Lack of Women Empowerment Contradicts Quranic Vision

Dec 24

An abridged version of this article ran in the Huffington Post. Also posted on

No nation can rise to the height of glory unless your women are side by side with you. We are victims of evil customs. It is a crime against humanity that our women are shut up within the four walls of the houses as prisoners. There is no sanction anywhere for the deplorable condition in which our women have to live”― Muhammad Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan.

The first step to solving any problem is to recognize that there is one.


The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap 2013 Report shows wide disparity in Muslim majority countries between men and women across for key areas of health, education, economics and politics. No Muslim majority country cracks the top 10 in gender equity. At the bottom end, 9 out of 10 countries are Muslim majority. Income level hardly explains such poor rankings. Among high income nations, 8 out of 10 bottom ranked countries are Muslim majority. Despite enormous wealth, countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and UAE have been unable to sufficiently close the gender gap. The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, almost all of which happen to be Muslim majority, ranks last below the less affluent Sub-Saharan Africa.

Yet the news is not uniformly bad. According to the World Bank, gender gap across MENA is reducing. Today more women than men attend universities and women mortality during childbirth is significantly below global averages. But despite progress in education and health, women are not empowered either economically or politically. Women account for only a quarter of the labor force, while in the rest of the world women workforce is about fifty percent. In Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan youth unemployment rates among women is twice that of men. More women are being educated but few have opportunities to start a career of their choice. Moreover, women hold only 9 percent of the seats in parliaments.

Faced with such dismal statistics, some countries such as Tunisia mandated that an equal number of women and men run as candidates on their electoral list. As a result women have secured one-quarter of the seats in Tunisia’s constituent assembly. In Bangladesh and Pakistan affirmative action has allowed women to account for nearly twenty percent of the parliamentary seats. In contrast, millions of women turned out to vote in the Egyptian parliamentary elections but, ultimately, made up only two percent of the lower house of parliament.

The anti-modern attitudes of many hardline Islamic preachers and the less the egalitarian vision of the Islamists only exacerbates the problem of gender inequity. For example, the fundamentalist, Darul Uloom Deoband seminary in India, issued a fatwa barring women from working as receptionists. While in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood, prior to its ouster, tried to undermine the work of the UN Commission on the Status of Women in stopping violence against women. This in a country where lack of women’s rights is endemic as evidenced by 8 in 10 Egyptian women reporting being sexually harassed. In Pakistan, after a video surfaced showing a teenage girl being flogged by the Taliban, Jamaat-e-Islami dismissed such reports as being a “Western conspiracy” and the beating incident a “small thing.”


In the US, there are no formal studies about gender gap in the Muslim community. However, the Women and the American Mosque study from Hartford Institute, shows that despite greater religious, social and economic freedoms in America, only 18 percent women attend Friday prayers and this percentage attendance has not changed in over a decade. Only 6 in 10 mosques have at least one woman on their board and 13 percent of mosques do not allow women to serve on their boards. Only 14 percent mosques scored “excellent” for being women-friendly. Compared to the rest of the world, American Muslim women enjoy greater empowerment but accessibility to places of worship and leadership in Islamic organizations continue to be an issue.

Among big-5 American-Muslim organizations (ISNA, MAS, CAIR, ICNA, MPAC), only one (MPAC) has more than two women serving on their boards while one (MAS) has none. One national organization (ICNA) did not list the names of its board members or executives on their national website. It is unclear how many women, if any, serve on ICNA’s leadership teams. Only one (ISNA) has elected a woman to its top leadership positions. Women representation on boards of American Muslim organizations is quite anemic. With the notable exceptions of Muslim Advocates and ING, none of the major national American Muslim organizations are led by a woman in executive capacity. In contrast, the younger generation has proved more progressive. The Muslim Student Association elected a female to its top position long before any other national American Muslim organization.

One influential American imam recently noted, “Based on the few studies that we have about Muslims in America, we know that 12-18% of Muslims in the United States experience physical abuse, and 30-40% experience emotional abuse.” These numbers almost mirror the rates in the general American population. Gender issues ought to receive more attention. In London a group calling itself Imams Against Domestic Abuse have issued a report titled, “The End to Hitting Women” stating, “Under no circumstances is (such) abuse against women, in its various manifestations, encouraged or allowed in Islam.”


The attitudes of many Islamic groups contravene normative Islam, which when taken holistically supports gender equity despite the presence of isolated texts that are mistaken as relegating women to subservient roles. Chapter 4, Verse 1 from the Quran notes, “People, be mindful of your Lord, who created you from a single soul, and from it created its mate.” This verse along with 7:189 and 42:11 assert without any ambiguity that men and women have the same spiritual nature and they are created out of a single soul (nafsin wahida) and our mates (azwaja) are a part of us (min anfusikum).

