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Women's Movements

Muslim women's participation in social movements and the emergence of women's associations, leagues, and organizations involved in nationalist, charitable, gender-centered, political, economic, or religious activities began in the nineteenth century and continued into the twenty-first. Important debates over women's status first emerged in the nineteenth century. These debates concerning the education, segregation, and full veiling of certain women expanded to other aspects of women's roles in public life, affording them greater opportunities in a gradual fashion, especially for upper-class women and in combination with state-led reforms. With the rise of Islamism, a response to the earlier modernist view of sex-role expansion and reform arose, as well as a new activism by some Islamist women. Also, women continued organized efforts to reform family, criminal, and commercial laws as well as cultural practices affecting women. With the burgeoning number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the 1990s, more emphasis on activities and agendas for women was included.

The Nineteenth Century.

From the mid-nineteenth century onward, women and men began to discuss the need for social, educational, and political reform. Muslim women's oppression was an area requiring reform; hence, debate about women and gender relations among Muslims also rang with overtones concerning the role of the West in the Muslim world. Certain women and men questioned the legal and social restrictions on women, especially with regard to education, female seclusion (known as purdah in the Indian subcontinent), strict veiling of the face, polygamy, the marriage of very young women to much older men by family arrangement, women's slavery, and, in some cases, concubinage. Egyptian male reformers wrote on women's behalf, among them Aḥmad Fāris al-Shidyāq, author of One Leg Crossed Over the Other (1855); Rifāʿah Rāfiʿ al-Ṭahṭāwī (1801–1871); Muḥammad ʿAbduh (1849–1905), a founder of the Salafīyah (Islamic reform) movement; Qāsim Amīn, whose book Women's Emancipation (1899) unleashed furious discussion; and Aḥmad Luṭfī al-Sayyid, publisher of l-jarīdah. Turkish counterparts included Namık Kemal and Ahmet Mithat.

Educated women, such as Wardah al-Yāzijī and Wardah al-Turk in Syria and ʿĀʿishah al-Taymūrīyah in Egypt, began writing to each other in the 1860s and 1870s regarding reform for women, as women later did for women's publications. As part of a growing women's press, Hind Nawfal (1860–1920), a Syrian immigrant to Alexandria, published and edited al-fatāh, a women's Arabic monthly; Zaynab Fawwāz (1860–1914), who immigrated from Tibnin to the same city, founded the newspaper al-Nīl in 1891. Persian women also began writing and publishing women's journals, the earliest being Danesh (1907).

In Turkey, early feminists included the well-known Halide Edib Adıvar (1883–1964) and Fatma Âliye Hanım (b. 1862), who published Nisvani İslam and A Newspaper for Ladies. During this period, women in various Muslim countries began to establish schools for girls. Somewhat earlier, some Iranian women had participated in the Bābī movement, an offshoot of Shiism; its leaders included Rustamah and the martyr Qurrat al-ʿAyn (1815–1851), who appeared unveiled and preached against polygamy and the veil. In Indonesia a famous advocate of women's education and emancipation was Raden Adjeng Kartini (1879–1904). She wrote and founded a school for daughters of Javanese officials, becoming most influential after her death.

The Effect of Nationalist Movements.

Women also engaged in philanthropy and in nationalist movements. Both impulses instructed women in social mobilization and gave rise to associations run for and by women. In Iran, women took part in the Tobacco Rebellion and subsequently in the Constitutional Revolution (1908) and its aftermath, when mainly upper-class women organized separate anjumans (political societies), seeking education and the right to vote.

However, leaders and reformers such as Muṣṭafā Kāmil (1874–1908) and Tṣalʿat Ḥarb in Egypt opposed the end of veiling, and in 1882, Sayyid Aḥmad Khān of India asserted that purdah should be maintained and female education postponed. As women gained the right to professional educations and entered the work force, some twentieth-century discourse characterized working women as a social drain or, in those instances where women worked with men, as a source of potential immorality. Often the primacy of the national struggle forced feminist issues onto the back burner. Examples were the later arrival of female suffrage in various countries, which all but Saudi Arabian women have now attained, and the primacy of national over gender issues in the Palestinian and Algerian national struggles. However, Palestinian women's activism provided important links to popular needs. It was paralleled by the organizing of Islamist women, especially after the Oslo peace process.

