural and social sciences, business administration, information and communications technology, social work and humanities.

Women and Social Movements

Several prominent women’s movements in Muslim countries in the early decades of the 20th century had women’s wings. In Indonesia, the Muhammadiyah Movement, which was founded in 1912 and was involved in educational and welfare activities, had a women’s wing called Aisiyah. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, founded in1928, had a women’s wing called the Muslim Sisters. Zaynab al-Ghazali (1917-2005), an influential member of the Muslim Brotherhood, founded the Muslim Women’s Association in 1936. She played a prominent role in the regrouping and revival of the Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1960s. Zaynab al-Ghazali argued that Islam protects and safeguards women’s rights. She was imprisoned by the Egyptian authorities in 1965 for her speeches and activities, which were perceived as subversive, and sentenced to 25 years in prison. However, she was released during Anwar el-Sadat’s presidency in 1971. In Iran, a large number of women participated in the resistance movement against the repressive rule of Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi. In the second half of the 20th century, women’s movements emerged in Turkey, Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. These movements called for equal educational and political rights for women, reforms in family laws and legislation to curb violence against women. In Algeria the National Liberation Front (FLN), which spearheaded the resistance against French colonial rule, enlisted the involvement and participation of women in the nationalist movement. Women served as fighters, intelligence operatives and liaison agents. In most cases the veil provided cover to their activities.

The participation of Muslim women in social and political movements and their association with non-governmental organizations has greatly increased in recent years. Government agencies and NGOs in Bangladesh have launched several innovative programmes and projects aimed at the empowerment of women through their active involvement and participation (Dreze and Sen 2013:58-61). In 2010 an NGO known as DNet launched the “Infoladies” programme aimed at facilitating access to modern information technology through women’s agency. The Infoladies programme is an extension of an earlier initiative called the “Mobile Ladies” programme, through which women would carry mobile phones while travelling to remote villages in the country and provide connecting links to thousands of remote villages through modern information technology.

Through the Infoladies programme, more than 50 women from six districts now offer a wide range of services to some 300 villages in the country. The Infoladies, who are generally young, ride bicycles and carry some basic equipment like laptops, blood pressure monitors and blood group and pregnancy test kits. The services provided by the Infoladies include providing information about government schemes such as senior citizen allowance and loans, filling in online forms, providing information to school children about computers, checking blood pressure and blood groups, and services for expecting mothers. They charge nominal fees for the services. The number of Infoladies is expected to rise to 4,500 by the end of 2016. In a couple of years the scheme will cover the entire country. The Infoladies programme has received worldwide attention. Several developing countries in Africa, South Asia and Latin America are keen to replicate the project.

There are thousands of NGOs in Turkey, called as vakiflar (endowments or foundations), in which a large number of women are involved. They generally concentrate on grass roots community work, such as providing food, clothing, school grants and legal advice to disadvantaged groups (Raudvere 2001). There are thousands of women’s NGOs in Turkey, Iran, Malaysia, Indonesia, Jordan and other, including European, countries. Many from amongst the wives of Indonesia’s riches people are involved in charitable work. They are members of rich ladies’ clubs, which collect money from the members on a monthly basis, which is then used for charity. During Ramadan in 2014, some of these women organized a charity gala in which hundreds of orphaned children were treated with sumptuous food and given expensive gifts. The organizers collected $30,000 from this event, which will be used for charitable activities.

Some prominent Muslim women, including the wives of some heads of Muslim states, are deeply involved in voluntary work and provide a role model to other women. Sara Davtuglu, the wife of Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davtuglu who is a doctor by profession, continues her clinical practice in Istanbul and is actively involved in civil society initiatives and programmes. She has been closely associated with an NGO called Doctors Worldwide for the past several years. She volunteered as a doctor when Pakistan was ravaged by massive floods in 2010 and also visited Myanmar and Somalia as a member of an NGO delegation. Emine Erdogan, the wife of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, takes a keen interest in humanitarian initiatives and programmes in Turkey and abroad. Princess Reema bint Bandar al-Saud, a great grand-daughter of the founder of the Saudi kingdom, runs a franchise of Harvey Nicolas, a London-based international chain of luxury lifestyle stores, in Riyadh. She led a team of women to the base camp of Mount Everest to spread awareness about breast cancer. Queen Rania, the wife of Jordan’s King Abdullah II, is a high-profile, widely travelled lady who is actively involved in a number of projects relating to children’s education and health, community empowerment and human development. She is the chairperson of an interactive children’s museum in Amman. Datin Paduka Seri Rosmah Mansor, the wife of Malaysia’s Prime Minister Dato Sri Najib Tun Razak, was the patron of the Islamic Fashion Festival held in Kuala Lumpur in November 2014.

Women’s Visibility in Workforce and in Public Sphere

Though women’s participation in the workforce in the Muslim world is much lower than the world average, an increasing number of Muslim women around the world are entering the employment market. Women’s participation rate in Bangladesh is 57%, one of the highest in the Muslim world, followed by Indonesia, with a rate of 51 per cent. In Qatar, women make up about 50.8 of the workforce, 45.6% in the UAE 45.6%, 43.4% in Kuwait, 39.4% in Bahrain, 35% in Algeria, 31.6% in Turkey, 28.6% in Oman, 26.6% in Tunisia, 24% in Bangladesh and 20% in Morocco. In Algeria, about 70% of lawyers and 60% of judges are women. Women’s employment is also prominently reflected in the education and health sectors. Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan ad Saudi Arabia have the lowest rates of female participation in the labour force, which range between 13 and 15 per cent.

