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File:Syrian Bedouin woman at World's Columbian Exposition 1893.jpg

Syrian Bedouin woman, 1893.

Template:Women in society Women in the Arab world, have an important role in Islamic Societies. They are both respecting and held in honor in various traditions. A common misconception to Arabian women is that they are oppressed and denied freedom and being forced to wear Hijab. Instead it is entirely up them to cover themselves in public. Most women observe their chasity until marriage as it is believed to be chaste and more pure. Modern day status of women is entirely different, from the time of the Golden age of Muslims, as people have given up the true meanings of peace and took the role of oppression instead. These people often criticize women, oppress and deny them rights to education, healthcare and a standing right in society.

Arab women before Islam


Costumes of Arab women, fourth to sixth century.

Many people / writers have discussed the status of women in pre-Islamic Arabia, and their findings have been mixed.[1] Under the customary tribal law existing in Arabia at the advent of Islam, women as a general rule had virtually no legal status. They were sold into marriage by their guardians for a price paid to the guardian, the husband could terminate the union at will, and women had little or no property or succession rights.[2] Some writers have argued that women before Islam were more liberated drawing most often on the first marriage of Muhammad and that of Muhammad's parents, but also on other points such as worship of female idols at Mecca.[1] Other writers, on the contrary, have argued that women's status in pre-Islamic Arabia was poor, citing practices of female infanticide, unlimited polygyny, patrilineal marriage and others.[1] Valentine M. Moghadam analyzes the situation of women from a marxist theoretical framework and argues that the position of women are mostly influenced by the extent of urbanization, industrialization, poletarization and political ploys of the state managers rather than culture or intrinsic properties of Islam; Islam, Moghadam argues, is neither more nor less patriarchal than other world religions especially Christianity and Judaism.[3][4]

In pre-Islamic Arabia, women's status varied widely according to laws and cultural norms of the tribes in which they lived. In the prosperous southern region of the Arabian Peninsula, for example, the religious edicts of Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism held sway among the Sabians and Himyarites. In other places such as the city of Makkah (Mecca) -- where the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, was born—a tribal set of rights was in place. This was also true amongst the Bedouin (desert dwellers), and this code varied from tribe to tribe. Thus there was no single definition of the roles played, and rights held, by women prior to the advent of Islam.

In some tribes, women were emancipated even in comparison with many of today's standards.[5][6] There were instances where women held high positions of power and authority.

In other tribes, women were of low status or even worse. Women enjoyed no rights whatsoever and were treated no better than a commodity. Not only they were enslaved, but they could also be inherited as a possession. They were subordinate to their fathers, brothers, and husbands[7]. In some instances, women were chattels, effectively property. A woman had no share in inheritance because she was regarded as unwise and incapable of effectively managing her inherited property. There were also patterns of homicidal abuse of women and girls, including instances of killing female infants considered to be a liability. The Quran mentions that the Arabs in Jahiliya (the period of ignorance or pre-islamic period) used to bury their daughters alive.[8] The barbaric custom of burying female infants alive, comments a noted Quranic commentator, Mohammad Asad, seems to have been fairly widespread in pre-islamic Arabia. The motives were twofold: the fear that an increase in female offspring would result in economic burden, as well as the fear of the humiliation frequently caused by girls being captured by a hostile tribe and subsequently preferring their captors to their parents and brothers.[9] In his book Infanticide: Comparative and Evolutionary Perspectives, Glenn Hausfater details how Qais Bin Assem, a leader of the Tamim tribe, killed every daughter he had for fear of their capture (and his disgrace) in the inter-tribal wars that dominated Arabian society at that time. According to some scholars; during times of famine, especially, poorer families were likely to kill a daughter, regarding her as a burden on a starving family.[citation needed]

It is generally accepted that Islam changed the structure of Arab society and to a large degree unified the people, reforming and standardizing gender roles throughout the region. According to Islamic studies professor William Montgomery Watt, Islam improved the status of women by "instituting rights of property ownership, inheritance, education and divorce."[10] Some writers, however, disagree.[11]

Arab women after Islam

File:Maler der Geschichte von Bayâd und Riyâd 002.jpg

A page from an Arabic manuscript from the 12th century, depicting a man playing the oud among women, (Hadith Bayad wa Riyad).