Women's participation in nationalist movements eroded the preexisting custom of female seclusion, allowing women into various public forums. Upper-class women in the early twentieth century ventured to meetings in elite salons—Eugénie Le Brun's in Egypt, and later to the literary salon of May Ziyada. Women's gatherings included lecture sessions, study groups, demonstrations, and formal associations. Individuals became well known; Hudā Shaʿrāwī (1879–1947), for example, became a symbol of feminist activism. [See SHAʿRāWī, HUDā.]

Philanthropic activities of elite and middle-class women actually formed the basis for the Egyptian state's social services and demonstrated women's managerial expertise. In Palestine, after the dispersal of the Palestinian people in 1948, middle-class women conducted relief efforts until the establishment of UNRWA refugee camps and facilities. In exile and at home, charitable associations formed the major focus for Palestinian women's organized activities until the 1967 war. Women's interest in social services later translated into participation in developmental programs, such as the Bangladesh Jatiyo Mahila Sangshtha (National Women's Organization), which coordinated programs under official sponsorship.

Postwar State Feminism.

Nationalist movements and the new states that emerged in the post–World War I period perceived women and gender issues as crucial to social development. Atatürk of Turkey, Reza Shah of Iran, and later Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia, leaders with unassailable nationalist credentials, initiated new policies to reform women's status and weaken the power base of the ʿulamāʾ. These actions were controversial, as were, in Afghanistan, Amānullāh Khan's reforms of the family code in 1921, the banning of polygamy for state employees, and the public appearance of his wife, Queen Suraya, unveiled. Turkish and Iranian reforms from above also attacked the veil (or head scarf). Later amendments in Iran, Tunisia, and Egypt addressed various areas of personal status, including divorce, child custody, women's rights to the family home, and alimony, as did the Family Law ordinance (1961) in West and East Pakistan. State-controlled education and laws provided women with at least a basic education. State policies enabled groups of women to enter the male-dominated political sphere and professions previously closed to women, although the same policies may have caused a popular and religious aversion to state intervention in gender matters. [See FAMILY LAW.]

Muslim women who gained most from state-advocated feminism primarily benefited as individuals. As marriage remained essential to women's status, many postponed their careers, often succeeding through strong familial connections and influence. A small group of powerful older women have dominated official political life and associations in many Muslim countries. Family connections could heighten state control over women's associations, as in Iran, where Ashraf Pahlavi headed the Higher Council of Women's Organizations. Women in political life might promote women's issues, but they and some activists were often isolated from lower-class women, who did not necessarily favor changes to current practices, such as the suggested reduction of mahr (bride price), or the listing of the bride's property, or the insertion of stipulations in marriage contracts, or, in Egypt, the custom of female circumcision.


Egyptian women were accorded voting rights in 1956, in part as a consequence of long-term advocacy, but also through unprecedented public activism under Durrīyah Shafīq (1908–1975), who was later ill-regarded by the Nasser regime. Early activist women's groups included the Wafdist Women's Committee, the Egyptian Feminist Union, and the Bint al-Nīl association. Women also organized through a wing of Ḥasan al-Bannā's Muslim Brotherhood (founded in 1928) in the Association of Muslim Women established by Zaynab al-Ghazālī. These Islamist women wore the veil and eventually adopted a white khimār (head cover). They held that women must preserve their modesty, morals, and loyalty to their role in the home. The Muslim Brotherhood spread in the Arab world, opposing the female vote and coeducation in the 1950s, but later proposing reform of women's status in an Islamic manner.


