Female Rights in Islam: The Contextual Qur'an

Kelsey Marie Perry, “Female Rights in Islam: The Contextual Qur’an,” in BYU Religious Education 2010 Student Symposium (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2010), 167–180.

Female Rights in Islam: The Contextual Qur’an

Kelsey Marie Perry

There are some considerable roadblocks to discovering the true place that Islam carves out for its women. One of the most important steps is to move past the patriarchal culture that has been established and discover Islam for what it truly is. Often we blame a religion for extreme views and traditions, when the oppression instead may be rooted in regional culture. Additionally, religion is frequently cited by extremists, further corrupting public understanding of what a religion’s true doctrine might be.[1] As Latter-day Saints, we can sympathize with this predicament, having experienced frequent slander of our faith based on the actions of a few fundamentalists. As with our own faith, the best way to do away with any confusion about the doctrine of Islam is through education, which opens minds to critical thought and can enlighten both the public and believers about what its true tenets are. By setting aside cultural constructs of Islam and studying the core scriptures and statements of the Prophet Muhammad, the true role of women in Islam can be established.

Specifically, an in-depth study of the Qur’an proves that “gender differences are naturally and socially constructed such that men and women’s relationships are complementary and in harmony” within the Muslim faith.[2] Once this principle is understood, it becomes clear that violations of women’s rights that occur in Muslim communities are reflections of culture, not of Islam as a religion.[3] This cultural misunderstanding has grown as a result of the out-of-context and patriarchal interpretation of the Qur’an that so frequently occurs in Muslim communities.[4] For example, Qur’an 4:34 reads, “Men are the protectors [qawwamun] and maintainers of women, because God has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means.”[5] The word qawwamun has traditionally been interpreted to mean “lord, master, ruler, governor, and manager,”[6] but reformists have translated the word as meaning “protector and maintainer” or “breadwinner,” indicating a complementary role rather than the patriarchal role of monarch of the home.[7] Qawwamun actually refers to a “division of functions that, while women have the primary responsibility of being childbearers, during that time when they are undergoing the process of childbearing they should not have the obligation of being breadwinners, and therefore men should be breadwinners during this period.”[8] This clarification of the relationship between men and women hearkens back to the clarifications of scripture given by modern LDS prophets. Although Genesis 3:16 states that Adam is to “rule over” Eve, our prophets have clarified that the word “over” has been long misunderstood. An analysis of the original translation reveals that “over” in “rule over” uses the Hebrew letter bet, which is a preposition meaning “with.” Elder Bruce C. Hafen taught, “The concept of interdependent, equal partners is well-grounded in the doctrine of the restored gospel.”[9] We are very familiar with the importance of correctly interpreted scripture, and certainly can value the revision of Qur’anic translation. The misunderstanding of qawwamun is only one of many instances where misinterpretation has led to some patriarchal suppression of women, resulting in some regional cultures which actually believe that men are to rule over women.

These suppressions include, but are not limited to, acceptance of domestic violence as defensible and commonplace, arranged marriages, no right or lesser rights of women to inheritance, no right for women to work outside the home, prohibition of women entering certain mosques, and very little respect for women in courts of law. In many countries men can divorce their wives simply by repeating “I divorce you” three times, while women are subjected to a lengthy divorcement process where they often undergo ridiculous scrutiny (even on claims of physical abuse, sexual torture, or genital mutilation) and are frequently rejected in their claims. The matter of domestic violence is taken lightly because men see it as their right, due to the misinterpretation of a verse in the Qur’an that states, “Admonish them [the wives], banish them to beds apart, and scourge them. Then if they obey you, seek not a way against them.”[10] Out of context, this verse could understandably be interpreted to allow the beating of wives; however, when the context and alternate interpretations are considered, it takes on a very different meaning. A reading of the scripture in context reveals that it refers to cases where a husband is suspicious of a wife who is committing adultery. Additionally, scourging has also been interpreted to mean “beat lightly.” In fact, scholars have suggested that the husband’s right to beat his wife is purely symbolic, for “further reading of the Qur’an shows that the husband is not allowed to leave a mark nor cut the flesh of his wife, that in fact he must not damage the skin in any way.”[11] Even the Prophet Muhammad repeatedly denounced spousal abuse and is quoted as having said, “How can one of you hit his wife like an animal, then he may embrace her? . . . How can one of you whip your wife like a slave, and he is likely to sleep with her at the end of the day?”[12] Perhaps more in harmony with the prophet’s attitude, another translation of the Qur’an scripture reads differently: “As for women you feel are averse, talk to them persuasively; then leave them alone in bed (without molesting them), and go to bed with them (when they are willing).”[13] There are misinterpreted scriptures and ignored Islamic prophecy associated with nearly every one of the abuses against women that occur in Muslim communities. The problem truly lies in the indoctrination of misunderstood principles that have developed into a fallen patriarchal culture.

