Books and Documents

Islam, Women and Feminism

Addressing the position of women in Saudi society is a top priority for the country's king; and now his former education minister has written a book calling for equality between men and women. The debate, it seems, is well and truly underway.

Just a few days ago Saudi Arabia was elected a member of the Executive Council of "UN Women", the new women's organisation of the United Nations. Although the decision was met with some scepticism in the West, in the home of Islam itself it is being interpreted as recognition for the progress the country has already made on women's rights issues. Change is definitely in the air in Riyadh, one indication of this being the latest publication by former Saudi education minister Muhammad Ahmad al-Rashid, "Muslim women between religious equity and the comprehension of fundamentalists".-- Joseph Croitoru

Photo: Innovative religious mediation: By Saudi standards, this photograph is highly unusual. It shows an unveiled woman on holy mount Arafat in Saudi Arabia holding the Koran and reading to the men who are following her cues

Spain is a powerful symbolic site of Islamic feminism. Spanish Islamic feminism exemplifies the dissolution of the East/West binary. As poet, writer, and a lead organizer of the conferences, Abdennur Prado, emphasizes, the Islamic feminist narrative in Spain draws from two sources.  One is the gender-progressive interpretation of the Qur’an articulated by the new exegetes within the global umma or Muslim community.  The other is the enlightened scholarly, intellectual, and artistic tradition of a past in which Spain was at the center of learning in Europe and Spain was home to Muslims, Christians, and Jews.  It was a time when a rich tapestry of many threads and colors was being woven. -- Margot Badran


In the early 1980s, Dr. Sima Samar made her debut on the feminist stage, becoming the first Hazara woman to receive a medical degree from Kabul University. But the young doctor’s life changed dramatically after her husband was arrested by communist forces, never to be heard from again. In 1984, Samar took her young son and fled her homeland for the safety of Pakistan. During the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, and the following era of Taliban oppression, Samar lost nearly 60 family members. Many persecuted Afghans, including her fellow Hazaras, a minority Persian-speaking group of Shi’a Muslims, were forced out of the country, impoverished and lacking quality healthcare and education. – Salman Ahmed

At the Badam Bagh women's prison in Kabul, home to 150 female inmates and 70 of their children, the chief warden, Lt Col Zarafshan, lowers her voice. "Because of my pain, my hurt and my sense of injustice, I am telling you this," she says. "If we had a good justice system only about ten of these women would be in prison."

Gul-Khanum's husband accused her of cuckolding him with her own cousin. The husband shot dead the cousin then went about maiming his wife before the police arrived at the scene.

I ask if her husband's accusations were true. "How could I do something like that? My cousin was like my son," she replies through tears. Gul-Khanum has been in prison for three months with no charge brought against her. Her husband is in prison elsewhere. -- Oliver Englehart

Photo: Gul-Khanum (left) was a failed suicide bomber, sentenced to 4 years. Shahperai (right) a 22-year-old woman sentenced to 15-year for fleeing from a cruel husband.

Nazanin learned at an early age of the threat people face when their human rights are ignored and abused. This Persian star was born in Tehran in 1979 at the height of the so called Islamic revolution and a year later her family was forced to flee after her non-political father was arrested and tortured at the hands of the fundamentalists. Growing up in Canada after escaping an uncertain future in Iran, Nazanin knew not to take her freedom and good fortune for granted. Her conscience would not allow her to forget those who live in fear every day, in any country where people's basic human rights are violated.-- Amil Imani

The woman's head was covered with a sack, her hands were tied and she was tethered to the ground – while a group of turbaned, bearded men hurled rocks at her, breaking her bones and then crushing her skull. According to reports in the press, she had been walking unescorted and was presumed guilty of adultery. The barbarity, allegedly perpetrated by the Taliban in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), was shown on Dubai's Al Aan television. The same footage was televised by a private Pakistani channel on Sept 28 and the story also featured that day in the local print media. -- S Iftikhar Murshed

In early July this year, the Prime Minister of Malaysia Najib Razak announced that two women had been appointed judges in the country's sharia Courts.

Marina Mahathir is well known as a leader in many non-governmental organizations such as SIS and the Malaysian AIDS Foundation "The appointments were made to enhance justice in cases involving family and women's rights, and to meet current needs," said prime minister Najib Razak. And while this move seems to have alarmed some of the more conservative judges in the Syariah Courts, the concerns of women's groups have turned out to be unfounded: at the end of July, a special panel decided that female judges do indeed have jurisdiction over the same cases as male judges.