Women were involved in the resistance movements of North Africa. In Algeria, the National Liberation Front (FLN) incorporated women in its rebellion against French authority. The Front's conception of Algerian identity linked religion and nationalism. Its leadership was male, but so many men were imprisoned or in hiding that women served as fighters, intelligence operatives, and liaison agents, as well as in nursing and supply operations. Initially, the veil provided cover, as the French were reluctant to search women, who became increasingly involved in carrying bombs and arms. Later, women were imprisoned and tortured, and in the process some became national heroines. However, the post-revolutionary government required the registration of their activities, and many lost benefits and recognition because they were illiterate or because, as women, they were designated “civilian” rather than “military” participants. After the revolution the linkage of sharīʿah with the constitution and suspicion of foreign influence meant that women were harassed in the streets, beaten, or secluded, and legal reforms such as the minimum age for marriage were not enforced. With time Islamist parties gained large followings, including women who proposed a more conservative view of gender. During the 1990s, feminists and women not wearing ḥijāb came under attack.

Oman and Yemen.

In the Omani resistance movement, women were also empowered by the military nature of their engagement. In the former People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, after the revolution, various official agencies and associations were created for women, but their goal was the economic well-being of the state rather than a reform of gender inequities. Nonetheless, reforms were enacted that fostered women's education and increased their participation in the work force.


In Iraq, prior to World War I, Jamil Sidqi al-Zahawi wrote an attack on veiling and women's treatment under Sharīʿah that caused a scandal. A small elite group of feminists were active in King Faysal's era, and the Iraqi Communist Party promoted an agenda for women. Later, in both Iraq and Syria, the Baʿth Party featured women's associations. These movements were not able to translate their goals successfully or equally to all classes of society.

In post-Saddam Iraq, many international projects that aimed to provide income or other aid to women were interrupted by violence. Kidnappings and attacks on women forced many into exile, or to cease attending school, and many adopted the ḥijāb out of fear of attacks, when unveiled women, those driving, and some with businesses were targeted. Iraqi women successfully prevented a law that would require them to attend family courts of their own sect. A small women's movement is offset by politicians who argue for Islamist interpretations of the law.


In Syria, uniformed high-school girls serve as clean-up crews in villages and participate in youth leagues, but they are still encouraged to marry early and to enter “female” professions such as teaching. Women have been important in religious opposition groups within Syria, including the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. When urban Sunnī women adopted the ḥijāb, some were met by officially organized demonstrations of ʿAlawī Baʿthī women, who unsuccessfully protested the wearing of ḥijāb in school and work settings. See DRESS and ḤIJāB.]


Women's participation in student movements has been a feature of Islamic revival in Malaysia, known generally as dakwah (Ar., daʿwah). Dissension arose over the increase in veiling, particularly when universities required it. Similarly, debate continues over the appropriate level of female participation in the public sphere, ranging from sermons emphasizing a strong Muslim family life, to the complete segregation of female dakwah communal members, to the activism of other women such as those in the Sisters of Islam. In Malaysia the gender discussion combines with concerns of national identity, as the Malay majority coexists with other communities (Chinese, Indian, and aboriginal) who are legally free to observe their own faiths. The religious revival was propagated by several organizations, including the Islamic Youth League of Malaysia, Dar ul Arqam, and the more traditional Jemaat Tabligh. Clusters of adherents to revivalist groups had formed same-sex “family” groups (usrah). Islamization, including that of the laws in some areas, has continued.


In Indonesia the Muhammadiyah organization, begun in 1912, typifies apolitical educational and service activities. The Aisyiyah was the women's branch of this party, allowing for mobilization beyond the traditional teacher-peasant dynamic existing in Indonesia as well as Malaysia. [See MUHAMMADIYAH.] After the Sukarno era, religious political parties were banned under Suharto, and the four existing Islamic parties combined into the Partai Persatuan Pembangunan (PPP). Nonetheless, religiosity has been on the rise in Indonesia, along with contemporary Islamic dress. Groups such as the Association of Islamic Students eschew militancy, but view gender issues as integrally tied to Muslim identity. At the same time, the women’s wings of Nahdlatul Ulama, Fatayat, and Muhammadiayah, Nasyiatul Aisyiyah, are challenging traditional Islamic teachings about gender in favor of contextualized reinterpretations that expand women’s rights.


