Women in Early Islam



The debate on the status of women in Islam has been raging on for many years now and is one of the most controversial subjects in modern times. There are many different beliefs and rumors on the way the Islamic faith commands to treat women of their religion. There are conflicting ideas on what exactly women are permitted and forbidden to do in Islam. The main categories that many of the controversies stem from include the following:
  • Politics and Islamic Women
  • Garments of Islamic Women
  • Religion and Islamic Women
  • Marriage and Islamic Women
  • Education and Islamic Women

We hope that you enjoy reading and educating yourselves on these issues as we have. Islam is the fastest growing religion on the planet, and to learn more about the religion is a great way to become an informed citizen of our world.

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| Politics | Traditional Garments | Religion | Marriage | Education |


Politics and Islamic Women

There are many questions surrounding women’s roles in Middle Eastern and other primarily Islamic countries political systems. It is commonly (and incorrectly) believed that women have little rights in Islamic culture in regards to being able to take a prominent role in a political office. However, four of the five top Muslim majority countries in the world have elected women to office. Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Turkey have all elected women to roles such as president or prime minister. Another prominent Islamic woman is the Queen of Jordan, Queen Rania. She is considered worldwide as one of the most powerful women. She has pioneered the development of modern education not only in her own country, but also around the world.

In fact, women in Islam have been very crucial in the growth of the religion of Islam since its early days and its creation. The role women played in early Islam is shown through the stories of the Queen of Sheba. She was known as being a very knowledgeable democratic type ruler who always would consult with her people when making decisions. She converted to Islam during her rule as the Queen of Sheba and she is considered as one of the first prominent Islamic women leaders in history.

This shows that in the Quran there were not any restrictions on women being placed in a ruling position or any other form of leadership. However, many people point to a Hadith narrated by Abu Bakra, in which he claims that any community ruled by a woman will never succeed. Obviously this was a very controversial statement because Hadiths are the word of the Prophet Muhammed and this went against many of the Prophets teachings. This narration has since been proven as being false because it has been reported in Islamic history that Abu Bakra had been punished for bearing false witness.

Although it may seem as if women of Islam were not allowed in politics in early times, except for a few occasions, many historians believe that it has nothing to do with Islam, but rather that women historically were always secluded from the political scene. It was always considered as part of the old traditional culture that women belonged in the household and in family matters, whereas men would be in the public eye among social activities. In fact, you could say that up until the 1930s women in America had just as much of a say in politics as all women across the world. Only recently, women have been catapulted into the political and public scene and taking positions of power among their countries’ governments throughout the world.

Women in the Middle East have been actively participating in political events much more recently. A good example to display this is women’s critical role played in Iran’s Islamic Revolution in the late 1970s. The Revolution was fundamentally the overthrow of Iran’s monarchy and its replacement with the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Throughout the Revolution, Iranian women began to understand the potential and power they hold from a political standpoint. Many people consider the Revolution as a turning point for women regarding their political stature in Iran. They had played a key role in the downfall of a very powerful government and in the establishment of a more balanced and fair republic.

Thus, it can be concluded that Islam women have been playing prominent roles in various political structures for a long period of time now. In the past couple decades is when their activities
in politics have picked up much more and become more eminent. The Queen of Sheba pioneered a tradition of this in Islam’s infant stages, and it has now become a standard of the religion as it expands to the world’s farthest corners.


Her Majesty, Queen Rania of Jordan.......................................Depiction of the Queen of Sheba


  1. Al-Mahadin, Salam. "Jordanian Women in Education: Politics, Pedagogy and Gender Discourses." Feminist Review 78 (2004): 22-37. JStor. Web. 22 Feb. 2010.

  2. Fargues, Philipe. "Women in Arab Countries: Challenging the Patriarichal System?" Reproductive Health Matters 13.25 (2006): 43-48. JStor. Web. 22 Feb. 2010.