The Quran states that both genders are recipients of the “divine breath” since they are created with the same human and spiritual nature, “When I have fashioned him (in due proportion) and breathed into him of My spirit (15:29).” Given that both men and women have the same spirit thus it is only natural that the Quran obligates them to the same religious and moral duties and responsibilities. In 3:195 the Quran states, “I will not allow the deeds of any one of you to be lost, whether you are male or female, each is like the other.” And in 4:124 the Quran notes, “If any do deeds of righteousness be they male or female and have faith they will enter paradise and not the least injustice will be done to them.” And finally 33:35 notes, “For men and women who are devoted to God– believing men and women, obedient men and women, truthful men and women, steadfast men and women, humble men and women, charitable men and women, fasting men and women, chaste men and women, men and women who remember God often– God has prepared forgiveness and a rich reward.”

The repeated and separate references to men and women, was a radically progressive idea at the time when the Quran was first revealed. Why the special emphasis on the female gender? To inform patriarchal societies, to which Prophet Muhammad first preached, that fulfilling the grand purpose of Islam requires justice and fairness towards both men and women. Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second Caliph in Islam, is reported to say, “By God, we didn’t use to think that women had anything until God revealed about them what He revealed in the Qur’an, and distributed to them what He distributed.” This statement shows that the Quranic message was a radical departure from the gender norms in sixth and seventh century Arabia.

The Quranic message was transformative with respect to gender equity, at least among the first generation of Muslims. The first person to believe in the message of Prophet Muhammad was a woman, his first wife Khadija. Two of Prophet Muhammad’s wives, Ayesha along with Umm Salama are among the greatest narrators of Prophetic traditions. Much of what Muslims practice today is transmitted via the scholarship of these two great women. Asma Afsaruddin in her book, “The First Muslims: History and Memory” notes that another women companion, Nusayba bint Kaab, was celebrated for her military skills as she took part in the battles of Uhud, Khaybar, Hunayan and al-Yamama and she was present at the signing of the Treaty of Hudhaybiyah. As a combatant in Uhud, she is said to have sustained wounds on her body while defending the Prophet. Praising her valor, Prophet Muhammad said her position on the battlefield that day was unsurpassed by anyone else, man or woman.

The most sacred place on earth for Muslims, Makkah (Mecca), was founded by Hajar, the wife of Abraham. Her diligence and faith was as remarkable as that of her celebrated husband. It was she who had to face the desolate desert with no water, no shelter, and no food but with responsibilities for an infant baby. It was she who negotiates a deal with the tribe of Jurhum who wanted to settle down around the well of Zam-Zam. Hajar exhibits faith, fearlessness and independence. The first martyr in Islam was a woman, Sumayah. The world’s first academic degree-granting institution of higher education, which is still in operation today, the University of Qarawiyyin in Fes, Morocco, was established by a woman, Fatima al-Fihri.

These examples from the early history of Islam show women participating in every walk of societal life. They were not excluded from public life despite being part of a culture, which prior to Islam, was quite hostile to women. So what happens later? With the passage of time, the public space gained by Muslim women begins to recede. Islamic scholars, mostly male, begin to formulate opinions about women that were less informed by sacred texts and more reflective of their cultural norms. Contemporary scholars have shown that what often passes as religious legacy is in fact a historical product of male subjectivities, a problem that is not unique to Muslims.


Dr. Jamal Badawi in his short book, “Gender Equity in Islam” makes the following observation, “Nowhere does the Qur’an state that one gender is superior to the other. Some mistakenly translate “qiwamah” in 4:34 as superiority, when in reality it implies a greater degree of responsibility.” The aforementioned verse 34 in Surah an-Nisa (4) says, “Men shall take full care of women with the bounties which God has bestowed more abundantly on the former than on the latter, and with what they may spend out of their possessions.” The word “qawwamoona” in this verse has contested meanings. At-Tabari, who was lived only two centuries after the Prophet, conceptualized the relationship of qiwamah as being conditional upon the man being able to take care of the socio-economic needs of his wife. This cannot be generalized as any inherent superiority of men over women. In the Quran “qawwamun” is used three times and in all three occasions it is conjoined with the idea of justice and fairness. Thus, “qawwamun” gives limited and conditional right husbands to assume family leadership so long as their responsibilities are executed with justice and fairness.

Later in the same verse, 4:34, another word “waḍribuhunna” also has contested meanings. The verse reads, “And as for those women whose ill-will you have reason to fear, admonish them, then forsake them from physical intimacy, and then waḍribuhunna.”  The word waḍribuhunna is derived from the triliteral root ḍad ra ba, from which 55 verb forms result in the Quran. These verbs have wide variations in their meanings – from strike (idrib) to travel or put forth (darabu)  and yet Muhammad Asad translates waḍribuhunna as “beat them,” Yusuf Ali as “beat them (lightly)” and Pickthall as “scourge” and Thomas Cleary as “spank them.”