It should be noted that the Qur'an enjoins judges to use their wisdom to ensure justice, stating that "if ye judge between mankind, that ye judge justly" (4:58). The verse emphasises justice without stating whether judges should be male or female. There is therefore no barrier for women to be judges in the Syariah Court system, as they have long been in the civil courts. The task now is to ensure that male or female, judges uphold justice. -- Marina Mahathir

This paper argues that dominant norms and practices of gender relations of the Muslim community, far from being rooted in the divine commandments of the sacred text, are actually functions as well as strategies of both traditional and patriarchal interpretation of texts and cultural contexts. The issue of misogyny prevalent among Muslims is surfaced again and again in the Western media, as if everything is perfect among Christians, Jews, and Western civilization. Even though such criticisms are more often emotionally motivated, lacking logic and rationality, and, also, part of a cultural war, some areas of the general Muslim gender perception requires closer scrutiny and re-evaluation. This includes gender differentiation in witnessing and the permissibility of sexual slavery. The verse 2:282 is frequently used by many antagonists of Islâm to exemplify the clear sexism of the Qur’ân. Further, there is a general consensus among classical theologians that slavery and concubinage are allowed in Islâm. -- V A Mohamad Ashrof

In order to elevate the spiritual atmosphere, create proper psychological conditions and tranquility of mind, the Province of the Quds'eh-Razavi of Khorassan has created centers for temporary marriage [just next door to the shrine] for those brothers who are on pilgrimage to the shrine of our eighth Imam, Imam Reza, and who are far away from their spouses.

To that end, we call on all our sisters who are virgins, who are between the ages of 12 and 35 to cooperate with us. Each of our sisters who signs up will be bound by a two year contract with the province of the Quds'eh-Razavi of Khorassan and will be required to spend at least 25 days of each month temporarily married to those brothers who are on pilgrimage. The period of the contract will be considered as a part of the employment experience of the applicant. The period of each temporary marriage can be anywhere between 5 hours to 10 days. -- Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury

Linda Mattar, President of the League for Women's Rights: "Many women don't even know what rights they could have". "Many women here have everything they want and don't care at all about politics," she says. "Others don't have anything and don't even know what rights they could have." But she will continue as long as she remains healthy and clear-headed. Najlaa, by contrast, is concerned only with her personal struggle. The energetic woman with a successful career and family provides an example to other women in Lebanon considering following the same path. For the most part, this has earned her a great deal of respect. Yet, Lebanese society is very schizophrenic. "There are many taboos and you are never truly free. That is, unless you make yourself free. And you can't care what other people think or how they treat you," she says. This requires a great deal of strength. A strength that Najlaa Jaber possesses. -- By Birgit Kaspar


A week ago on my way home from work, in one of Kabul's dusty and unclean streets I saw a little girl clad in a blue burka. She was hardly six and the burka was especially tailored to fit her size. She was playing with other children and was proudly displaying her burka. Her cute demeanor attracted my attention. I kept watching her for a while. The manner she was conducting her movements inside the burka made me smile. As I was leaving, the thought of this child's future made me sad too. She and millions in her age will be most likely forced under burka as me and my generation was. -- Sahar Saba

Before quick jumping onto the subject of burqa better we understand the cultural aspect as well. Social assimilation is a problem with Muslim immigrants in Europe and west. Therefore, assertion of religious identity is perceived as only option for many. Since modern Western civilization is dominating phenomenon, leaving little space for rest of the cultures and civilizations to claim their space, therefore retaining and promoting religious identity is considered as last ditch effort to resist western civilization. -- Bushra Khaliq

The policewomen in the Gaza Strip wear a light grey ankle-length cape, a dark grey veil that leaves the face free, and white gloves. In principle, the services of these female custodians of the law are required whenever contact with women is necessary, in all matter ranging from family disputes to the fight against the drug trade. There is a strict separation of the sexes within the Hamas police. Whenever women police are required to accompany their male colleagues on an assignment, both teams drive in different vehicles. -- Ruth Kinet


The Taliban pounded on the door just before midnight, demanding that Aisha, 18, be punished for running away from her husband's house. Her in-laws treated her like a slave, Aisha pleaded. They beat her. If she hadn't run away, she would have died. Her judge, a local Taliban commander, was unmoved. Aisha's brother-in-law held her down while her husband pulled out a knife. First he sliced off her ears. Then he started on her nose. – An article in TIME magazine