The most important locus of Islamist activity in Pakistan, prior to the emergence of al-Qaʿida and the Taliban, was the Jamāʿat-i Islāmī and the Tablīghī Jamāʿat. Both proposed countering secularization and Western gender identity with a Muslim notion of modesty and piety. With the growth of Islamist parties and persons in politics, disputes over gender issues increased, including legal debates over whether rape victims can be prosecuted as adulteresses. Veiling and separation of the sexes have continued, though nuanced by the changing fortunes of the various political actors and parties, with al-Qaʿida supporters calling for much stricter regulations on women. The 2007 assassination of Benazir Bhutto, a turning of the political tide against the Musharraf regime, and post-9/11 concern over radicalism could portend more support for women's issues and groups supporting them.


The emergence of the Islamic Republic of Iran sparked new interest in women's role in the revolution and response to the Republic's legislation of gender. Many women, Islamist and non-Islamist, had been involved in opposition to Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi and had protested the Western commodification of women. However, when the government imposed Islamic dress and removed women from legal, judicial, and other offices, many Iranians fled. Nonetheless, women actively participated in the Mujāhidīn-i Khalq, an organization of Marxist-Islamic orientation not fully defeated in Iran until 1981–1982. A patrol and information division called the Zaynab Sisters and other women's associations began operating in Iran. A penal and family code revised along Islamic lines was imposed, but women, though now excluded from holding judgeships and other positions, kept alive a debate about fairer treatment of women under the law. Women parliamentarians in the Sixth Majlis challenged certain discriminatory laws, but these eleven women were banned from running for office in the Seventh Majlis, which included only conservative female figures and reversed some legal reforms. Between 2003 and 2007 an Iranian movement for women's rights reasserted itself in the One Million Signatures and Abolish Stoning Forever campaigns.


The Islamization of Muslim society, both organized and informal, increased in the 1980s. Women were fully involved in the process, whether by personal choice, familial loyalties, or active recruitment. For example, in Sudan, where women had been active in one of the strongest Communist parties in the region, reversals in the public sphere have occurred. Women's issues became important to the National Islamic Front as well, and the liberal Islamist group of legal specialists, the Republican Brothers and Sisters, was suppressed.


In some areas, nationalist and Islamist goals interact and mobilize women, as among the Shīʿī of southern and eastern Lebanon. Necessity impelled many women to make use of political networks in the absence of their imprisoned or fighting men. Women resisted Israeli occupiers when possible and were harassed, attacked, and arrested. Most adopted the ḥijāb and a more actively anti-Western stance in reaction to the Israeli occupation and in order to assert communal identity. In post-war Lebanon, a small reformist women's movement has campaigned unsuccessfully for an optional civil law of personal status, and successfully against a law permitting reduced sentences for honor-killings. That movement contrasts with the less-organized emphasis on public piety as “women's jihad” in the Shīʿī community in Beirut.

West Bank and Gaza.

Women were crucial to the waging of the intifāḍah in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip. They participated at the grassroots level and through the four women's committees of the PLO, founded in 1981, which have sponsored economic, health, and political projects. These committees and the General Union of Palestinian Women's Associations in diaspora include both Muslim and Christian women. Much tension has arisen between these activist women and supporters of Ḥamās and Islamic Jihad, when attempts were made to impose the ḥijāb in Gaza and elsewhere. Although these attempts were reined in, Islamist women's associations and agendas have come to parallel the efforts made by non-Islamist women, though they have different aims.

International Trends.

