Women’s Rights in Islam

Women’s Rights in Islam

When discussing human rights in Islam, one of the most often asked questions is related to that of women’s rights in Islam. Sadly, there is a belief by many that the Islamic tradition does not offer protections for women’s rights. They see leaders of some Muslim-majority states interpreting Islam in a way that does not treat women as equal to men, and they tend to believe that because of this, women’s rights in Islam are nonexistent. These individuals tend to look at topics of women’s rights to divorce, inheritance rights in Islam, among other issues, and believe that because some are interpreting Islam in a way that is not equal to women, that everything about the faith is opposed to rights.

This is not the case. In fact, as I shall show, there is a great history (and present) of women’s rights in Islam. Women’s rights in Islam have not only been advocated in the early Muslim community, but they have continued to be stressed throughout the centuries, and into the present day. As I shall point out, there is a strong human rights movement that is looking at alternative ways to interpret the Quran that, when done, show just how supportive the Islam is to the rights of women.

In this article, we are going to discuss the history of Islam and women’s rights, looking not only at the question of rights in the early period of Islam (during the life of Muhammad), but we will also examine various arguments as they pertain to the question of the rights of women in Islam.

Do Muslim Women Need Saving?

Before we talk about the history and present conditions related to the rights of women in Islam, it is imperative that the conversation begins by looking at the question of “saving” Muslim women. In a lot of the Western discourse on Islam and human rights, there is a sentiment that the faith itself (and not merely the leaders of Muslim countries) is in opposition to women’s rights. Because of this, the victims are helpless Muslim women that then need to be “saved” by the West. This sort of broader framework is what Professor Makau Mutua is writing about in his article “Savages, Victims, and Saviors: The Metaphor of Human Rights.”

Despite warning about what often transpires in the human rights movement, there continues to be attitudes that view the Islamic faith as one that is backwards and not progressing, and the Muslim women as the ones who need to be “saved.” Professor Lila Abu-Lughod looks at the United States “War on Terrorism, and how this message of “saving” was being used to justify interventions in the Middle East. In her piece, she talks about how, following the attacks of September 11th, 2001, people were interested to talk about women’s rights in Islam, but were not asking questions about the history of the region, or the geo-politics of the region. As she notes, “Instead of questions that might lead to the exploration of global interconnectedness, we were offered ones that worked to artificially divide the world into separate spheres–recreating an imaginative geography of West versus East, us versus Muslims, cultures in which First Ladies give speeches versus others where women shuffle around silently in burqas” (784).

Saving Muslim Women: Afghanistan

In the building to the Afghanistan War following the terror attacks on September 11th, 2001, there was much less of a conversation about the politics of the Taliban, the history of the group, and Al Qaeda, etc…, but rather, so much of the conversation was about women’s rights in Afghanistan, or in the Muslim world. Lughod points out that in many other international relations conflicts, the question of women’s rights was rarely one of the primary reasons for justification of military action.

Individuals such as First Lady Laura Bush made a speech in which, in her justification for supporting a U.S. military response in Afghanistan, spoke about women’s rights as a motivation, saying: “Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. They can listen to music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment…The fights against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women” (784). As Lughod (2002) notes, this sort of justification is the same justification for actions during colonialism. The colonialists would make the argument that they were “saving” the “others,” often into Christianity and into “civilization,” all the while being highly oppressive while they ruled these colonized areas.

So, outsiders looked at veiled women in Afghanistan and just assumed that they need to be saved, not from only political oppression, but from the culture as well; the veil was as much of a problem as were the Taliban.

Another issue with continuing to think that it is only Muslim women that need to be saved is that those who make this argument tend to ignore (or are often unwilling to recognize) that there are many human rights inequalities facing women in Western states. This goes back to the thinking that some have that countries or leaderships in the West could not violate human rights, or women’s rights, whereas this is a common occurrence in non-Western societies, and in this particular case, in Muslim countries. As Lughod pointed out, when people do stories on women’s rights in Islam, it is rare that they also bring attention to the similar rights of women in non-Muslim states.