  3. Shojaie, Zahra. "Muslim Women: Politics, Leadership and Civil Society." N.p., 24 Oct. 2003. Web. 22 Feb. 2010.

  4. Tucson, Masjid. "Women and Politics in Islam." Submitter's Perspective. N.p., 1 Aug. 2002. Web. 22 Feb. 2010.

*Intro & Politics by Georgi Fram

Traditional Garments

Traditional Garments of Islamic Women

One of the most misunderstood aspects of Muslim life is the head coverings, called Hajib or burkas, and the one piece body covering called the chador, worn by women of the Islamic faith. The practice has been a major source of controversy in the West as more and more people of Islamic faith migrate into Europe and the United States, and to a lesser extent within the Islamic faith itself. Viewing the Middle East and the Muslim faith through the lens of post 1960’s America, and its struggles with racial equality and women’s rights, it is easy to see how these customs could be misinterpreted as oppressive. But in order to fully understand these customs one must put aside the idea of burring bras and look at these practices through the lens of the Islamic faith.

The practice of women covering themselves was known during the Jahaliyya (time of ignorance) before Muhammad received the word in 622AD. The practice of veils was known in the Byzantine Empire and pre-Islamic Persia and was a symbol of respect worn by the elite and upper class women of the time. Since that time it has become a basic principle of the Islamic faith. The vast majority of Muslim scholars and jurists, past and present, have agreed on the minimum requirements for Muslim women's dress. For Muslims the practice gets its legitimacy from the Qur’an (the word of God) and the Hadith (the traditions of the prophet Mohammad (pbuh)). People who follow these traditions feel it is their claim to respectability and piety to wear the hajib. One of the passages from the Qur’an that is referred to is: "O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their outer garments over their persons, that are most convenient, that they should be known and not molested. And Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful."( Qur'an, Surat Al-Ahzab 33:59). It is for this reason that this practice is such a strongly held belief. These areas of the body are known as “awrah” (parts of the body that should be covered) and are referred to in both the Qur’an and the Hadith. Women of Islam are following the word of God spoke by Muhammad (pbuh) when they practice the tradition of covering their bodies and their face. There are disagreements among religious scholars about the extreme requirements of this practice and the details and enforcement of these requirements change from region to region in the Middle East and through time as leadership in these countries changes. One of the passages that is referenced as part of this debate is from the Hadith: “All of a woman is Awrah. When she leaves her home, Satan looks at her.” (A Sahih Hadith). This is where some of the difficulty comes from, much like in Christianity, there are differences in interpretation from the strict interpreters of the Qur’an and Hadith to the more liberal interpreters. In the west we take it for granted that politics and religion are separated but in much of the Middle East they are still very much linked together and it is this marriage of religion and politics (Almadi, 2008) that conflict can arise. Because if the ruling political party changes, the rules for personal religious practice can be subject to change.

Although the level of religious practice may change from place to place and be subject to the winds of political change the Hijab is woven into the fabric of Muslum life and holds a special place in the hearts and minds of Muslim women steaming from the word of God, spoken by Muhammad (pbuh) and is a practice that they feel very strongly about. It is something they wear to show their religious beliefs and not (for the most part) something they are forced to do.

By Chris Adams


If you have to choose only one, watch the first one. It is short and informative.


1. Abu-Lughod, Lila. “The Active Social Life Of “Muslim Women’s Rights”: A Plea for Ethnography, not Ploemic, with cases from Egypt and Palestine” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Winter 2010)

2. Almadi, Bader Seetan. “Palestinian Womens’s Roles After the First Intifada, 1987-1992” A dissertation submitted to the Faculty of Brighan Yoiung University, 2008

3. Alshech, Eli. “Out of Sight and Therefore Out of Mind: Early Sunnī Islamic Modesty Regulations and the Creation of Spheres of Privacy” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, October 2007, Vol. 66, No. 4: pp. 267-290

4. Bahgat, H. “The Troble with Azza: Does a French school have the right to prohibit the veil?” Cairo Times, 4(42), 4-11
Garland, Lynda. “Byzantine Women, varieties of experience AD 800-1200.” 2006 Ashgate Publishing Limited.

6. Gazzar, Brenda. “Faceless in Gaza” Ms; Fall 2007; 17,4; Research Library Core pg. 26 (www.msmagazine.com)

7. Haney, Marsha Snulligan. “Envisioning Islam: Imam Mohammed and Interfaith Dialogue” The Muslim World; Oct 2009; 99,4; Hummanities Module pg. 608

8. Kandiyoti Deniz. “Women, Islam and the State”//Middle East Report//, Published by: Middle East Research and Information Project No. 173, Gender and Politics (Nov. - Dec., 1991), pp. 9-14

9. Zuhur, Sherifa. “Women and Empowerment in the Arab World” Arab Studies Quarterly; Fall 2003; 25,4 Research Library Core pg. 17


By Chris Adams


Religion and Islamic Women

Muslim women discouraged
Muslim women discouraged

In the beginning of the Islamic faith there was a transition from the pagan practices of the many tribes of the Arabic countries to the new found Muslim faith. Muhammed revolutionized the region by bringing the Muslim faith to the people and with it brought changes in the way women were treated and expected to act. The Qur’an laid out specific customs and requirements for women that were followed during the early Islamic time period.