It would be worthwhile to view the issue of the burqa within a larger social and historical context. Patriarchal societies, across time and space, have had a long tradition of making women conceal their faces through the use of the veil. The nature and style of the veil has of course varied from society to society. There are references to the veil for instance in Shakuntala, and to its use by women of the aristocracy in Europe in the 19th century, in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. In several parts of north India even today the custom of covering the face with purdah or ‘ghungat’ is widespread, and not confined to any particular community. -- Sehba Farooqui, General Secretary of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, New Delhi

According to a special "religious decree" issued by Ayatollah Khomeini, virgin women prisoners must be raped before execution to prevent their going to heaven. A Guard conducts the rape the night before their murder. The next day, the religious judge at the prison issues a marriage certificate and sends it to the victim’s family, along with a box of sweets.

Tens of thousands of women have been subjected to cruel torture and execution. One method is particularly revealing: the Revolutionary Guards fire a single bullet into the womb of women political prisoners, leaving them to bleed to death in a slow process of excruciating pain. Even pregnant women are not spared, and hundreds have been executed with their unborn children. Many defenseless women prisoners are held in what are euphemistically referred to as "residential quarters" in prisons, where the Guards systematically rape them in order to totally destroy them. ..

Contrary to all of Khatami’s attempts to put a positive spin on the mullahs’ misogynist treatment of women for international consumption, his cabinet does not include even one woman. The appointment of a woman, Massoumeh Ebtekar, as deputy for environmental protection, was supposed to reflect "moderation" and Khatami’s attention to women’s rights. But this woman vice president is no "moderate," and is notorious as a staunch advocate of suppressing women’s rights. As a Spokesperson for the hostage-takers who captured the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, she once told an ABC Television correspondent that she was personally willing to take a gun and kill the hostages. (The New York Times, January 28, 1998). In an interview with Die Tageszeitung on October 18, Ebtekar defended discrimination against women and medieval punishments, like stoning. In response to a question on stoning to death, Ebtekar said: "One should take the psychological and legal affairs of the society into consideration as well. If family rules and regulations are broken, it would result in many complex, grave consequences for all of the society." -- Sarvnaz Chitsaz and Soona Samsami

The Saudi regime, controlled by salafi ulama in religious matters who are adamant on retaining strict control over women in the name of Islamic traditions. Women are denied their rights and free choice according to their conscience.  This may not be the condition in all Islamic countries but traditional Muslim societies impose several restrictions and still are not ready to relax. the kind of hijab many Muslim women wear covering their faces and looking at the world only through two eye holes remains controversial among Muslim scholars, theologians and modern intellectuals. Question is what is to be done. ...

Let Muslim jurists and scholars realize that Arab ‘adat are far from divine and should not necessarily form the basic structure of the Shari’ah law. Today we must change this cultural base through direct reflections and fresh understanding of the Qur’anic verses relevant to women. This attempt would establish individual dignity and freedom of choice for women. Freedom of conscience is an important doctrine of the Qur’an and so is the individual dignity. Qur’an is far more in harmony with human dignity and freedom that the traditional medieval cultural practices. -- Asghar Ali Engineer

Islam does not place any restriction on women’s education and work.  This is what we must tell those mullahs and maulvis who issue fatwas to deny women their right to work and who consider their earnings to be unlawful or haraam. We need to tell them that Hazrat Khadijah, the first wife of the Prophet, was herself a rich trader. Before he was appointed as a prophet, Hazrat Muhammad used to work for her. In addition, she had several other male employees. If (as some mullahs insist) a woman’s earnings are haraam and if it is also haraam for men and women to work together, one may well wonder if our mullahs and maulvis will now start pointing fingers at these historical facts! -- By Zahid Khan

Much has been written about the tragedy of Karbala that wiped out almost all the male members of the family of the Holy Prophet (Ahle Bayt), and the undying fame of its hero Imam Husain. On the eve of his martyrdom, the great Imam had declared that human dignity could not survive under political tyranny, and it was far more honourable to give your head to a despot than give him your hand and invite disgrace and humiliation.

Karbala is not a saga of a power struggle; it is the story of a heroic endeavour to uphold the principle of human dignity and freedom, the story of supreme sacrifice made in defence of freedom of conscience, which includes the right to reject a political regime that seeks to coerce and compel people into submission against their will. The story has become immortal as Husain refused to confer legitimacy on a despotic, hereditary monarch masquerading as caliph, and thus saved the soul of Islam. - Arif M. Khan


Reacting to the forced veiling practised in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and in some parts of Pakistan, Prof Ziauddin Sardar says that modesty should not be reduced to a piece of cloth, rather it should be a total package of behaviour and a distinctive moral outlook. Most progressive Muslim scholars have accused traditional and literalist interpretations of Islamic customs that deal with the issue. They believe these interpretations propagate that unveiled women alone are responsible for a lack of moral modesty, not to say sexual obsession of men.