Another traditional custom instituted in many Muslim communities is that of “honor killings.” Every year in Muslim nations there are thousands of honor killings in which a woman is murdered for perceived breaches of modesty and chastity; 888 women were killed in 1999 for these reasons in one Pakistani province alone, and low estimates suggest that at least three Pakistani women are killed for honor every day[14] These women and girls, who have often been raped or forced into a “breach” of Muslim law, are sacrificed in order to maintain the honor of their families, which is otherwise inalterably stained as a result of their so-called discrepancies. Though Western nations are shocked and abhor the idea of this practice, it is generally accepted as protocol in many Muslim communities, often even being supported by other women. Interestingly, scholars maintain that there is not a single word in the Qur’an about death in the name of honor.[15] It appears that this horrific tradition is, in fact, without significant backing from the Qur’an or prophetic statements.

Still another problematic doctrine in Islam is the law of Zina. According to this law, “four male witnesses, all Muslims and all citizens of upright character, must testify to having seen a rape take place” in order to convict a man of the crime.[16] The acquisition of four male witnesses to a crime that so frequently happens behind closed doors seems to be an utterly incomprehensible requirement of the victim. One wonders how this requirement could possibly be correct and rightly so. However, review of the context and origin of this law clarifies such concerns significantly. This specific law originated when Aisha, Muhammad’s youngest wife (and coincidentally, the only one who was a virgin when he married her), was at one time accused of adultery. While traveling across the desert, she misplaced a necklace, and when she stopped to search for it, the caravan left her behind. Fortunately, she was discovered by a man named Safwan who rescued her and returned her to her husband. When Aisha and Safwan caught up with the caravan, many accused them of having an affair because they lacked a chaperone. Aisha denied it, and Muhammad sided with her. Muhammad then received the revelation about the need for four witnesses to an adultery before punishment could be applied, and he ordered that Aisha’s accusers be flogged with forty lashes.[17] This context makes it clear that the Prophet was revealing a principle of witnesses, or the principle of “innocent until proven guilty.” However, these principles have been turned on their head by certain groups in some places, as we see that today, a woman is considered guilty of adultery whenever a man accuses her, while she, on the other hand, must produce four witnesses to prove that she has been forcibly raped.

The evidence shows that in fact, “Muhammad himself was progressive on gender issues.”[18] Unfortunately, a number of his early successors have been described as “unmitigated chauvinists,” and seem to have begun a long train of abuses of the laws that Muhammad enacted, many of which were originally intended to protect women.[19] However, it should be acknowledged that the Qur’an does explicitly endorse some gender discrimination; for example, a woman’s testimony counts as half a man’s and a daughter inherits only half as much as a son. It must be remembered, though, that these practices were revealed in the seventh century, when such rights for women were in fact progressive. While Muhammad established a forward-thinking stance on women’s roles, the culture of Islam has slowly fallen away from his original intentions. And while most religions have taken steps forward for women, Islam has continued to step backward from what Muhammad originally pushed for.

The correct doctrine of the Qur’an is a key source in providing Muslim women with the rights they deserve. The Qur’an teaches that the true intention of Islam is for the “believing men and the believing women [to be] protectors (awliya) to each other.”[20] The word awliya is interpreted to mean “protectors,” “in charge,” and “guides”—a role very similar to that of qawwamun. If this is the case, “how could women be ‘Awliya’ of men if men are superior to women in both physical and intellectual strength?”[21] The answer is that men and women are meant to serve complementary roles wherein they both “should be active in the administration of the family’s affairs and both have authority over sons and daughters.”[22] In order for this truth to be understood, the Qur’an must be correctly interpreted and taught.