It is this discussion that we must keep in mind when speaking about women’s rights in Islam. This is not to say that an activist should not be working to help women get rights; it is essential that we all do so. But one should be careful in their thinking of what you are trying to help someone from. Fighting for civil political, social, and economic rights is necessary. But when there is a thinking that Muslim women also need help from Islam, herein lies a problem, and a dangerous assumption when one is looking to create policies of human rights and international relations.

As we shall see, even when Islam is interpreted in a way that is oppressive towards women, many do not blame the religion itself, but rather, they understand that it is political actors using the religion for their gain. Plus, and often surprising to many in the West, the Islamic faith continues to serve an important role in the lives of Muslim women, something that some in the West have a hard time accepting, because again, it is outside of the narrative that “they” (Muslim women) need “saving” from the religion of Islam.

As Lughod (2002) writes in her piece on women in Afghanistan

It is deeply problematic to construct the Afghan woman as someone in need of saving. When you save someone, you imply that you are saving her from something. You are also saving her to something. What violences are entailed in this transformation, and what presumptions are being made about the superiority of that to which you are saving her? Projects of saving other women depend on…reinforc[ing] a sense of superiority by Westerners, a form of arrogance that deserves to be challenged… (788-789).

History of Women’s Rights In Islam

In order to understand the development of the rights of women in Islam, it is important to understand what the conditions of Arabia (where the messenger of Islam, Muhammad was born) were like. Then, we can better understand Muhammad’s words, and the Quran, within this context.

Pre-Islamic Arabian society was one that did not have a centralized government, but rather, was concentrated based on the power within and between tribes. In this society, there were a number of rights abuses against women. For example, there was unlimited polygamy for men. In addition,  inheritance rights were not viewed as equal throughout society. Furthermore, female infanticide was practiced in the region. This is something that is mentioned in the Quran; early Islam (and Muhammad) strongly condemned the idea that parents would kill their children because they were unhappy with giving birth to a daughter.

However, there were also other aspects of the society that did grant some rights for women. For example, as Ahmed (1992) notes, Arabia, right before the rise of Islam, was “the last remaining region in which patrilineal, patriarchal marriage had not yet been instituted as the sole legitimate form of marriage; although even there it was probably becoming the dominant type of marriage, the evidence suggests that among the types of marriage practiced was matrilineal, uxorilocal marriage, found in Arabia…–the woman remaining with her tribe, where the man could visit or reside with her, and the children belonging to the mother’s tribe–as well as polyandrous and polygamous marriages” (41).

However, as Ahmed (1993) notes, this in no way suggest that women has economic or political power in their respective societies. Yet, she also argues that early Islam may not have granted as many rights as some want to suggest, that with it also came patriarchal structures of marriage (42). Again, it is difficult to know exactly what the marriage conditions were like prior to Islam (Ahmed, 1993).

There were a few other aspects of women’s rights that seemed to be promoted by Islam that was not as much in place in pre-Islamic society. For example, early Islam did introduce inheritance rights, something not commonly in place prior to the formation of the faith. In addition, as Ahmed (1992) notes, women were also much more active in war, something not seen in the same way before Islam. For example, as Ahmed (1992) notes: “One man described seeing ‘Aisha and another wife of Muahmmad’s, their garments tucked up and their anklets showing, carrying water to men on the battlefield. Other women on the Muslim side are mentioned as caring for the injured and removing the dead and wounded from the field” (53). Yet, it does not seem that women were active participants in the fighting portion of battles, something that continues to be important with regards to complete equality of sexes in all aspects of society.