They say that Islam clearly talks about how men too should behave in front of women, so how come, over the centuries, it is only women who were asked to dress properly? There have been cases in various Muslim countries where men, after assaulting or raping a woman, said that they did so because ‘she was asking for it’; meaning that not adorning the veil amounted to an invitation to assault.

This begs the question: is it really liberation that a woman feels behind a veil, or is this liberation only about freeing oneself from the thought of ever daring to challenge male-dominated interpretations of exactly how a Muslim woman should dress and behave?—Nadeem F Paracha

Temporary marriage, or “sighah”, is an accepted custom in the Shia branch of Islam. Under sighah, a couple can contract to live together for a specific period of time – anywhere from one day to a lifetime.The practice is a low-cost alternative to the standard form of marriage, which requires the groom and his family to come up with money, sometimes thousands of dollars, for the bride price. Those who cannot afford a permanent wife but want the comforts of marriage can go the temporary route. -- Sayed Yaqub


Recently, I had the opportunity to attend one such workshop—in Mumbai—organized by the Centre for the Study of Society and Secularism. The Centre is headed by the noted Islamic scholar, Asghar Ali Engineer, who has played a key role in the development of what is called ‘Islamic Feminism’, or what others, having problems with the word ‘feminism’, call a gender-sensitive understanding or interpretation of Islam. The intensive three-day workshop brought together almost fifty social activists, mostly Muslim women, and a sprinkling of journalists and academics from across India.  The first few sessions of the workshop were conducted by Zeenat Shaukat Ali, who teaches Islamic Studies at Mumbai’s St. Xavier’s College. Author of two important books that spell out a gender-egalitarian understanding of Islam, namely ‘Marriage and Divorce in Islam’ and ‘Empowerment of Women in Islam’, Dr. Ali is a prolific writer whose articles regularly appear in various newspapers and journals. -- Rehana Khan


The Prophet Mohammed married Ayesha Siddiqa after the death of his first wife Khadija. One account claims that she was betrothed at the age of six and married when she was nine, but later studies have established beyond doubt that she was more than 19 years old at the time of marriage. She lived with her husband in Medina till he breathed his last; a period of ten crucial and formative years in the history of the new religion.

All biographical accounts of Ayesha show that her personality was a rich combination of beauty and brains. She possessed an inquisitive mind and showed great aptitude for learning not only the religion and its laws but was equally interested in literature, poetry, history and medicine. Islamic law recognise Quran and Sunna, including Hadith (Prophetic actions and saying), as the main sources of religious law and morality and Ayesha is reputed to have been proficient in both. -- Arif M. Khan

Dr Nurit Peled-Elhanan is an Israeli woman whose 13 year old daughter Smadar Elhanan was killed by a suicide bomber in Jerusalem in September 1997. Nurit was invited to deliver a speech on International Women’s Day in Strasbourg earlier this month. As a bereaved mother she was expected to express her deepest pain and trauma at her personal loss and criticise in strongest possible terms the Palestinians who have been blowing up hundreds of innocent sons and daughters of Israeli women in the name of jihad and fight for freedom. But what she said proves that despite all the madness, strife and bloodshed in the Israel-Palestine region, humanity has survived. And that gives us hope. We are presenting here the full text of her speech…Editor

Since I signify to the West the image of an emancipated, modern, outspoken and Muslim Saudi woman, the questions people ask wherever I go never cease to amaze me. And I feel the responsibility to act as a self-appointed cultural diplomat to explain what being a Saudi woman means to me - and many Saudi women, in the process bridging the gap between my country and the world.

Most recently, a Saudi friend who wears a hijab, or headscarf, visited me in Vienna and we were asked: why does one of you cover your hair while the other doesn't?

