Gender Equality in Islam Analysis


This paper deals with the equality of genders in Islam. The basic aim of this paper is to show that Islam makes no difference in genders and has given equal priorities to both men and women. To prove the equality of men and women, this paper has used the examples from the Quran and Sunnah, and the life of our Holy Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) has also been used in this paper as an example for the people to follow the guidelines provided by the religion. The paper focuses on the respect and value of women in the society. Islam has also emphasized the equality in every given context. This is the only religion that has never made any differences between races and casts; so, the difference between men and women is just of no value. The only difference that can be made is the physical one, but no difference can be made over the position and value between two genders in the view of Islam. Hence, this paper makes it clear that women are of equal importance as men with the help of quoting Quranic Ayah and Ahadees. Every person, being a Muslim, should respect this equality and admit that women have rights equal with men in the human society.

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Islam and Status of Women

Religious practices promote love, benevolence, peace, and equality among the races of humanity. Islam, the ultimate submission to God’s will, is concerned with women’s issues. Islam upgrades their status in the society and culture (Mernissi, 1993).

Islam is a potent unifying force that oversees a multitude of spiritual, natural, social, and secular forces. The philosophy of Islam on family matters establishes norms and codes for its followers. Despite the fact, Islam’s treatment of men and women differs greatly from the Western religions (Ali, 2004). While Islam does not dictate the same rights for both genders, it does not favor men over women either. Muhammad’s (PBUH) saying that the heaven is under the feet of mothers dismisses the notion that women are erotic creatures and ends the practice of infanticide. It contemplates equality, but not similarities (Ali, 2004).

Holy Qur’an’s Thoughts about Women

The Holy Qur’an, as it was descended upon prophet, Muhammad (PBUH), became the highest authority for Muslims all over the world. The holy book of all Muslims is a guide according to which the supporters of Islam build their lives, work and daily communication with people. The Holy Qur’an is, thus, more than a religious book – it is a philosophical work providing people with information as for how they should live to find peace with the outside world and their own souls (Friedman, 2006).

The Qur’an is divided into six thousand verses, each dealing with a different topic, but all are interrelated. A verse, Surah “Al-Nisa” is descended on behalf of women, and deals with creation, rights, and duties of Muslim women in relation to men and society. Fadlallah (1992) claims that Qur’an never refers to women as the cause of men’s sins or impurities. Rather, it reports that women exist to reproduce and without them the cycle of life is never complete. It analyzes the myth of Adam and Eve that perpetuated the belief that Eve was the reason of Adam’s exile from Heaven. This verse shifts the blame from Eve to the demon that lured both of them to sin.

The Islamic religion states clearly that behind every man stands a proud woman. Contrary to general belief, Islam is not a man’s religion, and women are not considered inferior as reported by Fadlallah (1992).

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Women and Shariah

The Islamic doctrine with regard to the question of women’s rights is set forth by the Shariah, the personal code of laws. This code mandates laws regarding dowry, marriage, divorce, legitimization and custody of children, polygamy, women’s rights and obligations, inheritance laws and child support.

According to Islam, men are the maintainers of women. On this subject, Maley (1984) reports that men are the protectors and supporters of women, as their roles are incumbent upon moral, financial and legal obligations. In return, this role imposes economic hardships on Muslim men. Similarly, women’s absolute subordination is mandated by this situation. Thus, a cultural framework emerges, based on gender, with women’s rights conforming to their household and immediate family obligations (Mernissi, 1993).

An enormous obstacle facing Muslim women is their desire to attain modernity without challenging cultural and societal norms. The achievement of this status without reforming the Muslim personal code of laws and dismantling the socioeconomic fabric of the Muslim family is expected to be met with hostility (Ali, 2004).

Women’s Status under Islamic Fundamentalism

In the light of the rise of fundamentalism, there has been a great public concern about the status of women in Islam. Centivers (1994) comments this situation: “A conservative orthodox conception of the role of women defended by the ulama (Muslim jurists) had always opposed emancipation plans whether they concerned the question of customs or of proposed legislation” (p. 333).

