Literary Reflections, American Stories

'Women and Islam' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online

About This Resource

This article discusses women and Islam as background for several bookshelf selections, including Leila Ahmed's A Quiet Revolution, Fatima Mernissi's Dreams of Trespass, Hisham Matar's In the Country of Men, and Leila Aboulela's Minaret. The article by Soraya Altorki, Zayn Kassam, Valerie J. Hoffman-Ladd and Valentine M. Moghadam is reprinted from The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World in Oxford Islamic Studies Online.


This entry contains three subentries:


Role and Status of Women

The Qurʿān, Islam's holy book, changed women's status considerably from that of the pre-Islamic (jāhilīyah) period. Before Islam, both polyandrous and polygamous marriages were practiced, and matrilineal, uxorilocal marriages in which the woman remained with her tribe and the male either visited or resided with her were also quite common. Many women selected and divorced their own husbands, and women were neither veiled nor secluded; some were poets and others even fought in wars alongside men. As Leila Ahmed observes, while these “practices do not necessarily indicate the greater power of women or the absence of misogyny, they do correlate with women's enjoying greater sexual autonomy than they were allowed under Islam” (Ahmed, 1992, p. 42). Islam took away polyandrous marriages, and limited the number of female spouses to a maximum of four (Qurʿān 4:1) as early Arabian Muslims gradually moved from a matrilineal to a patrilineal society. The pre-Islamic practice of female infanticide was outlawed by the Qurʿān (81:8–9). The dower (mahr), which in pre-Islamic times was paid directly to a woman's male guardian (walī), was now made payable directly to the woman (4:3), who was also given the rights to inherit property (4:7).

Women's Status in the Qurʿān.

The creation of the female is attributed, along with that of the male, to a single soul (4:1) from which the other is created as its mate (4:1). Another verse declares: “Allah created you from dust, then from a little fluid, then He made you pairs” (35: 11). Thus, the Qurʿān grants both sexes equality from the perspective of origin and spiritual status. Men and women are equally accountable to God for their faith, actions, and moral behavior (33:35). However, from a contemporary perspective, such equality is not reflected in the social sphere, even though in its own time, the Qurʿān greatly advanced women's status. For instance, the Qurʿān entitled women to inherit (4:7), but only half the portions received by men (4:11); women were considered legal persons (long before they were in the Western hemisphere), but two women's testimonies counted in weight to that of a single male's (2:282), and women were given the right to economic security, but men were considered to “have preference over women” because they were made responsible for women's upkeep (4:34). In Islamic law, women are restricted to monogamy, which, while not specified in the Qurʿān, is implied in the injunction that “all married women” are forbidden to men (4:24). Men are allowed up to four wives on the condition that they are treated equally, followed by the comment that if men fear that they cannot do justice to that number, they should marry only one, or possess as many concubines as they can afford (“their right hand may possess”) (4:3). Men may marry any of the women of the ahl al-kitāb (peoples of the Book) (5:5) whereas women may marry only Muslim men (again, not a Qurʿānic injunction, but a traditional stipulation). Conjugal relations are forbidden with menstruating women (2:222), and otherwise, conjugal relations are permitted at will (2:223). Disobedient wives are subject to a graduated set of measures interpreted as ranging from admonishment to beating, depending on how the term daraba is interpreted (4:34). Should a conflict arise between the couple, then an arbiter from each one's kinsfolk should be appointed to attempt a reconciliation (4:35). According to the Qurʿān, men who forswear their wives must wait four months (2:226) during which they may change their minds; however, if divorce is determined as a course of action, then women must wait a term of three menses to ensure that they are not impregnated, in which case the husband is recommended to take them back (2:227). Should divorce nonetheless proceed, the wife is entitled to support till she gives birth (65:4), and if mutually agreeable, while she nurses (65:6).

Women in Muslim Culture.

Contemporary Muslim scholars such as Amina Wadud and Asma Barlas suggest that one should distinguish between Islam as religion and the differing cultural contexts in which Islam was revealed, institutionalized, and practiced. Islam as a religion refers to regulations pertaining to piety, ethics, and belief. These spiritual aspects of Islam are considered duties of worship (ʿibādāt) and hence called “roots” or “foundations” (uṣūl) of the faith, and include cardinal beliefs in Allāh's uniqueness, the final prophecy of Muḥammad and obligatory practices such as prayer, almsgiving, fasting, and the pilgrimage to Mecca. On this religious level, men and women are moral equals in the sight of God. Evidence for this is found in numerous Qurʿānic verses (2:187, 3:195, 4:1, 4:32, 9:71–72, 24:12, 30:21, 33:35–36, 40:40, 48:5, 57:12), which render the only distinction between women and men to be their piety (taqwā), not their sex. Islam as a culture refers to the ideas and practices of Muslims in the context of changing social, economic, and political circumstances. People not only worship God but also interact in social relationships (called muʿāmalāt, “transactions”). They make contracts, trade, fight, arbitrate disputes, collect taxes, and so on. Collectively, these constitute the furūʿ (the branches, or “superstructure”).

On this cultural level, women have not been treated as men's equals. Such inequality has evolved largely as an artifact of the preferences and actions of patriarchal authorities after the Prophet's death, including a number of rulers and administrators, most jurists, and some intellectuals. In many instances, their patriarchal “readings” of the Qurʿānic text were driven by the cultural contexts supplied by the expansion of Muslim rule over former Byzantine and Sassanid territories, where patriarchy was already a well-established form of social organization. Such authorities justified this system of inequality by drawing upon commentaries on certain verses of the Qurʿān and traditions of the Prophet, along with local practices, which were then inscribed into Islamic law. For instance, one of the earliest Qurʿānic commentators, al-Ṭabarī (d. 923 c.e.) imported the biblical account found in Gen 2:20–22 in which the woman was created from Adam's rib, hence making the creation of the female secondary and in service to the male in contrast to the Qurʿān's more egalitarian assertion. He also draws upon traditions that blame the woman for Adam's downfall, despite lack of evidence for the woman's responsibility in the Qurʿān, and thereby conceptualized women as less rational and more morally reprehensible than men. Such essentialized sexual differentiation then became the basis for personal laws developed by the legal schools. Thus, a number of nineteenth- and twentieth-century political leaders, government bureaucrats, intellectuals, leaders of women's movements, and a minority of ʿulamāʿ (religious scholars), believe that the Qurʿān itself does not support later categorical claims that justify women's inequality in Islam.