It's an interesting question, and the answer is not unique to Muslims; the followers of Christianity and Judaism also have expectations about female (and male) attire that differ from one community to another, and even from one family to another. I've also been asked what we wear under our abaya, the long cloak Saudi women wear in public; what our workplace looks like; and how we interact with our families and friends. -- Lulua Asaad

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  • Nice bhai and right.
    ( By Md samir ansari )
  • Very sensible and prudent column.
    ( By Ghulam Mohiyuddin )
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    ( By Ghulam Mohiyuddin )
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    ( By Ghulam Mohiyuddin )
  • UN has lost its credibility. It is simply a forum of debate. Hardly does...
    ( By Salman )
  • Adopting Christianity means adopting true religion of Allah.
    ( By Mahender Kumar )
  • Islam promotes violence ......etc against Khafirs.
    ( By Dr.A.Anburaj )
  • Talha's comment shows how talaq has been turned into a joke. People have derived new types of talaq...
    ( By Arshad )
  • The comment was posted thru mobile phone. And while typing on mobile, some errors occur and also it's automated dictionary takes pushes some words into ...
    ( By Arshad )
  • Saying that Islam emphasized education is hardly hubris except in the...
    ( By Ghulam Mohiyuddin )
  • کیوں نہ اہل ذکر سے مراد ماہرین لئیے جائیں یعنی جب بھی کوئی مسئلہ ہو اس علم کے ماہر سے پعچھع
    ( By qasim raza Tirmiz zi )
  • it is time for muslims globally - not just in india) to get out of their superiority...
    ( By hats off! )
  • Your article is in the same vein as current discourses in international....
    ( By Dr. Sharifah Munirah Alatas )
  • Good article! The author talks sense.
    ( By Ghulam Mohiyuddin )
  • Hats Off hates any Muslim who favors peace, education and modernization....
    ( By Ghulam Mohiyuddin )
  • Anything that promotes violence, coercion, intolerance, takfirism...
    ( By Ghulam Mohiyuddin )
  • such a breathtaking, once-in-a-millennium, nobel-prize-worthless comment...
    ( By hats off! )
  • Very interesting discussion, specially the brand new concept of "duty-free divorce." But....
    ( By Sultan Shahin )
  • No doubt, debate on Islamic ideologies must happen.
    ( By gholam ghouse )
  • I appreciate your thoughts.
    ( By Usha Jha )
  • If this is a religion of peace, then why is it not believed so by Jihadists and some Extremist non Muslims?,...
    ( By Talha )
  • These terrorists are weakening Muslims and therefore are playing the role of agents of anti-Islamic elements. '
    ( By Anjum )
  • لإخوان يستحلون قتل المخالف ولو كان ضعيفا محروما مقهورا، وفي أقل الأحوال يعملون على تشويهه وتقديم المبررات لاغتياله. '
    ( By عادل الشعبی )
  • Asking Zakir Naik to stop belittling the religions of others is tantamount to defanging him! He knows nothing else!
    ( By Ghulam Mohiyuddin )
  • Personal and family laws should be the responsibility of civil society. Religious scholars should keep out of....
    ( By Ghulam Mohiyuddin )
  • The United Kashmir Peoples National Party (UKPN) advocates a united...
    ( By Ghulam Mohiyuddin )
  • Next move should be to bring the RSS on the path of Gandhi and Nehru...
    ( By Ghulam Mohiyuddin )
  • It is not just Arab wealth. It is also Arab racism. The Prophet's last sermon....
    ( By Ghulam Mohiyuddin )
  • What a depraved and ignorant comment from Hats Off! She represents Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and atheists of her little constituency in Minnesota.'
    ( By Ghulam Mohiyuddin )
  • ilhan omar represents the free-booters and scalawags like some....
    ( By hats off! )
  • Ilhan Omar never said she represents all Muslims, or even Muslims....
    ( By Ghulam Mohiyuddin )
  • It is in the nature of fascist organizations to spread paranoia.
    ( By Ghulam Mohiyuddin )
  • Female circumcision must be prosecuted as a criminal assault with stiff penalties
    ( By Ghulam Mohiyuddin Faruki )
  • yahood o hanoodon se nafrat islami fitrat hai
    ( By hats off! )
  • are kafir admi ye Sarah edan BHI Muslim Nahi hai yahudi hai
    ( By Syed Mohammad Faizan )
  • This man is dishonest, mostly in western countries other minority's are well integrated and never....
    ( By Aayina )
  • Because democracy is run by Hypocrites and capitalist. Other factor added in last 70 years was ....
    ( By Aayina )
  • Instant Triple Thalak is banned and one Monolithic Arabian practice is eiiminated. Another Monolithic Arabian practice....
    ( By dr.A.Anburaj )
  • Shamless Hindu showing his Manhood power to grab girls, like Muslims. Shame on this kind of Hindus ....
    ( By Aayina )
  • Taha Deceiving is not explanation. Might be clear to you now.'
    ( By Aayina )