The Status of Woman in Islam
from "Islam in focus"
By Hammuda Abdul-Ati, PH.D.
The status of woman in Islam constitutes no problem. The attitude
of the Qur'an and the early Muslims bear witness to the fact that
woman is, at least, as vital to life as man himself, and that she
is not inferior to him nor is she one of the lower species. Had
it not been for the impact of foreign cultures and alien influences,
this question would have never arisen among the Muslims. The status
of woman was taken for granted to be equal to that of man. It was
a matter of course, a matter of fact, and no one, then, considered
it as a problem at all.
In order to understand what Islam has established for woman, there
is no need to deplore her plight in the pre-Islamic era or in the
modern would of today. Islam has given woman rights and privileges
which she has never enjoyed under other religious or constitutional
systems. This can be understood when the matter is studied as a
whole in a comparative manner, rather than partially. The rights
and responsibilities of a woman are equal to those of a man but
they are not necessarily identical with them. Equality and sameness
are two quite different things. This difference is understandable
because man and woman are not identical but they are created equals.
With this distinction in mind, There is no problem. It is almost
impossible to find even two identical men or women.
This distinction between equality and sameness is of paramount
importance. Equality is desirable, just, fair; but sameness is not.
People are not created identical but they are created equals. With
this distinction in mind, there is no room to imagine that woman
is inferior to man. There is no ground to assume that she is less
important than he just because her rights are not identically the
same as his. Had her status been identical with his, she would have
been simply a duplicate of him, which she is not. The fact that
Islam gives her equal rights - but not identical - shows that it
takes her into due consideration, acknowledges her, and recognizes
her independent personality.
It is not the tone of Islam that brands woman as the product of
the devil or the seed of evil. Nor does the Qur'an place man as
the dominant lord of woman who has no choice but to surrender to
his dominance. Nor was it Islam that introduced the question of
whether or not woman has any soul in her. Never in the history of
Islam has any Muslim doubted the human status of woman or her possession
of soul and other fine spiritual qualities. Unlike other popular
beliefs, Islam does not blame Eve alone for the First Sin. The Qur'an
makes it very clear that both Adam and Eve were tempted; that they
both sinned; that God's pardon was granted to both after their repentance;
and that God addressed them jointly. (2:35-36;7:19, 27; 20:117-123).
In fact the Qur'an gives the impression that Adam was more to blame
for that First Sin from which emerged prejudice against woman and
suspicion of her deeds. But Islam does not justify such prejudice
or suspicion because both Adam and Eve were equally in error, and
if we are to blame Eve we should blame Adam as much or even more.
The status of woman in Islam is something unique, something novel,
something that has no similarity in any other system. If we look
to the Eastern Communist world or to the democratic nations, we
find that woman is not really in a happy position. Her status is
not enviable. She has to work so hard to live, and sometimes she
may be doing the same job that a man does but her wage is less than
his. She enjoys a kind of liberty which in some cases amounts to
libertinism. To get to where she is nowadays, woman struggled hard
for decades and centuries. To gain the right of learning and the
freedom of work and earning, she had to offer painful sacrifices
and give up many of her natural rights. To establish her status
as a human being possessing a soul, she paid heavily. Yet in spite
of all these costly sacrifices and painful struggles, she has not
acquired what Islam has established by a Divine decree for the Muslim
The rights of woman of modern times were not granted voluntarily
or out of kindness to the female. Modern woman reached her present
position by force, and not through natural processes or mutual consent
or Divine teachings. She had to force her way, and various circumstances
came to her aid. Shortage of manpower during wars, pressure of economic
needs and requirements of industrial developments forced woman to
get out of her home - to work, to learn, to struggle for her livelihood,
to appear as an equal to man, to run her race in the course of life
side by side with him. She was forced by circumstances and in turn
she forced herself through and acquired her new status. Whether
all women were pleased with these circumstances being on their side,
and whether they are happy and satisfied with the results of this
course is a different matter. But the fact remains that whatever
rights modern woman enjoys fall short of those of her Muslim counterpart.