Qurʿānic verses do assign women's testimony half the value of men's; permit men to unilaterally divorce their wives; deny women custody rights over their children after they reach a certain age; permit polygyny; and favor men over women respecting inheritance. However, stipulations in the Qurʿān itself and existing legal principles adduced by jurists may be invoked to maintain that, since the social, cultural, and economic context of those verses has changed, the sanction for gender inequality is no longer legitimate. For instance, scholars such as Wadud-Muhsin argue that “each new Islamic society must understand the principles intended by the particulars… which were manifestations particular to that [that is, seventh-century Arabian] context” (Wadud-Muhsin, 1994, pp. 9–10).

Contemporary woman-friendly scholars support their arguments by reference to the holy text itself. For instance, Allāh says in the Qurʿān that a people's condition will not be changed until they change what is in themselves (13:11). According to contemporary scholars, this verse, as well as a sound tradition ascribed to the Prophet stating that “as for matters of your world, you know better” calls upon Muslims to use their intrinsic endowment of reason to maximize their welfare. Thus, it would be offensive to human reason to accept gender inequality when Allāh enjoins the spiritual equality of all Muslims; moreover, Barlas argues that God cannot be accused of misogyny or maltreatment of women, which can never be justified on the basis of God's self-revelation, the Qurʿān. Jurists have over the centuries employed a number of legal devices that vindicate the use of reason in pursuing the welfare of Muslims, including:

1. public interest (al-maslahah al-mursalah);2. the common expression, “necessities make permissible what are forbidden” (al-darūrāt tubīhu al-mahzūrāt); and 3. the application of discretion (istihsān) in reaching a ruling. Careful attention to lexical meanings of a term also suggest that a Qurʿānic verse such as 4:34, which says that men are preferred over (qawwamūna ʿala) women, could also be read as saying that men are a support to women, and the term darabah, which has commonly been understood as “beating,” may also be understood as “setting an example.” In addition, such scholars argue, it must be determined whether a Qurʿānic verse has placed a limitation on itself; for instance, 4:3 makes polygyny applicable only to the (female) orphans under one's care, not to all Muslim women. Moreover, not only does the Qurʿān make polygyny conditional on equitable treatment for all wives (4:3) but explicitly asserts such treatment to be impossible (4:129).

Many Muslims claim that the Qurʿān and sunnah (practice of the Prophet) mandate veiling and seclusion. However, some scholars believe such arguments are tendentious. Of the seven Qurʿānic verses using the word “veil” (ḥijāb), six were revealed at Mecca (7:46, 17:45, 19:17, 38:32, 41:5, 42:51), and none of them refer to veiling Muslim women. The seventh verse (33:53), revealed at Medina, requests male guests to address the Prophet's wives “from behind a ḥijāb” when they ask something of them. Although the verse does not pertain to Muslim women in general, some Muslims argue that what applies to the Prophet's wives, exemplars of chastity, inheres all the more for Muslim women, on the assumption that they are less chaste. The ḥijāb in the verse is clearly intended to be a curtain rather than a head-covering, and may have led to the seclusion of the Prophet's wives. However, medieval Islamic commentators coupled this verse with verses specifying general Muslim women's clothing (24:30–31), in which women are asked to draw their scarves (khumūr) over their bosoms (juyūb), to enable Muslim women in ʿAbbāṣid times to emulate the cultural tradition of veiling and seclusion observed by Byzantine and Persian upper-class women. Qurʿānic scholars such as al-Wāḥidī, in his Asbāb al-nuzūl, and others maintain that the reference in 24:31 to khumūr that should cover both head and bosom was based on the need to differentiate among free women and slaves. The story is told of the caliph ʿUmar who slapped a female slave for wearing such a scarf. Thus, some Muslims argue that if scarves were used to distinguish free women from slaves, then the abolition of slavery in the contemporary times has eliminated this reason for covering oneself. 

In contemporary times, the veil has made a comeback as Muslim women are exhorted to take it on as a sign of their piety and to express through their clothing, their proud identity as Muslims in a postcolonial era. Such calls for the pious display of faith may be understood in part as a struggle for cultural nativism in the face of an ever-globalizing American culture, preceded by Western colonization. The colonial British identification of Muslim backwardness with the seclusion and veiling of women has, in a reverse move, made veiling (and not necessarily seclusion) the signifier of all that is forward in Islamic culture, where the woman is valued for her mind and her morals rather than for the amount of skin she shows. Veiling has allowed women to enter the public sphere without fear of retribution for entering previously male-dominated spaces, whether they are in the street or in the boardroom. With steady increases in women's education and employment, and as more women enter the legal and public professions, legal and cultural impediments barring women from assuming equality have been challenged. This is nowhere more apparent than in countries such as Iran, where public debates in print and in parliament question attitudes and laws that keep women out of public office, and in Pakistan, where challenges to legal regimes such as the Hudud Ordinances are being vigorously voiced.