Gender roles in many Arab countries are undergoing a subtle but highly significant process of transformation. Quite a few Arab women now occupy prominent positions in public life and have successfully made a breach in the citadels of male dominance. Though the government ban on women driving cars remains in place, Saudi Arabia issued its first flying license to a female pilot, Hanadi al-Hind. In 2013, four women lawyers have been given licenses to practice as advocates in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia’s first woman-owned law firm, led by Bayan Zahran, opened on January 2014. The firm focuses on labour and business law as well as women’s rights. In 2013, Somayya Jabarti became the first female editor of a daily newspaper in the kingdom The Saudi Gazette. Eman al-Natjan runs a women’s blog, which features discussions and views on women’s issues in Saudi Arabia.

In 2012 two Saudi women took part in the Olympic Games for the first time. Since 2013 private sports clubs for women have been given licenses. Saudi Arabia’s Manal Al-Sharif defied the ban on women’s driving by not only driving through the streets but also by putting a video on it on YouTube. Dozens of Arab women, including those from Saudi Arabia, have joined airlines as flight attendants. Etihad, the national carrier of the United Arab Emirates, runs the Etihad Training Academy where the trainees include men as well as women. Some professionally qualified Arab women have taken up overseas jobs and some of them are supporting their families.

The position of women in the Emirates has improved considerably over the past few decades, thanks largely to the far-sighted initiatives taken by the former president of the UAE, Sheikh Zayeed of Abu Dhabi. Now women in the Emirates are successfully competing with men in education and in communitarian activities. Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, a globe-trotting minister of foreign trade in the UAE, has belied the widely held perception in the Arab world that a woman’s best place is in the home. Mayassa Al Thani is a powerful and influential art connoisseur and patron in Qatar. Rafia Obaid Ghubash, a prominent academic, psychiatrist and former president of the Arabian Gulf University, has taken an innovative initiative to establish a museum exclusively devoted to the role and accomplishments of women in the United Arab Emirates. The purpose of the museum is to highlight and showcase the multiple roles, contributions, power and accomplishments of women in the Emirates and to forge a link between the present Emirati society, which is being transformed by the powerful currents of modernity and globalization, and the country’s cherished traditions.

A notable feature of the massive popular uprisings that shook the Arab region to its foundations in 2001-2002 was the active participation of a fairly large number of women, including housewives and those from a professional background, in public protests and demonstrations. They carried placards, shouted slogans against their corrupt and authoritarian rulers, hurled rocks at policemen and nursed the wounded. Tawakkul Karman, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2011, was a leading figure in the pro-democracy demonstrations in Yemen. The participation of women in the Arab Spring belied the widely prevalent stereotype that Arab and Muslim women continue to be hapless and silent victims of an oppressive and male-dominated social order.

In the Arab region and in many Muslim countries there is a growing contestation and conflicts between activists and campaigners for women’s rights and traditional forces, which are often in cahoots with the conservative sections of the religious leadership. This is particularly reflected in conflicts in many Arab countries over the marriage of girls at a young age and the practice of female genital mutilations. It is significant to note that an increasingly number of Muslim women and women’s organizations are now involved in such issues and debates.

In recent years, a growing number of women scholars and researchers have moved away from the conventional framework in which women are perceived as a monolithic social category and gender relations are viewed exclusively in terms of patriarchy, male domination and the subordination of women. Instead, they have sought to analyze this complex issue in a context-sensitive framework by focusing on the meaning and construction of gender in different social, political and regional contexts. More importantly, they have focused attention on women’s agency and empowerment as reflected in Islamic legal discourses and practices, legal edicts (fatwas), court judgments and the role of Muslim women’s organizations in the reform and codification of family laws in Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and other Muslim countries. A Turkish researcher from California, who was studying the Shariah court judgments in Indonesia, found that though almost all the Shariah court judges were male, a majority of verdicts were in favour of women, and that most of the divorce pleas were initiated by women.

Islamic Feminism

Feminism in the Muslim world generally refers to a heightened awareness on the part of Muslim women about the constraining influence of traditional gender roles. It also encompasses a critique of the overbearing domination of the patriarchal system, which is invariably intertwined with the subordination of women, and women’s endeavour to redefine and reinterpret a more just and equitable role for themselves. Muslim feminists place a great deal of emphasis on equality and complementarity of the roles of men and women at home and in the public sphere, equal opportunities for education and employment and political rights. The Egyptian feminist Huda Sharawi (1882-1947) was a prominent advocate of women’s rights and forcefully argued in favour of their emancipation from the shackles of customs and traditions. In recent years feminist ideas have been articulated and disseminated through literary works and journalistic writings, organized social movements and non-governmental organizations.

There is a significant diversity of perspectives and opinions in feminist discourses in the Muslim world. One of the significant perspectives in feminist discourses is Islamic feminism. Islamic feminism refers to a discourse that is essentially embedded in Islamic values and principles and that emphasizes gender justice and equality in a broadly Islamic framework. It calls for the enforcement of gender equality in the public sphere, in civil society and in the political domain. Islamic feminism emphasizes that the idea of gender equality should be seen in the wider Islamic framework of the equality of mankind. An articulate and influential proponent of Islamic feminism is Mahboobeh Abbasgholizadeh, the editor of the Iranian women’s magazine Farzaneh. She was actively involved in the Iranian Revolution and was among the first group of women to emphasize that the feminist discourse in the Muslim world should be animated by Islamic principles. Some of the proponents of Islamic feminism are women in Europe, USA and South Africa who have converted to Islam in recent years. It is interesting to note that some of them have been drawn to Islam through Sufism, which places considerable emphasis on the feminine element in spiritual life.

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