What Islam has established for woman is that which suits her nature,
gives her full security and protects her against disgraceful circumstances
and uncertain channels of life. We do not need here to elaborate
on the status of modern woman and the risks she runs to make her
living or establish herself. We do not even need to explore the
miseries and setbacks that encircle her as a result of the so-called
rights of woman. Nor do we intend to manipulate the situation of
many unhappy homes which break because of the very "freedom" and
"rights" of which modern woman is proud. Most women today exercise
the right of freedom to go out independently, to work and earn,
to pretend to be equal to man, but this, sadly enough, is at the
expense of their families. This all known and obvious. What is not
known is the status of woman in Islam. An attempt will be made in
the following passages to sum up the attitude of Islam with regard
Woman is recognized by Islam as a full and equal partner of man
in the procreation of humankind. He is the father; she is the mother,
and both are essential for life. Her role is not less vital than
his. By this partnership she has an equal share in every aspect;
she is entitled to equal rights; she undertakes equal responsibilities,
and in her there are as many qualities and as much humanity as there
are in her partner. To this equal partnership in the reproduction
of human kind God says:
O mankind! Verily We have created your from a single (pair)
of a male and a female,m and made you into nations and tribes
that you may know each other... (Qur'an, 49:13; cf. 4:1).
She is equal to man in bearing personal and common responsibilities
and in receiving rewards for her deeds. She is acknowl-edged as
an independent personality, in possession of human qualities and
worthy of spiritual aspirations. Her human nature is neither inferior
to nor deviant from that of man. Both are members of one another.
And their Lord has accepted (their prayers) and answered
them (saying): 'Never will I cause to be lost the work of any
of you, be he male or female; you are members, one of another...
(3:195; cf 9:71;33:35-36;66:19-21).
She is equal to man in the pursuit of education and knowledge.
When Islam enjoins the seeking of knowledge upon Muslims, it makes
no distinction between man and woman. Almost fourteen centuries
ago, Muhammad declared that the pursuit of knowledge is incumbent
on every Muslim male and female. This declaration was very clear
and was implemented by Muslims throughout history.
She is entitled to freedom of expression as much as man is. Her
sound opinions are taken into consideration and cannot be disregarded
just because she happen to belong to the female sex. It is reported
in the Qur'an and history that woman not only expressed her opinion
freely but also argued and participated in serious discussions with
the Prophet himself as well as with other Muslim leaders (Qur'an,
58:1-4; 60:10-12). Besides there were occasions when Muslim women
expressed their views on legislative matters of public interest,
and stood in opposition to the Caliphs, who then accepted the sound
arguments of these women. A specific example took place during the
Califate of Umar Ibn al-Khattab.
Historical records show that women participated in public life
with the early Muslims, especially in times of emergencies. Women
used to accompany the Muslim armies engaged in battles to nurse
the wounded, prepare supplies, serve the warriors, and so on. They
were not shut behind iron bars or considered worthless creatures
and deprived of souls.
Islam grants woman equal rights to contract, to enterprise, to
earn and possess independently. Her life, her property, her honor
are as sacred as those of man. If she commits any offense, her penalty
is no less or more than of man's in a similar case. If she is wronged
or harmed, she gets due compensations equal to what a man in her
position would get (2:178;4:45, 92-93).
Islam does not state these rights in a statistical form and then
relax. It has taken all measures to safeguard them and put them
into practice as integral articles of Faith. It never tolerates
those who are inclined to prejudice against woman or discrimination
between man and woman. Time and again, the Qur'an reproaches those
who used to believe woman to be inferior to man (16:57-59, 62; 42:47-59;
Apart from recognition of woman as an independent human being acknowledged
as equally essential for the survival of humanity, Islam has given
her a share of inheritance. Before Islam, she was not only deprived
of that share but was herself considered as property to be inherited
by man. Out of that transferable property Islam made an heir, acknowledging
the inherent human qualifies in woman. Whether she is a wife or
mother, a sister or daughter, she receives a certain share of the
deceased kin's property, a share which depends on her degree of
relationship to the deceased and the number of heirs. This share
is hers, and no one can take it away or disinherit her. Even if
the deceased wishes to deprive her by making a will to other relations
or in favor of any other cause, the Law will not allow him to do
so. Any proprietor is permitted to make his will within the limit
of one-third of his property, so he may not affect the rights of
his heirs, men and women. In the case of inheritance, the question
of quality and sameness is fully applicable. In principle, both
man and woman are equally entitled to inherit the property of the
deceased relations but the portions they get may vary. In some instances
man receives two shares whereas woman gets one only. This no sign
of giving preference or supremacy to man over woman.The reasons
why man gets more in these particular instances may be classified
First man, is the person solely responsible for the complete
maintenance of his wife, his family and any other needy relations.