Tensions between transnational feminist goals and those of local groups, whether Islamic feminists or those who disavow a feminist agenda altogether, have continued for over a quarter-century. With global migration, large groups of Muslim women are now living outside historically Muslim lands. Some explicitly Muslim groups have begun to organize, such as the North American Association of Muslim Women (founded in 1992) or the Women's Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality (launched in 2006), an endeavor of the American Muslim Society for Advancement. Western branches of the longstanding General Union of Palestinian Women did not deal with specifically Muslim issues but with national ones. A Muslim feminist group in France, Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores nor Repressed), organized to battle violence against women, obligatory ḥijāb-wearing, and forced marriage—thus, some say, enacting the French New Right’s agenda.

Many women's organizations ranging from Islamic feminist to profession-oriented or human rights groups now exist in Muslim countries. Nawal Saadawi's Arab Women's Solidarity Association was dissolved in Egypt in 1992 in response to Islamist and regime pressure, although it continued to exist outside the country. Other issue-oriented groups, such as al-Marʿah al-Jadīdah (The New Woman), the Bint al-Ard (Daughter of the Earth), and the FGM Taskforce, continued to operate. Numerous conferences and events in the region display the activities of gender-oriented NGOs, among them the Turkish-based Women for Women's Human Rights working on the issue of sexual rights, which the group defines as the proper focus for women's rights. Some attention has also been given to women mujahidāt and shahīdāt, or suicide bombers, in various incidents from Iraq to Jordan to Palestine, as a social phenomenon.



