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"Women and Reform." In The Islamic World: Past and Present. Ed. John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Mar 4, 2021. <>.


"Women and Reform." In The Islamic World: Past and Present. , edited by John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed Mar 4, 2021).

Women and Reform

The role and status of women is one of the most controversial topics in the Islamic world. Many Muslims consider women the culture bearers of their societies and view their status as a reflection and source of national identity. As a result, they tend to emphasize the traditional roles of women as wives and mothers. However, women in the Islamic world play other roles in public life and in a variety of professions, including business, medicine, education, government, law, and politics. Women have even served as prime ministers in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Turkey, and Indonesia. Efforts to improve the status of women in the Muslim world and to expand their rights and opportunities began in the 1800s.

Women's Role in Islamic Society

Although Islam proclaims that all human beings are equal morally and have the same religious duties, men and women have not always been placed on equal legal footing. The introduction of Islam brought important reforms that improved the status of women, such as prohibiting female infanticide and recognizing women as property owners and legal partners entitled to engage in contractual agreements. Islam also guaranteed women certain financial and inheritance rights in marriage and offered special protection to widows and orphans. However, despite these improvements, Muslim societies remained largely patriarchal, and women tended to be subordinate to male family members who did not always respect their legal rights.

Pre-Colonial Status of Women.

Women have played an active role in public life in Islamic societies since the beginning of Islam. During Muhammad's lifetime, women prayed next to men in the mosque, provided sanctuary to men, owned and sold property, engaged in commercial transactions, pursued education, and worked as teachers. Under the early caliphs, women served as officials and legal experts.

Women and Reform

In 1999 Muslim women in Jakarta, Indonesia, demanded more rights in the upcoming elections. The poster at right calls for officials to take action against election violators.

Bullit Marquez/AP Photo

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Still, the legal enforcement of women's rights varied in different times and places in the Islamic world. By the 1700s, a number of Muslim scholars began reform movements to revive early Islamic practices and values. For example, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab of Arabia (died 1791 ) included the revival of women's rights in such areas as marriage, divorce, and inheritance in his reform program. The court records of the Ottoman Empire show that women were aware of their marriage, divorce, and inheritance rights under Islamic law and used the courts to enforce them. Finally, throughout Islamic history, the practices of veiling, seclusion, and polygyny—often considered hallmarks of the lives of Muslim women—were neither uniformly required nor observed.

Changes After Colonization.

Starting in the mid-1800s, European colonialism brought far-ranging change to the legal systems of the Muslim world. Secular courts were established to handle criminal and civil cases. Only family law came under the jurisdiction of the shari'ah courts, where Islamic law remained in force.

Islamic reformers called for expanded rights for women within Islam, focusing on education and employment for women as the best means of bringing the Islamic world into the modern era. In Egypt, Muhammad Abduh ( 1849 – 1905 ) and other modernists worked for legal and theological reforms, such as outlawing polygyny. Others, such as Qasim Amin, addressed social issues. Amin identified the oppression of Muslim women as the major cause for the decline and deterioration of Muslim families and societies. He pointed to social practices like arranged marriages, the wife's practical inability to initiate divorce, and the husband's unlimited right to divorce as sources of bondage for women. Some activists, such as Egypt's Huda Sharawi ( 1879 – 1947 ), pressed for reforms and expansion of women's rights along Western models.

Egypt led the Muslim world in introducing legal reforms related to marriage, divorce, and inheritance. The Egyptian Code of Organization and Procedure for Shari'ah Courts of 1897 required written documentation in marriage, divorce, and certain inheritance claims. In 1923 Egypt also addressed the issue of child marriages by prohibiting marriage certificates for brides under the age of 16 and grooms under the age of 18. Although these reforms protected women's rights through documentation, they remained Islamic in orientation.

A more secular approach can be found in Turkey and Iran. Turkey abolished Islamic law altogether and introduced secular, Western-style law in 1924 . Turkey also outlawed the veil and insisted that all Turkish citizens wear Western dress. In Iran, the shah outlawed the veil and encouraged giving women access to schools, the workplace, and other public areas.

Following independence in the mid-1900s, most Muslim countries introduced plans for modernization and development, including the expansion of education and employment for both men and women. Even such traditional countries as Saudi Arabia routinely sent both male and female students to the West to study engineering, medicine, computer technology, and business in order to develop their home countries and provide services.

When the economic boom of the modernization era ended, however, many conservatives called for women to return to their traditional roles at home and leave the jobs for men. Although many professional women have continued to work by choice, economic necessity has often kept less skilled women at work. In some cases, the income of both husband and wife is needed to provide for the family. In other cases, women serve as heads of household in the absence of a male provider due to divorce, widowhood, the husband's work abroad, or active military service. The importance of the wife's income for family survival has led some women to argue that their rights in marriage should be expanded to reflect their increased family responsibilities. They have also maintained that, in cases of divorce, the length of the marriage and the wife's contribution to the household and the husband's career should be taken into account in the divorce settlement.

Reform in the Muslim World

In recent years, most Muslim countries have passed some legislation reforming the application of Islamic law to such issues as marriage, divorce, and inheritance. Although Islamic law remains largely in force, it reflects a modern understanding of the important role women play in the family.

The Middle East.

In the Middle East, reforms related to women's issues have focused largely on family law. All countries have set minimum ages for marriage. Legislation has granted a woman the right to establish certain conditions in her marriage contract—including restriction of her husband's right to take other wives—and has required documentation of marriage and divorce. In most countries, the husband can no longer simply tell his wife that she is divorced or divorce her in secret. Safeguards have been put in place to assure that the wife is aware of her status as either a wife or a divorced woman.