Islam was introduced in the Arabian peninsula in the seventh century, and generally improved the status of women compared to earlier Arab cultures.[12] According to the Qur'anic decrees, both men and women have the same duties and responsibilities in their worship of God. As the Qur'an states: "I will not suffer to be lost the work of any of you whether male or female. You proceed one from another".(Qur'an 3:195)

The Qur'an rejected the traditional and cultural practice of killing unwanted female children soon after birth. As it appears in (Qur'an 16:58-59),the religious message states: "When news is brought to one of them, of (the birth of) a female (child), his face darkens, and he is filled with inward grief. With shame he hides himself from his people, because of the bad news he has had! shall he retain it (his face) (sufferance and) contempt, or bury it in the dust? Ah! what an evil (choice) they decide on!" The Prophet of Islam said that "one to whom a daughter is born and who does not bury her alive, does not humiliate her not prefer a son to a daughter, will be sent to Paradise".[13] Another tradition of Muhammad makes hell fire prohibited to he who undergoes trials and tribulations due to a daughter and yet does not hate her and behaves well towards her.[14]

The Islamic studies professor William Montgomery Watt states:

It is true that Islam is still, in many ways, a man’s religion. But I think I’ve found evidence in some of the early sources that seems to show that Muhammad made things better for women. It appears that in some parts of Arabia, notably in Mecca, a matrilineal system was in the process of being replaced by a patrilineal one at the time of Muhammad. Growing prosperity caused by a shifting of trade routes was accompanied by a growth in individualism. Men were amassing considerable personal wealth and wanted to be sure that this would be inherited by their own actual sons, and not simply by an extended family of their sisters’ sons. This led to a deterioration in the rights of women. At the time Islam began, the conditions of women were terrible - they had no right to own property, were supposed to be the property of the man, and if the man died everything went to his sons. Muhammad improved things quite a lot. By instituting rights of property ownership, inheritance, education and divorce, he gave women certain basic safeguards. Set in such historical context the Prophet can be seen as a figure who testified on behalf of women’s rights. [15]

Early reforms

During the early reforms under Islam in the 7th century, reforms in women's rights affected marriage, divorce and inheritance.[16] Women were not accorded with such legal status in other cultures, including the West, until centuries later.[17] The Oxford Dictionary of Islam states that the general improvement of the status of Arab women included prohibition of female infanticide and recognizing women's full personhood.[18] "The dowry, previously regarded as a bride-price paid to the father, became a nuptial gift retained by the wife as part of her personal property."[16][19] Under Islamic law, marriage was no longer viewed as a "status" but rather as a "contract", in which the woman's consent was imperative.[16][19][20] "Women were given inheritance rights in a patriarchal society that had previously restricted inheritance to male relatives."[16] Annemarie Schimmel states that "compared to the pre-Islamic position of women, Islamic legislation meant an enormous progress; the woman has the right, at least according to the letter of the law, to administer the wealth she has brought into the family or has earned by her own work."[21] William Montgomery Watt states that Muhammad, in the historical context of his time, can be seen as a figure who testified on behalf of women’s rights and improved things considerably. Watt explains: "At the time Islam began, the conditions of women were terrible - they had no right to own property, were supposed to be the property of the man, and if the man died everything went to his sons." Muhammad, however, by "instituting rights of property ownership, inheritance, education and divorce, gave women certain basic safeguards."[22] Haddad and Esposito state that "Muhammad granted women rights and privileges in the sphere of family life, marriage, education, and economic endeavors, rights that help improve women's status in society."[23]


Women played an important role in the foundations of many Islamic educational institutions, such as Fatima al-Fihri's founding of the University of Al Karaouine in 859. This continued through to the Ayyubid dynasty in the 12th and 13th centuries, when 160 mosques and madrasahs were established in Damascus, 26 of which were funded by women through the Waqf (charitable trust or trust law) system. Half of all the royal patrons for these institutions were also women.[24] As a result, opportunities arose for female education in the medieval Islamic world. According to Sunni scholar Ibn Asakir in the 12th century, women could study, earn ijazahs (academic degrees), and qualify as scholars and teachers. This was especially the case for learned and scholarly families, who wanted to ensure the highest possible education for both their sons and daughters.[25] Ibn Asakir had himself studied under 80 different female teachers in his time. Female education in the Islamic world was inspired by Muhammad's wives: Khadijah, a successful businesswoman, and Aisha, a renowned hadith scholar and military leader. According to Aisha, the wife of the Muhammed, "How splended were the women of Ansar [the medinese "helpers" of the Prophet -shame did not prevent them from becoming learned in the faith". According to a hadith attributed to Muhammad, he praised the women of Medina because of their desire for religious knowledge.[26]