The Qurʿān does not support or assert notions of inherent female inferiority, nor can women be judged less rational, more emotional, or less competent than men on the basis of the Qurʿān. Certain ḥadīths are sometimes cited to the effect that the Prophet regarded women as incapable of leadership. However, some scholars doubt the veracity of a number of these traditions and believe that they were invented by later generations to justify restrictions on the activities of women. Indeed, many ḥadīths offer evidence that the Prophet consulted women and weighed their opinions seriously. Ibn Ḥanbal, founder of one of the four Sunnī schools of law, notes that at least one woman, Umm Waraqah, was appointed as the imam or leader of prayers for her household by the Prophet. Historical and canonical records demonstrate women's important and respected role in Muslim life, as reflected in the story of an older woman who corrected the authoritative ruling (fatwā) of the second caliph ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb on the dower (mahr). They cite the fact that women prayed in mosques unsegregated from men, and were involved in the transmittal of ḥadīths (Ibn Saʿd, the famous early biographer, records seven hundred cases of women who performed this important function). Biographies of distinguished women, especially in the Prophet's household, show that women behaved autonomously in early Islam. The women about whom most data are available are Khadījah, the Prophet's first wife; ʿĀʿishah, his favorite wife; Fāṭimah, his youngest daughter; Zaynab, his granddaughter; Sukaynah, his great-granddaughter; and ʿĀʿishah bint Ṭalḥah, the niece of her namesake. Women were known to give sanctuary (jiwār) to men. Women owned and disposed of property and engaged in commercial transactions, and wealthy women in the Islamic medieval period patronized large-scale architectural projects. Like men, women were encouraged to seek knowledge, which, indeed, they pursued in the Prophet's own home, and women have been identified both as instructors and pupils throughout Islamic history. The Prophet's favorite wife, ʿĀʿishah, was a well-known authority in medicine, history, and rhetoric and is noted for the number of ḥadīths that cite her as a source.

As to politics, the Qurʿān refers to women who, independently of their male kin, pledged the oath of allegiance (bayʿah) to the Prophet (60:12). Additional examples of women choosing to make such pledges to the Prophet, often before their men did, occurred at al-ʿAqabah, al-Riḍwān, and al-Shajarah. Caliph ʿUmar appointed women to serve as officials (muḥtasibs) in the market of Medina, and Ḥanbalī jurisprudence upholds the qualifications of women to serve as judges. Examples of women's involvement in politics as well as governance are found in almost every century, among the most notable being Sitt al-Mulk (tenth century), the Ṣulayḥīd queen Sayyidah al-Ḥurrah (eleventh century), Shajarat al-Durr and Rādīyah Sultānah Sulṭāna (both thirteenth century), the Indonesian queens of Aceh (seventeenth century), and various female Muslim heads of state in the contemporary period in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Indonesia.

Role and Status in Various Muslim Lands.

The seclusion and confinement of women in urban settings prevailed without significant change until the early twentieth century, but numerous attempts to modify personal status law have been made since then. These include the Ottoman Empire (1917), Algeria (1984), Egypt (1920, 1929, 1979, and 1985), India (1937, 1939, and 1976), Iran (1967, 1975, and 1979), Iraq (1959, 1963, and 1986), Jordan (1951 and 1976), Kuwait (1982), Morocco (1958), Pakistan (1961), South Yemen (1974), Sudan (1915, 1927, 1932, 1933, 1935, 1960, and 1969), Syria (1953 and 1975), Tunisia (1956, 1957, 1964, 1966, and 1981), and Turkey (1924).

Before the early twentieth century, the state left control over women and the family in the hands of patriarchal kinship groups and to Islamic sharīʿah courts, both of which conceptualized the law based on sexual differences. In contrast to its highly interventionist behavior in Islamic civil, commercial, and penal law, the state declined the very risky enterprise of tampering with personal status regulations, the very core of Muslim (masculine) identity. The patriarchal control of women's behavior and the family unit were central to the construction of this identity. Ultimately, however, the state's reluctance began to give way, not least because of the pressure brought to bear by women's groups under the leadership of prominent women in countries such as Egypt and throughout the Ottoman Empire, and also as a result of pressures to modernize the labor market in an increasingly globalized economy.

In the past, inquiries into the role of women and the family often overemphasized the content of sacred texts, assuming these texts were the driving force behind people's behavior. In reaction to this “essentialist” approach, some scholars have stressed the relevance of conditions in “civil society” (for example, class differences) for understanding women's subordinate status. More recently, it has been suggested that neither the “sacred texts” nor the “civil society” approach are in themselves sufficient to explain the content of personal status legislation at any given time because they ignore the state's autonomy in pursuing its own economic and political agenda in this area.

For instance, the state has broadened its base of support by enfranchising women, in the process weaning them away from the kinship groups that traditionally have controlled them and redirecting their terminal loyalties to itself. Iran and Turkey at various times in this century exemplify this pattern. However, in doing this the state risks the growing disenchantment of more traditional Muslim scholars, who generally view such developments to be “anti-Islamic.” Thus, the state may attempt to conciliate such groups by enforcing modesty codes or curtailing women's public presence. Post-1979 Pakistan and Iran, and Egypt after 1985, provide relevant examples of such conduct.

In balancing the conflicting demands of women and traditionalists, the state has generally followed a cautious policy of reform. Such reforms have made polygynous marriages more difficult or abolished them outright (notably in Turkey, Tunisia, and Syria); permitted wives to sue for divorce by having recourse to religious courts, especially in cases of cruelty, desertion, or dangerous contagious disease; provided women with the right to contract themselves in marriage; required husbands to find housing for a divorced wife during her custody over children; increased the minimum marital age of 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 their marriage upon reaching majority; enhanced the rights of women in regard to child custody; and allowed women to write clauses into marriage contracts limiting their husbands’ authority over them, for example, by his ex ante grant to his wife of the right to divorce him.


