Ellie Tiley: Women in Islamic Societies

Women in Islamic Societies

Western media loves to portray all Muslim women as oppressed.  They see Islam as synonymous with persecution, a lack of women’s rights, and male dominated religious fundamentalism.  However, Islam did not originate as a religion of oppression, and the Islamic faith is not intrinsically against women’s rights.  The Prophet Muhammad worked to eradicate female subjugation during his lifetime through the teachings of the Quran and his own personal actions.  For its time in the early 6th century, the Quran was a bold piece of feminist literature that provided detailed and specific rules to improve the lives of women, and it assured their social integration through rights to education and independence.  While these laws may seem to fall short of true equality in today’s day and age, that does not negate the fact that Islam began as a religion that protected the rights of not only women, but orphans and monotheistic religious minorities as well.  Unfortunately, some of the Islamic governments that exist today, particularly Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan under the Taliban, do not accurately represent the ideals and rules laid out by the Quran.

The Quran proposes a hierarchy of possible choices and actions for various moral dilemmas that a person may face in his or her life.  For example, when a relative is murdered, there are three possible courses of action: executing the murderer, accepting money for the relative’s death, or forgiving the perpetrator.  While all three are tolerable choices, God specifies that forgiveness is the most moral choice.  The goal was that as humanity matured, more people would learn to forgive and continue striving towards morality even beyond what was written down.  The Quran was meant as an introduction to morality, not a final dissertation.  This process has occurred with many different Islamic laws over the centuries, such as the severing of a thief’s hand.  Recently, this been interpreted as removing the individual’s ability to steal by putting them in prison instead of actually cutting off the person’s hand.[1]  The fundamentals of women’s rights, such as ending female infanticide and encouraging education for women, were laid out in the Quran and were expected to be improved upon as society matured.[2]  However, rules pertaining to women have not always experienced this same gradual reinterpretation and updating in some areas of the world, and in fact women’s rights have actually declined in some regions.

To understand how women’s rights have changed over the centuries, it is important to first look at what is actually written in the Quran.  The Quran specifies that marriage is a contract between two equal and independent parties, and it guarantees that women can own their own wealth and land autonomously from their male relatives.[3]  In addition, women can divorce their husbands and even remarry if they are widowed, which was a huge change from pre-Islamic culture where women rarely had any choice in who they married and were required to mourn for their husbands if they died for the rest of their lives.  Polygamy is often cited as one of the fundamentally non-feminist aspects of Islam, but that is because it is usually taken out of context and not fully explained.  Verse 4:3 in the Quran says that men can take up to four wives, but it immediately establishes that the current wife or wives must all consent before the husband can marry a new woman.  A later verse stipulates that polygamy is only permissible when the man can treat each wife equally, but the Quran then suggests that this is actually impossible.  Therefore, even though the Quran technically allows polygamy, it layers in several constraints that make it difficult to practice in reality.[4]

Many other aspects of female integration into society are addressed by the Quran.  It unequivocally protects the right to education for both men and women, and there is even a Hadith saying that establishes a “divine reward” for those who educate their daughters.  The Quran also discusses modesty for both men and women.  In verse 33:59, women are told to “wrap their outer garments closely around them, for this makes it more likely that they will be recognized and not be harassed.”[5]  The Quran goes on to specify that the face and hands should be left uncovered, and that men should dress modestly as well.  In the time of the Prophet, wearing distinctive clothing was a way to build a recognizable community, so specifying women’s dress was a form of protection and personal identity.  The modest clothing acted as a badge of honor that distinguished the Muslim believers from the immoral pagans surrounding them.[6]

The Quran attempted to slowly change the community from its pre-Islamic ignorance into a more moral and equitable society, and this has been effective in many societies.  In addition, the Quran is meant to be interpreted according to cultural and geographic contexts, which has created a spectrum of interpretations and ideologies that range from highly conservative to more moderate and liberal. However, there are fundamental principles of Islam, such as the preservation of life, property, intellect, pluralism, and religion, which are conserved across cultures.  The main exceptions to these principles are found in extremist interpretations such as Talibanism and Wahhabism.  These groups warp the principles of Islam out of their original context while claiming to be founded upon them. [7]

The Taliban’s ability to inflict their extremist ideology on the Afghan people was made possible by recent wars in the country.  Beginning in the early twentieth century, legal reforms began to give women more rights, including the removal of a law that required women to wear a veil out in public.  By the time of the Soviet invasion in 1979, women were legally referred to as equals to men in all social, political, and economic respects.[8]  The invasion and subsequent American intervention that expelled the Soviets left a power vacuum in Afghanistan.  Local tribal chiefs enforced their own rules, which led to widespread lawlessness across the country.  The Taliban arose out of this chaos as an organized group that offered peace, stability, and an alternative to civil war.  For these reasons, many communities initially welcomed the Taliban, which allowed them to quickly spread their extremely strict interpretation of the Quran over a large part of Afghanistan.  As they continued to gain political power, their misogynistic ideologies were solidified in law.  Some of these laws prohibited women from working, showing any skin in public, or being educated past the age of eight.[9]