The labor force in the Arab Caliphate were employed from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds, while both men and women were involved in diverse occupations and economic activities.[27] Women were employed in a wide range of commercial activities and diverse occupations[28] in the primary sector (as farmers for example), secondary sector (as construction workers, dyers, spinners, etc.) and tertiary sector (as investors, doctors, nurses, presidents of guilds, brokers, peddlers, lenders, scholars, etc.).[29] Muslim women also held a monopoly over certain branches of the textile industry,[28] the largest and most specialized and market-oriented industry at the time, in occupations such as spinning, dying, and embroidery. In comparison, female property rights and wage labour were relatively uncommon in Europe until the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries.[30] Women's economic position was strenghhened by the Quran, but local custom has weakened that position in its insistence that women must work within private sector of the world: the home or at least in some sphere related to home. Dr. Nadia YousaF, an Egyptian sociologist now teaching in the United States, states in a recent article on labor-force participation by women of Middle Eastern and Latin American Countries that the "Middle East reports systematically the lowest female activity rates on record" for labor. This certainly gives the impression that Middle Eastern women have little or no economical role, until one notes that the statistics are based on non-agricultural labor outside the home.[31]

In the 12th century, the most famous Islamic philosopher and qadi (judge) Ibn Rushd, known to the West as Averroes, claimed that women were equal to men in all respects and possessed equal capacities to shine in peace and in war, citing examples of female warriors among the Arabs, Greeks and Africans to support his case.[32] In early Muslim history, examples of notable female Muslims who fought during the Muslim conquests and Fitna (civil wars) as soldiers or generals included Nusaybah Bint k’ab Al Maziniyyah,[33] Aisha,[34] Kahula and Wafeira,[35] and Um Umarah.

Contemporary Arab world


Asmahan a prominent Arab singer and actress (1912-1944).


Despite the Sharia (Islamic Law) prohibition on female leadership, there have been many highly respected female leaders in Muslim history, such as Shajar al-Durr (13th century) in Egypt, Queen Orpha (d. 1090) in Yemen and Razia Sultana (13th century) in Dehli. In the modern era there have also been examples of female leadership in Muslim countries, such as in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Turkey. However, in Arabic-speaking countries no woman has ever been head of state, although many Islamists remarked on the presence of women such as Jehan Al Sadat, the wife of Anwar El Sadat in Egypt, and Wassila Bourguiba, the wife of Habib Bourguiba in Tunisia, who have strongly influenced their husbands in their dealings with matters of state.[36] Many Arab countries allow women to vote in national elections. The first female Member of Parliament in the Arab world was Rawya Ateya, who was elected in Egypt in 1957.[37] Some countries granted the female franchise in their constitutions following independence, while some extended the franchise to women in later constitutional amendments.[38][39][40][41][42] Gulf states have recently seen the introduction of female suffrage, notably in Kuwait.[43]

Arab women are under-represented in parliaments in Arab states, although they are gaining more equal representation as Arab states liberalise their political systems. In 2005, the International Parliamentary Union said that 6.5 per cent of MPs in the Arab world were women, compared with 3.5 per cent in 2000. In Tunisia, nearly 23 per cent of members of parliament were women. However, the Arab country with the largest parliament, Egypt, had only around four per cent female representation in parliament.[44]

In 2006, women in the Gulf Co-operation Council states achieved a significant breakthrough in terms of participating in parliamentary elections, but the success of female candidates varied across the region. In the UAE, women stood for election for the first time in the country's history. Although just one female candidate - from Abu Dhabi - was directly elected, the government appointed a further eight women to the 40-seat federal legislature, giving women a 22.5 per cent share of the seats, far higher than the world average of 17.0 per cent. [2] In Kuwait, women participated in elections for the first time, but none won seats. Bahrain elected its first and only female MP in 2006. [3]

The role of women in politics in Arab societies is largely determined by the will of these countries' leaderships to support female representation and cultural attitudes towards women's involvement in public life. Dr Rola Dashti, a female candidate in Kuwait's 2006 parliamentary elections, claimed that "the negative cultural and media attitude towards women in politics" was one of the main reasons why no women were elected. She also pointed to "ideological differences", with conservatives and extremist Islamists opposing female participation in political life and discouraging women from voting for a woman. She also cited malicious gossip, attacks on the banners and publications of female candidates, lack of training and corruption as barriers to electing female MPs. [4] In contrast, one of UAE's female MPs, Najla al Awadhi, claimed that "women's advancement is a national issue and we have a leadership that understands that and wants them to have their rights." [5]

Women's right to vote in the Arab world

Women were granted the right to vote on a universal and equal basis in Lebanon in 1952[45], Syria (to vote) in 1949 [46] (Restrictions or conditions lifted) in 1953 [47], Egypt in 1956[48], Tunisia in 1959 [49], Mauritania in 1961[50], Algeria in 1962 [51], Morocco in 1963 [52], Libya [53] and Sudan in 1964 [54], Yemen (Partly)in 1967 [46] (full right) in 1970 [55], Bahrain in 1973 [56], Jordan in 1974 [57], Iraq (Full right) 1980 [56] Oman (Partly) in 1994 and (Fully granted) 2003 [58], and Kuwait in 2005 [56].