The Qurʿān improved women's status relative to the pre-Islamic period by emphasizing the ontological and spiritual equality of women and men. Although certain social and economic regulations in the scripture seemingly favor men, the conditions prevailing at the time of the revelation, which seemed to justify such inequality, have lapsed. The Qurʿān itself provides mechanisms for a fresh interpretation of women's roles and status. Twentieth-century reforms in personal status law, achieved through recourse to such instruments and arguments, have gradually moved in the direction of gender equality, but a certain degree of backsliding has occurred as a consequence of the rise of ideologies reinscribing patriarchal control over women's dress, comportment, and desired equity before the law in a platform that includes a sometimes unyielding, even violent, confrontation with the state (itself at times co-opted) and reformist groups.


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Soraya Altorki Updated by Zayn Kassam

Women's Religious Observances

Although women and men are assigned the same religious duties and promised the same spiritual rewards in the Qurʿān, social conventions, illiteracy, and Islamic requirements of ritual purity have all tended to restrict women's access to many aspects of Islamic religious life. These restrictions are not uniform across the Muslim world, and neither are women's responses to them. Regional variations in women's religious lives have not been sufficiently documented to make it possible to provide a truly balanced description of women's religious observances. Furthermore, social changes in this century have radically altered the situation of women in society, opening new opportunities for women in the religious domain as well.

Women and Basic Islamic Obligations.

Although women are expected to perform the five daily prayers and the Ramadan fast, they may not pray, fast, or touch (or even, according to some interpretations, recite) the Qurʿān during menstruation or postpartum bleeding. According to ḥadīth, the exemption during menstruation denotes women's religious deficiency (just as the devaluation of their legal testimony, worth only half that of a man, denotes their mental deficiency). Women are rendered much more susceptible to ritual impurity than men, not only by menstruation and childbirth but also through their contact with young children, who may soil them. Although not required to fast while pregnant or nursing a baby, many women do observe the fast during these times, either totally or partially. Days of fasting that are missed because of these exemptions must be made up for later.

Congregational prayer is said to be twenty-seven times more meritorious than prayer performed alone, and ḥadīths from the Prophet enjoin men not to forbid women from praying in the mosque. Still, other ḥadīths encourage women to pray in their homes. In the Prophet's day, women performed the dawn prayer in rows behind the men, and, according to ḥadīth, left the mosque before the men. Thus, theoretically, all contact between the sexes was avoided. During the caliphate of ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb (r. 634–644), women prayed in a separate room of the mosque with their own imam. Previously women had gathered for social purposes in the mosque as well, but ʿUmar forbade this activity and, according to al-Ghazālī (d. 1111), women were banned from the mosque altogether in the generation after the Prophet. Al-Ghazālī justified this reversal of the Prophet's edict by claiming that widespread moral deterioration made public spaces unsafe for any but elderly women, encouraging women not to leave their homes for any reason.

Ethnographic studies from a number of different Islamic countries indicate that women are commonly regarded as the initiators of illicit sexual relationships, and their presence in public is considered a source of temptation and social discord. The exclusion of women is thus considered necessary to preserve the holiness and dignity of religious ceremonies. For instance, the Friday noon prayer in the mosque is mandatory for men, but not for women, and according to Edward Lane, no women or young boys were allowed to be present in the mosque at any time of prayer. Although many mosques have segregated spaces for women, whether curtained areas, separate rooms, or balconies, mosques have until recently been considered male spaces to which a proper woman would not go. However, the Islamic resurgence that has swept the Muslim world since the 1970s, enlisting the active involvement of women, has helped change such attitudes. Most recently-constructed mosques provide considerably more space for women than earlier ones. However, the actual spatial arrangement of the architecture reinforces women's marginality to life in the mosque, often isolating them in areas where they cannot see or hear the imam or preacher.

In the pilgrimage to Mecca, on the other hand, the sexes are not segregated, and Islamic law stipulates that women not veil their faces during the pilgrimage. This integration of the sexes also occurs during festivities at saints’ shrines, indicating that at the loci of most intense holiness and access to God, one is in a liminal state where gender barriers collapse.

Religious Education for Women.

Women have always played a role in the transmission of religious knowledge. The role of ʿĀʿishah, Muḥammad's youngest wife, as a transmitter of ḥadīth was so important that Muḥammad is said to have told the Muslims they would receive half their religion from a woman. Muḥammad himself provided religious lessons for women, although later Muslims often complained that education would be used by women for unholy ends. Literacy was a rare achievement for women in later medieval Muslim society. Throughout Islamic history, some daughters of wealthy families have been favored with a private education in the home. More often, women were excluded from formal education, although women might serve as patrons or even supervisors of educational institutions. The Ḥanbalī jurist Ibn Taymīyah of Syria (d. 1328) lists two women among his teachers, and some female descendants of the Prophet, such as his granddaughter Zaynab and his great-great-great-great-granddaughter Nafīsah, are recognized as women of learning and wisdom, as well as piety. Although schools for girls in subjects such as midwifery, crafts, and housekeeping skills opened in the nineteenth century in many countries, and since independence secular education has been made available to girls as well as to boys throughout most of the Islamic world, religious education has lagged behind. Occasionally, women have become recognized as distinguished religious scholars through their writings alone, without attending institutions of higher Islamic education. ʿĀʿishah ʿAbd al-Raḥmān, the Egyptian Qurʿān exegete, and Khānum-i Amīn, the Iranian mujtahid, are examples. As part of Egyptian president Nasser's revamping of the Islamic University of al-Azhar, a College for Girls was opened in 1962, and graduates in the field of religion have been employed as teachers in religion classes in public schools. Al-Azhar began a limited program to train women as preachers in 1988. Women are not generally deemed fit to teach men, so it is assumed that these women are being trained only to serve women's religious needs. In Iran, religious schools in the holy city of Qom were opened to girls in 1976. However, private education and apprenticeship has produced innumerable women who serve as Qurʿān reciters in both Sunnī and Shīʿī communities, and as leaders of women's gatherings to commemorate the martyrdom of the imams among the Shīʿī.

