Persecution of women in Muslim- majority countries makes headlines on almost daily basis—everything from stonings of allegedly adulterous women to child marriages. Ironically, both proponents and critics of these restrictive policies are quick to justify their actions or blame principles within Islam. However, even a cursory view of Islamic injunctions on women’s rights reveals otherwise.
In an in-depth and engaging article originally published in the Ahmadiyya Gazette, Rafi Ahmed addresses the issue of gender equality in Islam. Drawing from both Quranic principle and historical examples, Ahmed not only places gender inequality in cultural context, but also refutes allegations that Islam is a sexist religion.
Gender Equality in Islam: Myth or Reality?
Rafi Ahmed, Ph.D.
(This essay was originally published in the March 2013 issue of the Ahmadiyya Gazette USA)
When I am asked about the question of gender equality in Islam, I reply that there is a short answer and a long answer. However, people insist that only the short answer be given. But the short answer – whether it is affirmative or negative – can be misleading. Therefore, the long answer will be addressed first here.
Before gender equality in Islam is discussed, a bit of perspective will surely be useful. Throughout recorded history, women have been dehumanized, dispossessed, diminished, degraded, marginalized, disenfranchised, secluded, subjugated, and silenced .
In ancient India, widows were forced to be burnt alive on the pyre of their dead husbands.
In pre-Islamic Arabia, female infants were buried alive. Female infanticide still occurs in many countries.
In England, prior to the enactment of the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, any income earned or any property inherited by a woman automatically became the property of her husband. Around that time, John Stuart Mill, the preeminent British political scientist, wrote that “In this respect the wife’s position under the common law of England is worse than that of slaves …” . Similar conditions prevailed in France before 1930.
Under the Pakistani hudood ordinances enacted in 1977, a woman who brings charges of rape is asked to produce four Muslim male eye-witnesses of the incident, and if she fails to produce the witnesses, she is charged and punished for the crime of adultery .
In 2002, the Saudi religious police forced fleeing young girls back into a blazing school building in Mecca, because the girls had not put on their abāyas.
In 2007, the Egyptian government reported that 96 percent of women in that country undergo forced genital mutilation .
According to a US governmental survey of 2011, over 18% of women in the US have been raped at some time in their lives .
And recently, we learnt with horror about the Taliban’s near-fatal attack on a fifteen-year-old Pakistani girl for the “crime” of championing the cause of women’s education .
The list of enormities against women is long and excruciating. But their rationalizations are even worse.
Social conditions and prevailing cultural values play a crucial role in the perception of what gender equality means. So let us ask: Are men and women equal? Or are some more equal than others? Are men and women equal in intellectual abilities? Or are there innate differences? These are sensitive questions, but critical ones, since demands for equal rights and opportunities presuppose equal abilities.
In 2005, Laurence Summers, then president of Harvard University, publicly wondered whether women have the same innate abilities in mathematical sciences as men . The bitter-sweet irony of this insinuation  is that the recent accomplishments of women have raised the bar so high that now it can be settled only by comparing original contributions made at the highest level of mathematical sciences.
On the one hand, only 13 women have been awarded Nobel prizes in science so far . But on the other hand, a total of 12 men of Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, and Arab origins have received the Nobel prizes in science . For either of these two groups, the small numbers cannot be attributed to innate differences in ability. Research in this area has identified important cultural and societal factors such as lack of opportunity, role models, and motivation that seem to explain such under accomplishment.
In recent years, American universities awarded 27% of PhDs in mathematics to women . Women now form 20% of the MIT faculty . The mathematically precocious girl to boy ratio is currently 1-to-2.8, an almost five-fold increase during the last two decades .
Let us put this in perspective. We still live in a man’s world. But the women’s movements have made significant contributions towards raising consciousness. It is only during the latter half of the last century that women started going for higher education in any significant number. The gap between male and female representation in the physical sciences is being constantly narrowed.