Economic role

The men are still the dominant gender in this area. This phenomena is justified by the fact that the communities in the Middle East are shaped upon one gender having distinct responsibilities. That is where men have full responsibility to support their families with the food and supplies they need and therefore they have to work and, subsequently, they have to get education to keep up with contemporary developments, while women have to take care of the house and children. This justifies the low contribution of the women in the economy. However, there is a recent trend in which women have begun penetrating the workforce, but it is still in low scale.

In some of the wealthier Arab countries such as Qatar, the number of women business owners is growing rapidly and adding to the economic development of the country. Many of these women work with family businesses and are encouraged to work and study outside of the home.[59] Arab women are estimated to have $40 billion of personal wealth at their disposal, with Qatari families being among the richest in the world.[60]


The region of the Arab peninsula is characterized by gender inequality in literacy and education. Because of their relatively low educational level, female workers are challenged by a more professional men labor force [61]. Until recently, progress in women's education was slow.


Women have varying degrees of difficulty moving freely in Arab countries. Some nations prohibit women from ever traveling alone, while in others women can travel freely but experience a greater risk of sexual harassment or assault than they would in Western countries.

Women have the right to drive in all Arab countries except Saudi Arabia.[62] In Jordan, a woman or child can be prohibited from leaving the country by any male relative. Women have no legal means to contest this restriction. In Yemen, women must obtain approval from a husband or father to get an exit visa to leave the country, and a woman may not take her children with her without their father's permission, regardless of whether or not the father has custody.[63] The ability of women to travel or move freely within Saudi Arabia is severely restricted. However, in 2008 a new law went into effect requiring men who marry non-Saudi women to allow their wife and any children born to her to travel freely in and out of Saudi Arabia.[64]

Traditional dress

See also: Hijab and Sartorial hijab

File:B) Vicinity of Damascus, Moslem Woman - Vicinity of Mecca, Fellah Woman - Vicinity of Damascus.jpg

Costumes of women in the Arab world during the late 19th century.

Adherence to traditional dress varies across Arab societies. Saudi Arabia is more traditional, while Egypt is less so. Women are required to wear abayas in only Saudi Arabia; this is enforced by the religious police. Some allege that this restricts their economic participation and other activities.[65] In most countries, like Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Jordan, Syria and Egypt, the veil is not mandatory. In Tunisia, the secular government has banned the use of the veil in its opposition to religious extremism. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has called the veil sectarian and foreign and has stressed the importance of traditional Tunisian dress as a symbol of national identity. [6] Islamic feminism counters both sorts of externally imposed dress codes.

Veiling did not exist in early Arabia, but Mohammed admonished women to cover themselves modestly, and his own wives were veiled in public. Mohammed's wives set the example, and gradually the veil became a sign of prestige. Template:IslamicFemaleDress

Quotes on Arab Women

  • The most important thing about marriage is that the man must not let the woman feel downtrodden simply because she is a woman and he is a man.
  • The ideology or at least the rhetoric of Arab Socialism can be understood from Saddam Hussein’s words: The complete emancipation of women from the ties which held them back in the past, during the ages of despotism and ignorance, is a basic aim of the Party and the Revolution. Women make up one half of society. Our society will remain backward and in chains unless its women are liberated, enlightened and educated…(1981).
    • Al-Ali, N. S.,Iraqi Women, 2007, London:Zedbooks