Valentine (1994) mentions that “feminist scholars define gender as the social organization of sexual differences or a system of unequal relations between the sexes” (p. 125). He refers to Oakley (1972) and Rubin (1978) as the pioneers in the field to distinguish between sex and gender. Oakley and Rubin define sex as a biological category whereas gender depicts a cultural and social construct. Thus, in relation to these distinctions between the two terms, it can be concluded that all humans can be divided into those two categories. Therefore, in a society where people are grouped according to social values and hierarchies, men are generally linked to political and economical powers. Women’s roles, on the other hand, are limited to biological functions.

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On this note, Weiner and Banuazzi (1994) comment that “the cultural asymmetry that characterizes all gender systems across, is understood culturally as a phenomenon systematically linked to the organization of social inequality” (Weiner and Banuazzi, p. 391).

Hence, the opposition towards women’s emancipation can be clearly understood on the basis of cultural asymmetry and social justice. Centivers (1994) adds that women’s roles are consigned in biological functions, physical and social reproductions.

Physical and Biological Differences between Men and Women

Male and female bodies manifest the sexual and material differences between each other. Sexual differences are immediately inscribed by nature. Even though sexual differences are naturally bestowed, they establish more than the material difference between men and women; indeed, they carry certain regulatory norms with them, which govern the progress of sexual development from childhood to adulthood. These biological differences are modified by social conventions; sex is administered by some sort of “policing mechanism such as morality, religion or economy that regulates the biological and economic domains through useful public discourses” (Foucault, 1990, pp. 24-26).

In this sense, “sex functions as the ideal construct that is materialized through time; and its materialization is accomplished through an enforced reiteration of certain norms and practices” (Butler, 1990, p. 2).

The category of sexual difference also operates within Muslim society (Friedman, 2006). Here, it serves to establish the biological and material differences between men and women. The Holy Qur’an uses the word ‘al-dhakar’ and ‘al-unsa’ to designate the biological distinction between male and female organisms. Such a distinction can be seen in the scriptural account of the birth of Mary as follows: “But when she has given birth to the chid, she said: “o, my Sustainer! Behold, I have given birth to a female (al-unsa)- the while God had been fully aware of what she would give birth to, and (fully aware) that no male child (she might hope for) could ever have been like this female-“and I named her Mary,. And verily I seek Thy protection for her and her offspring against Satan, the accursed” (Al- Imran 3:36).

Thus, the orderliness of the Muslim community worldwide is upheld by the pillars of the hierarchical principle of sexual difference, which operates through the many institutions of power in society and through the citation of Prophetic sayings as well. Women are included in or excluded from society because of, and based on, their sexuality, while the material distinction of sexual difference, especially female “active sexuality”, cannot be endorsed as a means to separate women from men, knowledge, religion and civilization (Ali, 2004).

Although sexual difference is seen as primarily biological, it is gendered as well. The popular assumption is that gender difference is inherent within male and female bodies. Of course, such an assumption is not entirely wrong, for socio-biologists maintain that gender role is genetic in nature. To appropriate this role, it is important that men and women are biologically different; the males are expected “to be aggressive, hasty, fickle, and undiscriminating, whereas females tend to be coy, to hold back until they can identify males with the best genes”. (Wilson, 1978, p.11)

This distinction in human behavior is based on three assumptions: “There are widespread genetic differences; genetically controlled behaviors that affect biological fitness; and genetic differences lead to behavioral differences.” (Anees, 1989, p. 8)

Is Gender Equality Possible?

The question remains whether gender equality is deeply rooted in biological functions or is it a cultural attribute privatized by male-controlled social institutions? In spite of the United States proclamation of 1975 as the Woman’s year, the status of Arab women in the US has not improved much since. Many changes in the area of education have occurred, but they have never brought radical improvements in the other social areas. There is some improvement in the equal educational prospects but not in employment opportunity, let alone social mobility and political mobilization. The common belief is that femininity conceals inherent inferiorities in the womans physiological and psychological structure. Whether this is true or not, it does not indicate that humans and social institutions should accept this notion without any contention. On the contrary, they should re-develop these weakness by promoting and strengthening the womans mind and re-directing it to be subjective through education (Mernissi, 1993).

