Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

The Position of Women in Islam

By Angela Arafat

The role of women in the world over has been dramatically changing in the past century in ways that have left some women wondering what their place really is. In the West women often work, have families and juggle numerous other activities in their efforts to feel like they have an identity of their own and can be good mothers. Then there are those who do not work outside the home, and can be sometimes insecure in their position or sometimes condescending towards those who do work. This entanglement of where we as women belong and find our identities is brought about by the rapid change of our place in society, our opportunities for education, and the huge cultural shift that began with the woman’s right to vote and then slammed into place with the raising of the generation of the “baby boomers” whose mothers had to work during the World Wars. Now we in the West see ourselves as established in having a good position with rights and opportunities on all sides. We can choose what we want, to be full time mothers, or CEO’s of major companies, and we look out into the world and see that not all of the world has changed with us and we worry that we have left some of our ‘sisters’ behind in the dark ages. But have we left them behind or are they content with their dynamic as our grandmothers were before the World Wars?

This question is only exacerbated by the vision of seeing the women of Islam covered from head to toe often in dark colored robes. This seems to our Western eyes as some kind of imprisonment, a symbol of oppression and darkness. France, whose government is struggling to know how to deal with the largest Muslim population in Europe, has called for bans of these head coverings, citing both the symbolism of oppression and national security. Many countries in Europe have begun to raise similar issues. In the States, we look at them and think that in a generation or two these things will fade, knowing how all of our families lost so much of their “Old World” practices as we melted into the Melting Pot of America. But then we look at communities like Dearborn, MI, 1) and we begin to doubt that ideal. Having walked the streets there myself, I can see why. We have the idea that we know that our ways are wonderful, and of course they will just love them. We forget how much culture and time honored traditions stand in the way. And is it really as wonderful as we make it out to be? Many Muslim women look at the Western woman and shake their heads. They see our struggle to do everything that men traditionally do, as well as what women traditionally do and watch out juggling acts with dismay. It is because of this that I think that we as Christians especially need to re-focus our attention to what it is that really matters. The veil or the dress code, or ‘the woman in the workplace’ is not what is vital. What is vital is that every woman be able to come before God and know that He loves them. We don’t have to compel our cultural ideas onto the Eastern world, in fact maybe we can and should learn something from them. Don’t get me wrong, I think that we should stand against the practices that are simply barbaric in nature, such as the circumcision of young girls, honor killings and the like. We do need to seek that every woman knows the Lord as a loving Father and has a safe living environment.

Women in Islam grow with the knowledge that they have a heavy burden of the family honor upon them. They also know that they are expected to fail in the eyes of Allah. The Hadith (traditional sayings in Islam) says that most of the hell-dwellers are women. They are spoken of as being full of seduction and a way to be a distraction to man’s service to Allah. There are many descriptions of what the after life will be like for the believing Muslim man in the Quran and other teachings, but what is said for the place of the believing woman is only that of a life of subjugation to her husband’s sexual pleasure. The Quran states, “Ask the unbelievers if it is true that Allah has daughters, while they themselves choose sons ... Would He choose daughters instead of sons?” While he is speaking of the culture that indeed did hope for sons to inherit, and on occasion were known to bury their girl babies alive, it still reflects at attitude that pervades in Islam to this day. Allah has little interest in women and prefers men. Within the Muslim world a woman is not expected to come to daily prayer worship, but expected to pray at home. Her relationship with Allah is not really a strong issue within her community, only that she is being the example of a “good wife”. Her morality and reputation is how well she and her family will be treated. If her reputation as a moral woman is cast into doubt so too is her husband’s ability as a man. This is also true for the daughters of the home reflecting on their father.