The Taliban claim that their restrictive views are based in Quranic teachings and Afghani culture, but neither is accurate.  The Quran explicitly calls for education of all Muslims, regardless of gender, and the prohibition against females in the workforce defies both the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad himself.  Not only does the Quran allow women to work, but Prophet Muhammad’s first wife, Khadija, was even his boss before she asked him to marry her.  In regards to the false claim that Afghan culture and history support Talibanism, women are actually treated with a high degree of respect in their culture.  Afghanistan has a long history of women’s involvement in not only the social and economic sectors, but also the political arena.  A survey of Afghan women concluded that nearly all women living under the Taliban believe that they should be allowed to regain their rights.[10]  Clearly, the Taliban ideology has no solid basis in either Islam or cultural history, but the West continues to believe these connections are accurate.

Like the Taliban, Saudi Arabia prides itself on its dedication to the integration of Islamic principles into every facet of social, political, and economic structure.  Currently, women have some rights, including the right to education, a job, ownership and sale of property, and the ability to refuse a marriage proposal without guardianship consent.  While this sounds like a starting point for feminism in Saudi Arabia, there are many pitfalls.  Even though women technically have the right to join the work force, the stipulation is that the work cannot negatively affect her ability to perform family responsibilities to a satisfactory degree.  This allows for a large amount of variation in interpretations between households.  The husband can decide what constitutes a “satisfactory” level of commitment to family duties, and can therefore control how much his female relatives work outside of the home.[11]  Furthermore, even though women may work, they are restricted to only female appropriate careers, such as teaching and health care.  Women are usually only allowed to work in jobs that do not bring them into contact with men, so they are almost completely ostracized from working in government positions.  In addition, even though women have the apparent right to education, they are outlawed from studying certain subjects, such as law.[12]  If women could study Saudi legal procedures and laws, it would almost definitely make them more aware of their rights, or lack thereof.  It would also teach women the tools to stand up for themselves and argue for rights in court.  By banning law as an area of study for women, Saudi Arabia has effectively taken away the greatest tool women could have used to gain rights and independence for themselves.

Personal independence for women is a serious issue in Saudi Arabia due to its male guardianship system.  Currently, women are not allowed to drive, which critically restricts their ability to travel on their own and do daily tasks without the assistance of a male relative.[13]  Having control over one’s whereabouts constitutes a major step in a person’s independence, but this is denied to all Saudi women.  Beyond the inability to travel without a male relative, the Saudi guardianship system requires women to have male approval for a wide range of tasks, such as being released from prison, getting married, and leaving the country.  According to a Human Rights Watch report, “These restrictions last from birth until death, as women are, in the view of the Saudi state, permanent legal minors.”[14]  These restraints on female independence are clearly not supported by the Quran or Hadith literature.  In fact, Prophet Muhammad’s own wife, Aisha, led troops into battle and was respected for her independent accomplishments.[15]

Many scholars decry the institutionalization of Islamic principles into the Saudi government and instead support a more Western separation of church and state.  As Mona AlMunajjed, a Saudi sociologist specializing in women’s roles in Arab countries, describes, “More attention should be given to removing the preconceived notions about the status of women in Islam.  This can be achieved by differentiating between the teachings of Islam as a religion and a way of life, and the local customs and social traditions that are not part of religion but which are often erroneously conceived as part of it.”[16]  In order to move forward towards women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, it will be necessary to recognize that their laws are heavily influenced by local culture and are not a purely Quranic legal system, which would give women a platform with which to fight for their rights.

Saudi Arabia’s complete integration of church and state is juxtaposed by the secularism found in Turkey, which began when the country gained its independence in 1923.  The previous regime, the Ottoman Empire, had been structured on the religious seat of the caliphate and had enforced Islamic laws.  The revolution for independence led by Kemal Ataturk did not just restructure the government, it transformed nearly all of the country’s laws and social customs.  One of the most drastic changes was the adoption of the Swiss Civil Code in 1926, which effectively made Turkey into a European civil law system.  Ataturk not only pushed for a European style of modernization, he also supported the integration of women into the community and work force.  While it took a few years for society to adjust to the idea of women’s rights and cement them in law, rights were eventually granted and the social separations between men and women began being torn down.[17]

Today, Turkish women are considered the most liberated in the Middle East.  The country even had a female prime minister, Tansu Ciller, from 1993 to 1995.[18]  This cultural shift to female rights was facilitated by three successive wars during the 1910s, which necessitated women joining the work force and wearing increasingly thinner and less restrictive veils.  Women in rural areas had been working alongside their male relatives for decades on farms, but rural women had previously been denied to many career paths.  This integration of women into traditionally male sectors of society paved the way for future rights, such as the right to vote and run for office.  In addition, women later received further rights to their own bodies, which granted them access to birth control and abortions in certain situations.[19]