Women were expected to carry out a religious role similar to the Muslim men. They were expected to pray five times daily just as the men were, but they needed the permission and blessing from their husband. Over time as Umar replaced Muhammed as a leader of the Muslim faith, women were still expected to exercise their religious requirements but were then secluded to prayer at home. Through the Muslim faith women were never allowed to hold positions of power; they were not viewed as qualified or capable of leading or teaching. There was also a sense of modesty imposed by Muhammed and the Islamic faith that was placed upon the women. This was exercised through ways such as dress codes and restraining women from public roles.

The Islamic faith did not just limit women however; it also imposed more respect and equality when compared to the previous customs and gender roles. They were still considered to be on a lower level than men but were significantly closer to a man’s status. Women were given rights through the Qur’an in society, specifically in divorces and inheritance issues. Women were no longer stripped of all property and reputation; they were treated equally and not chastised by society. Previously women were beaten when they committed crimes such as adultery whereas under Under Muhammed and Muslim beliefs, women were not abused but forgiven by the faith of their religious community. Women were no longer possession-less and had a legal voice in Islamic culture.

An important concept to keep in mind when focusing on early Islamic women, is that as the Islamic faith spread, different regions interpreted the Qur’an in different ways. Some regions of Arabia continued to keep pagan customs and gender roles when it came to women, while others were more progressive. With this in mind in general the women of early Islamic regions were expected to participate and embrace their faith and were given basic rights as humans. The Qur’an called for women to be active in their faith and transformed women’s gender roles by giving them more status in society, previously reserved solely for men.



Adamson, Clarissa. "Gendered Anxieties: Islam, Women's Rights, and Moral Hierarchy in Java." American Association for the Advancement of Science. 1-26. Proquest. Michigan University Libraries. 19 Feb 2010. http://proquest.umi.com

Doumato, Eleanor Abdella. "Women and Work in Saudi Arabia: How Flexible are Islamic Margins." The Middle East Journal. 53.4: 568-583. JStor. Michigan State University Libraries. 19 Feb 2010. http://jstor.org

el-Husseini, Rola. "Women, Work and Political Participation in Lebanese Shia Contemporary Thought: The Writings of Ayatollahs Fadlallah and Shams al-Din." Comparitive Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. 28.2: 273-282. Proquest. Michigan State University Libraries. 19 Feb 2010. http://proquest.umi.com

Sechzer, Jeri Altneu. "'Islam and Woman: Where Tradition Meets Modernity': History and Interpretation of Islamic Women's Status." Sex Roles. 51.5-6: 265. Proquest. Michigan State University Libraries. 19 Feb 2010. http://proquest.umi.com.



Marriage in Early Islam

Shannon McCarthy

Because of the massive number of cultures and countries in the Muslim world, the issues and customs of Marriage have become an en ormously complex matter. The Qur’an set the precedent for wom e n’s marriage rights in Early Islam, but over time various regions across the Middle East have adapted these guidelines to fit their own laws and cultures . Some of the issues dealt with in Islamic marriage are: polygamy, divorce, and matters of estate


Polygamy is the practice of having two or more wives. This practice is allowable in Islam, and men are able to marry up to four women. Polygamy was first practiced in Islam during the first wars with Mecca when so many men died, leaving their wives unprotected. Because of Mohammad's love of orphans and widow’s, the Islamic men were allowed to marry the widowed women. One of the conditions of this arrangement is that a man who practices polygamy must treat all of his wives equally. In pre-Islamic society, polyandry – the practice of a woman taking more than one husband – was practiced, but this custom was outlawed with the spread of Islam (Sechzer). One variety of polygamy that has developed in the Islamic world is the practice of temporary marriage. This kind of marriage pre-dates Islam and is a controversial issue, but a legal practice. Temporary marriage is “a contract between a man and an unmarried woman specifying the duration of their union and an amount of money to be given by a man to his temporary wife.” This custom first developed as a legitimate way for men to see other women when they traveled or were away from home for long periods during war. Due to the origin of temporary marriages, the practice is considered controversial and is associated with prostitution, but this custom can have useful purposes also. Throughout history, otherwise “undesirable” non-virgin women have been able to become a part of male-led households through temporary marriage. The primary uses of temporary marriages today are to define and legitimize a relationship between young couples who wish to live together, but are not ready for a permanent marriage (Williams).