Niaz A. Shah suggests that the Qur’an should be interpreted within three contexts: first, the seventh-century historical context; second, the Arabic social context; and third, the Qur’anic context. It is also important to understand when and why each verse was revealed.[23] Women’s rights activist Shahina Siddiqui suggests that in order to cultivate change, women must “read and attempt to understand the Qur’an on a daily basis,” further emphasizing the imminent impact of what a true understanding of the Qur’an could do.[24] In order to fully benefit from a study of the Qur’an, women need to engage in a study of the life of the Prophet and of the many strong women around him, and also directly study the foundational texts. In this way they can personally understand the original writings of the Prophet rather than merely reacting to the various interpretations of them. Instead of simply rebelling against human rights violations, there must be action in applying any new understanding to the present, so as to question the ways in which current Islamic knowledge has been produced and how it can now be renovated to include correct doctrine. If these concepts were taught and implemented in current culture, an improvement in the treatment of women would surely follow.

It probably comes as no surprise that as women become more educated and invest efforts in reading and interpreting the Qur’an, traditional interpretations of the book are being challenged. ‘‘For fourteen centuries the Koran has been interpreted almost exclusively by men,’’ said Amina Wadud, an American Islamic scholar. ‘‘It is only in the past two decades that women have begun to say, let’s look at this text and come up with our own conclusions,’’ she said, ‘‘and voila, some of them are not the same as what the men came up with.”[25] An excellent example of this is the late Benazir Bhutto, the first female prime minister of Pakistan, who stated, “I feel a special personal obligation to contrast the true Islam—the religion of tolerance and pluralism—with the caricature of my faith that terrorists have hijacked.”[26] Another Muslim woman, Sakena Yacoobi, said concerning Muslim extremists: “From my heart, I tell you: If they were educated, they would not behave like that. The Koran has quotation after quotation that says you must treat women well. Those people who do bad things, they are not educated. I am a Muslim. My father was a good Muslim, and he prayed every day, but he did not try to marry me off. There were many offers for me when I was in the sixth grade, but he said no.”[27]

Unfortunately, some women in the Middle East are illiterate, having never received a formal education. The problem of illiteracy is greatly detrimental to the implementation of female Qur’anic rights, for “if [they] are unable to read the Qur’an then it is impossible to challenge” their current underprivileged state.[28] Without knowledge of their deserved rights, it is extremely difficult for Muslim women to catalyze any changes. There are some countries, in the Middle East and otherwise, where these truths are coming to light, and the lives of their Muslim women are being renewed. For example, England has implemented many Muslim girls’ schools where young Muslim women are learning not only of the world around them but also of the true doctrine of their religion. Many Muslim children also attend English public schools, and as these groups of children grow in greater understanding, their parents and communities begin to open, even if only a little, to the concept of women as equals. Though the process of granting Muslim women the rights prescribed in the Qur’an will take some time, the acceptance of female education in England is a key to understanding how Culture can be influenced to follow a truer interpretation of its religious texts. The realm of education is becoming a catalyst not only for female civil growth but also for opening minds and broadening the current state of Islamic culture to a realization of the true teachings of the Qur’an.

As a result of well-rounded secular and religious education, Muslim British young women are “becoming more active in the faith, and they know what rights Islam gives them, and that Islam gives them the freedom they need.”[29] Because young Muslim children of both sexes are being allowed an education, the concepts of women being allowed in the workplace and choosing their own spouses are also slowly being accepted. In a correspondence with Ashifa Sachedina, a college-educated Muslim woman living in London, I asked about the controversy of arranged marriages. She told me of the time she jokingly called her mother to ask for help in finding a spouse. Her mother’s prompt reply was emphatic: “You’ve got to find your own bloke.”[30] Though not necessarily widely accepted within the British Muslim community, the choice of marrying for love is growing.

In addition, educated Muslim women are gaining a greater sense of empowerment and independence. Education is a vital tool for providing Muslim women with the strength to remove themselves from abusive situations. One woman stated with regards to domestic violence:

I’m educated, and I know I can get a job and support myself, so obviously I’m not bothered by it [leaving a marriage because of domestic abuse] . . . I know I can cope on my own . . . But these women [wives from the Indian subcontinent], because they are not educated, and they haven’t been to European countries or anywhere, it’s totally different to them, so what do they do if they leave their husbands? They’ve no one to turn to. . . . Nobody tells them how they can get income support. . . . They’re stuck with their husbands no matter what.[31]

This woman’s attitude of self-security is a direct result of her education, which has provided her with the means to support herself should the need arise. This is a huge step toward the civil independence of Muslim women. Although there is still a long way to go, these women recognize that they have rights and are capable of helping themselves.