In addition to the advancements in women’s rights in Islam mentioned already, Muhammad (and the Quran) were also very critical against infanticide, and also repression of members of society. However, we have to be careful to suggest that with the advent of Islam came a new feminist movement in which all patriarchal structures within early society were torn down. As Sachedina (writes: “Any cursory acquaintance with pre-Islamic Arab culture would support the claim that relatively speaking, Islam ushered in a period of great strides in protecting women from abuse by the system that denied them their human dignity….[However][,] [t]he Qur’an did not mark a total departure from tribal culture, whose extremely chauvinistic moral code was at the center of male-dominated tribal dealings” (125-126).

As Ahmed (1992) wrote, Islam, in working with a pre-existing set of norms within society, “selectively sanctioned customs already found among some Arabian tribal societies while prohibiting others. Of central importance to the institution it established were the preeminence given to paternity and the vesting in the male of proprietary rights to female sexuality and its issue.” (45). So, while some aspects of pre-existing culture were not embedded within the Islamic tradition, other aspects, like the issue of polygamy, were (Ahmed, 1992) (although there was a change in the way polygamy was to be practiced).

Again, that there was an advancement to women’s rights in Islam during the early periods of the faith, but at the same time, not a complete revolution of the existing order. As Sachedina (2009) writes: “In the twenty-three years of his mission, as per the Qur’an, the Prophet created a momentum for an Islamic polity founded upon the moral mandate of “instituting the good and preventing the evil,” but he could not completely supplant the pre-Islamic tribal system with a new Islamic order. In spite of the Prophet’s emphasis on justice and egalitarianism, social distinctions and other forms of discrimination practiced in Arabia continued to influence human relations” (126).

Muslim Responses to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)

The Convention on on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is one of the most important international human rights documents with regards to women’s rights. This document, adopted in 1979, and then put into force in 1981, sets out a series of human rights for women. For example,

Article 1 explains discrimination as “any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the bases of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment, or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of quality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil, or any other field” (in Mayer, 2013: 103).

Article 2 (and the following articles) explain what states must do to ensure equal rights for women. For example, Article 2 states that:

States Parties condemn discrimination against women in all its forms, agree to pursue by all appropriate means and without delay a policy of eliminating discrimination against women and, to this end, undertake:

(a) To embody the principle of the equality of men and women in their national constitutions or other appropriate legislation if not yet incorporated therein and to ensure, through law and other appropriate means, the practical realization of this principle;

(b) To adopt appropriate legislative and other measures, including sanctions where appropriate, prohibiting all discrimination against women;

(c) To establish legal protection of the rights of women on an equal basis with men and to ensure through competent national tribunals and other public institutions the effective protection of women against any act of discrimination;

(d) To refrain from engaging in any act or practice of discrimination against women and to ensure that public authorities and institutions shall act in conformity with this obligation;

(e) To take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women by any person, organization or enterprise;

(f) To take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to modify or abolish existing laws, regulations, customs and practices which constitute discrimination against women;

(g) To repeal all national penal provisions which constitute discrimination against woman

Muslim-majority states, in language, were quite supportive of CEDAW, although some other Muslim state leaders have been unwilling to ratify the document, and others still did so, but with the inclusion of reservations, understandings, and declarations (RUDs). For those who have added RUDs, they have done so with an intention of ensuring that Shariah law is not superseded by this document, and that they would be using Shariah to interpret rights listed in CEDAW.

Again, the problem with including RUDs based on Shariah not only makes it more difficult to implement CEDAW, but it also inaccurately suggests that there is only one Shariah. As Mayer (2013) notes, “In effect, they [these state leaders] treat Islamic law as if it were a binding supranational religious law that was beyond their powers to alter. In practice, however, the Islamic law that is of concern where CEDAW reservations are being made consists of laws in various national legal systems. These rules exist in the form of widely varying, inconsistent rules enacted by individual national governments and amended at will” (104). This is an important point to continue to keep in mind: there is no one way to understand Islamic law, and those that do interpret it do so within their own state political contexts.