Muhammad’s wives were known for their bickering and jealousies. Only his first wife and daughter are really held in a high esteem in the religious sense. Khadija, his first wife is held in esteem because she believed in her husband, lifted him up in the community socially and is considered one of the first of the believers. She died before he began to take multiple wives, reflecting how important she was to him as well. While Aisha, his well known youngest wife, 2) became a prominent figure after his death, even riding into the wars that followed his death with a sword, was not known to be particularly religious. Fatima, his daughter, holds a special place for many Muslim women but her real impact on the history of Islam came after her father’s death. She was the only one of Muhammad’s children to bear children, and was the daughter of the beloved Khadija. Shi’a scholars say she is his only daughter 3), but Sunni believe her to be the fourth after Zaynab, Ruqayya and Umm Kulthum. She is revered by all Muslims to some extent for her support of her father and held as an example.

Marriage customs vary a great deal throughout the Muslim world, some are traditions held onto from time forgotten, and others are more modern in their make. Most include what we might call a dowry. This dowry is often in the form of jewelry that will be bestowed on the bride at engagement or in wedding itself. This dowry remains the woman’s possession through out her marriage, and even in times of extreme poverty the husband will have no ability to ask for this dowry wealth. Women may, on occasion, volunteer this wealth in order to help the family, but it is her right to keep it under any circumstance. Women often also come with their own inheritance from their families when they join in marriage or after the death of a parent. This inheritance also stays in her possession, and allows her to wield a certain amount of power within her new family. Marriages rarely take place out of class systems. A woman who marries down will always face a certain amount of disgrace within the community, thus her family will do their best to find a mate who is on the same class level or higher than theirs so as to protect her from dishonor. While many Muslim countries have women in high positions within the society, all Muslim countries are convinced that the woman’s real realm is that of the home. Her abilities to raise an honorable family, keep an image of status within the community, her outward respect for her husband, these are the critical foundations of what a woman is in the Eastern community. How those are defined differs from region to region, but the standard remains the same. A young lady who is not taught the basics of housekeeping is not looked upon with high regard. Within a strict Muslim home a man is given permission (not required) to marry up to four wives, with the provision that he provide equally for them. This law puts women in the position of competition with one another on a whole new level. The woman who is the first wife has the place of honor, however, she also faces the shame of having a husband who continued to look for new wives, hinting that she wasn’t sufficient. In communities where this practice is common place the women take this relationship as a fact of life, but none look upon it with eagerness and deep down reject it. 4) There is also Quranic law that permits a husband to beat his wife. (Many translations try to re-word this text, but the tradition of the story 5) that begat the text and the Arabic word used are not to be misunderstood.) A woman, according to the Quran is to be obedient to her husband in all things, as men are superior to women. While this may or may not be practiced throughout the Muslim world, it is the granting of permission that is at issue. That Allah would allow, nay encourage, the humiliation and beating of the wife is simply inexcusable.

While many of us Western women could stand to take a lesson from our Eastern neighbors in taking real delight in the privilege of running a home, finding our joy in lifting up our husbands, and knowing that our identity as a mother is badge of honor enough, the fact remains that Christian women have the knowledge that God is really eager to lift us up as His beloved daughters. That we have a personal relationship with our Lord and knowledge that in Christ He showed us His warm regard. Our place of honor in Him is not based on our ability to build up an image of righteousness, but resting in Him. We are regarded as daughters of the Most High and when we cry, laugh, sing, or sigh we have His ear.  Our status is not born of what class we were born into, how many children we are able to bear, or even how well we obey our husbands, but born in His love. Our place in eternity is on equal ground, in Christ there is no male or female.

