Despite some popular images of Muslim women as repressed and oppressed, many women today are actively affirming the rights and responsibilities that they believe the Qur’an affords to them. The Holy Book affirms that men and women are created from one soul to be partners to each other, that males and females have the same religious responsibilities, and that both genders will receive like rewards on the day of judgment.
In only a few instances are circumstances for men and women notably different in the Qur’an, and these verses are being seriously studied and interpreted by both women and men today. Passages that seem to affirm male authority over women are based on the Islamic understanding that men are responsible for the financial support of women. Some Muslims argue that they should be reinterpreted in cases where women are now the financial providers. While the Qur’an allows a Muslim man to take up to four wives, it also insists on equal treatment for all. Some Muslim women are ensuring monogamous marriage by making it part of the marriage contract, and polygamy is forbidden in states where it is against the law.
Traditions that have circumscribed the full participation of women in society are being scrutinized and challenged as antithetical to the practices of Prophet Muhammad. Wives of the Prophet, known as the “mothers of the faithful,” serve as models for those Muslim women who want to legitimize female activity in all ranges of society. Historians differ in their explanation of why the freedoms available to the earliest Muslim women were soon denied to most of their successors. In many areas of the world through which Islam spread, and for much of its history, a general patriarchy prevailed. Although it is still the norm in many Islamic countries, in recent years there has been a great deal of discussion about the necessity of reclaiming women’s participation in the public realm.
Much of the conversation about women’s rights has been based on issues of legal reform as new nation-states have tried to work out the particulars of Islamic family and personal laws. In recent years it has focused on such matters as education, activity in various ranges of the workforce, political participation, dress, and the assumption of new roles and responsibilities for women in the practice of the faith. Of course there is not universal agreement on these issues. Many traditional Muslims either actively or passively still affirm the necessity of women remaining at home and publicly inactive. The most extreme form of the segregation of women is displayed in the determination of the Taliban to prohibit women’s education and to promote an exclusion that is neither suggested nor supported by the Qur’an. Most Muslims condemn this treatment of women as intolerable and incompatible with a truly Islamic system.
Muslim women, like their sisters everywhere, differ widely in their interpretations of appropriate attire, behavior and attitude within the Islamic context. Some insist on so-called “Islamic dress” and others do not. Some want to work in the public realm and others do not. Some consider themselves “feminist,” but their definition is usually different from the western understanding of the term. For those who wish to take advantage of them, women’s regional and international networks are growing and are helping Muslim women together to raise appropriate questions and find Islamic answers.