Many impediments curb the road to equality between the sexes in the familial milieu. First, the stereotyping of the sex roles crystallizes the social and the political roles assumed by both genders. What this means is that a womans place is primarily at home caring for her children whereas the male is in laboring outside to provide bread and butter for them. In exchange, according to EI Guindi (1976), “a woman trades her youth beauty and independence for financial security and emotional suffering” (pp. 225-241).

Notwithstanding this fact, many Arab women experience various forms of tormented and abusive marital relationships (Mernissi, 1993). With marriage, a woman prefers economic dependency over becoming a spinster or being labeled as one for the rest of her life. Higher education to a woman means a lesser chance of being married because Arab men prefer to marry younger women. In addition, higher education is associated with less fertility rates in the minds of numerous Arab men. Research shows that a working woman usually has, on the average, two children compared to a non-working one who averages from four to six children. An Arab woman rationalizes that being abused is better than being divorced, for divorce is the most detested act a woman can experience according to the Arab culture. A divorced Arab woman suffers interminable stereotypes and public condemnation (Mernissi, 1993).

These coercive situations, as interpreted by McCuen (1994), formulate the grounds for martial abuses. Moreover, McCuen (1994) adds that economic denomination, coercion, admonition, and isolation are correlated with these forms of abuse. Thus, if an Arab woman’s status is examined, findings would show that what is considered abuse in the West is rather the norm in the Middle East. Many Arab women experience a multitude of abuses and are financially depend on their husbands. They are threatened and isolated; they are inadvertently threatened in losing their children since the man has the unilateral right of divorce. Upon estrangement, an Arab woman may lose the custody to her children if they are above the age of seven. She may also lose the right to her furniture and jewelry and is only granted her post dowry and alimony.

Hence, what is labeled in the West “battered relationships” associated with fear, confusion, anxiety, attack, and domination, is a means of social control and the means to preserve families from the painful consequences of divorce. Thus, a womans indirect expression and self-denial to cope with abusive relationships is transformed into love and sacrifice for the sake of her children (Mernissi, 1993). The physical and emotional deprivation charges the woman into further developing her children and ignoring herself. The experience transference, as Freud contemplates, is a universal phenomenon. When a person gets acquainted with another one, he or she brings his/her stereotypes and past experiences into this context making their judgements respectively.

Freud believes that man’s future is unpredictable in the face of responsibilities placed upon him by civilization. He claims that the childhood fears and loves, likes and dislikes are taken by people to their adulthood years, and they are much more real for these people than the objective reality itself is.

The Skinners philosophy, as viewed by Friedrich (1953), indicates that the individuals behavior is contingent upon his or her milieu. The latter induces certain outcomes which will be subjected to reward or punishment since some operant conditionings are obligatory, others are chosen, but all, according to Skinner, tend to modify or bring about a change in ones behavior. In application, Arab women experience coercive attitudes imposed upon them by males and their organizations, but, nevertheless, no operant change takes place in their inherent attitudes. Consequent to this is Hegels belief that “the world of the actual consciousness is the world of the known actuality and that the knowledge commence with experience but it does not follow from it” (Friedreich, 1953, p. xviii).

Then, the understanding of the existing inequality becomes dependent upon reality and cultural attributions. For instance, reality necessitates that education for Arab women is the first and foremost step to eradicate gender inequality. Studies by McCuen (1994) and Youssef (1976) show that the higher educational status of women is reflected in the division of work and home. The equation is that the higher the educational status is, the narrower the gap becomes. In terms of methodological shortcomings, womens actual internalization of their destiny as a learned behavior taught them to prefer early marriage over higher education for better employability skills (McCuen, 1994; Youssef, 1976). Many of them choose the marriage blanket because the norms dictate that it is the male’s responsibility to provide them with the financial security regardless of their status, wealth, and social class. The Skinners system of rewards and punishment, and operant conditioning technique, are quite relevant for the perception that a good wife may be rewarded (Friedreich, 1953, p. xviii).