It is necessary to highlight the fact that legal protection of women’s rights were in fact granted to the women of Turkey, not necessarily won like they were in many other countries.  There were no large popular uprisings or protests demanding change in Turkey because Ataturk ensured that women’s rights reforms were included in the country’s modernism reform movement.[20]  This is one factor that contributed to the dichotomy separating rural and urban women in Turkey.  Rural populations make up 72% of the women in Turkey, but they are often not included when considering the realities of women’s rights in Turkey.  Since the 1930s, Turkey has made serious strides in legally protecting women’s rights to their bodies, marriages, and education.  However, the actual enforcement of these laws in rural areas has taken much longer to come into effect because the communities were not ready for the radical changes.  As Ayse Cebesoy Sarialp, a scholar of women’s history in Turkey, explains that the “traditional patriarchal family pattern is still the rule in rural areas, although urbanization and exposure to mass media are having their effects.”[21]  Women living in rural and urban areas represent the two ends of the spectrum of women’s rights in Turkey.  Currently, the country is in the process of equalizing out to a middle ground between the extreme modern Westernization of the cities and the traditional social norms of the rural communities.[22]

There are vast differences in the interpretations of the Quran across the globe.  The way communities practice Islam is a combination of the local culture, history, and environment.  These factors need to be taken into consideration when attempting to understand how some groups, such as the Taliban and Saudi Arabia, have so grossly misrepresented Islam.  Like so many global conflicts in today’s world, many of the extremist ideology can be traced back to complications with colonialism and Western interference.  Wahhabism began as the radical teachings of a mildly popular imam, but then British interference with the political structure in Arabia facilitated its rapid spread across the country.  In Afghanistan, the United States was so focused on ousting the Soviet Union that they did not realize their actions would lead to political collapse once the communist government was taken down.  The West has repeatedly caused tragedies in the Middle East without ever taking responsibility for the subsequent instability of the region.  It is telling that countries with relatively less colonial interference, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, have much more stable political structures and moderate religious communities.

One of the most prevalent Western misconceptions about Islam is that it is inherently antifeminist, but this misunderstanding most often arises from individuals who have very little knowledge of Islam and the teachings of the Quran.  There have been numerous powerful women throughout Islamic history who wielded authority and respect, and their legacy survives to this day.  As mentioned above, Turkey’s Prime Minister, Tansu Ciller, is part of a growing list of female Islamic political figures, including Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh, and many more female leaders in other Islamic countries.[23]  Islam and the Quran do not restrict the social and political integration of women, but they can be twisted to support sexist ideologies aimed at labelling women as inferior.  It is critical that Western countries recognize this discrepancy and work towards helping oppressed women instead of throwing a blanket of criticism over an entire religion.

[1] Mahallati, Muhammad, “Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Problem of the Taliban.” Lecture, Oberlin, OH, November 4, 2016.

[2] Beyer, Lisa, “The Women of Islam.” Time, November 25, 2001.

[3] “Women and Islam.” In The Oxford Dictionary of Islam., edited by John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online.

[4] Angha, Nahid and Shah Nazar Seyyed “Women in Islam,” International Association of Sufism.

[5] Quran 33:59 translated by Tarif Khalidi.

[6] Women in Saudi Arabia Today by Mona AlMunajjed (St. Martin’s Press, inc.: New York, 1997)

[7] Ahmed, Houriya, “The Taliban’s Perversion of Sharia Law,” The Guardian, May 3, 2009, accessed December 7, 2016.

[8] Skaine, Rosemaries, “The Women of Afghanistan Under the Taliban.” (McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers: Jefferson, 2002) pg 17.

[9] Levi, Scott, “The Long, Long Struggle for Women’s Rights in Afghanistan,” Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective 12 (September 2009).

[10] Skain pg 13-23

[11] Women in Saudi Arabia Today by Mona AlMunajjed (St. Martin’s Press, inc.: New York, 1997) pg 9

[12] Beyer, “The Women of Islam.”

[13] Beyer, “The Women of Islam.”

[14] “Saudi Arabia: Male Guardianship Boxes Women In,” Human Rights Watch, July 16, 2016, accessed December 5, 2016.

[15] “The Battle of Basra (The Battle of Camel),” in Al-Islam.org, accessed December 17, 2016.

[16] AlMunajjed pg 31-32

[17] “The Legal Status of Turkish Women” by Nermin Abadan-Unat in Women, Family and Social Change in Turkey edited by Fergunde Oxbay (UNESCO, 1990) pg 13-15

[18] Beyer, “The Women of Islam.”

[19] Sarialp, Ayse Cebesoy, “Turkish Women, a Brief Historical Survey,” (paper presented at the Turkish-American University Association & Universities Cultural and Educational Foundation, Istanbul, June 17, 2003).

[20] Abadan-Unat pg 14-15

[21] Sarialp, “Turkish Women.”

[22] Mahallati, Muhammad. “Turkey and the Secular Tension.” Lecture, Oberlin, OH, November 2, 2016.

[23] G, Dalia. “Meet the Nine Muslim Women Who Have Ruled Nations,” in Egyptian Streets, June 9, 2015, accessed December 17, 2016.