What is the status of woman in Islam?
Hammuda Abdul-Ati, PH.D.
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.
Equity or equality or sameness?
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 world 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
Islam does not blame Eve alone for the First Sin
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. 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.
What Islam has established for woman is that which suits her
nature, gives her full security and protects her against disgraceful
What Islam has established for woman is that which suits her nature,
gives her full security and protects her against disgraceful circumstances.
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. Many
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 to woman.
1. 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, and made you into nations and tribes that you may know each
other... (Qur’an, 49:13; cf. 4:1).
2. She is equal to man in bearing personal and common responsibilities
and in receiving rewards for her deeds. She is acknowledged 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. God says:
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).
3. 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
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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,
7. 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; 43:15-19; 53:21-23).
8. 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 as follows:
• 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
responsibility 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 endeavours. 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).
9. In some instances of bearing witness to certain civil contracts, 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).
10. 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.
11. 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 fulfil 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.
12. 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).
13. 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 as follows:
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 another (4:34).
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).