We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more Women - Oxford Islamic Studies Online
Select Translation What is This? Selections include: The Koran Interpreted, a translation by A.J. Arberry, first published 1955; The Qur'an, translated by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, published 2004; or side-by-side comparison view
Chapter: verse lookup What is This? Select one or both translations, then enter a chapter and verse number in the boxes, and click "Go."
  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Look It Up What is This? Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Next Result


The role of women in Muslim society has changed significantly in the centuries since Islam began in Arabia in the early 600s. Their position has varied with shifting social, economic, and political circumstances. Although Islam regards men and women as moral equals in the sight of God, women have not had equal access to many areas of Islamic life.

Women in Islamic Society

Historically, Muslim women have not been treated as men's equals. Certain rulers and administrators and most legal scholars imposed a system of inequality, which they justified by their interpretations of the Qur'an and the traditions of the Prophet. Colonial authorities challenged these views, and their Western notions of the rightful position of women in society took hold among some segments of the Muslim population. Since much of the Islamic world became independent in the mid-1900s, however, women have been caught between traditionalists and reformers as they compete for dominance in Islamic society.

Making Some Gains.

Before the rise of Islam in the early 600s, Arabs lived in a traditional, patriarchal (male-dominated) society. Men regarded women as their property, to be married or divorced at will. No limitations on polygyny existed. Women generally did not have a say in the choice of a husband. Once married, they lacked financial security, as the groom's dowry was paid directly to the bride's male relatives. Female infanticide (the killing of baby girls at birth) was common.


Female athletes from Afghanistan take part in the opening ceremony of the Third Muslim Women Games in Tehran, Iran, in 2001.

Vahid Salemi/AP Photo

view larger image

With Islam, the status of women improved considerably. The Qur'an and the sunnah emphasized the spiritual equality of all Muslims. Islamic law recognized a woman's right to choose her own marriage partner, and it set limits on the practice of polygyny. A man could have as many as four wives, if he could provide for and treat them equally. Islamic regulations also defined marriage as a contract between a man and a woman or a man and a woman's legal guardian (wali). They also required the groom to pay the dowry directly to the bride. In addition, the Qur'an and sunnah specified that women are entitled to inherit wealth and that married women should be able to control their own money and property. These sources further stated that husbands must support their wives financially during marriage and for a certain period after a divorce.

Although Islamic law extended some rights to women and limited the privileges of men, it did not change the dominant position of men in Muslim society. For example, the Qur'an requires women to be obedient to their husbands, and it describes men as a degree higher than women in rights and responsibilities. The scriptures also permit men to divorce their wives without cause and deny women custody rights over children who have reached a certain age.

Experiencing Some Losses.

Historical evidence indicates that women contributed significantly to the early development of the Muslim community. Women were the first to learn of Muhammad's initial revelation. They later played an important role in the process of collecting all the revelations from both written and oral sources into a single, authoritative text. Women were entrusted with vital secrets, including the location of Muhammad's hiding place when he was being persecuted and his plans to attack Mecca. The Prophet often consulted women and considered their opinions seriously. His first wife, Khadija, was his chief adviser as well as his first and foremost supporter. His third and youngest wife, A'ishah, was a well-known authority in medicine, history, and rhetoric. At Muhammad's death, the distinguished women of the community were consulted about the choice of his successor. Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab (ruled 634 – 644 ) appointed women to serve as officials in the market of Medina.

Islam spread well beyond the Arabian Peninsula in the years after the Prophet's death. In the 600s, Arab-Muslim armies captured territory that had been part of the Byzantine and Persian Empires. The Muslim community gradually incorporated the values and customs of the conquered peoples, including the practice of veiling and secluding women. Veiling referred to the use of garments to cover the head, face, and body. Seclusion involved limiting women to the company of other women and close male relatives in their home or confining them in separate female living quarters. Although Islamic sources do not specifically require veiling and seclusion, some Muslims have used passages from the Qur'an and sunnah to justify these practices.