The Quranic Principle
In the Islamic worldview, biological differences between men and women are recognized and the supreme virtue of motherhood is extolled, but for the Quran biology is not destiny.
The Holy Quran expresses the moral and spiritual equality of men and women by balancing virtues and rewards for both genders in identical terms.
Surely, men who submit themselves to God and women who submit themselves to Him, and believing men and believing women, and obedient men and obedient women, and truthful men and truthful women, and men steadfast in their faith and steadfast women, and men who are humble and women who are humble, and men who give alms and women who give alms, and men who fast and women who fast, and men who are chaste and women who are chaste, and men and women who remember Allah much – Allah has prepared for all of them forgiveness and a great reward. [33:36]
The ethical qualities enumerated by the Quran for both men and women also have social and political dimensions with far reaching implications.
It is remarkable that the Quran makes absolutely no statements about the inherent ethical or intellectual superiority of men over women. On the contrary, it says:
O mankind, We have created you from a male and a female; and We have made you tribes and sub-tribes that you may know one another. Verily, the most honorable among you, in the sight of Allah, is the one who is the most righteous among you. Surely, Allah is All-Knowing, All-Aware. [49: 14]
The Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) echoed the same principles of equality and egalitarianism in his last sermon.
All of you are equal. Even as the fingers of the two hands are equal, so are human beings equal to one another. No one has any claim of superiority over another. The most honored among you in the sight of God is the most righteous among you. 
Most of us have heard the Prophet’s last sermon hundreds of time – but rarely, it would appear, in the context of gender equality.
But one of the central messages of the sermon is that ‘the content of our character’ – to borrow a phrase from Dr. King – not the configuration of our chromosomes that matters.
Nevertheless, the Quran has prescribed different rights and obligations for men and women under some specific conditions. Let us examine some of these Quranic differences.
The commandment for the hijab is given in two verses (24:31, 33:60) in the Quran; neither explicitly prescribes covering of the face. The Quran commands both men and women to restrain their eyes and guard their chastity, but it requires women to wear a head covering or an outer garment to prevent them from being treated as mere sex objects. Further, the specific Quranic command (33:44) for sequestering the wives of the Holy Prophet is not to be applied to all believing women.
The system of the hijab or purdah – which comprises a wide spectrum of practices – is seen in the West as emblematic of gender inequality and as a tool for the seclusion and subjugation of women. This perception is often based on the way purdah is practiced in Muslim countries. However, Dannenbaum  found that some women find the hijab liberating and noted that there is an element of cultural imperialism in the West’s criticism of the hijab that does not result in segregation.
Germaine Greer, a prominent feminist, observed : “What more could women want? Freedom; freedom from being looked at; … freedom from self-consciousness; freedom from the duty of sexual stimulation of jaded male appetite; freedom from the uncomfortable clothes that must be worn to titillate … Now it is even more important to underline women’s right to reject male advances … and the right to chastity.” This observation, although coming unexpectedly from a feminist, underscores the spirit of the hijab.
Many believe that the verse (2:283) relating to witnessing financial transactions imply that two females are equivalent to one male. But according to Hadhrat Khalifatul-Masih IVRA  and Hadhrat Zafrulla Khan , the provision is concerned only with the preservation of evidence and not with the weight to be attached to the testimony. Nor can this provision be generalized beyond the specified scope of financial transactions.
The Quran (2:229, 4:35) describes respective roles of a married couple and says that husbands and wives have rights in equitable reciprocity, but the husband has a supervisory role in the marriage, since he is responsible for the financial upkeep of the family. However, the supervisory role is limited in legal terms. Furthermore, this relative difference of roles cannot be used to deduce an inferior civil and legal position for women.
In the Islamic inheritance laws, the share of a female is half of her male sibling. Clearly, the amounts of inheritance for men and women, in general, are unrelated. The difference in the share is explained by the greater financial responsibility given to men. Nonetheless, other inequalities cannot be deduced from the inheritance law.