Justice, Islam, and Women’s Rights

Along with specific references to fighting infanticide, Quranic verses were heavily focused on notions of spiritual equality, and also on the importance of justice in the faith. Scholars, writing on the history of women’s rights in Islam, discuss the importance of ethics and justice in Islam.

One additional approach that activists and scholar-activists have taken regarding women’s rights in Islam has been to re-examine scriptural sources such as the Quran. The argument has been that the verses have been approached and interpreted from a position of patriarchy, and that, when re-analyzed, the Islamic faith is quite supportive of women’s rights. Asma Barlas (2002) explains as a motivation for her work, Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an, “My objective in writing this book was to recover the scriptural basis of sexual equality in Islam and thereby to defend Islam against the claim…” that the faith is patriarchal. 

She, along with many other scholars, argue that the interpretations of the Qur’an were patriarchal, but when one takes another look at the Qur’an, they find that those notions of gender equality is there. In the following sections, we shall look at some of the more controversial verses of the Qur’an, and how these scholars, using an interpretivst approach, have found alternative, non-patriarchial interpretations that show the importance of gender equality in the faith. For these scholars, one cannot read the Qur’an in a vacuum, but rather, one has to understand the socio-economic, political, and other historical factors in Arabia at the time that the text was revealed. 

Yet, as Barlas (2002) argues, this rarely happens when Muslims read the Qur’an. She explains that:

“My argument so far has been not that we cannot read the Qur’an in patriarchal or oppressive modes, but that such readings result from reading the text in a piecemeal and decontextualized way, for instance, by privileging one word, or phrase, or line, or Ayah, over its teachings as a whole, and/or by focusing on its less clear Ayat at the expense of those of fundamental meaning. Moreover, not only do Muslims often fail to read those aspects of the Qur’an’s teachings that threaten the power and legitimacy of patriarchies, but they also read into the Qur’an meanings that often are just not there.” 

She goes on to say that some of the issues that fit most within this category are when Muslims interpret verses based on polygamy, how men are supposed to treat their wives, or those patriarchal family structures that place special attention on the role of the male and father (Barlas, 2002). 

Parental Rights and Women’s Rights in Islam

Barlas (2002) argues that the Quran is very clear about the importance of respecting parents, but does not suggest that the authority in a household favors the husband and/or father over the wife and/or mother. Even in the case where parental rights exist in the Qur’an, they are only mentioned a couple of times, “and none with the father’s rights, especially as defined as patriarchies” (Barlas, 2002: 173). There are various references to the importance of the mother in the Quran, and also references to the womb as a signifier of “benevolence and compassion” (Barlas, 2002: 176). What is also important to note is that the references are not merely for mothers, but rather, the Quran continues to place women’s rights at the forefront, even if a women was not a mother. Barlas (2002). also points to the fact that one of Muhammad’s wives Ayesha did not have children, and yet she is one of the most revered women in the history of Islam.

Along with the verses calling for gender equality, there are other verses in the Quran that are also critical of the patriarchy related to husbands and fathers. For example, while parents are deserving of respect, the Qur’an notes that if the parents are keeping you from God, then the child has the right to “obey them not” (31-14-15). Thus, as important as the parents are, God’s authority and importance supersedes that of the parents. 

This is important for women’s rights in Islam because it directly challenges any notions of patriarchy in the family, and in the society. Children not only have a right to find their own path in faith, but “The charge to disobey parents, then, is more significant than it may first appear” since it is directly going against any constructed notions of power and authority based on societal traditions (Barlas, 2002: 176).

Furthermore, it has also been pointed out that the Quran is very strict on fathers who commit female infanticide. This was something practiced frequently in Arabia at the birth of Islam, and Quranic verses state that the daughter, will, on the Day of Judgment, ask why she was killed. So, the Quran is quite critical on the powers of parents, which include the father’s actions (Barlas, 2002).

Equality in Marriage

One of the criticisms levied at the Islamic faith is that men are given more authority than women in a relationship, that there is no equality of the sexes in a marriage. However, interpretive approaches are challenging these idea. As these scholars note, there is ample evidence to suggest that Islam continues to place equality with regards to women’s rights in the religion. 

