In Islam, men and women are moral equals in God’s sight and are expected to fulfill the same duties of worship, prayer, faith, almsgiving, fasting, and pilgrimage to Mecca. Islam generally improved the status of women compared to earlier Arab cultures, prohibiting female infanticide and recognizing women’s full personhood. Islamic law emphasizes the contractual nature of marriage, requiring that a dowry be paid to the woman rather than to her family, and guaranteeing women’s rights of inheritance and to own and manage property. Women were also granted the right to live in the matrimonial home and receive financial maintainance during marriage and a waiting period following death and divorce.
The historical record shows that Muhammad consulted women and weighed their opinions seriously. At least one woman, Umm Waraqah , was appointed imam over her household by Muhammad. Women contributed significantly to the canonization of the Quran. A woman is known to have corrected the authoritative ruling of Caliph Umar on dowry. Women prayed in mosques unsegregated from men, were involved in hadith transmission, gave sanctuary to men, engaged in commercial transactions, were encouraged to seek knowledge, and were both instructors and pupils in the early Islamic period. Muhammad’s last wife, Aishah , was a well-known authority in medicine, history, and rhetoric. The Quran refers to women who pledged an oath of allegiance to Muhammad independently of their male kin. Some distinguished women converted to Islam prior to their husbands, a demonstration of Islam’s recognition of their capacity for independent action. Caliph Umar appointed women to serve as officials in the market of Medina. Biographies of distinguished women, especially in Muhammad’s household, show that women behaved relatively autonomously in early Islam. In Sufi circles, women were recognized as teachers, adherents, “spiritual mothers,” and even inheritors of the spiritual secrets of their fathers.
No woman held religious titles in Islam, but many women held political power, some jointly with their husbands, others independently. The best-known women rulers in the premodern era include Khayzuran , who governed the Muslim Empire under three Abbasid caliphs in the eighth century; Malika Asma bint Shihab al-Sulayhiyya and Malika Arwa bint Ahmad al-Sulayhiyya , who both held power in Yemen in the eleventh century; Sitt al-Mulk , a Fatimid queen of Egypt in the eleventh century; the Berber queen Zaynab al-Nafzawiyah (r. 1061 – 1107 ); two thirteenth-century Mamluk queens, Shajar al-Durr in Cairo and Radiyyah in Delhi; six Mongol queens, including Kutlugh Khatun (thirteenth century) and her daughter Padishah Khatun of the Kutlugh-Khanid dynasty; the fifteenth-century Andalusian queen Aishah al-Hurra , known by the Spaniards as Sultana Madre de Boabdil ; Sayyida al-Hurra , governor of Tetouán in Morocco (r. 1510 – 1542 ); and four seventeenth-century Indonesian queens.
Nevertheless, the status of women in premodern Islam in general conformed not to Quranic ideals but to prevailing patriarchal cultural norms. As a result, improvement of the status of women became a major issue in modern, reformist Islam.
Since the mid-nineteenth century, men and women have questioned the legal and social restrictions on women, especially regarding education, seclusion, strict veiling, polygyny, slavery, and concubinage. Women have published works advocating reforms, established schools for girls, opposed veiling and polygyny, and engaged in student and nationalist movements. Nationalist movements and new states that emerged in the post–World War II period perceived women and gender issues as crucial to social development. State policies enabled groups of women to enter the male-dominated political sphere and professions previously closed to them, although these policies often caused popular and religious backlash.
Debates continue over the appropriate level of female participation in the public sphere. Women are typically viewed as key to either reforming or conserving tradition because of their roles in maintaining family, social continuity, and culture. Women’s status has also been used as a means of defining national identity. Although governments of twentieth-century Muslim nation-states have promoted education for both boys and girls as a means of achieving economic growth, the percentage of girls enrolled in schools in developing countries with large and rapidly growing populations remains low. Concern for men’s jobs has given added incentive to the conservative call for women to adhere to traditional roles as housewives and mothers, although economic necessity has led women to undertake whatever work they can find, usually low-paid, unskilled labor. War and labor migration have increased the number of female-headed households.
Women today are active participants in grassroots organizations; development projects; economic, education, health, and political projects; relief efforts; charitable associations; and social services. Modern reforms have made polygynous marriages difficult or illegal; permitted wives to sue for divorce in religious courts, particularly in cases of cruelty, desertion, or dangerous contagious diseases; provided women with the right to contract themselves in marriage; required husbands to find housing for a divorced wife while she has custody over the children; increased the minimum age for spouses; limited the ability of guardians to contract women in marriage against their wishes; provided opportunities for minor girls wed against their wishes to abrogate the marriage upon reaching majority; enhanced the rights of women with regard to child custody; and allowed women to write clauses into marriage contracts that limit the husband’s authority over them.
In the contemporary era, women have again assumed leadership roles in the Muslim world. Benazir Bhutto was prime minister of Pakistan ( 1988 – 90 , 1993 – 96 ), Tansu ç;iller was prime minister of Turkey ( 1993 – 96 ), and Shaykh Hasina is the current prime minister of Bangladesh ( 1996 –). Nonetheless, tensions remain between traditionalists, who advocate continued patriarchy, and reformists, who advocate continued liberation of women.