Women in the Qur’an

Time and time again, I had heard people claim that Islam was inherently misogynistic.  They supported their arguments with detailed accounts of female genital “mutilation,” honor killings, and arranged marriages.  This line of thinking is reinforced in media representations of Islam and public comments citing Islam as the source of women’s oppression and exploitation.  Although their arguments were convincing, I could not help but see them as flawed.  I had plenty of questions, but had yet to find unbiased answers.  If Islam is, as some say, inherently anti-woman, why is violence against women a problem facing the entire world?  Why has Islam been understood and regarded differently in certain time periods and geographical locations?  Were their arguments rooted in facts, supported by religious texts?  Or were they based off hearsay, misinterpretation, and cultural imperialism?

It was not until my second year in college that I finally found a place to voice these concerns.  In a course I took on cross-cultural perspectives on human rights, we discussed female genital cutting after reading Born in the Big Rains by Fadumo Korn and addressed the “issue” of the burqa when we read Malalai Joya’s, A Woman Among Warlords.  After reading the texts, doing outside research, and blogging about the different topics, I realized how many disparities there are in anti-Islamic arguments.  Where did the Qur’an say that women were inferior?  Where were the passages condoning inequality and injustice?

A few months later, I set off on a feminist and queer studies program in Europe, in which we often discussed the relationship between women and Islam.  In class, we spent a great deal of time reading theory about feminism and multiculturalism.  On the one hand there were theorists such as Susan Moller Okin who argued that multiculturalism was “bad for women.”  On the other hand, we read works by Homi Bhabha and Leila Ahmed who advocated for a comprehensive, unbiased understanding of different cultures.  This was of particular importance during our stays in Berlin, Germany and Utrecht, the Netherlands.  In Berlin, Muslims are being scapegoated and criminalized by a political agenda which aims to build a divide between German citizens and immigrants.  In The Netherlands, the right-wing government was launching a full-on war against Muslims.  For example, they were (are) interested in passing a law which would ban women from wearing the burqa, yet there are only about one hundred women in the country that actually wear the burqa.  Islamophobic attitudes are widespread there, only to be reinforced by politicians such as Geert Wilders and activists such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Upon returning to the United States, I wanted to immerse myself in literature and media about women’s experiences in Islamic cultures; I was interested in challenging myself to understand cultural differences through a new paradigm.  What better way to do this than by designing an independent project consisting of literature by feminist theorists, Islamic activists, and critics of Islam?

In Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective, Amina Wadud offers one of the first  “female inclusive reading[s] of the Qur’an” (ix).  Dozens, if not hundreds, of male theorists and scholars had already taken on this task in the past, but none of them had paid specific attention to the role of gender and sexuality in the text.  Because of this, Wadud felt it was necessary for her to offer an alternative interpretation.  Prior to writing her book, Wadud had already come to pretty strong conclusions about women’s experiences in Islamic societies.

“However, I reasoned that only explicit Qur’anic indication that women and men were other than co-equals could require acceptance of this inequality as a basis of faithfulness to islam.  Mercifully, the more research I did into the Qur’an… the more affirmed I was that in Islam a female person was intended to be primordially, cosmologically, eschatologically, spiritually, and morally a full human being, equal to all who accepted Allah as Lord, Muhammad as prophet, and Islam as din” (ix-x).

Like Wadud, I had also come to this conclusion without doing much research on the actual religious texts.  Because of this, I felt it was important for me to read Wadud’s book and make sure my thoughts were grounded in reality.

Because Wadud’s research was specifically focusing on gender, she only offered translations for the passages which pertained to her study.  These included passages which were often used to justify gender inequality and other passages which clearly show the importance of equality in the Qur’an.  Before delving into the text, Wadud offers a brief explanation for how and why others have interpreted the text to be anti-woman.  She argues that attitudes towards women in society are inextricably linked to the ways in which we think, act, and interact with the world.  Therefore, if a man in a patriarchal society attempts to translate a text, he is likely to include his own perspective in his analysis, ultimately skewing the interpretation to match up with his worldview.  Some would say that this argument can be used to invalidate Wadud’s argument, but I would respond to this by pointing to the fact that Wadud’s reading is supported by linguistics and historical evidence.

She goes on to discuss how all those that have interpreted the Qur’an recognizes that it is founded on principles of respect, equality, and social justice.  All of these principles are not gendered, but become gendered through interpretative processes.  The Qur’an does not make distinctions based on gender, but rather on piety and morality; all those that follow these Qur’anic principles are supposed to be treated justly.  This idea is further reinforced by the understanding that all individuals come from a single origin and are expected to live collectively for the greater good of the community.

Another interesting idea that Wadud discusses in her book is biological differences between the sexes.  Although the Qur’an recognizes these differences, it does not provide a “detailed prescription set on how to function, culturally” (8).  Because the Qur’an was intended to be a universal, adaptable text, the specific details were left for interpretation.  This, however, has led to a very problematic state, in which social inequality is justified as part of Islamic cultures.  One example that Wadud gives is mothering.  In the Qur’an, women are categorized as having a “primary” responsibility to childbearing; because women are the only individuals capable of giving birth, this function becomes essential to human evolution.  This has come to be interpreted as a justification for women’s roles in the private sphere, namely childcare.  However, as Wadud notes, “No indication is given that mothering is her exclusive role.  Wadud concludes this section of the text by explaining how all tasks within a given society must be accomplished, regardless of who is performing the task, “because fulfilling the task  needed for survival takes precedence over socially determined roles” (67).

Wadud offers strong support for her arguments, but there were time that I felt unconvinced.  One example is the Qur’an’s explicit condemnation of a woman’s “wanton display” (97).  In response to this, Wadud says that “women are used to state a general principle” which applies equally to all that worship Allah.  However, I have a hard time understanding this in light of her discussions of linguistics.  Why would the text use the feminine plural in this instance, when it’s use has been so limited throughout the rest of the Qur’an?  Although I disagree with modern interpretations which associate this with women being confined in their homes, I also find myself disagreeing with Wadud’s interpretation of this passage.

Overall, I find that my feelings towards the Muslim religion have not changed drastically after reading Qur’an and Woman.  However, I feel that this text was very useful in helping me understand how and why my opinions were an accurate understanding of the state of Islam today.  Although I disagree with parts of Wadud’s rereading, I agree with her on the big picture, so to speak.  The “social problems” taking place in Islamic countries are not limited to specific geographical locations; violence against women, misogyny, and gendered oppression are problems which can be found in nearly all cultures in any time period.  They do not occur because of specific cultural beliefs or religions; rather, they reflect the foundations of gender inequality: patriarchy, sexism, and power dynamics.


There is no sentence in the Qur’an which justifies these inequalities.  In fact, the Qur’an allows readers to interpret the text and appropriate it to their specific cultural setting.  For this reason, Islamic societies have allowed themselves to transform over time.

“Any interpretations which narrowly apply the Qur’anic guidelines only to literal mimics of of the original community do an injustice to the text… no community can be a duplicate of that original community.  The Qur’an never states this as the goal.  Rather, the goal has been to emulate certain key principles of human development: justice, equity, harmony, moral responsibility, social awareness, and development” (95).

Associating Islam with these beliefs only helps perpetuate myths, stereotypes, and Islamophobia.  Although I would like to believe that these are unintended consequences, I recognize that they are part of a larger, global, political agenda, which I hope to discuss more in future posts.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. jbrowdy
    Mar 13, 2011 @ 07:31:16

    Is this video Wadud herself? Very interesting!


  2. Trackback: Ayaan Hirsi Ali and “Emancipation” for Women in Islam « my life as a feminista

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