Educated Muslim women are also recognizing that they have choices in their lives—that they can determine the path they take. One young Muslim woman stated in an interview, “I am educated and I can easily go out and find a job or stay at home. I’ve got two choices.”[32] Where women in the Middle East are generally forced to live in complacency, with their only access to the outside world heavily restricted by their male counterparts, this young woman is working out the career and family choices available to her. And she is not alone—many young British Muslim women can be loosely termed as belonging to the working class and having middle-class aspirations.[33] When asked about her aspirations to finish school and start her own business, another young Muslim woman expressed that all she has to do is work hard.[34] This amazing statement is a stark contrast to the opportunities available to some young women in certain Muslim communities, who often can only dream of having the opportunity to work hard to reach their goals. These young British women are truly visionary, and the most fantastic part about it is that they are actually able to fulfill their dreams.

Likewise, Muslim men cannot understand the true doctrine of their religion without being educated in it. They will remain steeped in their male-biased culture unless educated otherwise. In order for women to receive the treatment they are prescribed in the Qur’an, the men must agree to it. During my correspondence with Ashifa Sachedina, she said that her greatest concern lay with the education of Muslim men. She stressed that in order to really change the culture and the misunderstood doctrine, the leaders of the Muslim community must be taught correct doctrine and encouraged to open their hearts to the possibilities of women. She then emphasized, “And who are the prominent leaders in the Muslim religion? Men . . . the leaders within each mosque are always men.”[35] She also stressed that if the leaders “are not taught how to interpret [the Qur’an] correctly . . . then the people will never be taught the right way, or change their opinions.”[36] This truth certainly must be addressed in order to sustain a change in these attitudes towards women.

As Latter-day Saints reflect on the way that culture has sometimes adulterated Islamic doctrine, we may find we can more steadily sympathize with this issue by drawing parallels to our own culture. Although the Brethren have repeatedly asserted that all LDS members should seek to become well educated, we still find some members who feel it is inappropriate for future homemakers to “waste time” with school. I know of LDS female students who have been reproached for taking BYU Law School spots from male “breadwinners,” while still other women have been slandered by family members for desiring to finish their education after marrying. Like our Muslim friends, we might ask ourselves, are these assertions in harmony with the teachings of our faith? Upon closer inspection, we find that LDS leaders and most Church members place just as high of a priority on women’s education as on men’s. Elder John K. Carmack stated in an address to BYU students, “President Hinckley never made a distinction between men and women in establishing PEF (Perpetual Education Fund),” and then added, “Education is just as vital for women as for men in the Church.”[37] We also have statements from earlier prophets to lean on, like this one from President Brigham Young:

We have sisters here who, if they had the privilege of studying, would make just as good mathematicians or accountants as any man; and we think they ought to have the privilege to study these branches of knowledge that they may develop the powers with which they are endowed. We believe that women are useful, not only to sweep houses, wash dishes, make beds, and raise babies, but that they should stand behind the counter, study law or physic[s], or become good book keepers and be able to do the business in any counting house, and all this to enlarge their sphere of usefulness for the benefit of society at large. In following these things they but answer the design of their creation.[38]

The message in his statement is clear: women have every right to education and ought to pursue it as a matter of their divine development. Some Latter-day Saints have allowed their own incorrect ideas about women to affect their opinions on doctrine. However we can take great heart in the truth that we have the resources to clarify any questionable cultural practices, and can wholeheartedly encourage our friends of other faiths to do the same.

From an enlightened gospel perspective, we can rejoice as our Muslim neighbors search their faith and work diligently to establish truths. Though proselyting missionaries from our Church are not yet permitted in Muslim nations, we can rejoice as customs and behaviors contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ are dispelled. We acknowledge the equal position of both men and women in the sight of God and can feel joy as our brothers and sisters embrace this truth as well. And as our own prophets having emphasized the importance of education and self-reliance, we can also rejoice at the continued enlightenment of Islamic culture through education. Muslims are becoming more open minded, and as time passes perhaps the extremist faction’s traditions will begin to fade. It inspires hope that in the future, this union of Muslim education and doctrine could fill all Muslim communities, fulfilling the Qur’anic verse “O Mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (not that ye may despise each other).”[39] This beautiful verse, along with so many others, could soon be valued for its true significance—valued worldwide as education of truth instills respect for life and unity.