Many of the ancient cultures practiced certain laws of cleanliness in order to prevent contagion and promote hygiene in their groups. These laws were put up in order to protect the populace from illnesses, but were often brought into practice by religious command of God or gods depending on the group. Muhammad saw these laws as excellent and brought many of the ancient practices of cleansing oneself before prayer times, after intercourse, and around the meals into the traditions of Islam. The concept of what is haram (forbidden حرام) or halal (lawful حلال ) is integrated into the Muslim society. (Of note:  a woman’s area in the home is referred to as the haramlek  الحرملك, and women as a group are called the harem حريم .) These rules govern a great deal in the Muslim society, from eating and drinking, to sexual relations and many other aspects of their lives.  Muhammad also brought the ancient idea that a woman was unclean before Allah while she was experiencing her menstruation. He states in the Quran, “They ask you about menstruation: say, "It is harmful; you shall avoid sexual intercourse with the women during menstruation; do not approach them until they are rid of it. Once they are rid of it, you may have intercourse with them in the manner designed by Allah. Allah loves the repenters, and He loves those who are clean." Traditionally, the Muslim woman is not to come to prayers or touch the Quran (the holy text of Islam) because of this verse. In the initial portion one sees instruction for a man to avoid his wife sexually during the time of menstruation, but then finishes with a reference to how Allah loves those who are clean, thus the Muslim woman has been seen as unclean during her time of menstruation. Her own bodily functions have brought her to a place where she is dirty before her Allah. A Muslim woman is not to touch her husband after he has done his cleansing rituals for prayer, while he is to greet and shake hands with the men.

Within the Eastern culture, aside from Islam there are standards that hold a tighter grip on the people than that of the law, and those standards are those of honor and shame. This concept cannot be stressed enough to the Western world, where people have very different ideas about shame and honor. This has been in practice for centuries and is very common within tribal societies as a way of dealing with societal problems. Even the Old Testament reflects these ideas; shame is a common theme in the texts. 6) A child in this society isn’t so much taught “right and wrong” as what is shameful and what isn’t.  These emotions are what motivates everyone in the Eastern culture to behave within what the society norms are, but they really set a very strict standard for the woman within.

Then Islam arises in the sixth century and Muhammad sets new standards of shame on women. Asbagh bin Nubatah quotes Imam 'Ali as follows: "Almighty God has created the sexual desire in ten parts; then He gave nine parts to women and one to men. And if the Almighty God had not given the women equal parts of shyness ..." (Wasa'il, vol. 14, p. 40)  This translation to English makes the Arabic word (`awrâ عورة) into the English word of shyness, but the real root and core meaning of this Arabic word is of shame. (The term`awrâ has several connotations within Arabic, the root of the word is awr عور and means defectiveness, blemish or weakness, but is used to also describe nakedness or shame. Awrat  عورات is used to say woman or femininity.) That Allah has provided nine parts of sexual desire to women, and only one to men, but somehow balanced this sexual desire overload by putting nine parts of shame on them reflects how women were seen by the prophet of Islam, and reveals how women must see themselves as full of shame. Her shame was created by Allah, and must be hidden from the eyes of the world, whereas in Christianity we see that only mankind’s sins brought shame onto the human forms that God created. 7) This strange concept is a difficult one to understand, since Muslim men are often excused their sexual lusts and behaviors while the women of Islam are to be held as examples of modesty and propriety. Allah apparently created a confusion here, by giving women an extra nine doses of sexuality, but then puts her in shame of it. Her sexuality is something for her to be ashamed of at all times, and to be hidden. The veil of the Muslim woman is one of covering the creation that Allah gave her that is not only filled with sexual desires but also with shame. Everything in their lives is monitored for shameful behavior, from their dress to their voice tones. 8) Gestures that a girl might see on TV or in school that she imitates might be the very things that bring shame on her, and therefore harsh rebuke, e.g. winking, provocative walk, etc. Everything that she does is weighed with the scale of shame. This shame inundates her life, and comes with a feeling of guilt. This constant burden of shame weighs a Muslim woman’s every action. One Hadith states “All of a woman is Awrah. When she leaves her home, Satan looks at her.” 9) The knowledge that Satan looks at her while out of her home leaves her feeling exposed and sullied.  A Muslim woman cannot come to Allah to pray without being fully covered, hiding her shame-nakedness. 