It is his duty by Law to assume all financial responsibilities
and maintain his dependents adequately. It is also his duty
to contribute financially to all good causes in his society.
All financial burdens are borne by him alone.
Secondly, in contrast, woman has no financial responsibilities
whatsoever except very little of her personal expenses, the
high luxurious things that she likes to have. She is financially
secure and provided for. If she is a wife, her husband is the
provider; if she is a mother, it is the son; if she is a daughter,
it is the father; if she is a sister; it is the brother, and
so on. If she has no relations on whom she can depend, then
there is no question of inheritance because there is nothing
to inherit and there is no one to bequeath anything to her.
However, she will not be left to starve, maintenance of such
a woman is the responsibility of the society as a whole, the
state. She may be given aid or a job to earn her living, and
whatever money she makes will be hers. She is not responsible
for the maintenance of anybody else besides herself. If there
is a man in her position, he would still be responsible for
his family and possibly any of his relations who need his help.
So, in the hardest situation her financial responsi-bility is
limited, while his is unlimited.
Thirdly, when a woman gets less than a man does, she is not
actually deprived of anything that she has worked for. The property
inherited is not the result of her earning or her endeavors.
It is something coming to them from a neutral source, something
addition-al or extra. It is something that neither man or woman
struggled for. It is a sort of aid, and any aid has to be distributed
according to the urgent needs and responsibilities especially
when the distribution is regulated by the Law of God.
Now, we have a male heir, on one side, burdened with all kinds
of financial responsibilities and liabilities. We have, on the
other side, a female heir with no financial responsibilities
at all or at most with very little of it. In between we have
some property and aid to redistribute by way of inheritance.
If we deprive the female completely, it would be unjust to her
because she is related to the deceased. Likewise, if we always
give her a share equal to the man's, it would be unjust to him.
So, instead of doing injustice to either side, Islam gives the
man a larger portion of the inherited property to help him to
meet his family needs and social responsibilities. At the same
time, Islam has not forgotten her altogether, but has given
her a portion to satisfy her very personal needs. In fact, Islam
in this respect is being more kind to her than to him. Here
we can say that when taken as a whole the rights of woman are
equal to those of man although not necessarily identical (see
Qur'an, 4:11-14, 176).
In some instances of bearing witness to certain civil con-tracts,
two men are required or one man and two women. Again, this is no
indication of the woman being inferior to man. It is a measure of
securing the rights of the contracting parties, because woman as
a rule, is not so experienced in practical life as man. This lack
of experience may cause a loss to any party in a given contract.
So the Law requires that at least two women should bear witness
with one man. if a woman of the witness forgets something, the other
one would remind her. Or if she makes an error, due to lack of experience,
the other would help to correct her. This is a precautionary measure
to guarantee honest transactions and proper dealings between people.
In fact, it gives woman a role to play in civil life and helps to
establish justice. At any rate, lack of experience in civil life
does not necessarily mean that women is inferior to man in her status.
Every human being lacks one thing or another, yet no one questions
their human status (2:282).
Woman enjoys certain privileges of which man is deprived. She is
exempt from some religious duties, i.e., prayers and fasting, in
her regular periods and at times of confinement. She is exempt from
all financial liabilities. As a mother, she enjoys more recognition
and higher honor in the sight of God (31:14-15;46:15). The Prophet
acknowledged this honor when he declared that Paradise is under
the feet of the mothers. She is entitled to three-fourths of the
son's love and kindness with one-fourth left for their father. As
a wife she is entitled to demand of her prospective husband a suitable
dowry that will be her own. She is entitled to complete provision
and total maintenance by the husband. She does not have to work
or share with her husband the family expenses. She is free to retain,
after marriage, whatever she possessed before it, and the husband
has no right whatsoever to any of her belongings. As a daughter
or sister she is entitled to security and provision by the father
and brother respectively. That is her privilege. If she wishes to
work or be self-supporting and participate in handling the family
responsibilities, she is quite free to do so, provided her integrity
and honor are safeguarded.