[1] Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), 150.

[2] Katherine Brown, “Realising Muslim Women’s Rights: The Role of Islamic Identity among British Muslim Women, Women’s Studies International Forum 29, no. 4 (2006): 418.

[3] Brown, “Realising Muslim Women’s Rights.”

[4] Niaz A. Shah, “Women’s Human Rights in the Koran: An Interpretive Approach,” Human Rights Quarterly 28, no. 4 (2006): 868.

[5] Fawzia Afzal-Khan, Shattering the Stereotypes: Muslim Women Speak Out (Northampton, MA: Olive Branch Press, 2005), 167–78.

[6] Betty Mistead, “Feminist Theology and Women in the Muslim World: An Interview with Riffat Hassan,” Women Living Under Muslim Laws Dossier, no. 4 (August/September 1988) 31, quoted in Shah, “Women’s Human Rights in the Koran,” 889.

[7] Mistead, “Feminist Theology,” 31–32, quoted in Shah, “Women’s Human Rights in the Koran,” 889.

[8] Mistead, “Feminist Theology,” 31–32, quoted in Shah, “Women’s Human Rights in the Koran,” 889.

[9] Bruce C. Hafen and Marie K. Hafen, “Crossing Thresholds and Becoming Equal Partners,” Ensign, August 2007, 26.

[10] Brown, “Realising Muslim Women’s Rights,” 423.

[11] Brown, “Realising Muslim Women’s Rights,” 423.

[12] Afzal-Khan, Shattering the Stereotypes, 174.

[13] Kristof and WuDunn, Half the Sky, 152.

[14] Mydans, Seth, “In Pakistan, Rape Victims are the ‘Criminals,’” New York Times, May 17, 2007.

[15] Marie Vlachova and Lea Biason, eds., Women in an Insecure World: Violence against Women, Facts, Figures and Analysis (Geneva, Switzerland: Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces, 2005), 27–28.

[16] Mydans, “Rape Victims.”

[17] Kristof and WuDunn, Half the Sky, 153.

[18] Kristof and WuDunn, Half the Sky, 152.

[19] Kristof and WuDunn Half the Sky, 152.

[20]Anne Sofie Roald, Women in Islam: The Western Experience (New York: Routledge, 2001), 146.

[21] Shah, “Women’s Human Rights in the Koran,” 889.

[22] Roald, Women in Islam, 155.

[23] Shah, “Women’s Human Rights in the Koran,” 882–83.

[24] Shahina Siddiqui, “Is the Reward for Good Other than Good?” in Muslim Women Activists in North America: Speaking for Ourselves, ed. Katherine Bullock (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005), 190.

[25] Seth Mydans, “Blame Men, Not Allah, Islamic Feminists Say, New York Times, October 10, 1996.

[26] Benazir Bhutto, Daughter of Destiny (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), xii.

[27] Kristof and WuDunn, Half the Sky, 164.

[28] Brown, “Realising Muslim Women’s Rights,” 422.

[29] Brown, “Realising Muslim Women’s Rights,” 421.

[30] Sachedina, Ashifa, telephone interview with author, February 15, 2007.

[31] Brown, “Realising Muslim Women’s Rights,” 426.

[32] Tehmina N. Basit, 1996. “‘I’d Hate to Be Just a Housewife’: Career Aspirations of British Muslim Girls,” British Journal of Guidance & Counselling 24, no. 2 (1996): 233.

[33] Basit, “I’d Hate to Be Just a Housewife,” 233.

[34] Basit “I’d Hate to Be Just a Housewife,” 231.

[35] Sachedina, interview.

[36] Sachedina, interview.

[37] John K. Carmack, “For Women as well as for Men,” address given at J. Reuben Clark Law Society, September 30, 2009, 2.

[38] Valerie Hudson, “The Story of Eve and Adam” (unpublished manuscript, 1998), 14.

[39] Shah, “Women’s Human Rights in the Koran,” 884.