The fallacy of reading sacred texts literally is obvious. Literal reading causes words such as waḍribuhunna to be abused by some men to justify spousal abuse. Domestic violence is as much a real problem across the Muslim world as it is in other societies. World Health Organization says that violence against women is global health problem of epidemic proportions. In some Muslim majority countries the statistics are egregious. For example, in Pakistan, 80 percent of women reported experiencing domestic violence and 50 percent reported being physically battered. In Egypt, 85 percent of women report experiencing sexual harassment.

If waḍribuhunna is indeed beating and since hitting is criminal, does the Quran then sanction a crime on one hand and yet on the other hand speak about justice (qist) and mercy (rahma) as being the foundation of the relationship between a husband and wife? Such contradictions are inconsistent with the overall message of the Quran.

In Lane’s Arabic-English Lexicon one of the definitions of daraba, the root to waḍribuhunna, is “to go away”. This then allows waḍribuhunna to have alternative meanings than the commonly understood “beat” or “strike.” Literally translating waḍribuhunna as “beating” contradicts the central Quranic message of fairness and mercy. Moreover, violence cannot be a cure for marital woes and thus any advice that suggests wife-beating as a way to marital bliss is absurd. In addition, there is no report that Prophet Muhammad ever struck or beat of his wives, even though he like most mortals encountered many marital challenges.

Contemporary Islamic studies scholar, Sadiyya Shaikh, notes that classical scholars such as At-Tabari and Ar-Razi both viewed 4:34 as a staged way to reduce marital conflicts in a culture where violence against women was rampant. At-Tabari went on to note that waḍribuhunna means striking without hurting. But Ar-Razi did not even allow that in his exegesis. He quoted a Prophetic saying stating that men who hit their wives are not among the better men. Ar-Razi suggested that 4:34 was not a license but a restriction on the prevailing male violence. Thus this verse is more descriptive of gender norms at the time of the Quranic revelation not prescriptive of how Muslims in contemporary times should practice spousal relations.


There is an inordinate amount of obsession by both Muslim conservatives and by many non-Muslims (both on the far left and right), about a simple scarf on a woman’s head. Conservatives use hijab (or head covering) as a litmus test for a woman’s piety. Many non-Muslims view hijab as a sign of oppression. The Quranic verse suggesting hijab as sign of modesty for women actually starts with an admonishment to men, “Say to the believing man that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty…” (24:30) Men who flaunt such rules often turn around and blame the victim. One case in point, during the 2013 protests against Mohammed Morsi, during a four-day period ninety-one women were raped and sexually abused.

Like every other aspect of Islam, hijab is a choice. It is woman’s right to determine her own identity and it is her personal expression of devotion to God. It is between her and God. No compulsion can be used to wear or not wear hijab. The most important point about empowering women is to realize that they must be empowered to choose their own paths in life without fear, intimidation or coercion by anybody, neither the fiery mullah nor the radical liberal.


The goal in Islam is for believers to deepen their relationship with God. Social norms are a means to the goal of seeking nearness to God. In trying to deepen this relationship believers must strive to remove any spiritual obstacles that impede their path. The Quran notes God saying, “I will not allow the deeds of any one of you to be lost, whether you are male or female (3:195)” and, “If any do deeds of righteousness be they male or female and have faith they will enter paradise (4:124).”

Thus clearly, from the Quranic perspective, gender is no barrier to spiritual seeking. What then gives men the right to put hurdles in front of women when God places no such additional burdens on them?

An anecdote reported by Sadiyya Shaikh about Ibn Taymiyya and a woman named Umm Zaynab Fatima bint Abbas al-Baghdadiyya is illuminating. Umm Fatima was a spiritual leader, a jurist and provided practical legal responses to people’s questions. She studied with Ibn Taymiyya in Cairo during the fourteenth century. On one occasion Ibn Taymiyya praised Umm Fatima in public circles, not only for her intelligence and knowledge but also for her personal qualities of enthusiasm and excellence. Umm Fatima is known to have delivered public lectures in the mosque and this apparently troubled Ibn Taymiyya, “It unsettled me that she delivered lectures at the mosque and I wished to forbid her, he continued, “until one night I beheld the Prophet Muhammad in a dream and he rebuked me saying “This pious woman performs good works.”

The Muslim community is paying a price for not being able to shake off those cultural norms that have drowned out Islam’s egalitarian vision. Treating women with the inherent dignity that she was created with, ensuring that their rights are preserved and advocating that they are given equitable opportunities to succeed is necessary to uphold the Quranic vision, “O you who have attained to faith! Be ever steadfast in upholding justice,” (4:135).  The way forward requires leveling the playing field, by changing hearts and minds, if possible, or by instituting affirmative actions, when antiquated cultural norms prove too intransigent.

The World Economic Forum asserts a simple truth, “Countries and companies can be competitive only if they develop, attract and retain the best talent, both male and female.” Not only governments need to do more, but so do businesses, civil society and media. Empowering women should be as much a man’s responsibility, as it is a women’s aspiration.

This article was adapted from a Friday Sermon delivered at the Islamic Center of Northeast Florida on December 13, 2103.