Divorce is a controversial issue in Islam, especially with the struggle for women's rights in the Muslim world. In Islam, divorce is legal, but men and women’s rights to seek a divorce are not equal. There are several verses in the Quran that address the issue of divorce. According to the Qur’an, men have the right to grant a divorce at any time without approval from the court. Women have three options in the event that she needs to dissolve a marriage. The first course is through a mutual release, in which the husband agrees to part amicably without any return of the dowry he had given his wife. Because divorce can damage a man’s reputation, this practice is rarely allowed. The second way a woman can obtain a divorce is though a buying release, in which she returns the dowry she had received as part of the marriage contract, and the husband agrees to a divorce. A husband can also delegate the power of divorce to his wife in which case the woman is free to dissolve the marriage. In some Islamic cultures, marriage contracts can have requirements built into them that state certain conditions under which a woman can divorce her husband (Shah).

Matters of Estate

Matters of inheritance are clearly marked out between several verses in the Qur’an. Some direct statements defining Islamic inheritance are listed below:

“Allah (thus) directs you as regards your Children's (Inheritance): to the male, a portion equal to that of two females: if only daughters, two or more, their share is two-thirds of the inheritance; if only one, her share is a half. For parents, a sixth share of the inheritance to each, if the deceased left children; if no children, and the parents are the (only) heirs, the mother has a third; if the deceased Left brothers (or sisters) the mother has a sixth. (The distribution in all cases is) after the payment of legacies and debts. Ye know not whether your parents or your children are nearest to you in benefit. These are settled portions ordained by Allah; and Allah is All-knowing, All-wise.166

In what your wives leave, your share is a half, if they leave no child; but if they leave a child, ye get a fourth; after payment of legacies and debts. In what ye leave, their share is a fourth, if ye leave no child; but if ye leave a child, they get an eighth; after payment of legacies and debts. If the man or woman whose inheritance is in question, has left neither ascendants nor descendants, but has left a brother or a sister, each one of the two gets a sixth; but if more than two, they share in a third; after payment of legacies and debts; so that no loss is caused (to any one). Thus is it ordained by Allah; and Allah is All-knowing, Most Forbearing.167”

According to Islamic scholars, the reason that males inherit twice as much as females has to do with the fact that men in the Muslim world have a greater economic responsibility and are expected to be the sole providers for their families. Depending on economic situations, there are a great number of possibilities for proportioning the estate of deceased relatives. In some cases, such as when the deceased has only daughters, the daughters may receive half of the estate or more. Many other situations exist, and Islamic law encourages consideration of the economic contributions of beneficiaries when distributing estates (Shah).




Sechzer, Jeri Altneu. "'Islam and Woman: Where Tradition Meets Modernity': History and Interpretation of Islamic Women's Status." Sex Roles. 51.5-6: 265. Proquest. Michigan State University Libraries. 19 Feb 2010. <http://proquest.umi.com>.

Williams, Juliet A. "Unholy Matrimony? Feminism, Orientalism, and the Possibility of Double Critique." Signs.Chicago. 34.3 (2009) 611. Proquest. Michigan State University Libraries. 19 Feb 2010. <http://proquest.umi.com>.

Shah, Niaz A. "Woman's Human Rights in the Koran: An Interpretive Approach." Human Rights Quarterly. 28.4: 868-905. Proquest. Michigan State University Libraries. 19 Feb 2010. <http://proquest.umi.com>.