All Arab females are taught by their kinswomen to be submissive, obedient, and patient to win their husbands’ love and respect. No matter how sour the marriage becomes, they are taught to keep a lid on it. The only way to sustain the material relationship is by providing the best services such as cleaning, rearing, and cooking (Friedman, 2006). Seeking retribution to ease marital problems through a divorce is rare in the Arab world and the Detroit Metropolitan area. Women do not possess the right to divorce; only men have the legal and religious authority to do it. Until recently, Bahrain and Iran gave women the right to divorce in the late 1960s, based on impotence, physical abuse, alcohol dependency, terminal disease or imprisonment of one of the spouses.

Youssef (1976) contends that the “Arab Woman was not only an economic dependence but a political social and psychological dependent as well” (p. 205). Arab women have always faced a dichotomy of a social, economic, and cultural worthlessness. Because of this perception, their behavioral patterns have classified them as weak and vulnerable human being. Early marriage accompanied by a lack of education has stopped them in the tracks of social injustices. They cannot distinguish between what their legal and natural rights are. Polygamy was and still is commended as the mans right, under Islam, to have up to four wives if he is able to do it financially. However, the Holy Qur’an verse on polygamy adds a small detail, and it is socially accepted nowadays that an honest and just man should have one wife. According to Kamini (1995), men misinterpreted the verse and defended polygamy as their natural right confirmed by God. Turkey and Tunisia outlawed polygamy to preserve family unity and harmony.

In many cases, women tolerate long trains of martial abuse to protect their families. In addition they do that to avoid economic hardships of divorce procedure. As previously mentioned, divorce is the mans unilateral right. The triple severance of talak (Divorce), when declared by a man upon his wife, results in an automatic divorce. Upon the termination of a marriage, a woman goes back into the custody of her parents, and her journey of social alienation begins. She becomes alienated socially, emotionally, and physically from her previous milieu. She is stereotyped against, and an encroachment falls upon her family and relatives. With no education or employment, a discovered woman stays at home attending to the immediate needs to her brothers and sisters. She feels unwelcome within the realm of her own family. Any marriage proposal, even if it is inappropriate, would be welcomed by her parents to lift the burden off their shoulders. Parents do not even feel pressured to negotiate the pre and post dowries. They are happy that a man has accepted to marry their daughter who is no longer a virgin. This way, they re-assure her entrance into the society and erase the dreadful stereotyping she would have faced as a divorced woman.It is noteworthy to mention, that Arab men prefer to marry women who have had no previous marital relationships. “The index masculine reputation in his moral universe is women’s virginity. Virginity is also the locus of a male’s gender in that he needs to guard, supervise and defend against incursions, his women’s virginity.” (Abu-Odeh, 1996, p.151-153)

Those who marry divorcees are themselves divorcees with children, widowed or a lot older than them. Of course, there is always an exception to the rule. There are numerous cases when men married divorced women in spite of their parents’ objections.

Gender Theories

In order to understand gender roles, we will analyze gender theories and their implications on our study. Jenny Chapman’s book, “Politics, Feminism, and the Transformation of Gender”, examines gender theories and offers in-depth analysis on each one. Chapman (1993) reports her findings on the works of Margaret Mead, Nancy Chodorow, and many others: “Anthropologist Margaret Mead discussed how differences and sex role play an important role in shaping families, societies and cultures and gender asymmetry that materializes out of these cultures. Mead (in Chapman, 1993) contended that “maleness was not an absolute quality, but something that men must earn and re-earn by achievement every day, with achieving more than women, an essential element in the definition” (Chapman, 1993, p.209).

Her statement asserts the fact that men must always rejuvenate their maleness by attaining higher aspects in their life. If they stop, their masculinity could become worthless in the face of constant struggle for advancement. Mead (in Chapman, 1993) adds that: “The fears and insecurities which plagued American men and created the male insecurity are the problems of civilization” (Chapman, 1993, p.210). Her theory explains that all cultures are structured according to gender differences. Women are “genderized” (Chapman, 1993, p.210) according to their reproductive functions, and men are always classified in terms of difference from the females.