One of the most controversial verses within the Quran is verse 4:34 where some have translated the verse to suggest that males have the rights to abuse their wives. However, there are many interpretations that do suggest a mistranslation of the term “daraba” which did not mean to physically strike someone. Scholars have also pointed out that other interpretations have suggested different, non-physical ways to solve a marital dispute. Thus, there are disagreements on how the verse has been interpreted. Furthermore, many scholars point out there exists no contextual support that domestic violence was ever condoned by Muhammad or the Quran. 

Polygamy in Islam

One of the other most discussed aspects of Islam as it pertains to women’s rights is the verse on male polygamy, where men are able to marry up to four wives, if they treat the wives equally. Critics of the faith say that this is clear evidence that Islam is patriarchal, and that it does not grant equal rights to women, and actually has laws that abuse the equal rights of women. 

However, interpretive scholars say that when one looks at the context of this verse, then one will recognize that it does not call for polygamy for the sake of male authority, but rather, because of the attempts at economic justice. The argument is that one merely has to look at the context of when the verse was revealed.

In Arabia at that time, children who were without a father fared poorly economically. This was because of the lack of equal treatment of women in society, and the lack of ability to work outside the home due to gender discrimination. So, if a husband and father passed away, the children, even though they still had their mother, were seen as orphans. This was because they lost the economic earner of the family.

Scholars argue that it is out of this context that we should understand the verse. Instead of allowing men to marry up to four wives just because they wanted to, instead, the verse is saying that you can take on additional families in order to help the orphans. 

Here is the ayat or verse related to this topic:

Give the orphans their property, and do not exchange the corrupt for the good and devour not their property with your property; surely that is a great crime. If you fear that you will not act just towards the orphans, marry such women as seem good to you, two, three, four; but if you fear you will not be equitable, then only one, or [aw] what your right hands own; so it is likelier you will not be partial (4:1) (in Barlas, 2002).

So, here, men are called to continue to stay married to their spouses, and even if there is disagreement on that part of the verse, scholars argue that the reason for the verse is with regards to polygamy (Barlas, 2002). So, if the person cannot fairly help the families without marrying the wife, then under these circumstances, additional marriages are permissible (Barlas, 2002).

Again, this is contextual. There is no reason to think that the verse should be applicable to today. At that time, the verse was meant to help families, economically, which is far different than how some want to interpret the verse today. 

Equality Based on Worshipping God

Thus, many scholars have made the argument that when looking at the Qur’anic verses outside of frame of patriarchy, women’s rights are as prevalent as male rights. Along with this, the Qur’an also calls for other forms of equality. The only distinction is not based on categories of gender, race, ethnicity, etc…, but rather, the amount of faith that one has. As Barlas (2002) notes: “What matters in and to the Qur’an is the extent to which women and men, whether organized in a family, state, or the economy, observe the limits of God, and the only distinction it makes in this regard is between believers and unbelievers” (171). For example, the Quran continues to make multiple references with regards to “believing men and women.” This seems to be the major point in the tradition: those who believe are elevated in front of God, regardless of any earthly characteristics. 

As Barlas (2002) writes:

“The Qur’an, then, draws on the principle of the sameness and similarity of human nature to define spousal relationships, and the terms in which it describes these relationships suggest that it views wives and husbands as equal: They not only have the same natures, but they also are entitled equally to love…;both, moreover, are held to the same standards of ethical behavior…” (184). 



Ahmed, L. (1992). Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven, Connecticut. Yale University Press.

Barlas, A. (2002). “Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an. Austin, Texas. University of Texas Press.

Sachedina, A. (2009). Islam & The Challenge of Human Rights. Oxford, England. Oxford University Press.

Wadud, A. (1999). Quran and Women: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective. Oxford, England. Oxford University Press.

Leave a Reply