Men and women had distinct, complementary roles in Muslim societies. The husband's primary responsibility was to support and protect the family. The wife cared for and disciplined the children and maintained the home. Although Islamic law taught that the husband and wife were equal before God, women were subordinate to men. Nonetheless, women exercised considerable influence in family and social life.

Breaking With Tradition.

During the 1800s, most Islamic societies came under the control of European powers. Colonial rule brought Western ideas and values about women, marriage, and the family to the Muslim world. Intellectuals, professionals, and civil servants began to question legal and social restrictions on women, especially those related to education, seclusion, heavy veiling, polygyny, and slavery. These developments created a sense of insecurity among the general population. Muslim men tended to react by observing traditional customs and rituals more strictly.

Demands for reform led to the establishment of primary and secondary schools for girls, and in such places as the Ottoman Empire, Egypt, and Iran, universities were opened to women. Women founded newspapers and educational and charitable organizations. They also joined student and nationalist movements.

In the early 1900s, the governments of newly independent Muslim states such as Turkey took steps to modernize the role of women. The Turkish government adopted a new family law that discouraged polygyny and gave women the right to obtain divorces. Turkish women gained the right to vote in municipal and national elections in the 1930s. Iranian leader Reza Shah Pahlavi outlawed the practice of veiling. In general, the tradition of female seclusion declined dramatically. During the 1950s, Egyptian women entered politics and were elected to public office. Women also began to earn advanced academic degrees and to work in professions previously closed to them. In most countries, however, new freedoms and opportunities in education and employment benefited only upper and middle classes in urban areas.

Several factors limited these developments. More traditional Muslims regarded the social and political changes as anti-Islamic and a threat to the cultural value of male superiority. Concerns about a lack of employment opportunities among men fueled arguments that women should stay at home in their traditional roles of wives and mothers. Islamic states tried to balance the conflicting demands of women and traditional Muslims by making cautious reforms.

Debate continues over the appropriate role of women in the community. Muslim societies regard women as key to social continuity and the preservation of the family and culture. They see the status of women as directly connected to maintaining or reforming tradition. The role of women may also be a means of defining national identity. For example, some of the Gulf states and other conservative rural societies follow the practice of secluding women from unrelated men. Although Muslim governments have promoted education for both boys and girls as a way of achieving economic growth, the percentage of girls enrolled in schools in developing countries remains relatively low.

Poor economic and political conditions in some Muslim countries have forced women to become more involved in the outside world. Factors such as war and labor migration have increased the number of households headed by females. Economic necessity has led women to seek work outside the home, usually in low-paid, unskilled jobs.

Many Muslim women have become active in grassroots organizations, development projects, charitable associations, and social services. During the 1990s, women achieved positions of leadership in some parts of the Muslim world. Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, Tansu Ciller of Turkey, and Shaykh Hasina and Khaleda Zia of Bangladesh served as prime ministers in their respec-tive countries.

Women and Islamic Religious Life

The Qur'an requires the same religious duties of men and women and promises them the same spiritual rewards. Nevertheless, certain factors have tended to restrict women's involvement in Islamic religious life. These include social customs, lack of education, and ideas about ritual purity. The specific limitations on the participation of Muslim women in religious matters and the ways that they have responded to these restrictions have varied across the Islamic world. Furthermore, during the 1900s, the changing role of women in society created new opportunities for women in the religious sphere as well.

Different Standards.

Muslim women must observe the Pillars of Islam, including praying five times each day, fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, and—like every Muslim who is physically and financially able—making at least one pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. However, women may not pray, fast, or touch the Qur'an during menstruation or for a period following childbirth. During these times, they are considered to be ritually impure. In addition, women who are pregnant or nursing are exempt from fasting during Ramadan. Nonetheless, they must make up the days that they have missed at a later time.

Ideas about whether women should pray in mosques or in their homes have changed over time. According to the hadith, the Prophet commanded men not to bar women from public worship. In the days of Muhammad, women performed the morning prayer at the mosque, although they were required to line up in rows behind the men. They left the mosque before the men, preventing, at least in theory, any contact between the sexes. During the caliphate of Umar ibn al-Khattab, women had to pray in a separate room of the mosque with their own imam. By about 700, Muslim religious authorities completely banned women from mosques. They justified their reversal of the Prophet's order by claiming that public spaces were unsafe for women.