The standing of woman in prayers behind man does not indicate in
any sense that she is inferior to him. Woman, as already mentioned,
is exempt from attending congregational prayers which are obligatory
on man. But if she does attend she stands in separate lines made
up of women exclusively . This is a regulation of discipline in
prayers, and not a classification of importance. In men's rows the
head of state stands shoulder to shoulder to the pauper. Men of
the highest ranks in society stand in prayer side by side with other
men of the lowest ranks. The order of lines in prayers is introduced
to help every one to concentrate in his meditation. It is very important
because Muslim prayers are not simply chanting or the sing-a-song
type. They involve actions, motions, standing, bowing, prostration,
etc. So if men mix with women in the same lines, it is possible
that something disturbing or distracting may happen. The mind will
become occupied by something alien to prayer and derailed from the
clear path of mediation. The result will be a loss of the purpose
of prayers, besides an offense of adultery committed by the eye,
because the eye-by looking at forbidden things - can be guilty of
adultery as much as the heart itself. Moreover, no Muslim man or
woman is allowed during prayers to touch the body of another person
of the opposite sex. If men and women stand side by side in prayer
they cannot avoid touching each other. Furthermore, when a woman
is praying in front of a man or beside him, it is very likely that
any part of her dressed body may become uncovered after a certain
motion of bowing or prostrating. The man's eye may happen to be
looking at the uncovered part, with the result that she will be
embarrassed and he will be exposed to distraction or possibly evil
thoughts. So, to avoid any embarrassment and distraction to help
concentrate on mediation and pure thoughts, to maintain harmony
and order among worshippers, to fulfill the true purposes of prayers,
Islam has ordained the organization of rows, whereby men stand in
front lines, and women behind the children. Anyone with some knowledge
of the nature and purpose of Muslim prayers can readily understand
the wisdom of organizing the lines of worshippers in this manner.
The Muslim woman is always associated with an old tradition known
as the "veil". It is Islamic that the woman should beautify herself
with the veil of honor, dignity, chastity, purity and integrity.
She should refrain from all deeds and gestures that might stir the
passions of people other than her legitimate husband or cause evil
suspicion of her morality. She is warned not to display her charms
or expose her physical attractions before strangers. The veil which
she must put on is one that can save her soul from weakness, her
mind from indulgence, her eyes from lustful looks, and her personality
from demoralization. Islam is most concerned with the integrity
of woman, with the safeguarding of her morals and morale and with
the protection of her character and personality (cf. Qur'an, 24:30-31).
By now it is clear that the status of woman in Islam is unprecedentedly
high and realistically suitable to her nature. Her rights and duties
are equal to those of man but not necessarily or absolutely identical
with them. If she is deprived of one thing in some aspect, she is
fully compensated for it with more things in many other aspects.
The fact that she belongs to the female sex has no bearing on her
human status or independent personality, and it is no basis for
justification of prejudice against her or injustice to her person.
Islam gives her as much as is required of her. Her rights match
beautifully with her duties. The balance between rights and duties
is maintained, and no side overweighs the other. The whole status
of woman is given clearly in the Qur'anic verse which may be translated
And women shall have rights similar to the rights against
them, according to what is equitable; but man have a degree (of
advantage as in some cases of inheritance) over them (2:228).
This degree is not a title of supremacy or an authorization of
dominance over her. It is to correspond with the extra responsibilities
of man and give him some compensation for his unlimited liabilities.
The above mentioned verse is always interpreted in the light of
It is these extra responsibilities that give man a degree over
woman in some economic aspects. It is not a higher degree in humanity
or in character. Nor is it a dominance of one over the other or
suppression of one by the other. It is a distribution of God's abundance
according to the needs of the nature of which God is the Maker.
And He knows best what is good for woman and what is good for man.
God is absolutely true when He declares:
mankind! reverence your Guardian-Lord, Who created you from a
single person, and created of like nature his mate, and from them
twain scattered (like seeds) countless men and women (4:1).