The essence of Mead’s theory, as Chapman (1993) argues, is that the male’s function is without exception assembled in such a way as to reward men for the fact that they are not women. Because of these facts, gender division and the hierarchical associations are inseparably interrelated and biology is their common root. Mead interprets her theory by saying that the psychological reformation that leads to genderization starts at the time of birth. Both boys and girls are mothered by their mothers. Yet, there comes a time when the boy must begin to learn to discern himself from his mother. The fracturing of his psyche begins, and with it begins the journey of proving his masculinity for the rest of his life. The girl’s relation with her mother, on the other hand, remains simple and untouched. Their bond grows stronger as the girl starts to internalize her future role as a mother. The male accepts the fact that he will never be a mother.

Mead continues by saying that men are the ones who need gender and the role of mothering. This is the cause of the innate difference between the two genders. Chapman’s (1993) conclusion of Mead’s theory states that “the result is that the female sex role can be more or less punitive for women to inhabit according to how much and what in life is reserved for males and their expense and how uneven the results.” (Chapman, 1993, p.211)

However, she adds that mothering is not an instinct, but a learned behavior based on experience. Paternity, on the other hand, is an institution based on socially learned behavior and is not learned physically. Mead believes that culture formation is the result of our experiences and our deepest beliefs. One factor to end gender inequality is through shared parenting. But with this option, two outcomes emerge. The first option deals with the destruction of the mothering bond and weakens it. The second option creates a gulf of hate on women’s behalf when they feel that the only area in which they have autonomy, mothering, is being dominated by men. Since mothering is woman’s main domain, and it symbolizes a major difference between her and a man, a change in the men’s attitude is the only solution to fill in the gender gap. Mead’s shared parenting formula results in a less envious relation between the two sexes, and should make men less defiant against women. She makes a similar inference with the latency period when boys are separated from the girls. They feel less threatened as they are growing up with boys their age.

Another gender theorist examined by Chapman (1993) is Chodorow. Her book, “Shared Parenting”, explores the reproduction of mothering. Chodorow (in Chapman, 1993) claims the women’s monopoly over motherhood repels men to create gender discrimination and aggression toward them. The problem can be solved by involving men in mothering. However, there can be problems with shared mothering. Chapman mentiones Adrienne Rich, who refers to mothering as a “social institution constructed in accordance with men’s values, perceptions and powers” (p. 222). Rich adds that mothering is indulging others’ needs and forsaking one’s own needs. Mothering is the only experience that is not comparable with any other life experience. She sees the only path to equality through destroying the patriarchal family unit and replacing it with a new structure. In the new family unit, women must be free to make their own decisions, must have financial independence and governments should provide the means to satisfy these needs. Social institutions must play a vital role in breaking all the social, cultural, and economical barriers to erase genderization. Conversely, Betty Freidan believes that there should be a new sexual division of labor. Yet, women must preserve their mothering function to protect their families from becoming obsolete. Chapman (1993) brings in Sylvia Ann Hewlett who criticizes women’s movement and accuses them of “mothering devaluation” (Chapman, 1993, p. 227) which directs attention to the cost of destroying the family infrastructure. Chapman (1993) concludes that “the metaphor of gender as scissors in which women are inextricably caught , remains only too grievously apt where basic difference of sexes are concerned” (p. 227).


The research on the topic revealed that gender inequity and rights usurpation are the products of old traditions that societies inherited thousands of years ago. The Qur’an perfected women’s rights and ended female infanticide. It proved pre and post dowries, child alimony and wife support to be superior over divorce. Men challenged the Prophet’s revelations but God’s words were descended to abhor their dissensions.

Today the Muslims profess Islam, but openly rebuff it when it calls for equality between sexes. Fatima Mernissi (1987) questiones: “How did the transition succeed in transforming the Muslim woman into that submissive, marginal creature who buries herself and only goes out into the world huddled in her veils?”(p. 194) Garodi (in Nouri, 1997), a French orientalist, answers that traditions in some particular Muslim countries have nothing to do with Islam. Women in the Qur’an are better off than any woman in any society today.

Muslim feminists are asking for the rights accorded to them by the Qur’an. Muslim women all over the world need to learn the values that Aisha, Sakina, Umm-e-Salma, and Fatima Alzahra learned and adopted. Muslim women, both in the East and in the West, are beginning to expect equal treatment, while protecting their rights within the home and family. This is a good sign that demonstrates that the modern society is trying to free itself from religious stereotypes and develop according to humanism ideals.


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