It is evident that the specific and well-defined imparities in the Quran cannot be – and must not be – construed to sanction a universal gender inequality.
Islam – The Emancipator of Woman
Hadhrat Khalifatul-Masih IIRA described the status of women before the advent of Islam.
“Before the advent of the Holy Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) women in all countries were in the position of slave and chattels, and their slavery could not but have affected adversely even on men.” 
When we ponder upon the wisdom contained in these words, we realize that the subjugation of women leads to the suppression of men’s minds.
Hadhrat Khalifatul-Masih IIRA continues.
“The Holy Prophet declared that God has particularly entrusted him with the task of safeguarding the rights of women. He proclaimed in the name of God that man and woman by virtue of their humanity were equal to each other.” 
Islam presented a revolutionary concept. It emancipated woman. It gave woman the right to inherit property. It gave her the right to own and manage it individually and independently. It gave her the right to seek dissolution of her marriage and remarry, if she wished. Fourteen centuries ago, Islam gave the woman an independent legal status.
The Holy Prophet promoted education and welfare of woman. The Prophet declared that “it was incumbent upon every Muslim man and every Muslim woman to acquire knowledge”. He commanded that “the rights of women are sacred; see to it that the rights of women are granted to them.”
Paul Findley, a U.S. Congressman, who studied Islamic history, wrote that “Islam may be the single most liberating influence on the status of women in recorded history” .
The Medieval Mindset
However, over the centuries, many evils crept back into Muslim societies, as indigenous cultural values, patriarchal traditions, dormant misogyny, and the power dynamics between genders reasserted themselves in the guise of religious orthodoxy. This retrogressive trend has been correctly attributed to “the medieval-minded Muslim clergy” in the succinct phrase  of Hadhrat Khalifatul-Masih IVRA.
In his book The Revival of the Religious Knowledge, Al-Ghazālī, an influential Muslim theologian, advocated  that women be kept ignorant: “She must not be well-informed nor must she be taught to write. She should stay at home. … If you relax the woman’s leash a tiny bit, she will take you and bolt wildly. … Their deception is awesome; their guile is immense and contagious. Wickedness and feeble mind are their predominant traits.”
Ghazali, who lived in the 11th century, is a typical example of the medieval-minded clergy. But even today, the medieval mindset remains at large. An article  in the Review of Religions accurately analyzed the workings of the medieval-mindset trapped in the 21st century: “Women’s empowerment is a threat to their ideology, and whilst attempting to obliterate any attempts that jeopardize their established dogma, they cite ‘Islam’ as a way of justifying it.”
In order to perpetuate patriarchy – the structure of male authority – the medieval mindset insists on perceiving women exclusively in relation to their male relatives. In this view, the woman does not have any independent existence or identity – she is almost a possession, often an adversary, invariably an ancillary, always a derived entity. In their relentless pursuit of fundamental gender inequality, the medieval-minded clergy inverts the relationship between the Quran and the hadith by using unreliable ahadith to override the Quran.
A hadith from Tirmidhi (Kitab-un-Nikah) is often quoted to support blatant inequality between husbands and wives. In that hadith, the Holy Prophet is alleged to have said: “If I were to order someone to prostrate before any other human being, I would order women to prostrate before their husbands.”
This hadith, which was rejected by both Bukhari and Muslim, contradicts the sole Quranic criterion for honor. Let us set aside for a moment the entirely un-Islamic question of prostration to humans and consider. If preeminence is to be established and obeisance is to be paid, it stands to reason that obeisance must be paid by an impious husband to his pious wife – not vice versa.
The Ahmadiyya Reform
After centuries of moral decline and medieval-minded thinking, the modern age needed a new mission that renews the moral and spiritual revolution of the Holy Prophet – that is the mission of the Promised MessiahAW and of his khalifas.