  • Al-Ali, Nadje. Secularism, Gender, and the State in the Middle East: The Egyptian Women's Movement. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000. A study of the secularist, activist sector of the Egyptian women's movement in the 1990s. The book contextualizes the movement and provides another level of analysis through detailed background on certain women activists and their views of gender issues in their own lives.
  • Araffin, Rohana. “Feminism in Malaysia.”Women's Studies International Forum22, no. 4 (1999): 417–423.
  • Arat, Yesim. Rethinking Islam and Liberal Democracy: Islamist Women in Turkish Politics. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006. Useful especially for the discussion of women of the Refah Party, and their position between patriarchal party norms and activism in party mobilization and organization.
  • Badran, Margot. Feminism in Islam: Secular and Religious Convergences. Oxford: Oneworld, 2009. Among the more complete and thoughtful treatments of the issue of Islamic feminism (once mocked as an oxymoron).
  • Badran, Margot. Feminists, Islam, and Nation: Gender and the Making of Modern Egypt. Princeton, N.J., 1995. An important history of Egyptian feminists and the Egyptian Feminist Union, and their approaches to the role of the family, the state, specific laws inhibiting Egyptian women, prostitution, women's employment, and the relationship among Egyptian, Arab, and international feminisms.
  • Brand, Laurie A.Women, the State, and Political Liberalization: Middle Eastern and North African Experiences. New York, 1998. An excellent source of information on the official women's movements in Morocco, Jordan, and Tunisia, providing comparative insights on the respective regimes’ orientations to women's status and legal and political reforms.
  • Bullock, Katherine, ed.Muslim Women Activists in North America: Speaking for Ourselves. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005.
  • Chatty, Dawn, and Annika Rabo, eds.Organizing Women: Formal and Informal Women's Groups in the Middle East. Oxford, 1997.
  • Cooke, Miriam. “Islamic Feminism Before and After September 11th.”Duke Journal of Gender Law and Policy 227 (2002): 227–235. Also appears in Zuhur (2003), listed below.
  • Deeb, Lara. An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shīʿī Lebanon. Princeton, N.J., 1996. A study of a Shīʿī community in Beirut, including a detailed view of a modernist Islamist vision of women and gender.
  • Haeri, Shahla. “Obedience versus Autonomy: Women and Fundamentalism in Iran and Pakistan.” In Fundamentalisms and Society: Reclaiming the Sciences, the Family, and Education, edited by Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, pp. 181–213. Chicago, 1993.
  • Hale, Sondra. Gender Politics in Sudan: Islamism, Socialism, and the State. Boulder, Colo., 1996. The role of women's movements in Sudan, primarily in left-wing politics but also in the National Islamic Front, based on fieldwork in several periods from the 1960s to the 1990s.
  • Hijab, Nadia. Womanpower: The Arab Debate on Women at Work. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988. State-by-state coverage of the debates over family law and the workplace, including materials on the Gulf countries, Jordan, North Africa, and Egypt.
  • Hiltermann, Joost R.Behind the Intifada: Labor and Women's Movements in the Occupied Territories. Princeton, N.J., 1991. This study concerns the dynamics of small social movements in the specialized circumstances of occupation.
  • Joseph, Suad, ed.Gender and Citizenship in the Middle East. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2000. Concerns women's relationship to the state, citizenship, politics, and reform, continuing the type of analysis earlier provided in Deniz Kandiyoti, ed., Women, Islam, and the State (Philadelphia, 1991), with more emphasis on the national narrative.
  • Keddie, Nikki. Women in the Middle East: Past and Present. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007. An overview of modern events is presented on pp. 102–165, and a very thoughtful essay on the problems of dealing with the issues of women and gender, especially for a Western-language audience, is found on pp. 279–296.
  • Khan, Shahnaz. Zina, Transnational Feminism, and the Moral Regulation of Pakistani Women. Vancouver, BC: ABC Press, 2006. Based on author's interviews of some of the tens of thousands of Pakistani women charged under the zināʿ (adultery) laws. Investigation of transnational feminism and its relationship to local feminisms.
  • Mahmood, Saba. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005. An ethnographic study of women's mosque-based groups in Cairo, Egypt.
  • Nelson, Cynthia. Doria Shafik, Egyptian Feminist: A Woman Apart. Gainesville, Fla., 1996. Biography of a post–World War II figure who challenged state-sponsored reforms, thereby achieving women's suffrage, but not full representations of women's issues in the political process in Egypt.
  • Nouraei-Simone, Fereshteh, ed.On Shifting Ground: Muslim Women in the Global Era. New York: Feminist Press, 2005. Essays that expand the possibilities of women's “movements” to activism via Internet, entertainment, global reform, and communication.
  • Peteet, Julie M.Gender in Crisis: Women and the Palestinian Resistance Movement. New York, 1991. Detailed account of the Palestinian movement in Lebanon.
  • Sabbagh, Suha, ed.Palestinian Women of Gaza and the West Bank. Bloomington, Ind., 1998. Essays on aspects of the Palestinian women's movement, primarily from the vantage point of activists up to the first intifāḍah, with one section on the early Oslo period.
  • Schweitzer, Yoram, ed.Female Suicide Bombers: Dying for Equality? Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University, 2006.
  • Shaʿrāwī, Hudā. Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist. Translated by Margot Badran. London, 1986.
  • Zuhur, Sherifa. “Empowering Women or Dislodging Sectarianism? Civil Marriage in Lebanon.”Yale Journal of Law and Feminism14, no. 1 (2002): 177–208.
  • Zuhur, Sherifa. Iraq, Women's Empowerment, and Public Policy. Carlisle Barracks, PA: US Army War College, 2007.
  • Zuhur, Sherifa. “The Mixed Impact of Feminism in Egypt of the 1990s.”Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA)6, no. 1 (2001).
  • Zuhur, Sherifa. Qirāʿāt qadāyā al-marʿah fī misr (Readings of the Woman Question in Egypt). Qirāʿāt siyāsīyah 3, no. 3 (1993).
  • Zuhur, Sherifa. Revealing Reveiling: Islamist Gender Ideology in Contemporary Egypt. Albany, N.Y., 1992. Women and gender issues in and outside Islamist movements in Egypt, attributing the success of Islamist gender ideology to a mixture of historical, political, religious, and socioeconomic factors.
  • Zuhur, Sherifa, ed.Women and Gender in the Islamic World Today. Digital. Berkeley, Calif., 2003; new edition, Carlisle, Pa., 2008.
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