Reforms have also bolstered the woman's right to her dowry and maintenance. Most countries regard the husband's failure to pay maintenance as legal grounds for divorce. The grounds for divorcing a husband have been expanded to include desertion, the presence of an incurable or contagious disease, moral impropriety, and domestic violence—although maltreatment is sometimes difficult to prove in court. Reforms have also affirmed the woman's status as a property holder, and they have supported the Qur'anic rule that a woman's dowry and maintenance belong to her and should not be under the control of her husband.

Concerns have been raised about the apparent loss of women's rights in Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution. Although women have been required to wear Islamic dress, they enjoy relatively free access to education, employment, and politics. Furthermore, Iran has been willing to consider modern medical advice in addressing matters of Islamic law, such as the minimum age for marriage. Thus, although classical Islamic law set the minimum age for marriage for girls at 9, Iran raised the age to 15. The nation also passed legislation in 1982 requiring the inclusion of 12 conditions favorable to women in every marriage contract. The most important conditions are those granting the wife the right to divorce under certain circumstances and entitling the wife to half of the wealth accumulated during the marriage. Muslim reformers in Iran also won the right of women to compensation in the event of divorce for their labor during marriage, including housework.

North Africa.

In North Africa, women played an important role in the wars for independence in the mid-1900s. They expected that their support and work in liberating their countries would be rewarded in the new states. However, though women gained greater access to education and work following the wars of independence, family matters remained largely under the jurisdiction of Islamic law.

Tunisia, the most secular of the North African countries, was the only one to outlaw polygyny. Tunisia also allows both men and women complete freedom in contracting their own marriage. In other countries, polygyny is restricted, rather than outlawed, and marriage contracts must be drawn up by marriage guardians. However, Algeria forbids the marriage of any woman against her will and does not allow the guardian to block a marriage desired by the woman as long as it is beneficial to her. Morocco and Algeria allow women who claim to have suffered harm from their husbands' marrying an additional wife to seek divorce. All North African countries grant the wife the right to establish favorable conditions in her marriage contract.

South Asia.

Women's participation in nationalist movements in India and Pakistan led to greater access to public life for women, particularly in education. Women also gained the right to inherit all forms of property. Although many were concerned that Pakistan's implementation of Islamic law during the 1970s and 1980s would restrict the rights and roles of women, women remain active in the public realm. In recent years, President Pervez Musharraf sought to increase women's participation and representation in the legislative system by reserving one-third of the seats in local elections for women. However, literacy levels in Pakistan remain low and a traditional patriarchal culture remains intact. As a result, it is often difficult for women to act independently of male family members, who see themselves as guardians of the family's honor.

The most important legislation passed in Pakistan was the Muslim Family Laws Ordinance of 1961 , which prohibited the right of the man to divorce his wife by declaring a triple divorce at one time. The law also restricted the man's right to polygyny, required the registration of marriages, and discouraged quick divorces. In addition, reforms in inheritance laws gave orphaned grandchildren inheritance rights.

Legal reforms and advances in women's rights in Pakistan have often not trickled down to the rural poor, who make up the majority of the population. Rape remains unrecognized as a crime. A woman who brings a case of rape to the court system is likely to be accused of adultery, which has led to an underreporting of rape cases. Honor killings remain a serious social problem in the country. Furthermore, although the law requires official registration of marriages, failure to register does not make the marriage invalid. Although a small fine or short prison sentence may be imposed, the marriage itself remains legal.

Southeast Asia.

Women in Southeast Asia have traditionally enjoyed broader involvement in social and political affairs than Muslim women in other regions. Malaysia, for example, is a matriarchal society that traces lineage through women, and women there have traditionally been the heads of household and major property holders. As in other colonized regions, the women of Southeast Asia participated in the struggle for independence and supported women's education as critical to progress. Post-independence, women were strongly represented in politics, both in forming parties and in government positions. Women also play an important role in social services, running orphanages, maternity clinics, hospitals, and daycare centers.

Family law reforms in Malaysia, as in other regions, have required the registration and documentation of marriages and divorces. Dowry amounts are fixed. A man must promise to provide his wife with maintenance, and the court can have the maintenance deducted directly from a man's paycheck. An arbitration process in which women counselors play a prominent role is required prior to divorce. Malaysia has also restricted the practice of polygyny by requiring the man to obtain the written permission of both his current wife and the appropriate religious office to seek an additional marriage. Nevertheless, cultural issues, like domestic violence, remain widespread in the country and are the focus of women's organizations.

Current Issues in Women's Rights

The issues of veiling and gender segregation remain controversial in Islamic societies today. While some view Islamic dress as a limitation on personal freedom—as in the extreme case of Afghan women under the Taliban—others believe that secular societies that require Western dress also limit a woman's personal freedom. The 1998 case of a female member of parliament in Turkey who was banned from her seat in parliament because she insisted on wearing a headscarf raised serious questions about freedom of dress.

Furthermore, in many countries, women are deciding to wear Islamic dress because they find that it brings respect and access to public space while preserving their modesty. Many educated professionals are choosing to wear the hijab to identify themselves as Muslims and to show that they are religious, moral women.

Domestic violence, honor killings, and rape remain major social problems. Reforms in these matters are supported by a variety of women's organizations, from the grassroots level to government ministries. Recognition that these issues are as much cultural as religious has led to calls for basic reeducation of men and women on these issues, as well as legal reforms affecting family law. See also Divorce; Education; Family; Hijab; Inheritance; Law; Marriage; Women.

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