What do Muslim women want? Finding women’s rights in Islam

In Muslim countries, where I’ve spent most of my professional life, complex relationships between women and Islam are defined by Islamic texts, as well as by the historical, cultural and social contexts. Often, the same passage can be interpreted in multiple ways depending on the religious leaders, resulting in stark differences in practice within various Islamic societies.

Even though the Koran proclaims equality between the sexes, men’s superiority is also clearly indicated: “Men are in charge of women by right of what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in the husband's absence what Allah would have them guard. But those wives from whom you fear arrogance—advise them; forsake them in bed; and, strike them. But if they obey you, seek no means against them.”

For rights activists in Muslim societies, this passage is difficult to reconcile with claims that men and women are equal. How do we address this contradiction in a way that allows Muslim women to remain true to their faith?

Gonçalo Silva/Demotix (All rights reserved) 

A girl reading the Koran at a mosque in Cairo, Egypt.



In the past few years, there has been increasing debate on women’s legal rights in Islam, especially in areas such as inheritance, marriage and divorce, as well as laws about the position of women in court procedures. These changes indicate that it may be possible for Muslim doctrine to be reconciled with an interpretation arguing against women’s discrimination. There is also an ongoing debate as to whether women living in Islamic countries are governed by international law treaties or only by Muslim declarations. The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam specifically states that, "woman is equal to man in human dignity", but it doesn’t mention women’s rights. In areas under strict interpretations of Shari’ah law that do not acknowledge any form of international human rights law, women are especially vulnerable.

However, in the Global South, there is a widespread opinion that international law defends only Western values and has little consideration for non-Western cultures. Although there is a Muslim feminism, Muslim and Western feminists’ points of view are very different, and those outside of Islamic culture often make incorrect assumptions about what Muslim women want or need. When the Taliban fell in Afghanistan in 2000, there seemed to be an expectation that Western standards would prevail and that women could be “free from the veil.” But are Islamic women’s rights really as simple as that? False perceptions will only further the distance between Muslims and non-Muslims, which unfortunately becomes very useful for Islamic extremists to justify their actions. 

How do we address this contradiction in a way that allows Muslim women to remain true to their faith?

Although some have argued for a strong separation between religion and human rights, bypassing religious leadership in Islamic countries would be difficult at best, and dangerous at worst. The best way for human rights activists to approach religious groups is to become immersed in the local culture and build relations with local organizations, including authorities, in order to build trust for future constructive collaborations. It takes time to transform local practices along with religious leaders and organizations, especially in situations where many of the practices clearly violate international human rights standards.

Some of the more meaningful progress in favour of women’s rights in Islamic countries has come from civil society groups. Muslim feminist women are fighting fundamentalist interpretations and changing cultural paradigms that force them to choose between religion and their rights. What’s important about these efforts is that Muslim female activists tend to apply concepts such as justice, equality and democracy not only in the public sphere, but also in the family, culture and religion—areas that used to be considered private and therefore free from regulation.

Some organizations working on women’s rights and with religious leaders are Sisters in Islam (Malaysia), the Women’s Aid Collective and BAOBAB (Nigeria), ABAAD (Lebanon) and Femin Ijtihad (Afghanistan), a group with which I’ve collaborated. Ijtihad is an Islamic term meaning, “independent reasoning”, and Femin Ijtihad is a network of Muslim and non-Muslim women in different countries focusing on Afghanistan. They study and investigate women’s positions and work to ensure that Islam acknowledges a number of women’s rights. Their investigations reveal that repressive interpretations are mostly due to the influence of cultural practices and values placing women as inferior and subordinate to men.

In 2012, Femin Ijtihad and the Women and Children Legal Research Foundation (WCLRF) developed an innovative and participatory training methodology and manual for community mobilizers in Kabul and Jalalabad (Afghanistan) on women’s economic rights. The project was innovative for three reasons: 1) its use of illustrations as a teaching method on inheritance-divisions; 2) promoting women’s inheritance rights with the least emphasis on the language of “women’s rights” (a contentious subject in conservative areas); and 3) promoting an understanding of the multiplier effect of women’s economic empowerment to the community and nation. Twelve community conversations have been held so far, with participation from 180 community members, leaders, educators and religious elders.

Although the fundamental values of every major religious tradition defend the dignity and rights of human beings, some religiously derived beliefs and practices do promote or tolerate violence and discrimination against women. Some of these practices, such as female genital mutilation and early age marriage, are sometimes carried out in the name of religion, although they are typically based in old cultural traditions. In those cases, the participation of key religious leaders—by pointing out practices that don’t comply with religious principles—might be fundamental to address and end those traditions.

For example, in 2005 a male worker at BAOBAB recounted how he helped defend a Nigerian woman sentenced to be stoned to death for giving birth out of wedlock. The worker explained how a Shari’ah judge broke tradition and opposed to the sentence after attending a training program. Later, a Nigerian imam, after listening to a message from BAOBAB calling to ijtihad, surprisingly urged Muslims to look for alternative schools of thought.

In some cases, however, religious actors may hesitate to deal with especially sensitive issues—especially regarding sex and gender-based violence—seen as taboo in certain socio-cultural contexts. These topics might include reproductive health, menstrual hygiene, sexuality (especially homosexuality), drug abuse, sex work, and so on. But addressing these most sensitive issues is key to promoting equal access to health services and education. The silence and stigmatization surrounding such important questions can easily cause tension in religious communities. In the end, this tension further threatens human rights and erodes women’s trust in their religious leaders.