Ṣūfī Orders.

Mysticism is by definition a sphere that depends more on individual reputation for holiness and receptivity to spiritual impulses than on literacy and institutional certification. It is therefore not surprising that Sufism has been more open to women than have the more legalistic and scholastic dimensions of Islamic religious life. The most famous Ṣūfī woman is Rābiʿah al-ʿAdawīyah (d. 801), credited with introducing the concept of selfless love into Sufism. Her poems of love for God have inspired mystics to the present day, and Ṣūfī tradition depicts her outwitting her male colleagues. She is listed alongside the men in Farīḍ al-Dīn ʿAṭṭār's (d. 1220) Ṣūfī biographical dictionary, because “when a woman becomes a ‘man’ in the path of God, she is a man and one cannot any more call her a woman” (ʿAṭṭār, p. 40). Rābiʿah is not unique in Ṣūfī tradition. Javād Nūrbakhsh has translated into English the brief biographies of some 124 Ṣūfī women, including Fāṭimah of Nishapur (d. 838), who was described by Dhū al-Nūn al-Miṣrī as the highest among the Ṣūfīs of his age. The great mystic Ibn ʿArabī (d. 1240) lists two women among his teachers and claims that the most perfect contemplation of God for a man is in woman.

In spite of its greater hospitality to female participants, Ṣūfī tradition is not uniform in its praise of women. Al-Ghazālī (d. 1111) scarcely speaks of women in the mystical path except as assets or obstacles to the spiritual life of men. Although Muslim tradition recommends marriage, in imitation of the example of the Prophet, the Ṣūfī al-Hujwīrī (d. about 1071) held celibacy to be the ideal, declaring that all the evils in the world had been caused by women.

Celibacy and rigorous fasting were practiced by many early Ṣūfīs. In addition to aiding in the training of the soul and spiritual concentration, these may have been tools for women to avoid ritual impurity—refusing intercourse and childbirth through celibacy, preventing menstruation by fasting—and thereby guarantee uninterrupted access to God.

Ṣūfī shaykhs were the most effective religious teachers in Muslim society and often served as popular counselors and healers, so it is not surprising that they touched the feminine world more than the mosque-centered sphere of religious scholars. Some Ṣūfī shaykhs in the Mamlūk and Ottoman periods admitted women into their orders, although their participation in the orders and in dhikr, the distinctive Ṣūfī ritual of chanting the names of God with special breath control and movement, was controversial. Women sometimes founded Ṣūfī retreat houses for men as a pious act. Annemarie Schimmel documents an Anatolian woman of the late fourteenth century who was head of a Ṣūfī retreat center with male disciples. A Ṣūfī retreat house for women was established in Cairo in Mamlūk times in honor of a prominent woman Ṣūfī, Zaynab Fāṭimah bint ʿAbbās (late thirteenth–early fourteenth century), and according to Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī, there were women shaykhs and scholars of the law, most of them divorcees, who lived in extreme abstinence and worship in Ṣūfī hospices. In contrast to early Sufism, it seems that in the later medieval period only women who had already completed their duty of marriage were free to devote themselves to the mystical life.

Moroccan and Algerian orders frequently have women's auxiliaries with female leadership, and in many countries women's organizations with female leadership complement those of men. In contemporary Egypt, however, concerns with propriety in the face of reformist criticisms of Sufism have led to the official banning of female membership by the Supreme Council of Ṣūfī Orders, a government-sponsored body. Women nonetheless continue to participate in all aspects of life in many Egyptian Ṣūfī orders. Some women become recognized as “spiritual mothers” to both men and women, or as heirs of the “spiritual secrets” of their fathers who were shaykhs. In this latter case, the official position of shaykh is inherited by the deceased's eldest son, although actual spiritual leadership may be exercised by the daughter. In some Egyptian orders, women participate in dhikr on a par with men, but in many orders, and in society at large, it is considered improper for a woman to expose herself by rising to join a dhikr. Women who do so often shroud their faces, but more often women participate silently, sitting among the observers. When women do participate in dhikr, they are rarely as vocal as men, and use smaller, more contained movements. This is in marked contrast to Shīʿī commemorative assemblies in Iran, in which the women are said to be more emotionally expressive than the men. Women seem to be caught between competing social norms that say, on the one hand, that they are more emotional than men and, on the other hand, dictate that they suppress all public displays of emotion.

In Egypt, and probably in other places as well, some Ṣūfīs believe that once they have entered into the spirit, they may transcend the barriers of the flesh; “male” and “female” become meaningless categories. Ṣūfīs in such a state may exercise freedom in interpersonal relations between the sexes, a sanction considered shocking to the society at large. Ṣūfīs are sometimes criticized as immoral for the way in which men and women mingle at their ceremonies, and women sometimes avoid saints’-day celebrations because of the dangers presented to their modesty by the dense crowds.

Saints and Spirits.

Whereas ordinary mosques are usually regarded as male spaces, saints’ shrines are traditionally open to women. Saints are men and women who are popularly recognized as walīs (friends of God). They are believed to be able to intercede with God on behalf of the faithful, and miracles occur at their hands. After their deaths, their tombs or reputed tombs become shrines and places of refuge for their devotees and other troubled individuals. Because they are, in some sense, champions of the downtrodden, and because the rituals surrounding their cult require no education, women are frequent visitors to their shrines, where they feel themselves able to plead with the saints on a par with men. Fatima Mernissi wrote that saints’ shrines in Morocco are more like a social space for women than a religious space where prayers are made, and that male visitors may feel like intruders. This is not the case in Egypt, where shrines are definitely sacred space in which it is considered appropriate to pray, and where women are seldom in the majority. Women are indeed very much in evidence—even in the small towns of Upper (southern) Egypt, where women are kept veiled and secluded, they might feel free to sit in the vicinity of the tomb, nursing their babies—but in some shrines special rooms are designated for women to prevent them from sitting by the tomb. The country's most important shrine of all, that of the Prophet's grandson Ḥusayn, does not allow women to enter after sunset.