The Promised MessiahAW gave the golden rule that rectifies the inverted relationship by using the Quran as the touchstone for the hadith.
“It is a fact that there exist a large number of fabricated ahadith, which have caused a great deal of disruption in Islam. … If there is a hadith which stands in contradiction of what has been stated in the Quran, you should exercise your reasoning to reconcile its interpretation, but where no such reconciliation is possible, the hadith should be rejected and thrown aside, since it cannot be taken to have come from the Holy Prophet. 
More than a century ago, the Promised MessiahAW made an observation about the permissibility and scope of pre-nuptial agreement. It is a statement far ahead of its time and quite in accord with the demands of justice.
“Women have the right to lay down the condition that the husband will, under no circumstances whatsoever, marry another woman. If this condition is laid down before marriage, the husband will be guilty of breach of contract, if he goes on to marry another. … If the first wife feels that her right as a wife will be placed in jeopardy by the second marriage of her husband, she can seek a way out by demanding a divorce; and should the husband be unwilling to comply with her demand, she can enforce separation through the court.” 
Hadhrat Khalifatul Masih IVRA wrote about the true concept of gender segregation.
“Segregation is grossly misunderstood when it is conceived as an imposition or restriction on female members of the Muslim society from fully participating in all spheres of human activities. This is not true.” 
In other words, purdah must not be allowed to create an impediment to women’s full participation in all honorable areas of human activities.
Hadhrat Khalifatul-Masih IIRA made an observation about the status of women in Islam.
“Women, in short, were to have an independent status. All the spiritual rewards were open to her. … Even in this life she could take part in the different departments of civil administration. In this regard, she was to have the same consideration paid to her as that accorded to man.” 
Hadhrat Khalifatul-Masih IVRA noted the contributions of Islam.
“The status of women was raised to such a high standard that they could not be treated as helpless commodities. They were given an equal share in the affairs of life. Whereas previously they were distributed as chattels of inheritance, now they could inherit estates of their fathers. They could also stand up to their husbands and talk back to them. They could reason with them and, of course, had the full right to disagree.” 
The key phrase here is “an equal share in the affairs of life”.
Describing the Ahmadiyya Centenary (1989) speech of Hadhrat Khalifatul-Masih IVRA, Ian Adamson wrote : “The Khalifa emphasized that he wanted women as doctors, architects, lawyers, teachers and engineers as well as men. Women had not only equal rights in Islam, they had special rights.” This wish of Hadhrat Khalifatul-Masih IVRA seems to have come true in the U.S., where women excel in many areas .
It is essential to understand that – no matter how noble and egalitarian some principles may be – the social conditions must be right for those principles to be implemented. For example, the right of a Muslim woman to own and manage her property independently of her husband empowers her by establishing her independent financial and legal position. But if society or the community does not create the conditions for her to acquire and use the skills to manage it, then that God-given right is effectively revoked by the society.
So is gender equality in Islam a myth or reality? The short answer to this question, long overdue, must be given in conclusion. It is what we make it to be.
The Holy Quran proclaims, “There is no doubt that it is a perfect book, and guidance for the righteous” [2:3]. May we be guided by the Holy Quran in building a fair community and a just society, where women and men are given fundamental equality, full responsibility, all the opportunity, and true dignity.
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- Ian Adamson, “A Man of God”, George Shepherd, 1990
- R. Ahmed, et al, “An Overview of National Education Data”, The Ahmadiyya Gazette USA, October 2012
Rafi Ahmed is a computer scientist, who has published over 25 research papers in peer-reviewed journals. He is the inventor of 17 U.S. patents. His articles have appeared in an encyclopedia and database system text books. He has given invited talks at international conferences and academia.
He serves as the assistant national education secretary of AMC, USA. He regularly speaks and writes on theological subjects. His articles have appeared in the Ahmadiyya Gazette USA, the Review of Religions, and on www.alislam.org.
Further readings in the Ahmadiyya Gazette can be found here.