While the Eastern-Islamic societies lean heavily on shame as a motivator for behavior we are taught in Christ that we have nothing to be ashamed of before Him. Hebrews 12:1-3 says it beautifully, “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” Jesus bore our shame on the cross, bared both physically 10) and spiritually, so that we might lay aside all encumbrances of shame and sin and live our lives with our eyes on Him full of joy. We know that we can come to the Lord in all times. He is our Daddy (Abbaآبا ), who wants to hear from us and longs for relationship with us. What innocent little girl climbs into her father’s lap and worries about if she is indecent? She knows he has held her in infancy and kissed her dirty cheeks, so also do we as God’s little girls have no concerns for our appearances knowing He has loved us through all our mistakes and messes. 11) Our ability to come to Him with a child’s heart, ask His forgiveness for our sins, and then sit with Him in the comfort of a Daddy’s arms is incredibly precious. Thus as Christians we should seek to snatch women from the bonds of Islam that burden her with shame, a sense of not belonging and show her our Daddy so that she too can come to Him and be comforted as a daughter of the King!

My friend, please feel free to write me.



1) In the 2000 census, Arab American comprised 30% of Dearborn's population; many have been in the city for generations. More Iraqi’s have been arriving as refugees from the continued war in their country since 2003. The majority of recent Arab immigrants are Muslim. There are sections of the community in which all the billboards are in Arabic, and a high percentage of the women are covered with the traditional Hijab.

2)  It is argued that Aisha may have been as old as nine when Muhammad took her as his wife, but texts also suggest that she may have been as young as six. It is clear that she was the youngest of his many wives, and arguably a pre-pubescent one at that.

3)  “The Prophet of Islam had only one daughter named Fatima. Her mother Khadija had two other daughters from her two earlier marriages.” as quoted from The Story of Hazrat Fatima(SA), daughter of the Holy Prophet

4) Curiously, even Muhammad had issues with this custom when it came to his own daughter. Fatima’s husband Ali wanted to marry a second and had to come to Muhammad with the question, and was told “Fatima is a part of me and whoever offends her offends me”. The Encyclopaedia of Islam, Vol 2. C-G, Fatima, p. 843

5) The traditional story that brought about the text of the beating of the wife,  goes something like this: A woman comes to Muhammad bruised and bleeding, pleading for him to have mercy on her from her husband’s beatings. Initially, he responds with mercy, but then is given the revelation that indeed a beating for punishment is required after other methods of punishment have been used. The progression of the punishment is evident, as he instructs them to first rebuke, then if the disobedience continues, to remove them from the privilege of the marriage bed, if the disobedience continue still, then to beat them. Some English versions bring up “lightly” or “with a feather” but this does not reflect the actual Arabic text.

6) “A righteous man hates falsehood, but a wicked man acts disgustingly and shamefully.” Proverbs 13:5 and “An excellent wife is the crown of her husband, but she who shames him is like rottenness in his bones.” Proverbs 12:4 are excellent examples of how shame regulated the early Jewish people as well.

7) “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” Genesis 2:24   And later in 3:11 we see God’s response to their sudden shame, “And He said, "Who told you that you were naked?"”

8) “O wives of the Prophet! You are not like any other women. If you keep your duty (to Allah), then be not soft in speech, lest he in whose heart is a disease (of hypocrisy, or evil desire for adultery) should be moved with desire, but speak in an honourable manner”  Al-Ahzaab 33:32.  While this instruction was given to the wives of Muhammad, these examples are held to be the highest standards for women. There are differences of opinion as to whether or not a woman should even be allowed to quote the Quran in a mixed sex setting.

9) This Hadith is reported by Imām At-Tirmidhi in his Sunan. Another version is available at Narrated by Ibn Hibban in his Sahih, #5599

10) “Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took His outer garments and made four parts, a part to every soldier and also the tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece.” John 19: 23  The tunic was the undergarment worn, and when they took that Christ was naked upon the cross.

11) And He said to them, "Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?" (Thus He declared all foods clean.) And He was saying, "That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness." Mark 7:18-22