Education and Islamic Women

Hilary McCown

Modern Misconceptions

Today there is much debate over the role of women is Muslim society, particularly in the realm of education. Since 9/11, we have been bombarded with images and propaganda from the media suggesting that Islam, in its very nature, is a violent and oppressive religion. Islam, to the uneducated mind, is a way for men to control women. By denying them the right to an education, men are successfully trapping women in a veil of ignorance, preventing them from realizing what they really want; to be like “western women.” However, not only do all Muslim females not secretly yearn to be westernized, they are not denied the right to pursue an education. In fact, the Qur’an itself encourages them to do so.
This Cartoon represents one of the modern
misconceptions of the lives of Muslim women.

Pre-Islamic Arabia

During jahiliyyah (the period of time before Islam, meaning “Ignorance” in Arabic) women in Arabia were treated with very little respect. This was a time of patriarchy, and the cultural and political norms and values of the day were entrenched in this tradition. Women were considered to be a man’s property. Rather than inherit anything when their husbands died, wives themselves were inherited by his heirs. Female infanticide was a common practice, as having a daughter was a disgrace and shameful. And as far as education was concerned, the only women who were allowed to learn were middle and upper class, and even then their education was far more basic than that of their male counterparts. And since the only occupations considered appropriate for women were those of the domestic house wife (e.g. spinning or weaving, baking, hair dressing, pottery, or singing), no proper education was even necessary. The second Rightly-Guided khalifah, Omar Ibn al-Khattab, summed it up quite nicely when he said, “By god, we did not pay attention to women in jahiliyyah until god said about them in the Qur’an what is said, and gave them their share in matters.”

Women's Educational Rights in Early Islam

The rise of Islam during the life of the Prophet brought on many changes for women. Women, who had had few if any rights under the laws of the pre-Islamic era, were suddenly being awarded opportunities they had never before had. Islam preached equality in all aspects of life, including social and political standing. Women became scholars, teachers, and religious and political leaders. Unlike the Torah and the Bible, the Qur’an preaches almost total equality between men and women (the exceptions are in places where women are seen as needing protection or fulfilling more feminine roles). It says in the Qur’an that God created men and women from the same soul, and has no mention of Eve being created from Adam’s rib (which in itself makes women inferior and dependent upon men) or of her being created to be Adam’s companion. The Qur’an also states that it is the obligation of all Muslims, male and female, to pursue knowledge and education. Notice the use of the word “obligation” instead of “right.” Not only did Muhammad preach these things, he practiced them as well, demonstrating his sincere belief in what God was instructing him. He selected his wife, A’isha, to be one of the great religious authorities of the day, instructing laymen and scholars alike and influencing legislation.

Return to a Patriarchal Society

After the death of the prophet, Muhammad, a gradual regression occurred in Islam, returning the status of women to something similar to what it was during jahiliyyah. The hundreds of years of patriarchal practices were too ingrained and too influential to be squashed out by one generation of progressive thinkers. Slowly but surely, women began to lose the status they had gained during the life of the Prophet. They went from religious leaders to housewives in a very short period of time. This deterioration in female standing was made possible by misinterpretations of the Qur’an; biased interpretations made by males and which benefited males. Rules governing dress and Islam’s disapproval of co-education among men and women helped to shape the view of the “dominant male”, thus placing men in a higher position than women. It is the practice of this interpretation of Islam that, combined with the western idea that everyone should be westernized and share western cultural and societal values, that contribute to the before mentioned misconceptions of Islam and its treatment of women.

Contemporary Views on Women's Education

Nowhere in the Qur’an is the education of women prohibited or discouraged. On the contrary, as stated earlier, it is a requirement of all Muslims, both male and female, to seek to obtain knowledge. Despite the restrictions emplaced by man (not Allah or Muhammad), women have made great strides in their struggle for equal educational rights over the past 60 years. As of 2003, the net enrollment rate for females in the Middle East was up to 71%. In the Arab world today, women are educated up to the university level and have achieved jobs in almost all areas of society. They now have influence in fields such as science, education, politics, and religion, just to name a few.



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Mehran, Golnar. "The Paradox of Tradition and Modernity in Female Education in the Islamic Republic of Iran." Comparative Education Review 47.3 (2003): 269-270. Web. 21 Feb 2010.

Roald, Anne Sofie. Women in Islam: the Western Experience. London: Routledge, 2001. preface. Web.

Sayeh, Leila, and Adriane M. Jr. Morse. "Islam and the Treatment of Women: An Incomplete Understanding of Gradualism." Texas International Law Journal (1995): 311-333. Web. 24 Feb 2010.