Some shrines cater specifically to women's needs, such as fertility. In India, some Muslim saints’ shrines are designated as women's shrines, while others are for men. In Iran and Iraq, Shīʿī women visiting the tombs of the martyred imams acquire a prestige similar to those performing the pilgrimage. The great saint's-day festivals (mawlids) that commemorate particular saints, usually on the anniversary of their death, form the major focus of Ṣūfī devotion in Egypt, as Ṣūfīs travel from one such festival to another, setting up hospitality stations and performing dhikr. During the mawlid of Sayyid Aḥmad al-Badawī in Tanta, in the Egyptian Delta, the entire floor of the vast mosque associated with his shrine is transformed into a campground inhabited by a crowd of men, women, and children, without any segregation of the sexes. The activities at saints’ shrines are a popular target of reformist criticism, and frequently the presence of women is deemed inappropriate, both for considerations of modesty and because the Prophet allegedly prohibited women from visiting tombs. The practice of saint-shrine veneration has its defenders, however, who rely on the same type of scriptural sources used by its critics. Regardless of this criticism, the visitation of saints’ shrines has formed an essential component of the religious lives of women all over the Muslim world.

Women in many countries participate in spirit possession cults such as the zār of North and East Africa and the bori of West Africa. These cults are based on the assumption that both physical and emotional illness may be caused by spirits, whose anger must be appeased through the hosting of a feast and the performance of dances peculiar to the spirit in question. They often have both male and female functionaries, and the power and wealth of the “priestesses” may be considerable. Although the cults are non-Islamic in origin, the scripturally endorsed belief in spirits and their effects on humans make Islam a hospitable environment for the introduction and spread of such cults. Public zārs in Egypt utilize male musical troupes singing praises to the Prophet in Ṣūfī style, and some of the spirits are those of great Muslim saints. Women zār musicians use a more African beat. Public criticism of the zār cult in Egypt has been vociferous enough that even illiterate women are aware of it.

Twentieth-Century Developments.

Religious re-formers of all types have criticized the saint cult as idolatrous and the spirit cults as un-Islamic. The hue of illegitimacy has been cast over the very aspects of Islamic religious life that have traditionally been most open to women. In his book The Emancipation of Women (1899), the Egyptian judge Qāsim Amīn (d. 1908) urged that women be educated in order to dispel the myths and superstitions they supposedly perpetuate among the young, and the Syrian-born writer Rashīd Riḍā (d. 1935) urged in his journal, Al-manār, that women be integrated into orthodox religious life, as they were in the days of the Prophet. Throughout the twentieth century, independently founded Islamic voluntary associations have assumed the task of providing religious education for women, in addition to offering courses in literacy and crafts. The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928 by Ḥasan al-Bannā in Egypt, had a women's auxiliary, the Muslim Sisters, which never succeeded on the level of its male counterpart. Zaynab al-Ghazālī founded the Muslim Women's Association in 1936 as an Islamic response to the Egyptian Feminist Union. Today there are approximately fourteen thousand Islamic voluntary associations in Egypt, and many of them offer religious classes for women. In addition, many government-operated mosques offer religious lessons to women. In many cases, the teachers are themselves women, although male instructors continue to predominate.

The university-centered Islamist movement that has swept the Muslim world since the 1970s has garnered the support of many women as participants and propagandists. Women in the movement wear Islamic dress, a loose-fitting garment that covers the entire body except the face and hands. Although Islamic dress was an anomaly when it appeared in the early 1970s, by 1980 it became the uniform of the aggressively religious woman. The women who wear this dress are usually well educated, often in the most prestigious university faculties of medicine, engineering, and the sciences, and their dress signifies that although they pursue an education and career in the public sphere, they are religious, moral women. Whereas other women are frequently harassed in public places, such women are honored and even feared. By the late 1980s, Islamic dress had become the norm for middle-class women who do not want to compromise their reputation by their public activities. Boutiques offer Parisian-style fashions adapted to Islamic modesty standards, thereby subverting somewhat the original intent of the movement.

Despite the high visibility of female participation in the Islamist movement throughout the Muslim world, it espouses a conservative ideology regarding women's social roles, idealizing their importance as mothers and stressing allegedly innate gender differences that make work outside the home unsuitable for women. This rhetoric, both incorporatist and exclusionary, may appeal to women who are doubly burdened when they take on jobs outside the home, perhaps out of economic necessity, and feel degraded by their “public” conditions. The Islamic movement also encourages women to struggle on behalf of Islam as their counterparts did in early Islam. The contradictory rhetoric of the Islamic movement has been particularly effective in Iran, where women have been incorporated into a nationalist movement through symbolic appeals to female purity, while at the same time employment and educational opportunities for women have been curtailed since the Revolution and modesty norms have been strictly enforced. Although the rank-and-file of the Islamic movement includes many women, its leadership remains largely male. Zaynab al-Ghazālī of Egypt is one of the few women to attain prominence as an Islamic activist.