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Turner, Brian S. Islam (ISBN 0-415-12347-X). Routledge: 2003, p77-78.
  2. Beck, lois. and Keddic, Nikki. " Women in the Muslim world", Harvard University Press, London, 1978, p.37.
  3. Unni Wikan, review of Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East, American Ethnologist, Vol. 22, No. 4 (Nov., 1995), pp. 1078-1079
  4. Valentine M. Moghadam. Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East. (Lynne Rienner Publishers, USA, 1993) p. 5
  5. Islam and Women Dr. Younus Shaikh
  6. Aspects of Pre-Islamic Arabian Society
  7. 'The Status of Women in Islam'
  8. The Quran, 4 : 19
  9. Engineer, Asgar Ali, "the Rights of Women in Islam", C. Hurst and company, London, 1992, p.21.
  10. Maan, Bashir and Alastair McIntosh. "'The whole house of Islam, and we Christians with them...': An interview with 'the Last Orientalist' - the Rev Prof William Montgomery Watt." Internet version from Also published in The Coracle, the Iona Community, summer 2000, issue 3:51, pp. 8-11.
  11. Women in pre-Islamic Arabia
  12. From article on Women and Islam in Oxford Islamic Studies Online
  13. See Sunan Abi da'ud, "Kitab al Adab, bab fadl man ala yatama
  14. See Sahih Bukhari, "kitab al-Adab, bab rahmat al-walad wa taqbilihi
  15. Interview with Prof William Montgomery Watt
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 16.3 Esposito (2005) p. 79
  17. Jones, Lindsay. p.6224
  18. [1] Oxford Islamic Studies Online]
  19. 19.0 19.1 Khadduri (1978)
  20. Esposito (2004), p. 339
  21. Schimmel (1992) p.65
  22. Maan, McIntosh (1999)
  23. Haddad, Esposito (1998) p.163
  24. Lindsay, James E. (2005). Daily Life in the Medieval Islamic World. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 197. ISBN 0313322708.
  25. Lindsay, James E. (2005). Daily Life in the Medieval Islamic World. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 196 & 198. ISBN 0313322708.
  26. Lindsay, James E. (2005). Daily Life in the Medieval Islamic World. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 196. ISBN 0313322708.
  27. Maya Shatzmiller, pp. 6–7.
  28. 28.0 28.1 Maya Shatzmiller (1994), Labour in the Medieval Islamic World, Brill Publishers, ISBN 90-04-09896-8, pp. 400–1
  29. Maya Shatzmiller, pp. 350–62.
  30. Maya Shatzmiller (1997), "Women and Wage Labour in the Medieval Islamic West: Legal Issues in an Economic Context", Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 40 (2), pp. 174–206 [175–7].
  31. Frfnea, Elizabeth warnock. and Bezirgan, Basima Qatta, "Middle Eastern Muslim women speak", University of Texas Press, Austin, 1994, p.25
  32. Ahmad, Jamil (September 1994). "Ibn Rushd". Monthly Renaissance 4 (9). Retrieved 2008-10-14.
  33. Girl Power, ABC News
  34. Black, Edwin (2004). Banking on Baghdad: Inside Iraq's 7,000 Year History of War, Profit, and Conflict. John Wiley and Sons. pp. 34. ISBN 047170895X.
  35. Hale, Sarah Josepha Buell (1853). Woman's Record: Or, Sketches of All Distinguished Women, from "The Beginning Till A.D. 1850, Arranged in Four Eras, with Selections from Female Writers of Every Age. Harper Brothers. pp. 120.
  36. Roald, Anne Sofie. "Women in Islam", Routledge, London, 2001, p.185.
  37. Karam, Azza M. (1998) (snippet view). Women in Parliament: Beyond Numbers. Handbook series. Vol. 2. Stockholm: International IDEA. p. 44. ISBN 9789189098190. OCLC 186101396.
  38. Legislative Section in the 1950' Constitution of Syria (in Arabic)
  39. Legislative Section in the 1970' Constitution of Syria (in Arabic)
  40. Item 21, Section 2 Chapter 1 of the Lebanese Constitution since 1926 (in Arabic)
  41. Item 62 of the 1971' Egyptian Constitution (in Arabic) inherited from previous versions
  42. Item 50 of the 1996' Algeria Constitution (in Arabic) inherited from previous versions
  43. Kuwait parliament gives women the vote
  44. BBC News - Arab women increase MP presence
  45. Reuters AlertNet - Lebanon
  46. 46.0 46.1 Women's Suffrage
  47. Reuters AlertNet - Syria
  48. Reuters AlertNet - Egypt
  49. Reuters AlertNet - Tunisia
  50. Reuters AlertNet - Mauritania
  51. Reuters AlertNet - Algeria
  52. Reuters AlertNet - Morocco
  53. Reuters AlertNet - Libya
  54. Reuters AlertNet - Sudan
  55. Reuters AlertNet - Yemen
  56. 56.0 56.1 56.2 Women's Suffrage
  57. Reuters AlertNet - Jordan
  58. Reuters AlertNet - Oman
  59. "Women's Empowerment, Arab Style". Economica: Women and the Global Economy. October 2009.
  60. "The Business of Women Slideshow". Economica: Women and the Global Economy. October 2009.
  61. Moghadam, V. Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East United Nations University Press, 1993:4-5
  62. People's Daily Online - Saudi princess, at Davos Forum: ' I'd let women drive'
  63. U.S. State Department profile: Yemen
  64. U.S. State Department profile: Saudi Arabia

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