The High Status of Women in Islam

I’m a feminist but I love being a Muslim woman. Does that seem like a contradiction? It depends on what you think Islam and feminism each teach about the nature of men and women.

Many people think that feminists view men and women as interchangeable, as if there is absolutely no difference between them. But believing that a man can parent as well as a woman or a woman can manage a company as well as a man does not mean that they will do the same jobs in exactly the same way.

I believe that there are innate differences between men and women, but the differences aren’t set in stone. Generalizing (or stereotyping) can backfire on you, because there are always exceptions. But if you go by basic biology, it’s clear that women are built for bearing and nurturing children and men are built to protect and provide for the family unit.

That’s when life is at its most basic. But most societies have moved beyond the need to assign gender roles based on biology. There is a lot more flexibility in an advanced society. Women still bear the children but they don’t have to be the ones who nurture them. Nor do they have to rely on men to take care of them.

Some people think that Islam is backward because it seems to enforce the basic gender roles. But if you read the Qur’an, it’s clear that men and women are viewed as equally valuable as well as equally accountable. Each person, male or female, is equally important to God and each is expected to submit to and serve Him.

Just because Muslim cultures tend to be patriarchal doesn’t mean that Islam is. If you think about it, almost all societies award men a higher status than they do women. But Islam calls for an egalitarianism that you don’t see as clearly in Christianity or Judaism. Women aren’t blamed for the Fall, nor are they depicted as weak. They aren’t viewed as seductresses. Sexuality is seen as a positive force between marital partners, not something that has to be sanctified. (Paul wrote that it is better to marry than to burn [with sexual desire].)  Women are to be treated with honor and respect just as much as men are.

The Christian Church is depicted as the Bride of Christ and is admonished to subject itself to Christ’s headship, just as a wife is to subject herself to her husband. In Islam, husbands and wives are to work together for their mutual benefit and to satisfy their mutual desires.

I’m not saying that Christianity does not value women. But Islam is emphatic about the high status accorded them. It is also much more pragmatic about things like men’s and women’s different responses to sex. Women are taught to respect both their own bodies and men’s sexual natures by removing as much visual temptation as possible from men’s sight. (That’s only one of the reasons why women cover themselves.) And men are taught to honor mothers above all other people.

A Muslim woman receives a dowry when she marries which is hers to keep. Any money she makes or inherits during the marriage is also hers alone. She is not required to contribute to the family income unless she wants to.  She can also negotiate a kind of pre-nuptial agreement which dictates her rights in the marriage.

When Muslim women don’t seem to have any rights, it’s a cultural rather than a religious phenomenon. Coming from a Western culture, as well as a feminist background, I was pleased to find that Muslim women actually have so many rights. They have responsibilities, too, but that’s true for men and women.

I don’t feel put down in the least by Muslim men and in fact I enjoy the respect with which they treat me. All of the Muslim men I know have adopted me as their sister. I feel less defensive about being a woman than I did when I was a Christian, because I know that Islam has a healthier and more accepting attitude toward women than Christianity does.

For a thorough discussion of the high status of women in Islam, read “Elevation of Women’s Status” by Shaikh Al-Timimi on the website Islam: the Modern Religion.

4 Replies to “The High Status of Women in Islam”

  1. Your statement regarding women not needing to nurture their children was interesting. Do you feel you nutured your own children or did you put your personal needs before theirs?

  2. Why does it have to be “either…or”? Any mother who doesn’t consider her personal needs is going to give her children a martyr for a mother. No child needs that, nor is it a positive role model. Children need to see that a person can care for themselves and still care for others. In fact, the person who looks after her basic needs is going to have more physical and emotional energy and stamina for nurturing others than a person who doesn’t.

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