  • Abbas, Shemeem Burney. The Female Voice in Sufi Ritual: Devotional Practices of Pakistan and India. Austin, Tex., 2002.
  • ʿAṭṭār, Farīḍ al-Dīn. Muslim Saints and Mystics.Translated from the Persian by A. J. Arberry. Oxford, 1966.
  • Azari, Farah, ed.Women of Iran: The Conflict with Fundamentalist Islam. London, 1983. Provocative set of articles by Iranian Muslims critical of the Islamic regime as oppressive to women.
  • Bellhassen, Souhayr. “Femmes tunisiennes islamistes.”Annuaire de l’Afrique du Nord, 1979, pp. 77–94. Paris, 1980. One of the few studies that includes interviews with ordinary women participating in an Islamic movement.
  • Berkey, Jonathan P. “Women and Islamic Education in the Mamlūk Period.” In Women in Middle Eastern History: Shifting Boundaries in Sex and Gender, edited by Nikki R. Keddie and Beth Baron, pp. 143–157. New Haven, Conn., and London, 1991.
  • Betteridge, Anne H.“The Controversial Vows of Urban Muslim Women in Iran.” In Unspoken Worlds: Women's Religious Lives in Non-Western Cultures, edited by Nancy E. Auer Falk and Rita M. Gross, pp. 141–155. San Francisco, 1980.
  • Clancy-Smith, Julia. “The House of Zainab: Female Authority and Saintly Succession.” In Women in Middle Eastern History: Shifting Boundaries in Sex and Gender, edited by Nikki R. Keddie and Beth Baron, pp. 254–274. New Haven, Conn., and London, 1991. On a woman who became a Ṣūfī shaykh in colonial Algeria.
  • Dwyer, Daisy Hilse. “Women, Sufism, and Decision-Making in Moroccan Islam.” In Women in the Muslim World, edited by Lois Beck and Nikki R. Keddie, pp. 585–598. Cambridge, Mass., 1978. Information on women's auxiliaries in the Ṣūfī orders, and the influence wives have on the affiliation of their husbands with particular orders.
  • El Guindi, Fadwa. “The Emerging Islamic Order: The Case of Egypt's Contemporary Islamic Movement.”Journal of Arab Affairs1 (1981): 245–261. Reprinted in Political Behavior in the Arab States, edited by Tawfic E. Farah, pp. 55–66. Boulder, Colo., 1983.
  • Elias, Jamal. “Female and Feminine in Islamic Mysticism.”Muslim World78 (1988): 210–211.
  • Farah, Madelain. Marriage and Sexuality in Islam: A Translation of al-Ghazālī's Book on the Etiquette of Marriage from the Iḥyāʿ. Salt Lake City, Utah, 1984.
  • Fernea, Elizabeth W, and Robert A. Fernea. “Variation in Religious Observance among Islamic Women.” In Scholars, Saints, and Sufis: Muslim Religious Institutions since 1500, edited by Nikki R. Keddie, pp. 385–401. Berkeley, 1972.
  • Friedl, Erika. “Islam and Tribal Women in a Village in Iran.” In Unspoken Worlds: Women's Religious Lives in Non-Western Cultures, edited by Nancy E. Auer Falk and Rita M. Gross, pp. 159–173. San Francisco, 1980.
  • Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck, Jane I. Smith, and Kathleen M. Moore, eds.Muslim Women in America: The Challenge of Islamic Identity Today. New York, 2006.
  • Haeri, Shahla. “Obedience vs. Autonomy: Women and Fundamentalism in Iran and Pakistan.” In Fundamentalisms and Society: Reclaiming the Sciences, the Family, and Education, edited by Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, pp. 181–213. Chicago, 1993. Rare comparative essay on the presentation of women by Islamic activists in two different countries, one Shīʿī and one Sunnī. Particularly good regarding the use of important early female figures as models of courage and heroism in Iran.
  • Hoffman-Ladd, Valerie J.“Mysticism and Sexuality in Sufi Thought and Life.”Mystics Quarterly18 (1992): 82–93. Women and sexuality in early and medieval Sufism, highlighting the writings of Ibn ʿArabī.
  • Hoffman-Ladd, Valerie J.“Polemics on the Modesty and Segregation of Women in Contemporary Egypt.”International Journal of Middle East Studies19, no. 1 (February 1987): 23–50. Discussion of Islamist perspectives on women's participation in public life.
  • Hoffman-Ladd, Valerie J.Sufism, Mystics, and Saints in Modern Egypt. Columbia, S.C., forthcoming. Includes a chapter on women and sexuality in the Ṣūfī orders of Egypt.
  • Hujwīrī, ʿAlī ibn ʿUsmān. The Kashf al-Maḥjūb:The Oldest Persian Treatise on Sufiism. Translated by R. A. Nicholson.2d ed.London, 1976.
  • Ibn al-ʿArabī. The “Rūh al-quds” and “al-Durrat al-fākhirah.”Translated by R. W. J. Austin. London, 1971.
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  • Macleod, Arlene Elowe. Accommodating Protest: Working Women, the New Veiling, and Change in Cairo. New York, 1991. Excellent study of the social milieu of the lower middle class in Cairo that leads ordinary women to don Islamic dress.
  • Mahmood, Saba. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton, N.J., 2005.
  • Mernissi, Fatima. “Women, Saints, and Sanctuaries.”Signs: Journal of Women in Society and Culture," 3 (1977): 101–112.
  • Nelson, Cynthia. “Self, Spirit Possession, and World View: An Illustration from Egypt. International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 17 (1971): 194–209. On the zār in Egypt.
  • Nūrbakhsh, Javād. Sufi Women. New York, 1983. Biographies of some 124 Ṣūfī women, translated into English.
  • Rosen, Lawrence. “The Negotiation of Reality: Male-Female Relations in Sefrou, Morocco.” In Women in the Muslim World, edited by Lois Beck and Nikki R. Keddie, pp. 561–584. Cambridge, Mass., 1978.
  • Saunders, Lucie Wood. “Variants in Zār Experience in an Egyptian Village.” In Case Studies in Spirit Possession, edited by Vincent Crapanzano and Vivian Garrison, pp. 177–193. New York, 1977.
  • Schimmel, Annemarie. Mystical Dimensions of Islam. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1975. See Appendix II, “The Feminine Element in Sufism.”
  • Schimmel, Annemarie. “Women in Mystical Islam.” Women's Studies International Forum, 5 (1982): 148.
  • Sharīʿatī, ʿAlī. Fatima Is Fatima. Translated by Laleh Bakhtiar. Tehran, 1981. Important revisionist interpretation of women's role in society, by the man who inspired many young Iranian intellectuals to seek an Islamically oriented society in the decade before the revolution.
  • Smith, Jane I, and Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad.“Women in the Afterlife: The Islamic View as Seen from Qurʿan and Tradition.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 43 (1975): 39–50.
  • Tabari, Azar, and Nahid Yeganeh, eds.In the Shadow of Islam: The Women's Movement in Iran. London, 1982. Collection of translations from a variety of primary sources relevant to the status of women and feminism in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
  • Winter, Michael. Society and Religion in Early Ottoman Egypt: Studies in the Writings of ʿAbd al-Wahhāb al-Shaʿrānī. New Brunswick, N.J., 1982. Contains interesting information on the participation of women in the Ṣūfī orders in Mamlūk and Ottoman Egypt.
  • Zuhur, Sherifa. Revealing Reveiling: Islamist Gender Ideology in Contemporary Egypt. Albany, N.Y., 1992. Comparison of the opinions of women inside and outside the Islamic movement on the meaning of veiling and being religious, within the context both of Islamic paradigms and Egyptian feminism.