Studies from a number of different Islamic countries indicate that the presence of women in public is considered to be a source of temptation and conflict. Therefore, keeping them out of mosques is regarded as necessary to preserve the holiness and dignity of religious ceremonies. For centuries, mosques were primarily male spaces. The Islamic resurgence that has swept the Muslim world since the 1970s has modified these attitudes. Recently, Muslims have constructed mosques that provide a separate space for women. However, the women often remain isolated in areas where they cannot see the preacher, which reinforces their marginal role in mosques.

Although almost always separated during Muslim religious observances, men and women interact on the pilgrimage to Mecca. Moreover, while performing the hajj, women do not have to cover their faces. Males and females may also interact during celebrations at the shrines of saints.


Muslim women have always played a role in the spread of religious knowledge. Muhammad's wife A'ishah was an important source of the hadith. In fact, he reportedly told his followers they would receive half their religion from her. Muhammad himself taught religious lessons to women.

Throughout Islamic history, some daughters of wealthy families received private education in the home. More often, however, women were excluded from formal education, and illiteracy was common. During the 1800s, schools for girls opened in many Muslim countries. They received instruction in such subjects as crafts and housekeeping. Since the independence of the Muslim world in the mid-1900s, both girls and boys have had access to secular education. Nonetheless, religious instruction for girls and women has lagged behind that of boys and men. Occasionally, women have gained recognition as Islamic scholars for their writings, not for obtaining a degree in Islamic studies. Because many Muslims do not believe that women have the capacity to teach men, even women who have religious training may only serve the needs of other females.

Sufism and Shrines.

Unlike the legal and scholarly dimensions of Islamic religious life, which depend on literacy and formal education, Sufism involves various physical and spiritual disciplines. Traditionally, Sufi shaykhs were effective religious teachers in Muslim society as well as popular counselors and healers. Not surprisingly, therefore, women have been relatively more involved in the Sufi movement than other areas of Islam. The most famous Sufi woman, Rabiah al-Adawiyah (died 801 ), wrote poems of love for God that have continued to inspire mystics to the present day. She is not unique in the Sufi tradition. Javad Nurbakhsh has translated into English the biographies of some 124 Sufi women.

Some Sufi shaykhs in the Mamluk dynasty ( 1250 – 1517 ) and Ottoman Empire admitted women into their orders. Despite the general acceptance of women within Sufism, however, their participation in the orders and in dhikr, the distinctive Sufi ritual chanting of the names of God, has been controversial. Moreover, some Sufi men have regarded women as obstacles to their spiritual life. Today Moroccan and Algerian orders frequently have separate women's groups with female leadership. Despite an official ban on female membership in Egyptian Sufi brotherhoods, women continue to participate in many of its orders.

Unlike mosques, which are usually regarded as male spaces, shrines dedicated to Muslim saints have traditionally been open to women. Some Muslims, mostly Sufis, believe that saints are individuals who can intercede with God on behalf of the faithful and perform miracles. After their deaths, their tombs often become places of worship and refuge for their followers and others. Muslim women frequently visit these shrines, some of which address women's concerns, such as fertility. Visiting the shrines of saints has been an essential part of the religious lives of Muslim women all over the world.

Religious reformers have criticized saint veneration as un-Islamic. They argue that women need formal religious education so they can become part of orthodox Islam once again. Throughout the 1900s, independently founded voluntary associations assumed the task of providing such instruction. These organizations also offered courses in literacy and crafts. Many government-operated mosques also provided religious lessons to women. See also A'ishah ; Clothing; Divorce; Education; Family; Hijab; Khadija ; Law; Marriage; Muhammad ; Saints and Sainthood; Sexuality; Shrine; Sufism; Women and Reform; Women in the Qur'an.

  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Look It Up What is This? Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Next Result
Oxford University Press

© 2022. All Rights Reserved. Cookie Policy | Privacy Policy | Legal Notice