Valerie J. Hoffman-Ladd

Women Living under Muslim Laws

Women Living under Muslim Laws (WLUML) is an international support and solidarity network of Muslim and secular feminists who link with other women's networks to advance the human rights of women in the Muslim world. Although several such transnational feminist networks exist today, WLUML was the first to emerge, in 1984, in response to concerns about changes in family laws and growing Islamist movements in the countries from which the founding members came.

The group came together on the initiative of Marieme Helie-Lucas, an Algerian citizen and lecturer at the University of Algiers who left for Europe in 1982. This was a time of transition in Algeria, from the era of Arab socialism under Houari Boumedienne (who had died in December 1979) to a period of economic restructuring under Chedli Bendjedid. The new government also was drafting a patriarchal family law that alarmed many women and led to the formation of an Algerian feminist movement.

In July 1984, nine women—from Algeria, Sudan, Morocco, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Mauritius, and Tanzania—set up an Action Committee of Women Living under Muslim Laws to critique patriarchal family laws and growing fundamentalism. By early 1985, the committee had evolved into an international network of information, solidarity and support, and Helie-Lucas became the guiding light behind the WLUML network. Individuals and groups associated with the network have included Farida Shaheed and Khawar Mumtaz of Pakistan's Shirkat Gah, Ayesha Imam of Nigeria's Baobob, Malaysia's Sisters in Islam, and Salma Sobhan of Bangladesh.

Since the first planning meeting in July 1986, WLUML has linked women across the world who are active in their local and national movements but who meet periodically to reach consensus on a Plan of Action that guides the network's activities for the next five to seven years. Key strategies are information dissemination on discriminatory laws and violations of women's human rights; campaigns on specific cases that include petition drives and action alerts; and a variety of publications.

WLUML typically engages in grassroots networking but occasionally attends international conferences. The UN's World Conference on Human Rights, held in Vienna, Austria, in 1993, was the first UN conference that WLUML officially attended, and it did so largely to raise awareness at the women's tribunal about Islamist violence against Algerian women. WLUML also participated in the 1994 UN conference on population and development, held in Cairo, Egypt, where it joined other feminist networks in criticizing efforts by the Vatican, conservative states, and Christian and Muslim fundamentalists to remove references to women's reproductive rights in the conference declaration.

The Koranic Interpretation by Women project was launched in Lahore in 1990 and entailed an independent reading and interpretation of the Qurʿān, ḥadīth, and existing Islamic laws. The multi-year project, in which Sisters in Islam were especially active, culminated in a 1997 book—For Ourselves: Women Reading the Qurʿān—to increase awareness of the misapplication of Islamic law in the Muslim world. Sections deal with interpretation and jurisprudence; “the foundational myths” and the controversial “Sūrat al-Nisāʿ” (Qurʿānic chapter 4 on women); women in the family; women in society; and recommendations for action and strategies. A subsequent related project produced Knowing Our Rights: Women, Family, Laws, and Customs in the Muslim World. In November 2002, WLUML expanded its work through a Web site called Fundamentalisms: A Web Resource for Women's Human Rights, a joint initiative with the Association for Women's Rights in Development (AWID). WLUML also continues to reach its vast network through periodic electronic dispatches, which summarize news, information, appeals, and alerts—in English and French—pertaining to women in the Muslim world and beyond.


  • Helie-Lucas, Marie-Aimee. “Women Living Under Muslim Laws.” In Ours By Right: Women's Rights as Human Rights, edited by Joanna Kerr. London: Zed Books, in association with the North-South Institute, 1993.
  • Kazi, Seema. “Muslim Laws and Women Living Under Muslim Laws.” In Muslim Women and the Politics of Participation, edited by Mahnaz Afkhami and Erika Friedl. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1997.
  • Moghadam, Valentine M.Globalizing Women: Transnational Feminist Networks. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.
  • Shaheed, Farida. “Controlled or Autonomous: Identity and the Experience of the Network Women Living Under Muslim Laws.” WLUML Occasional Paper No. 5. July, 1994.
  • “Challenging Fundamentalisms.”

Valentine M. Moghadam


Soraya Altorki, Zayn Kassam, Valerie J. Hoffman-Ladd and Valentine M. Moghadam. "Women and Islam." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online,

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